Houses of Memory
For some, Jesus is suffering & loss.
To others, suffering & loss is just that.
Sri Lanka’s East Coast, Boxing Day 2004, Batticaloa’s Lady Manning Bridge
During the ascend onto the old steel bridge, the Toyota howled, slithered, left rubber but then gripped into the hot fractured asphalt. The woman in the passenger seat grunted with relief as the car leveled on the first element suspended over the lagoon. Others, with old tires and lighter vehicles, frequently got stuck on the ramp, blocking all traffic along the coast, causing a storm of horns and curses. The woman dreaded the road rage common in the country.
Three cars behind, a green minibus, filled with gloomy young men, lurched onto the bridge. The man in the Toyota watched in his rear-view mirror and frowned. Deep in Tamil Tiger area, those men were probably not Jehovah’s Witnesses.
To the front, as if to make a point, an army truck waited in line. The woman, following her husband’s glance and thoughts, arched tattooed eyebrows.
“Suppose they keep their peace?” asked the man and pushed his horn-rimmed glasses deeper into a heavily scarred pale face. His cratered skin, worse than pockmarks, clashed with his friendly eyes and open features, polarizing people, drawing them close or repelling them, as if skin defined character.
“Dai Dschobo,” said the woman, ‘don’t worry.’
She, too, was pale, but her skin was smooth, well-groomed, and showing no hint of the dark spots Japanese women feared in age.
Under the cease-fire agreement signed in 2002, they hoped nobody would risk a violent confrontation, but simple misunderstandings had reignited the civil war before. Singhalese soldiers stationed in the Tamil-North lived under a constant terror-threat, while the local population perceived them not only as occupiers but as the very root of the area’s poverty, and most families had suffered losses during three consecutive decades of armed conflict. A generation of Tamils had grown up under government oppression and its violent counterreaction. War, here, was the state-of-affairs.
They sat in silence, something he valued in her, not to fill every waking moment with yapper.
The Toyota crept forward, bumper to bumper, in a long row of cars crossing the bridge. Those with ACs had their cars sealed and engines boiling, those without ACs suffered doubly from heat and exhaust fumes. Only bicycles and pedestrians, too poor even for the bus, made continuous progress; routine traffic here, and not as bad as in Bangkok, where they had peed in shopping bags after hours on the same spot.
Batticaloa, the third largest city of ‘Eelam’ as the Tamils planned to call their country, once liberated, was home to an estimated one hundred thousand souls, all Tamils, plus a few Muslims. Lady Manning Bridge, designed in an early Bauhaus style, and constructed by the British, was the only connection to the south-coast. Its orderly, solid steel posts had withstood hurricanes and ever-increasing traffic unchanged for a century. The brackish water of the lagoon reached fifty, mostly unchartered, kilometers into the jungle and sheltered hundred twenty square kilometers of a unique, little-known ecosystem, including the world’s only inedible eel and a poisonous type of wells that was rumored to ‘sing’ during full-moon nights. Thousands of jelly fish, up to five meters long, trailed yellow tentacles with clusters of red venom in the slow current under the bridge.
Nothing, however, had kept the man in the Toyota from fishing here in his youth, thirty years ago, wading-in deep, catching not only strange fish but also a nameless skin-disease which had left his body scarred, head to foot, insusceptible to any tan except immediate sunburn. Whenever he crossed this bridge in later life, memories flowed like the water below. In a small house across the lagoon, he had lain for weeks, shaking with fever, eyes watering, and skin shedding. Asha, the hotel-manager’s daughter, had become not only his salvation with her homemade ointments, but also his first love. Alcoholism overwhelmed Asha in her twenties and sent him fleeing to study in Europe. Long before Asha’s thirties’ birthday, and before he had been able to talk her into one of Kandy’s luxurious rehabs, Asha had died from liver-failure, leaving him nothing but an aching heart and a never bronzing skin.
After university, he spent five years in a classic career, mostly marketing business software, but never got far. Those taking fault with his strange looks always prevailed, negative opinions vetoing positive ones. His salvation arrived with an idea for software to puzzle-package bulky objects into ISO containers. Clever movers had always used a similar process intuitively, but his software enabled even unimaginative operators to optimize storage space. When a friendly study by the UNICAF called his patented software a ‘necessity for all logistic companies’ he carved himself a niche market, selling CDs, two dollars each, for three thousand plus annual subscription fees. Later, seeing cloud-computing on the horizon, he sold the company to a Japanese conglomerate with less foresight.
His future wife had been on the Japanese buyer’s team, task with the evaluation of his software market. When she entered the room for the first time, an electric bolt had gone through his spine, not a normal reaction even though she was pretty in any objective sense. It had taken a far leap over the cultural gap, but he had managed to spin a private contact, and found that she was single, and going to Bali for Christmas. The company sale closed, and with no further obligations in life, his own holiday promised to be long and flexible. He ran into her, by pure chance as he insisted, on Boxing Day, exactly two years ago, on the terrace of her hotel in Ubud.
Four years his junior, with thick black hair in page-style, he told her of an island in the Indian ocean, awakening to life after thirty years of civil war, the ancient Ceylon with its rugged mountains at World’s End, giant tea estates, unexplored beaches, and ancient ruins in the jungle. He did not speak of Asha but told her of the hotel his parents had built before the civil war.
“I like to go there, perhaps rebuild it,” he said, and there was a question in his eyes.
Before New Year’s Day, she agreed to take a plunge, start a new life, away from spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations. Only later, did he understand, how much courage the step took for a Japanese woman in her thirties. Not only to give up her well-paid guaranteed employment and going abroad, but of all things, with a foreigner, a Gaijin. She was honestly surprised when her parents did not break-off contact, although they kept her dishonor a secret from the rest of the family.
Of his parents’ hotel, only the foundations had survived, and those were so overgrown that they feared to have the wrong coordinates, until they discovered the old water tank in the jungle. Raised high to protect animals from drowning, and deliver plumbing pressure, the tank had not only survived the war but was still in use by the now old gardener who had continued to care for the coconut trees planted thirty years ago, now in their prime. The water pump was long broken or sold, of course, but the old gardener filled the tank manually and earned additional income during droughts.
Despite their undeveloped beauty, no tourism had arrived on the northern beaches, except for hippies smoking the country’s cheap weed, and relief-workers travelling in convoys of shiny SUVs, living in the one hotel their NGO had rented as a whole, drinks inclusive.
He abandoned the idea to rebuild the families’ hotel. Instead, they settled in Colombo where internet connections were at least possible, and they had found a shop with fresh cheese and butter, if not sashimi-grade tuna.
They married in 2004 with only the driver as witness. The ceremony was short, and the wedding cake but a colored block of indigestible sugar. The unrivaled success of the day was his present, two puppies, adored with red ribbons, siblings, male and female, falling over one-another to gain attention and love.
For Christmas and a late honeymoon, they had loaded the dogs, beach wear and a big cooler with food into the Toyota and set off to spend the days on the family beach.
Bread & Butter, named after their first meal, now sat on the backseat, turning ears and heads towards the many noises on the bridge, panting, slavering, and stinking from a dead fruit-bat they had fought over during a stopover, happily awaiting the next adventure, including but not limited to endless walks, biting waves, killing strands of dried sea weed, and, most importantly, chasing crows. Bread, whose upper tail had been pinched and eaten by a crow when he was just a tiny pup, hated crows with all his young heart. In solidarity, Butter had vigorously adopted her brother’s passion and together they were a menace even to the cleverest old bird.
The freshly married couple, too, looked forward enjoying their own beach, so lonely, no tourist brochure could make it up. The old gardener, with his tiny, stringy, almost naked body, would climb the trees and hack down king-coconuts so beloved by the country. Without coconuts, essential for everything from food to roofs, it was said, the ancient Ceylon would starve and die of exposure, but also that one could live on coconuts alone. A claim, they were impartial to test.
As they reached the middle of the bridge, the sudden cry of a thousand animals rose over lagoon and city. In the north, nature never rested. Birds, monkeys, insects, rosters, cats, and dogs delivered a constant background concert, day, and night. Yet, the sound they now heard was different, an urgent dimension removed, uncommon in scale and scope, issuing from all animals at once and at full volume, intruding even into the Toyota’s sheltered cabin and overwhelming the hubbub on the bridge. Pedestrians pointed skywards.
Across the horizon, flocks of birds, green parrots, orange buzzers, and many only an ornithologist could name, took to the air. Crows rose by the tens of thousands, darkening the sky. Whatever had wings, flew up and inland. Only the crows remained, hovering over the city like black smog.
On the bridge, everybody stood with confused faces. Bread & Butter whined from the back. The man shushed them. Barking in the car was forbidden.
The woman turned her attention from the sky down to the lagoon’s shore.
“Look!” she said, her face signaling surprise.
