The Wonderful Country of Sri Lanka

He looked to be in his 60s, with dark-red betel-stained teeth, wearing a faded blue and white checked sarong. He walked over to me slowly as I was standing on the sand, watching my children play in the waves. Through broken English and gestures, he told me something of his story. He used to have a home and a small jewelry shop in this touristy beach town of Hikkaduwa. Then one morning, it was literally all washed away and his life nearly with it.

I asked him, using my hands as much as words to express my question, of that infamous December 26, 2004 tsunami, “How big was the wave?” His answer was indeterminate — probably something around 20 or 30 feet high (the wave height varied greatly even among nearby locations) — but he said that what was most frightening was what happened before the wave: as if by the hand of an angry god, the ocean disappeared. Prior to coughing up a destructive wall of water on the shores of Sri Lanka (and many other vulnerable, low-lying, and usually poor coastal areas around the Indian Ocean), the tsunami swallowed the sea. According to the old man, the beach suddenly stretched two kilometers further out, with sand exposed to the sky in a way I have only imagined on Passover, hearing the story of the Jews escaping Pharaoh through a parted Red Sea.

(A young man we spoke to later in our trip said that the incoming tsunami wave, if its size were not menacing enough, was also black, fiendishly presaging damage of mythical proportions.)

Perhaps it is Buddhism, I think, as he shows me the scars on his shin where four surgeries have been required to repair the bones he broke as he stumbled through a mile of jungle to escape the oncoming wave, which lets him face with relative equanimity the fact that he lost every material possession he had accumulated over what must have been the majority of his life. Maybe it is because what he had accumulated was, by Western standards at least, not very much. Maybe I will never really understand. And maybe I should be thankful of that.

Later, as we drive through this area, my four-year old son points to the shells of former homes, shacks, and temples, asking “Did the salami do that?” The unintended comic relief is welcome as we recognize the real human cost of the disaster of Boxing Day eight years ago.

Please read the entirety of my article for the American Spectator here:

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