December 26, 2004 will be a day that is seared into my mind and soul forever. It was a lovely Sunday morning, beautiful blue skies and soft breezes… the makings of a perfect day. I woke up at around 8:30 a.m. got showered and then made my way to the veranda overlooking the beautiful Indian Ocean. I was on the second floor of the Sri Gemunu Beach Hotel in Dalawella-Unawatuna, located in southern Sri Lanka not far from the ancient walled Portuguese city of Galle.
I sat down and relaxed in a large reclining chair outside the room, taking in the fresh air and lovely views, white breakers were rolled into shore, coconut palms swayed in the breeze. It was a lovely morning. I watched a jogger run by on the beach and was considering a morning stroll myself. But I was feeling lazy… music from the Christmas dance had pounded away into the wee hours of the morning and I was still a bit groggy. I sat in the chair and relaxed. There were a few early risers from our hotel down on the terrace above the beach relaxing on lounge chairs. A father and his daughter watching the sea.
Soon my friend Nalin joined me on the veranda. We took a look at my broken fishing pole and tried to figure out how to fix it. On Christmas afternoon the previous day we had walked out across the reef at low tide and climbed up some large black rocks and found a good fishing spot in the deep surf. We had a wonderful time catching fish and laughing. While fishing, the pole had snapped in two. I had planned to go out fishing again that morning but the fishing pole had snapped and was of no use.
At around 9:00a.m. I asked Nalin if he was ready to go down for some breakfast. We walked down the stairs and crossed the palm shaded courtyard to the outdoor dinning area located on a raised terrace about six feet above sea level.
There were just a few guests at breakfast that morning, most of the hotel guests were still up in their rooms on the second and third floors of our small hotel sleeping in after a late night of Christmas cheer.
We selected a table next to the sea under the shade of swaying palms, ordered breakfast and chatted about the day. I ordered eggs over hard with bacon and toast. Nalin ordered a Sri Lankan breakfast of string hoppers and various curries. The fresh fruit plate came, we enjoyed a selection of papaya, pineapple and bananas. Tea came for Nalin and hot water for me. I made up a cup of hot chocolate and then noticed the Milo had expired over a year ago. We discussed whether it would be fine to drink or not.
We watched children playing on the beach just below us, a group of Sri Lankan children enjoying the sand and making sand balls to throw at each other. Just beyond where the kids were playing was a tidal pool with traditional fishermen stilts sticking out of the water and into the air. These poles have a cross pole attached to them on which fishermen sit while fishing. There were no fishermen that morning… just empty poles.
While talking to Nalin I was watching the sea, I saw the sea swell come and cover the stilt polls. I thought it strange. This large swell came in and crashed into the seawall of the terrace we were having breakfast on. I saw the kids washed up to the steps of their hotel.
I saw another huge swell in the sea coming towards us. I got up and told Nalin that we better move or we would get wet! We moved back away from the terrace towards the courtyard just as the huge swell hit the seawall and sent sea spray shooting high into the air. “Whoa!” It was amazing! We laughed and smiled, but the smiles did not last for long, a larger wave hit again knocking over our breakfast table. I remember seeing my Milo box float towards me across the courtyard. The next wave hit shattering large plate glass windows in the reception hall; the sound of breaking crystal filled the air. We ran into the large open air dining hall for shelter.
Within seconds the ocean heaved itself up and over the sea wall sweeping angry water across the courtyard. We turned to run deeper into the dinning hall to get away from the water… instantly we were completely swept over by incredibly powerful water as the dinning hall filled with rushing water. The water pushed us back into the hotel kitchen; I remember the refrigerator floating around and trying to push it away. I thought we are going to get electrocuted in this water.
The briefest of moments passed before the next powerful wave came sweeping through the dinning hall and kitchen. I was swept from the kitchen and through a side door out into the parking lot. I must have hit a wall going out because later the whole right side of my body was in great pain. I remember the look of terror on other guest’s faces as we were swept out together.
Once outside I found myself swirling around in the parking lot, vehicles picked up by the raging waters were floating around. It was so surreal! I remember trying to push a vehicle away from me. I had no power against the tide; I went where the water took me. Another massive wave swept through the narrow passage way between the two hotel buildings and into the reception area smashing wood and glass into deadly shards. This surge carried me out of the hotel gates and onto the highway. There was a slight incline in the road shielded by the hotel and a walled home; I was able to make my way to higher ground as large waves washed across the road and swept inland on either side of me. I saw the walls of a house on the other side of the road crumble and fall as the surging water spread inland.
It was then that I noticed Nalin was not behind me, I panicked and went back to find him. He was just learning to swim. I was terrified that he was dead or had been swept back out to sea with the receding waters. I went back through the gates of the hotel and into the waters I had just escaped from calling out my friend’s name.
He called back and to my surprise he was up on the wall that surrounded the home at the back of the hotel. He smiled and waved at me. Relieved to find him OK I turned around and waded back out of the water towards the road again. On my way out I slipped a couple of times and fell into the water filled with litter and flotsam.
