Even during the worst of the tsunami coverage on the island of Sri Lanka three years ago, I knew I wanted to return. The sheer beauty of the nation, once known as Ceylon, and the resilience of the Sri Lankans themselves were enormously appealing even during those difficult days.
I remember January 2005 in a helicopter chartered by CBS News looking down over endless fields of green tea leaves covering Sri Lanka's interior. We were flying from smashed villages on the East Coast across the island to even more devastation and greater life loss on the West Coast.
The tea bushes in the heartland around towns like Kandy and Nuwara Eliya were a heartening sign of normalcy as women in the fields continued to pick tea leaves and harvest this great crop.
But our assignment then was to cover the destruction caused by the tsunami, which arrived on Sri Lanka in three great waves on Dec. 26, 2004.
One of the hardest-hit beach towns on the East Coast was Unawatuna, just south of the city of Galle. There on a curving stretch of beach was a bar and restaurant named The Happy Banana. In the days after the Tsunami, lacking its roof and most walls, the Happy Banana looked particularly forlorn.
Two weeks ago I returned to Unawatuna, and I can report this stretch of beach is once again a piece of paradise. The Happy Banana is back in business. But for its hard-working owner, Janath Abeygunawardana, there remains a big problem here: Not enough visitors.
"First, they worried about another tsunami," Mr. Abeygunawardana told me. "Now they're worried about terrorism." He was referring to the Tamil Tigers, a separatist movement based in northern Sri Lanka.
After years of an uneasy truce, the government of Sri Lanka let a cease-fire with the Tigers lapse in January - and there have been bombing incidents killing civilians.
Several governments, including the U.S., Canada and Australia, have issued warnings, cautioning citizens about the possibility of terror incidents in Sri Lanka. But for myself, over 11 days visiting half-a-dozen locations around the island, I never felt danger. I did notice military checkpoints at most major crossroads, but the soldiers and police there seemed to be relaxed.
Sri Lanka's home-grown problems rarely intrude on the lives of visitors. Outside The Happy Banana, lounging on beach chairs, several bronzing Europeans seemed unconcerned.
The Happy Banana was rebuilt without government help. Janath Abeygunawardana says he reached deep into family savings and spent five million rupees (approximately $50,000) on repairs, a princely sum here. Like most other business owners on Unawatuna, he says no tsunami relief money flowed to him.
Where the relief money has gone is a subject of some dispute in Sri Lanka. With a death toll exceeding 31,000, the country was pledged $3.2 billion from foreign donors. The government says it received $1.2 billion, but can account for only half of that amount, according to Transparency International, a watchdog group.
"It has been virtually impossible to find out what happened to the cash," says Rukshana Nanayakkara, of Transparency International, as reported by Agence France Presse. A Sri Lankan driver told me of relief officials he had chauffeured who lived a good life in the best hotels while they were supposed to be assessing local needs.
The government says the recovery effort is on track and that 100,000 new homes have been built for flood victims. On the East Coast I saw several new communities. But clearly corruption and continuing hostilities between the government and Tamil Tigers have taken a toll on relief efforts in Sri Lanka.
In Unawatuna these days there's plenty of space at the bar or at the inn - and plenty of time to muse about what parts of the recovery could have been done better.
After the tsunami, the government told beach businesses they'd have to rebuild inland for safety - away from the water and back from the prime beach property they occupied. Officials backed down from that effort after it was pointed out that visitors looking for a great beach probably would not patronize businesses that moved inland.
And the owner of The Happy Banana says he's noticed a new competitor down the way. A Danish woman, he says, was one of the most vigorous fund raisers after the tsunami, getting documents and authorizations which she took back to Europe to raise money. Apparently she was very successful; she returned to Sri Lanka with the money and opened her own bar and restaurant in Unawatuna. [I cannot verify the story, but I can testify to Mr. Abeygunawardana's indignation.]
Still, for someone traveling around the island today, the visible scars from the great tsunami are few. Sri Lanka with its lush scenery, rich history, wonderful foods and welcoming people is once again a great draw. It was described by one of its more famous residents, scientist and writer Arthur C. Clarke, as the best place in the world from which to view the universe.
In February 2008, I think it still is.