It was in the afternoon 11 years ago when the waves smashed into Max Wadiya.
Ranjan, the manager, had gone to Galle Hospital for a vaccination. While there he overheard chatter from the emergency services: something extraordinary was happening in the north of Sri Lanka. No one was sure what it was. It didn’t sound good, but Ranjan had no way to contact the Wadiya.
Two Swedish families, friends of friends, were staying at the Wadiya, which was not then a boutique hotel. They were unaware of impending danger, but Indika, the groundskeeper, noticed the turmoil of the ocean. When he saw the sea begin to recede from the shoreline, building its strength for a massive wave, he hustled the guests onto the first floor, from where they watched seawater wash over the garden up to the verandah. When the sea pulled back for a second strike, he and the other staff grabbed Ranjan's wife and baby and pulled everyone onto the roof – including Brownie the dog.
The tsumani, ignited by an earthquake off the coast of Indonesia, struck Sri Lanka’s northeast shore. It swept down the east coast over the next several hours flooding towns and destroying villages, swung around the southern shoreline and submerged Galle, then whiplashed up the southwest coast toward the Wadiya. Just a few kilometers south of us it toppled a train off its tracks, drowning 1,700 people.
When it was over after the third mind-boggling wave, everyone at the Wadiya was terrified but safe. All around they could see only devastation. The neighboring houses had been leveled. The Wadiya’s deep foundations kept the structure secure, but the ground floor and all its contents – kitchen, living room furniture, a bedroom – had been washed through the shattered wall of the back of the house, through the broken perimeter wall and into the lagoon across the road.
Ranjan somehow made his way back to the house but found it empty. The staff had evacuated everyone to the Buddhist temple on a hill a few hundred meters away. That night, the owner of the tiny garage -- which then stood where the swimming pool is now -- offered the Swedes his home several kilometers in the interior, where he fed them and gave them shelter. The next day Ranjan resourcefully arranged a van and took them on a sightseeing tour away the stricken coast.
Around 40,000 people lost their lives that day, the day after Christmas, 2004. Hundreds of thousands more lost livelihoods and homes.
The hearts of the world opened. Pledges of aid began pouring into the government, which suspended its war against the Tamil insurgency to deal with the crisis.
But we at Max Wadiya realized that the diffuse relief efforts and the torpid bureaucracy would be inadequate for our neighbors in immediate distress. We could not begin rebuilding ourselves while the surrounding villages were in such desperation. Thus was born the Ambalangoda Relief Fund.
Ruth sent out the message to family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances. The response stretched the definition of generous. Within a few weeks, she mustered more than $80,000.
The objective was to get people quickly back on their feet and earning again. The fund never distributed cash. Instead, we took fishermen who lost their catamarans to the boat builder and bought new ones, along with nets and other gear. Temporary wooden shelters went up on grounds where concrete homes once stood. A woman who sold curd received a new fridge. A nearby school was reequipped with computers. A man who lost his prosthetic leg was given a new one.
Slowly the community began to revive and clean up. Only then could we begin our own reconstruction. It was at that point that we decided to rebuild as a commercial enterprise rather than just a holiday home.
For us, this holiday season is always tinged with sadness. December 2004 was difficult for us in many ways. In the span of two weeks we lost family, a close friend and a much-loved dog. And then came the waves.
But it also was a turning point. We look back with pride at actions that embedded the Wadiya into the community, and with what we have built since that day.