As I was walking to the house I looked down and saw blood pouring down my leg. Dang it I was cut! I took off my shirt and wrapped it around my leg to close the wound and stop the bleeding. As we made our way back to the gates of the hotel Nalin told me how he had pulled a small boy and two men to safety in the swirling waters. I was proud to have him as a friend, he was always thinking of others.
The retreating water left large pools of brown water filled with debris at the entrance of the hotel. We were stunned in a daze… it was so surreal… things were not registering in my mind. It didn’t even occur to us that we had been hit by a tsunami. All I wanted to do was to get away from the shore and get my leg treated.
The hotel owner stood in the road looking very shocked he said that nothing like this had ever happened before. We were told that an ambulance would be there soon to take us to the hospital. Meanwhile it was decided to evacuate hotel guests to the owner’s home five or six blocks inland towards the hills. On the way we had to walk through deep pools of dark water. I didn’t want to go through the polluted water with my cut leg, but had no other choice.
Soon we found our way to the hotelier’s private residence. A splendid home with large comfortable verandas located on the side of a hill. We made our way up to the veranda and I collapsed in a lounge chair and zoned out. There was drinking water on the tables to quench our burning thirst. More and more guest made their way up to the house… tourist from Europe and Sri Lanka. Later a couple from Italy came to the veranda with their little boy, the father was overcome with tears and emotion, the mother was angry, both were in shock.
It was our good fortune to have a registered nurse from Holland in our company. She and her husband were in the room next to mine on the second floor of the hotel. They had been in their room when the tsunami had hit and were not injured. They grabbed their small first aid kit and were administering to those of us who were cut up and bleeding. The nurse sprayed my wounds with disinfectant, then she and her husband went to work on binding up my leg. They closed the gash securely with bandage strips, put a clean gauze pad over the wound and taped the whole thing in place. I felt an overwhelming calm sweep over me… I would be alright. The couple moved on to help other members of our group with their bleeding cuts and scrapes.
We chatted about what had just happened… but it never occurred to any of us that a tsunami has struck. In my minds eye, it was a freak wave from a full moon high tide that had hit us. If I had known it was a massive regional tsunami I would have never got in the old junky car that appeared to take the injured to a medical clinic twenty minutes away.
A Slovenian couple at our hotel were not as lucky as the rest of us… they had been cut up badly and bleeding. It was decided they should be taken to the medical clinic right away. When I first heard about the car coming to haul them to the medical clinic I said “ah… I’ll just stay here and relax.” Then the Dutch nurse told me that I should go as well. I needed to get the cut on my leg stitched up. So with Nalin’s help I hobbled down the side of the hill and got into the car. Later I wished I had jumped out and stayed! I remember waving goodbye and feeling uneasy.
The twenty minute drive to the clinic ended up taking two hours! I kept blowing breath through clenched teeth in frustration. The car was muggy in the tropical heat; there was not much room in the back seat for the Slovenian couple and myself. The Sri Lankan passenger in the front seat had a dog on his lap. We drove the narrow back roads through agricultural areas of rice paddies and coconut groves. I was getting frustrated and the pain in my right leg was severe. We drove and drove and drove… Suddenly it was announced by the Sri Lankan passenger in the front seat that we had to stop off at his family’s home and see his elderly parents and tell them he was alive.
We arrived at a large farm house on the side of a jungle covered hill. We got out of the car and were greeted by some ancient folks. The son told his parents what had happened at the hotel, they were very kind and invited us in to sit and rest. We used their toilet and were given a drink of juice. My sandals had been washed away and I noticed that my feet and toes were cut up and bleeding. I remember going into the toilet and seeing blood all over the tiled floor from where the injured woman had been walking. I tried not to step in her blood. I was still in a daze. We drank our juice and said our goodbyes to the kind old folks and then piled back into the old car. The car would not start… it was out of gas! The driver tried to start it several times, but it would not turn over. What to do now?
We ended up piling into a salt delivery truck. There was only room for two people in the cab, but by sitting on each others laps all five of us squeezed in and off we went. Heading back down the same narrow road we had come up. We ran into several vehicles on the lane and there was no room to pass. It became a stand off each time me met another vehicle, our driver would blow his horn until the smaller vehicles eventually gave way and backed up. I thought, “Can it get any worse than this!” When were we going to reach the medical clinic?
Soon we were back out on a main road; it was jammed with all kinds of traffic. The petrol stations we passed were packed with drivers and bikers trying to get fuel. A sense of panic filled the air. I did not like the looks of things. “What in the world was going on?”, I thought to myself. I wish I had not come… this drive was turning into a nightmare.
When we entered the town of Karapitiya the roads were clogged with people and vehicles. Policemen were trying their best to direct traffic. We crossed the highway and drove through the gates of a large two-story tropical hospital. Cries and yells of people pierced the air as we drove up the hospital’s main entrance. We had entered what looked like a massive war zone! I was totally stunned. I looked at my watch and it was 12:30, mid-day.
