Sri Lankan Story

October 20, 2015

Written by Ernie Gray

Ernie Gray and his partner Nell were holidaying on a beach in Sri Lanka in 2004 when the tsunami hit. 240,000 lives were lost worldwide and 40,000 in Sri Lanka. A decade later in 2014 they returned to Sri Lanka. This is an account in a series of emails of what happened...

Ernie Gray and his partner Nell were holidaying on a beach in Sri Lanka in 2004 when the tsunami hit. 240,000 lives were lost worldwide and 40,000 in Sri Lanka. A decade later in 2014 they returned to Sri Lanka. This is an account in a series of emails of what happened…

“James, we think that’s my tree on the right. I was washed from the beach right back there in seconds, about 400 metres and clung in the assumed tsunami position about half way up. Nell was trapped in the room to the left that luckily crumbled. The tree she clung to is out the back. The whole place has been rebuilt. Every single building there, bar one, was bowled over.”

22/12/14

Survived the flight from Oz with a short stopover in S/pore. S/pore Airlines definitely the best, and hang the expense. Read Ian Fleming’s Man with the Golden Gun, his last Bond book before expiring from too many daiquiris and Gauloise fags. Watched Bringing up Baby with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn; what canny comic timing.

Arrived at the Colombo airport at midnight, and walked past a line of electrical goods for sale, which was my first impression of Sri Lanka last time. Met our man who drove us to a comfortable Air B & B in a Toorak type of suburb. Spent daytime going to old haunts travelling in tuk tuks amongst the bustling, horn-beeping traffic. The drivers of the dilapidated buses are completely deranged, just like the Matutu drivers in Nairobi who rev their buses whilst riding their clutches in an attempt to attract customers. Witnessed two prangs; one when an oversized police motorcycle got run into by a hapless driver, and another that nearly took Nell out as a tuk tuk driver, eager to capture our fare, cut off a motorcyclist who, in trying to avoid a collision, crashed onto the pavement, shaving off a protective low cement bollard at ground level, and slid sideways in front of Nell. Breathless excitement for a first day.

The rain poured down in buckets most of the time. In central Colombo we were huddled under a verandah with 400 other damp people before making a dash for it into a Lonely-Planet recommended pastry hall featuring a ceiling full of rapidly whirring fans. Nell had an excellent vegetable pie and I had a fish curry causing steam to issue from the top of my head. All the tourists were holed up there, and all were consulting their Lonely Planets. Visited the National Museum that held an amazing number of artefacts, but 4pm with jet lag kicking in is not the best time when all you want is a cup of tea. By the way, the range of teas here is, to quote tennis commentator Henri Laconte classic tennis quote” ……unbelieeeevable!” Nothing like the piddly array of leaves we seem to get down under. As I write this I have just had a ”Zesta BOP” (Broken Orange Pekoe for the non-tea Nazis), very strong fine leaf tea made in a pot, and immediately felt like a jaded John Flory, the British colonial from Orwell’s Burmese Days, sitting in a planter’s chair telling the pukkawallas to go a little faster. Found a tiny jar of Marmite, called Raimite, in an enormous old-fashioned general store, which I spread on my toast this morning. Better than vegemite. (I remember being stranded in the Hunza valley in 1994 and eating a whole jar of Marmite in one go, so desperate was I to get some salt.)

Nell with the Raimite

Anouk at Air B&B

Working at the Air B & B was a delightful young woman, Anouk, who is hoping to study Interior Design at RMIT and has cousins in Melbourne as well. This signalled the start of a whole series of curious coincidences & smatterings of good fortune. No surprise after all as we are on the Serendip Isle.

A word on Colombo; judging by the number of constructions on the go….charging ahead; a different Colombo plan? Large amount of Chinese loans…interest free. Ring any alarm bells? Growth has created an even wealthier upper class and a get-rich-quick mentality for everyone else. Naturally the poor stay poor; and we don’t talk about the genocide in Jaffna; just “now the war is over…”. Lots of eardrum piercing car horns; the bigger the car, the louder the horn…symptom of a poor economy with rapid development and high overseas investment. Brand new highways/freeways with no traffic (steep tolls so no tuk tuks) reminded us of the empty five lane freeways in Cuba.

