Giant Sea Turtles and Remembering the Tsunami

Trip Start Aug 11, 2013
Trip End Sep 17, 2013

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Where I stayed
Fortune Guesthouse

Flag of Sri Lanka  , Southern,
Thursday, October 17, 2013

Hey everyone!

 My project this morning (teaching at Koswatta) has been cancelled - a common occurrence here, turning up and being told you're not needed - something to do with having an exam or something.. so I have the morning off and thought I'd come and blog for a minute!

This week is a funny one, with 2 public holidays falling, so we have had wednesday off and also have tomorrow off. Yesterday was Eid and tomorrow is the monthly Poya (full moon) holiday.

After a morning of lesson planning on Monday, it was off to NIMH for an afternoon supervising and working on the wards.
I had planned to go to Men's forensic ward, but was told the patients weren't partakin in activities today due to 'operations'... This could be anything from a mass ECT session, to having their heads shaved.. so I tootled over the the male acute wards and played some games and did some art therapy there which was nice. They've really taken to calling me Diana now which I refuse to accept as a compliment...!
I have become quite the master of 'Kahrem' the national board game, where you flick circular disks into small holes (like in pool but a very very small version). It's good fun and the patients are pretty impressed when a 'suda' (whitey) can play! 
We had an England vs Sri Lanka tournament and I lead throughout, but lost in the end - dammit!

Tuesday was a really busy day for Ellen and I (the other psych mananger). With new volunteers coming out on Monday - and another huge batch coming out a few weeks after that - there are many time tables and lots or organisation to do!
We spent the morning time tabling psych placement volunteers onto their field trip, conferences and workshops - difficult when you have to ensure that all projects are sufficiently covered. So that took most of the morning.
We spent the rest of the day making a psych manager pack for the 2 people we've chosen to take over from us when we leave - something we didn't have and which I think they will find really helpful. 

The new managers are really sweet.. From Kotte I chose Ciaran - a really lovely and very capable guy who is great on psych projects and makes his sessions really interactive. From maharagama where Ellen is based, Hannah was chosen who is equally suitable! They should do great!

So, that brings me to my day off yesterday, which Ellen, Ebhin and I spent in Hikkaduwa - not far from Unawattuna, Galle and Mirissa - but in the opposite way on the coast (more towards the East that the South).

We travelled there by the Galle express on Tuesday night, which took us just two hours.
When we arrived around 9:30pm, we did a bit of shopping and had a drink at our guesthouse before cramming into the double bed we had to share - poor volunteers ;)

We woke early yesterday and lounged on the beach for an hour before going swimming with GIANT sea turtles. And I mean giant - they were like a metre long and nearly just as wide!
They just swam right up near to the shore where some sort of seaweed grows that they like to eat.. I got right in with them and the waves bashed one into me - I thought it was going to eat me! Their teeth are like tiny little razors - amazing to see though. Almost dinosaur like!

After that we got mango smoothies for breakfast and lay in the sun for a few hours..
After grabbing a vegetable rotti for lunch, we took a tuctuc ride to the 'tsunami museum' about 5km away.
On the way we stopped to see a tiny island just off the shore, which was home to a buddhist temple. When the tsunami hit, despite 10m high waves, the temple was completely undamaged - it looked perfect.
A little further down the road, we stopped alongside the railway. Beside it was an ENORMOUS buddha, maybe 10 stories tall, which was a memorial monument given by Japan after the Tsunami. It was built beside the railway because of the terrible story which goes with it... On the day of the Tsunami, after the first small wave hit - hundreds of people fled to the train and got on it. When the second wave hit, the train, the tracks and the ground beneath it was destroyed. 1720 people were killed on that train - the worst train disaster in history!
On the opposite side of the road was another memorial monument for those who lost their lives no the train. It was a bronze picture, about 3m long, with bodies and trains and cars all over it, caught up in the waves. It was really a site to see!

From here we went on the the museum.
The museum is run from a women's home, which was destroyed in the Tsunami. She rebuilt walls to hold the photos and personal testimonies of survivors. 
It was perhaps the most touching experience of my life - a lot like when I visited Aushwitz in Poland...but different in some ways. In a way possibly more frightening - because the desaster and destruction and loss of life was at the hands of nature.. something I'd consider even more uncontrollable that any human being with bad ideas.

All over the walls of the house, photographs and stories told of the day of the Tsunami.
Early on boxing day morning...a beautiful sunny day like every other, the sea suddenly withdrew 1.5km away from shore - nobody knew that this was a sign of an oncoming tsunami.
The fishermen and local people (and also, as photos showed - many white, western tourists) ran out into the sand - taking photos, collecting fish, playing.
It is certain that all those people in those photos died within minutes - when the first wave hit.
The first wave, although reaching houses on the shore, was only a few metres high - but served as a warning to the peopl - who in some photos can be seen running inland. The fear on their faces was really disturbing - carrying their children and nothing else just running for their lives.
Within moments the second wave hit and most people died.
After Indonesia (the epicentre of the earthquake which caused the tsunami) SL lost the highest number of people - 50,000!! From this tiny island, 50,000 people dead! 
The photos show the bodies... normal people, shop-owners, teachers, children, sorting through dead bodies and building shallow graves. Imagine us - just normal people - having to do that after such a disaster.
One thing they did which really helped them - was giving up trying to find the families of the dead - they buryied or burnt bodies quickly - and this stopped the spread of horrendous diseases. 

We learnt a lot about the tsunami - some facts, like that a third of the dead were children - to small and weak to fight against the waves... but also read many personal stories.
One was of a mother with four children. When the first wave hit her son asked her 'is this the end of the world?' She said she didn't know what to say, when her other son only 12 years old answered 'no, don't be afraid, we must fight' and lead them to a palm tree which they all climbed before the second wave hit.
Her story goes on to say that the tree broke and she never saw any of her children again.
Another story was of a father, still searching for his two daughters who went missing.. He has met many people who say they have seen the girls, can tell him their school, their names, where they lived.. but he can't find them. Whether or not these people have indeed seen his daughters I don't know. But imagine not knowing.

The people of Sri Lanka are so resilient - ruined and tortured by the most horrific civil war for over THIRTY years... then a Tsunami which ruins their lives, their property - everything!
And yet they help each other all the time, to get through things.
Their government didn't do a thing - the aid was foreign.
The only thing the government did was promise to help them, and fail to do so. The government banned building within 100m of the shoreline - for the people's safety - only to take on million pound projects for huge hotels to be built there.
It says a lot about the SL people, that they helped themselves and continue to help themselves.

It was a really eye opening and touching afternoon.




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