We piled out of the truck and were rushed by medics in white lab coats pushing rickety old metal gurneys. The Slovenian couple was rushed away, while I hobbled barefoot over the pavement and gravel. There were thousands of people pouring into the hospital. I lost sight of the Slovenian couple as well and the man who had brought us there. I limped down a long dark corridor in total confusion; the wide hallway was covered with rows and rows of dead bodies, hundreds of men, women, and children all lined up wet and sand covered. I felt faint and turned around. I found myself swirling around in a stream again, only this time it was a stream of wounded, bleeding people.
I staggered off down the hallway passing all the dead bodies. It was total bedlam inside, yelling, screaming, and the rattle of metal gurneys racing up and down dark corridors, blood and bandages, young nurses in pretty white uniforms. Suddenly the fellow who had brought us to the hospital came up yelling at me with wild eyes and a cell phone pressed to his ear. “Do you see all these dead bodies” he screamed? And then he ran away!
I started wandering down the hallway, not knowing where to go. Then this wild-eye fellow came back and led me up to the second floor to a quiet corner of the hospital in Ward Five and then abandoned me. I cried out after him as he ran away… I wanted to know when he would be back. Sitting on a bed in the open air hospital I looked around and thought to myself, “This place is filthy. How can this possibly be a hospital? It’s so dirty!” The rooms were open to the elements with only ceiling fans to cool in the tropical heat; things looked old, tattered and grimy. The reality of third world medical care pressed in upon me.
I sat in stunned silence, thinking to myself… “I’ve got to get out of here!” A nurse came into the ward and wrote a number on my forehead, and then a young medic came in taking a quick look at me and then was off in a dash. Soon the wounded came pouring into the ward and were placed on empty beds around me, victims who had drowned in the raging waters, others with massive injuries. A constant stream of uninjured people came running in frantically looking for loved ones. I reached my limit when they wheeled a man into the room on a gurney; he was lying in a thick pool of blood. I felt faint, got up and walked out.
I did not know where to go or what to do, so I walked the corridors still in shock. A Sri Lanka fellow came up and asked if he could help me. I just gave him a blank stare; not knowing what to say. He told me that he had seen a group of western tourists downstairs in one of the other wards and took me to them. Sure enough there was a group of older people in bathing suits all cut up, bruised and bleeding. They were from Germany, Holland and the United Kingdom. They had been brought up from Hikkadua. A couple of young medical attendants saw to our basic needs, one wrapped gauze around my wounded leg to keep the bandage in place and then I sat down. The same nice fellow who had led me to the ward came up later and asked if I needed anything? I told him I was very thirsty! Later he came by with a liter of Coca-Cola. I was so thankful for something to drink. I would live on that bottle of Coke for the next eight hours.
The little plastic stool I was sitting on broke and I fell to the floor, I was embarrassed as I was helped up. It was then that I noticed the dead baby just a few feet away just lying there on the floor. Eventually the poor thing was covered with a cloth. We sat around in stunned silence as the living poured into the ward looking for their loved ones. Death was all around us… air was shattered from time to time with the cries of the living finding loved ones dead. A woman finding a dead family member collapsed on the floor at my feet totally overcome with grief, her family collected her and placed her on a stool next to me, she wailed for over an hour and would not be consoled. I sat next to her completely dazed.
More bleeding and injured people were brought into the ward and soon it was packed. The hospital and medical caregivers were totally overwhelmed. The dead kept passing by on gurneys to be taken out to the place where the dead were being lined up in rows. The smell of death was in the air. I couldn’t take anymore and went outside to sit between the wings of the hospital. I found a place to sit on a cement block in a grassy open area. I wanted to sit in a place where I could be easily spotted when that fellow from the hotel came back to get me. The guy from the hotel never did come back. I waited and waited and waited and hours melted in the tropical heat.
During the afternoon several western tourists came out and began to chat with me. I found out about the earthquake in Indonesia and the massive tsunami that had hit Sri Lanka, India, the Maldives, Thailand and Indonesia. Finally it dawned on me what had happened. I kicked myself for getting into that car in the morning and coming here. The fog cleared a bit as I talked to others and found out more information.
One of the medical officers of the hospital found me sitting out on the cement block and came up to me in a frantic state of mind. He wanted to know if I had been staying at the Sri Gemunu in Unawatuna. I told him that I had. He asked me if I had seen a young hotel waiter that morning who had a fair complexion. I said, “Yes, I know him.” He asked me “IS HE ALIVE?” “HE IS MY BROTHER!” I said “Yes, I saw him after the tsunami hit.” “Are you absolutely sure you saw this young man,” he asked me. “Yes” I said. “He has a little goatee under his lip and has light colored eyes, and is a very pleasant fellow.” Relieved the medial officer said “Yes that’s him!” I told him that I had shaken his brother’s hand just before leaving to come to the hospital.
