washingtonpost.com  > World > Special Reports > Tsunami in S. Asia


In Sri Lanka, a Vacationing Family Meets the Ultimate Challenge

By Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 3, 2005; Page C01


There were 15 of us gathered around the dinner table, from four continents, celebrating Christmas on a fantasy private island in the Indian Ocean -- with nothing but sea separating us from the South Pole, the Seychelles and Sumatra.

We handed out presents, ate turkey and Brussels sprouts hand-carried from distant lands, drank a lot of wine and champagne, wore funny paper hats and read silly jokes from Christmas crackers. Hoots of laughter greeted my brother Geoffrey as he instructed us how to slice the Stilton cheese he had brought with him from England. On no account must the Stilton be dug into with a spoon, he insisted.

Dobbs family members arrive on Taprobane on Dec. 23. (Michael Dobbs - The Washington Post)

_____Live Discussions_____
Transcript: The Post's Michael Dobbs discussed his experience in Sri Lanka and the tsunami's aftermath.
Transcript: Peter D. Bell, president and CEO of CARE, discussed his article, Launching the First Wave of Relief.

At breakfast the next morning, recovering from hangovers, the adults made plans to go sailing around noon. Some of us went for a swim in the ocean. Others waded the 100 yards or so to the mainland for a walk along the beach. My three children, delighted to be skipping school for a dream vacation half a world away, were still in bed.

Now, after surviving one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history, we try not to think too much about what might have been: What if my wife had not found a rope to grab onto when she was hurled through the water by the tsunami? What if the children, ages 12 to 16, had been on the beach? What if my 80-year-old mother had returned from her walk five minutes later? What if we had all been out on the ocean in flimsy sailing dinghies?

Though it's been only two weeks since we left a wintry Washington for sunny Sri Lanka, it seems like several lifetimes ago. During those two weeks, we have seen both paradise and hell, and a surrealistic netherworld in between. Preoccupations that loomed large just a few days ago seem trivial. People and places we had never heard about have become tragically familiar.

Taprobane is a tear-shaped rock just off the southernmost tip of the tear-shaped island of Sri Lanka. In the 1920s, a bogus French aristocrat created a luxuriant garden on the rock, topped by an exotic octagonal villa. In the decades since then, Taprobane has played host to a succession of aesthetes and eccentrics, ranging from the writer Paul Bowles to the art patron Peggy Guggenheim to the adventurer Arthur C. Clarke. My brother, a Hong Kong businessman who bought Taprobane a decade ago, markets it to rich Americans and Europeans as "the isle of dreams."

Geoffrey, who is known for throwing fabulous parties, had invited an eclectic selection of guests to this isle of dreams to celebrate Christmas and New Year's. They included my family; a Hong Kong art dealer and his Filipino wife who had organized an exhibit of Sri Lankan maps and prints in the nearby town of Galle; and four vivacious young Australian women, who had come to Sri Lanka in search of themselves. Geoffrey's Angels, we called them.

My family and I arrived on Taprobane on Thursday, Dec. 23, after a week of almost continuous traveling. We had toured Hong Kong, climbed the 400-foot-high rock at Sigiriya, a fantastic mountain palace built by a demented 5th-century Sri Lankan king, and ridden in a hot-air balloon. After days cooped up in planes and minivans, wading out to my brother's island through the warm surf was a magical experience.

On Friday, my wife, Lisa, took the children into the nearby fishing village of Weligama for shopping and sightseeing while I lazed on Taprobane, reading the accounts of past visitors to the island.

Taprobane's original owner, the self-styled Count Maurice de Mauny Talvande, found refuge on the island after fleeing England in disgrace for homosexual activity. In his book, "The Gardens of Taprobane," he describes how he sublimated his passion for beautiful young men by creating a beautiful garden, "perhaps unique in the world."

On Saturday, Christmas Day, we visited friends on the mainland and enjoyed a dazzling sunset. This was followed by our holiday dinner. I went to bed that night thinking about the brilliant parties de Mauny organized on Taprobane -- "fifty catamarans, garlanded with festoons of many colored lights, furrow the Bay and skim past the Island" -- and his comments about the fragility of his island rock, besieged by sea and jungle, and racked by torrential monsoon rain.

On Sunday, we woke to "another glorious day," a frequent entry in the count's Taprobane diary. There was barely a cloud in the sky. The only sign of anything amiss was a crow that settled on the table on the terrace, just as the guests were sitting down to breakfast. The art dealer tried to shoo the crow away, but it came closer, flapping its wings, screeching urgently at him and his wife.

When the tsunami hit, Geoffrey and I were both swimming around Taprobane. We were puzzled why we were not making any progress, even though we are strong swimmers. Lisa was wading back to the island after a swim. The island seemed to recede in the distance, getting smaller and smaller as the water level rose.

The popular image of tsunamis is of huge waves that sweep away everything in their path. But my experience that morning was completely different. It was as if some supernatural force had grabbed hold of the ocean and shaken it from side to side. Swimming in a bay on the edge of the ocean, I felt as if I were in a huge pool filling up rapidly with water. As the water level rose, I rose with it. The force of the incoming water pushed me and Geoffrey to the edge of the overflowing bay.

