On Boxing Day, 26 December 2004, the third largest earthquake in the last 1,000 years occurred off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia in the Indian Ocean. The 9.2 quake raised the nearby ocean floor several meters, displacing a massive amount of water resulting in a devastating tsunami. The tsunami reached as far as South Africa and Antarctica and between the two disasters, killed an estimated 250,000 people. After Indonesia, Sri Lanka was the worst hit country with more than 35,000 deaths and a half million people displaced.
I was on holiday in the United States when the earthquake happened, visiting family at Christmas. I could only watch the news in horror. One of the sights that was seared into my memory that day was pictures of a crowded passenger train near Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka that was thrown by the tsunami off the tracks like a toy, into the trees and houses behind the tracks. About 1,700 people died on the train alone and there were thousands more in the tiny villages up and down the southwest coast that also perished.
When I returned to Singapore, I tried to get to Thailand, Indonesia or Sri Lanka to help with the rescue, recovery or restoration effort. In the meantime, I volunteered at Mercy Relief, a local Singapore charity that sent tons of aid to the affected countries. It wasn’t until July, 2005 that I was able to get to Sri Lanka for a brief, week-long, house building effort with Habitat for Humanity. Shortly after that trip, I wrote the following article from my handwritten contemporaneous notes. It was a life-changing experience. Here is my story:
Have you ever been to Sri Lanka? I have now travelled there twice and I love the place. One trip was in the more traditional tourist route in the Colombo, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya triangle. The hill country is stunning, the towns historical and the people lovely. It is tough to pick out the best part but the part that I seem to remember best was hiking through the national park in the Horton Plains, stopping at a place called End of the World and looking straight over the ledge a mile or so straight down. Try the bungee jump there if you are so brave.
A better trip I did to meet people was one after the tsunami in 2004. I went on a house building trip to Hikkaduwa, near Galle on the southwest coast of the island. It was one of the worst hit areas in this country from the disaster. It’s also the site of the train that was rolled over several times by the wave, killing many hundred people. I remembered that train as the most symbolic tragedy of the disaster and to see the whole train still lying near the track and rusting away was terribly moving.
This town on the coast was a resort and fishing village. It’s about three miles from end to end along the coast road and only a mile or less inland. It has only two paved roads so when I say the “coast road”, it’s just to differentiate it from the “other road”. They had some decent scuba diving, surfing and nice beaches here in addition to the fishing industry. Most everyone was still recovering seven months after the tsunami hit and few businesses were open. I don’t know how many people died there but it was in the thousands. We were working in a small village on the outskirts that had about 50 houses and they had 60 people in their village who died. It was pretty depressing to think about but the Sri Lankans seemed more accepting than I did even though their pain below the surface was evident. You could be talking to someone, a memory gets triggered and they suddenly start staring into space. They were dirt poor before the tsunami and many still didn’t have jobs because many shops and hotels were still rebuilding (or the owners of the businesses also died). I’d estimate that three quarters of the people of Hikkaduwa were still living in either tents or wooden shacks that looked like tool sheds built by a blind one-armed accountant in a hurry.
The people in the small village where we worked are absolutely fantastic to us. They were so appreciative of the help they got from all over the world and they were as nice with us as could be. At first, they didn’t ask for or even hint for handouts from us and they were constantly trying to give us tea or juice. As a treat, one guy climbed a 60 foot coconut tree to get us some fresh coconuts – his only climbing aid was a rope tied between his ankles! Rumor has it that several months before we were there, a villager “borrowed” a pair of sun-glasses from an aid worker and when the village chief found out, the thief was literally cast out of the village.
The children loved to practice their English with us, teach us secret hand-shakes and help us with our work. If they wore anything, it was a pair of shorts for the boys and a dress for the girls. I did not see a villager with shoes on despite the place being a cross between a construction site and a jungle. The older boys (10 – 14 years old) did the work with us and usually were doing a much better job. Most of the work was either supervised or re-done by a Sri Lankan mason or carpenter. For some things, we just assisted them.
We had a team of 11 people working on three houses (9 Singaporeans, one Spanish priest and this very emotional American who seemed overwhelmed by things happening at home, a new debilitating pain as well as being in the strangeness of the middle of the disaster area). I also was working in an unusual group that tested my patience. I learned about what to expect when we arrived on a Sunday afternoon and the local organizer met us. I was ready to go to work right away and everyone else wanted to go shopping in Galle. I waved the group goodbye on their southbound bus then climbed into the organizer’s rickety old car. We shopped for tools and other supplies and I picked up the bill. I guess I was on a shopping trip of my own.
When we all started working on Monday morning, the foundations and cinder block walls of three houses were already up. Those were done the prior week by another team. The two-room houses were each about the size of my living room. They are obviously one story and included such niceties as brown-plastered walls, real windows (with shutters, not glass) and a tile roof. They also got white-washed, inside and out with two coats. Our group included a human waste expert so we were also building one outhouse for several families to share. I doubted that it would get much use though, based on watching everyone just pee against the sides of buildings all week.
