is English, married to Ana (Portuguese), with two daughters, Katarina
(13) and Ana Luisa (8). They live in north Portugal.
could have stayed many days more in Suduweli, but our intention
was to go on to Tangalle (South Sri
Lanka), where we intended to visit the turtle sanctuary and
go scuba diving. We heard from other guests at Suduweli that most
of the guesthouses in Tangalle were full. Shantha told us not to
worry as he would contact a friend of his, also called Shantha,
who had a guest house with cabanas called the Sunshine Café
about 10 kilometers east of Tangalle, and that he would arrange
for us to stay there.
next day Shantha gave us a lift to Tissamaharama from where we got
a bus to the village of Ranna, just 10 kilometres before Tangalle
and about 2 kilometres inland. We then got a tuk-tuk down narrow
dirt tracks through palm trees to Shantha 2's guesthouse.
It was idyllic, a true tropical paradise.
It was set among the coconut palms and surrounded by tropical vegetation.
Shantha had built two cabanas for tourists and a small café
in front of them. His house was set a little further back and was
of a much simpler structure. Our cabana was smaller but much more
upmarket than the one we had slept in at Sudaweli . It had a posh
tiled floor and a lovely wooden ceiling. It consisted of a large
bedroom containing two beds, each with its own mosquito net, a shower
with a flushed toilet and a large porch with chairs at the front.
It was very comfortable indeed. Shantha welcomed us with a big smile
and offered us fresh king coconut milk straight out of the coconut.
As we sat drinking the coconut Shantha introduced us to his charming
wife, Ramani, their two cute little daughters Pepy aged 5 and Asiya
aged 2 and Ramani's wrinkled and toothless 72 year mother. Pepy
and Ana Luisa immediately joined hands and went running into the
palm trees in search of Pepy's pet puppy dog, Hannibal.
We wanted to see the beach. Ramani pointed to a gap among the palm
trees about ten metres in front of our cabana. We walked along the
sand passed through the palm trees and a beautiful long beach appeared
in front of us. There was nobody on it but us. Way down to the south
over to the right, I could make out a collection of fishing boats
just before a headland where the Rekawa turtle sanctuary was situated.
To the north I could just make out another group of fishing boats.
Shantha told me that up from the boats there was a medium sized
tourist hotel called Darwins where he used to work before setting
up on his own. Many people from the hotel called into his café
for a drink or a snack as they walked along the beach.
sea was a bit rough at this time, but I decided to go for a dip
anyway. It was pretty calm once you got past the area where the
waves were breaking, but it was not easy to reach this point. I
swam around a little and then came back. Ana and the two girls were
a little worried. Shantha told us that the best time for a swim
was in the early morning when the sea was much calmer.
We stayed on the beach for a few hours and then went back to the
guesthouse. We met Roie and Hila, two Israeli travellers, who had
been staying at the guesthouse for 4 or 5 days and just couldn't
leave. They were on a long travelling holiday in Asia and were to
fly to India early in the New Year.
Day, I got up early to walk along the beach towards the Darwin
hotel. Shantha had told me that turtles often come to lay their
eggs on the beach and that I might see some of them making their
way back to the sea in the early morning. I saw lots of baby turtle
tracks, but no turtles.
The sea was much calmer, so I had a quick swim and then returned
to the cabana to wake up the rest of the family. They were already
awake and about to start breakfast of fresh mangoes, papaya, pineapple
and bananas followed by toast, butter, jam and delicious Sri Lankan
After breakfast Shantha gave us a lift into Tangalle in his tuk-tuk.
We had promised to have saris made for the girls as Christmas presents.
We had already bought the material in Tissamaharama a few days previously.
We soon found a small dressmaker's shop and the girls were measured
up for their saris. The lady told us that the saris would be ready
the next day, the 26th.
We met up with Shantha a little later. He had somehow managed to
get hold of a branch from a pine tree and had bought some Christmas
decorations and some lights for the tree. We climbed back into the
tuk-tuk and Ana Luisa started singing, 'jingle bells, jingle bells,
jingle all the way'... It seemed rather inappropriate in the back
of a tuk-tuk in the tropics, but we all joined in anyway.
When we got back to Shantha and Ramani's guesthouse, it was time
for a light lunch of tropical fruits and salad. Shantha wanted to
have a Christmas party. Romani's brothers and sisters and their
children had turned up and everyone was in a jolly Christmas mood
- It was a Saturday and the next day was going to be a national
holiday, as it was a Poya Day.
A Poya Day takes place whenever there is a full moon. It is a day
when families get together and visit their local monasteries to
make offerings of flowers to the Buddha and receive a blessing from
the monks. The full moon has a particular significance for Buddhists,
as it was on a full-moon day that Buddha was born and found enlightenment.
Shantha was busy nailing the pine tree branch to the centre post
of his little café and Ana and the children searched around
for flowers and dried tropical fruits and seeds to decorate the
tree. We found a long piece of cardboard and Ana Luisa coloured
in a 'Merry Christmas' sign that I had drawn. Shantha set up a couple
of speakers for the music and fixed up the lights for the tree.
