Srilanka: The waves are still the same

On the way to the known beaches of Galle and Mirissa lived the waves of Hikkaduwa. This beach was known for its surfing waters and coral reefs. The sea and its people spent their routine undisturbed in the presence of natural decay and low income. In the past decade, fewer tourists had been visiting every year, so businesses were mediocre and life ordinary. Like us, most people ended up there by word-of-mouth.

The coast lies 95 km south of Colombo, the capital of Srilanka, and 17 km north-west of Galle. Back in the 1970s, the first Marine Sanctuary found its home in Hikkaduwa and that obviously caused a positive shift in its tourism industry. Visitors came for the thriving coral reefs and the diverse lives they inhabited. Like trees, they needed little and gave plenty. Things changed and over the years, the limited research on Hikkaduwa shifted its focus. It moved from discovering natural treasures to investigating a mess of unplanned construction, glass bottom boats, and dead coral reefs.


When we enter, a young girl wearing a long, plaited skirt smiled as she opened her home. One could tell that she was nervous, standing next to her parents who didn’t speak any English. When it got dark, the kitchen began to smell of raw fish next to a silent backyard.

There was a time when the fisheries sector not only took care of food for a majority of the population, but also contributed to 2% of the GDP. More than a million people earned their livelihood that way. But in 2009, the Tsunami destroyed much of the country, including two-thirds of its coastline. More than 80 percent of active fisheries were affected and 75 percent of the fishing fleet was damaged. For Srilankans who preferred fish as a source of protein and depended on it for work, the natural disaster posed major challenges. 

Of all the places that were affected by the Tsunami, Hikkaduwa was one of the most devastated regions. The natural disaster took away lives, shelters, and drastically increased poverty and unemployment in this little coastal town. With little fish to catch, they moved from traditional fishing methods to modern fishing gear. That worked for a while, but in the long run, it caused tremendous pressure on the aquatic ecosystem. The people of this community were forced to look for alternative livelihood opportunities.

“Dinner and cold beer?” mama asked us.
“Yes, sure,” I smiled.

For mama’s family, AirBnB was an important source of income. A family of a retired army officer, a housewife and two daughters, they struggled to make ends meet. During our stay, they made sure to get our consistent feedback. “Food good?” the mother asked every day. “Bathroom clean?” she would enquire.

The father rushed out to buy some local beers and mama prepared dinner while her daughters set up the table. Often when we go to a place, it’s a natural tendency today to open up a guidebook or look at articles and reviews on the internet, just so we don’t miss out on something spectacular. However, another kind of pleasure comes from not knowing. In this case, we let the locals introduce their home just the way they wanted.


We, my American friend and I, got to know the family at the dining table. Over morning chai that we prepared in their kitchen, we had conversations with the girls about their work and India. One daughter was struggling to find a job; another was ill-paid at her existing job. The older one worked at a resort. She was in constant search of a better alternative with reasonable work hours and friendlier colleagues. She often helped her mother by taking care of the guests.  Sometimes the two girls approached us to ask for advice and discuss family issues and boyfriends. On the second day, they called us didis, or sisters.


Since the Tsunami, the years that followed saw a high number of beach hotels come up along the coast. Unfortunately, much of it was unplanned and disorganized. No legal measures were taken to oversee the overdevelopment. And worse, these beach resorts took over shacks and bars owned by the villagers.

One could tell that mama really enjoyed hosting people from all over the world. Given that the income from fisheries was no longer lucrative, the small attempts of running an AirBnB sprang from hope. But with the fast-degrading environment in the recent years, tourism had declined too. There was little intergovernmental intervention in place to build community resilience. And so the people of Hikkaduwa just went about their days, patiently and silently.

A British traveler stayed with this family too. With the mother, he would randomly start laughing loudly, “Eyyy. Haha,” and it always made her giggle without any reason or inhibitions. “Pot, mama?” he asked the mother every morning. She would pat him on the back, and with a wide smile, say, “yes, me, your mama!” 


One evening, some of us rested in a little white gazebo watching flow in the outer world. The British traveler let go of his clothes and walked alone toward the setting sun. He entered the sea at a time when all the others were stepping out. We relaxed with a glass of juice. We knew that he had been going for diving lessons. A few moments passed and the sun was nowhere to be seen. The gypsy was floating. To me, a non-swimmer, he looked fine. My American friend, a lifeguard, thought otherwise. “Hey, I think he needs help,” she said to me. We looked around. Our neighbor was busy making juice. There were not many people walking on our side of the beach. Soon we noticed his waving arms and our neighbor immediately ran to call a local surfer nearby. He finally returned with one who ran towards the ocean with the surfboard.

