Brave new world
Here on the beach at Beruwela, in outward
appearances the last day of 2007 is like any other day of the year;
there is no pause in the waves embracing the sand, no breathless moment
of silence to note the end of another twelve months.
Yet, no man or woman selling their wares on the
beach has quite the same thoughts today, that they have on other days.
Today they look forward to 2008 with renewed hope.
When the three ladies with wrap-around skirts hanging from their
arms, on the beach at Beruwela glare at me and tell me to get lost I do
just that- get lost. I know I have no way of proving that I am not "one
"There were reporters like you before this" says the older of the
three, "they talked to us, wrote about us and got foreign donors to give
us money. But the money never reached us". She glares at me from head to
toe "O.k, O.k" I tell her, backing away with my hands raised in defence.
If she doesn't want to talk with me, fine.
Not knowing what to do next, I stand on the beach, staring at the
horizon, "alone, alone all alone" as Coleridge's Ancient Mariner had
cried. If everyone on the beach is going to react to my press ID, the
way the three ladies had done, I would not have a story to work on, this
Angry with myself and wondering who the "others' before me were, who
had made money by writing about the tsunami affected beach vendors, I
kick a fallen kaduru near me and watch in horror when it flies towards a
temporary hut filled with knick knacks.
"Watch out" cries a young man who had been lounging on some rocks a
few feet away. My mis-aimed kaduru falls quite close to a small black
elephant but does no harm and rolls back on to the sand. "Sorry" I tell
him. "That's o.k" he grins and suggests "Buy.
Cheap. Made in Sri Lanka. You give gift. Yeah?". It's my turn, now to
grin at him. "Who made these?" I ask him in Sinhala. "Oh!" he says in
disappointment. "I thought you were an Indian. I have seen some Indians
on the beach, the past few days and I thought you were one of them". He
explains and good naturedly agrees to talk with me when I describe my
mission to him.
With the kind of optimism Norman Vincent Peal would have approved of,
twenty two year old Ruwadi says even though business is bad at the
moment, he hopes things will improve in the new year. Yes, Ruwadi is his
It is a German name and he likes it because Germans are the ones who
buy his home made elephants the most.
As if to prove his point, a German tourist looking greatly like Homer
in the Simpsons, walks up to us, points at a statue of the Buddha and
asks how much it is in German. Ruwadi bends and draws the figure five
with his finger on the sand. "Five Euros".
"Hmmmp" says Mr. Simpson-look-alike, mutters something
incomprehensible and walks off. Hard luck? "No! says Ruwadi. "He'll come
back. They are like that. Never make quick decisions.
"But they are good at heart" chips in a middle-aged bearded man who
had been listening to our conversation. "This is Bandula Aiya" Ruwadi
introduces him to me. "I know because fifteen years ago a German tourist
bought this boat for me" he continues pointing to a blue and white boat
moored on the beach.
"I named her Claus after the Sudu Mahathaya. She is lucky because on
the day the tsunami came she was not on the beach, but in my garden
receiving a new coat of paint."
The tsunami. What does he remember of that day when the sea turned
traitor. "We were lucky that it was a full moon poya day. If not, none
of us would be here today". (Poya hinda shape una. Nathnam ape bajar
"I still stay awake most of the night, listening to the roar of the
sea and wonder if it would rise eleven feet high as it did three years
ago...if a tsunami comes in the night we will all be gone" says a lady I
had not seen before who also has wrap-around skirts on her arms.
"Don't worry" she assures me. "I am not like the first three you
spoke with. You can write about me all you want". Her name is Gunawathi
and she has been on this beach for the past twenty years. "A Suddha
saved my life when the tsunami came.
I held on to a concrete post grasping for breath. He lifted me in his
arms and carried me to the hotel. I am alive today thanks to him." She
wipes a tear from her eye. "From that day on, she doesn't bargain with
foreigners. She sells her skirts even for two hundred rupees", explains
her friend Mangala. "Whatever we sell within a day, we share between us.
Even though business is bad at the moment, we hope things will pick up
in the new year".
"Are you sure things will improve in the new year?" I continue this
line of thought as I fall in step with a dark skinned, needle thin,
young man who is strolling the beach with three conch shells in his
He shrugs his shoulders to indicate he doesn't know. "Can you really
make a living by selling sea shells to the occasional tourist?" "No" he
shakes his head, gives me a sideways look and says "Some tourists ask me
to bring them drugs.
I take their money and give them lime (hunu)". I realize I ought to
tell him who he is talking to. He nods to say he already knows who I am,
in fact the whole beach knows why I am here, and that he doesn't mind.
After all he is doing the foreigners a good turn by giving them a
harmless substance instead of what they really want.
He has no ambitions for the New Year and assures me if I came back at
the end of 2008 in search of another story I will still find him here on
this very spot with some conch shells in his hands. "I am not scared of
the next tsunami.
Now that I know what to expect I will run and save myself. He
explains, stops and adds "No, I do have one wish for 2008". I hold my
breath. Is he going to give me the conventional wish for peace and
prosperity?. No! Looking at the horizon he says "I hope in 2008 I will
If you happen to see a falling star one of these days, do remember to
make this wish for him, and for all of us as well.