After 12 hours in a dilapidated bus, cramped by suitcases and boardbags and 25 others, there is only one thing preventing us from our destination: a young soldier thumbing through our passports, the trigger of his gun close enough for me to touch. He eyes us carefully and motions to another soldier to search our luggage. We nervously hold our breaths as they begin to pull out our carefully constructed wall of suitcases from the back of the bus. This could take hours. At some point though, the soldiers decide no additional searching is necessary and send us on our way.
Our bus ride began in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city. I am slightly on edge, especially since Colombo is often the site of terrorist bombings. I keep an eye out for Tamil Tigers, guerilla soldiers listed by the EU and the US as a terrorist organization, but I am told that if I see one, I won’t live to tell about it.
We make our way to Arugam Bay, a surfer town on the eastern coast of the country. Our bus driver, I begin to suspect is blind in his right eye, which is clouded over by a milky haze. Nevertheless, he seamlessly weaves his bus past tuk tuks and crowded street-side markets, flying around blind turns, dodging pedestrians, bicycles, dogs and cows alike, and gets us to our destination in Arugam Bay without incident.
Plagued by civil unrest and still, in part, reeling from the effects of the 2002 Indian Ocean tsunami, the spirit in Arugam Bay is a heavy one. Hotels, convenience stores, roadside roti makers, tuk tuk drivers, mom-and-pop restaurants, as well as fancier beachside eateries seem to be struggling to survive. Unlike the bustle of Colombo, the town is silent and feels empty and sad, and I wonder if it’s too late to get on the next flight out of here. Needless to say, I will spend 22 more days in this desolate town.
After the tsunami hit, which killed nearly 350 people and left hundred of homes and businesses in ruins, loads of money began pouring in to Arugam Bay. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to help in some way. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) estimated contributions by the U.S. government at $134.6 million. But the campaign didn’t last long, and after just one year, many contributions stopped.
These days, help is harder to come by, and with money no longer flowing in like it used to, homes and buildings are left half-built. Everyone has a tsunami story, each one more intense than the one before. There’s the Alis, a family of nine, whose home was completely destroyed. The waters came. Running, running, running, is what they remember. Then there’s Mohammad, our tuk tuk driver who tenderly tells us the story of how he rescued his mother and sister, carrying them to safety after the second wave hit. He gives us free rides in his tuk tuk and we ponder his friendliness. He invites us into his home for tea and gives us a tour of his place. We wind up in a half-finished brick hut where the edges of the roof remain uncovered. Just 500 rupees can buy him a new door, he tells us, 500 rupees to finish his roof, and we begin to see his plan all along.
Further slowing growth is the constant infighting between the Tamil Tigers and the Sinhalese-dominated government. According to Farook, a math teacher at the local Muslim school, resentment has existed between the two groups after a British colonial rule that left the Tamils a lesser people group to the Sinhalese, but it wasn’t until 1983 that tensions erupted into violence. Since then, the Tigers have led a bloody campaign against the Sri Lankan government to create an independent Tamil state in the northeast.
The Sri Lankan people live in a torn society, but still they are resilient. Never have I experienced such warm hospitality. The locals welcome us into their homes, serving us steamy milk tea, alongside roti, a chewy Sri Lankan staple similar to a tortilla or Indian naan bread, and coconut sambal, a sweet and spicy blend of freshly grated coconut, tomatoes, chili and garlic. Fragrant yellow rice, red and green curries, pickled vegetables, curried potatoes, spongey tofu-like nuggets, boiled eggs, chicken fresh from the yard complete the meal—a feast even compared with New Years at grandma’s. They quickly shuffle out with plastic chairs and insist we sit. The thought of backyard barbequing and beer pong immediately comes to mind. Halfway around the world, my first time in a country considered the third world, and I am reminded of home. Except here, despite having nearly nothing, these people give so much.
As I sit and shovel food into my mouth with my fingers, I suddenly feel guilty as I notice the Sri Lankans huddled off to the side simply watching us eat. They insist they will eat after us. It’s humbling, to sit in their barely-furnished homes, knowing after all their hard work, they will get the leftovers.
At the time of this writing, it’s been nearly a year since I visited Arugam Bay. Much has changed. In May 2009, the Sri Lankan government announced victory over
the Tamil Tigers, after more than 25 years of infighting. I am told by a friend who spent three months in Arugam Bay that the town is now bustling. The once empty restaurants and hotels are now filled with tourists and surfers from Australia and The Middle East.
Whether the influx of tourists is due to the end of the civil war or a fading memory of the tsunami, it seems a symbolic step in rebuilding a broken community.