A man arrived on a bicycle with some very large tropical fish, as
Shantha was planning a fish barbecue using dried coconut husks for
Just after dark we sat down for the feast. The fish was delicious
and there we were sitting under the palm trees listening to Sinhalese
music amongst the warmth and jollity of a large Sinhalese family.
It was a wonderful feeling and a very special Christmas. Ramani's
mother was very concerned that the children ate enough. She would
fill up their plates with rice and then go off to get another bowl.
She was like any grandmother in the world - kind and sweet and making
sure the children were well fed. We loved her. Above us was a big
white full moon. Europeans always see a man's face in the moon,
but the Sinhalese see two rabbits dancing. Shantha pointed them
out to us. At first we didn't see them, but then we saw them clearly.
It was like the rock and the crocodile in Yala Park. Once you saw
it, you wandered why you had never seen it before.
next day, the 26th,
I got up before it began to get light. I wanted to walk down to
the fishing village and see if I could find any turtles once again.
As I reached the village the sun began to come up. There was a faint
red glow over the horizon that gradually got brighter and stronger.
A flock of egrets flew overhead and I could see cormorants diving
into the sea after fish. As it was a Poya day, the fishermen were
having a rest and I didn't see anyone on the beach.
I walked slowly back to the guesthouse. The sea was quite calm and
I wanted to get all the family up for a swim. Ana and the girls
were already awake and quickly put on their swimming costumes. We
ran down to the beach, but in the meantime the waves had got a little
rougher and nobody wanted to go in. I decided to go for a dip all
the same and had a very pleasant and relaxing swim once I got past
the area where waves were breaking onto the beach.
We got back to the guesthouse around 8.30. Roie and Hila, the Israeli
couple, were already up and had connected their mini walkman to
the Shantha's speakers. They were listening to classical music.
We joined them in the café and waited for breakfast to arrive.
Ramani brought the usual fare of tropical fruits, toast and tea.
were just about to sit down when we saw the sea coming down into
the garden area of the guesthouse towards the café where
we were. I thought it must be an unusually high tide because of
the full moon. I went to pick up the breakfast things from the table.
Ana and Katarina more intelligently ran towards the cabana, thinking
of saving our belongings and putting them on the beds.
It was then that the table and the chairs hit me. The waves swept
me away and I was smashed against coconut trees and hit by fallen
debris. I tried to grab hold of trees as I bounced along, but the
force of the waves swept me onwards. I was often submerged and had
to fight to get myself back onto the surface.
Eventually, the power of the waves dissipated and I was swept into
the lagoon that was situated about 300 metres behind the guesthouse.
Just as I surfaced, I saw Katarina floating towards me. I caught
her and we both held onto the stump of a palm tree. Behind us the
trees, branches and assorted debris had piled up into a thick impenetrable
wall with a thick brown scum floating in front of it.
I could hear Ana shouting out for Katarina. 'She's with me', I said,
'Where's Ana Luisa? Is she with you?'
' No', Ana said, 'I thought she was with you'.
was then that the panic set in. We had lost our daughter. Both of
us started screaming out her name. I thought she might have been
crushed up against the wall of debris behind us.
My spectacles had been lost so I could see very little. I swam amongst
the debris pushing the scum away trying to find her. I then saw
what I thought was her body floating towards me. Petrified, I swam
towards it and picked it up with my hands. It was a couple of coconut
husks mixed up with someone's clothing. What a relief, but where
Then I saw a Sinhalese lady waving to me. 'Your daughter is safe',
she said, 'Ramani has taken her and the other children to the temple'.
You can't imagine the relief Ana and I felt. I could feel the tears
building up behind my eyes. One moment we felt we had lost our daughter,
the next minute she was safe.
swam back towards Katarina to see if she was all right and then
helped her out of the lagoon. I had got pretty tangled up in the
debris in the process and the sarong and Indian shirt that I had
been wearing were ripped off.
I went back to the cabana. It was still intact, but there were deep
cracks in the walls. The beds had been smashed and our belongings
were strewn everywhere. I picked up a towel that was still hanging
from the line in the porch and put it around my waist.
told me later that when she and Ana got to the cabana, they shut
the door against the water. The same wave that took me away, however,
smashed the door down and pushed them up against the sidewall of
the cabana. Katarina realised the danger and jumped out of the window.
She was swept away by the force of the water towards me, where I
grabbed hold of her. Ana tried to climb out of the window too, but
the water had pushed the beds up against it and she was trapped.
Luckily, the water did not rise up very much further, before it
started to dissipate.
told Ana and Katarina that I was going to search for Ana Luisa at
the temple. Shantha said he would come with me. He was extremely
distraught as he realised that his livelihood was now in ruins.
We checked on Roie and Hila and found that they were all right.
