Duncan Mcfarlane explores Sri Lanka
It is the finals of the Sri Lankan Airlines Pro at Arugam Bay for both the Women’s QS and the Longboard World Tour. The ocean has been small and windswept all week and almost as if it was scripted, the surf picks up and wind swings offshore for the final day of competition. Duane De Soto, the defending world champ, notches another win under his belt and is carried past me up the beach. The swell is 4-6ft and clean, the air is hot and the sun seeks to suck the life out of anything it touches. Courtney Conologue and Lakey Peterson do battle in their all-teenage final, a sign of the progression of women’s surfing of late.
Halfway through last heat of the competition an endless stream of Sri Lankans cascade onto the beach, all wearing their Sundays best. Some still wearing their motorcycles helmets too. The first wave of locals turn into a hundred, then the hundred turns into two hundred and by the end of the final there are a thousand people swarming the point. Courtney wins and moves through the crowd to the stage and they present the winners to the buzzing crowd. Afterwards I slowly make my way back to town along the point and the 5-minute walk turns into 15 as I weave through all the locals playing in the ocean.
I pull up on my walk back from the point at one of the beachside hotels and order a Lion, the delicious Sri Lankan beer. The manager of the hotel sits down nearby and downs a cold beer so I ask him of his thoughts on the Sri Lankan Airlines Pro at Arugam Bay.
“Today…was really good for the bay you know…” The 50-something, slightly chubby Australian ex-pat Marty speaks slowly, almost as if he has seen the bottom of to many beers in his time. “I mean, of course all the people coming here are obviously going to boost business for a bit. But you guys got really good waves today, which was great…you know. Because the waves have been small and bad it wasn’t the best impression, but the fact that today and the finals were on in great surf it will show everyone what we have to offer here.” He pauses, sips on his beer and sits in silence for a minute. “And, I mean, because of that, it might mean you guys come back next year which will build on the tourism here.”
Later someone tells me that Marty is an ex-professional surfer and used to compete against MP back in the day. I wasn’t sure how long he had been in Arugam Bay or what had made him come here. I liked to think he had a run in with the law or something like that.
*I asked him what he thought we could do now the competition was over. “Well. There are temples. Like, really old temples from the old dynasties here that you can go and look at. And then there is Yala (National Park), which is where you can see some elephants and crocodiles. People seem to like that too. And I mean, you can just relax and surf, which is what most people want to do here anyway. There are so many surf breaks everywhere it’s good to just explore the place.”
I finish my beer and feel I’m still need of a couple more to cool me down from the tropical heat. I look to my new pal once more for answers about the ins and outs of Arugam Bay.
“Well, there is only one place that actually serves beer out of a tap and that’s Siana View. That’s the only place around here that would classify as a bar. And there is the local bar out behind the main street, but you don’t want to go there. They just fight and it’s a pretty seedy place. So don’t go there. But most of the hotels serve beer so you wont have too go to far.”
I thank Marty for his company and leave him alone with the sunset and beer and can see why he lives here. Not because of some far-fetched crime fantasy, but for the warm weather, cold beer, pristine beaches and good waves.
Recently emerging from three decades of civil war and having rebuilt after the Boxing Day tsunami, National Geographic ranked Sri Lanka as the 2nd best island destinations to visit in the world. A rank that is well deserved too. The teardrop shaped island contains a rich culture, pristine beaches, amazing food and diverse wildlife. With international travel restrictions lifted in mid 2010, tourism is just beginning to pick back up again and the economy is building its way out of the hardship it has endured.
The western influence at Arugam has an overwhelming positive reception and tourists are welcomed with open arms. One Tuk Tuk driver I jump in with named Ramesh, tells me how he and other residents at Arugam are grateful to the visitors that come to Arugam bay. “You are Australian! Yes. I very much like Australians. After the tsunami your… your… Army come in. And they fix up the roads. And they help rebuild the town. This is why when you come to Arugam, myself and all the other people are very liking the tourists.”
I jump out Tuk Tuk and its gracious operator and walk into a restaurant. That is another thing the locals can be happy about. The food. The waiters and chefs occasionally work on ‘island time’ and you might not get your food in the same, timely manner as home. But, if there is anything worth waiting for in life, it is a Sri Lankan Curry. There are, dhal curries, veggie curries, Fish curries, Chicken curries, sweet curries, spicy curries. And then there’s the roties. The half-pancake half-burrito type flat bread, which wraps up all types of good stuff and is fried on an open hot plate, is one of god’s gifts to the world. Similar to indo, western food is widely available and good in quality if you need a break from curries, however prices are usually a little higher than the local food.
A western style meal can cost anywhere around 500rp – 1500rp depending how much you eat whereas the local curries you can get for under 500rp. A 10% surcharge is added onto most meals and tipping while not required, is appreciated.