Animals followed the birds, crossing fields and paths along the lagoon, darting from bushes and scrubs. Wildlife and domesticated animals ran, jumped, hopped, and slithered over sand and fields. Prey and predators, oblivious to one another, hurried side by side, always inland. The man pulled binoculars from the compartment and hung them over his neck. He was about to open the door, when the woman grabbed his arm with one hand, her eyes turning to his, her head shaking in silence.
He was not sure whether she did not want him to go outside or only wanted him to listen, so he asked, “What is it?”
“Not good – not good,” she answered with the Asian habit to repeat words to stress them, like fast-fast or ready-ready.
He knew, she was not going to say more, now. Muttering something like ‘hold-on’ he pulled free from the woman’s hand, jumped out, closed the door, and climbed onto the cargo bed. The sun stabbed at his scarred skin, while he scanned the horizon.
To the west and south, the flocks of birds had thinned, either gone to ground or flown out of sight. Far behind the central mountain ridge, lay Colombo, the island’s capital, and its international airport. Though only 600km, the trip to Colombo required twenty hours of concentrated driving on bad streets, shared with drunk drivers and clobbered-together cars lacking basic maintenance not to mention insurance. Done frequently, the journey could ruin nerves, or turn you into roadkill. With Batticaloa’s airport bombed by ambitious Tigers, the only safe way to cross the island was by helicopter, a daily service offered to and from Colombo. Even if maintenance of helicopters was better than that of cars, every year a heli crashed into the jungles for unknown reasons. Blaming the Tamil Tigers had not helped the peace process.
Northwards, the suburbs of Batticaloa pushed against the lagoon’s shore. The city appeared normal to the man, except for the unusual number of crows hovering. There always were crows in the sky, many hundreds flew regularly to and from their nesting places, but now every crow seemed to be in the air at once.
Finally, the man turned his binoculars east, towards the Indian ocean and the mouth of the lagoon. There, a mile off, the landscape had changed. The beach extended far into the east, the ocean out of sight. Where surf had been before, now sand, rocks and towering coral blocks lay drying in the morning sun. Fishing boats sat aground. Silver shades of all sizes danced in the morning sun. Where the lagoon used to meet the ocean, a river, fast and strangely alive, tore down to the almost invisible sea, sucking away jellyfish and flotsam. The sea gulls seemed amused as they rode the current out to sea. Fishermen, who plied the rich delta day and night, fled, arms flailing. At least two had been pulled away by the current; their heads bobbed in the current, less amused. Even as he looked on, the lagoon reached its lowest level, and the river subsided its rush into the ocean. With a few final gushes, the lagoon turned into a lake, separated from the open seas, its fringes laid bare as if from a long drought. The whole basin, despite its giant dimensions, had dropped five meters within minutes. Slowly, the man lowered his binoculars.
All around, people had discovered the strange sight. Most cars and the bus had emptied. People stood around in groups, gesticulating, pointing, discussing loudly. The man heard the words ‘storm’ and ‘flood’ in Tamil and returned into the car, hands gripping the steering wheel.
“What is this?” he asked.
The woman whispered one of the few words that had filtered from Japanese to the global dictionary, “Tsunami.”
At first, this made no sense. A Tsunami pushed the sea onto land, not away from it. But no, it would not, not initially at least! Like every wave, a Tsunami would first suck water away from the land and then throw itself forth again. He imagined the pull that proceeded every wave on the beach. Could this vast movement be the same, a giant lagoon sucked half dry by an approaching wave? It seemed impossible, the dimensions beyond imagination, like weather fronts or plate tectonics. He remembered that earthquakes caused Tsunamis. Would they not have felt the earth shaking or something? He had never experienced an earthquake. Were Tsunamis not caused by undersea volcanos, or was it landslides?
To the east, he knew, Batticaloa lay open to the Indian Ocean. No coral reef protected the coast in this area. A tingling nausea settled in his stomach.
On the bridge, too, wonder had given way to alarm. No Tsunami had befallen the country in living memory, but people guessed that water receding this fast would return, likely faster. Pedestrians now walked briskly north, hurrying down the ramp, back to their unsuspecting families and unguarded houses in the city. Others fled south, making for the open country. Some ran first one way, then returning the other. Cyclists rushed through the crowd, weaving recklessly. A man with his daughter sitting on the cross bar collided with a tea-cart. People screamed and shouted at each other. A family of four, parents with teenage girls, locked their Honda on the southern lane, and walked into the opposite direction, back to town. The man in the Toyota was too astonished to protest. How would they get past this car once the traffic cleared up? The driver of the city-bus honked and yelled, but the father hustled his family along, ignoring the shouts.
The woman looked back to the north, glanced over the lagoon and to the sea, mustered the inside of the car, as if evaluating, until she finally met his eyes. As so often, he could not guess what she was thinking, her inscrutable face set in a display of earnest consideration, but nothing more. Not that she lacked deeper emotions, they simply didn’t show that easily. He could not have loved her, had he not known, witnessed, and concluded based on past actions, that they shared similar subcurrents of emotions. In the beginning, it may have been simply her attraction as a woman that pulled him into love, or falling into, but over time, during days and months of close contact, he had come to learn the subtleties of her thoughts and feelings, even as they were not immediately visible in her eyes and remained unexpressed by words.
“Open the windows!” she said with a concluding voice.
He hesitated. “Why?”
“So that water can flow through the car, and if we fall, we can get out quickly.”
“What? Fall off the bridge?”
“Yes,” she said and stared at the central switch on his door, routinely kept on locked.
He checked left and right. Steel poles, part of the bridge’s superstructure, stood between vehicles and a plunge into the lagoon. To the right, a chain-linked fence separated the pedestrian walk from the driveway. The man doubted a car could be thrown off the bridge unless the whole structure collapsed. Such bridges were designed to withstand not only the daily onslaught of heavy traffic, but also hurricanes and occasional car accidents. Besides, the bridge-deck sat elevated high over the lagoon, perhaps ten meters above the normal water level, and now, with the lagoon half empty, closer to fifteen. Also, they were a mile off the coast. What wave could reach a mile inland? Later in the day, sitting on their beach, yes, they may have been in serious trouble. But here? Getting stuck in traffic had turned out to be a lucky break. Still, even on the beach, they could have climbed in the good old water tank. The heavy car, too, offered protection and he was reluctant to open the windows, allowing heat and noise into the cabin, but the woman continued her stare with unblinking, uncompromising eyes.
“Open the windows!” she said again.
With a sigh, he opened the front windows. On hot humid air, the bridge’s commotion poured into the cabin, slapping their faces like soggy rags. Immediately, Butter pushed her head over the man’s shoulder and out the window, squealing with excitement. Bread, always the more obedient of the two, remained on the backseat, greedily sniffing the coastal air.
“Not the rear. OK?” he asked.
The man fought Butter back on the rear seat, then turned to his wife for confirmation. The dogs had never jumped out the windows, but he did not want to take any chances right then.
The woman did not react but only looked at him.
“Gomen, gomen,” she said.
Twice ‘sorry’ or ‘very sorry’, and her face did express regret in the formally correct displays of emotion, though he also thought to detected retreat or distance in her eyes.
“What… What do you mean?” he asked, knowing there would be no answer.
She turned away, head straight and closed her eyes. Her face turned standard neutral.
The man had the sudden feeling of sitting alone in the car.
He took a deep breath, closed his own eyes for a moment to steady the sudden feeling of betrayal, and then said in a soft, intimate voice, a tone that he would not use for anybody else, an intonation such as couples develop exclusively for one another, “Don’t do this again! Please.”
He had been through this before, when they sat stranded without water on an airstrip in the upcountry of Mozambique. With a see-you-later, she had retreated into hours of meditation, leaving him to suffer thirst and boredom alone, or so he felt, audibly cursing the travel agency that had left them hanging, and silently reprimanding the lifeless partner he wanted to share the plight with. She had reopened her eyes only as the faint hum of the Cessna rose over the hill. During the flight to Maputo, and for some time after, perhaps in childish revenge, the man had refused to talk to her, or even acknowledge her presence. Then, he had been angry, now, he was disappointed.
“You promised,” he said, still in the same intimate voice, if with some bitterness.
She had promised, promised twice, back in the hotel in Maputo, after a long and exhausting discussion.
‘Meisho Fukai’, she had called the trick, or ‘deep meditation’, to avoid or escape from an unpleasant situation. An extreme form of accepting the inevitable, and a Buddhist practice, she had claimed. When he countered that leaving a partner alone in a bad time was not exactly ‘loving kindness’, she had offered to introduce him to the practice.
“Why? So, we can both sit alone? What’s the use of being together then?” he had asked.
“If there is nothing we can do, why suffer?”
“It’s part of life.”
