Boxing Day, 2004 was to many people the same as any other; turkey sandwiches and the tail end of Christmas movies. However for a small island in the Indian Ocean it was a day of tragedy, one that it would struggle to recover from.
Even eight years on the destruction and plight that the country still suffers from is still glaringly obvious. Buildings barely stand, three of their four walls missing and scaring the otherwise beautiful landscapes. Animals limbs are missing and distorted from the raging water that smashed their frail frames against rocks and buildings. But it is the people of Sri Lanka that really drive home to a western traveller the cost of such a momentous act of God. Wherever one travels the sight of poverty, disfigurement and desperation is rife, but, oddly it is coupled with the most inspiring and moving determination and upbeat perseverance that one only sees in the very desperate.
The contrast between our comfortable, western society and the run down areas of the very poor are stark. The city of Colombo where my tourist group landed is a mash of well built, new structures that would not look out of place in any city in the UK, sitting snugly against run down shacks of corrugated iron sheeting and wood. It was in these dingy buildings that meat was hung and flung onto wooden slats, baking in the mid-day sun. Dogs ran in and out climbing through stock piles and children play in the dirt by their parent’s feet.
The further into Sri Lanka one gets the more desperate the situation appears to become. With small shells of buildings left over from the tsunami patched up as well as can be expected. Boards cover the holes where windows once were and in most circumstances the same materials served as walls that were otherwise missing. The landscape is parched, nothing can be grown in some areas and the struggles of everyday life are evident.
During our time there we were under the direction of guide, a young man name Sam. As we toured around the country he told us many insightful stories of the plight of the inhabitants, in 2004 and today. Before the tsunami hit his country had been on the up. Tourism was high and souvenirs were easily manufactured, facilities were good and money was coming in. After the disaster a great deal of their working population were killed or severely injured, leaving many families destitute and without a breadwinner to supply them with the money they needed to recover their health and properties. Sam himself had lost family members and as a result his elderly mother and other members of his extended family had to move in with him and his young wife and daughter. The extra strain soon become difficult to bare, his taxi had been washed away in the current and destroyed leaving him to survive on what little seasonal tourism work, labouring and tips brought in. They have no shower or toilet; buckets sufficing for both. One quickly realised the stark differences between our lives, the great chasm that we otherwise would like to ignore. The native Sri Lankan battles constantly against poverty, often we and other westerners would be followed down the street in the hopes that we may tip a little something at the end of the journey. Their desperation does not need to be voiced it so clear and so raw it cannot help but hit you between the eyes.
Sam had often asked if any of us had donated to the humanitarian aid programme that sent billions of dollars to the affected countries; of course most of us had contributed in some way. He confirmed what we had suspected since we had landed, that our 14 billion dollars had mostly been siphoned up by the fat cats in government while they allowed the people below to suffer in the mud. As a westerner the thought that my money lined the pockets of those who are stealing from people in need, the people I believed I had aided, is a difficult pill to swallow.
On our travels we visited many an animal sanctuary attempting to care for creatures that had lost their parents or suffered severe and crippling injuries during the tsunami. In a dark corner of one of the out buildings a small elephant was chained to the floor, barely able to stand upright. His front leg had been badly broken and healed at an appalling angle, while the other was missing a foot. He had been swept up in the waves and battered so badly one could not help but wonder if it would have been kinder to let the creature die. Turtles we saw had limbs missing and dented shells from being buffeted up against buildings and debris in the carnage. Even the elderly man who ran the shelter had scars across his body from the same event. His connection to these animals made even stronger by their shared experiences.
On one of our last days in the country we were taken to Kandy, a town on the coast of the island. Here we came across the most serene sand beach; deserted except for our small party. It was here that the tsunami hit first, crashing over the small nature reserve and killing many animals. However nothing was more tragic than the remains of a small café that had once stood on the shore, it’s walls missing and parts of the floor still scattered under about under the sand. The steps and the foundations were all that remained, a haunting reminder of what had once been. The café had been full of tourist groups who’s bodies were never recovered. The artistic metal waves and plaque made of the old floor tilling that has been erected there the only reminder of the human life lost on that very spot.
Sri Lanka is a fantastic and beautiful country. It’s people warm, open and accepting and better hospitality I have failed to find anywhere else. This only aids to make their plight all the more distressing to me. Eight years after such a disaster and those people who still bare the scars mentally and physically of that tragedy are being short changed by the rest of the world. A tip here and there can only do so much, something bigger is needed, desperately needed and maybe we should be the ones to give that something.