They had taken refuge in their cabana, but as it was higher up than
ours they were not swept away. Ana and Katarina started to pull
our things out of the cabana in an attempt to dry them out . They
were especially concerned about our passports and money.
and I set off for the temple back along the dirt track that led
to the guesthouse. There were lots of Sinhalese people rushing towards
us, all eager to help those who had been flooded. There were many
Sinhalese houses situated along the beach on either side of Shantha's
that were hidden amongst the palm trees. After 20 minutes we came
to the temple. It was surrounded by people dressed in white, the
colour that Buddhist people wear when somebody dies. We couldn't
find Ana Luisa. Is she really alive?, I thought to myself. Someone
then told Shantha that Ramani had taken her and the other children
to her brother's house in Ranna, which was about 2 kilometers further
inland. Shantha and I were deciding whether we would go there or
go back to the house and the cabanas to see what we could rescue.
was then that panic set in. We saw people running towards us. The
tuk-tuks that were parked nearby started up their engines and rushed
off. 'Another wave is coming, people shouted, 'Run for your lives!'
Shantha and I didn't know what to do. Our immediate thoughts were
of Ana, Katarina and the Israeli couple, who were still back at
the cabanas. The temple was at least a kilometre from the sea so
we didn't feel we were in immediate danger.
' We must go back', I shouted. 'We'll be killed', Shantha replied,
but still he came with me.
I could see very little and the landscape had changed completely
with all the sea water around us. We walked along the dirt track
until it became submerged in water. We stopped at the edge. In front
of us was this huge expanse of water. The lagoon had increased its
size many times over. We dived in and swam for about 20 minutes
until we reached shallower water and were able to stand up. It was
here that we came across a bunch of German tourists wandering around
knee-deep in water, trying to find dry land. They had been staying
in the Darwin hotel just down from where we were staying.
Suddenly, many of them started to climb trees. 'There's another
wave coming', someone said. Fear was written on everyone's faces.
An elderly lady asked me what she should do when the wave came.
I told her the best thing to do was to go with the waves and try
not to get stuck up against anything as there was a danger of fallen
trees, branches and debris smashing into her and possibly piling
up against her face and suffocating her. Most people, however, seemed
to want to climb up trees. I helped a few of them do this, but their
positions seemed very precarious to me. Shanta's and my thoughts
were of Ana, Katarina and Roie and Hila. We decided to go on. We
had survived the first wave so I thought we would survive any others.
Some of the Germans decided to follow us as we seemed to be the
only ones who knew where we were going.
waded through the water skirting around smashed houses and cabanas
calling out Ana and Katarina's names. Some Sinhalese friends of
Shantha's heard us and told him that both Ana and Katarina were
safe. We soon came to the dirt track that led to where the guesthouse
was. It no longer existed and nor did the cabanas. People were coming
towards us to help. The expected wave did not come and they went
to rescue the Germans who were still clinging to trees.
Shantha's neighbours told us that the second group of waves had
swept Ana, Katarina, Roie and Hila away, but they had been rescued.
Katarina was being taken to the hospital and Ana was on her way
to Ramani's brother's house to see how Ana Luisa was. My relief
was instantaneous. Everyone was alive. That was the main thing -
cuts, bruises and broken limbs could be repaired. I was elated.
Shantha and I walked back along the dirt track to the hospital.
I was barefoot and wearing a sopping wet towel around my waist.
I could see very little and Shantha helped me along.
I got to the hospital I saw Katarina immediately. She was on a drip
and lying on a mattress on a hospital bed. Her swimming costume
was torn and her body was badly bruised. She was cut all over. There
were many people in her ward. Some were screaming with pain, others
were wailing and crying on hearing the news of the death of their
loved ones. A doctor appeared, he told me that Katarina's wounds
were severe, but that she was in no immediate danger. There were
many dead he told me and he had to attend to patients that were
in a more critical condition.
looked around the ward and saw two other tourists. I went to see
how they were. Meriam, a German eye doctor, told me she was O.K,
apart from her leg. She pulled back her sarong and I looked at a
gaping black hole. 'It needs to be disinfected quickly', she said.
Two nurses arrived carrying a bucket of purple disinfectant and
a swab on the end of some large forceps. Meriam held out her leg
and the nurse started covering her wound in the purple solution.
She screamed with pain. I held her hand and we both screamed together.
The nurse then pointed to my leg. It was only then that I realised
that I had deep wounds on each of my legs and that I was scratched
and bruised all over. It was now my time for the treatment. I waited
for the pain to come and it was intense. A hot burning sharp pain
that made you want to crawl up the wall. Once the nurse stopped
the swabbing the pain quickly subsided. It was then that an English
tourist called Peter was brought in. He was in a very bad state
and only semi-conscious. He couldn't walk and it was suspected that
he had broken his leg. He had deep cuts and scratches all over his
body. He told me that his wife Patricia was still missing. It was
now his time for the treatment. Like all of us he cried out in pain,
but we all knew our wounds had to be cleaned quickly as there was
a danger of infection.
then came limping into the ward. Her face was badly bruised and
like all of us she had deep cuts and bruises all over her body.
The nurse quickly splashed the same disinfectant all over her body.
Ana held my hand too and we screamed together. She climbed onto
the same bed as Katarina and the two of them held each other. I
went to check if there were any other foreigners in the hospital.
I walked into the open corridor and immediately saw Roie and Hila
sitting on a mattress. They were dazed and shocked but not too badly
scratched as they were fully dressed when the waves came. Roie,
however, was in severe pain and thought that he might have a broken
leg. Hila was also very badly bruised.