23 of Dec 2014

To get to Galle from Colombo, I walked out into a busy road and hailed a cabbie, Raj, who immediately agreed to take us, for 5000 rupees plus toll fee of 400….about 43 Aussie dollars. (Cheaper than the 10,000 rupee b & b quote.) After picking us up with smoke billowing from his overheating engine, he told us his life story as he swerved around the crazy bus drivers, the tuks tuks and the ad-hoc political rallies; (the twice-elected president is going for it.) Raj had lived in Burnley, Melbourne, when he and his wife came for IVF treatment. The attempt failed but when they got back to Sri Lanka she soon gave birth to twins, Mitchell and Michelle. He has had an amazing life, speaks four languages; his business lost 14 million rupees because of the war, and now he drives a taxi.

Arriving in Galle we went straight to the Galle Fort built by the Portuguese in the early 15th C and now a cruisey tourist hub. Well above the water, we feel safe I suppose. It was a bit strange looking at the bay from the base of the Fort lighthouse as that’s where we stood Christmas Day in 2004, 24 hours before the tsunami hit. Today, a group of five young men have started a business. For money, and after lining up the take-off point with rubber thongs, they would dive off the edge of the lighthouse promontory into the water far below; a breathtaking jump. Less spectacular but just as impressive was the old man with the monkey, the python and the two cobras with beautiful markings swaying and toothlessly striking at him as he waved the lid of the cane basket. He then asked money from a Korean tourist who had been busily snapping away. The tourist failed to offer anything, only doing so reluctantly after I shamed him into it.

The Charismatic Ravi of Pedlar 62

The Charismatic Ravi of Pedlar 62

The next lucky coincidence was still to come. One purpose of returning here was to track down Simithra, who sheltered us when we had nothing left after the tsunami struck. I had lost her phone number and was keen to contact her before turning up on her doorstep unannounced. I told Ravi, the owner of Pedlar 62 (where we were staying), about it & on mention of her name he thought for a bit and asked for her surname. I showed him a piece of paper with her address on it and he announced, “I know this woman. I recognise her writing!” It turns out he had worked with her at a hotel in the fort! He has since got her number from a friend and is trying to ring her. Amazing coincidence. We may make a surprise visit on Christmas day.

The two Dutch girls

24th of Dec. 2014

It’s Christmas Eve and more rain. We have just returned from a night out in a loud, overpriced bar, not much on the menu, whose customers were mostly German and English tourists out for a good time. A tacky band played below us in the drizzle as we watched from the balcony…recent hits like “I started a Joke” and “Imagine”, which were really so out of tune it didn’t matter, all being good fun. The lead singer kept saying “sing with me” to the two uninterested security guys standing in the rain; (Must have imagined there was a full house.) We met two Dutch social workers who were volunteering with the elderly, in orphanages, and with the generally disadvantaged. Their accents sounded Irish and  we reckoned they worked for a Christian organisation. The band was so loud (my ears are still ringing), Nell and I couldn’t hear what they were saying, and so started communicating through silly notes written on napkins. The bill threw in a 10% service tax which I refused to pay as they hadn’t mentioned it on the menu, the meal being ordinary and the music too loud… so they missed on both the Service Tax and the tip!

And the band played on. The band playing downstairs to no one.

So goes another Christmas eve.

Bed never looked better.

Ernie and Nell

Christmas Day, 2014

We are in Galle, Sri Lanka where the wind and the rain howleth every day; Harsh and sultry conditions. Studying the weather map it shows a dark grey cloud hanging over the tear-drop island…and it ain’t movin’. Staying in the Galle Fort high above the water we feel safe against the wild weather and, come what may, chuck another tsunami at us, we don’t care. It’s a fortified World Heritage listed town built in 1560 or so, big with tourists although not overwhelmingly so. Staying at the Pedlar 62 where Ravi is our fabulous host. He is like…in Gen Y terms….awesome…. fourth generation Fort family.

We returned to Unawatuna today where it all happened for what turned out to be an emotional experience….a combination of fear, curiosity and an uncomfortable exhilaration.

