Darrin Zammit Lupi in Galle, Sri Lanka
Times of Malta
It's like watching a slideshow. I'm catching glimpses of tsunami-inflicted destruction as the car headlamps fleetingly illuminate them as we drive by.
Something silvery glistens, a man is waving two large fish at us in a vain attempt to sell them.
A strange smell wafts through the air when we open the car window... an overpowering smell of decay.
We've settled in at the Unawatuna Beach Hotel, a tourist resort, surrounded by flattened buildings. Galle was one of the most popular tourist destinations in Sri Lanka. Now all the tourists have disappeared, to be replaced by hundreds of foreign aid workers, soldiers and journalists.
The hotel seems to have escaped relatively unscathed but then I realise that a massive clean-up operation has been taking place here. The small rocky island a few hundred metres offshore must have also helped dissipate the waves' energy.
As I lie in bed, trying to sleep, I'm listening to the waves lapping on the sandy beach... hard to believe that a couple of weeks earlier, other people all over southeast Asia were doing the same thing... many in the exact same spot I'm in now, perhaps even the same bed, oblivious to the terror the morning would bring. For some it was a prelude to the biggest nightmare of their lives, for others, the gentle sound of water rippling onto the beach was the last peaceful sound they'd ever hear.
There were few casualties in this hotel and no fatalities. General manager Janaica de Silva told me the 90 members of staff on duty at the time helped rescue several of their colleagues and guests. It was lucky the tsunami didn't strike at night. Had that been the case, casualties would have been cataclysmic.
Mr de Silva lost both his parents in the tragedy but decided to come back to the hotel within a couple of days. "There's no point in staring at the sea feeling sorry for yourself," he said. "Life must go on, we must keep moving."
Though ground floor guest rooms remain unusable, the hotel was open for business by January 1. It's now a magnet for several members of the media, scientists and NGOs working in the region.
There was no point in staring at the sea for Mr de Silva but that's exactly what I found myself doing constantly, trying to imagine what it must have been like. Now the beach is deserted, save for three local teenagers snorkelling and the occasional stray dog sauntering by. The sea's perfectly calm, not a cloud in the sky - could be a picture of paradise - just as it was on the morning of December 26. But how could one imagine it?
One man, who had a lucky escape, said it was just like the wave in the blockbuster film The Day After Tomorrow. Granted, we all know it wasn't as big as the fictitious wave that devastated New York City in the movie but it gives you some idea.
People on beaches that day saw the first wave but thought nothing of it... Some had a laugh as they saw people on the beach grabbing their clothes and running - the first wave didn't seem like anything to worry about. A fisherman said the horizon was clear and he turned his back to the sea. A moment later, he turned round again and found himself facing a huge wall of water racing towards him. It was so sudden it was like lightning. It's little wonder so many died - that so many survived may be a miracle.
As I step out of the hotel, the full force of the sight of the disaster hits me. A school next door has been totally razed to the ground - nothing is left standing. All that remains are blocks of concrete, corrugated iron, beams and rubble. School desks and chairs are piled in the centre of what's now an open field. It's lucky the tsunami struck during school holidays - the 500 primary and secondary school pupils would not have stood much chance had they been at school.
UNHCR tents have been erected where people once had their homes. People's faces have lost the look of desperation they had in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami. Most have a resigned look, hoping it won't be long before they're able to rebuild their homes.
A group of fishermen were gathered around their grounded boats, helping each other in applying some rudimentary repairs. But they know it's futile, the damage is too severe - some already have new boats, others are waiting for theirs, but their livelihood is in danger once again. No one wants to eat fish anymore - people are too worried the fish have been feasting on human flesh for the past fortnight!
Their friend, a restaurateur, managed to put on a brave face and keep his infectious smile as he described how the tsunami trashed his small seaside restaurant. Both he and his elderly mother were washed away when it struck. He held on to his mother for as long as he could in the raging waters but lost his grip on her. He never saw her again; his last memory of her is the picture in the mortuary photo galleries of the dead, before they were sent for mass burial.
It took him close to a fortnight to manage that. But like many people here, he knows he must get on with his life, rebuild his restaurant and hope the tourists return.
Siripala is an antiques dealer and artisan, his beachside antiques shop was washed away... all that remains is a couple of traditional masks made by his father, a low wall and his shop sign on a stand by the side of the road, standing sentry over the tent that has become a home for him, his wife and three children. On that fateful day, he saw the wave coming, grabbed his wife and children and made a frantic dash towards the hill overlooking the neighbourhood. They made it in the nick of time.
Rumours abound that more tsunami are on their way... When asked why he's still down by the beach if that's the case, a young man, aimlessly wandering through the ruins of the school, just laughed nervously.
These are a people that are suffering from something akin to shell shock. Many have taken their fate into their own hands, others are still too dazed to comprehend and come to terms with the calamity that befell them.
By this time next year, the tourists will return, the economy will get back on its feet but the psychological scars will remain; they run deep and will never heal.