“Do you want me to suffer?” she had asked, with earnestness, as if the question could be more than rhetoric.
“Don’t be dramatic! Nobody wants you to suffer. But we didn’t face an uncurable disease, only a few hours of thirst and boredom.”
“Thirst and boredom are no good.”
“You can’t know that. Perhaps you missed something important. You judged a certain reality as undesirable but gave it no chance.”
“Did you have any insights on the airfield?” she had asked and, if her face would not have been so unreadable, he might have interpretated scorn into her words.
“Yes, I felt abandoned.”
“I’m sorry,” she had said with a brief but true flash of regret in her eyes, “Next time, let’s do it together, OK?”
“No, I will not piss-off every time something stinks. Reality should be accepted, not judged. One never knows how things turn out.”
“We knew it was going to be a tough time,” she had said, sounding exhausted. “Not all reality is worthwhile.”
“So, if there is no cream pie, you quit?”
At this, she had frowned in honest confusion. Western metaphors eluded her.
“What’s that got to do with cream pie?” she had asked with plain curiosity.
“Uh, sorry, just a phrase, I meant to say, accept pleasant and unpleasant times, or we can shoot heroin right away.”
“Your examples are strange,” she had said, matter of fact.
“Perhaps. But I don’t want to find myself alone when things are unpleasant. That’s not a relationship.”
“But forcing me to suffer needlessly is?” she had asked, as always without the display of emotions on her face.
The argument lasted the whole day. He had lined up example after example, childcare, emergencies, prison-time, building irrefutable logical chains, or so he thought, but she had reasoned them all into exceptions or irrelevance. In the end, however, she had relented and made a solemn promise to abandon ‘Meisho Fukai’, at least as far as it concerned their relation. Without knowing why, he had been unconvinced, sensing that she was agreeing only out of kindness. Hence, he had made her repeat the pledge, which she had done without hesitation. But she had obviously lied then. The memory upset him even more.
“Oi!!” he said, sharply, twice, then again pleading, “You promised!”
No reaction. Instead, she seemed to sink even deeper into the seat, her breath steady. A forcefield settled over the woman, his wife, excluding her from reality, leaving him behind. She knew she was breaking her promise, but did it anyways, despite his pleading. That enraged him more than the escapism itself. He would have been irritated, perhaps furious, but disappointment was a far deeper pain. He considered to shake her, force her back to reality, but he could not bring himself to do it. Although it was not exactly physical violence, still, it seemed not the right thing for a honeymoon. In any case, even if he could make her come back, it would have been against her will, and what good would that do? Enforcing companionship would be like demanding love. If she had decided to abandon him then this was his reality and he’d have to face it now, not judge it, not yet, not while it was happening. Later, one may judge.
He looked around.
On the northern lane, opposite to their Toyota, a couple stood by their beaten-up tiny Suzuki four-wheeler. Both gesticulated, yelled into their phones, probably telling their neighbors or friends to climb on their roofs. ‘Good luck with that,’ thought the man, and smiled at the idea of somebody calling on Boxing Day demanding you should climb on your roof. He looked at his wife, wanting to share the humor, but remembered that seeing her expressionless face would only frustrate him more.
Grunting in disapproval, he opened the door to take another look at the beach, or whatever the now exposed seafloor could be called. Just as he was about to jump onto the pick-up’s loading bay, a horn blared in a long hacking sound, underlain by the howling of a motor. He squinted down the southern line of vehicles.
A good hundred meters to the south, a newish E-class Mercedes was plowing up the middle of the bridge, forcing through the gap between the oncoming lanes, ramming others left and right. People jumped from the driveway, stepping on curbs, and clinging to fences. The driver, it must be a man because women were rarely driving here, never let go of his horn which had reached an unsteady electric crescendo. In his wake, people cursed and waived fists. With growing anger, the man watched as a white Civic pushed onto the middle lane, blocking the advancing Mercedes as if cutting somebody from jumping queue at a check-out. The oncoming car effortlessly swiped the small sedan aside. Quickly, the man sat back in the Toyota, shut the door, and started his motor. His heart suddenly hammered with adrenaline demanding action, his tension seeing an outlet. Stopping the Mercedes would feel good. ‘Side-ways, when passing-by, not frontal,’ he thought, but then hesitated. Perhaps the driver had a pregnant woman in the backseat or a toddler with an asthma attack?
He looked at the peaceful wife next to him, checked for the dogs in the rear mirror, warned them not to bark, and dropped the plan with a sigh. Instead, he began maneuvering away from the center of the road. Just as he turned the Toyota’s wheels for the second time, the Mercedes crashed into a narrow passage between the city bus and a lorry laden with tree-trunks. It would not get through, unless one of the other drivers made space. That seemed unlikely. The bus-driver screamed down at the Mercedes; his ears gone all red. The lorry driver was groping under his seat, perhaps searching for a wrench or some other weapon. People came up running and shouting from all sides. Sheltered behind tinted windows, the driver of the Mercedes ignored them and tried to reverse. The motor screamed, metal ripped but the car did not come loose, its hood jammed under the lorry. Changing gear, the driver rammed forward again, pushing the lorry sideways. A log rolled off the top and tumbled down the other side, where a pedestrian jumped from his bicycle in the last moment. The trunk squashed the bike like thin wire, but the railing stopped it with a resounding thud of superior strength. The driver of the Mercedes abandoned his effort to free the car, offed the motor, and tried to open his door but it was stuck or bent out of shape. The owner of the bicycle yelled up at the lorry driver, who had exited his cabin on the other side, swinging a large screwdriver. Both joined the small crowd yelling and gesticulating at the battered Mercedes from front and back.
The man in the Toyota shook his head and smirked at the familiar sight of people screaming at one another after an accident, for a moment forgetting the lagoon and his worries.
“The fool better stay inside,” he said and checked his wife. Nothing. She would have hated the scene, emotions openly displayed, especially in public.
From what he had seen elsewhere, the angry crowd might well decide to throw the Mercedes driver off the bridge right away, if he dared to come out.
But then, a soldier ran up from the south, waving his rifle, shouting. The atmosphere changed immediately. Everybody froze, casting resentful but meek looks at the soldier.
From the other direction, a policeman came hurrying, a whistle bleating between his lips. The driver of the Mercedes threw himself against the door, again without result, then he rolled down his window hastily and tried to climb out of the car. Big eyes rolled in his chocolate-colored face as he made soothing gestures to the soldier. A gold chain around his neck blinked in the sun. He must be a local VIP with such a newish Mercedes. There seemed nobody else in the car, no pregnant woman or such. Again, the man in the Toyota wanted to share the moment with his wife, but she was not watching.
On the road, the soldier had stopped running, and walked the last meters to the Mercedes, warily checking left and right, his rifle at the ready. Used to suicide bombings, already nervous, the soldier may have suspected the lagoon’s weird behavior a clever plot for the weekly terror bombing. The bridge would be a worthy target, another blow to the north’s already ruinous infrastructure. The soldier motioned the men to step back, which they did, vacating the passage between bus and lorry. By now, the driver was squeezing his sizeable belly through the window, pulling himself up by the lorry’s frame while anxiously checking the logs above. Turning to the soldier, he said something with a forced smile on his round face, perhaps a joke about his lack of exercise. The soldier did not smile. VIPs, other than the poor, were usually given a chance to explain themselves.
But nothing was normal that day. The soldier raised his rifle, and for an instant the man in the Toyota looked down the barrel of the gun, ducking instinctively, before the soldier, without aiming, nor warning, shot the driver in the chest.
People jumped for cover, crashing into one another within the tight confines of the bridge. The policeman threw himself on the ground where he had been running, came up again and disappeared into the opposite direction.
In the Toyota, Bread & Butter howled. The man flinched, hands over ears, cursing. His wife jolted slightly but did not open her eyes. So far, they had witnessed shootings only from a distance, once when the Minister of Tourism had been assassinated down the road from their house, and once when the army had cleared a compound suspected to harbor terrorists. At close range, and with a fair chance of getting caught in crossfire, the man was terrified, and gasped for air.
The VIP slacked but did not let go of the lorry. His belly hung on the door, hindering a downward slide. For a moment he seemed to consider his options, then, he returned to struggle out the window, slower and even more awkward than before but far from dead. Just as he had managed to pull one knee through the window, the soldier sent a second bullet. The man’s head snapped sideways, twice, as if anchored on a spring, then he spat blood in a noiseless scream. The chain blinked as he collapsed face-down out the window and crumbled under the lorry.
The crowd along the bridge, initially shrunken away from the shots, came up like one multi-bodied organism. An immediate and obvious enemy had revealed himself, one they feared but knew how to fight.