[Flashback]

[On Boxing Day 2004, Nell and Ernie were staying at the Seaview Hotel at Unawatuna, 3 kilometres from Galle. At 9.30am Ern was sitting on the verandah of the hotels beachfront restaurant writing a postcard, and Nell was back in their room when a gigantic wave hit the shore nearly drowning both of them. Ernie survived by grabbing onto a palm tree and Nell likewise after the room collapsed on top of her. They lost everything, Ern including his pants, and spent the next four days sheltering in the jungle.

40,000 people drowned on the east coast of Sri Lanka.]

 On arrival at the Seaview hotel in Unawatuna, we immediately ran into Prasad, the hotel owner who had checked us in in 2004. He had famously appeared from nowhere floating in a tyre tube when I was desperately looking for Nell. He remembered us and what trees we were clinging onto. He said he was clinging onto the same tree as Nell, which was news to her as she was monkeying her way as fast as she could to the top of the trunk.

The look of the place has changed, as Prasad had to sell half the land to his brother in order to finance a re-build. His brother had now built his own hotel on that land so it’s geography took a bit of figuring out with distances and direction. I couldn’t wait to get to the beach to follow my path back to my tree. I nearly broke into a run.

There is something powerful standing on the spot where your fate was decided.

The beach has been extended because of the wave, by about 20 yards, and the shore restaurant shifted to the left. Once Prasad explained where everything used to be we could start to piece it together. As I stepped out I couldn’t believe how far back inland I was carried but could see why; there was so much water it obliterated my sense of geography. Our room had been rebuilt exactly the same way, and when I asked Prasad how that was the case, he, matter of factly said, “I remembered the designs.” A middle aged German couple was sitting reading on our porch just like we did in 2004. They looked a bit perturbed when we somewhat sheepishly asked if we could take a photo.

In 2004 there was a Dutch family in the room next to ours; a couple, their two young boys and an eighteen month old child. They had been caught up in it all and tragically their youngest child was lost. Prasad said it was he who found the baby in the water and that they had returned the following year to mark the spot where the child was found. He showed us a tiny memorial consisting of a tree surrounded by a low protective fence. “This is the spot where he was found.” I asked Prasad if he had heard anything from them. “They were here yesterday, and are coming to my house for lunch. You are coming too.” It turns out they are staying at Pedlar 64 in Galle…right next door to our Pedlar 62. It was as if it had been pre-arranged.

As we left Unawatuna the rain really started to belt down. It was only ten minutes back to Galle but the adrenalin was running and telling me to push on. When we hit the highway we turned right in the direction of Simithra’s.

Our tuk tuk driver was Larl, a friend of Ravi’s. He was on our case. Forty four, fearless and smelling of cigs and alcohol, he had no hesitation in driving us a further 10 kms to Ahungamah along the beach road beside the crashing waves of the Indian Ocean. Larl automatically absorbed the urgency of the moment. All three of us were now on a mission. The rain and salty sea mist blew in from the open sides of the red tuk tuk as every mode of transport careered down through the torrents towards us; buses, bikes, cars, carts and four wheel drives. Arriving in the district of Ahungama, Larl proceeded to ask locals the whereabouts of a woman called Simithra. “Oh, the tall woman” they would say. Oddly I never remembered her being tall.

Little by little and helped along by my memory jogs, we left the coastal road, up a track here, down a path there, Larl, like a homing pigeon, eventually landed us up her muddy dirt track driveway. It was now really gloomy with the rain pelting down. Straight away I recognised her particular gate, with pointy iron bars, hinged on an angle tied to a wooden post with wire, just as we left it 10 years previously. Not one thing had changed; the garden, the unprepossessing house and, on this grey, dark day….eerie looking. We knocked at the door. Two heads appeared at the window,.….a young girl and a small boy. The girl I remembered as a three year old was now 13, and her brother, about 6. The place seemed quite run down. I felt like Pip coming back to Miss Havisham’s in David Copperfield. The gloom and the drippiness added to the atmosphere. The girl told Larl that Simithra was working at a Hotel at Marrissa, 10 kms further down the road. We got her number, and I rang. “It’s Ernie.”

