Saturday, April 28, 2007

Weligama Revisited

Me and Jyothipala

Firstly, I stand by what I said in my previous post. Further observation and conversations with others corroborate what I said – Sri Lanka is slipping behind other countries in Asia. The civil war cuts down the numbers of tourists and deprives the nation of what was a profitable stream of income, and any excess government cash goes on the military. And then there was the tsunami. It was clear too that as one got further from Colombo that conditions improve. But….

I took the train like I used to – a second class pit of dirt and heat. At least when the train was moving you had moving air on your face if you had a window seat. Tuk tuks were lined up at Weligama station on arrival (they didn’t exist in the villages before) and one whizzed me to the Bay Beach Hotel. And I set off on my pilgrimage to 26 years ago. I hadn’t walked 5 minutes when Lalith, a young man on a bicycle, asked me where I was from, what was I doing etc. He knew Jyothi Pala, and took me to his house. Long and very pleasant story – we all wanted to believe we knew each other and we agreed to make contact next day, but I wasn’t convinced. Lalith said he also knew Walter – he lived next door to a wine shop. We continued there on his bike, me riding donkey. We stopped outside the house. I saw Walter and I knew it was him, Titus brother. I greeted him with tears streaming down my face. Through the mists of time it dawned on him who I was and a smile broke through. Words can’t explain the happiness and intensity I felt. Somar, Walter’s wife appeared and verily screamed when she saw me. She knew who I was. Out came the photos and there was lift-off. A coffee, happy conversation in broken English, we shared our memories in words and looks and eventually got to the topic of the tsunami. Walter and Somar had avoided it because they were inland at their daughter’s house when it happened. But it took everything they had except their house. The wave lapped the ceiling and deposited a one metre layer of back mud throughout their house.

They invited me back for lunch the next day and I walked out into the street. I got no more than a few metres when a woman walked up to me and said ‘You know Lou!” “Yes.” Mayhem. Photos again. Bubbling conversation. The name Titus was spoken. A man behind me said “Titus my friend”. I turned to him and said “Titus was my friend too” and I realized who it was. It was the real Jyothipala. Again a flood of tears – not from Jyothi – just a look of warmth and empathy that was his trademark. The woman who recognized me was Champa, his daughter, and she spoke fondly of Lou and Nanette. We went back to Jyothi’s house and it was just like 26 years ago. Friends and extended family everywhere. The photos did another round and one by one people started identifying themselves or others in the photos they knew as kids. And then came the first really sad tsunami story. Jyothi’s delightful intellectually disabled son died that day. The rest of the family were out when the big wave came and wiped out half their house.

Others on the roll call – Eden died several years ago of a heart attack. Nandi in a car accident. Lillian lives in Colombo and all the kids are well and employed. A couple of people told me the boys were tall and handsome (“just like Titus!”) and working in banks.

Jyothi and I then went down to the beach to see where the old cadjan huts, Titus’ and Walter’s, used to stand. Not a trace of them. Now just a busy bus stop. But they weren’t taken in the tsunami. There had been recurring storms and high tides over the years that frequently damaged these houses and the local government decreed that they be removed and everyone relocated. Good thing too given what happened further down the track.

I had one more thing to do before my pilgrimage was complete. I wanted to go to Titus’ gravesite and formally bid him farewell. Jyothi, me, and one of his daughters (Genaderie) went there by tuk tuk next day only to find that the site where Titus and others were buried had been reclaimed and built upon. This apparently happens in Sri Lanka if you are buried on public land.

So a little while ago I stood outside the hotel, looking out over the bay, and thanked him for the huge role he had in my life for a short time. He was a teacher to me, before I ever was.

I’m going back to see Jyothi and Walter and families tonight, and will spend time at both their houses watching the cricket. An amazing coincidence has Australia and Sri Lanka playing off in the final of the World Cup. I think I hope Sri Lanka wins!

So it’s done. I’ve shed the tears, shared the joy, and thanked people for their incredible kindness all those years ago. I think they know now how much it meant to me – and Lou, and Nan, and Pete Brennan, Minou, Pete and Sue, Jean-Pierre, Frank. They had a huge impact on many lives many years ago. I can let this go now. It’s been something I’ve been holding on to for 26 years.

(lots more pix)

3 comments:

RitaZ said...

What a vivid picture of an unforgettable experience, dear friend Michael... It was almost as if I had seen it filmed...
Thank you for sharing it, it made me happy to sense that you are ok, enjoying what life can offer us day after day and today...
All my very warmest wishes,

Rita

Omar Cruz said...
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Raul said...
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