Three soldiers rushed from the army truck to cover their comrade, rifles menacing the crowd, yelling orders. Young men spilled from the green mini-bus, some armed only with rage, others with clubs or knifes. The man in the Toyota feared a coming bloodbath with soldiers fighting to the last bullet before they were ripped limp from limp by an angry mob. In paradise, less had led to worse. He glanced at his wife. She still sat upright, eyes closed, but a shadow of worry had settled on her face, with jaw tightened, and fine lines appearing across her forehead.
From the vivid blue sky, seemingly out of nowhere, before the mob burst into action or the soldiers dropped their scruple to fire into the crowd, a gush of cold air pushed over the bridge, like a sudden increase of air pressure, not warm and humid, but crisp and cool, as if a slice of upper atmosphere had dropped onto the surface. A rumble, a low frequency groan, travelled through the earth, felt rather than heard, like a train coming up in a distance, shaking the bridge and the water below.
God, angry with his flawed creatures, knocked on the wall of an unseen aquarium, disrupting the fight with his superior wrath. The world trembled to a halt. Even the crows above seemed to pause in midflight. After the hubbub and the deafening shots, the ensuing silence was almost painful. Frightened eyes turned slowly to the ocean.
Through the window, the man in the Toyota watched the horizon over the sea turn dirty white, wobble, and then rise all at once, first barely visible, unbelievable, then more pronounced. A dark shape cut into the sky with white blades and moved inlands.
With sudden synchroneity, dogs barked up a mad storm over the city, breaking the silent spell and filling the air with dread. People wrenched their eyes from the horizon, turning to flee this way, and that, climbing the fence separating road and walkway to get to the protected side of the bridge, away from the ocean. Men climbed up bridge arches. People rushed to their cars, locked their doors, and closed windows. Pedestrians tried to enter vehicles without permission. Fights ensued over spots considered safe. A man in a Muslim robe fell from the superstructure, crashing headfirst onto a car-roof, rolling down in a loose ball.
Two soldiers flung their rifles over their shoulders, climbed onto the railing, and dove gracefully into the lagoon, surprising everybody in a country where few could swim. ‘Perhaps combat-divers,’ the man thought with sudden curiosity. The ‘Sea Tigers’ build their own submarines in an impressive DIY feat for a terror organization with meager resources. The other soldiers yelled after the swimmers, but then returned to the truck.
On the backseat, Bread turned in circles, howling a so-far unheard tone. Butter, whining, pushed her head through the driver’s window once more until the man shoved her back.
The man opened his door again, reminding the dogs to stay put. He stood up and leaned out with one hand on the steering wheel, pointing his binoculars towards the sea.
By now, the ocean had reconquered much of the land it had exposed. Through the binoculars, the water’s pace became more obvious, impossible to outrun even if the terrain had been less treacherous. With irregular motions, the sea pressed forward, holding in places, then surging ahead in uneven bursts, swallowing rocks, briefly splitting into channels, but reuniting again, picking up fishing boats where they lay grounded, and carrying them off like coconut shells. Wherever the ascend steepened, the water lolled for a moment and then, with gathered force, burst onto the next level in one sudden swell.
On the beach, in front of a dune several meters high, the water halted, as if in reference to the deed ahead, expanding only in place, until the pressure offshore summoned one massive wave and pushed it landwards. Coming closer and loosing depth, the wave slowed but rose, crested, reformed, and crested again, rising ever taller, until it reached as high as the coconut trees lining the first residential buildings, western-style beach villas, build by Batticaloa’s few affluent Tamils, fenced off by tall thickets and walls topped with broken bottles. Around the villas Bermudagrass grew in lush green with the thick but razor-sharp blades capable of surviving tropical sun. An unkempt pool blinked dirty blue through a fence. One-room huts, constructed exclusively from various parts of the coconut tree, and inhabited by fishermen or those working at the villas, squatted on the sandy plots in between.
Effortlessly, the wave broke over the dune and plowed into the first row of houses. Walls and villas collapsed with no more resistance than the small huts. Old coconut trees, having lived through decades of monsoons, bent, and broke like twigs or were ripped from the ground. A feeble row of utility poles along the beach road fell in one motion. Behind the wave, the sea swallowed what had not been torn down.
The man lowered the binoculars, their detailed view too limited to capture the entire scene unfolding.
At the lagoon’s mouth, the wave broke over the entrance, gushed into the inert lagoon, reformed almost to its original size, and pushed onward, meeting no more obstacles, no houses, nor vegetation, only more welcoming water. This he had failed to anticipate. A wave could perhaps not wash over a mile of land, but over water it could cross unimpeded. Was this secondary wave higher than the bridge? As it travelled inland, the lagoon swelled from one shore to the other in an elegant, unhurried movement. Small fish, as if chased by tuna, darted left and right on its surface. Along the northern shore, the wave swallowed parked cars, ripped piers into shreds and picked up small boats docked there, catapulting them into trees and residential buildings. To the south, in a less densely populated area, whole farms with huts and storage buildings vanished in the swash. A troupe of water buffalos, proud but not clever, their massive horns roped together, had ignored the earlier panic but now pushed one way, then back, roaring in anger and fright, until they were swallowed as one.
Refracting through a soft curve in the lagoon, the wave seemed to accelerate as it settled into the final stretch towards the bridge. Now, a mile seemed not such a protective distance to the ocean. The man standing in the Toyota judged the oncoming crest to reach four or five meters above the driveway. The bridge would be washed over in a minute or two. But would it collapse? The wave moved faster than a normal person could run, but still easy to follow from a distance, crossing an intersection or passing a large building in the time one needed for a deep breath. Just as the man had jumped back into the protective car and shut the door, the wave suddenly lost height, flattened out, seemed to settle down in front of the bridge, while remaining unchanged on its flanks towards the shores. With a rush of hope, he remembered that the lagoon was considered to reach its maximum depth under the bridge, which was why nobody fished there. The normal hand lines and sinkers the locals used did not reach the bottom before the bait was pulled up and out into the middle waters where few fish lived.
Even as the wave ripped across the northern ramp, swallowing a police booth and a pillbox protecting the bridge’s access, swiping away cars and anybody who had not fled, the water passed under the bridge like a giant sea creature, dashing against piers and substructure, white water spraying in powerless anger.
The bridge shuddered in its foundations, then stilled. The driveway was hardly wet!
Relief rushed through the man’s body, and he grunted, exhaling the air he had been holding subconsciously. The catastrophe had passed them by. Other than the lands around, they had been lucky! An hour later, or an hour earlier, they would have been lost. He could hardly suppress a smile as he picked up his binoculars and, remaining inside the car, leaned out the window and turned to look at the city to the north.
There, the wave had collapsed into a single massive swash, pressing forward, pulling cars, logs, and people along. At its front, the water collected debris of all sizes and shapes in a roiling mass of brown mud, so thick that one may have considered walking on it, until geysers of white foam erupted from the depth. Explosions echoed over the city. A few strong trees, people clinging in their branches, stood like islands of sanity in the chaos. The air over the city turned to an industrial haze of steam and black puffs. Except for its slender towers, the big Mosque survived the onslaught, at least its main roof stood unharmed. Allah’s judgement, people would say. Also, the army’s radio station, elevated on an artificial hill and ringed by heavy walls, remained visible in the muddy slush. Through the binoculars, details jumped out, a cricket helm, a girl cowering inside a cupboard, an iguana with its tongue flitting far out, an umbrella hung in a tree branch where a chair had settled as if somebody would come to sit there. The roof of a rickshaw bobbed twice before it disappeared. He saw people paddling helplessly in heaps of plastic litter. A boy clung to a cable hanging from a pole from which a blue Sari, unfolded to its full length, swayed empty in the water.
‘Perhaps his mother’s Sari,’ the man thought with a tight throat.
Everywhere, people and animals fought for their lives. He suddenly felt sick, dizzy, and he could not watch any longer. He dropped into his seat with a stiff neck cracking as he turned to his wife. She sat with hands folded tightly in her lab, face calm, lips parted, knees pressed loosely together, breathing a tat faster than usual but regular.
“It has passed,” he said.
He searched the water bottle but could not find it, and again turned to his wife, sudden anger displacing relief.
“You can stop this now.”
Nothing. She was not there. He was talking to an emptied body. Was she so far gone that she had not felt the wave pass by? Again, he considered shaking her. If he did that now, it would be in anger. They should have shared an experience of relief. Instead, he was angry with her. Since the airfield in Mozambique, she had kept her promise. They had been in other tight spots since then and she had stayed with him. True, not much could be done here, except to hope the bridge would survive the onslaught. In trouble, she had been, could be, daring and forceful, at least when she thought that action was possible. Once, a half-crazed drunkard had thought he could rob some hapless tourists. His wife had simply ignored the threats, and lectured the would-be thug in calm Japanese, until he broke down in tears and fled. The man knew not what exactly his wife had said, and the runner sure had not understood Japanese either, but it had worked.