Tsunami refugees 2004. From left to right. Ernie, Nell, Sumithra's friend, Atifa, Dave,The Major, Sumithra, and in front Sumithra's daughter and playmate.

Tsunami refugees 2004.
From left to right.
Ernie, Nell, Sumithra’s friend, Atifa, Dave,The Major, Sumithra, and in front Sumithra’s daughter and playmate.

“Who?” “Ernie from the 2004 tsunami.” There was a pause. “Eeeeee! ” Whereupon she said, “Come to the hotel for lunch.” So after taking photos with the bemused boy and amused girl, we proceeded on to Marrissa with the obliging and undaunted Larl at the wheel.

The traffic was particularly heavy as the two-timing President was conducting a campaign onslaught in

Galle; [On Christmas Day?] Lots of buses carrying paid supporters were flying down past us. Tuk tuks, cars and buses fought for space. You wouldn’t credit how they drive…welcome kamikaze road. Overtaking is based on speed; if you are travelling faster than the vehicle in front, you overtake immediately. Of course the vehicles you’re approaching expect it, and at the last second move over. The number of times 20 tonnes of bus was heading straight for us or bearing down from behind at high speed horn blasting…. all for the adrenalin hit of the male drivers. Meanwhile our little red tuk tuk ploughed on with the rain belting in through both sides. After a while I had no fear and complete faith that Larl would get us there safely, even as he chatted away on his mobile phone.

We finally made it to the hotel where Simithra worked. We walked in and she appeared immediately, resplendent in an orange sari and looking quite stunning. I did a double take, as her appearance was quite unlike the demure local woman we met 10 years earlier. She was just the same Simithra though, warm, welcoming, and overjoyed to see us. Her position is that of the maitre d’hotel, hence her dress sense. She speaks six languages and exudes a very modest charisma. The same woman takes a forty minute ride to work in a battered bus in order to support her two children. We sat watching the wild sea weather under cover while she got back to her duties. I was starving but an excellent fish curry did the trick. Nell had a toastie. Simithra re-joined us and we talked more. As you can imagine there was plenty to talk about. We exchanged phone numbers and addresses while Larl took snaps of the three of us. The reunion had been moving and delightful.

After this flying visit, we headed back to Galle; mission accomplished.

In the tuk tuk I reflected on what I knew of Simithra’s life. In 2004 her partner and father of the girl was a German army bloke who was back in Germany at the time. According to Ravi he never came back. In 2008 she hooked up with another bloke who fathered the boy, and then he went missing too. So, unlucky in love is Simithra, and, may I add, are the blokes. Life is tough for a single woman in Sri Lanka so she clearly has to work long hours in order to support the children as the run down house indicates. She strikes me as an extremely capable woman. In another environment with more opportunities could succeed at anything she set her mind on.

We headed back to Galle braving the insane drivers through the unabated downpour and the warm wind, feeling very satisfied with reconstructing our assumed tsunami positions, and reconnecting with Simithra.

We arrived back in Galle with the political rally in full swing. Larl, weaving like a cobra in between buses, tuk tuks and thousands of sponsored presidential supporters all carrying umbrellas. [I figured they were paid in umbrellas]. As the weather grew wilder and the traffic heavier, the President’s voice grew more frenzied over the loud speakers. All I can say is, judging from the gigantic posters of his grinning facial features plastered everywhere, he has a fine set of pearly white teeth.

Tomorrow is the tenth anniversary of the tusnami. Events are happening with a similar momentum of one but this time it’s life affirming. There is a commemoration at the train disaster site 10 kms from Galle back towards Columbo at 9.30 am.

Except for a twist of fate we too might have been caught up in this. In 2004 we came down on that train known as The Queen of the Sea as it travels along the coast. That we travelled on Christmas Eve and not Boxing Day almost certainly saved our lives; The wave knocked the train off its rails without loss of life, but, as the passengers were wandering around counting their blessings, a second wave came and 1400 civilians, including 1 Australian, were drowned. It remains the biggest train disaster in history; a little known fact, as the beach tsunami grabbed all the headlines.

