Travelers flop in and out of the break as he recounts the day it swept through the shoreline bars and restaurants. We met him on the beach in a place on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka called Unawatuna. Nine years ago, Upali lost everything to the 2004 tsunami: his guesthouse, his restaurant, his home, his family.
He told us that he was laughing when the first waves brought the water to knee height in his restaurant, and then the final wall of black water hit. He was sucked away with the water and tried to cling to coconut trees. After two months of living in a temple in the jungle and receiving drinks and food from tourists and others, Upali made his way back to the place where he had lost it all.
The juxtaposition of the weight of his story against the backdrop of an apparently weightless tourist paradise was overwhelming. He had sold one coconut that day, to us, and was hoping that the tourist season, which rolls into the area usually in November, will bring more customers. A far cry from what he would have earned had his bar, guesthouse, and restaurant still been standing.
Upali now lives a long bus ride away from the beach where he had set up his life and livelihood, raised the children that died in the tsunami, and accommodated his customers. He comes in every morning from his tiny living space to sell happy things to tourists. Pineapples and coconuts.