He respected Japanese culture, of course, and, though often too rigid for his tastes, he envied its radical consequentiality, the uncompromising logic of Buddhism. Yet, the cultural implications, its translation in daily life, if that was what his wife now did, still puzzled, and caught him by surprise. Only now, far too late, he understood what really had happened in the hotel in Maputo. She had promised not because she thought he was right, but simply to spare him, and their marriage, the painful truth that she was not willing to suffer with him unequivocally, or die, put dramatically. She had realized that he could not accept her decision, but would, in his western stubbornness, continue to confront her, insist on pushing the issue. In the end, to stop him, she had lied to his face; not nice, but far less dishonorable for a Japanese than open confrontation and a loss-of-face. He should not have pressed the matter, but let it be, accept her position as given, or take it up another day. Many times, and it seemed in vain, he had tried to grasp the terror of this final Asian psycatastrophe, the loss-of-face. Refusing his request would have resulted in dishonor. But whose? His, or hers? He was not sure. Open disagreement was anathema in the East; it simply was not done. So, she had made a promise she had not planned to keep. That, in turn, was anathema to him. Yet could he fault her? She had done what she thought was right, and better for both. Or had she? And why did she continue now? The question nagged. Japanese knew all about Tsunamis, occupying a mythical place in their islander consciousness. Half God, half demon, with cleansing powers, they purged earth from sin and sinner, similarly to the biblical flood, only more temporary, and survivable. Finally, it dawned on him, what all Japanese knew: The first wave of any Tsunami is never the tallest.
He turned to the ocean, raised the binoculars, and saw what he had feared, and his wife expected. A second wave, larger than the first, stormed through the Christmas morning.
On the bridge, nobody paid attention. God had spared the few on the bridge, destroying the many all around. Some had sunken to their knees, perhaps thanking for their safe deliverance, or praying for the souls in the drowning city below. Others still cowered where they had hoped for safety. On the walkway, by the Toyota’s side, three men, who had, moments before, clutched at one another and the railing in fright, relaxed their grips and tried smiles, embarrassed at their own panic. Then they turned and stared with dead eyes at the flooded city.
A strong urge to watch the next wave overcame the man in the Toyota, but he resisted, knowing the hypnotic sight was going to block all rational thought. Instead, he stared at the steering wheel, trying to silence the many voices in his head, and utilize the minutes he had to penetrate their situation, consider options, come-up with ideas to optimize their chances to survive the next wave, or waves, and whatever came after, if there was an after. So far, they had been spared by sheer luck, only a meter distance between crest and deck had kept them out of danger. But if this next wave, or the one after that, was only a few meters higher, as it appeared to be, it would crash into the bridge. Could they prepare? She had not thought so, but given up, after opening the windows. That was all she had considered worth doing. The rapid shift from relief to doubt to renewed terror had exhausted the man. Suddenly, he felt profoundly tired. Slapping his forehead, he forced himself to think. Should he fasten the seatbelt? Or rather not? No, she had not, so neither would he. If the bridge went down as a whole, he reckoned, they had little chance of surviving. But if they did, they would have to exit the car within seconds. Suppressing sudden panic, he imagined the steel structure and cars crashing into the water. Was opening the windows really the right thing to do? Their car would sink much faster. And, if they got out, the water would be full of drowning non-swimmers, terrified people, reduced to their reptilian brains. Was jumping and swimming now, before the wave hit, like the two soldiers had done, be a safer alternative? He had not followed the soldiers’ fate. Perhaps they were still swimming somewhere, carried off by the first wave. He was desperate to talk options with her. Should he finally slap her out of it? No fruitful exchange of opinions beckoned that way. But what if swimming was the right idea? She had been a successful freestyle athlete in her youth and he, too, was a good swimmer. Better jump into the water early, than be washed off, drowned in the car or by panicking people, or be hit by a tree trunk. They could find something to hold on to. But for how long? If they made it, they might end up somewhere deep in the jungle, far from help, and there die the thousand deaths of exposure. And, what of the dogs? Would they follow? Perhaps. Sure. Dogs can swim, but, again, for how long? If the dogs panicked, as they sure would, things could get even more difficult. Drowning dogs made for worse companions than drowning people. He once capsized in a boat with his small terrier. It had been a harmless sailing mishap on a calm lake, but, once in the water, the dog went into full rescue-me-who-can-mode, trying to use his head as life-raft, almost drowning him before he was able to climb onto the floating hull, righten the boat, and rescue the dog. Wherever he turned his attention, the bridge continued to be their most promising option. Elevated, solidly built, accessible and visible to rescuers if such were to come. Repeatedly, he looked at his motionless wife, only to be confronted with his lone anguish. She had decided that nothing could be done, or she would not have departed like this. But had she really been able to oversee the situation so fast? There were too many unknown factors, too many questions. The bridge may hold against water alone, but what if a wave dashed something heavy, like a trawler, against it? What about the lorry with the tree trunks? No use to fret about it. On the bridge and inside the car was the safest place on offer. Could he position the car differently to better their chances? Too risky. In any case there was not much space and he didn’t want to end like the driver of the Mercedes. Should he leave the motor running? He decided, yes. An engine might survive a deluge better while hot and moving. They would need the car, after. But where would they go? Did this happen all along the coast? Yes, it must. The streets would be impassable, even if the water receded. If Colombo was destroyed, the whole country, hardly at peace in the best of times, would descend into anarchy. Would the soldiers protect them, after? How many hours would it take for rescue to come? Days? How long before desperate survivors from the city took what they needed, or wanted, from the lucky few on the bridge? He had roped down the cooler with food and water in the back of the truck. Also, their luggage. Would water rip them out? Well, they could always eat coconuts. He had secured their stuff to withstand hours of driving through potholes and on unpaved roads. Should he jump out and tightened the ropes before the second wave hit? Or make a quick SOS call? But to whom? The lines would be down, no doubt. They hardly had reception under normal circumstances.
He checked the wave’s approach over the lagoon. It had crossed approximately a third of the distance to the bridge. Again, the lagoon lifted in its entirety from coast to coast. Was this second wave larger? Yes, it was. How much, was hard to say without references left standing, but even a few meters would be their doom.
God was going to punish them after all.
He picked up the binoculars and turned north to the city. Without anything substantial left in its path, it had not broadened into a flood, like its predecessor, but fell upon the already beaten town with undiminished force, ripping survivors from the still standing trees, pushing a trawler through the Mosque’s roof, and dropping it into the main hall. The walls around the radio station collapsed, water swallowing the little hill, its dishes poking through the roiling mass until they, too, disappeared.
On the bridge, people had noticed the new danger approaching and withdrawn to the locations where they had overcome the first wave, in the hope that what worked once may well safe them again. All along the right side of the bridge, people clung to beams and poles with rigid faces. Some had wedged their arms through the fence separating cars and pedestrians. Except for the Toyota and those who had no windows to begin with, like the city bus or the lorry, all cars were sealed closed, their occupants only shades moving behind glass. None, as far as the man had seen, had sought their luck with a jump into the open water. Suicide for most. No surprise there. The soldiers had withdrawn into their truck and closed the windows, too. Where there had been panic and frantic action before, there now was dazed apprehension and the hope that luck was going to be on their side one more time. Bread & Butter stood in silence, bodies tense but motionless, erect on all fours, noses quivering, tails horizontally and rigid, an unusual but natural looking pose of highest attention and readiness.
The man switched back and forth between the detailed sights through the binoculars and the elevated overview from the bridge, constantly checking the wave’s progress over the lagoon. His personal dread lessened in the removed notion of the beholder, not the participant, subconsciously hoping with sober observation to postpone the inevitable.
Finally, however, he dropped the binoculars and turned to grip the steering wheel with both hands, ordering the dogs to stay put, and glancing at his wife for a last time. Then, he locked his elbows, pressing deep into the seat, building maximum tension, as if he wanted to slide back. He relinquished rational thought and turned to watch the final approach of the wave. Like the first, the second wave settled into the deep water before the bridge, but its crest towered well above the main deck. Other than over the beach, the wave did not break before the bridge and crash, but simply traveled against it. In the last moment, a swarm of full-sized Mullets, compact bullet-shaped fish, glittering silver, broke through the wave’s shoulder and the man saw one sailing right at his window. Without breath to spare for a shout, nor time to make the connection, the man felt a cold wet punch to the head just as the bridge began to shudder in its foundations.
An instant later, water burst into their left side. To the man’s surprise, it was not too unpleasant but warm, close to body temperature, comforting in a way. Its smell registered as something familiar, connected to a long-forgotten feeling of young adventure. The cabin filled as if the car stood in a fast-moving river. The water flushed the dogs up against the small rear window, but they did not make a sound.
