Kalmunai is a small village town on the east coast of Sri Lanka. In recent weeks, it has become pretty famous as the home of Abilass Jeyarajah, aka Baby 81.
A couple of weeks ago, while traveling in South Asia, I got a call at 3:45 a.m. local time to get to Kalmunai for the moment when authorities once and for all put an end to the controversy surrounding the true identity of the boy's parents.
Following is a travelogue of how I got to Kalmunai, which might help you gain some insight into this remarkable story and the family at the center of it.
As soon as the plane touches down in the capital, Colombo, Sri Lanka sends its humid fingers in to welcome you. Though the people may look Indian and some may be speaking an Indian language (Tamil), the island nation of Sri Lanka is NOT India, nor does it want to be taken for a satellite office of its neighbor to the north.
You realize it quickly when all of the banks at the airport refuse to exchange your Indian rupees for Sri Lankan ones. It feels like a credit card commercial where they tell you to bring your card because they don't take Indian rupees.
Although I was born in India, lived there when I was young and still visit annually, I had never managed to visit Sri Lanka. As long as I can remember, I had always heard more about its civil war as a reason to stay away than any other reasons why I should go visit.
There is a good amount of textile and garment exchange flowing between India and Sri Lanka and you notice it on the flight and at baggage claim, where gentlemen (they are usually men) are carrying the maximum weight possible (and often more) in the way of bound and saran-wrapped bundles of cloth.
These individuals are bringing across hundreds of kilos of fabrics in the form of saris or lungis (male lower body wraps which are common in South Asia) or bolts of cloth that will make their way into the malls and small stores all across the country.
Buying a commercial airline ticket is the cheapest and fastest way for these men to get cloth into the country. The alternative would be to ship it and have it sit on a container ship for weeks. In the United States, the immigration service would call these people mules because their sole purpose is to carry goods across borders.
Garment manufacturing is one of the prime sources of income to Sri Lanka. If you check your closet, somewhere in the mass of Made in China labels you're likely to find something you wear from Sri Lanka.
Kalmunai is about 185 miles east of Colombo, on the other side of the island. It's about the same as driving from New York to Boston, from Cleveland to Detroit, or from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon. But it's not quite as easy. On this island, it takes seven to nine hours.
The one-lane/no-lane blacktop tar roads burp and hiccup beneath you. They snake over lush, forested hills and across open valleys filled with rice fields. They sidewind up steep switchbacks where your car jockeys for position with small rickshaws and large trucks packed with goods.
You pass hamlets with names likely as hard to pronounce for a Western tongue as names of parishes in rural Louisiana. Some big cities have names as easy to say as Kandy (in the middle of the country) or, of course, the capital, which might remind Americans of the doddering detective played by Peter Falk.
You pass villages of Muslims. A relatively small minority in Sri Lanka, they live peacefully down the road from growing numbers of freshly converted Sinhalese and Tamil Christians. These communities are still nowhere in size compared with the more than 70 percent Buddhist population.
When you cross over the mountains in the middle and make it to the east coast, you begin to see the devastation of the area where the Jeyarajah family is from. Imagine an entire coast as far as you can see on either side, filled with debris of what once were towns. Some small bays seem to have been spared but most of what faces the ocean is in ruin.
Some, like the Jeyarajahs, have been fortunate to have relatives further inland whose homes were not destroyed take them in. Others are living in refugee camps from different aid agencies. Within any given hour on a major roadway along the east coast, you are bound to see a shiny white U.N. vehicle with the blue flag flapping.
People seem more anxious to get back to work and stand on their own two feet than wait for the next handout. Fisherman want to fish, and entrepreneurs want to rebuild, and everyone wants to try and put the tragedy in its place -- in the past. Even in the wake of the tsunami, their community is not back to normal -- the sheer number of foreigners alone has created two economies.
The fundamental laws of supply and demand are in effect if you are trying to find lodging anywhere near the damaged areas. The NGO population is putting such a strain on local lodging that people who would normally rent out guest rooms are making up to 10 times the money. It's not trickle-down economics necessarily, but a good deal of money is getting into the hands of the land-owning class.
Aside from the aid agencies and the work being done on the ground, the small coastal towns are otherwise sleepy. Children still smile and laugh but so many look like they've aged by weathering that December morning. While the world celebrates little Abilass -- whose name means hope -- he has become so much more than that to families who have lost so much, including their own hopes and aspirations.