Ernie

Boxing Day 26th of Dec, 2014

Prasad…the Seaview owner, man in the tyre tube fame had invited us to lunch at his place; us and the Dutch family. In 2004 they had the room next to us, together with their children, three boys, one 4ish, one 6ish and a toddler called something like Andre.

Nell was unsure what to expect and a bit of a nervous Nelly as we had never met formally. For me it felt okay I suppose, and that we would have the wherewithal to handle it in the moment. The question was….do we avoid talking of their baby drowning? How do we talk about it? I figured there would be plenty of questions to kick us off & if we concentrated very, very very, hard on mindfulness, Buddah would back us.

We spent the morning enjoying a Ravi breakfast of fresh fruit, eggs and toast (with Raimite) and strong coffee, followed by checking out the Fort’s grassy ramparts and the sadly soggy tennis courts. I was sent off to buy a present after Ravi suggested it might be the thing to do…”A gift. Doesn’t have to be big.” I came back having purchased a rather nice dish with a fibre-glass bottom and an inset shell top squiggled with a black and white design.

Prasad rang offering to pick us up at 1.30.

At 2pm a tuk tuk arrived and took us to where Prasad was waiting with the Dutch family. Out of the 4 wheel drive they got. I immediately introduced myself to the husband, “Hi, I’m Ernie.”, I said shaking hands. “I remember you.”

“Luca. Just call me Luc. I don’t remember you at all.”

Meanwhile Nell introduced herself to Leika while the boys 16, 14 &  8, were being their boyish selves and not wanting to show too much excitement. Introductions done for the moment, they piled into the 4wd as we climbed back into the tuk tuk and followed heading off to Prasad’s house.

Out of the Fort and through the pandemonium of Galle city we went, up narrow bustling back streets, with the now-well-to-do Prasad’s big white Toyota four wheel drive showing the way, Nell and I brought up the rear discussing a series of contingency plans. Protestant politeness was getting the better of her while I was all for playing it by ear. Quite a sound combination of persuasions. As we were edging into the rice fields, Prasad suddenly turned into the driveway of a large walled estate with two excited caged dogs just inside the entrance. The extensive garden looked out over grass green rice fields, while up the back Nell noticed some local guys at work doing the laundry. Luc was holding a large present wrapped in pink paper. “Just as well we brought ours,” nudged Nell. We removed our shoes and crossed the portico into the lounge room where we met Mrs. Prasad and her two daughters about 16 & 18, one of whom was recovering from dengue fever. “Mmm…the rice paddies”, I thought. “Dengue delight.”

Once the formal intros were out of the way with adequate amounts of nervous laughter, we were seated on the dark, heavy and ornate lounge-room furniture and given coconut juice in the natural can (the shell). During conversation I promptly spilled some of mine all over Mrs. Prasad’s rug. She was busy in the kitchen and everyone else pretended not to notice. Of course talk centred around events of 2004 but we’ll come to that in a moment.

We were then ushered into the dining room where before us lay Mrs. P’s luncheon of her own and local cuisine dishes, consisting of rice, coconut, spices, fish, covering the entire table around which eight of us sat. I positioned myself next to the youngest boy and opposite Leika. Nell sat next to Leika. Prasad was head of the table with the older boy at the opposite end, and Luc placed at the corner.

The food was truly delicious and had taken a considerable measure of preparation as evidenced by Mrs Prasad’s choice to stand rather than sit so she could observe her good works, and dart off to the kitchen when necessary.

As we ate we talked, (me between mouthfuls of whatever I could pile on my plate without seeming impolite) about the Tsunami and its aftermath. The tone of the conversation, while cheery and revealing, must have brought emotions close to the surface for them but, as we had discovered, (although our experience was nothing compared to theirs), talking about it is often the best way of dealing with it.

