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A Day and a Year

By: Laura Dunham, New York, USA
2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant
Our First Prize Winner

It takes a full day to fly from JFK Airport in New York to Columbo Airport in Sri Lanka. And on the way there, I actually lose a day. I left on December 23rd and will arrive on Christmas morning. Sometimes, I wish I could choose the day I will lose. Like the day I took the thirty-five hour bus ride from Tanzania to Uganda. Or the day, at the age of 36, I wet my pants in Australia. (This was not a medical problem. Just a case of too much coffee, a bad sense of direction, and a lack of public restrooms in Alice Springs). But December 26th, 2004? Without argument, the worst day of my life. The day of the tsunami. Would that be a day I would choose to lose?  No.  While I would not want to relive it, I would not want to lose it either.
As I sat on the plane, I thought about the email I had sent home after I was evacuated from Sri Lanka.

December 30, 2004
 Thanks for all your prayers and emails. Someone was watching over me on the morning of December 26th.

 I was in one of the hardest hit areas in southern Sri Lanka and was incredibly lucky to survive. Many, many people died in the village of Unawatuna, including three family members of the guest house where I was staying, and an eight-week-old baby that I tried to revive with CPR. It was one of the most horrific experiences of my life, and I thought, at so many times during the day, that I was going to die.
My guesthouse was one house off the beach. From my balcony was the unimaginable sight of an ocean wave which engulfed everything in its path in a monumental fury that I have never seen before. There are so many unknowingly fateful decisions that I made that day which saved my life: from not taking a walk on the beach five minutes before the wave hit to being on the second floor of the guesthouse instead of the first level. Within fifteen seconds, the water level rose from one foot to fifteen feet, which was the bottom of my balcony. It stopped there, and then slowly receded.

After an hour of being in shock, pulling people out of the water, hearing screams from every direction, and watching the houses on every side crumble into the flood waters, I took what I needed to survive, and hiked through the waist-deep flood water with other people from the guesthouse. We waded through the stinking water filled with the debris of fallen houses, dead animals, twisted wire, and broken glass thinking at any moment that another wave was coming to sweep us away. As we walked, the enormity of the situation surfaced; the entire beach front, full of restaurants, guesthouses and people's homes, was gone.

 The pain and suffering are images that will never leave my mind. The individual stories and collective sorrows are unforgettable. So many people lost everything: numerous family members, their homes, their businesses. Yet, the Sri Lankans, who have nothing and lost all, gave everything to us in the days before we were evacuated. They fed us, gave us mats to sleep on, and got us through the shock of the tragedy that has affected millions of people around the world.

Right now I am in London, evacuated from Sri Lanka after four days of terror. Not sure what to do  - still shell-shocked and traumatized. My mission now is to raise money for the village and for the families whose lives will never be the same. Their pain is almost too much for anyone to bear alone. At this point, I have to do everything I can to help those who are in need.

Physically, I am intact. Mentally and emotionally, I will need time to heal the images and scenes and bodies and tears and grief that have ripped apart my heart. My mom and sister are flying over tomorrow to help me get home, as I do not want to fly home alone. I will see all of you soon and love all of you with all my heart.

After returning home, I raised $30,000 by doing fundraisers and presentations to local schools. By February, I knew I had to go back to Sri Lanka to help. I joined up with a charity, Friends of Unawatuna, which was started by other survivors. They needed someone on the ground in the village, and I needed to put my fears in front of me and then behind me. In March, I flew back to Sri Lanka and spent the next six months living and working in Unawatuna. I had traveled all over the world and seen many amazing sights, but I had never stood still long enough to have a sense of belonging.

Although I returned home in September, part of my heart and soul are still in Sri Lanka. And now, I am returning for the year anniversary of the tsunami: a day that I would not want to relive, but a day that I would not want to lose because of the way it changed my life forever.

We are now flying over the Indian Ocean. Twenty-one hours down. Four more to go.

December 26, 2005
I have returned for this day. Yesterday, when my plane landed, I searched inside for a feeling or emotion, and what surfaced was one word--home. Yet, despite having lived here for six months after the tsunami, working with a charity to help the village rebuild, I still cannot call this my home. My home is 12,000 miles away on another small island in New York. Yet, Sri Lanka is my home, home to my soul that is forever changed in a year of small victories and bitter lessons. At 9:00 A.M., I walk down to the ocean and stand on the beach with my friends.

In front of me lies the Indian ocean. I stand looking out at the radiant, benign, placid waves. Beside me are my two friends, Sam, a Sri Lankan, and Jake, a Brit. We are hushed, meditative. Behind me is the small town of Unawatuna, which a year ago crumpled under the weight of tons of seawater. It sighs, shedding the heaviness of a year’s burden of sorrows. Surrounding the village, and wrapped around trees and fence posts and rebuilt restaurants and houses, is a thin, cotton thread, a Buddhist sign of the end of a year of mourning. It holds together the sadness and the joy and the tears and the friendships.