The medical officer was finally able to relax, he seemed so relieved! A wave of peace fell over his whole countenance. He said to me, “You have no idea how this makes me feel.” He told me that he had been worried sick all day long over the thoughts of having his younger brother killed in the tsunami. He told me now he could concentrate on his work at the hospital knowing that his brother was safe. He told me to stay put and not leave the hospital; the government had reported that another tsunamis would hit the coast again that evening. He told me that the hospital was located at high elevation and I would be safe there. He pressed into my mind that I must stay at the hospital that night and not leave. I did not want to stay the night… that was the last thing I wanted to do!
I was stuck… no money… no passport… no nothing! No sandals on my feet, just a pair of dirty shorts and a blood soaked t-shirt that was beginning to reek. Swarms of flies buzzed around my cuts. I swatted at them the best I could, but finally gave up, tired of battling them. Eventually I limped over to the supply table in the ward and grabbed a small roll of gauze to wrap around my wounds on my legs and cut up toes to keep the flies from feeding on me. I felt guilty for taking that small roll of gauze.
From time to time Sri Lankan guys would come up and ask me questions about where I had been at the time of the tsunami. Several western tourists came outside to the cement block and we exchanged survivor stories. The tales were harrowing… stories of rushing water, incredibly powerful waves, cabanas obliterated, and people being pulled out to sea, missing family and friends.
All day long the parade of dead and injured pass in front of me, along with thousands of people searching… searching… searching… Many of those searching met my gaze, giving me a small smile and a shake of the head, hunching their shoulders in total disbelief. I returned their gestures with a nod of my head and a slight smile. Some looks were full of anger, causing me to cast my eyes downward.
Throughout the day and evening I was cared for by the kindness of strangers. One such fellow was Mr. Akram from the city of Galle. He asked me if I needed anything. I told him that I needed to use the toilet badly, but was afraid to walk in all the blood with my cut up toes and feet. He said to wait and then came back awhile later with a pair of new flip-flops for me to wear. He apologized that they were too small, they were the largest he could find. They would do, I put them on and shuffled off to the toilet. To my horror the restroom floors were wet and covered with blood. I was so thankful to have a pair of slippers on my feet. I limped back to my cement block and a young boy offered me some bananas to eat. Another man came by and gave me a few crackers. These small items would be the only things I had to eat for 24 hours, I was grateful for them.
Before Mr. Akram left me he pulled out his wallet and gave me 200 rupees. I was overcome with gratitude. I could not believe that he would give me money. I used it later to buy drinking water. Later in the evening Mr. Akram came back and invited me to come to his home to shower and have some rest. I told him thanks, but that I had to stay put in the hospital. This was the only place that Nalin knew where I had been taken.
In my mind and soul I was crying out and praying to God to be rescued from this living nightmare. It was getting dark and the mosquitoes were biting. Mr. Akram came back again in the evening and asked if I could use anything? It was now 8:00 p.m. and darkness had settled in. I told Mr. Akram that I could use a sarong to wrap around my legs.
That evening a young man named Ben Page from England came by and sat down on the cement block next to me and we began to chat. He had searched the hospital all afternoon looking for his mum… she was nowhere to be found. We both came to the conclusion that we would have to settle in for the night. I told him about my friend Nalin and how I was waiting for him to come and get me. I just hoped Nalin was still alive and did not go back to the hotel to get our things when the second deadly Tsunami hit around noon. I told Ben that I was not going to budge from that block of cement until I was found.
Ben told me of seeing young men out surfing the wave at the time of the tsunami… two had made it back, the other vanished. He said that his family had been staying in Hikkadua and had taken the morning bus to Mirissa to spend the day at Paradise Beach Club. He and his family had been swept away by the powerful tsunami and his mother had been hurt and hauled off to a local hospital. He told me that his family spent the rest of the day sitting on a hillside in the blazing heat above the village of Mirrisa. He told me that all the holiday bungalows had been totally obliterated by the tsunami. Mirrisa had been wiped clean, everything was gone! That is when it dawned on me that God had played a major role in Nalin’s and my survival.
After spending a week up on the southeast coast, visiting the National Parks of Yala and Bundala and going on safaris, Nalin and I packed our things, hired a van and headed to the southern coast for a week at the beach. As we left Tissa and headed south, I had an overwhelming negative feeling sweep over me… it got stronger and stronger the further south we traveled. After about four hours of driving along the beautiful southern shore we came to the tiny village of Mirissa a popular spot for holiday makers. It had been recommended by a fellow Saudi Aramco teacher. We took a look at a place called Paradise Beach Club, but it was fully booked so we drove around Mirissa looking at other guest houses and beach cabañas. The beach was stunning, but the more we drove around looking for a place to stay the more negative I felt. We found a couple of places that had openings, but nothing looked good to me. So I finally said, “let’s just go back to Unawatuna and stay at the Sri Gemunu.”
