Visiting can help Sri Lanka recover

December 26, 2004, is a day Sri Lankans will not forget in a hurry. In fact, it might take a couple of generations, considering the number of children left without parents because of the devastating tsunami.

Places with names like Weligama, Mirissa, Matara, Tangalle, Galle, Hambantota and Unawatuna may sound foreign and exotic, but today they hardly exist. Some are ghost towns. Most are struggling to cope with displaced people, and many survivors are still mourning their losses.

The east coast of Sri Lanka took the full force of the tsunami after it powered across the Indian Ocean. Arugam Bay was one of the worst-affected areas, with people having to be airlifted.

In an ideal world, the Sri Lankans would be given ample time to mourn, recover and completely rebuild before welcoming tourists to return. Nevertheless, travelers need to recognize that there is the infrastructure for them to return, and their money will help refuel reconstruction.

Boredom, in the long term, can turn into depression, and the hardworking Sri Lankans want to be independent once again. Without houses, people have nowhere to live, and without business the people have no way to earn money. The greatest gift that we can give, aside from money and aid, is our presence in the area as visitors again. This will give hope to many and breathe life back into the people of shattered communities.

It was with this spirit that 19 members of a Unique Journeys tour decided to go to Sri Lanka, as planned, on Feb. 6, ’05. I led the group. Four others did decide to postpone their plans as they felt uncomfortable taking a vacation in a country that just six weeks earlier had been through such a natural disaster. Following our original itinerary, all our touring was inland; we got no closer than 120 miles from the coast.

Sri Lanka is known as the Isle of Delights. That is certainly what we found — gorgeously green beauty, fragrant spices, an abundance of culture, numerous UNESCO World Heritage Sites and, most impressive, the friendly Sri Lankans themselves.

Anuradhapura, the pre-Christian capital, has first-century-B.C. ruins as well as the 2,200-year-old Sacred Bo Tree. Also see Sigiriya, the stunning, fifth-century rock fortress of a fugitive king (nine of us made it to the top after climbing 1,000 steps!). The first-century-B.C. Dambulla Rock Temple is another World Heritage Site. Kandy, the last royal stronghold over the domination of the Portuguese, Dutch and English, is set amidst mountain ranges, lake and river, with tea and spice gardens as well as Dalada Maligawa, shrine of the Tooth Relic of the Buddha.

The Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage is easily one of the highlights of any trip.

As a member of the Sparks Greenbrae Lions Club, I had set up a meeting in Colombo to donate funds raised by the Nevada Lions to the Disaster Relief Fund set up by the Lions in Sri Lanka. Tour members donated an additional amount.

We were told the money would be used to build 1,000 mostly one-bedroom houses in the Galle area 90 miles south of Colombo to replace those washed away by the powerful waves. The Sri Lanka Lions had also immediately provided tents, water and boats.

We were proud to be a small part of the recovery effort in Sri Lanka.

SURAJ ZUTSHI, President, The Travel Center, Inc. (parent company to Unique Journeys), Reno, NV