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Tropical Paradise Lost

In Sri Lanka, the Tsunami Cost a Tourist Town Lives and Livelihoods

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 13, 2005; Page C01

HIKKADUWA, Sri Lanka -- It's prime tourist season in this one-strip, low-budget getaway that lies along the country's tropical southwestern coast. The sea glistens in early morning light, a cobalt-blue ocean mixed with streaks of emerald green out by the reefs. There are only a few gentle breakers. If you waded out neck-deep, you could look down and count your toes.

But the ocean is about all that is beautiful in Hikkaduwa these days, gentle breezes and golden sands notwithstanding. If your gaze drifts off the water, much of what you see is devastation and loss and heartbreak.

Chaminda "Chummy" Sembakuttige lost his dive boat in the tsunami. (Neely Tucker -- The Washington Post)

But finally, here is somebody walking along the surf. It is scuba instructor Chaminda "Chummy" Sembakuttige, clad in shorts and a pullover shirt.

He's 31, a friendly hometown guy, and he's going to see his dive boat. It is upside down and stripped of its engines in the lapping water. It was ripped to shreds by the tsunami that killed more than 1,500 people here, one of Sri Lanka's hardest-hit tourist destinations.

For years, Sembakuttige made his living taking divers to offshore shipwrecks. Now his own boat is a wreck and you can walk to it.

It is, he acknowledges, either pretty damn funny or pretty damn sad, depending on your outlook.

"We found one of the engines out there," he says, pointing to the spot where the ocean breaks over the coral reef that makes the place a mecca for snorkelers and divers. "But we're never going to be able to use it. The dive shop can be restored. The big question is if the compressor is okay. If it's gone, the business is gone."

So he might move, pull up stakes?

"Oh, no," he says, laughing. "My father started this shop 30 years ago. I'm going to be here unless another tsunami takes me out to sea."

There is the steady sound of bulldozers and traffic and sweeping brooms and clattering brick in Hikkaduwa this week. While other tourist spots in the country escaped unscathed, this sandy idyll is trying to salvage something of this year's tourist season. The town, mostly known to Australian surfers and European hedonists looking for a cheap tropical vacation, is not a boom-and-bust tourist trap. It's a shady, sleepy village that was known only to local fishermen until somebody got the idea about 30 years ago that foreign tourists might be an easier and more profitable catch.

It's about two miles long and six blocks deep. It lies along the narrow main road that connects the capital of Colombo with the larger coastal city of Galle a few miles south. There is no bypass, no four-lane highway and no stoplight. Every bus, truck, van, motorcycle, bicycle and pedestrian passing through negotiates the same main drag, less than 50 yards from the surf.

And here lies a clutter of inexpensive oceanfront hotels, diving establishments, mom-and-pop shops, simple restaurants, shacks and lean-tos. Most places go for 60 bucks a night, or half that. It's the kind of place where you'd expect to find Jimmy Buffett, at least until he made being a beach bum a corporate enterprise.

"The longest, sandiest right-handers on earth!" gushed the Australian edition of Surfing Life late last year, describing the waves that can hit 12 feet just offshore.

Things are not so gonzo now. Sembakuttige hopes to keep some of his clients booked for late February, but there is a resigned air next door at the Hikkaduwa Beach Hotel.

It's a four-story, $55-a-night place that saw its ground floor wiped out by the waves. The structure is intact and the upper floors are fine, but the swimming pool is a disaster and the place reeks of the spoiled fish and meat from the kitchen.

"It's like a haunted house at night," says Henry Arachchi, the glum-faced manager. "Our phones are already ringing with people wanting to know if they can come, but it may be two years before we are ready."

To the north of town, you can believe that.

The train that the tsunami derailed with more than 1,000 aboard -- most of them fatalities -- lies perhaps two miles up the road. The neighborhoods are decimated, houses swept clean to the foundations or decapitated at the first floor.

But the waves were less intense in the town center and to the south, few people died and businesses are in much better shape. Sembakuttige ventures a guess that this is all because the coral reef has been left intact down here, and perhaps this blunted the ocean's fury.

Whatever the cause, businesses are now either back open or making preparations to be.

At the Hotel Super Corals, a pastel-blue enterprise of 100 rooms set along the beach, there are already linens back on the dining room tables and flowers set in vases. The lattice woodwork that divided the dining room from the reception area has been cleaned and polished, and crews are working on the damaged rooms.

"We only have to replace the windows, the front doors and repair the swimming pool, frankly, and we'll be ready for business," says Daya Perera, the hotel manager, giving a tour of the grounds. "We have a reception booked for Feb. 21."

Pushing her mountain bike along the roadway out front is an actual tourist, Laura Stevens of Canada. She's been hanging out for six months, making jewelry for other tourists and waiting for her seasonal gig at a national park back home to restart.

She's wearing sandals and toting a backpack, just the kind of tourist that comes to Hikkaduwa, and she thinks the place will eventually right itself.

"People who already knew about it will come back, maybe even this season," she says. "But if you hadn't heard of it, I doubt people are going to decide to come now."

Late in the afternoon, a squall blows in. It's a steady rain, beating down on the shoreline and the fishing boats and splattering through the gutters of the Relax Restaurant. An open-air place by the ocean, the restaurant was one of the first to reopen after the tsunami.

W.V.G. Ajantha is a 22-year-old waiter whose sister and aunt died in the water. He has one or two tables to mind -- aid workers, mainly, stopping in for a late-afternoon lunch. He watches the rain and shifts his weight from foot to foot, the tic of someone who stands all day, and he thinks the tourists will come back, drawn by the simple beauty of the place.

Beachfront property here, he says, used to be very expensive.

"But right now," he says, without a trace of bitterness, "I think you could get it for free."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company