We headed to Unawatuna, a half hour drive away, and were able to get reservations for five days at the Sri Gemunu Beach Hotel. I felt relieved… so many other places were fully booked. Sri Lanka was having a very successful tourist season! I felt very good about staying at the Sri Gemunu again. We had stayed there in August and we were known by the friendly hotel employees. Initially we were told that we would need to move from the second floor to the first floor during our stay, then later we were told that we could spend all five nights on the second floor. That made me really pleased, there was a beautiful view from the second floor veranda.
Our first two days at the beach were wonderful! We had an enjoyable time swimming in the reef-protected waters of Unawatuna. We had plans to hire an outrigger canoe and take a tour of the coast, as well as go down and spend a day at Mirissa. We had a nice Christmas Eve bar-b-q on the beach. On Christmas day the beach near our hotel was packed with local and foreign visitors. It was a beautiful day. We enjoyed days of fun in the sun, reef walking, swimming, and fishing out on the boulders. Then all hell broke loose the morning of December 26th as the tsunami hit the coasts of Sri Lanka and the other regions of the Indian Ocean.
While talking with Ben I realized that if Nalin and I had stayed in Mirissa we would have been more than likely swept away and killed in the raging waters. Now I understood the negative feeling I had about Mirissa. Nalin and I had somehow survived the raging waters of the Asian Tsunami. I feel so grateful to God for his guidance and protection during this horrific catastrophe.
It was dark at the Karapitya Hospital and the western tourists were still sitting where they had been all day, now very worn and tired. The constant stream of injured had not let up one bit. The same medical staff I had seen when I arrived was still hard at work… I wondered how they could do it. They must have been running on pure adrenalin.
Ben decided to make one last round of all the hospital rooms and wards to try and locate his mum. He later came back and joined me on the cement block. I told him that I could really use some water. The liter of Coca-Cola I had been sipping on all day was almost gone. He took me and we wandered down the halls of the hospital to a grimy hospital canteen. The canteen was packed with folks eating rice and curry. I went over to the counter and to my surprise they had cases of water for sale and the fridge was well stocked with soft drinks. I thought these things would have vanished by now. I bought a liter of water and was charged the regular price. I was happy that people were not taking advantage of the situation by price gouging.
We walked down the long dark corridors crammed with people still searching for their loved ones; we were very close to where all the dead bodies were piling up… You could smell death in the sultry evening air. Ben and I made small talk as we walked; it was good to have someone to talk and walk with after sitting alone all day. I was very stiff. We made our way back to the cement block in the grassy area. We chatted about the events of the day, mosquitoes were biting. Ben talked about trying to find a place to sleep for the night. Even though I was exhausted, sleep was beyond me… I had no idea what I was going to do for the night.
Just then at about 8:30 p.m. I heard some commotion from the second floor, my name was being called out. I looked up and there was my buddy Nalin and three waiters from the hotel racing along the second floor corridor. I yelled “Brother where art thou!” My heart was pumping; I was so overcome with joy! It was wonderful to see my friend again! My ordeal at the regional hospital was coming to an end! Nalin and I greeted each other in a happy reunion! He told me that he had been trying to find a way to get to me all day. The man who had taken us to the hospital in the morning had returned to the hotelier’s home later that day and had refused to go back and pick us up. He told Nalin that we had been admitted to the hospital and were being taken care of and there was no need to go and fetch us. Lies… and Nalin knew it!
During my absence Nalin had spent the day helping the Dutch nurse care for the wounded at the house. He went out foraging food for forty people. He told me that he had brought back a bag of bread rolls, and one European fellow came up and took a hand full of rolls like a greedy pig all for himself. The Nurse made him give them all back and then she and Nalin cut them in half taking care of the children first. It was a busy afternoon.
One of the other guests from our hotel, a Sri Lankan fellow from Colombo went out in the neighborhood and found a van and driver for hire and sent Nalin back to the hospital to fetch me and the Slovenian couple. (I would not know about this until later when I was back in Colombo. Nalin had told me about it at the time… but it did not register. Later in Colombo I called up this gentleman and thanked him for his incredible kindness.)
I said good-bye to Ben, I hated to leave him there all alone on that cement block, but he told me that he had to stay put until someone came to fetch him. I got Ben’s email address and told him that I wanted to find out how things went with his search for his mother.
As we were walking out of the hospital to the van I thought about the other western tourists still sitting in that horrible ward. I turned around and went back to say good-bye. They were desperate to get word out about themselves, so we took down their names and phone numbers to contact their embassies in Colombo.
With Nalin's help, I began to limp down the long corridor leading out of the hospital. I felt delivered! We found the van and driver and were able to locate the Slovenian couple and got them on board. I had not seen this couple since noon. They told me that it had taken 5 hours of sitting around until they were seen to and had their wounds stitched up. They were feeling and looking much better than the last time I saw them.
