Kalmunai, is a small village town on the east coast of Sri Lanka. In recent weeks its become pretty famous for Abilas Jeyarajah aka baby 81. A couple of weeks ago, while travelling in South Asia, I got a call at 345am Indian Standard 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. Here is a bit of a travel-log of getting there which might help you gain some insight into this remarkable story and the family at the center of it.
As soon as doors of the plane open, Sri Lanka sends its humid fingers in to welcome you. Though the people may look Indian and some maybe speaking an Indian language (tamil)- this is NOT India, nor does it want to be confused as 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 one of those Visa card commercials- where they tell you to bring your visa 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 the nation to the south. 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 gentleman (and they are usually men) are carrying the maximum weight possible (and often times 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 sarees or lungis (male lower body wraps which are common in South Asia) and readymade cloth that will make their way into the malls and small stores all across the country. Their ticket is the cheapest and fastest way to get some of this cloth into the country rather than having it sit on a container ship for weeks. In the US, 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 this island nation. Check your closet, and wade past the made in china labels and you are likely to find something you wear from here.
Kalmunai is about 300 kilometers or 185 miles away on the other side of the island from Colombo where you land. Imagine New York to Boston, Cleveland to Detroit, from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon. Well this isn't quite as easy a drive. It takes 7 to 9 hours to get across this island.
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. The sidewind up steep switchbacks filled where your car jockeys for position into and out of corners with small rickshaws and large goods-carrying trucks. 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 Candy or the doddering detective played by Peter Falk; Colombo.
Villages of Muslims; a relatively small minority, live peacefully down the road from growing numbers of freshly converted Sinhalese and Tamil Christians. These communities are still nowhere in size compared to the more than 70 percent Buddhist population.
When you cross over the mountains in the middle and make it to the other coast- thats where you begin to see the devestation of 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. Diane Sawyer saw it first hand and the video from some of the areas today isn't much different.
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 UN 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 entreprenuers 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 a 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. Its not trickle down economics necessarily but a good deal of money is getting into the hands of the landowning class.
Aside from the aid agencies and the work being done on the ground, these are small and otherwise sleepy towns. 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 and one to aspire to, he has become so much more than that to the families have lost so much more including their own hopes and aspirations.