I planted my shoulder blades just above the log tied across the bow of the fishing boat with my back facing the water and at the count of three in Sinhalese I dug my heels into the wet sand, extended my legs, and the boat lurched a few feet closer to the rising tide 30 feet away. My Aussie buddy, Simon, and I had decided to get the local fishing experience by hopping onboard one of the handline fishing boats that headed out around 5am. This wasn’t an organized tour by any means. We just pulled up to the docks and asked around until someone agreed to take us along for a few extra dollars.
The two man fishing crew we joined, Sooti and Pootimali, were pushing the log strapped to the stern and although they were a somber duo there was no denying that getting the boat into the water was better with a four man team. They didn’t speak a word of english and it was the owner of the boat, not them, that had agreed, in broken english, to add us to their crew. It’s doubtful that they were thrilled to change their daily routine by adding a few random foreigners to their manifest so I was glad that we had been able to sweat alongside them right off the bat.
We were already plopping in the anchor float, a long wooden pole with concrete on one end, a large styrofoam bobber, and a flag affixed to the top, as the sun broke the horizon line. The next few hours were spent in utter silence as hooks were baited and connected to the main line. It’s hard to know exactly how much primary line we had let out when the end float was connected and tossed into the water. I’d guess at least two kilometers. We motored back to the first float and began to methodically recoil the line and remove each hooked line attached to it. Sooti and Pooti did the finer work but let us do the grunt work of hauling in the handline. After our hands began to form blisters and several Giant Trevally were in the bottom of the boat the fisherman's’ mood became palpably warmer.
After some pointing and pantomiming by Sooti I found a pack of cigarettes that he had stashed away and lit one for him and Pooti which required sticking my head into my shirt to block the wind. He then gestured for me and Simon to have one of his cigarettes as well. I’m not a smoker but this was clearly a sign that our presence had been accepted by our stoic crew so I puffed away, gratefully nodding my feigned enjoyment. The sun was almost directly overhead as the four of us painstakingly inched the boat the 30 feet back from the high tide mark where our morning had begun. After a short but genuine goodbye we accepted a fish for dinner and headed back to our Midigama lodging, Siri Medura Surf Yoga Meditation Guesthouse.
The journey back down to the southern coast had been prompted by New Years plans to celebrate on the beach with throngs of young people dancing barefoot to EDM beats until the morning light. Even the fun-loving owner of the Laughing Leopard Hostel, Ash, had closed his place so that he could take a few days to enjoy the beachy vibes of Mirissa to ring in 2019. However, this time instead of staying in Mirissa at Colours Hostel, a Mirissa gem with its young party vibes and sweet owner Ru, I opted to stay 25 minutes west in the little surf village of Midigama.
The sleepy stretch of surf breaks is far more laid back than Mirissa and life centers around one thing, surfing. If the surf report shows a favorable swell for the following morning you’d be hard pressed to find someone up past 10pm. At 5am the kitchen begins to come to life as people make a light breakfast and coffee before heading to their favorite break, sometimes with the stars still shining.
Siri Medura is a guesthouse which could be likened to the film “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” in that many of the guests are there for months at a time. There is a comfort to familiar faces sitting around on hideous lounge furniture in various states of disrepair discussing that day’s surf that soothes the nerves of the solo traveler. At 2000 Rupees (11USD) per day for a private room and a moped there is very little financial incentive to look elsewhere. If you want a change of scene take a moped day trip somewhere further afield. If not, Ahangama, the nearest village has groceries and a humble gym, Singhe Shakthi Gym, with everything you need and the warmest staff imaginable.
For two blissful weeks I cooked fresh fish, surfed every morning, did a mural on the guesthouse wall, and took the moped up and down the coast. When I craved more social interaction I swung back through Colours hostel to meet new people and say hey to Ru. One such morning at Colours went from coffee in the rooftop common area with two Americans and a Swede to a full on trip up the coast to Dalawella beach. The day was spent mopeding around, swinging on an idyllic palm tree rope swing, and trying our hand at acro yoga. Other days consisted of surfing and then slinging up my Eno hammock in the shade at one of the many sparsely populated beaches to read or nap.