Our neighbor had told him not to approach the waters before the incident. The locals had been living in constant fear of the unknown since the Tsunami in 2004. It wasn’t easy for them to experience the death of 35,000 Srilankans. And so, they advised travelers to stay away. The British traveler didn’t listen to him though and nearly drowned. The juice boy placed a towel on his shoulders and walked him home.



That night, we sat under the stars on the day of Poya, a national holiday, and watched the full moon glow with the locals. Mama served fish. Everyone was thankful to be alive.

The same week, I learnt that the issues of drugs and gang conflicts are just as frequent as drowning and a dying natural eco-system. While walking one evening, I came across many surf school trainers who tried to offer their services. Usually, when you don’t know how to swim, the initial response is a polite “no.” But one surf trainer was atypical. Instead of asking, “Would you like to go see the coral reef?” he enquired, “You’re from India. What brings you here?” I simply smiled and said, “Yes. You.”

This surf trainer thought of the universe as his home. He surfed hard in the sun; his copper textured face and sunburnt body gave away his routine. He had long, thin hair with tips colored like dry autumn leaves. His bare chest looked intact. Wearing sunny shorts, he often waited for visitors to pass him by before approaching with a funny comment or a curious question.

At first, he and I got to know each other a little, discussing his experience in Hikkaduwa and my inadequate swimming skills. He asked if I would like to see the coral reef. When I said no, he smiled.

He had taken up surfing for additional income since his main job at the coral reef suffered from extensive human activity. Tourists were no longer excited to go see these reefs which lay at the end of a dead-fish trail. The locals struggled to eat everyday and many had given up fishing. The government didn’t pay much attention to this little town; too much needed to be done to rebuild the community. With limited budgets, the state intervention was only effective in communities that were promoted within tourism guidelines. Hikkaduwa wasn’t one of them. They had to find their own solutions.



Further into our interaction, the surf trainer expressed personal opinions on the context of the local and political scene in his town. He looked around a little and slid his hands into his short pockets. He stared at my squinted eyes for a while and said, “You know, Srilanka’s Prime Minister. He came to my town. I asked his body guards.  Let me talk to him. They didn’t allow.” He had demanded that the prime minister meet the people and explain why he hasn’t made any difference since coming to power. “I don’t understand why. It’s his responsibility,” he said, disappointedly and with a sense of authority.

He claimed to know the nature of politics really well, and given that Srilanka is also a democracy, he wanted to challenge the apathetic nature of politicians. But he didn’t know how one could turn apathy into empathy. A day earlier, one of his friends was beaten up by a gang that demanded their share of the drugs sold. Gang fights killed some too.

Gang fights and crimes have become more than common in Hikkaduwa, just like in other parts of Srilanka. The members of these gangs often turn out to be young kids who end up getting involved to earn fast and live well. The police authorities had been employing war time measures to tackle these conflicts with frequent stops for security checks and regular open fire. But their tactics hadn’t yet reduced the number of kids choosing to be in gangs.

The surf trainer wouldn’t tell more. After repeated attempts of asking him questions about the gang conflict, I gave up. He paused briefly, and then asked, “Are you a secret agent?” I laughed, a lot. He chuckled and cleared his throat. “I don’t care, but sometimes I am anxious about secret agents trying to extract information from us,” he said, in faith. I assured him that I won’t tell anyone who could harm him. I also told him, “Making a better community is your responsibility, too.”


He reminded me of Camus’ rebel. He did not want “to be treated as an object and to be reduced to simple historical terms.” The surf trainer carried that promise of natural rebellion in his being. He wasn’t the lazy kind; he worked hard to make an honest living. But he never went after money because he claimed to understand where happiness comes from. “What is the point of trying to make all the money when you only lose your life or the lives of your loved ones?” he sighed. He wished that others saw the beauty in life, the way that he and his mother did. He also understood why they wanted a different life. They had been poor for so long.


The people of Hikkaduwa continually tried to find a way to raise themselves out of poverty. Some ran an airbnb and surf schools. Others sold drugs. Poverty had pushed them into squeezing every living organism from that coral reef that once used to thrive in the coastal waters.

On the one hand, there is an acceptance born out of detachment, like in the case of our host family and neighbor. It helps people live. On the other hand, an individual like the surf trainer made a choice to awaken the rebel within to realize his personal potential. We need both kinds of people; our collective fate highly depends on how well we are able to balance the acceptance and the rebellion.

A community builds its resilience by maintaining good health of four essentials: environment, economics, social well-being, and governance. Hikkaduwa did well, socially. People counted on themselves and that’s all the hope they could hold on to.

On our last day, mama came with a glass of coconut water and said, “Please visit again.”