Marijuana smoke wafted through the Blue Fox restaurant on a seaside strip of low-budget hotels and surf shops, a reminder that a few foreign tourists were still around after all the devastation wrought by the tsunami a week ago.
“There are those die-hards who never left Hikkaduwa,” said Suraj Perera, manager of the Coral Gardens hotel in this southern town, the cradle of Sri Lankan beach tourism in the 1960s. “They’re getting their fair share of the sun.”
One of them was Evert Jan Van Hoek, a 35-year-old Dutchman with a stud in his tongue and a ring in his lip who, with the help of a few other European travelers, has organized a mini-relief effort. Van Hoek said he uses the Blue Fox, a hodge-podge of chairs and tables with a balcony overlooking the town’s main street, as his “office,” sending e-mails about the plight of Sri Lanka to his friends in his hometown of The Hague.
His group collects clothes and cash from friends for distribution to families left homeless or without loved ones in the tsunami that struck the island nation and other parts of southern Asia, killing nearly 30,000 in Sri Lanka and an estimated 150,000 throughout the region. He said they have raised about $1,360.
Most foreign tourists fled beach resorts in Sri Lanka when tsunami devastated coastal areas a week ago, but some never left Hikkaduwa even though the waves battered many lodges, forcing them to close down. On Sunday, about two dozen foreigners sat in open-air restaurants, walked or bicycled down the smoggy main road, or lazed in the debris-strewn beach sand. A few surfed.
Hikkaduwa is a backpackers’ haven jammed with signboards advertising Loretta’s Bar and Grill, Casalanka Beach Resort and other haunts. It was once famous for the stunning coral reef in a clump of rocks just offshore. Underwater scenes in one of Sri Lanka’s first color movies, a treasure hunt tale called Ranmuthuduwa, or Gold Pearl Island, were filmed there.
Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clark, who lives in Sri Lanka, sometimes visited and opened a branch of his diving operation, Underwater Safaris Ltd., in the town. But most of the coral withered over the years, and a professor from the Department of Zoology at Colombo University in Sri Lanka’s capital has launched a replanting effort.
Hikkaduwa, which lies 12 miles northwest of Galle, a southern town that was ravaged by the massive tidal waves, appeared to suffer less devastation and death, possibly because many of the seafront hotels are sturdy, and many local residents live further inland.
Jason Dodds, an Australian tourist, said he slept through the tsunami and woke up at noon because he had stayed up late celebrating Christmas the night before. His hotel, set inland, suffered little damage.
“I went back in the water after five days, I thought the dead bodies would have come up by then,” said Dodds, sitting on a virtually empty beach. Nearby, a foreigner in a tie-dyed T-shirt wandered around in the sand, collecting debris in a green bucket.
'They couldn't cope with the things they saw'
Van Hoek, who collected T-shirts and shorts from evacuating tourists and distributed them to Sri Lankan families, said his band of foreign benefactors had dwindled from 20 to 10 because many were shocked by the disturbing scenes.
“Some people, they couldn’t cope with the things they saw, the dead bodies and the boats going down the street. They didn’t sleep anymore,” said Van Hoek, who arrived in Sri Lanka two months prior to the tsunami disaster and worked as a disc jockey at a Hikkaduwa bar called Top Secret.
Pereja, whose 154-room hotel is the biggest and priciest in town, hopes to reopen in two months despite the flood damage in the basement and ground floor. He recalled how tourism slowed down after communal riots involving the Tamil and Sinhalese ethnic groups in 1983.
“Sri Lankan tourism has had its ups and downs, due to bombs and other manmade reasons,” he said. “If it recovered from manmade catastrophes, it can recover from this.”