Everything we remembered was pretty much as it had happened. Yes, the child was lost in the water, and yes, Luc was on the out-house roof with his boys and us. What we have since pieced together with some still unexplained bits, is this: After making a hasty retreat from the guest house restaurant on the beach, Leika ended up with others at the gate to the Seaview compound but unable to get through because, deckchairs had been thrown against it by the force of the water. She was clutching her small child. Then the wave engulfed them, knocking everything over and sending them sailing through rubble and water. Very soon after, (and bearing in mind a square metre of water weighs a tonne), the overwhelming force of nature consumed the child. In the meantime Luc was able to get himself on top of the roof of the 10ft by 6ft out-house with one of the boys. The other boy was up there as well, having been plucked out of the water earlier by another Dutch tourist as he flew past. The Dutch man, incidentally, was dry as he had the sense, after seeing the approaching tsunami, to jump up onto the out-house roof as fast as he could. When I asked Luc about this Dutch man, strangely he couldn’t remember him. I was keen to ask him, “Wasn’t it the Dutch man who saved your boy?” but figured he didn’t want to mention it at the dinner table. When I looked at Luc’s bloodless face that morning 10 years ago, his only concern was for the baby as he watched his wife in the water. It’s possible the Dutch man never told him what he had done. For me, hearing Leika say she and others were stuck at the gate meant that Tom and me, (Tom was in his 80s and I was holding his hand leading him back to the hotel when the wave struck), had not even seen the gate before the wave picked us up. I always imagined I surely must have seen the gate. No wonder I thought Tom and I went over the wall…there was no wall!

Two other facts we didn’t know …. it was Prasad who found the child in the water, and that there was a second big wave at 12.30pm. We witnessed a second smaller wave about 20 minutes after the first. That was at 10am. However Prasad assured us that some hours later, a second, much bigger wave did most of the damage. Thankfully, by then most people were safely in the Rock House (a two story building back from the beach) whilst we, not wanting to be there in two days time, were in a tuk tuk heading for the hills. The third peculiar fact you’re dying to know, is that Helmut Kohl (former German statesman) was, at that time, in Sri Lanka taking some sort of hot mud treatment for a health condition. We know he was there because on the way back to Colombo days later, our vehicle pulled up alongside a nondescript building to beg for some petrol and the driver came out and said, “Helmut Kohl’s in there!”

Before Mrs. P brought out the bowl of fruit salad with local curd and treacle, we were mingling around the table when Lieka showed me a small blue photo album, opening it to a snap of a dear little boy with a watermelon smile and big eyes. “This is …our baby.” Not wanting to say the wrong thing I checked myself and uttered a lame, “Oh….I see.” We may find compassion in those moments but expose our limitations trying to imagine the reality of it. In 2005 they returned to Unawatuna and planted a tree as a memorial with a little fence around it. (Prasad is around to tend it.) For them Christmas time is more of a remembrance than a celebration. At one stage they met another Dutch family who had lost a child of similar age in the Thai tsunami. Both families became close friends and revisited the site together. The two boys never wanted to return but changed their minds after meeting the other family.

The lunch ended with photos taken in the garden. The boys I really liked; the older one, very smart, carries with him a series of different Rubik shaped cubes in a small cloth bag that he can crack in a nano second. The middle boy said little but wasn’t missing much. When I asked him if he played soccer he said, “No. Intellectual games?” Leika chimed in with a confirmative, “Intellectual games, yes.” The smaller boy, about  9, born post the event, was regarded with special affection. He was a lad you couldn’t help but have a fondness for.

It was a great gesture by Prasad and, hard though the experience must have been for the Dutch family, it gave a little bit of salve for everyone.

Still Boxing day 

At dusk we went to Unawatuna where, people (including us), put a long line of candles in the sand: Nothing upsetting, no ceremony, no ritual, all Westerners; According to Larl the Sri Lankans would do their commemorations in their temples and churches. After that we walked along the beach, and boy, has it changed. The whole shape, the sand on the shore, is now a hill so you can barely see the water from a cocktail-sipping position. Many more restaurants but the result looks just like a beach resort in Thailand or any other getaway location. All the beach-comber charm has gone for good. We then had an ordinary meal that took nearly an hour to arrive, with nondescript loud music turned up even louder, putrid oil lamps burning, patrons smoking, rain threatening, and the tide starting to swish under the table…bit freaky! Altogether, someone’s idea of a holiday nightmare. Running late we sprinted back along the beach to Larl who was waiting patiently with his tuk tuk.