Someone gave me a sarong. I thankfully put it on. I decided to walk
along the outside corridor and look into the next ward. There were
around 6 foreigners lying or sitting on beds. An English couple
was in deep despair as their 5 year-old daughter was missing. An
Italian couple had also lost their 3 year-old child. I took all
their names in case I managed to get in contact with the authorities
before they did. All the telephone lines were down and mobile phones
were not working. We were completely cut off.
went back to Katarina and Ana's ward. The doctor was giving them
both another examination. 'Your daughter, may have fractured her
arm', he said, 'The hospital in Ranna is only small and we don't
have any X-ray facilities here, so I want to transfer her to the
hospital in Embilipitiya, which is about 30 kilometers inland from
He was arranging for an ambulance to take her and all those people
who needed more complicated treatment. However, Katarina would have
to go on her own as there was no room for either Ana or myself in
the ambulance. Katarina did not want to go on her own so she decided
to stay at the Ranna hospital until another ambulance could be arranged
that could take both her and Ana. An ambulance arrived an hour or
so later and took Meriam, Peter and all the other foreigners in
the other wards to Embilipitiya. It was very crowded indeed and
no-one was able to lie down.
We waited till the end of the day, but it was impossible to arrange
another ambulance for Katarina. Ramani's brother's family said that
they would put us up for the night and take us to Embilipitiya the
next day. Ramani's brother arrived in his van and collected us along
with Roie and Hila. When we arrived the family came to greet us.
Everyone had tears of relief in their eyes. Ramani's mother, who
we were all calling grandma by this time, held our hands and wept.
Ana Luisa ran towards us. We were all reunited after being separated
for over 8 hours.
It was only then that Katarina and Ana told me their story.
I had left to find Ana Luisa at the temple, Ana examined Katarina
for injuries. She had a broken tooth and a bleeding lip. The water
had subsided by this time and they started to pull out our rucksacks
to check that the money and passports were still in place. Katarina
helped Ana collect our shoes and put them out to dry. She then went
to Roie and Hila's cabana to pick up their first aid kit. She took
it across to Ana, but Ana decided to give her a shower to clean
the dirt from her body first.
They went to Ramani and Shantha's house as the shower in our cabana
had been destroyed. As Katarina came out of her shower she heard
a roar from the sea.
' Another wave is coming!', she shouted.
Ana picked up my shoulder bag and everyone rushed behind Shantha
and Romani's house hoping that it would give them some protection
and that the water would pass around them, which it did. It was
immediately followed by a third wave, however, which came crashing
down over the top of the house. They could see the wall cracking.
Roie shouted out, 'Run, the house is going to collapse!'.
Everyone tried to escape, but were knocked over by the wave. Ana
was trapped under Roie's body. She tried to free herself and Roie
managed to pull himself off her. Hila was close beside them and
struggling to keep her head above the water. Unfortunately, Katarina
wasn't able to move so quickly and the wall of the house fell on
top of her. She was buried under a pile of large and sharp chunks
of broken concrete and cement and water. She told me she thought
she was going to die and a period of calm came over her.
Luckily a fourth wave followed in quick succession and pushed chunks
of concrete and cement off her. She was freed and forced her way
to the surface. The four of them were quickly separated and the
water rapidly carried them away in different directions at great
Ana was smashed into a tree. She said that it felt as if her face
was going to split open. She was covered by another wave and floundered
under the water. It was difficult to come up again because my bag
had got trapped among some vegetation and she was being strangled
by the strap. She struggled to free herself and managed to come
to the surface. She tried to grab a tree but the force of the water
was too strong. Another wave pushed her under the water and she
beat her feet, trying to regain the surface. She swallowed lots
of water, it tasted of rotten vegetation and soil. Eventually, she
managed to catch hold of some aerial roots of a tree. She held on
tightly. Gradually, the strength of the water began to dissipate.
She saw some Sinhalese people sitting on the branches of a tree.
She called to them and two of them came to rescue her.
Somehow Katarina managed to avoid crashing into a tree. She held
on to some coconuts and fallen branches, which helped here to keep
her head above the water. She saw a man holding onto a tree and
she tried to swim towards him, but the current took her towards
another tree and she held on to it. She climbed onto a branch of
the tree and sat there until someone came to rescue her. He carried
her out of the water and put her on his bicycle.
She sat on the sidebar and he took her to his house for a wash.
He poured water over her body and then gave her a dress to wear.
He told her he was going to take her to hospital, but on the way
there a motorbike stopped for her and she climbed on. The man, who
had been assisting her sat behind to make sure she didn't fall off.
When they reached the hospital, a nurse helped her into the ward
and put her on a drip and I arrived a little while later.
Ana, meanwhile was walking along the water's edge looking for Katarina.
Her swimming costume was torn and a lady gave her a sarong to wear.
Someone told her that Katarina had been taken to hospital. She decided,
however, to go to Ramani's brother's house first where the same
person had told her Ana Luisa was.
A tuk-tuk came along and gave her a lift. When she reached the house,
Ana Luisa ran towards her and gave her a big hug.
telephone lines and mobile transmitters were still not functioning,
but remarkably the television was working and the screen was full
of horrific pictures of death and destruction. It was only then
that we realised the extent of the disaster. Until that time I had
thought the destruction was localised around the area of Tangalle.