Fortunately, we came to rest against a catamaran, which was itself jammed hard against the solidly built Weligama fish market. After the waters began to recede, a fisherman helped us wade to shore.

We were greeted by three wailing villagers, running down the road toward us and shouting something in Sinhala we could not understand. They held out their arms in a gesture of supplication. Powerless to help, we looked frantically for Lisa, whom we had last seen wading back to Taprobane. We found her as she was climbing down from a tree: She had been swept inland by the water. She later described how the debris of strangers' lives had rushed past her as she sat in the tree -- odd bits of furniture, clothes, a child's drawing, toothbrushes.

There was a great sucking sound as the bay emptied almost entirely of water -- an even weirder sight than the original tsunami.

We walked back across the now dried-up strait to Taprobane. Everybody was worried about us. Because the count built his house on a 60-foot-high rocky outcrop, it was one of the safest places to be. The most dangerous places were flimsy fishermen's huts that collapsed from the force of the water -- or buses or minivans traveling down the busy coastal road.

For much of the rest of the day, we were effectively trapped on the island, as a series of mini-tsunamis crashed around Taprobane, alternately filling and emptying the bay. I wrote a story describing our ordeal for The Washington Post by the light of flickering candles and dictated it to Washington by a dying cell phone, largely unaware of what was happening on the mainland.

It was not until the following day, Monday, that we saw the ribbon of utter devastation along the southern coast of Sri Lanka.

Except for a few saints and total scoundrels, most human beings are amalgams of selfishness and altruism. The proportions may vary in individuals, but the basic instincts are the same. And so it was with us.

I am ashamed to say it now, but one of my first thoughts was how we could complete our vacation in the style to which we had become accustomed.

The first few hours after the disaster seem almost unreal. My brother was worried about his other properties along the coast -- and we were all in a kind of trance. At one point, a helicopter hovered overhead, looking for survivors. "What they don't know is that we are all down here, eating Stilton," cracked one of the Aussies. Shortly afterward, another Australian girl began suffering excruciating stomach pains, and was taken by car to Colombo, where she was operated on for a burst appendix. (Our most serious casualty, she is now recovering in Sydney.) The Aussies all had cell phones, which soon came alive with text messages from Perth and Bangkok and Los Angeles. "Merry Christmas, I am on my yacht eating prawns and drinking champagne," read one of the messages. "Sure beats our uneventful Christmas," read another.

We had succumbed so greatly to the charms of life on Taprobane that we found it difficult to tear ourselves away. But by Monday, it became obvious that we would have to leave: There was no water or electricity, and the Christmas leftovers were getting rancid. One of Geoffrey's employees arrived miraculously with a minivan from Colombo, and we packed in a hurry. My 14-year-old daughter, Olivia, who attends the District's Duke Ellington School of the Arts, brought everyone to tears with a haunting song she had composed and strummed on her guitar:

Pack up your bags;

Say goodbye

No time to turn back;

No time to cry

The morning has decided so many fates

The village lies in ruins

Outside our gates.

We drove up the coast along a trail of ruined homes, twisted buses and wrecked fishing boats to the city of Galle. My brother has a little hotel there, on a hill above the devastated commercial district. The last paying guests were leaving, and the Last Days of the Raj atmosphere Geoffrey works so hard to cultivate was giving way to the grim camaraderie of a MASH ward. Dazed tourists streamed in with stories of collapsed beach cabanas and days and nights in the jungle.

Communications were much better in Galle than on Taprobane, and I soon found myself inundated with interview requests from TV and radio stations around the world. What does it feel like to be a survivor of a natural disaster, the interviewers wanted to know, rather than a professional observer?

I did not quite know how to reply to this question. I did not feel like a victim. I had long since transformed myself back into a reporter, if only because it gave me something to do, rather than moping around, waiting to be evacuated.

But perhaps the question is not so stupid after all. In the days since the tsunami, all of us who were on Taprobane this Christmas have been increasingly aware of our extraordinary good fortune. Geoffrey has gone back to Weligama, where he is working with other foreign residents and prominent Sri Lankans to help local people rebuild their shattered homes and businesses and reconstruct the fishing fleet. Lisa and I plan to assist this effort as best we can.

On our last night in Sri Lanka before heading back to Washington, Olivia told me that the experience had made her aware, for the first time, how lucky she is to live in the United States. Alex, a junior at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, is reluctant to tell us what she thinks because it would come out sounding "too sappy." But she hopes to establish ties between Whitman and schools in Weligama.

Only 12-year-old Jojo, a sports fanatic with a tough-guy persona, seems impervious to the wave of altruism sweeping through the Dobbs family. "The good thing about all this," he told us, as we cut short our vacation, "is that we will be back in Washington for the last Redskins game of the season."

Michael Dobbs will be fielding questions and comments about this article today at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company