Fresh out of pocket after my meal, I need to top up my wallet and meet Ramesh back out front. There is, by the way, never a shortage of Tuk Tuks waiting to take you around. There are ATM’s in Potuvill, 5 minutes out of Arugam, which are safe and always operating. I tell Ramesh I will give him a tip if he drives fast and we fly off the curb. Along the way we stop at a military check point Ramesh’s licence is checked and we continue on. I ask him about the war and if how safe it is here now.
“Oh, it is 100% safe here my friend. No problem now. These people are just security to make sure everything stays Ok.” And it is. There’s a heavy military and police presence in the streets but they’re polite and friendly and the atmosphere there is relaxed and safe.
We pull up out the front of the ATM and I withdraw my money. The notes get spit out and I return to the Tuk Tuk and head home. The currency there is the Sri Lankan Rupee and while I feel like I am placing thousands of dollars into my wallet it’s more like $50.
$1 will get you about 100rp. $10 will get you 1000rp and so on.
The Sri Lankan Economy has been steadily increasing since they emerged from political unrest and tourism has built over 46% in the last year. A portion of that Tourism has been built around Arugam bay and the unique and beautiful coastline.
If you are a goofy footer who cringes at the thought of going right, then I’m sorry to say Arugam isn’t your ideal surf destination. If you are in the 99% of surfers that can surf both ways and would enjoy a long, sand bottomed right point then look no further.
“Bloody G’day mate! How the heck are ya mate? What’s up mate?” He must have spotted my Australian accent as I introduced myself. He put on a surprisingly good impersonation too, keeping it up for the whole conversation. Sam is 31 but looks 18, and is the proprietor of ‘Sams Surf Shop’, one the few surf stores surf stores in the area, and perhaps the country. He stands at the opening of the store, which is a 4x3 meter cement box. Lining the walls are 20 or 30 boards, all tinted a dark brown and baring scars from years of use.
Curious to get a sense of what the surf culture was over here I asked Sam if he surfed.
“Oh yeah, for sure mate. Definitely, you know. Arugam, Potuvill, Lighthouse, all the spots man. I used to be on the QS too. But now I’ve got my business to run, and I’m building a house too so I haven’t surfed so much lately you know.”
“What’s your favorite wave around here?” I say while sitting down on the gutter in front of his shop.
“You don’t mind if I smoke?” Sam asks politely as sits down next to me. I laugh telling him it is his shop and that it doesn’t bother me “The bay mate, it’s the best. Always fun out there mate. Sometimes crowded but it’s where I surf the most. But when it’s big, like 8ft, Potuvill Point will be about 3-4ft and bloody firing mate. So bloody good. I love that wave also.”
“What about barrels?”
“Lighthouse, for sure. Same as Potuvill, maybe a bit bigger. When Arugam is big it’s like 4ft. 5ft. But it has the best tubes mate. So hollow. You’ve kinda come a bit late. Best wave are in July. June, July is the season for waves here, It’s so good everyday. Sorry, Excuse me for a second ok mate?”
An Israeli man walks in asking about boards. That’s another thing about Arugam Bay, the Israelis. Whether it’s a deal Israel has with Sri Lanka or there is just cheap flights from Israel to Colombo, there is a lot of Israeli tourists here. Most are doing a trip just before or just after their mandatory military service however none of them have any surf etiquette. The Israeli man finishes his inquiry and walks off along the main street. They’re mostly friendly, although I wouldn’t pick a fight with one if they drop in on me.
I am looking through the collection of sun stained boards, studying there era and condition. I come to a shiny, new board. It’s shaped like a short fat twin fin however where there should be a V cut into the tail is a wide squaretail and has 5 fin plugs. It’s stained with a purple swirl through it and stands out from the rest. Sam sees me and comes over.
“That’s my board” He says “Goes so good in the fast point waves”
“Did you shape it?” I ask, still taken aback with its odd shape.
“Nah, imported it mate. There are no shapers in Sri Lanka. I get all my boards from buying off tourists or getting by business partner in Dubai to ship them over. Sometimes we fix boards, but we don’t have the materials to shape. It’s too expensive mate.”
“What about fixing boards?” I fiddle with a big rail ding on one of the brown dinosaurs.
Sam smiles and says “Yeah we do ding repairs. Maybe about 3000 ($30) for a fin or 10,000rp ($100) for a snapped board. But sometimes people just hire boards, which I do for about 800rp-1000rp per day ($8-$10).”
A man with a bucket of fish walks by and Sam has to excuse himself once more. He excitedly walks to the man with the bucket and joins a growing group of locals. I walk over and see about 20 small fish crammed in and the crowd barters with the fisherman.
“Dinner?” I ask Sam. He smiles and nods back. Noticing my conversation has reached it’s end I thank Sam for his company and shake his hand and say if I need a board I will come visit him.
I walk away taking solace in the fact that, despite a rapidly building tourism industry and surf culture, the people still have a strong connection their culture and to the roots of the sleepy fishing village that is Arugam Bay.