Surfing the Sri Lankan Way

A coastal town sounded like the perfect reprieve from the grime and congestion of Colombo so I headed south to the beach-town of Unawatuna. The town itself is nothing spectacular–it’s primarily a tourist destination with little soul. But it does have the amenities of relaxation: rooms and restaurants at nearly every step and, of course, it has the ocean with its long, sandy beach and surf break.

I studied the break for awhile and I was convinced that this was the break for me. During my stay, the break had sweet, rolling 4′ high waves–longboard-style. (The waves do get bigger, much bigger, so experienced surfers will find awesome swells here as well). I found the local surf-shop, got an epoxy longboard, and paddled out to the reef-break, and the waves rolled in. I had a perfect day of waves.

Back at the Koha Surf Lounge, I talked with Sagara (congruously, it means, ocean), and he told me of the early days of surfing here which only goes back 10 years. Since they had no teachers, they had to teach themselves. And they only had one board, a foam-core board with lots of dings that was subsequently filled with water and heavy. And, he chuckled, since they only had one board, only one guy surfed at a time while the others treaded water in the break! To add to their woes, they didn’t have a leash so you can imagine how many times that board went rogue. But the biggest problem of all was that they couldn’t find surf wax which meant that they were constantly sliding off the board. They tried candle wax but that didn’t work either; It simply washed off. I think the word, tenacious, would accurately describe these die-hards.

I asked Sagara when surfing started to change in Unawatuna, and he said the 2004 Tsunami changed everything. After the Tsunami, surfers had come and had left some boards behind–with leashes and wax. And then the surf-dream had started to roll. I asked him how things have changed since the Tsunami and he said, other than more boards and more tourists (a mixed gift to be sure), that basically everything had gotten worse. The tranquil beach-town that he knew with buildings made of wood and dirt streets had been replaced by one of concrete and pavement. And the old communal spirit of the place is gone he said. Now, he said, all the hotels and restaurants claim ownership of their swath of the beach. Sadly, like many Sri Lankans I have spoken to, they feel that many of their greatest traditions are giving way to the juggernaut of money and materialism.

I was curious about that initial surfboard and I asked if they still had it. He said they had kept it even though it had split in two, but that the tsunami had swept it away. Sadly, despite having more than one board to surf with, that seems to the general metaphor of Unawatuna.



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