On December 26, 2004 an earthquake in the Indian Ocean caused one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. Janice Gray was in Sri Lanka at the time and was suppose to be on the coast when the waves rushed in. She was lucky but many others weren’t for 35,000 Sri Lankans lost their lives.
It was my second time visiting Sri Lanka and I had once again engaged an excellent driver who spoke very good English. The day before the tsunami we left Colombo for the mountains and made plans to go down to the southern tip of the country the following morning to see the elephants. We left later than planned because of an impromptu hike to a tea plantation.
We finally were on our way and when we were on flat land the driver suddenly stopped the car and got out. When he returned he told us we needed to go back up the mountain. I told him I didn’t want to but he insisted and wouldn’t say why and I got quite cross. Finally he said, “I don’t know but people are talking about something that came in from the sea”.
When the car was turned around I noticed that many others were headed in the same direction, with a few staying to sell food to those of us who were fleeing. The driver kept trying to reach his wife on his cell phone and when he finally got through and spoke with her he stopped the car and wept, which was surprising for he is a very contained man. His wife told him that two of his co-workers had slept on the beach instead of in the bunkhouse provided by the hotel and both had been swept out to sea.
Arrangements were made for us to stay at a lodge in Ratnapura and when we got there the owner moved the television from the lounge to his bedroom, saying, “It is not good for you to watch all that stuff.” Mind you, he kept going back to his room to find out what was going on and to have another slug of scotch, I think.
An Irish woman who was staying at the lodge kept us informed through text messages with her sister who was watching CNN back in Ireland. So we knew the situation was serious and that there was a lot of destruction.
The following day our driver took us south of Colombo to see the man who had arranged our trip. Everyone in the area, we were told, had run down to the beach to see the coral reef that was visible for the first time ever. He went after them, telling everyone to leave and they finally did before the water came rushing back in smashing everything in its path.
It was a couple of days before I could use the Internet and I spent my time helping to clean up the beach. When I was finally able to send an email I made it short for the service was undependable. So the only news my very worried son got was: “I’m fine. Tell everyone.”
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Photo credits Janice Gray and istock
© Riding the buses 2012