Sri Lanka – The End Of The Road

The right-hand points of Eastern Sri Lanka might be the farthest point on Earth from home.

We’ve come to think of the world as a small place. In the media, commentators with straight teeth travel from continent to continent during 90-second commercial breaks from coverage of the latest war, and there’s always some guy in the back of a crowd during a live CNN broadcast from Tel Aviv or Mogadishu wearing either a New York Yankees World Champions shirt or a David Beckham replica jersey. Jet airplanes go faster to more places and for less money each year. Travelers used to pack steamer trunks to go to Europe-now they take two pair of jeans and a button-up shirt for the nightclubs. But perceptions are easily skewed, and anyone who’s ever set foot on the main road at Arugam Bay on the southeastern coast of Sri Lanka can testify that despite the proliferation of broad-band Internet access and the far-reaching tentacles of Western influence on worldwide popular culture, there still remain destinations from which the world seems very, very big. A-Bay is one of these places.

Come to think of it, I’m not even sure Arugam Bay is a “place.” It’s more like a whisper in the night-something you’d only catch if you were paying close attention. A dusty road at the end of a long series of dusty roads, the trek there takes you winding through crowded cities, elfin forests, sticky marshlands, endless expanses of pungent eucalyptus, and Savannah-like grasslands speckled with the occasional lonely shrub. The town of Arugam Bay itself is little more than a semi-paved trail lined by a half-dozen guesthouses and six-room hotels, a couple small restaurants and food stands, a surf shop, and an Internet cafà‡-slash-bank-slash-public telephone, where the only air conditioner in town draws a sweaty crowd of bohemian travelers and expat locals looking to escape the 110-degree heat, check the cricket scores, and maybe search the Web for news from the world they left behind days … months … years ago.

From space, Arugam Bay is invisible, and Sri Lanka isn’t much bigger. It’s been described as the pearl earring hanging from the lobe of India. The island, which is similar in size and shape to Taiwan (300 miles long, 150 miles across), is located 50 miles across the Palk Straight from the southeastern-most tip of India, and a thousand miles dead west across the turquoise-blue northern Indian Ocean from the steamy jungles and shallow, red coral reefs of Indonesia’s Northern Sumatra. No airline on Earth flies directly to Colombo (Sri Lanka’s humid capital) from the Western world, so unless you’re starting your journey from Lebanon or Bangkok, the trip can be lengthy.

I traveled to Arugam Bay to go surfing. I was inspired to do so about a year ago after watching a promotional teaser for Thomas Campbell’s movie Sprout, which-along with shots of Costa Rica, Australia, and South Africa-featured a couple minutes of footage of Dan Malloy riding a stubby, 70s-style twin-fin in the perfect, head-high right-hand point breaks of Eastern Sri Lanka. I was sold.

I knew our main Indian Ocean photographer Dustin Humphrey had wanted to do a Sri Lankan trip for a while, so we started planning. We knew the surf around Arugam Bay seldom gets big-it’s known best for its series of right points with sandy bottoms that can be perfect from one to six feet. We also anticipated long drives through forests and jungles and group meals in small guesthouses, so we chose people we’d like to hang out with as much as surf with-Jeremy Heit, Marlon Gerber, Joe Curren, and Joe’s girlfriend Teasha Burkman-good travelers with good attitudes.

Getting there seemed never-ending. From San Diego, I drove to Los Angeles and flew thirteen hours to Hong Kong, where I had a fifteen-hour layover. The next leg to Bangkok took four hours, where everyone but a handful of Sri Lankans returning home, a Belgian cattle inspector, and I deplaned. Even the dreadlocked backpackers got off. I goa real feeling of going beyond known routes of travel. I was passing the end of the Patulli Trail. After a couple hours on the ground in Bangkok, I flew four more hours to Colombo, Sri Lanka. When the stewardess opened the door of our Cathay Pacific 757 and let in the hot, wet night air, I was immediately energized. The tropics have that power over me. There’s nothing like getting your carry-on luggage out of the overhead bins, when suddenly a rush a tropical heat fills the plane, replacing the stale A/C.

But the travel wasn’t over. A twelve-hour drive across the island followed the flights, and by the time our minivan pulled into the small guesthouses where we were staying, 40-plus hours from San Diego, I felt officially very far from my point of departure.

Less than 500 miles north of the equator, Sri Lanka is hot-proper hot. We were there in early August, and the temperature climbed easily into the low 90s by 10:00 a.m. each day. And this isn’t a pleasant dry heat … we’re talking about the kind of direct sunlight and humidity that stops commerce, transportation, and livestock dead in their tracks. Most of the activity in and around Arugam Bay either happens in the early hours of the morning or the late afternoon. Water temps were the warmest I’ve ever felt-easily 83. During my first surf in Sri Lanka, the “warm water” wax on my board melted away in five minutes. From then out it was base-coat only.