A year has passed since the tsunami. The ocean, this time, does not change places with the land. Instead it stays lapping gently at our feet, belying any of the tragedy it caused at 9:27 A.M. on December 26th, 2004. In remembrance, however, two minutes of silence has descended on the island of Sri Lanka. Everything has stopped. The beach is lined with people staring out to sea, Sri Lankans and foreigners, with their collective memories of a day of terror and a year of healing.
I look at Sam and Jake. Before the tsunami, they were unknown to me. Maybe, on Christmas Day, 2004, the day before the tsunami, we passed one another on one of the small dirt paths that wound through the village. Maybe we smiled at each other. Maybe, deep inside, we knew that we would be changed and changing. Now, they are my friends, among many others, who have learned the lessons of a sometimes malevolent sea.

Sri Lanka is the land of the Buddha. In Buddhism, the year anniversary of a person’s death is a significant occasion. Remembrance ceremonies called, Pirith, are held to acknowledge that a year of mourning has passed, and that it is now the time for new beginnings. Monks will chant the words of Buddha throughout the night and offer blessings and protection to those who attend. Many individual homes are having Pirith ceremonies in remembrance of those who lost their lives to the tsunami. After the beach, I go the Pirith ceremony at the Village Inn, the guesthouse of Dhammika, and the place where I was awakened, a year ago, to screams of horror, and discovered that Dhammika had lost three family members, in the house below us, in the onslaught of water.

Throughout the rest of the day, I work with Sam and Jake and many others to hand out to the people in Unawatuna 50,000 little clay pots containing coconut oil and wicks. Our intent is to bathe the village in light, from the beach to the restaurants to the houses to the road. I have only been here for 24 hours, yet I feel as if I have never left. Everything feels familiar: the smell of dust and curry, the sweat sliding down my face, the sweet, intangible awareness of something greater than myself.
At 5:00, I return to my room; the lights are flickering softly. After a blissful nap, I walk down to the beach. It is suffused with the soft, glowing light of thousands of small flames. The peaceful scene is a poignant reminder of the power of the present. Sri Lankan teenagers flirt and laugh and dance with the incoming tide; tourists sit tableside to the waves and order butterfish and fresh tuna. I take off my sandals and walk, ankle-deep, to the restaurant that is having a special Pirith ceremony; a celebrated monk will be offering a blessing. I stay for many hours, but my body is still on New York time, and I am unable to stay the night to hear the whole offering of Buddha’s sacred words.

After a day relaxing by the sapphire sea, I head to Sri Pada, or Adam’s Peak, a 6,000-foot mountain that is a ten-hour drive from Unawatuna. It is the most important pilgrimage site in Sri Lanka for Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus. Sam and I arrive at eleven, sleep for two hours, and then start the trek up the mountain at 2:30 A.M. in order to arrive in time to see the sunrise. The path is clearly marked with lights and teahouses and starts off fairly gently. It rapidly becomes steeper, with what seems like never-ending steps to reach the summit. Many pilgrims and foreigners are trekking to the top to witness what legend says is Buddha’s footprint. The stairs are well worn, the record of a thousand years of souls wending their way to the top.

When we are within 300 steps to the peak, I look up and feel as if, somehow, I have been here before. We go to the temple at the summit and, directed by a monk, press our foreheads to the cold, sacred stone, Buddha’s footprint. Since we have arrived well ahead of sunrise, we must sit, in the dark, and wait with hundreds of others for the coming of the sun. Many are shivering in the unnatural Sri Lankan cold. It seems as if, maybe, this time, the sun will not rise. It will not bestow its light and warmth to heal our hearts. However, despite what the heart sometimes believes, the healing will come. The light will come to pierce our spirits - regardless of tragedy or despair or heartbreak. At six, little by little, the horizon begins to glow orange, and slowly, slowly, the world turns to start another day.
Shivering, we watch the long rays of the sun awake the mountaintops surrounding our peak and then head down the mountain where warmth begins to return to our limbs. As I walk down the first few hundred steps, I stroke the black protection bracelet encircling my left wrist, placed there, before my flight home in September, by a Buddhist monk at Kataragama, another holy pilgrimage site in the south of Sri Lanka. The cotton is frayed and stretched, yet strong.

Protection. A black cotton bracelet. A white cotton thread around the village. A sacred bond that holds us to each other, in spite of malicious events and unavoidable disasters.

In America, the land of my birth, we guard ourselves with illusions of protection, planning for any unforeseen event. In Sri Lanka, the land of my rebirth, I protect myself with the knowledge that the present moment, in all its limb-warming bliss, is all we ever really have. With my hands clasped around a cup of sweet, black tea, I look back at the mountain and see how far we have climbed. Sam smiles at me, and, on this day, at this moment, I know I am safe. On this day, the ocean stays where it belongs.


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