The Toyota pitched hard under lateral pressure but did not move sideways until the Suzuki from the opposite lane rolled over and rammed their front. Under the sudden impact, the heavier vehicle lost contact to the ground and plunged deep into the fence sheltering the pedestrian walk. Wires moaned. For a moment, the car hung balanced in the fence. In a rush of analytic clarity, the man saw a flowchart of tension distributing from the chassis into the fence, transferring force into each single strand and then leading it away towards the posts. Square mesh-wires contorted horizontally until they ripped in a series of explosive metallic snaps. The Suzuki vanished over the railing. The heavy Toyota remained upright as it lunged sideways, and into screaming pedestrians.
A woman in a red Sari, holding a bundle in her arms, saw the cars moving in her direction and in a reflex, even as the Toyota’s door crushed her against the railing and she was submerged in water, held the bundle high over her head. Men tried to fend off the oncoming car, backs pressed against the railing, their bodies insubstantial against the momentum of steel and water. In the cabin, all was whirling mud, pulling, and pushing in twilight. The car lifted from its suspension, floating momentarily up the railing, but then crashing back on its wheels as the departing wave sucked water from the cabin, leaving them as if relaxing in a dirty whirlpool. Slowly, water flowed out through floor and sides.
The woman had opened her eyes in the last moments. She shook herself, as from a dream or day vision and wiped her eyes and face, breathing hard but regularly, interspersed with short spluttering coughs. A jelly fish stuck between her back and the seat. Her hair, sprinkled with bits of green algae and trash, hung wildly in uneven braids. He expected relief to have her return to reality but, finding none, searched for words. An unpleasant, disconnected feeling hindered him from speaking.
Three men were caught between the Toyota’s loading bay and the railing. Their torsos, unhurt and containing all necessary organs, had no immediate reason to forsake life, as hearts and lungs continued pumping oxygen to the brains. Two of the men hung limb, the third struggled in a repetitive circle of motions, as if trying to climb from a whole.
The lorry with tree-trunks had shifted across the walkway and sat pressed into logs that had either been lifted or rolled off the cargo bed. The driver of the Mercedes had disappeared, as had his car.
The man in the Toyota tried to open his door. He pushed several times before it swung open with a wet squeal. The remaining water gushed out, leaving only debris and mud behind. He forced the door close again. With time and thought, he might have kept the water inside the cabin, making the car heavier and harder to wash away, but his actions were instinctive. Somebody pounded on the car’s back, first faint, then with increasing force, shouting indistinctively. He could perhaps move the car and free the men. Only then, he noticed the motor’s stillness. The passing water must have killed the engine. Without much hope, he turned the car key into off-position and back again, twice. No sound came from the motor. By then, the pounding and screaming from the back had stopped.
The woman felt down her body, checking for completeness or hidden injuries. Then she looked at him and, although he did not turn, he felt the question in her gaze.
He only nodded, ‘Yes, OK, sort of.’
In the corner of his eyes, he saw her focusing through his window, nodding ever so slightly, and followed her gaze.
Over the lagoon’s mouth, a third wave crashed inland.
In size, it seemed not taller than the second one, but it appeared wider, the body underneath its crest thicker and more powerful but flattened. The woman quickly turned to kneel on her seat, reaching into the back where the dogs stood dripping wet and shivering wildly, not from cold but from fear and excitement. She felt along their bodies, as far as she could reach, twice checking for the oncoming wave, while plugging bits of plastic and algae from the dog’s fur. They competed for her probing hands, pushing each other, heads pressing against her arms, quietly whimpering in fright and appeal for reassurance. They liked water only when they could bite into it from above. Showers and baths were feared and had to be enforced. He kept following the hypnotic motion of the wave as it reached midway up the lagoon. She made a few calming sounds to the dogs, then hastened back onto her seat.
“They are OK,” she said and put her hand on his arm, now relocked against the steering wheel, but he did not react.
This would have been his moment to speak, normally. She let go of his arm and gripped the handle to the front. Her eyes remained open, fastening somewhere behind the windscreen.
The bridge shuddered for the third time as water rose onto the deck. Again, the Toyota was pressed against the railing. The cabin filled with water, rushing left to right, although, or so it seemed, less intense than previously. They endured the whirling chaos of mud and debris with some calmness. The men caught between car and railing disappeared with the wave. The Toyota lifted from its suspension but did not lose contact to the ground. A leather purse rushed into the cabin but disappeared immediately out the other side. The man thought that, yes, with closed windows they may indeed have been lifted over the railing. Seen that way, the woman had saved his life, but it had not been an act of compassion. Butter drifted to the front, helplessly clawing, her nose pressed against the roof, snorting fiercely. The man felt paws ripping at his shoulder and grabbed the dog by a hindleg before the departing wave could suck her out the window.
When the water in the cabin had receded to chest height, he managed to float Butter to the back of the car. Then, the man opened the door and again let out the remaining water.
He brushed algae from his face, spat, coughed, spat again, and for the first time turned to meet the woman’s eyes. They stared at one another, each searching the other’s face. Her perfectly arranged proportions, humiliating many men into openmouthed stares, could have come straight from a trendy outdoor fashion magazine, hair gleaming oily wet with strange accessories blinking in the sun, the photo-director having suggested something like ‘alone in the jungle’. Nothing had changed. She was the same, only a broken promise later, nothing terrible in her value system, misplaced expectations unavoidable in human relation. The man’s face, however, must have shown something different, for she blinked in a rare loss of composure, and he saw a bewildered sadness clouding her eyes.
He could not stand the sight, guilt and disappointment cutting equally deep, and turned to look to the sea.
The interval between waves had shortened. The fourth had already broken over the beach and was now travelling up the lagoon. The man followed its path inland with rational detachment, less hypnotic fright. He judged this wave to be smaller, perhaps similar to the very first one, though less steep. The land around lay completely transformed, flat, and swirling in grey and brown; it could have been the view on a different planet under an uninhabitable atmosphere.
Still, they didn’t speak, the tension in the car not exclusively from external danger. The bridge shook but the water did not reach up to the Toyota’s windows. As they watched the wave flood around the car, they instinctively held their breath. When it had passed, all vehicles had remained in their former positions, but the man did not dare to venture out yet.
The fifth wave washed almost gently over the asphalt, taking more debris away than it left behind.
The sixth wave passed without reaching the upper bridge, as did the seventh. All along the right side of the bridge, people began to crawl from the mountains of debris deposited between railing, poles, and parts of intact fences, pulling free from unidentifiable mounds of wreckage, lumped into solid masses by sand, mud, algae, and jelly fish. Men, women and children squeezed through broken car windows, pulling on bodies still inside, or helping others caught somewhere, many crying, some begging for help, some silently digging through the debris, laboring with hectic movements and wild yet exhausted looks on their faces, constantly checking left and right as if fresh destruction may rain down on them from any direction. A few sat or stood motionless staring at nothing. Three soldiers cast a thick rope down into the lagoon trying to rescue people below the bridge. The green mini-bus had vanished, perhaps with the Tigers inside. The army truck sat pressed against the railing, like their Toyota. The conflict that had preceded the Tsunami was forgotten, at least for the moment. Men descended from the superstructure with disturbed eyes, but seemingly unharmed. Cries of pain and loss filled the air. Those with serious injuries would not live through the day. Even if any of the local hospitals had survived the Tsunami intact, which was unlikely, they could hardly cope, running at full capacity in normal times. Their staff was not going to come for work soon, if at all. Many doctors and nurses must have died, too. The dirty water was going to infect even minor injuries. Without antibiotics, people were going to die for weeks to come. The city would turn into an open cemetery, corpses spreading disease, contaminating drinking water and food supplies. Relief and rescue organizations would take days to arrive, and they were going to be stretched terribly thin along the length of the coast. Trincomalee and Jaffna, both Tamil cities directly on the ocean, must lay in ruins, too. Most Sri Lankan cities sat along the coast. Only Kandy, in the mountains, was going to be unaffected. A hopeless outlook.
The man remembered the small bottle of Betadine and an emergency pack of Cipro in their luggage and asked to his wife, “Is it over?”
The woman nodded, lips quivering as she bent forward and away in a rocking motion. She had never cried before, not since they met. Her upper body moved in tiny jerks. Behind the thick hair, and with her head turned slightly to the right, he could not see her face, though she didn’t cover it, her hands clasped under the chin. She made no sound, but he was sure she was crying.
He knew he should comfort her, lay a hand on her shoulder, touch her, turn her around and hug her, but, again, a feeling of disconnection made him dizzy. His hand did not move. He would have to enforce the gesture. Instead, he plugged the mushed jelly fish from her back and tossed it out the window. This was all he could bring himself to do. He felt ashamed. Now, he was the disappointment.
