Amid the Ruin and Sorrow on Sri Lanka, the Reservoir of Kindness Remains By LAURA DUNHAM
OMEN shrieking and what sounded like the roar of a freight train awakened me. I jumped out of bed and ran to the balcony door of our second-floor guest room to see water - filled with wood and cars and pieces of twisted metal - swirling below us. Damika, the owner of the inn, and some of his family had run up the stairs to our balcony. I looked over their shoulders at the rising waves and went cold with fear. I shouted to Kate, my friend and travel partner, who was getting ready to go to the beach, to grab her money belt, and then rushed back to watch the sea escalate to the bottom of our balcony in an agonizingly prolonged 20 seconds.
It was 9:25 a.m. on Dec. 26 and we were in Unawatuna, a beach town in southern Sri Lanka. A few minutes earlier, it had been clear and calm. Kate's decision to take her morning walk on the beach a half-hour later than usual was one of many fateful choices that we had made or that had been made for us. Ultimately, Damika's decision to give us a room on the second floor instead of the ground floor was what saved us.
Many days later, we would learn that the series of tsunamis unleashed by an underwater earthquake off the shore of Sumatra had taken the lives of more than 150,000, including more than 30,000 in Sri Lanka. But on the morning of Dec. 26, there was no explanation for the relentlessly rising sea. Eventually it slowed, then stopped, and there was silence. Almost instantly, it was replaced by screams. Everywhere I looked, people were scrambling onto any high surface they could find - rooftops or balconies.
Paul, an Englishman who was sleeping in the room below us, swam out of his room. We hauled him onto the balcony.
A young Sri Lankan woman splashed up to the stairs shouting: "My grandmother. I let go of her hand."
Damika was banging his chest and sobbing, "My father, my brother, my uncle ..."
A British teenager, who was in shock, and screaming "My mum, my dad, my sister, my 8-week-old brother!" was dragged over the railing. He had lacerations all over his body, and his clothes were torn and muddy. We tried to console him, but each second brought new screams of terror.
Now I realize that the strange calm I felt at the time was shock. The scene outside had become increasingly more terrifying, more surreal. The water was slowly receding, but now buildings were starting to collapse around us, and the noise brought fresh waves of panic. Half of Damika's house, right in front of our balcony, came crashing down. Would our building be next? The mantra I repeated to myself would continue for the next four days: "I want to go home. I want to see my family. I don't want to die."
Below us, the water was teeming with all the objects that once held so much importance: televisions, furniture, cars, shoes. Life was the only thing that mattered now, and people were screaming out for the ones who had lost it. Suddenly, the sister and mother of the British boy appeared on the balcony of the guesthouse next door. They were overjoyed to see each other alive, but their father and baby brother, it seemed, were still missing. At that moment, the father shouted from the ground floor of our guesthouse. He was holding the limp baby in his arms. I yelled down, "Give the baby C.P.R.! Give the baby C.P.R.!" but neither he nor his wife was able to do anything other than stroke the motionless bundle.
I furiously tried to remember the infant C.P.R. lesson I had been given by my friend shortly before I left. Three fingers and cover the mouth and nose to give mouth-to-mouth were all I could remember. But it was too late. Quietly, the mother took her baby up to the balcony and cradled him to her breast. I walked back upstairs to our room and threw my soggy money belt on the bed.
Shouts in Sinhalese from the neighbors across the way brought us to our feet, and to the balcony door again. Someone had seen another wave coming. That was it. "We're going to die here," I told Kate. I thought of my mother's having the same look as those around us - inconsolable sorrow.
There was nothing we could do but wait. After an interminable hour of intensely watching the receding water, we saw dry patches of ground. Kate and I decided to leave. We packed a small backpack for survival: bottled water, flashlight, water purification tablets, extra socks. My other belongings were left behind.
We plowed through the thigh-deep, debris-filled water toward an undamaged hotel on the hill. The journey took no more than 15 minutes, but each second brought jolts of fear that another surge of water was about to strike. The hotel was filled with people in varying states of shock and despair. Everyone had stories, stories that on their own would be chilling almost beyond belief. Together, they created a portrait of sorrow in surreal proportions.
We wanted to be higher still, and, with the help of a local man, Raja, struggled up the cliff behind the hotel. Raja told us that the entire bay had emptied of water; the sea had withdrawn and was no longer visible. Halfway up, we heard shouts from below and then the dreaded sound that I still listen for. It was the sound of the ocean as it pelted its entire being, once again, onto the battered shore, traveling farther inland as there was less resistance from the fallen buildings. We ran, stumbling, over logs and up embankments, through the jungle, helping the injured and shocked, to get to higher ground. At the top, we turned and watched the sea enfold the once sleepy tourist-filled village. Only the palm trees were visible.
The village at the top had not been physically affected by the water, but grief was everywhere. People, dressed only in tattered bathing suits or wet pajamas, were dazedly walking around asking if others had seen their wife, daughter, husband, aunt. How could any of us get through the next minutes, hours, days or years?
Together. That is how. We survived the trauma of this disaster because we had the generosity and hospitality of the Sri Lankans. Every family in the village took in tourists for the three days we had to wait before we were evacuated. They shared their meager belongings, their limited food and their precious water. They, who had nothing and had lost much, gave everything.
Forty of us slept on mats outside the home of a family who came around at regular intervals with sugary tea, bananas and coconuts. They cooked us dinner for two nights. They let us drink water out of their well. They slept beside us to protect us from possible looters. Only one person spoke English, a man named Siri, who had owned a bar and restaurant on the beach. He had lost his business, his home and a nephew, yet he never stopped looking out for us.
We gave all our extra money, water purification tablets, clothing, antibiotics, malarial medication and shoes to Siri and his family, and also to Damika when we saw him on the day of our evacuation. By then, Damika had already buried three members of his family. He now stood in the only clothes he had, waiting with us for an hour until our bus arrived to take us away, to safety.
Since I will not return to my job as a teacher at Valley Stream South High School on Long Island until September, I plan to drive around the United States, visit schools and do presentations on my experience, which revealed the generosity of a people who live in a country that many Americans cannot even find on a map.