Hearing about the disaster, we worried about our friends who live in Colombo, close to the sea. Thankfully, they were not directly affected and had already started to help by bringing food to Galle by interior roads.
Galle lies on the coast, 75 kilometers south of Colombo. The coastal road and the railway were impassable as all bridges had been washed away by the tsunami. We knew that they would do their utmost to help, although we were very surprised to learn that Humaid had been going in person on the inland roads.
We can’t even imagine the devastation in the first days.
All we could do at that time was to transfer money to them, with the first transfer of funds on December 27th, the very next day after the tsunami. It was a wonderful experience on our arrival three months later; to be given receipts for each sleeping mat and the kerosene stoves they had bought, with the remaining money in rupees being returned to us.
What a pleasant surprise, as we had never asked them to do so!
The first hurdle when we arrived was to convert our travelers checks into rupees. Every disaster brings out the best or the worst in a person and we experienced both.
To change money in a Sri Lankan bank, it takes about five people including the CEO and a lot of paperwork. The first bank sent us to the competition, which unlike them would assess no fees! Two attempts later, after we had tea and used a lot of our patience, we had a pile of rupees the size of a brick .....
Wholesale and cheap shopping in Colombo means going to Pettah,a terribly noisy, crowded bazaar close to the harbor with an unspeakable stench in the air. The goods are transported both in and out on wooden carts by incredibly thin, barefooted men because the streets are small with no space for Lorries. We had to park Humaid’s car outside the Bazaar.
Some shops have a frontage of less than three meters, but the depth may go to the next cross street (about 15 meters). These long narrow shops, may also have three to four floors accessible only via shaky ladders. Surely not for the faint of heart or people with claustrophobia!
We did our utmost to get the best deals and if the dealers told us that we already had retailers price, we told them that we were not selling the goods but were giving them away.
We almost lost our nerves in a warehouse where we were looking for material for school uniforms. The room was about four meters high and crammed with bolts of fabric up to the ceiling. The gaps between the fabric towers where barely wide enough to move between, and as it was too hot in there to breathe it did not really matter that there was virtually no air. Suddenly, one of the towers began to sway and only a brave, quick leap towards the staircase saved us both from being buried under dozens of fabric bolts and end up as a headline in the paper.
On the upside, we did find the school uniform fabric we were seeking, and some blankets at this store.
It is unimaginable what would happen, if a fire were ever to break out in that district!
As soon as the dealers learned that the goods were meant for Hambantota, we did not need to bargain anymore. The prices were so low that they hardly made any profit, if at all.
Luckily the gas cookers and the thermoses were delivered to our friends’ house. For the rest of the goods, Humaid went with a tuk-tuk for his car. A tuk-tuk is a three-wheeled motorized rickshaw with space for one or two foreign passengers or a six-member local family. It’s called a tuk-tuk because of the sound of the motor.
We simply could not imagine how Humaid would be able to come with his car through this traffic jam of tuk-tuks, wooden carts and a biblical amount of people. Not to mention how we would load our purchases. As we waited for what seemed like a small eternity, we had the leisure to “people-watch”. Alas! His car actually showed up.
We had just been laughing heartily at a woman who transported a refrigerator in a tuk-tuk, an edge of the box literally between her teeth, when a cry went through the store. In less than a minute Humaid’s car was loaded up to the roof with amounts of goods we impossibly could have bought. We truly did not realize just how much we had bought. (Most of the items on the list at the end of this report were purchased that day, except the household machines.)
I then was pushed by a half dozen hands into an already full car. The doors were squeezed shut and the honking of cars behind us became less. With my face pressed to the window I was able to see with my left eye that the boys of the shop were now having the last laugh! Michel was comfortably sitting in the front seat, next to our chauffeur and shopping guide, Humaid.
There is no question that we would have been lost without Humaid’s suggestions on what to buy, and for his car to take it all home for us.
The people were provided with food and drinking water. The outcry of the western media that the people had nothing but rice and lentils is understandable in relation to the donated money. On the other hand one must be aware that they did not have more than that before the tsunami. Fish was understandably removed from the diet of many, as it could only be a guess just what the fish might have been eating. Crabs and lobster were dirt cheap for many months.
Dead bodies were being washed to shore for days, the same water the fish inhabited. Sadly, there were no more bodies recovered.
Cookers with gas cylinders can be used to cook in any accommodation. Due to the deposit the cylinders are very expensive but the refilling is significantly cheaper. The thermoses were used to keep baby food or tea warm. Blankets were provided for something clean to sleep on. There was no space for beds or mattresses in most of the refugee camps and the people were used to sleeping on mats before the tsunami.
Our decision to help in the town of Hambantota was made under Humaid’s influence. There was a lot of private help being given by the locals and tourists, but for most of them going to the southeast of the island was too far.
That there was not much help for the people from the government; that the President and the opposition party made election propaganda and blamed each other for misusing aid; that hundreds of containers with relief supplies were still blocked in the harbor three months after the disaster; and that some NGO managers were sure living a good life is a too long story to tell here and now.