In the front, a young Muslim struggled to pull an unconscious woman, assumingly his wife, from a car lying on its roof. The man got out of the Toyota, commanding the dogs to stay put, and closed the door. He stepped up to the young man and without a word they managed to extract the woman from the car, careful as not to injure her on the ragged frame. The woman came-to just when they had set her down, kneeling on either side and leaning over. She began to scream, punching and clawing at them. The two men tumbled backwards, and she scuttled away on all fourth, terror distorting her features. Then, she recognized her husband and flew into his arms with tears pouring over her face.
Slowly, the man got up from the floor and turned to the north. He felt too weak to lift the binoculars still hanging around his neck. The screams of the woman continued to echo in his ears, together with a high-pitched electric sound that he knew was in his head only. Over the city, the water seemed to have reached its highest point, at places beginning to retreat, creating giant swirls, turning this way and that, merging and separating again. Survivors sat in treetops, stood on roofs, and other indefinable structures. Corpses, human but few animals, drifted free or swayed lazily around obstacles. Cars, motorbikes, and boats lay where the receding water had disposed them, stacked in the most unlikely places. In between, and everywhere, coconuts floated by the millions.
The man opened the Toyota and called the dogs from the car. In wet rotor-action, both barked, protesting the unannounced and undeserved bath. They stood for a moment, looking around, sniffing the air, then, seemingly oblivious to the changed reality, they started to chase crows swooping over the bridge. The man checked the Toyota’s cargo bay. It stood full of muddy water, and he released the flap. The brown mass gushed onto the bridge and with it a Mullet that must have been caught in there. He shuddered at the sound.
The feeling of disconnection hit him again. He secured his balance with one hand on the car. Heavy and weightless at once, weirdly empty, he swayed and struggled to recall his life situation. He remembered every second on the bridge with exceptional clarity, but the endless stretch of time before lay in fog. His life seemed to have started just a half hour ago. What had he done yesterday, last month, last year?
He looked around for something to reconstruct and stabilize his identity. A woman climbed from the Toyota, no, ‘his’ Toyota. He watched as she carefully balanced over waste and through mud until she stood next to him, looking up into his face. The man remembered the intimate force her beauty used to have on him, also the feeling of safety and kinship.
Between his feet, the Mullet flapped in the mud, desperate for life. The man kneeled, cupped one hand over the fish’s eyes, calming it with sudden darkness, then quickly grabbed it by the tail and hoisted it over the railing. It disappeared in the water with a silver flash and the man started to cry.
Edward Bristol, Europe, 2022
See the green grass on the other side?
The same year Sunil finished his school, took his money plus interest from the bank and disappeared, probably to Colombo.
I do not know what happened to him, nor his father. We left the country as the civil war rekindled. I can’t offer a happier ending.
These are the realities of fair trade. It ain’t simple.
Beyond the headlines of war, a good thing is happening. Some may have noticed that lonely Myanmar, aka Burma, has turned and reached out to the West. It has installed ATMs, freed opposition leaders, voted a parliament and now is even talking to Hillary Clinton. To those who’ve seen the country only five years ago this is nothing less than a miracle.
Five years ago Burma was oppressed into a 18th century time warp from which even Sri Lanka, Pakistan or Cambodia seemed like beacons of freedom and prosperity. I was arrested for simply looking (with binoculars) over the lake to the house where Aung San, the daughter of Burma’s founder, was locked up for 15 years. Aung San now runs for parliament and meets Hillary!
Those days, $50 would get you three kilo of Kyat notes with which you could buy, well, nothing really because nobody wanted it. There were no telephones, no internet, no newspaper, no ice-cream, no healthcare, and no credit-cards – it was perfectly medieval.
Thanks Hillary, for going there. I am sure the trip wasn’t easy, but you will have recognized the beauty and authentic goodness of its people. Probably you haven’t seen their terrific gemstones but we here all love them and, please, please, let us again buy and sell them legally. If you do, we promise to be very good, pay taxes and all.
The Burmese have been traders and business people since the dawn of commerce. They are very good at it; honest but tough and hard working; and they will be again. If only we let them in now. It must have cost the Burmese military a lot of courage to overcome their pride and reach out to the West. I wish our politicians had, at times, the guts to say: “Heck, I was dead wrong, sorry folks. Let’s do better.”
It is on us now to acknowledge their courage and show that we too can change and do better.
Our house in Bangkok stood at the end of a cul-de-sac inside a big compound bordering to an even bigger slum. A barbed-wire fenced wall separated us from the poor. I liked the wall for the cozy atmosphere it creates in our street, but the inhabitants of the slum didn’t seem to justify the security. Their lives were just as burdensome or as happy as ours; and they didn’t care about the crazy foreigners inside the compound.
Crime was not a topic, but bad things did happen behind the wall.
To control the swamp that Bangkok is build on, the city’s engineers dug up channels and concreted over every trickle of running water. Today, the channels and rivers of Bangkok are deathtraps to all land creatures. The embankments are unforgiving walls; too steep and slippery even for rats to climb up.
Such a channel lay behind our compound’s wall: a dark and still body of water choked with garbage, a sad sight with a bad smell, but normal in Bangkok.
During one of the first nights in our new house, I was roused by a wail and splashing sounds. I ran to the upper window from where I could see the channel. A dog had fallen in. I saw him paddling back and forth, searching a way out. Every few seconds, he let out this heart-stabbing wail. Then, he tried to climb on one of the garbage islands, but in vain; it sunk away and reemerged in a circle around him. I looked out for the fridge that I had seen floating the other day but it was gone.
Our dogs, joining the terrible wails with their own interpretation, interupted even my wife’s deep sleep. When she came up and saw what happened, she started to cry. I put my arms around her; she was shivering despite the heat. It must have been two or three o’clock in the morning yet Bangkok was still like a steam sauna.
After years in the third world, one, sadly, gets hardened to suffering; yet I can not stand idle when there is at least something that can be tried. The compound’s wall was too high to climb. Even if I had a ladder, there was too much barbed-wire on top. The dog wailed and paddled-on for his little life.
I grabbed my sneakers and started to run – first a kilometer or two into the opposite direction, away from the wall and the channel, out of our compound and down onto Sukhumvit Road, one of Bangkok’s busy eight-lane arteries. There I turned right towards the first big junction. I ran fast, feeling positively athletic in my mission, which I was not – in fact I carried 20 kilo overweight. Lorries and cars honked at me: a crazy foreigner in pajamas and sneakers racing through the dark.
At the big junction I turned right into a smaller road (which means only four lanes in Bangkok) and from there again right into a residential street, consequently making a wide circle around our compound; and finally arriving at a bridge crossing the channel behind the compound. Beside the bridge I found the little track which I had noticed earlier and which followed up the channel between our compound’s wall and the slum.
When I got to the back of our house, my wife had climbed into a tree from where she could peer over the wall. The dog was still alive but in-between his wails there were gurgling sounds. He was clawing the wall, trying to hold onto the slippery moss. I lay on my belly and leaned over the bank. As he saw me, he squeaked and tried to get away. It was a typical midsize street mutt – half-wild creatures with no family attachment, shy and wary of humans.
I snatched him by the neck and hauled him up. Determined to fight for his life even in this misery, he bit me in the wrist. Now, I squeaked; and let go in midair. Luckily he was already on an upward trajectory. He crashed against the wall and landed on his feet.
For a moment we stared at each other, me breathlessly non-athletic and him scared out of his senses. Then he dashed off; and again fell into the channel!
There he was paddling around and wailing once more. I was rather dispirited but my wife up in the tree was not.
The second time, having learned my lesson, I got him by the tail, pulled him upwards and swung him to safe ground, always keeping good distance from his jaws. I was afraid his tail might come off but it held fine. Those street mutts are tough little fellows.
The instant I let go of his tail, he disappeared down the path and into the dark. No more splashing sounds. He, too, had learned his lesson. Probably he felt that he had escaped not only the water but also Bangkok’s legendary dog eater, the nightmare of all street puppies. I was left behind in the mud, bleeding and panting. You can’t expect him to say thanks.
To my wife, however, I was a hero and back in the house I got beer for my wrist and many hugs. The next day, I broke the lock of an emergency exit in the compound’s wall (there was, of course, no key) and thus got direct access to the little path next to the channel. Then, we bought a big landing net in a fishing shop.
We regularly rescued lizards, birds and cats, but mostly dogs – young dogs; they are just too silly. We also built a watchtower for our dog to guard the channel (see picture). When something falls in, he howls; and we get the net ready.
Out of the plane I can hear “Geee-cko-Geee-cko” coming from the main building. This is Rangoon International Airport. It is quite and darkish.
French raiders in the hotel bar discuss the ‘great opportunities’ of Burmese antiques under the ‘current circumstances’.
My local contact secretly squirrels away gems for an escape abroad. He looks at the stacks of local bills and says: ‘This no good’.
