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Surfing & local community in Sri Lanka

December 14, 2020 3 min read

I was sitting on a rock looking out to ocean...

in what would have been the borders of Midigama and Kabalana. I was feeling a bit homesick and just staring out over the white sand, and into the ocean with a little wave popping up and receding back about 50 meters off the shore.

I wasn’t a surfer then and to be honest I’m not much of one now, but the wave was empty, the beach was empty and the road behind me had a only a tuk tuk or a bus careering down it about every 5 or 10 minutes. For all intents and purposes this was a completely undiscovered wave.

After about 20 minutes a guy appeared on the rock next to me. He seemed like a fisherman and approached me with his mega watt Sri Lankan smile. At first I was a bit nervous, it isn’t in general cool to be a woman out on your own in Sri Lanka back then, sure times have changed now, but the guy had a gentle enough way and it was the middle of the day, and I used to do boxing in uni, so I relaxed a bit.

Hey, he said. Hey I said. You wanna surf? He asked in his thick local accent. Um, maybe, I said. Do you surf? Yeah I been surfing here since I was just a boy! He laughed. I have some boards, you wanna see? Um, ye ok. I said, kind of glad of the company. There weren’t really any other expats round these parts, and I had been here around 2 years by this point.

Off we hopped along the rocks and the guy took me to a little garage next to a rotti shop and swung open the makeshift corregated iron door. There, in the shadows, with dapples of sunlight shimmering off them, were around 12-15 surfboards in the worst state of repair I had seen recently. Many of them longboards with big dings the size of meteors in them, a few mid sizers, and 2 short boards, one of them with the nose missing. My new friend grinned at me proudly and I grinned back gratefully.

After a while I realized that being alone in a small space with just one guy could be taken the wrong way, so I made my thanks and left the little board store. On my way out, the guy flashed me another mega watt smile and shouted to me, ‘’season starts in 2 months, if you need a board you know where to come!’’ I grinned back and searched my mind of the quickest way to get this guy some new boards.

Surfskinoil, was founded in 2016 on the south coast of Sri Lanka. There are many businesses, foreigner owned, marketed at foreigners with the money destined for foreign shores, that brings no real benefit to the Sri Lankan community in which they are located, worst yet, fighting over land deeds as these businesses only interact by renting or buying land.

No money, no new boards and you wonder why local surfers get a bit upset!

Many of the poorest sections of society, guys from the hill country in Sri Lankas tea estate plantations in the highlands of the country, search out the beach side towns, in the hope of earning a few extra rupees.

When they hear of the money pouring in down south, they travel to try and earn a supplement to their family income. Many times they are ignored, or even experience rudeness themselves when they are trying to sell a coconut or trip to a tea plantation.

Many people in Sri Lanka, still work full time for as little as $150 per month. Just because local people are willing to work for these salaries it doesn’t mean fosters long term social cohesion between locals and ex pats.

When setting up Surfskinoil, Venita noticed that many foreign businesses employed their managers from abroad. So local people were not getting access to this manager level salary range. It’s a bizarre situation. Like tourists flooding into London and bringing their own business and staff from their home destinations.

Inequality causes tension; frustration, envy and often violence.

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