The first day was the most exhausting day I had ever had since working as a brick tender before senior year in college. Fr. Dave and I left at 6:00am to walk two miles to the village to make it in time for the “roof starting ceremony”. Apparently it’s auspicious to start at that hour. I won’t get into the lazy habits of the Singaporeans on the trip because I know it was just a bad sampling – most Singaporeans are pretty good at hard charity work when needed. As a hint though, Fr. David and I were asked to stay longer after just that first day and the local mason quietly confided that the rest could go. He and the local carpenter were happy when the others left early for the day. On that first day, the carpenter, his 12 year old son, Fr. David and I finished the entire roof. The Habitat for Humanity benchmark for this was for six assistants taking two days to complete it. The whole village came to see it and others from around town came the second day because they didn’t believe the carpenter when he got to his village and told the story. Did I find a calling? By the way, if you don’t think the speed was impressive, keep in mind that we only had 20 pieces of wood that were long enough so they didn’t need to be joined together using nail-less joints and we had no electric tools either. All the wood slats had to have their ends cut by hand in an intricate pattern so they could be joined end to end without falling apart.
We had an easier second day in terms of physical labor. We only did plastering of the walls and whitewashing. All volunteers, except for three of us (Father Dave and I had found a convert), were so tired that they did only an hour of work before heading off to visit an orphanage for the rest of the day. Woops, I said I wasn’t going to get into that. We started the second day with a early morning mass which seemed to me to be a way to avoid the early work but I got a little too emotional and overwhelmed that I had to walk out. The day before I left for this trip, I found out that my mother-in-law had inoperable stage 4 liver cancer so my thoughts were always conflicted.
I was not only thinking of my mother-in-law though. My wife was now dealing with the news on her own. In addition, the day I arrived in Sri Lanka, I got a searing pain on the side of my body. At first, I thought I had cracked or broken a rib. As the week progressed, the pain did as well. It felt like all of my ribs on one side were broken and I developed the most awful rash to complement the pain. I could not sleep and raising my hands above my head was excruciating. I also had a fever and often felt achy, like I had a horrible flu. I only found out what was wrong when I got back to Singapore. I guess the work and the pain were my penance.
After the mass on the second day, I went to work myself every morning and started at 6:00am with the local tradesmen. I skipped breakfast and the bus rides too as sort of additional penance. Someone had shown me the shortcut to walk down the train tracks which everyone in town used as the second road through town. I also stayed later than the others in the afternoon to get as much work done as possible. I guess I also wanted to avoid the rest of the crowd as I didn’t get on with them so well. Fr Dave was different though.
By the way, every time I walked up and down those tracks, I thought of the helpless people in that train.
It took time for the villagers to warm up to us but they did start coveting our possessions. Anytime someone got us alone, they would quietly compliment us on our hat or watch and then tell us it would look nicer on themselves. It was pretty funny. The HFH policy, however, was that we are not allowed to give anything to villagers directly. Any gifts had to be accumulated by HFH and distributed to whole village through the headman. Most villagers were still really nice though even if you didn’t quietly sneak them something.
As the week went on, most of the Singaporeans got a little better with the labor but some of them were truly pathetic. Our worst injury of the trip was one rather large woman who sat while doing her minor tasks on Monday, announced she was too exhausted to work on Tuesday, then she got a sprained ankle Tuesday night – while getting a massage!!! She took off on Wednesday because the ankle hurt too much so she stayed back near the guest house and shopped all day. As I recall on Thursday she went to the worksite but sat in the shade all day and fanned herself in the morning and, get this, got the local children to fan her in the afternoon.
The guesthouse where we stayed was an old family “mansion” that was flooded but not destroyed by the waves. They rented out beds for US$3 per person. An enormous breakfast was $2 and lunch packed and delivered was the same. The rooms were quite big and had cold showers, three beds, a ceiling fan and mosquito nets. It also had the worst bed I have ever slept on in my life. The two inch mattress sagged between the eight 2″ slats that it rested on top of. A bed of nails would have been more comfortable as I “woke up” (as if I slept) every morning with the imprint of the slats on my back. The mosquito net was so stifling that I dispensed with it after the first night despite the warnings of malaria and dengue.
On the last day, all the others decided to skip work and go to another orphanage. I heard later that one of the characters had bought 100 baby chicks to take with him as gifts for the children. A cute idea that went terribly wrong – the orphanage turned out to be one for intellectually challenged children and they thought it was fun to squeeze the chicks real hard – until they popped. Yuck.
On that last day, all the emotions finally broke for me. I worked my butt off, got abused by one villager for not giving him money to buy a bike and then said goodbye to the mason and carpenter as well as all the village children and the other two families whose houses we built. I gave away all the tools I had before going on the last walk down the railway line. I am crying again just thinking about it. My favorite young helper had asked for my leather work gloves but I had plans for them. He followed me to the tracks so I think he ended up with them anyway but I had to leave them on a rail tie as a sacrifice. I said my prayers and didn’t look back.
Once I got to the guesthouse, I also showered, changed into my travelling clothes and flip flops. I walked across the street and left my shoes on the beach after cursing the sea and begging it to never be so angry again. All the clothes I wore that week were packed into a laundry bag and taken to the local cleaners. They had a special deal that month. You weren’t charged a cent for laundry if you were donating all of it to the village. That was a deal I could not resist.
The bus ride back to Colombo was a whole other experience but that is a story for another day. I really should have learned some Sinhalese before trying that trip by myself though.
By the way, if you are curious about my malady that I suffered from, it turned out to be shingles. If you don’t know how bad that is, look it up HERE. It was truly awful for me but the worse part was the phone call that I had to make back to the head of Habitat for Humanity in Hikkaduwa. It was entirely possible that I could have infected the whole village with chicken pox.