I couldn't understand why no outside help had come to us. Now I
understood, the disaster was just too big. The emergency agencies
were just too over-stretched and we were simply too far away from
Colombo for anything to reach us. The news channel flashed out a
warning telling all people living in the coastal regions to vacate
the area as there was a strong possibility of another tsunami. We
were just over two kilometres from the sea then, so I didn't think
there was much danger. Shantha told us that if the water did reach
us, we should all go to the community centre just up the road from
them. It was higher up than where we were and strongly built, but
he didn't think it would be necessary.
brother and his wife gave Ana and Katarina their bed to sleep in
as they were injured the most. Ana Luisa and I lay down in the same
room on cushions on the floor. Hila and Roie were also given bedrooms
to sleep in. The Ramani family slept on chairs in the front room
and in the porch. Slept? Nobody slept very much. The slightest sound
woke us up. We could hear heavy traffic on the road outside all
travelling at speed away from the coast. Dogs barked loudly throughout
the night. Everyone feared another wave.
were all up before sunrise. Ramani and grandmother made us sweet
milky tea and gave us bananas to eat. We got into Ramani's brother's
van - Ana, Katarina, Ana Luisa, Roie, Hila, Mathias, Petra and myself.
It was quite a squeeze. Shantha got in the front seat beside Ramani's
brother. We set off. It was raining heavily and the roads were awash
with water. Three hours later we arrived at Embilipitiya. It was
still raining and the roads were muddy and slippery. The traffic
in the centre was intense. We saw some tourists walking along the
road. We waved to them, wanting to ask them if they had made contact
with the British Embassy. I thought everything would be all right
if we could get into contact with them. The tourists took one look
at us, waved and turned away. We were not a pretty sight as all
of us were heavily bruised and covered in the purple disinfectant
that had been sloshed over us at the hospital.
eventually found the hospital. It was much larger and better organised
than the one at Ranna, but it was full and many people were wearing
masks over their faces. There was a smell of death in the air. We
were quickly seen by the duty nurse and our wounds were cleaned
and disinfected once again with a less painful solution than the
one in Ranna, which we were all very thankful for.
Shantha had got us settled he told us he had to go, but would come
back the next day. We told him that it wouldn't be necessary and
we would be all right from then on. I took his address and telephone
number and asked him if he had a bank account number, as when I
got to England I promised I would send him some money to help him
get his life and business started again. He and Ramani had lost
everything yet they were always there to help us. We didn't have
to ask. They had very little, but they gave us whatever they could.
How can you ever repay someone who has saved your daughter's life
and rescued your family from an impossible situation? Shantha did
not have a bank account, but he gave us Ramani's brother account
number and asked us to use that.
Katarina and Hila were taken into a female ward and Roie was put
into a male ward. It was there that we came across Peter. He was
in a great deal of pain. He had a fractured leg and a his wounds
had become infected so he had to go in for an operation to have
his stitches removed and his wounds cleaned once again. I asked
him if there were any other foreigners in the hospital. He said
that he didn't know. I went to search the other wards. I found many
of them in one of the wards further up. The English mother whose
child was missing rushed up to me and asked me if I had any news
of her daughter. 'No', I said. 'There was no news of her when I
left Ranna the evening before'. She took the news silently and sat
back down on her bed.
The Italian couple, whose child was also missing, just sat there
staring into space. There was just nothing anyone could say. Meriam
was not to be seen and nobody seemed to know where she was. Some
other foreigners, who I didn't recognise from Ranna told me that
they were all to be transferred to Colombo by ambulance and would
be leaving the same morning.
Katarina and Roie were wheeled off to the x-ray room. The results
came out quickly. Nothing was broken and we were discharged from
the hospital. I had already found a hotel for us all and Mathias
and Petra were already there. I arranged for two tuk-tuks to take
us to the hotel. When we arrived we ran into the same group of tourists
we had waved to before. We looked a very ragged and damaged group
of people as we helped each other out of the tuk-tuks, but they
just stared at us as if we were freaks from outer space. No-one
came to our assistance. They walked right past us and looked back
a couple of times but said nothing. The Sinhalese staff and Sinhalese
guests' reaction was completely different. They helped us into the
hotel, sat us down, brought us cups of tea and rooms were soon arranged
for us. I wanted to phone the British Embassy but the phone lines
were still down and the mobiles were not functioning either. A guest
said, 'But you can send a text message', and gave us her mobile
to use. Roie managed to send a message to his sister in Israel and
within minutes he got a reply. We tried to text a friend in Portugal,
but we couldn't get through.
that evening I walked into Embilipitiya to get shirts for Roie and
myself. Hila had already got clothes for Ana, Katarina and herself.
Mathias and Petra, who were not hurt that much, had already clothes
and were looking a lot better. On the way back I saw a man in a
phone booth that was attached to a small café. He was talking
on the phone, so I knew the phones must be working. I waited for
him to finish his call and then phoned the British Embassy. The
phone rang a few times and then a tape-recorded message told me
that this was the British High Commission and that I should give
the extension number I wanted or wait for the operator to answer.