Our lapidary keeps the doors open. No security is needed. Burma is safe, as long as you don’t mess with the generals.
First time visitors shed tears at the Shwedagon Paya.
A sign at the muddy river: ‘No foreigners beyond this point’. There is no brigde.
Hollywood-stile villas and new SUVs proof that economic sanctions don’t work for the upper 1000.
My taxi has wooden seats and a plastic bucket taped to the floor. It is half full with red slime. Many Burmese still chew betel-nuts, but they are not allowed to spit on the streets anymore.
Strings hang from upper apartments replacing electric bells.
Grand colonial buildings are occupied by the military. Specky shirts hang to dry from broken windows. Nobody is allowed on the sidewalk. They are serious: I get yelled at.
A local garage makes ‘new’ cars; by hand; one by one; out of scrap metal and an engine. They produce three per month at $1.5k
Drunken monks fight over cigarettes. Religion can be anything.
Burmese food is delicious, not just numbing hot or sweet, but individually cooked, untouched by industrial standards.
Nobody dances at a pop festival. VIP kids sit behind security and fences.
No ATMs, no mobile phones and no computers proof that economic sanctions do work for the lower 35.000.000.
A grainy TV show features stone-faced farmers dancing in shabby costumes. A subtitle reads: ‘Here they still live happily without foreigners’. So very thin they are.
For good and bad, Burma is past caged in a country and its people.
A long while ago I was terribly sick with a slipped disk or lumbago or very bad back-pain. I suffered for months, got myself hooked on painkillers in booze, and then I lost my job and my friends too. Cause & Effect merged. Things can get so bad; you don’t know where to start repairing your life.
After some inner and outer travel I came to suffer in Bali. A friend recommended a famous local healer. OK, whatever, I’ll try it.
I don’t know about famous but the healer certainly was local, very local. At noon he was in underwear, fresh out of bed. His reception teamed with chicken and the office was an open-air carpet.
Children cried “Foreigner! Foreigner!” and gathered to watch. I was suffering my usual bad day, so I sat down in the mess and surrendered.
The old man studied and squeezed me, and poked my ears and eyes, all the while mumbling stuff in Balinese. He might have called the healing ghosts or just cursed the interruption of his nap I didn’t know, but the birds, children and chickens were dead silent. That made me kind of anxious.
To escape from anything spiritual and because it is common in western medicine, I started complaining about my body, how bad I felt and so on, but he cut me short: “Shush!”
As suddenly as he had begun voodoing he stopped, got up and plucked some leaves from a bush and started to chew them. I thought he was finished, but, oh boy, he just got started.
For appetizers he added some white powder to the chewed leaves, munched them a bit more and then spat the whole slimy mud into my face and on my chest.
The stuff burned on the skin, but I was kept busy with a much stronger sensation: Do you know the point on your elbow that gives you these electricity-like pangs? It turns out you got these points all over the body and when you push them real hard with a stick or something you get electric pangs that last minutes. You squirm and howl. Tears make the chewed leaves in your face burn even more.
Each of these, say, energy points becomes the center of your little universe until the current slowly subsides and that point becomes just a normal point on your body. Gone, no more pain there, good, next point. You squirm and howl and so on.
An hour later he had worked himself from elbows to heels, left to right. I was soaked in sweat, tears and chewed leaves.
Finally he said: “Finished”.
That was the first thing he said to me. The birds, children and chicken started to chatter again. I felt finished too. I could hardly stand.
We did have a long talk thereafter, and he explained to me that in his view the nerve system stores pain in those energy points, and that he “opened” them to release my old pain, like cleaning a hard-drive of old files, old memory of pain. He said I was breathing too shallow and holding my breath too often. That my body was dried up (true, I had only beer and coffee for years), that I needed quietness and massages, air and above all water, water and more water.
Was I healed? No, but I sure felt I had a clean place to start repairing. Which I did.
P.S. When I went again years later he send me away: “No sick. You go home.” No charge.
Despite my do-all-better colonialist mindset let me tell you that there is no better place in the world for children (and mothers) than some South-East-Asian countries, namely Bali and Thailand.
Bali tradition prohibits children to touch the ground or be alone until they get the first teeth. That means babies must always be carried around and are never to be let alone. No children “crying-it-out” in their lonely bedrooms. Especially fathers are held responsible to take care of the very youngest. In dense family compounds children grow up as responsible members of their micro community.
Children represent the gods. Mistreating them is bad luck.
In dog-eat-dog Bangkok one never sees a child being yelled at, let alone hit, never ever. If somebody raises his voice against a kid there is usually a foreigner involved. Whenever a mother with child enters a cramped bus in Thailand adults jump to offer their seats to the child. I think that is just the other way around in Europe.
Taxi drivers love to take pregnant women to hospital hoping for an early birth, because that means good luck for the driver. Police officers have basic skills in child delivery to help if the occasion arises, which is not too rare because of the bad traffic.
In the West, it may be easier to find a flat with pets than with kids. In Bangkok, having kids is a sign of reliability and gets you a much higher score with picky landlords.
Thais are simply wonderful with their kids, tolerant, patient and caring. They take them to work and let them do whatever unless they hurt themselves or others.
And you know what? These kids behave much better than the little blue-eyed expat devils. I can’t say whether that is in the genes or some sort of early conditioning. While Europeans kids kick their nannies to get what they want, the Thai kids smile and achieve the same.
Many soft-shelled Westerners are shocked when first confronted with the seemingly unlimited suffering on the city streets of Asia or Africa. Men without limbs lie on streets holding plastic cups with their lips, pregnant women wail for alms, little children with sad eyes roll in the mud and blind mongoloids play heartbreakingly bad on some ancient instrument. Yes, it is terrible… but look twice before you donate.
I remember a little girl with her two puppies: She slept on the busiest piece of sidewalk in town, right next to the stench and dirt of a roaring six lane road. People might have stepped on her or the dogs at any time. If you love kids and puppies, like most humans, seeing them helpless and without shelter in the filth seems too much to bear.
But, when passing that area more often, you will realize that she sleeps there only on Tuesdays and that the puppies change every month or so. Also, the dogs are strangely calm, not like normal puppies at all.
One Tuesday you will see the girl sneaking out of a taxi a couple of hundred meters up the road. In the car sits an elderly woman with three or four other girls and a lifeless heap of puppies.
They are professionals. The girls and the dogs are being used by a hard-shelled mother (if one may call this a mother). The puppies are probably drugged and die regularly, the girls never get to see a school and learn to sleep in the dirt as a profession.
The worst thing, in a twisted way, is to give them money for their performance.
Better leave a tip with that taxi driver. At least he works for a living.
Then, on the other hand, try not to harden too much and keep an eye out for people truly needing help. They are often the ones who don’t ask.
When we opened an office in Thailand I started learning the local language, as I always do when new to a country. Because Thai sounds like voice-over on a Donald Duck movie, I hired a teacher for one-on-one lessons.
As most “small” language Thai is not well documented and any word will have various translations depending on which book you open.
Thai doesn’t have many words, hardly any grammar; it has no articles, no inflection of noun, and no declension of objectives, no variation of verbs in regard to gender, number, tenses or cases and many other simplifying no-rules. A sentence like “If I would have known, I would have had the chance to use past perfect.” does defy translation.
Furthermore Thai belongs to the group of tonal languages. Tonal languages, as opposed to the non-tonal Indo-Germanic languages, root meaning in tone, not in grammar. Hence the same word may have a myriad of meanings depending on how you pronounce it while the written form remains identical.
“Leo” for example means “beer”, “right”, “quickly”, “come” and “here” and some unidentified food. Imagine you want to say: “Quickly, come here with the beer.”
My teacher described this tactfully as a three-dimensional language concept but I smelled the competitive disadvantage of a nation, especially when one realizes that the locals do not understand each other very well.
In my lessons, I focused on simple sentences of importance (like the one mentioned). After four weeks of study my teacher deemed me ready to order my favorite dish “Fried rice” which is “Khao pad” plus “Nung, krap” which is “One please”.
Confidently I walked up to a fried rice vendor and said “Khao pad, nung krap”. He looked irritated and called his wife.
By the time I had said “Khao pad” about eight times, the fried rice vendor and a group of spectators had organized someone who supposedly spoke English. He didn’t understand me neither.
Exhausted I pointed at the fried rice, said not a word and gestured “one”. That went through like a revelation. “Oooh, he wants fried rice! Man, why doesn’t he say so? God dammed foreigner.”
The bi-lingual Thai laughed, padded my shoulder and called out: “Yuu wiht eiis on.” and meant “You fried rice, one.”
I took another 6 months of private lessons, and then I gave up. Now, when in Bangkok I never say a word in Thai except a Buddhist “Mai pen rai.” which means “Never mind”, I hope.
How flat is that Mr. Friedman?