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Sri Lanka: Sunshine on Christmas

Last Christmas, Henry Warren, an Englishman living in Portugal, was holidaying in a remote corner of southern Sri Lanka with wife Ana and two daughters.

india Updated: Dec 25, 2005 02:17 IST

Last Christmas, Henry Warren, an Englishman living in Portugal, was holidaying in a remote corner of southern Sri Lanka with wife Ana and two daughters. The place he had chosen was off the beaten track. A dirt track that wound between palm trees led to a small café and two cabanas. Ranna, the nearest town was miles away.

Shantha Weerawarna owned the Sunshine Café and the cabanas here. He and his wife Ramani ran the place and lived there with their two daughters.

Their Christmas celebrations were simple, but beautiful. There was a fish barbecue, decorations and Sinhala music under palm trees. “It was a wonderful feeling and a very special Christmas”, Warren wrote.

The next day, December 26, Warren took his family down to the beach. He had a swim and was sitting down to breakfast when the tsunami hit. His family was lucky to survive but suffered injuries. They lost all their money, passports and belongings, and had a harrowing time getting back to Colombo, as the road and rail line run close to the sea all the way down the southern coast.

Shantha and his children, too, were fortunate. They lived. But they had too lost everything — money, documents, home, café and cabanas. All that remained was the floors. The walls were washed away. Bits and pieces of it still lie where they came to rest, almost a hundred meters further inland.

The smile on his face seems hesitant. “See the room first,” he says. It is a small room, newly built, with an attached bathroom. The tap doesn’t seem to be working, though. “I have to put on main supply from tank,” Shantha explains. “I have to buy water from bowser, so I am careful. No water supply here.” And the light? “Sorry, there is no electricity.”

But there is hope here. This is Shantha’s new cabana. It is a cabana built from goodness. Because when Warren went back to England, he did not forget Shantha. He sent money to rebuild. And so did the Israeli couple, Roy and Hila, who were there the day the tsunami came. As did Mathias from Germany, who had stayed there as well.

“I had this land,” says Shantha. “Friends help.” He says he was distraught after the tsunami, and for a couple of months didn’t know what to do.

The help from his tsunami-time guests has helped him put his life back together. Shantha started rebuilding the ‘New Sunshine Café’ in June 2005. It is two plastic tables and plastic chairs on his covered terrace. There is one room, which is the kitchen. It doubles as the bedroom for the family at night, when he drags a mattress in. The place is well back from its earlier location, and shows some signs of residual fear. It has no ground floor — it stands on stilts.

At sunup, he’s already hard at work, trying to make a garden in the land around the café. There’s still sand there. “Tsunami make the land bad. No flowers grow here,” he says. He’s also worried about the paint jobs that need to be done, and the electricity and water bother him a lot. The nearby tsunami victims’ resettlement colony has already got both, but his place is a few hundred meters further out and stands alone. There is a problem with connections.

“I have to put up signs,” he says. He has painted a sign for the New Sunshine Café. He has to buy some more things. It’s Christmas time again, and he has to get decorations and prepare for a small party, because Henry and his family are coming back again this time.