It started to ring again a few seconds later and someone picked
up the phone. I explained that my family and I were in a desperate
situation and needed help. A Sinhalese voice said it would put me
through to the duty officer. The phone started to ring again, but
then the phone went dead. The booth I was in had no light, I had
lost my spectacles, I could hardly see the numbers I was trying
to dial and the noise from the café and the passing traffic
was deafening. I dialled again and got the same answering service
voice telling me to wait for the operator. The same Sinhalese voice
came on the phone, 'I'll put you through to the duty officer', it
'You did that before', I yelled, 'and I got cut off'
'I can't do anything else, sir', the voice came back to me. 'I am
the security officer and we are being inundated with telephone calls.
All I can do is put you through to the duty-officer'. I got cut
off again. I was getting desperate by this time, but managed to
dial the numbers once again. The same voice again, but this time
I got through and a calm English voice came on the phone. I quickly
explained the situation.
'There are eight of us altogether, English, Portuguese, Israeli
and German'. I said. 'My daughter and wife are badly injured and
can hardly walk. We need help desperately'.
'Can you get to the British High Commission in Colombo?' the man
'We have no money', I replied, 'Can you send a vehicle to pick us
'No, we are too overstretched. There are English people stranded
and anxious to get to Colombo all along the eastern and southern
'If I get a taxi to the High Commission, can you pay for it when
'No, that's not possible sir'
'OK, I'll get the money somehow and we'll be there tomorrow', I
The Embassy official wished me a safe journey and I put the phone
down. I wasn't angry with the Embassy. I knew from previous experiences
abroad that the financial assistance the British Embassy can give
stranded tourists abroad is limited and I knew there must be thousands
of Brits like me up and down the country. I was happy we had made
contact. I had no money whatsoever. Roie and Hila had already lent
me a few wet rupee notes that they had salvaged to buy some clothes
and Mathias and Petra had lent me enough money to pay for the hotel,
but they were short of funds too. Like everyone else, most of their
possessions had been swept away by the tsunami waves. I felt sure,
however, that I would be able to borrow money from someone at the
hotel. Embilipitiya is the nearest town to the Uda Walawe National
Park and there were many tourists staying at the hotel, who had
not been on the coast when the tsunami waves struck.
I quickly ran back to the hotel and went straight to the reception
desk. I asked to see the manager. He had been extremely helpful
to us since our arrival. I asked him how much it would cost to hire
a large van to take us to Colombo. He told me that I would need
between 7,000 and 8,000 rupees (between 50 and 60 euros). I could
see a number of foreigners having dinner in the restaurant and went
up to the first couple I saw and sat down. They were two middle-aged
travellers from Waterford in Ireland. I told them what had happened
to us and asked them if they could lend me 8,000 rupies. I said
that if they gave me their address I would send them a cheque from
my English bank account as soon as I got back to Portugal. They
said they would see what they could do. Patrick Glavin went to his
room, came back a few minutes later and gave me 10,000 rupees. 'It's
all the cash money I have, but you are welcome to it', he said.
I knew we were now going to make it. I was elated. I was over the
moon. The end of the nightmare was in sight. I climbed up the stairs
to our rooms on the first floor of the hotel to tell the others
the good news.
The next day we got up early, had a quick breakfast and climbed
into the van. Coming into Colombo was like entering a different
world. It seemed strange that people were just going about their
daily tasks. Didn't they know what had happened? How can they just
be walking around calmly? It didn't seem possible. Roie had an American
passport and he and Hila wanted to go to the American Embassy. By
chance, it was situated right next to the British Embassy. We drove
along Galle road towards them. We could see the sea on our left.
It looked grey and menacing and no-one wanted to look at it so we
turned our eyes away.
We stopped outside the British Embassy. 'Our troubles are over',
I said to Katarina. Stupidly, I was expecting nurses in uniform
to be waiting to put my daughter on a stretcher and take her somewhere
cool and clean. I hadn't realised that it takes time to organise
these things and that the staff at the Embassy just wasn't large
enough to handle the enormity of the disaster at that time. Hundreds
of tourists on package holidays were arriving from the large tourist
centres of Hikkaduwa, Galle and Unawatuna.
There was no stretcher or even a wheel chair waiting for Katarina
and I, unfortunately, got angry and started shouting at the Sri
Lankan security guards. I wanted them to help Katarina out of the
van and provide a wheel chair. There wasn't one available but we
managed to find a swivel office chair on wheels and push her into
the Embassy on that.
An Embassy official came to meet us, apologising and wanting to
help in any way he could. He told us he had just arrived in Colombo
and was part of an emergency group that had been flown in to help
the Embassy staff cope. He was calm and pleasant and I immediately
cooled down. Katarina was quickly seen by a doctor and her wounds
were dressed. The kind and helpful embassy official gave us his
own mobile telephone and Ana phoned her parents in Portugal.
Embassy later got hold of the visa emergency cash service for me
on the phone and I was able to make a transfer of money to a bank
in Colombo very easily. Things were looking good. The Embasssy arranged
emergency travel documents for me, the girls and Ana even though
she is Portuguese national. They told us they could either find
us a mattress on the floor at a victim centre or book us into a
room at a four-star hotel. They informed us the hotel would cost
around 60 euros a night and that we would have to pay the bill.
