Tsunami day – a memory from Sri Lanka

Imagine, its 4:30am, 26th December and you wake up on the floor in a fisherman’s house on the Sri Lankan coast. It is still pitch black, with only candles lighting up the room. The smell of the smoke of burning wood comes from the kitchen. Don’t remember booking this holiday package? Oh yeah, it was a failed attempt to sleep on the beach in a shelter for fishing nets. You and your friend got discovered by Chamil and then invited to stay with his family for the night.

“Today is tsunami day”, he says. He points to the mark the water left on the wall of his house standing directly on the beach. Their faces tell the story. The air is dense from the weight of these memories. They are lucky to have survived; you are lucky to not have been there 9 years ago. The day of Mw 9.15 Sumatra earthquake and tsunami that killed 230,000 people across the Indian Ocean.


The sun is rising, and a walk on the beach with Chamil and his sons seems like a good idea. Fishermen are preparing the boats to go out to sea. Chamil enjoys telling his friends the story of how he found two blondes instead of crabs during his standard evening bay watch … the narration is in Singhalese but one can guess the lines from the gestures – quite entertaining! (Have you just heard him mentioning David Hasselhoff? 😉

The fishermen are very friendly and show the fishes and other creatures they caught that night. “Today is tsunami day” you hear many more times that morning. Most of them experienced it and today the memory comes back very vividly. They still live on the same beach and everyday push the boats into the sea. Watching them fighting with the waves makes you wonder, like a child, at the force of the ocean.

Back in Chamil’s house he takes out his family pictures. The wedding one strikes as a big surprise. He is now a shadow of himself; it is not easy to believe he is the same man. Life must have been hard on him. The kids show their school grades – he is so proud. He is a fisherman, his fishing boat right in front of the house. Unfortunately the tsunami took away the nets and even today he cannot afford to buy new ones. He now has to work for someone else, when they need him. Of course you want to know the price. He writes it in the sand, in the international language of numbers. Now you know not only how much is a roti, a cup of tea and a bus ride.

Despite knowing just few words of English Chamil understands you very well. He knows exactly what every girl’s second biggest dream is (after the one about climbing a coconut tree yourself) and showing off his coconut tree climbing skills, drops a few for breakfast. Great! Boys play on the beach, cricket champions in the making. Neighbors come to chat and take pictures.

It is hard to really focus on what they are saying, your mind just keeps on going back to this one thought. You might be all confused about what is the right thing to do, but you still know exactly what you feel. Should you get involved? You are already involved! This family took care of you and shared their story with you. They shared all the little food they had. (Food really is something that speaks to you strongly 😉 You came too close to just pass by.

It’s two hours later, after a cheerful Tata bus ride into another coastal town. There are fishing nets in front of many houses, that is what they specialize in. Choosing nets as big as hundreds of square meters is not a trivial thing. It takes a while to check the threads. Luckily a home cooked lunch is included in the deal.


Chamil takes you for a walk on the beach. Some boats just came back from the sea, he shows you the tiny fishes that he will be out catching. A feeling of bliss is in the air.

Suddenly your phone rings, for the first time since a few days. Oh, it is your boss asking, “Where are you? Meet up in Hilton Hotel Colombo lobby in two hours – boarding Roger Revelle tonight!” We were to embark on the journey to study the Mentawai patch of the Sunda trench, so that we can better understand the hazards emanating from this margin. (Well, ok as it turned out not this time …  but hopefully the next!)

Then, it was the last jolly Tata bus ride to Colombo and a farewell to Sri Lanka, the land of wonderfully friendly people. It was the best Christmas ever and a powerful reminder of the relevance of the research we are doing.

P.S. It would have never happened, if not for Amelie, who really wanted to sleep on that beach. Merci! 🙂