As predicted, I rang in the new year with friends I had met traveling on the Mirissa beach, dancing to electronic music barefoot until the wee morning hours. Although I had enjoyed more than a few adult beverages, I reacted instinctively when I felt a hand slip into my back pocket where my money was folded into a neat rectangle. Before I even saw my would-be thief, I had his slender wrist firmly in my right hand. As I spun around to face him I felt his hand release, leaving my money in my pocket. Now I was face to face with a 5’ 3” Sri Lankan guy in his early 20s who immediately threw his hands up in the universal “I don’t want any trouble” gesture. This is a stellar pickpocket defense. We were the only two people on the whole beach that knew that he’s a pickpocket and I was the intended target. To any onlooker, I look like the aggressor with a significant size advantage. He backed up passively with his hands up and melted into the crowd within seconds. Well played shit-bag. We’ll call this one a draw since I still have my money and you got away.
Back in sleepy Midigama at my favorite surf spot, Sion Surf Camp, there were far more sinister intentions playing out. Sion is a chill beachfront hostel with fast wifi, a wide selection of boards to rent, and a reef break that provides pumping right and left breaks. The bar and restaurant is under an open air wooden pavilion with hammocks slung up and ample seating to watch the sunset and surfers while sipping a Lion Beer. The place is owned by a UK national and staffed by local Sri Lankans. About a kilometer down the road, Cheeky Monkey, a sub-par hostel, bar, and surf shop, is owned by Sri Lankans that are competing for tourism market share. On New Years, shortly after midnight several thugs from Cheeky Monkey came to Sion, beat up a local staff member so badly that he lost an eye and broke a bottle over the owners head from behind as he played a drum around a bonfire. Unfortunately, as tourism grows, the ugly side effects of turf warfare will likely continue to play out behind the scenes.
As for me, I generally try to stay on the right side of the law but sometimes it’s worth it to put a toe over the line. After New Years I decided that I had one illegal activity that I absolutely had to engage in before I left Sri Lanka; swimming with Blue Whales. The largest living animal ever, including dinosaurs, is a rather shy creature. There are whale watching boats that head out in the mornings to view the giants breaching and then there are the illegal small boats that go out after the other boats return that let you hop in the water with them. It’s not cheap. After haggling I got it down to $100USD which is the most expensive activity I’ve done thus far on the trip. Worst of all there is no guarantee you’ll see them and there is no refund. It’s like going to the roulette table and putting $100 on whales.
After nearly two hours of searching in vain our hopes had begun to sink. There was no shade, the only snacks were cookies, of which I bored-ate an entire sleeve, and the Tom Hanks “Cast Away” jokes had begun to grow stale. Then our guide spotted one. I didn’t see it at first but when he started shouting to the other boat hand excitedly and accelerated to full speed I looked directly over the bow and there it was, a good 300 meters away.
Blue Whales, depending on their size, only take three or four breaths before diving down for 5-10 minutes while continuing on their general trajectory. The trick to catching a glimpse of them in the water is to hold course and speed along the whales anticipated path so that there is a minimal distance for the boats to close to get swimmers in the water before they dive again. We had weathered several failed attempts when we finally caught a bit of luck and one surfaced only about 70 meters away. We zoomed towards it and once we were in line with it’s path I rolled off the side of the boat while we were still moving and started kicking down into the abyss.
The whale had already begun to descend into the depths when I spotted him directly below me. In retrospect, I could have and should have continued to freedive down to get closer but in all honesty I instinctively froze. Being in the open ocean in the presence of a creature the size of a subway car will do that to you. I was in the kind of awe that is a combination of paralyzing fear and childish fascination. Five hours in the blazing sun, bouncing around in little boat, a hundred bucks poorer all for 8 seconds with a living submarine. Totally worth it.
Although it is not quite as exciting as swimming with whales, there is a bathroom accessory in this part of the world that claims a close second. I have recently become reacquainted with the apparatus known in local parlance as “The Bum Gun.” Although it is not a firearm, it is a water cannon next to the toilet that packs a comparable amount of blasting power. Without an air compressor I’m still unsure how it manages to achieve fire hose intensity. Can a BH shine? Do I have the cleanest BH in the history of BHs? These are questions for the bigger brains to ponder but I do know that power washing after a numero dos makes me confident I could pass the white glove test with flying colors.
Here is some other gear I've been enjoying on my travels.