Sri Lankans Find Serenity in Wake of Tsunami

Young Sri Lankan tsunami survivors play with puppets.

Young Sri Lankan tsunami survivors play with puppets at the Akurala Primary College relief camp in Galle in southern Sri Lanka February 24, 2005. Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Reuters

I stepped off the plane in Sri Lanka into 100-degree heat and humidity, I was prepared to be shocked by the destruction, and in truth, I was. The scoured, vacant coastline, the rows of tents where villages once stood and the posters of lost children, were overpowering. But I was even more struck by the resilience of those who lived through the tsunami.

Mile after mile, it became hard to look at the splintered boats at rest in fields, the shreds of clothing hanging from trees, the shoes and wallets floating in puddles of stagnant water. And yet in the midst of it all, there was always life.

Women in spotless pink and yellow saris stepped serenely through the rubble, bringing flowers to a headless Buddha. Smiling children in blue and white uniforms perched sidesaddle on bicycles as their fathers pedaled them to what was left of their school. Men laughed in fields as they gathered up tile roofing and driftwood, rebuilding their homes from nothing but dirt. Storeowners meticulously arranged coconuts to sell from the street in the places where their shops once stood.

These sights were somehow consoling in the midst of such horror. It had been nearly a month and the people of Sri Lanka were still digging out, but without a trace of self-pity or apathy.

Yes, there was help, relief trucks of rice and potable water. And there were marines and volunteers up and down the coast sorting and burning. But those who were sifting through the rubble for bits of their lives, hosing down mud encrusted mattresses, and stacking twisted metal in their yards, did so without complaint, without anger or blame. I never heard a cry of "Why me?"

In only one way did I experience some sort of need from the people I met. Most wanted to talk about it, over and over. How the sea boiled at first, where they were, how the water surged in and out, leaving the bay dry, fish flopping in the sand, and how the water came back again with such force.

Their words tumbled out in a cathartic rush. They told their stories excitedly, interrupting each other and picking up where another left off. I had been afraid to ask about those moments, but never needed to. I had nothing to offer except to listen. And that seemed to be enough.

But unlike the people I met, I could not get over it. I found myself choking back tears over a child's shoe in a ditch, a diary covered in seaweed. I constantly looked to the sea for some kind of answer.

But the answer was in the stories I heard, not in what the people said, but how they said it. This happens. It happened here. Now we go on.

Slowly, I began to realize that many Sri Lankans think in more than one lifetime. While life is certainly precious here — traffic backs up simply to let a monitor lizard cross the road — death is understood as part of a cycle, not an end. The only time I saw any pause in the task of rebuilding was for prayer, to bring offerings to Buddha, in temples that somehow, miraculously withstood the force of the water.

On my way back up the coast, I met a woman who had lost both family and friends. They had been staying at a beach hotel. The entire first floor of the hotel had been washed away, but the second floor was left standing, and that’s where we stayed that night. I slept on a mattress tossing and turning, thinking about the water that had rushed in and out below me, and all of the people who had been swept out with it.

Yet when I thought of the woman, I smiled. Smoothing out the folds of her turquoise sari, she'd told me of her recent marriage.

"You got married after the tsunami?" I asked incredulously.

"Yes," she answered. "A few days after, for that was when it was to be."

She walked away with a serene look, back to the tent where she and her new husband now live.

Radio Expeditions: Sri Lanka

Elizabeth Arnold was in Sri Lanka to report on the nation's ecological recovery from the tsunami.

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