Host Ravi with Larl sprucing up his tuk tuk before we set off.

Host Ravi with Larl sprucing up his tuk tuk before we set off.

Two wrong moves out of eight good ones puts us well ahead. Let’s hope the decision to get Larl to drive us the rest of the way up to Kandy in his tuk tuk is the right one. It’s all been a blast so far. We’ve got Ravi…we’ve got Larl and they are worth their weight in gold.

The Sri Lankans are a delight. They will catch your eye in a split second and smile. They are gentle, good natured and kind; Buddhism might have something to do with it. I know I’m generalising but Europeans on the other hand never acknowledge your existence even when looking at them with a big smile. This is this same the world over and I have never understood it. What is the matter with them?

Ern

By the way…the monsoonal rain finally stopped. 

It is unlikely any other tourists were travelling the country this way. They went along the beach road then up to Tissamaharama and Yala National Park. There were many adventures including Larl not being welcome at one accommodation as he was driving a tuk tuk. (In Sri Lanka there is an excellent system where drivers are provided with a free bed.) The situation was rectified quickly when Nell produced an email from them saying they had driver accommodation. Were they snobs or were they protecting their business? Hard to tell.

Larl proved to be as good as we figured, and the three of us soon became good travelling companions.

(Over the next six days they journeyed to Haputale, and Ellya.)

On day seven we arrived in Nuwara Ellya where we pick our story up…….

New Year’s Eve, 31st of Dec. 2014

Now in Nuwara Ellya known as “Little England”. It was certainly that last night, on New Year’s Eve, when we went to the Hill Club for dinner. Nell will tell you all about it when we get home but briefly:

The Hill Club is a hotel founded by some British coffee planters in 1876 as a “private club for gentlemen with like minded disposition. It reflects a combination of exclusivity in style and class, and an experience of British Colonial traditions.”

When Nell booked us in for the dinner that afternoon she was asked whether sir had a jacket and tie. “Well, no he didn’t” but not to worry as the “hotel can supply sir with the appropriate formaI dress.” This is a club that only a few years ago allowed “men only” in the Casual Bar. And sure enough, on arrival, I was led to the billiards room and shown a cupboard with a vast selection of ties, jackets with padded shoulders, pants and shoes. “Madame was fine dressed the way she was.” We encountered another couple from Germany, he doing the same thing in the billiards room, and both laughing hysterically. It really was like getting changed for a show in Rose Chong’s costume shop. The four of us just laughed at the different incarnations we men were getting into.

We proceeded to the Casual Bar, ordered a gin and tonic, and sipped as we watched this cavalcade of extraordinary characters from British colonial times walk in. I swear the HC Committee must have genetically engineered this lot: Not an ounce of self-consciousness from anyone, fully regaled in NYE dress down to the last brooch and cuff link. I thought I was going to dissolve into uncontrollable giggles.

Then ushered into the dining room-decorations, white table linen and silver, about twenty staff all with a different job to do. Nell and I had our own table with our own waiter right next to Jeremy and Hanna, the German couple. A bottle of wine followed by a remarkable array of Downton Abbey horse’s doovers from the smorgasbord; then a selection of main courses followed by a variety of desserts. Wanting to try everything I was soon up to my bow-tie. Such decadence!

In the meantime the band played on. There was a failed first attempt to get the music going for the local female Indian dancer. After much fussing over the speaker system, she made a second entrance and performed a very colourful number with scarves. The band was playing a medley of old favourites and at about 11pm, with no one up, we took to the floor. Nell, reluctant at first, really got into it with the entire audience watching.

The waltz wasn’t cutting it so we started improvising a type of interpretive dance without Spandex body suits. Then another pair got up, then another and it snowballed from there. We led the way with some wild moves and pretty soon they were all at it, letting their hair down and getting their knickers in twist. The singer with the hair that looked like a combo of hair fusion and a toupee, miraculously changed from song to song without a pause, adding to the quirkiness of it all. 14 years teaching drama at Trinity suddenly kicked in and at one stage we had a circle holding hands with solo impros from former fuddy duddys in the middle. It was a complete mood transformation from the starchiness at the start. I think Nell stole the show with her funky moves.