Some Sri Lankan history:

Early Sri Lankan history is a combination of Buddhist and Hindu legend, and it’s full of stories of Buddha, Rama, Sita, Rawana, and countless other gods and deities using the island as a stepping-stone to everything from paradise to rescue. But facts tell us that Sinhalese people from Northern India started arriving about 2,600 years ago, displacing the island’s original inhabitants, tribes of hunter-gatherers called the Veddahs. For the next 1,600 years, the Buddhist Sinhalese ruled Sri Lanka, and it was during this time that Hindu Tamils from India migrated to the northern part of the island. By the year 500 A.D. many Sinhalese had migrated south and a Tamil kingdom had been established in Jaffna in the north.

From 1253 to 1400, Sri Lanka was attacked by the Chinese, Malayans, and Indians. In 1505, the Portuguese arrived to colonize the little island, the Dutch followed in 1658, and the British took over in 1796. Sri Lanka was an outpost of the British empire until 1948 (which explains Sri Lankans’ obsession with cricket and tea), when they were given independence and made part of the British Commonwealth. The Buddhist Sinhalese, who are far more populous than the Hindu Tamils, assumed control of the newly independent nation and declared that Buddhism would take center stage in Sri Lankan society. This announcement created unrest among Tamils, who soon found themselves organizing against and battling with government troops in the streets and jungles of the north. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)-one of the most violent hard-line Tamil liberation armies-formed in the early 1970s to fight for a separate Tamil nation (Eelam), and for the next 30 years Sri Lanka was embroiled in a civil war. In late 2000, Norway brokered a peace that has lasted to present day, but the Tigers, who after the events of 9/11 were officially labeled as a terrorist organization, are still armed and active in the east.

Signs of a civil war that peaked in intensity about a decade ago are still visible. Government checkpoints, complete with machine-gun nests, sand bags, and mustachioed guys who look like they’ve seen hard times pop up randomly on the roads leading to the point breaks north of Arugam. In Pottuvil, the main town in the area, patrols of flak-jacketed soldiers with submachine guns held tightly to their chests saunter slowly up and down the main road. And the occasional burned-out skeleton of an old troop-transport truck will be laying peacefully by the side of the road, reminding passers-by of what happens when you stop loving thy neighbor and decide instead to shoot at him with a rocket-propelled grenade.

But interestingly, the main drawback of the region isn’t the recent civil unrest or the mysterious (almost romantic) Tigers of Eelam … it’s something far easier to spot. Surf-ettiquette-free Israelis. Swarms of them-mostly young men ages eighteen to 24-travel to Sri Lanka before or after their mandatory two years of military service, which in a place like Israel is tantamount to a death sentence. Interestingly, Arugam Bay is one of the island’s few Muslim communities established around the 700 A.D. by Middle Eastern traders attracted by the jewels and spices the island had to offer, and during a morning surf check one day, Jeremy pointed out the irony of Israeli soldiers vacationing in a Muslim town. Think about that for a second.

The Israelis surf like they run their country-aggressively and fearless of consequences. They dominate the main point at Arugam Bay, back-paddling, crowding, snaking, and yelling at each other. Our group quickly renamed the spot Donkey Point, which was eventually shortened to simply Donkey.

A typical afternoon exchange between Jeremy and Marlon:

Marlon: “Jeremy, do you want to surf Donkey this afternoon?”

Jeremy: “F-k that.”

But the beauty of the Israelis is their immobility. To surf the other points, a four-wheel-drive vehicle and a knowledgeable driver are crucial, and these things cost money. Not gobs of cash, mind you (the Sri Lankan rupee is practically valueless even against a weak American dollar), but the price of transportation to outlying surf spots kept most of the crowd at Donkey.

I’m not going to launch into lengthy descriptions of and directions to the spots we spent most our days surfing, shooting photos, bodysurfing, and hanging with locals. Sri Lanka is still far from fully discovered, and I refuse to be the guy who clues the Israelis and Aussies in on some of the newer spots. I will tell you, however, that just about every day we ended up at a right point that could have been an identical twin of The Pass in Byron Bay. A perfect waist- to chest-high wave that would break with metered pace for over half a kilometer. And I can’t remember sharing it with anyone we didn’t bring with us.

The food was great. Lots of curries with fish, chicken, or beef. After a couple weeks, mealtime begins to feel like Groundhog Day, with the same dishes coming back out time and time again, but we never left the table hungry. Sri Lankans do take their time with food preparation, though, so if you go, don’t freak out when it takes them an hour and a half to make you an onion and cheese jaffle.

