Mick Gillies - Culture & Community, Tsunami Recovery in Sri Lanka
Mick took a career break with Projects Abroad and spent three months in Sri Lanka working on tsunami reconstruction projects.
As I lay beneath my hot pink mosquito net on a bed built for Bilbo Baggins, I wondered what this paradise was like before the bloody Sunday morning of December 26, 2004.
The journey down from Colombo had brought me almost to my knees. You can't even begin to imagine the devastation until you see it first hand. Still, it was good to finally be in the thick of things. Getting stuck in. I was to be helping in the construction of an antiques shop in the village of Peraliya, one of the areas hardest hit by the tsunami. Around 2,000 people died in the immediate vicinity of where myself and Nick, another volunteer, were to spend the next few months assisting in the rebuild of this devastated community.
Having had previous carpentry experience I was hoping to be able to impart some of my knowledge and also learn how things were done in this part of the world. Alas it was literally a world away from what I was used to and this made itself apparent when we began putting the roof on. We were taken by Aruna, the owner of the shop, out into the back of the village where we scoured back yards and rubbish dumps looking for suitable timber. All remnants of the houses that once lined Galle Rd, now just a stark reminder of what once was. Most of it was more bent and twisted than a bowl of two minute noodles - not what could even be vaguely deemed suitable building material. But this was all we had so we had to make do. And as if to top it off we had no electricity so everything was done by hand. So I could basically forget anything I thought I knew about carpentry.
Its amazing how lazy you become when one relies on power tools to do all the hard graft. So just as an inebriated and visually impaired centipede struggles to put its trousers on in the dark, we too struggled to arrange nothing more than a pile of bricks and a conglomeration of bent, bowed and twisted lengths of timber together in a remotely traditional, but not all together structurally sound manner to form the basis of what would become, hopefully, a successful and enterprising business premises that wouldn't fall over in a moderate breeze.
In the course of a day there were moments when I would turn around to survey the panorama before me. I would find myself staring blankly out into the distance sometimes towards the sea, other times inland. All around were the reminders of the reason for coming out here. At times there were a tear or two as I tried to imagine the horror of that bloody Sunday. The bare scorched earth, the ruins, the rubble and temporary shelters. Shattered remnants of a Sunday breakfast washed 3km inland. Almost all the people I met had lost several family members
But still many were determined to rebuild. Eventually we also got our act together and the roof on our beloved antique shop. After excessive amounts of hand waving, sign language and other assorted gesticulations we had something that vaguely resembled a solid structure.
Around about this time it began to rain. In fact it persisted persistently for about six weeks. Damnations. Things started to grind to a halt. We couldn't paint, plaster or waterproof anything due to the voluminous amounts of precipitation persisting upon us in a decidedly downward fashion. So we consoled ourselves with beer and pizza and the occasional white water rafting weekend. All this rain was becoming an infernal nuisance. Single celled life forms had emerged from the primeval swamp and evolved into intelligent life forms in the time that it had taken us to get thus far on our project. We were reliably informed by our esteemed 'employer' Aruna that it actually rains more during the inter-monsoon period than it does in the monsoon proper. Oh joy. So we sat in the little tea shack opposite our antique shop and squinted through the torrential downpours as Aunty and Uncle plied us with vegetable roti and gingerbread cake.
During this period of vocational down time someone called an election so most of the volunteers skidaddled to various parts of the country to explore. Nick, Harry and myself headed over to Arugam Bay on the East coast for a spot of partying. Between us and A-Bay was an epic 21 hour journey across Sri Lanka. Alas we were out done by Jo and Julie who managed to take 23 hours or so.
Anyways after the break it was back to Peraliya and more rebuilding. Fortunately the rain was desisting and we progressed at a most splendid rate. Aruna hired a bricklayer to finish the plastering and we followed behind them with white wash and vast quantities of top secret special Sri Lankan white emulsion. 'Buddi Antiques', named after Aruna's younger sister, was resplendent in its glory. Alas Nick was soon to be alighting from these idyllic shores. Off to grace the idyllic shores of Thailand. The crew was splitting up. Teary times indeed.
Our new found Sri Lankan friends held a number of 'functions' for us all and likewise we reciprocated their kind gesture with a night of high culture and cuisine at the local pizza joint. Happy days. This left just Harry (whose real name is Henrietta, or Hen. Alas the locals had trouble with this most un-Sri Lankan of names and christened her Harry) and myself (whom Charlie had christened Garum Chai. it's a long story that stems from this one time when I was in India.) to finish the job. So Harry continued painting and I dug an exceptionally attractive hole, 6 feet deep and 4 feet in diameter for a sewerage pit. You just can't beat the feeling of satisfaction derived from gazing at a most wondrous and circular hole.
Soon after Nick it was time for Harry to return to the motherland. We had been lucky enough to help rebuild a shop wiped out by the tsunami, ingratiate ourselves to the locals and make a number of new friends. Some we will see again, others maybe not. Good times and great memories. The weekends of pain arising from a rather excessive amount of un-coordination, the never ending struggle to remain standing on moving buses, Arrack induced sleep deprivation marathons and who can forget omelets and Arrack for breakfast in Unawatuna