Technically, my Christmas vacation last year was supposed to be inviolate except for "news emergencies." The call that a major earthquake had triggered a tsunami of epic proportion was accompanied by a laconic comment from the London bureau chief to the effect that while the extent of the devastation wasn't yet clear, available evidence suggested this one met the criteria for cutting the holiday short.
Within hours it was clear that it most certainly did, and three of us based in Rome, along with a freelance soundman, were on a plane heading for Sri Lanka. A few years previously my family and I had spent an idyllic New Year's with friends at a resort on the west coast of the island. Initial reports said it had been hit hard.
Most of the disaster areas, war zones and general hell holes that I have travelled to and spent time in the course of more than 30 years as a foreign correspondent have been in effect alien territory, other worlds that one drops in on, but to which one has neither emotional nor historical connections. The fact that I had been there on non-working time made the Sri Lanka coast more than just another story. I knew what had been there before Nature went mad. In a way that helped put the devastation in sharper perspective.
Certainly perspective was hard to come by. Nothing in my experience of destruction -- and that includes earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, fires and a surfeit of the man-made devastation of war -- compares with what the tsunami wreaked. Along much of the southwest coast road the rail line runs parallel to the road. At one point it made an impossible S-bend. The track, a local railway employee explained, was supposed to be straight, but the water bent it. A force so strong that steel could not resist it must surely, one would think, be beyond anything with which mere mortals could cope. That they did, and with stoic persistence and equanimity, became the cornerstone of much of the reporting.
For me, however, it struck a personal chord in the most humbling, and heartening ways. Several days into the story we ran in to an elderly woman desperate to show us what the water had done to her home. It was by then a common occurrence, but something about her intensity made us decide to allow her to lead us along a muddy track, past scraps of foundations of what had been houses, with flotsam and jetsam from the sea and what had once been treasured possessions piled against palm trees, to the beach. At the ruins of her family business, we met her husband, daughters, sons and their families.
They had started with a makeshift stall, and had slowly built up a small bar and restaurant, batik factory and souvenir shop, all of which were washed away by the tsunami. But, they said with the shy smiles that make the Sri Lankan people so heart-warming, at least they were all alive, a perspective perhaps only those who had seen Death roar upon them and live to recount it can appreciate. Had I, they asked, ever been to Sri Lanka before? When I mentioned that my family and I had stayed at the Triton Hotel, they laughed with delight. The Triton, which thanks to its unique construction had survived the tsunami more or less intact, was hidden in the palm trees less than a half-mile from where we were standing.
And then the proverbial "penny dropped." We had walked down that same palm-lined, surf-caressed beach and had lunch at what had been these people's bar and souvenir establishment. When I related the fact, it was as if an honoured guest had come back. Had we enjoyed ourselves? Do we still talk about it? And then, as we were about to leave, came the moment that stands out most vividly of that day. A young man approached and held out his hand. Nestled in his palm were half a dozen tiny blue gemstones. He had found them in what was left of their little souvenir stand, and, because I had been there before, he wanted me to have them. When I suggested that he should perhaps keep them to sell when the tourists came back, he agreed, but with some reluctance.
A few days later we were on the east side of the island and saw a man holding a small girl in his arms. He had lost his home, his wife and all his possessions. The child was is daughter, and all they had left in the world was the clothes they were wearing, and each other. Such was the extent of the trauma, and sadness, that he could not tell us the story, it was related by a neighbor who had taken the two into his own three-quarters wrecked home.
The outpouring of sympathy and money that tsunami prompted were unprecedented in scale and speed, but pale to insignificance next to the simple human dignity and generosity of the victims.
Above all else, the tsunami reinforced a vital facet of human nature that sustains the sanity of those of us whose chosen task it is to record catastrophes, that invariably, those who have almost nothing give the most.