We drove out of the city away from the hospital and into the countryside traveling the small inland roads away from the coast. It would take us about three hours to get back to the hotelier’s house. On the way we dropped off several of the waiters from the hotel to see their families. The first one we dropped off was the fair skinned waiter with light brown eyes and the little goatee. As he got out of the van, there stood his teary eyed older brother, the same frantic medical officer that I had met at the hospital earlier in the day. The brothers embraced with great joy seeing each other safe and well. The older brother reached into the van and held my hand tightly and just looked into my eyes with tears rolling down his cheeks, he could hardly speak. All he said was “thank you!” I smiled back and said… “See I told you he was alive!” He held my hand for the longest time emotional gratitude poured from his eyes straight into my heart and soul.
On the drive back to the hotelier’s house Nalin told me that his two brothers-in-law were driving down to pick us up and take us back to Colombo. When we arrived back at the hotelier’s house all the injured and non-injured guest were sprawled out all over in various rooms…all 40 of them! All I wanted to do was lie down and sleep. My body was so tired and sore, the right side stiff from being slammed around in the tsunami, I could hardly pick up my right leg to walk, the same leg with the gash. A plate of food was brought to me… I could not eat.
Nalin’s brothers-in-law were at the house waiting for our return, they wanted to get back to Colombo as soon as possible. The last thing I wanted to do was get back in a van and bump around on the narrow country roads! Nalin talked to his brothers-in law and then told me that the government was issuing non-travel orders for the region and that police would be setting up road blocks; we would be stuck in the south if we did not leave at once. I agreed that it was time to leave.
I got my things and made my way down to the van… I said good bye to the lovely nurse and her husband from Holland. She gave me a big hug and then apologized for sending me off that morning not knowing that a great tsunami had swept the entire coastline of Sri Lanka. She asked for my e-mail address and wanted me to write and let her know how I was doing once I got back home.
All night long I was kicking myself for getting in that car in the morning and going to the hospital. It would have been much better if I had just stayed put on the veranda all day. However… I would not have had the experiences that I did at the hospital if I had stayed. Maybe I was supposed to go to the hospital after all. I’m sure being able to tell the young medical officer that his younger brother was alive was well worth everything I went through. He was able to do a better job in assisting the injured knowing that his brother was alive and well. Then there were all the acts of kindness I received during the day that warmed my heart, as well as all the stories I was able to hear from the other survivors and especially the stories of Mirissa from Ben. Things happen for a reason.
As we traveled Nalin told me that he had gone back down to the hotel at 3:00 p.m. and had gathered our things. He said that all the bottom guest rooms were totally destroyed and the only thing remaining from the dinning hall, kitchen, gift shop, restrooms… was just a big slab of cement. Everything else was gone! Vanished into the sea! Wiped clean!
We made our way to Colombo on the dark inland roads away from the coast. Thankfully there was a full moon to help us make our way in the darkness. The narrow bumpy roads were a giant maze, we constantly had to stop and ask directions. Everywhere we went there were people out and about in the night. We passed through small villages, agricultural areas of rice paddies and coconut groves.
There was one time in the wee hours of the morning that we got lost and ended up out on the coastal road. I could see the sea and the waves breaking on the beach in the moon light, it totally freaked me out inside. The whole area was destroyed, wreckage strewn everywhere… boats up in the middle of the village. Our head lights shown on a road littered with a million things. We turned around quickly and headed back inland. As we turned around and headed out of the village we drove over a sleeping dog in the road, its painful yelps pierced the eerie silence. We drove all night long… sleep escaped me and I rode in a hazy daze. Every time we went through a low lying area or over a river my heart froze with fear. Water and lowlands were the enemy now. It made for a very long night.
Nalin’s brother-in-law Dhamikka works as a policeman in Colombo and is a very good driver… he announced that we were running out of petrol, all the stations were still closed; we drove on with a wing and a prayer. Finally we were able to find a station that was open in the early hours of the morning and were able to refuel. I could not imagine driving all afternoon and all night and then having to go to work in the morning. But that is what Dhammika was doing for us. All total Dhamikka would have driven fourteen or fifteen hours to come and fetch us back to Colombo. I really appreciated what he did for us. Later I learned that Nalin’s sisters and mother had insisted that Dhamikka come and get us.
We finally made it to Colombo in the early hours of the morning. We drove around trying to find a place to stay. We had given two English ladies and their child a ride back with us and they needed a place to go. We drove around and around on the empty streets of early morning Colombo searching for accommodations. All the hotels in the city were fully booked, so many tourists had poured into Colombo after the tsunami that there was virtually “no room at the inn!” Even the hotel ballrooms had tourists sleeping on the floors. The English ladies were able to call a relative living in Colombo to come and pick them up. Meanwhile Nalin and I went into the Delmon Hospital to seek medical care. I was admitted at 6:30 a.m. Nalin stayed with me as I was examined and had my wound cleaned up. He helped me check in and saw me up to my room. Then he took off to see his family, he said that he would check in with me later to see how I was doing.