It was a lot more than we were used to paying in Sri Lanka, but
we thought we deserved some luxury and as I had just transferred
1,000 pounds from my account in England, I knew we could easily
afford it. We got into an Embassy car and it dropped us off at the
hotel. We managed to get a wheel-chair for Katarina from the hotel
staff and we pushed her into the reception area.
We were all very ragged and bruised. I was wearing a sarong and
a shirt that was two sizes too big and a pair of optical sunglasses
that were in the bag that Ana had rescued from the waves. It was
dark by this time so I imagine I looked a complete jerk. Ana's face
was heavily bruised and she was still wearing a huge blue dress
that one of Ramani's relations had lent her. Katarina was wearing
a sarong and an ill-fitting shirt that Hila had bought her from
the market. Ana Luisa was the smartest as her clothes were pressed
and fitted her. Anyway, what I am trying to say is that we weren't
looking like four-star hotel material. A coach load of new guests
arrived at the same time as us. They were all smartly dressed and
were wheeling nice, clean suitcases around with them. We were a
bit of an eye-sore and they either kept their distance or looked
right through us.
The reception counter was very busy and no-one asked how we were
or what had happened. Don't they know about the tsunami waves?,
I asked myself, or is it that they just don't want to get involved
and have their holiday spoilt? I eventually managed to get someone's
attention at the reception desk and told them my name and that I
had come from the British Embassy. One could see they didn't really
believe me. They tried to find my name on the computer, but it wasn't
there. I asked them to phone the Embassy, but it was difficult to
get through. In the meantime Katarina wanted to go to the bathroom.
Ana enquired where it was. It was a long way off and Ana pushed
Katarina towards it. No-one helped, even though everyone could see
the difficulty she was in.
Eventually someone at the Embassy answered the phone. The receptionist
passed the phone to me. I think it must have been the same security
officer that I had talked to on the phone the day before in Embilipitiya.
I told him the situation, but he didn't really understand and simply
told me to come to the Embassy. I told him I had just come from
the Embassy, but I knew this hadn't really registered. I slammed
the phone down in anger. I had had enough of this hotel. We were
going back and we were going to take that mattress on the floor
at the victim centre. At least there, we would be treated like human
beings and be in the company of people who could understand what
we had been through. Ana Luisa and I waited for around ten minutes
for Ana and Katarina to come from the bathroom. No-one came up to
us to enquire how we were or why we were looking the way we were.
Ana arrived with Katarina. Only one kind lady had asked them what
had happened and wished them a speedy recovery!
They were ignored by just about everyone else.
We pushed Katarina back out of the hotel and onto the street. The
hotel staff seemed to be relieved that we were leaving and quickly
found us a taxi. Within minutes we were back at the Embassy. 'What
are you doing here?, they said. They just couldn't believe our story
and wanted to take us back there. I was furious, 'No way', I shouted,'
We were treated like lepers. We want to go to the victim centre'.
A kind volunteer helper understood our situation perfectly and said
she would take us there. A van was arranged and she came with us
to make sure we got there safely.
About ten minutes later we arrived at the Bandaranaike Memorial
International Conference Hall (BMICH). It was a huge place. A large
number of tourists were lounging around on chairs in the entrance.
They all seemed relaxed and were chatting. We got out of the van
and someone brought up a wheel-chair and helped Katarina. It was
wonderful and was just what I was expecting at the British Embassy.
'Why hadn't they brought us here immediately on our arrival?' I
wondered. I suppose it was because they didn't know at that time
what facilities had been set up there. We pushed Katarina into the
conference hall itself. It was full of tourists lying on colourful
mattresses on the floor. Someone showed us to an empty spot and
arranged a space for us.
A Dutch family came up to us and asked what we needed. 'Here's a
pair of trousers', the father of the family said. 'Here are some
toothbrushes, some soap, underclothes, a skirt and pair of socks',
his family joined in. It was what we needed after what we had suffered
at the hotel. Peter Heres was simply marvellous, a true saint. He
told us that his family had taken refuge in a Buddhist temple when
the wave broke and they had spent the night there. The next day
a representative from their travel company discovered their whereabouts
and brought them to Colombo by bus. He asked me if I had any money.
I told him I had just over a thousand rupees left. He explained
that he and his family were leaving by plane that night and I could
have all the rupees he had left. He counted out 13,000, rupees around
100 euros. I asked him for his address and said I would pay him
back. He said it didn't matter and that he was only too glad to
A waiter told us that dinner was being served. I couldn't believe
my ears. Dinner is being served, what's he talking about? Peter
told me there was a restaurant inside the conference centre. We
were all starving so we excused ourselves and went to the restaurant.
Many people were already eating . It was a self-service buffet type
meal. We picked up a tray and joined the queue. As we approached
the food display smiling chefs wearing long white aprons and tall
white chef hats greeted us. It was unreal. Only an hour or so ago,
we were being ostracised by the guests of a four star hotel and
now we were being treated as honoured guests. The contrast was almost
too much too handle. We came to the food counter. There was rice,
a chicken casserole, grilled fish, sauté potatoes, bread
and butter and platters of fresh tropical fruit for dessert. The
food was delicious. It had been cooked, we later discovered, by
the catering wing of a large international hotel. Not all four star
hotels were like the one we had been to, it seemed.