The most stunning thing about Arugam Bay was the sheer amount of life in the area. Animals abound. Herds of water buffalo graze on the muddy planes, crocodiles sun themselves near their favorite watering hole, and armies of monkeys watch you from the rooftops of the local markets. The people are equally interesting and diverse. Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims crowd the markets of Pottuvil as the afternoon heat dissipates. Hoards of lavender-clad Muslim schoolchildren swarm into the backstreets of the local villages to play before afternoon prayer. Everyone appears to be living harmoniously, and despite the abject poverty that seems to have a stranglehold on the area, people smile from cheek to cheek. Waving and saying hello, and beautifully confusing attempts at conversation comprise a percentage of every day for the visitor. After a couple weeks in Arugam Bay, I began to wonder why the media at home is so intent on making the world seem like such a scary place.

It’s in spots like these, far away from the machinery of commerce, the pressure of daily chores, the desire to own gigantic luxury cars, and the agendas of the media and warring governments that happiness unexpectedly reveals itself just before a post-lunch nap, while watching a kingfisher catching its din of what happens when you stop loving thy neighbor and decide instead to shoot at him with a rocket-propelled grenade.

But interestingly, the main drawback of the region isn’t the recent civil unrest or the mysterious (almost romantic) Tigers of Eelam … it’s something far easier to spot. Surf-ettiquette-free Israelis. Swarms of them-mostly young men ages eighteen to 24-travel to Sri Lanka before or after their mandatory two years of military service, which in a place like Israel is tantamount to a death sentence. Interestingly, Arugam Bay is one of the island’s few Muslim communities established around the 700 A.D. by Middle Eastern traders attracted by the jewels and spices the island had to offer, and during a morning surf check one day, Jeremy pointed out the irony of Israeli soldiers vacationing in a Muslim town. Think about that for a second.

The Israelis surf like they run their country-aggressively and fearless of consequences. They dominate the main point at Arugam Bay, back-paddling, crowding, snaking, and yelling at each other. Our group quickly renamed the spot Donkey Point, which was eventually shortened to simply Donkey.

A typical afternoon exchange between Jeremy and Marlon:

Marlon: “Jeremy, do you want to surf Donkey this afternoon?”

Jeremy: “F-k that.”

But the beauty of the Israelis is their immobility. To surf the other points, a four-wheel-drive vehicle and a knowledgeable driver are crucial, and these things cost money. Not gobs of cash, mind you (the Sri Lankan rupee is practically valueless even against a weak American dollar), but the price of transportation to outlying surf spots kept most of the crowd at Donkey.

I’m not going to launch into lengthy descriptions of and directions to the spots we spent most our days surfing, shooting photos, bodysurfing, and hanging with locals. Sri Lanka is still far from fully discovered, and I refuse to be the guy who clues the Israelis and Aussies in on some of the newer spots. I will tell you, however, that just about every day we ended up at a right point that could have been an identical twin of The Pass in Byron Bay. A perfect waist- to chest-high wave that would break with metered pace for over half a kilometer. And I can’t remember sharing it with anyone we didn’t bring with us.

The food was great. Lots of curries with fish, chicken, or beef. After a couple weeks, mealtime begins to feel like Groundhog Day, with the same dishes coming back out time and time again, but we never left the table hungry. Sri Lankans do take their time with food preparation, though, so if you go, don’t freak out when it takes them an hour and a half to make you an onion and cheese jaffle.

The most stunning thing about Arugam Bay was the sheer amount of life in the area. Animals abound. Herds of water buffalo graze on the muddy planes, crocodiles sun themselves near their favorite watering hole, and armies of monkeys watch you from the rooftops of the local markets. The people are equally interesting and diverse. Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims crowd the markets of Pottuvil as the afternoon heat dissipates. Hoards of lavender-clad Muslim schoolchildren swarm into the backstreets of the local villages to play before afternoon prayer. Everyone appears to be living harmoniously, and despite the abject poverty that seems to have a stranglehold on the area, people smile from cheek to cheek. Waving and saying hello, and beautifully confusing attempts at conversation comprise a percentage of every day for the visitor. After a couple weeks in Arugam Bay, I began to wonder why the media at home is so intent on making the world seem like such a scary place.

It’s in spots like these, far away from the machinery of commerce, the pressure of daily chores, the desire to own gigantic luxury cars, and the agendas of the media and warring governments that happiness unexpectedly reveals itself just before a post-lunch nap, while watching a kingfisher catching its dinner, or during a long walk back up a point, your surfboard under your arm, beneath the bare bulb of the midday sun.

dinner, or during a long walk back up a point, your surfboard under your arm, beneath the bare bulb of the midday sun.