26.12.04

Trip Start Nov 02, 2011
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Flag of Sri Lanka  , Southern,
Wednesday, May 30, 2012

On the bus on the way into Tangalle I found it really strange the amount of gravestones between the road and the sea. There’s a sign high up on a post on the side of the road on my way in which has waves on it, and a line through the middle stating ‘water level’ and underneath the date 26.12.04. It took me a minute to realise that it was referring to the water level of the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004, but when it struck me I burst into tears, I somehow didn’t associate here with the tsunami. The water level mark is the height of the bus and we’re not at sea level on this part of the island, it’s very hard to take in. It also means that I’m about to experience firsthand some of the destruction one of the worst tsunami in history, left behind. Over 35,000 people were killed alone here in Sri Lanka with over 100,000 houses destroyed, Tangalle was one of the worst affected areas and everyone here has their story.

I find it incredibly sad walking around here, there are so many plots of land still full of rubble which have just been abandoned. Families left to try and rebuild what they can which is only now in many cases becoming habitable, even at that it’s just the basic roof, bricks and water supply, there’s still no plaster or paint or gardens and won’t be for a while yet. It was obviously a stunning place, many of the houses being mansions, located on one of the most beautiful white sandy beaches I’ve ever seen, the bay here goes for miles and miles, it’s still lined with mango and palm trees that survived the tsunami and odd buildings. Everyone has lost family and friends and many of the worst hit have been re housed and are still trying to re build their lives after the loss of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children all lost to the sea with many bodies never being recovered… heartbreaking.

As I am here out of season I really do have the beach to myself, I’ve only seen another couple of tourists in around 12 days I’ve been here, and I love it. I watch the fishermen casting their nets and hauling in their catch and I’m delighted when they ask me to join in. I know most of them now from chatting away every day in passing, and everyone, and I mean everyone, says hello to you, if the dogs could speak they’d be saying it too but they stick to tail waggling on their approach for a wee clap. ‘Hello madam’, ‘Where are you going?’, ‘Which country?’, ‘Your name?’, ‘Your first time Sri Lanka?’, ‘How long you stay?’ and ALL of this in the 30 seconds it takes you to pass, many I stop to talk to but others it’s just a nod or hello in passing, it would be too much otherwise.

I have walked the length of this beach from the harbour which is teaming with the most colourful fishing boats I’ve ever seen, right the way round the white sandy beach with it’s fantastic breakers, and all the way to the turtle bay, it’s quite a walk in the heat and on the sand. I discover all the fishing boats are so colourful because they are all new, every boat was destroyed when the tsunami hit, my information is first hand from one of the survivors who almost had his arm torn off. The tsunami hit when he was working right where we are standing on the pier, he describes the day and the horrors of the bodies being swept back out to sea, he describes his escape by clinging onto a coconut tree which saved him from being also lost forever. He was smashed into the concrete on the pier and is forever grateful to the doctors who managed to save his arm and he has even now resumed work, incredible!

I decided to venture from the beach for a day and got a bus out to Kudawella, to the ‘blow hole’ which was quite impressive really, it is just as it says and the sea shoots up through a hole in the rocks when the pressure of the tides coming in clash. I got off the bus and was pointed in the right direction, it’s only around a 2km walk and I’m in no hurry, going through the small villages everyone talks to you, they all know where a ‘tourist’ is heading. It’s was handy enough when I missed a turnoff and around five men shouted ‘Where are you going?’ and pointed me down a lane in the right direction, there are no signs and no way I would have found it otherwise, everyone just wants to help. On the way a fisherman joins me, he has a thin bamboo rod in his hand and is heading to the rocks. The rod is very long and very narrow at the end and he uses just a tiny hook but I can’t communicate enough to gather what kind of fish he’s going for or the bait he’s using. The blow hole is impressive, it sounds like thunder before the water shoots up high in the air when the tides below clash. There are a number of local people also visiting and I spend a while talking to a lovely family, the kids practice their English on me asking questions and translating for their parents, they are very good, after wards I make my way back to the village for the bus.

