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Return to Sri Lanka

Cedric Angeles Dameeka, an 11-year-old monk at Pidurangla Temple, at Sigiriya.

Photo: Cedric Angeles

The next day we took the coastal road south toward Galle Fort, and the great surprise of that leg of my journey, the unblemished coast southeast of suburban Mount Lavinia. The boom of cheap hotel buildings, tourist lodgings, even the gaudy luxury complexes I'd been told to expect were all there, but were offset by mile upon mile of unspoiled sugar-white beaches fringed with cinderblock houses, their walls sprouting wiry growths of bougainvillea. The white stupas that marked the coast road at regular intervals resembled blanched onions. Near Kosgoda, I impulsively asked the driver to follow a sign indicating a turnoff to the Victor Hasselblad Turtle Hatchery, a place that has inhabited my thoughts and dreams ever since.

This is surely the moment to note that, like almost everything else along that part of Sri Lanka's coastline, the Hasselblad hatchery was eradicated on the morning of December 26, 2004. Almost two years later, it has still not been rebuilt. That I was not in Sri Lanka, not on the beach, not in a cottage hotel by the shore when the waves came in is of significance mainly to me and to those I love; it would be grotesque to assert my luck in the face of an event in which more than 39,000 Sri Lankans alone are estimated to have died.

It is human enough, however, to replay in one's head the script of those blank days on which the calamity of the tsunami was not yet written. And it is forgivable, I hope, to wonder why it was that I decided to leave the country when I did and not stay on.

Before setting out on my second journey to Sri Lanka, I had been asked to give thought to the idea of a trip that had changed my life. I was not sure then that I had ever taken one that, in some way, had not. By this I mean nothing as banal as the overrated travel epiphany; I've never had one. Rather, at a certain point I came to see my travels as a series of errands, a kind of ongoing spiritual task whose purpose, as far as I can gather, is to mark out the gorgeousness of life and the world, and also the incontrovertible reality that it can all be closed out randomly and in barely an instant.

As it happened, an acquaintance of mine—someone I'd met a month before at a New York party—was on the beach near Hikkaduwa on the morning that the waves came, asleep with his partner in a beachside cottage.

Picked up by the Western press, his story was played again and again on television until it took on the aspect of a fable. The two men were asleep in their bed when the wave surged and flooding woke them. Swept out through what had been the roof of the cottage, they clung to a miraculously appearing telephone pole and promised to each other to hang on. The force of the water wrenched them apart, however. Only one survived the tsunami. The ocean swallowed the other, whose body was never found.

As seemingly everywhere else on that trip, I shared the hatchery with only a couple of visitors that benign morning. For $5, a local in frayed khaki trousers gave me a private tour through the small network of incubator tanks, plain concrete enclosures shaded with palm-thatched awnings. Each was dated according to when the eggs had been laid: leatherbacks, olive ridleys, green turtles, hawksbills, all collected from clutches on the nearby beach by the same fishermen who might once have pillaged the nests and sold the eggs or tangled the turtles themselves in drift nets and left them to drown.

Bare bulbs suspended at the corners of the tanks hung like tiny lunar beacons to guide hatchlings toward the safety of a small pool of water. As they matured, they would be moved to larger tanks and eventually returned to the sea. The profound effect on me of the young turtles was unnerving and not easy to comprehend. Was it their helplessness I found moving, something personally irresistible in the symbolism of a hard carapace armoring a vulnerable core?Was it the fabled longevity of these amphibious representatives of ancient life on the planet, the sense of them as links to the aeons before life emerged from the muck and the waters and onto land?I'm not sure.

I stayed several hours that day and visited again at the end of the week. In the meantime, I had been to Galle Fort. Built by the Portuguese, expanded by the Dutch and later the British, it was, when I visited it, a place of giddy excitement, as a variety of international hoteliers put final touches on restorations of structures like the fine 17th-century building that was soon to become the sleek new Amangalla resort. Brisk onshore winds cut the heat and made wandering the narrow lanes of the 90-acre walled city a pleasure. I stopped in to see Fort Printers, a five-room boutique hotel in a renovated 18th-century mansion. And I waved off the importuning of a scam artist with a tale of improbable hardship, the kind of hoked-up sob story that soon enough would come to seem like a thin joke. Then, just a short time before the tsunami, I boarded a plane and left the island for home.

It was to breezy fine weather that I returned, slightly more than one year later, partly to retrace the steps of my earlier journey and also to discover whether, as one journalist put it, the tsunami had brought together the island's population or driven it apart. Hotel operators, of course, were quick to reassert the belief that Sri Lanka was back in business. Nature colluded in this hope by blanketing the more grotesque public scars of the disaster with a deceiving mantle of green. As before, I found myself seduced by the island, and this time I was not alone. The Kandalama was now packed with honeymooners and British tour groups, those indomitable members of international travel's flying wedge. Although the coastal resorts were back in business, the upscale clientele they were built for seemed to be biding its time.

This was partly a result of the political situation, which was and remains, at this writing, more tenuous than ever. A great effort was being made, it seemed to me, to suppress the horrors of the recent past and get on with life, but the ghosts of the tsunami still made themselves felt, drifting into daily life and conversation as palpably as if ambling bodily into a room.

This became clear to me one afternoon when Walter Malgudi, the man I'd hired to drive me, earnestly shared with me his explanation for why it was that some had died in the tsunami and others had not.

It was karma, said Mr. Malgudi, a Buddhist, like most Sri Lankans. He himself had narrowly avoided becoming a victim, when the tourists who had hired him for a drive along the coast changed their plans on a whim. Mr. Malgudi drove down to the ocean anyway that afternoon, after the waters had begun to recede. He had seen the stranded and already bloating bodies of islanders who, as he claimed, ran out onto the sand flats when the ocean first drew back and staked the land that was newly exposed. "For 20 minutes, they were rich," he said flatly. "Then they were dead."

It was honey-gathering season when I returned to Sri Lanka. Bottles drained of arak, or country liquor, were now filled with mahogany-colored liquid robbed from wild hives and set out for sale on roadside tables. The honey gatherers, an aboriginal people known as the Veddahs, live deep in the northeastern forests. Or they did, Mr. Malgudi explained, until the rebels began mining these forests and appropriating large tracts to construct training camps.

The honey was strong and pungent; it tasted of wildness. As we bumped along back roads, I indulged myself in the hope that the coast would be rebuilt, the great sea turtles would return, and the cease-fire would hold, and that Sri Lanka would again become the peaceful paradise that was so obviously the Creator's intention. A fierce sun shower erupted then, pelting the car with rat-a-tat percussion and drenching the fields. As quickly as it started, it was gone. A rainbow formed across the hills nearby, as some government soldiers with bored expressions and machine guns waved us down at a checkpoint. Glancing indifferently at Mr. Malgudi's license, they sent us on our way.

To reach the Kandalama Hotel, one leaves the paved main road and cuts down a dirt track to bump along for several miles through agrarian scenes that cannot have changed much for centuries. Bucketing through cane fields, we made our way past small clusters of dwellings where blue smoke plumed from cooking fires, a farmer in a plaid sarong clucked at his bullock, and a clutch of cattle egrets, white as starched cloths, flapped up suddenly.

It was the time of day when banks of cool air drift down from the hills to ease the heat's tight grip. The setting sun struck and made mirror shards of the still paddy water, reflecting fragments of sky and cloud in a way that caused the world suddenly to seem more miraculous than ever; also more precious and fleeting.


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