A group of bleary-eyed fishermen are seated on plastic chairs stuck into the sand. It’s not long after dawn in Arugam Bay. Their work is done for the day and as the aroma of cooking rotti replaces the scent of fish, it’s a moment to contemplate the morning’s catch.
Behind the men on the beach rest nearly 100 boats. Dry-hulled and strewn with untangled fishing nets, the wooden boats look as aged as the dark-skinned men – paint fading like sun-bleached sarongs. It’s hard to believe they are less than a decade old. The tsunami made splinters of the old fleet.
Beyond the boats, silhouetted surfers on famed breaks rise and fall like shadow puppets before the Indian Ocean’s climbing sun.
While the fishermen mumble at each other in Sinhala, Danny Indraratna, the 53-year-old who owns the shabby juice cart they are gathered around, has his eyes fixed on the waves.
“I love surfing!” he exclaims before racing over to his cart to point out a proudly displayed photo of himself riding a milky-blue right-hander.
He learned as a boy, he explains in broken English, from Arugam Bay’s first tourists: one Australian and one American, who came here long before the east-coast fishing village became a hot-spot for surfers.
Today there are almost as many local surfers as foreigners and the dawn ocean is a harmonious blend of boards and boats, a liquid conveyer belt of early morning energy.
“It was a big wave,” Danny adds with a boyish grin, still admiring his photo. “Fast.”
But there’s a sad irony in Danny’s comment, and the use of his juice cart as a kind of mantelpiece. Before the tsunami, this is where his home stood. “All of this,” Danny gestures across the curved bay taking in the restaurants, small hotels and swaying palms, “All of this gone. All water.”
The fishermen’s eyes follow Danny’s hand. In an instant their demeanours also change and a mixture of emotions filter though their faces. In a community where the locals' lives are so intimately linked to the sea, for both income and pleasure, many are still coming to terms with the day it turned on them and ripped their world apart.
December 2014 marked 10 years since the floor of the Indian Ocean gave the almighty tremble that unhinged its watery jaws and swallowed many coastlines whole.
At the time, Arugam Bay was a burgeoning travel destination due to its remote location in Sri Lanka’s conflict-torn eastern province. The village consisted of a handful of small guesthouses and bungalows, surf shops, restaurants and many local homes.
By mid morning on Boxing Day 2004, barely a structure would be left standing.
In one of these homes, just a short wander along the wide sweeping beachfront from Danny’s juice cart, Adersinh Thomas, a restaurateur and father of five, was staring out of his kitchen window when he saw an arid landscape of black rock and gold sand appear where the ocean was a moment before.
“The water was sucked back,” he says, eyes bulging with the horror he is describing. “I couldn't see any water.”
This is an excerpt from the Summer 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (Australia & New Zealand).