I can't really write about this yet--my experience has been so fractured. A few words to reassure and describe the post-tsunami Sri Lanka, and me in it.
At the time of the tsunami, I was at home in Kandy, in the mountains, with my mother and aunt Steph, whom I had just collected from the airport the day before (Saturday). I received some text messages that morning from various friends saying that there had been a tidal wave in the South. As the day wore on, I got more and more reports from drivers, people in the streets, etc. It wasn't until that night that we got online and found out the extent of what had happened.
On Monday we three left Kandy for a brief trip around the mountains, as I had planned before their arrival. Actually the trip was to continue on through several beach towns. Those towns aren't there anymore; many of the people I know in those towns are missing or unaccounted for. It's been hard to get information; who do you call about a guy you know who works in a beachfront shack? Especially when the cell networks are overloaded and the landlines have been destroyed. Luckily for me, all my close friends are safe; my extended friend group has suffered casualties already.
During our trip I swung between willful ignorance (no, I don't want to read the paper) and gnawing grief (leave me the hell alone). I don't know that my mom and Steph had a fabulous time but they seemed to be enjoying themselves; I held myself apart and wondered why I was having such awful mood swings. Finally we've returned to Kandy and I feel like I can, for better or worse, throw myself into relief work. Am heading to Colombo tomorrow afternoon to work with Sarvodaya, a Gandhian/Buddhist/community development NGO.
Even now, the full damage hasn't been reckoned. It seems like each time I look at a newspaper or a website it's worse. That isn't just melodrama; the worst hit areas are so isolated (both before and as a result of the waves) that the news is literally not known. This country doesn't have the physical infrastructure to deploy all the aid that's come in. Also the government is in such a horrible state that they don't have systems in place to deal with this.
The local governments on the coasts have literally fallen apart in some places: there are no buildings, no offices, no records, no staff. (Many have died or lost family.) The central government is in perpetual disarray and in particular has no specific ministries or wings to manage the crisis. Apparently there is political infighting (as always here) and massive inefficiencies. Sarvodaya is no longer calling for financial aid and instead focusing on getting resources to the people who need them.
I am hoping that with Sinhala and a computer I can do some good. I am afraid that the wholesale destruction of roads, rail lines, and local organizational infrastructure is going to make relief and rebuilding into a morass of want. For those of you looking to help, of course donations to the Red Cross etc are useful--but please also think about writing letters and making calls to keep our (USA) government helping in the long run.
Me personally: well, my research is going on the shelf for the time being; who cares about culture when people are homeless, hungry, dead... I am very grateful for all the emails and calls I've been getting. Anyone who wants to talk, give a ring to 00-94-77-311-5694. The time difference from the East Coast is 11 hours; i.e., when it's noon in Boston, it's 11pm here.
What else is there to say? I am thankful I wasn't there on the beach when the waves came, as I always stay right on the ocean. I am deeply sad, unfathomably so at times, for the losses here. I can hardly begin to imagine the lasting impact of this disaster. I have a lot of survivor's guilt going on right now and a lot of grim hope that I can help in some way. I haven't cried yet.
Best wishes for a better New Year.