Those perfect beaches were one reason my husband Ray and I chose serene Sri Lanka for our summer holiday this year - that and the gentle friendless for which its people are justly loved. And while they won us over with their charm, humour and genuine open hospitality, we also sensed for the first time the enormity of their losses. Literally, within half an hour of us arriving on the evening of Boxing Day in Colombo, the chaotic capital a little further to the north, coconut oil lamps were lit to honour the dead and still missing, casting a solemn beauty over the hotel foyer and out onto the famous city meeting place of Galle Face Green. Earlier that day, the nation had come to a halt for two minutes at 9.30am, the moment the first of the two killer waves struck against unsuspecting people going about their daily lives. A special ceremony of commemoration presided over by the tiny nation's new president, elected only five weeks earlier, was held at Peraliya, the place where, coincidentally, we stop several days later, to let the enormity of what we see before us sink in.
Figures of hundreds of thousands dead seem horrifying enough on the television screen and the front page of a newspaper, but when you see whole villages flattened so that only house foundations remain, entire beach fronts eroded to be replaced by retaining walls of piled rocks, sizeable fishing boats still lying upside down and entangled among the coconut palms 100 metres from any water, the reality is far more brutal.
I remember the clouded look that came over the face of the woman explaining her work at the beachfront turtle hatchery at my mention of the tsunami. The tears were close to the surface, yet she was one of the lucky ones - she ran to safety clutching her "two babies" under her arms and her husband escaped the deluge by climbing up a coconut palm. Their house is gone, but the hatchery work continues providing employment for both husband and wife. (story page 39) But when I ask this capable, strong woman if they plan to rebuild in the same idyllic spot, she emphatically shakes her head. The fear is very real, as we've noticed with others, and we can only marvel at her courage in coming to work every day tending to her tiny charges while the ocean laps at the hatchery's edge.
A little earlier in the district of Peraliya north of Galle, one of the worst affected on the 230 odd kilometres of tsunami-affected coast and thus the site of the official commemoration (the north and east also sustained heavy damage but are now almost off limits to tourists because of the Tamil Tigers, a twofold tragedy), we met a school principal who came up to speak to us as we stopped by the roadside. Among the remains of shattered houses, often only the concrete foundations and a few scattered bricks, his substantial home seemed relatively unscathed. But broken tiles halfway up the roof were graphic evidence of the height of the tsunami and when he invited us inside, a chair hanging from the rafters told the true story. As he, Mr S. A. N. Silva, told us, the sea had come surging into his home on the land side of the coastal road and forced everything in it upward into the ceiling so that the greatest damage seemed to be in the top levels of bricks and the ceiling itself. Miraculously, his family, too, survived, although his adult daughter was swept 100 metres by the force of the water. While they have been given temporary accommodation three kilometres inland, the nursery school where he and his wife both taught is gone - and it seems unlikely to ever reopen. One blessing among the torments of that day was that the school was closed for the Boxing Day holiday - and Mr Silva lost none of his students, at least while they were at school. Still, his once comfortable home and the livelihood he has lost in the area where even the oldest gravestones bear his same family name, a legacy of the Portuguese influence in Galle, have drawn him back on this midweek day to wander among the ruins.
Just across the busy road, a hurtling torrent of a different kind, a family now living in a flimsy one roomed temporary hut made of wood, tin and plastic sheeting has an even sadder tale to tell. We learn that although all four survived, the husband is now paralysed and the young daughter so traumatised that she has not spoken since that day and is still unable to go back to school. The son, too, who rescued his mother and sister, lives in constant fear for their safety. Still, we are amazed at the resilience and spirit of Sri Lankan people - the mother gives us a cheery smile from the door of her shack and coaxes a tiny wave from her silent impassive little girl.
If it wasn't for this spirit - and the sense of industry and purpose all around - it would be easy to be overwhelmed by the damage. Sri Lanka's loss of life was second only to Indonesia, the epicentre of the 10 second earthquake which triggered the tsunami of a magnitude and impact never before experienced. Interestingly, a recent UNICEF report reveals it's Indonesian orphans are now showing signs of greater hopelessness and anxiety than children in other affected countries. We can't help but think that in the case of Sri Lanka, and Thailand as well, the strong Buddhist faith of most of its people must play a great role in the healing process.
Stories of miracles radiate light and hope into shattered lives - we come across a Buddhist temple on a small island seaward of a substantial old Portuguese-style brick home. After a hundred or more years of standing in its idyllic, yet exposed, spot, the tsunami has wrecked the house and taken great chunks out of a rock breakwater built earlier in a vain attempt to hold back the sea. But the temple is intact with its tall coconut palm still swaying in the breeze. Our driver, Ananda, a devout Buddhist who stops every day of our tour to offer a quick prayer at some roadside temple or other, tells us that this temple has a particularly powerful healing energy as it's also a place of worship for the Hindu goddess Kali. The intermingling of Buddhism and Hinduism, most evident in the country' s ancient and spectacular ruined cities where Buddhist stupas and Hindu kovils (temples) stand almost side by side, is an endless fascination for us- as well as confusion! It's the power of their religious beliefs- Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Roman Catholic in the Galle area - that has sustained these people through this terrible event and given them the solace and sense of being part of a caring community that is literally picking up the pieces and getting on with life.
But I'd be doing the people of Sri Lanka an enormous disservice if I left you with the impression that this is a country of sadness and mourning. Certainly, it has its troubles and none more so than the current ethnic unrest which sees the gorgeous beaches of Trincomalee on the north east coast left off tour itineraries. Yet even the soldiers manning the barricades around government buildings and Colombo's own World Trade Centre twin towers give you a smile to defuse the tension prompted by the very large rifles dangling off their slim boyish shoulders. We take the attitude that they're much more likely to help us than harm us and our greatest concern is always for them.
My most overriding impression is of a people who genuinely want to make us feel welcome and relaxed in their home, a land of extraordinary beauty that encompasses beaches, mountains where you look down on the mist below, enormous lakes, many of them man-made, and lush tropical growth where coconuts, mangoes, rubber trees, papayas, you name it, jostle for space. Apparently, Marco Polo considered it the finest island of its size in the then known world. And he'd seen a bit!
But beyond even the beauty, the people are its greatest treasure. I often noticed women of my age smiling at me as we walked past each other in a genuine exchange of goodwill; road rage seems a completely foreign (Western?) concept even when you take to the dirt as a towering Tata bus demands right of passage; people delight when you clumsily attempt a namaste greeting; the touts such as they are leave you in peace after just a couple of headshakes; and, if you're lucky, as a middle aged woman well past her prime you can even be chatted up by a group of young men with too much time, not enough money and not nearly enough world weariness to know better!
We both loved Sri Lanka with a passion. Such gentleness is rare and precious in today's hard-edged world.
Tsunami restoration work is being carried out throughout the affected areas of Sri Lanka by international governments, major corporations and UN agencies. Find out how you can help on the Web.
Margaret Evans has a background in teaching, journalism and publishing. She is the editor of NOVA Holistic Journal.