On my first trip to Sri Lanka I was almost robbed by the ocean.
I was strolling down Unawatuna beach in the early afternoon, cradling my precious new camera to protect it from the splashes of the waves, and taking photographs of everything in sight. I was walking along the water without a care in the world when, with almost comic timing, a wave receded as I took a step. It took my flip-flop with it.
I stood there, partly stunned and mostly amused, and watched the solitary black flip-flop float away. My friend doubled over with laughter at my helpless gaping – I couldn’t chase it, precious camera in hand – then ran after it.
Robbed is probably too harsh a word to use for the ocean behaving as oceans do. Waves rush towards the shore, crashing against the sand before slowly retreating to make way for new ones. I could listen to that sound for hours and feel nothing but peace. But when the water looks as crisp and inviting as it does in Unawatuna, it beckons you to dive in and play instead.
My flip-flop was retrieved, and I was taking literal baby steps into the water. I’d only ever swum in a pool before, and I was trying not to lose my balance in a battle against the waves. I needn’t have bothered. I was less than three feet in when I felt an arm around my waist, pulling me in deeper much faster than I’d been going. Hello, Indian Ocean. I wasn’t prepared for the shock of cold it greeted me with.
I scowled at the owner of the offending arm – a friend, thankfully, and not a creepy stranger – and spluttered as I bobbed about. You don’t have to be scared of the water, he said, enjoy it. He was right, of course, but I feigned indignation for a moment at being manhandled. I couldn’t for long. The water was clear, cold, and beautiful, and I was afloat and comfortable as if I were a seasoned ocean swimmer. It felt so natural, as if chatting away in the ocean was the most normal way to spend time with your friends.
For the first time I was looking at the beach from the ocean instead of the other way around. This view gives you a better idea of a beach’s personality than when you’re part of the crowd. Unawatuna was everybody’s friend. There were tourists lying on beach towels, taking walks, playing games, and enjoying chilled drinks. There were hotels and restaurants along the entire stretch of sand, with the space between them filled with boats. The beach was bustling in the middle of the day when the sun was at its brightest. There was nothing to hint that a tsunami had destroyed it seven years earlier.
When you hear the word tsunami you’ll most likely remember a single event, one the world’s worst natural disasters in recent history. Your mind will race to December 2004 and the images that were splashed over the news. Entire towns in parts of Asia were destroyed by the fury of the Indian Ocean, and its effects could be felt as far away as South Africa. Sri Lanka’s casualties numbered over 30,000 – both citizens and tourists – with tens of thousands more being injured or displaced. Unawatuna, located on the island’s southern coast, was flattened. Hotels were reduced to rubble, and many people were killed. Those who survived were either injured or lost their homes or livelihoods.
You wouldn’t know this by looking at the beach in 2011. I had no idea until one of my friends – a Colombo native – told us later that the beach had been destroyed and rebuilt. This is nice, he said, but it was beautiful before.
“This” was a popular beach without a doubt. We’d booked our hotel rooms late and couldn’t get any on the beach. So we stayed at a “hotel” (I use the word loosely because it was a dump) a short walk away and spent every waking moment on the beach. This Unawatuna was vibrant and alive and, despite the crowds, beautiful to me.
If there were scars after the tsunami they were well concealed. Hotels were rebuilt right on the beach, just a stone’s throw away from the ocean. Vendors walked about selling everything from trinkets to massages. The ocean was pristine and we walked barefoot, our feet sinking into the spotless sand. There was no debris – not even bottles from revellers – to be afraid of stepping on. Music played at every hotel until well into the night. And there was laughter.
Laughter of the travellers who were enjoying all Unawatuna had to offer. Laughter of our gang of old friends reunited after eight years. Laughter of the staff at the restaurants who greeted you with smiles even when you asked if you could go behind the bar and make your own shots for your friends. Twice in one evening. The hospitality never wavered. Unawatuna was a travellers’ beach before the tsunami and after.
When the sun set every evening – a fiery sunset that lit the sky and the ocean ablaze – the beach changed. The air grew cool with the ocean breeze and the music became louder and faster. Unawatuna was getting ready to dance the night away. This was not your family friendly beach, folks. Unawatuna by night was for the parties.
Hundreds of stars looked down upon the pitch-black ocean, the beach illuminated by its many hotels. We lay down in the sand and tried to spot the constellations, me still clutching precious camera because I refused to leave it unsupervised in our sham of a hotel. The laughter was louder, and where people relaxed during the day they were now dancing. When we got hungry and the kitchens had closed there were stalls of delicious kuthu roti to keep us satiated.
As we sat at a table close to the ocean and ate our late night snack, the waves crept higher on the shore. The cold Indian Ocean of the day was gone; the water was warm at night. I know this because it came right under our table and drenched our feet.
This time my flip-flops stayed firmly in place.
Shivani Shah spent several years practising law until she gave it up to pursue a life of creativity. She is a writer and photographer living in Mumbai who tweets at @wordsbyshivani and has an unhealthy obsession with green tea.