I end up walking around 5km back up to the main road for the bus back to Tangalle, I was hoping to catch a bus where it left me off but nothing passes me but as the daylight was going to go in around an hour I thought I’d better start walking. The road down was something else… every single person acknowledge and greet you, some though I could see were shy particularly the young girls, so it was easier for me to initiate some of the greetings to which I was rewarded with beautiful big white smiles and lots of giggles, and you could tell that they were genuinely pleased that you spoke to them. I feel like I’m back in the tiny villages near Lamahi, Nepal and all I’m missing is the film crew, I feel like someone famous with everyone coming out of their houses to see this strange (and I think brave) woman strolling through this remote area.

Some people spot me from inside their homes and shout out ‘hello’ and wave to which I wave back, they spot me coming from way up the road and some groups of men you can see battling for who’s going to be first to greet me and what response they’ll get. I tend to ignore the more balshy one’s and speak to the shyer ones making eye contact with them and saying hello first… I know at my back they’re saying ‘What did she say to you?’ I can hear them, I’ll probably be the talk of the place for a couple of hours until everyone has their wee bit of gossip. In fairness where I am it is understandable them asking because I’m in the middle of no-where.

Many of the homes here were also destroyed in the tsunami, everyone is rebuilding parts while they live in them, they have no other option. Some completely new plots are being built up but again many plots of rubble have only gravestones, the family's lost. On this road there’s tsunami escape route signs, evacuation areas or safe zones etc. but the road is between the sea and a big lagoon and there would have been no escape. I don’t take pictures here, it feels disrespectful, images though will stay with me always. I make it up to the main road and get a bus to Tangalle but only after nearly causing several crashes… honestly! The tuktuk drivers blow their horn at you and pull in suddenly to get a ‘fare’ shouting ‘Where are you going?’ causing drivers behind to swerve and dodge out their way.

One of the main festivals is taking place at the minute which started on 'poya' day which is their full moon, and continued for the week until the perahera 'Poson' festival in nearby Beliatta, which ends up a full day carnival parade ending at the temple. It's a fantastic atmosphere with dancers and floats and magnificent elephants in traditional costume, traditional Kandy dancing and various local warriors demonstrating their war dance, beautiful swans, lanterns and peacocks make the day a real insight to their various cultures and traditions. I end up once again with a local family and I'm invited later in the evening for dinner which turns out to be in a massive colonial style house, I'm really privileged to be here but the family seem delighted by their visitor.

I enjoy it here in Tangalle, I ended up on one of the huge big fishing boats for several hours one morning, the owner had spoken to me on the beach and invited me on-board resulting in a wee sail around the harbour while they were fuelling up, getting their stocks and filling the holding tanks with ice. The boat will be out at sea for a month so it takes a lot of work to prepare everything and I love seeing them fixing their nets and lines and checking the engine and making sure everything is in order. I bumped into the boat owner again in the village and he took me to see the ‘Rock Temple’ which is nearby on the back of his bike and the looks I get are jaw dropping! It’s even funnier when I take to driving and I’ve this 6ft odd guy on the back of this wee 50cc motorbike battering along the road and there’s not a helmet between us. The rock temple is a series of caves cut into the rock which has statues of Buddhas lying down with their eyes opened, each around 30-40 feet long, there are many of them and it’s a really strange place. I end up with a wrist band of thread with prayers from a wise old man wishing me all things good which is a nice end to my day.

So my time here comes to an end, I end up having a few drinks with the staff from the Hotel Harmony which was really good fun, dancing the night away and I was delighted the next day to head out swimming with Fasloon.  I hadn’t been brave enough to head into the sea on my own, and as he was going for a ‘sea bath’ I asked if I could join him and I’m so glad that I did. The waves were so powerful that as soon as we headed in I was caught up in a wave, being swept away but he caught me and pulled up to safety… relief !  My 'rolling place' he calls it, but the first true day of our friendship, which I think will last a lifetime.  


Although I enjoyed being in the sea and stayed out swimming (well jumping the waves) for a good while which I really enjoyed because I had company, I was a bit relieved to get back onto the beach and just dry out on a sun bed.

So my adventures in Sri Lanka over, it’s time to move on although it's come round too soon.
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Comments

Sarah Cunningham on

How wonderful to meet people at that level and not as a tourist Clare! It is amazing how friendly people are! Someone was talking on the radio here about mental health in different cultures and apparently we westerners are in the minority in the world and the way we think is strange and unique The acronym is WEIRD Western Educated -- Rich and Democratised Can't remember what I stands for but our attitude is not good for our mental health!

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