Lakka in Sri Lanka
Words Will Bendix, pics Greg Ewing
Athula’s head is wobbling. It rolls from side to side, detached from his body, severed in a sea of music.
“Cos we are li-ving, in a material world
And I am a material girl!”
His hands come flying off the wheel, head bopping as he breaks into an improvised jive with palms flat against the air. We swerve wildly as Madonna’s number one fan reaches a howling crescendo inside the motorised tin can.
“…And I am a material girlllll!”
Athula is our tuk tuk driver and we are looking for waves, but we’re drowning in the madness and colours of Sri Lanka. Lush, thick, brilliant colour. It squeezes in through cracks in the window and gaps in the clouds. Colours hot and dense like the air, melting down the mountains and rising like steam off the ocean. Colours that threaten to swallow us alive in a sea of gold and green.
We’ve left Arugam Bay in the distance, already spoilt on its monotonous consistency and the cluster of foreigners like us who ride on its well-worn coattails. Not even the infinite supply of Israeli beauties that lie sunning themselves along the curve of sand can keep us from rolling, rolling on through dense jungle and elephant trails. Beaches melt into yellow butter beyond the mangroves and soon we will plunge again into the warm hues of the Indian Ocean, spurred on by Madonna.
The island of Sri Lanka is a lush green teardrop that rolled down the cheek of India. Born from the Gods, ripped apart by men. It’s said a mighty lion sired a prince called Vijay with a beautiful princess. The prince sailed from Bengal and landed on this Island of Copper Palms, giving rise to an ancient empire, the Sinhalese. The lion-blooded.
They lived side by side with the Tamils for centuries, mostly in peace, occasionally taking a break to split each other’s skulls open. Then the British arrived to civilise, grow tea, and split open a few skulls of their own.
The colonials left after reaping a harvest of dissent that enriched their coffers and planted murderous intent between the two ethnic groups. Ceylon became Sri Lanka and the island exploded in more colour, this time a dark red that flowed from the cities to the countryside.
Waves have washed up along these shores en route to Indonesia since time began. But if a wave breaks in the middle of a prolonged civil war and there’s no one around to ride it, does it make a sound? Sri Lankans did not have the luxury of silly metaphysical ponderings. They were too busy dying, killing, surviving. Buddha wept. Vishnu wailed. Shiva sharpened his axe.
Bands of surfers took a chance poking around on the east coast during the wobbly ceasefires, digging up emerald jewels, only to get chased away again as the mortars erupted. Pop-pop-pop. The war officially ended in 2009 when the Tamil insurgency was crushed once and for all. Life goes on after so much death and the waves continued to roll in. We arrive at a headland and Athula cuts the engine. Putt-putt-putt. Athula’s surname is Ranasinghe. Fighter lion.
Around the headland the beach smiles and opens up into a point, its foamy white teeth glistening in the late afternoon sun. Davey scoops up a passing snake with the nose of his board but it recoils and flips onto the sand like a rigid elastic, followed by the sound of a squeal as it slithers after its target. We reach the top of the point where the swell rolls on to a finger of sand then spins across a rock on the inside. It surfaces like a stone crocodile halfway through a ride, testing your resolve. Craig, the ex-South African who tipped us off, is here with his son to make a crowd of four. Tomorrow the swell will be gone and we will be left floating amongst the masses at Arugam Bay. But who cares about tomorrow? The boys make like Buddhists, embracing the now and slide over the translucent sections as snakes dance on the shore.
Arugam Bay is a single road, a thin artery densely lined with surf shops, surf accommodation, surf wares, surf everything. It is the J-Bay of Sri Lanka, compacted into a single main road that spills from the jungle onto the beach.
We trawl this curve of sand daily, past the groups of Israelis in cafes, alongside fishermen trekking their nets and snake charmers making the hooded serpents sway to their whims. But it’s not the music they respond to. Snakes have no outer ear. They are following the pungi, the wind-blown instrument that snake charmers wield. The movement of the pungi leads the snake as they succumb to its hypnotic power.
We are similarly controlled by Arugam Bay. The stubby peninsula sucks up any movement in the ocean and channels it down the point. Aragum’s open exposure makes it the best indicator for what’s happening at all the other spots in the area. Every morning we rise with the sun and see our fate written in the water. Do we stay or do we go? The coastline here is blessed with a geological pattern of sand and stone outcrops that angle into the predominant swell direction. Names like Pottuvil Point, Elephant Rock and Peanut Farm become familiar to us in solitude. The days we do stay, the crowd swells around us. Dark skinned locals, blonde Australians, the ever-present Israelis. The boys tentatively carve out their own space. As it gets bigger there are less people and more room to move. We scribble wildly across the open faces, laughing, flying.
A surfer from Tel Aviv who has been coming here for years points to “the kids” and says this is the best surfing he has ever seen. From then on they are known as The Kids. Every day in restaurants, surf shops, cafes, there is talk of The Kids as the waves continue to roll in.
The weather gathers around us too like a humid vortex, sucking in the sun, churning out rain. Black clouds overpower blue skies, burst, and then dry up again in minutes. The random violence of nature has left much deeper scars. On 25 December 2004, a hiccup in the guts of the earth sent a seismic wave across the ocean that destroyed half the coastline and decimated Arugam Bay. Everything had to be rebuilt. The sheen of the wood in the buildings is still new, the concrete hardly faded. Some things couldn’t be bought back to life. 30 196 people in Sri Lanka were killed by the Boxing Day tsunami. Raph, another tuk tuk driver, says that it still makes him want to cry. He lost his mother and brother when the land became the ocean. The sky splits open and the rain comes again.
One day we acquire a shadow, a miniature human seven years old who takes to following The Kids around, shyly mimicking their every move. Davey shows him the shaka but Mini-Me’s fingers get confused and he shoves his hands deep into his pockets. No, like this, Davey tells him. Mini-Me stares deadpan as Davey wiggles his thumb and pinkie and says, “Sri Lanka is lakka.”
We grow accustomed to the rhythm of the tides and the moods of the waves. Faces become familiar. The local surfers smile, nod and rip. Tension is growing between them and some of the visitors, who seem to think purchasing a bed and a meal means purchasing a right to any wave. The locals are torn. They rely on these people to live but they rely on these waves to feel alive. Some have adopted the same habits as a way of dealing with the situation.
The tension is washed away as the swell begins to build. And build. The Kids are broken after endless days of surfing, their eyes burnt soft into their skulls by the sun. But they cannot resist. The ocean lures them in with its pungi. Davey explodes across a falling lip and the beach cafes roar their approval. Matt watches, then drags his lifeless body up the point, over the reef and out to the back. He sits and waits, feeling the ebb and flow of the sets, waiting his turn. Then he is alone and the wave of the swell bears down on him. He rides it forever, slicing huge chunks of water off the top as he disappears into the bay. It costs him an entire set that implodes on his buckled body as he paddles back out, but he splutters that it was worth it.
When we eventually drag ourselves up the beach again the sky is crimson. Darkness hangs in the air. Nights are not black here, but a deep, deep purple that is shattered by millions of silver pinpricks. We go to bed exhausted. Tomorrow is another day for living in the now.
The Hindu story of creation says that every night when Lord Brahma the creator sleeps, the world is destroyed so that a new world can be created again. After each old world is destroyed, nothing is left but a vast ocean from which this new world springs. Our purpose is to learn from the past and live a better life in each world so that we can reach heaven.
Somewhere in-between this story of life and death repeated we are left floating. Floating on a green teardrop that rolled down the cheek of India.
Source: Zigzag Surfing Magazine