The Hilton hotel, for example had supplied sheets and towels for
the victims' use. We talked to many victims over dinner. There were
many horror stories. Two Germans told us they had been sleeping
in their beds when the wave came. The water quickly filled their
cabana and they were soon floating around only inches from the ceiling.
They managed to find where the door was and dive down through it
to the other side. Many, we discovered were not so lucky. Many had
idea of setting up a victim centre at the BMICH, we later discovered
had come from a man called Asoka Perera, who was the assistant director
of the Sri Lankan Tourist Office. The organization was impeccable
and all the victims were full of praise for him and the Sri Lankan
Tourist Board. They were all so helpful to us.
After breakfast we went along to the medical centre and had our
wounds cleaned once again by the doctors and nurses. They were concerned
that the wounds might get infected. Ana and I both needed spectacles
so we left Katarina and Ana in the hands of a couple from Newcastle.
We then got a tuk-tuk to an optician and had our eyes tested. Many
Sri-Lankan people stopped us when they saw our wounds, told us how
sorry they were and asked us if there was anything they could do
to help us. This continued to happen the rest of the time we stayed
in Sri Lanka. The local people just couldn't do enough for us. From
the optician we went to a branch of the Seylan Bank to see if our
money had arrived. To our joy it had. We were now really back in
business. We had travel documents and money. We later went to the
LTU office to see when we could get a flight back to Frankfurt and
then on to Portugal. We were told all flights were full, but they
could put us on the waiting list for January 3rd. It was December
29th so it was only 5 days away.
picked up Ana's spectacles on the way back to the BMICH. The children
were happily playing cards with the young couple from Newcastle.
Ana Luisa was wearing a pretty skirt and top. She told us that an
American lady had arrived with chocolates and a pile of clothes
for children. Katarina also told me that a Sri-Lankan optician was
looking for me as he was fitting people up with new spectacles free
of charge. We met him later, he was very upset that we had already
ordered glasses and wanted to make us up a pair of reading glasses
instead. We told him that wouldn't be necessary. His name was Sarat
Wimalaguna. He was very much taken with our two girls. He had a
young family himself and after we left the BMICH building he invited
us to his house so we could meet his wife and children. We have
kept in contact with them.
By this time, things were beginning to get even better organised
at the centre. A computer company had set up two computers so people
could contact friends and family through the Internet. Another table
was added to the British Embassy's help desk and there were more
people behind it. One of them recognised me from the Embassy building
and came up to apologise for what had happened to us the day before
and explained how the enormity of the situation had put intense
pressure on all of them. Friends and relatives of Embassy staff
had volunteered to help. Many of them were not aware of the facilities
that were availiable at the victim centre and this was how the confusion
had arisen. I in turn apologised for losing my temper and shouting
at number of them. I still feel very guilty about it. Everyone was
doing their best. The Embassy had done a very good job in a difficult
January 2nd, three days before I left Sri Lanka, Sarat the optician
asked me if I would accompany him to Galle as he was going to take
a car load of drugs and medicine consisting of pain killers, anti-biotics,
antiseptic solution, disposable syringes, bandages and the like.
I said I would be only too glad to. The coastal road had been opened
by this time so we drove down it. It was like going down a long
corridor into the gates of hell. Fallen trees, pieces of masonry,
telephone poles, damaged cars and debris were piled high on either
side of the road. People were attempting to clear things up, bulldozers
were pushing the dedris into piles and loading it onto trucks. One
could see how high the water had been by the 20 metre high mud marks
on the coconut palms.
All of the wooden houses of the poor had been destroyed and most
of the stone built houses too, but some, miraculously, were still
standing. Many of the mosques and temples that were built of stronger
materials and were set a little higher up on more solid foundations
were relatively untouched. Some people just sat there in despair.
It was strange as children were at the same time playing amongst
There was an awful smell of rotten vegetation and death. Many people
were wearing face masks. There were frequent traffic jams and hold
ups. As we got further south the level of destruction got worse.
The railway line was buckled and twisted as if it had been part
of a child's train set. I thought of the hundreds of people who
had died in the train that was travelling between Colombo and Galle
when the waves hit. What a horrible death that must have been. My
mind started to see the train being pushed over by the waves and
the people rolling around insde it. Women, children, babies. It
was just too horrible. It is still too horrible to think about.
We reached Hikaduwa, where Arthur C. Clark once had his diving school.
It was destroyed. Boats from the harbour were strewn all over the
place. Many ended up perched precariously in impossible positions
1 or 2 kilometers from their original moorings. Most were full of
gaping holes and beyond repair.
It took us 8 hours to drive the 100 or so kilometers to Galle. The
devastation seemed to go on for miles and miles. Cars and buses
were strewn everywhere. The smell was awful. Hiroshima must have
looked like this, I thought.
Lanka Travelogue 'Tsunami' © Henry Warren 2005
more Travel Stories see Bugbog's Travelogue