Midnight was counted down followed by mass smackers and shaking of hands in a genuine spirit of a New Year. We all tumbled out on the lawn to a fireworks display; not Sydney Harbour but perhaps Merri Creek Bridge. Whilst I changed out of my borrowed double-breasted jacket, pants, tie and shoes, Nell discovered the gift-shop had magically re-opened. At my request she bought a pair of Hill Club tea-cups and saucers with emblazoned HC insignia. The cost came to a sum you’d settle for a block of land here but we thought, what the hell. We said a fond farewell to Jeremy and Hanna, who were, as it turned out, an unlikely pair of backpackers. I think his borrowed double-breasted jacket fooled me. Home in a tuk tuk to be up at 4.30am for a climb to World’s end… a sheer drop of 4000 feet at 2000 metres up.

PS We didn’t fall off

Flash forward…after Nuwara Ehya the couple headed for Kandy where, for lodgings, Larl led them to an idyllic spot by the river far from the dust and the noise of the Kandy traffic. It turned out he had talked to another driver back in Ella.

From Kandy they were driven to the airport on the final day, and after having a roadside meal with Larl, and settling payment, including a generous tip, said farewell as he headed back to Galle late that evening; the best paid tuk tuk driver in Sri Lanka.

After 2 weeks Ernie and Nell arrived safely back in Melbourne. Ernie has started a fictional novel around the tsunami experience.

Postscript:

Hi Ernie

“A belated note to thank you for your excellent and entertaining letter, with the highlight of you taking to that Korean tourist – a very Ernie story.  I’d just have looked the other way, embarrassed.

Mind you, I did find myself wondering, what were Ernie and Nell really doing in SL. And then a few days later the surprise news of the presidential election result.

Whenever you are in SL something big and unpredictable happens.

Warm regards to you both,
James”

Hi James,

Thanks for your email. Yes, the Presidential election. The Sri Lankans exercised their democratic right and booted him and his nepotistic family out. While in Galle we witnessed a political rally by the opposition leader right below our balcony. Big black four wheelers with big black suited minders blocked the street off to the locals while the guy next door kept letting off the crackers which were as loud as the midday Howitzer cannon fired off Janiculum Hill in Rome. It was unclear whether he was for or against the speaker.

We miss Galle; it is such a microcosm of Sri Lanka. You’ve got the Fort village, relaxed, not too touristy, interesting parades of new arrivals and locals, views of the wild open ocean from the grassy parapets, whilst just outside there is the famous cricket ground, and minutes further the delightful pandemonium of Galle itself. I can’t tell you how good natured and curious the Sri Lankans are. (It was only when we went to an elephant park that they were jaded and unsmiling; Tourism saturation does that.) Contrasted with our cup of tea visit to the very exclusive hotel Amangalle in Galle Fort, where a European couple gave me an icey stare that sent a chill through me. My comeback superior smirk as I passed didn’t help.

Speak soon,

Ernie

Feb. 2014

———-

Ernie Gray has taught Drama at Trinity Foundation Studies since 2000. A graduate of NIDA, he has worked as a professional actor, writer and director in theatre, film and television for over three decades. His career included appearances in nearly eighty theatre productions and numerous television shows, including “Homicide”, “Matlock Police”, as Ralph Snapper in Series 4 of “Round the Twist” and as a QC in “Chopper”. In theatre he had roles with Melbourne’s major theatre companies including Anthill and the MTC. He held the position of President of the Greenroom Awards from 2000 to 2004. Ernie has written twelve plays for schools, including “Fix it Alice” a play about Australia’s first female motor mechanic, published in Heinemann’s “Best Of The One Act Plays”. Of late he has concentrated on writing in his spare time and is hoping to eventually complete a fictional novel on his Sri Lankan experience in the 2004 tsunami.

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One Response to “Sri Lankan Story”

  1. […] Gray in Sri Lankan Story recounts the emotional journey back to Sri Lanka a decade after surviving the 2004 tsunami that […]

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