Well the hospital room was not exactly the RITZ… but it sure felt like it after spending the day at that regional hospital down south. I spent the morning glued to the tube and watching for the first time all the news about the great tsunami. I could not believe what I was watching… it was so horrific to watch! Indonesia, Thailand, India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka had all been hit. It was hard to fathom. I finally drifted off to sleep with CNN playing the horrific images and stories over and over and over. I was totally spent.
Later in the morning a nasty little weasel of a doctor came into my room and announced that there was nothing the hospital could do for me. It had been more than 6 hours since I had been injured and they wouldn’t be able to sew up the wound. I would just have to live with it. I asked him to at least take a look at my gash. He told me that he did not have to take a look at it… I told him to please take a look at it. He pulled the bandage off and took a look. He then told me that the surgeon would see me at around noon and strolled out of the room in a huff.
I really felt down heartened. I had this deep gash on my leg and there was nothing the hospital would do about it! My clothes and body reeked so I decided to try and take a sponge bath. I had a hard time walking or standing. My whole body ached. I hobbled over to the bathroom and got out of my stinky clothes… wetted the towel and began trying to scrub the filth off of my body with a little soapy water. Buy the time I was finished washing the yellow towel was black. I got dressed and hobbled back to my bed exhausted. I continued to watch CNN and drifted off to sleep.
Just before noon a kindly gentleman walked into the room and introduced himself as the surgeon. He was the exact opposite of the nasty little doctor who had come in earlier. He told me that I would be taken down to surgery later in the day. He said that he would do his best to sew me up even though the wound was now over 24 hours old. I thanked him and he left me. Later a nurse came in and gave me a tetanus shot. I was also given a round of antibiotics and some pain killers. I started to feel better.
An hour or so later I was taken down to surgery. They wheeled me into the theater and several medical workers asked me about the tsunami while we waited for the surgeon. Then the doctor came in and went to work on me. He was a pleasant man and put me right at ease. He told me that he was going to do his best to close the wound. He gave me some shots in the leg to deaden it and went to work cleaning the wound out. He had to freshen it up and get it pink and bleeding again. He had me sit up and take a look at what he had done… I sat up and looked. My gash looked very clean and was red with fresh blood. He put in three loose stitches. He told me that it was a loose stitch since it had been more than six hours…he wanted to leave spaces for it to ooze while healing.
He sent me back upstairs and asked if there was anywhere comfortable that I could go for rest. I told him that all the hotels in Colombo were fully booked. He said spend the night here at the hospital… it’s just like staying in a hotel! That sounded good to me. They wheeled me to the elevator and upstairs to my room. For the first time since the tsunami I felt at peace. My wound was taken care of and medicine was surging through my body helping it to heal. I felt very blessed and at the same time guilty… I thought about all those very poor tsunami victims down in Galle struggling for life in that overwhelmed and under stocked hospital. Life did not seem fair to me.
It was getting dark and evening was settling in on a rainy night when I heard a knock on my door… it was Nalin and his sister Deevi. They were a welcome sight for sore eyes. Nalin said, “How about we get you out of here, come stay at our home.” I told him, “That sounds like a very good idea.” They went to the front desk and got me checked out of the hospital. I paid my hospital bill and stopped off at the pharmacy and picked up antibiotics and pain medication.
We took off into the night on the crowded streets of Colombo. It felt so good to be out and about. As we were driving Nalin informed me that when he had gone back to the room at the hotel that all of my clothes were gone and that I would have to buy some new things to wear. In my mind I thought about a favorite safari shirt that I had since my days in Bolivia nine years ago… this shirt had gone with me everywhere all around the world… now it was gone! My upset passed in a flash as I started thinking about the countless thousands who were dead, thousands more injured and the millions who had lost everything. I had everything to be grateful for.
On our way we got a bite to eat… it was wonderful to have such nice friends to spend time with. After dinner we went back to Nalin’s house. He gave up his bed for me and slept on the floor. Now that is what I call a true friend!
The last couple of days in Sri Lanka were spent with Nalin and his family. We were glued to the TV and watched all that was happening in the affected areas of the Tsunami. I like watching the local Colombo television stations and saw what was taking place in Colombo as far as local relief efforts underway. On CNN the reporters made it sound as if nothing was happening as the country waited for foreign aid to arrive. But that was not the case… things were happening. The whole business community of Colombo was organizing and the citizens of the capital were donating food, water, sanitation supplies, clothes, bedding, sleeping mats, medicine and medical supplies and trucks were being loaded at various staging areas around the city with relief items being donated to be taken to stricken areas.
I wanted to do my part to help the relief efforts. The next day in the afternoon we had gone down town to do some shopping. I needed some sandals to wear. My feet were all swollen, cut up and sore and I could not get them into my tennis shoes. We ended up having lunch at a large shopping complex and while there I saw a RED CROSS booth set up in the mall seeking donations for the tsunami relief effort. I got my ATM card out and went to the bank machine and withdrew the maximum amount I could and then gave it to the volunteers manning the booth. It made me feel good inside that I was able to repay all the kindnesses shown to me over the course of the past few days.
