Somewhere around Bentota, you start to notice the graveyards. Small clusters of tombstones emerge here and there along the coastal road, grown over with tropical shrubbery and mold. Some of the graves fall back into the hills, where fishermen’s wives hang laundry, and some are right along the beach, not far from the little wooden shacks where locals mingle around tables of freshly caught fish. The graves look old. But they aren’t old — it just doesn’t take long for anything left alone in Sri Lanka to be invaded by the erosion of damp clingy natural stuff. When the bus slows down to avoid a stray dog or road bump, you see the date repeated: 26-12-2004, 26-12-2004. Everything here is so close to the shoreline: the road, the graves, the people, the small abandoned houses that are also covered with mold, plus shrubs and laundry and the morning’s fish haul. On one hand, the scene from the bus window is just daily life. Conversation, homemaking, the marketplace. The activities are innocuous. At the same time, civilization here is at its most vulnerable, because behind the road is the pounding, pulsing, thirsty Indian Ocean. You can imagine how, with one good push of the sea, life could easily come tumbling apart. Being an island, Sri Lanka is never far from the ocean in any direction. The water is always there and everybody knows it.
Driving south, you see the train tracks to the right of the road. They are practically in the water. We wanted to take the train south from Colombo to Unawatuna, but the tracks have still not recovered from the December 26, 2004 tsunami, also known as the Boxing Day tsunami and the South Asian tsunami, among other names. Specifically, the tracks have still not recovered from the Queen of the Sea incident, when a tsunami gust overtook a crowded passenger train traveling to the southern city of Galle and swallowed 1,700 people. This was one of the most devastating railway disasters that anyone can remember, which is saying a lot, considering that the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed hundreds of thousands in 14 countries, disappeared tens of thousands, and displaced millions, was the most devastating natural disaster that anyone remembers. Except no one remembers, save the survivors in Aceh, Tamil Nadu, Batticaloa. Now, the tracks to the right of the road are bare. We were told that the train would be running in no time, four or five months tops, though it’s been seven years.
A few days before we got on the bus toward Unawatuna, I asked Dinuka if Sri Lankans still thought about the tsunami. It was then that he told me about the feet. They say, he said, that feet have been washing up on the coasts of America and Canada. The theory, he said, is that they are the feet of tsunami victims. The feet were arriving with shoes. One foot was identified as wearing a shoe that had been popular in India in 2003. Really? I asked. I hadn’t heard this story. Yes, he said, smiling as if to say, I know that the story might not be true, but of course we all know it is. On the bus south, I started thinking about the feet, about what it must feel like to picture the feet of your countrymen — or wife or brother or child — drifting over to faraway lands, to Canada even, discovered by strangers who last thought of the tsunami in 2009, when a five-year anniversary presented itself as a news story. If they thought about it.
The ocean’s power is so big that it not only generates our worst disasters, it recycles our tragedies for later consideration, just when the whole fuss finally starts to die down. The day I returned from Unawatuna, international news outlets reported that a boat had been found in the sea. This fact alone is not surprising. The surprise is that the boat was so far from home — roughly 3,000 kilometers. The boat was small, a fishing boat, too small to be venturing into the ocean’s middle. It was from Japan. Markings on the wheelhouse showed its homeport to be the Fukushima Prefecture. The boat was picked up by a Russian ship, the STS Pallada, on a voyage home from Honolulu to Vladivostok. The ship’s crew was surprisingly unsurprised by the sight of the boat. They had been warned by scientists at the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s International Pacific Research Center (IPRC) that debris from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan would be creeping across the Pacific. According to Pallada crewmember Natalia Borodina, the ship also saw a television set, a refrigerator, and a couple of other home appliances. “We keep sighting everyday things,” she wrote in the ship’s log, “like wooden boards, plastic bottles, buoys from fishing nets (small and big ones), an object resembling a washbasin, drums, boots, other wastes. All these objects are floating by the ship.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted something else this month. By next spring, they announced, debris from Japan’s tsunami could start washing up along the coast of Hawaii. In two years, it could travel to the West Coast of the United States — to Washington, California, Oregon. For two more years after that, from 2014 to 2016, bits of crushed homes, children’s toys, fishing nets — up to 20 million tons of homeless stuff — could circle back to Hawaii. It might be, researchers say, that for the next 10 years, tsunami souvenirs could hover around coastal landlines, visiting the shores of America again and again.
For almost six months, senior researcher Nikolai Maximenko and computer programmer Jan Hafner of the IPRC have been working on a computer model to track the trajectory of the tsunami debris. Now their predictions are coming true. “We are using this tsunami as a tragic experiment of nature…to better understand how debris moves in the North Pacific,” Maximenko told the press. In an October 12 article for The New York Times writer Bettina Wassener concurred with Nikolai Maximenko’s summation that the tsunami could offer exciting chances to learn about the mysterious partnership between the oceans and our stuff: “In essence, as devastating as it was, the March 11 tsunami affords a unique opportunity for studying the phenomenon of marine pollution. After all, rarely are such huge amounts of debris swept simultaneously into the ocean from a single location.” Jan Hafner was rather less effusive but he tried to be comforting. “We don’t want to create a panic,” Hafner told reporters, “but it’s good to know it’s coming.”
