by Jesslyn Lemke & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & 'm a kid from Cheney, but this July, I stood on a beach in southern Sri Lanka where a massive tsunami had hit just a year and a half before. The wave traveled a half-mile inland in some places; thousands of bodies had floated in the sea. In just one day, just in Sri Lanka, 40,000 people had died.
My team and I were there with an international relief organization, on a two-week trip to help people rebuild after the damage of the December 2004 tsunami. As if that weren't enough trauma, a longstanding ethnic war in the island nation -- 230 miles long, just off the southeast coast of India -- has flared up in recent months. Hundreds of innocent people have been killed in clashes between the government and the Tamil Tiger rebels.
When we first arrived, I thought we would, you know, tack a few nails, pat a few backs, eat some coconut and leave. But disaster never lets you go unchanged.
As you sit under a coconut tree, watching people rebuild their homes, Sri Lanka slowly spreads its arms wide, sucking in your heart and asking you to care. Sri Lanka is a starfish kind of country.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & ne little hand grasps my elbow; another clutches my friend's arm. Hop. Twist. God, she's light. Hop, then twist, goes her foot. Her head doesn't even reach my chest. We reach the step of the doorway and swing her bird-like body over. The old woman only has one leg. We lay her on the concrete where she nestles down onto a burlap sack, softly chattering to my friend in Sinhalese, explaining that the people who usually bring her lunch just forgot today. It's 3 pm. We unwrap some leftover rice, and she pulls out the one plate she owns, washes it and thanks us. Bright eyes sparkle amid waves of old wrinkles.
How to describe the people? Mix the sweetness of a grandmother, the liveliness of a toddler, the beauty of a 20-year-old; add some coconut hair oil; and then you'll have my impression of a Sri Lankan.
We said goodbye to the old woman and walked back down the road.
"I could never live alone like her," said my translator-friend. When the tsunami hit the woman's house, she was trapped inside because of her leg. She clung to some window bars from her bed and screamed until someone rescued her. The water ransacked her house. For two years, she had lived continually in a single room full of junk until our team found her.
"She has no one. You may think she is very weak, Jeslyn, but she is very strong. She lives alone like that and is still happy every morning. I want to be like her -- she is very brave," says my friend.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & E & lt;/span & ach morning, we loaded into the back of a pickup, drove out to a village, and pumped wells. Because we were on the southern end of the island, we never saw signs of the war going on in the north. Our reception was always warm. Mothers with babies, old hunched-over men, and strikingly beautiful young men (that's code for "these guys were hot") would collect in the street to wave at "the relief workers" when we drove by.
When I say we "pumped wells," I mean hauling one heavy-ass pump engine through tunnels of jungle no bigger than your dog, to go suck saltwater out of wells that had flooded when the wave hit. Usable freshwater seeped back in later, good for washing dishes and clothes.
"We'd like you to talk about a moment that touched you the most while you were here," our director asks on our team's final day.
I tell them the story of Noni, the woman with the one leg. "Noni's attitude is a light in the darkness. She wakes up in a hopeless situation every day, but she still smiles. We woke up every morning here with a mission to be a light to these people," I tell my group. "Don't stop shining when you get home -- you are the light of the world. This is how love grows."
All those empty sunrises, all that iron courage. What does it mean to be a light to someone?
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & t sunset the day before we left, July 21, we climbed to a white Buddhist temple perched on a cliff above the sea. People from all over the world were sitting at the edge, motionless, staring at something. As I crested the hill, the sight that unraveled before this Cheney kid's eyes was holy indeed.
Consuming rages of ocean were charging in from an unearthly horizon, hesitating before the kill on the step of the cliff, then smashing high and hard onto the black rocks, spewing sky-high shards of silver, blue, and pink into the open pall of the dying day.
Everyone just watched the explosions in awe. Hair from a dozen different countries was ruffling in the breeze the sea made. The beauty of that sunset was a light to all of us.