My final day in Sri Lanka I wanted to do more. I went to the ATM machine again and withdrew the maximum amount that I could then Nalin drove Deevi and I to a radio station to get a list of medications that were in greatest demand. Nalin was very adamant that we donate things that were needed the most. After getting the list we drove to the central part of Colombo to a large government pharmacy to buy the needed medicine and medical supplies. He wanted to take me to a place were we could get more bang for the buck and not go to private pharmacies where the costs were higher. We talked about how all these private pharmacies ought to be selling the medical supplies at cost and not try to make a profit on this great tragedy. We got to the government pharmacy and found it very crowded with people who were trying to do the same thing, buy supplies to be donated. We waited for over an hour and then found out that the pharmacy had run out of stock.
We drove to another part of the city and found another government pharmacy that was less crowded. We were able to get in and buy lots of medical supplies from the list of needed items. I noticed one older man who was really ticked off with everybody trying to buy relief supplies… he scolded the clerk for not filling his prescription fast enough. He had a nasty scowl on his face and knocked into me on purpose when finally getting his pills. I thought, Geez man… don’t you know what’s happened in your country!” You find selfish impatient people in all countries around the world. Other people waiting in the line told him to settle down and be patient that the clerks were doing the best they could to serve the customers.
We finally got our boxes of medications and first aid supplies. It felt so good to haul these things back out to the van… knowing that they would be put to good use. We drove across the city and out into the countryside to where the radio/TV station was located. There we found a long line of vehicles filled with people coming to drop off their relief donations. It warmed my heart to see good people doing good things. We parked the van and then hauled our donation to the large trucks filled with volunteers sorting the items as they loaded the truck. We gave them our relief donations. I also gave a bag of clothes… What was I thinking the other night when I bought all those clothes to bring back to Saudi Arabia? I had enough clothes back in my apartment… so I gave a bag of clothes that I’m sure would be put to good use by those who lost everything.
It felt so good knowing that our donation was on the truck and would be taken south the next morning to help relieve some of the pain and suffering that I had witnessed all day long at that hospital near Galle.
The next morning I was able to participate in a special family event with Nalin and his family. Nalin’s nephew Nimthaka was going to be celebrating a special Buddhist rite of passage. It would be his first reading and writing ceremony. Nim who is two and a half years old was prepared for the day. He came out all bathed and groomed in a smart set of new clothes. He sat on a mat covered with a white table cloth. On the mat was a white statue of the Lord Buddha, two oil lamps burning brightly and two traditional clay lamps, a ceramic bowl filled with water and white jasmine flowers, and a plate of fruit and delicious baked goods.
At the exact time… Nim’s father Dhamikka sat next him and had Nim read Singhalese alphabets from a large children’s book. Next they placed a large pad of paper and his father helped guide his hand in writing a few letters. Next they asked me if I would do the honor of having Nim say his alphabet letters in English. I pointed to the letters and helped him say them in English. Then I helped Nim to spell his name in English on the pad of paper. It was a great honor for me to take part in this very special family occasion.
Nalin and his sister went to run some errands while I stretched out on the floor and watched the news. It was still very difficult to watch all that was happening. This is not at all how I expected to end my visit to Sri Lanka. I was still in shock and a bit dazed.
I was surprised when Nalin and his sister came back with a two pizza’s from Pizza Hut. I had just told Nalin that I was not hungry. I never feel like eating when it’s time to say good bye to loved ones and get on a plane and fly away. However I had to have a bit to eat. This pizza had been ordered by Nalin’s sister who is living in Canada. It came with a card of thanks, a lovely gesture of friendship. I had a couple of slices and it was really good. I was still not in the mood to eat. I said my good-byes and hopped in the van. Dhamikka drove us to the airport which was an hour or so away. Nalin sat in the back seat drifting off to sleep.
We talked very little while driving to the airport… over the course of the past few days we had talked ourselves out. Recalling every moment of the tsunami and trying to make sense of it all. I kept kicking myself for not reacting fast enough… for not racing to the stairs at the first sniff of trouble… not reacting… not reacting… not reacting… I was still trying to make sense of it all. If we had only done this… if we had only done that. I could not get it out of my head. We were actually laughing when that first wave hit and sent spray high into the air. We did not know what hit us until it was too late! Even when being swept away by the full force of the Indian Ocean it still did not dawn on me what was happening. All focus was on survival, keeping my head above water. It was all a blurry dream… so incredibly surreal.
Questions… questions… questions… Why didn’t God speak to me more loudly as we sat in the warm morning sunshine eating breakfast? Maybe he did. All these thoughts swirling around my mind like the surging waters that carried me away. I may never be able to make sense of it all. The fact is it happened so fast… there was little time to react. I’m just glad that Nalin and I made it out alive.
We arrived at the Colombo International Airport. Nalin carried my backpack into the airport for me. I reached the check in counter got my boarding pass, checked my bag and went back to bid farewell to my dear Sri Lankan brother… a friend for life… a friend for eternity.
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