For many Americans, the story of the Japanese debris has been more startling than comforting. An ABC News story about the debris ended, “Back here on land in Japan, the search is on for the missing nearly 15,000 people whose bodies have never been found,” prompting the online headline “Thousands Of Rotting Bodies Heading To America.” “All kinds of debris swept up by the tsunami,” reported a furrow-browed George Stephanopoulos, “are now floating in the Pacific and making their way to our West Coast,” and the way he emphasizes “our” makes it pretty clear that Americans are due for an Invasion of the Body Snatchers attack, and that Malibu will soon be occupied by thousands of Japanese zombies.
The worst fears have been over radiation. Fukushima Prefecture was the area of Japan hardest hit by the tsunami. It is also the site of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster, one of multiple nuclear meltdowns triggered by the earthquake and ensuing tsunami. Fukushima is no longer a place in the eyes of the world. It is simply the largest nuclear accident since Chernobyl. When the Japanese fishing boat was found by the STS Pallada, it was immediately checked for radioactive contamination. And even though the Environmental Protection Agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and a host of other expert agencies have been trying to stave the nuclear panic since the tsunami first hit, some will not be calmed. In March, Americans learned that tens of thousands of potassium iodine pills (which are used to prevent the thyroid from absorbing radiation) were being distributed to citizens of Fukushima and surrounding areas. They decided that they too should take precaution. Soon after, reports came from across the North American coast that pharmacies were selling out of the drug, and that some American citizens were landing in poison control centers from potassium iodine overdose. Japanese officials had told the international press that after the initial explosions and fire, the Fukushima nuclear complex released radiation of up to 400 millisieverts per hour. On March 16, Dr. James Thrall, radiologist-in-chief at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and president of the American College of Radiology, told the Los Angeles Times that “anything more than about 50 millisieverts may be cause for alarm…Studies conducted after the atomic bombing of Japan during World War II showed those exposed to 50 millisieverts or more of radiation were at increased risk for leukemia and cancer.”
I suppose it’s hardly strange that American fear of radiation is so profound since America herself invented nuclear fear. She created it decades past, in the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Perhaps she has harbored an anxiety in her citizens ever since, an anxiety that they would in time reabsorb the radiation America released on the people of Japan during the Second World War. Now, the very things Americans always counted on to protect them from enemies — the oceans at America’s sides — are threatening to turn against them, threatening to be rather the deliverer of foreign terror, and to bring it in the most insidious way: little by little, doled out slowly over years.
Disasters, by definition, are thorough and swift. They are impossible to fathom as they are happening. We can only sort through traumatic events in the haunted leftovers — in the trains that no longer go, in the lonely boats, in the rooftops washed ashore, in the feet. Debris is the ocean’s ghost. It is memory in material form. And when our human stuff goes to the sea, the haunting is all the more persistent because it washes back when we least expect it. This is the whimsy of the sea, to delay and return. And return and return. The ocean is our life force and it is our collective memory. Asians are anxious about the debris, too, worried about their very body parts being swept across the seas to be found by North American beachcombers. But maybe there is some silent consolation for tsunami survivors in the arrival of their tragic detritus across the Pacific. Maybe, if the ocean keeps generating material memories, if enough feet wash to faraway shores, maybe the rest of the world will remember what has been so hard for Sri Lankans, and Indonesians, and Japanese to forget.
Reminders of faraway disasters are not new. Early one August morning in 1883, an Indonesian volcano called Krakatoa erupted in a furious chaos of magma and steam. The brute force of the explosion caused tsunamis that instantly wiped out villages in Java and Sumatra forever. The sound of Krakatoa is said to be the loudest on record, shattering the eardrums of passing sailors, and heard as far as Australia 3,500 kilometers away, and on the island of Rodrigues near Mauritius, 4,800 kilometers away. All the world knew the name Krakatoa. Up to a year later, human skeletons were seen floating around the Indian Ocean and up the coasts of Africa, buoyed by rafts of volcanic pumice. And even still, most people would have quickly moved on from Krakatoa had it not been for the sunsets. For months after the event, all around the world, electric sunsets blazed out in the fiery blood reds and oranges of apocalyptic nights. Paintings of the time took on sanguine hues — William Ashcroft turned the banks of the river Thames into a river of fire and, debatably, the terrifying Norwegian sky in Edvard Munch’s The Scream is also Krakatoan. Not a few people were convinced that the apocalypse had in fact arrived.
With each Lisbon, each Krakatoa, each Fukushima, each tsunami, civilization ends, collapses into the sea, Atlantis-style. And then, it emerges. Until the day our civilization no longer floats back to us, we’ll keep trying to live with the sea, stealing its supplies and bringing them to land, feeding it crap in return, pretending that the relationship is an equal one and knowing that it isn’t, knowing that the sea is ready at any moment to turn on us, to deposit our crap right back in our laps. In the next 10 years, most of the trash that beachcombers find will be not be from any natural disaster; it will be accidental, incidental trash — trash from cargo spills, trash from litter. But each baby toy and shoe found always has attached to it a story of possible tragedy.
Nothing expresses the complex relationship we have to the sea more than seaside graves like those along the coast of Sri Lanka. A landlocked grave is created to protect the dead. But it only remains protected as long as a civilization exists to care for it. Conversely, a seaside grave’s days are always numbered. It is a temporary memorial, because at any moment a seaside grave — and the memories it represents — can go tumbling into the watery abyss, to disappear forever, or perhaps to find new life in a land of strangers. • 4 November 2011