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  • Writer's pictureJosh Oldridge

3. Surfing at dawn and Swiss fiction

Updated: Mar 9, 2020

I shuffle out from under my thin sheet and slide the big box with number 4 painted on the side – my bed number – out from under my bunk. I gather up a rash vest, a pair of shorts, and my Piz Buin. I snaffle a mini banana which is delicious and sweet, from the communal bunch in the communal kitchen, then I eat another. The Sri Lankan caretaker of the property is the only other person awake in the hostel. He smiles broadly, sitting and listening to the call to prayer echoing through the dark skies out over the town while watching me eat and sip a coffee. Then I’m up and out the door.

The night sky is just lifting and the surf shacks along the beachfront in Weligama are just opening up. Tuk-tuks bearing anything up to a dozen boards pull into the stripped-back wooden structures the board hirers operate from. Surf hire is so easy here. Back in Cornwall I had to drive half an hour, think about wetsuits and towels, secure a lockbox storing my keys in under the car, apply Vaseline to stop my wetsuit rubbing on my neck, then either unload boards from the roof-rack or look for somewhere to hire. In Weligama, as I wander the dusty street, avoiding the ubiquitous stray dogs which seem to take on a more roguish personality when the sun is not out, I have my surf gear on and a 500 rupee note (worth about £2.10) in my pocket. That is all. I go to the same place I did yesterday. It’s just opening up. I hand over the note and select a 8’2” two-fin softboard (my ribs are aching from the hardboard yesterday and the waves are smaller today). As I stroll over the soft sand, board under arm, assessing the waves, all of which are clean and gentle and two-foot or thereabouts, I’m struck by how quiet it is. Yesterday I got in at 8.30am and it seemed like half of Sri Lanka had migrated to this one beach. Boards were flying up into the air vertically and slapping back down hard on the water’s surface when the leash caught, and people crashing into one another was something you could observe on every single wave. I almost felt like leaving the board and sitting back at a bar overlooking the bay to watch the carnage unfold while getting drunk. This morning none of that. At least, not yet. At 6am there are only a handful of people littered in the water in front of the huge Marriott hotel which dominates the south end of the beach. Even that looks impressive under the purple-blue sky. I jump into the bath-like water and paddle out. Then I turn around and look back over the bay. Only now can I see the colossal full moon over the palm trees to my left. It’s shockingly beautiful. The waves are so clean and gentle I feel like I could do this all day everyday and never get bored. Then, about half an hour in, the full moon fading into the horizon at one side, a blistering orange sun starts to emerge to my right above the jungly headland. I can’t help but shake my head in disbelief, leaving the next few waves so I can watch as the moon disappears and the sun starts changing the colour of the sky … And then I just chundered EVERYWHERE!

But seriously, as awe-inspiring as all of this was, I kind of did feel like feeding the flying fish with some heave. In truth, I felt a little rough. Jetlag is still having it’s way with me. I think my body thinks these afternoon kips are supposed to be overnight main sleeps, so when I crawled into bed last night at 11pm, I woke up at 1.30am after what my body considered a generous nap. I laid awake for a long time before realising more sleep would not be forthcoming, then took my book – barring a huge oversight, I think it’s the first one I’ve read from a Swiss author – and sat in the common room under a lamp. I finished the remainder of the novel, Year of the Drought by Roland Buti, and sat and thought about it for a while until going back to bed, only to jump straight back out to slide out my storage box and gather my surf gear. It’s a really good read. Published in 2017 but set in 1975 on a farm on the Swiss plateau, it’s a tale about a boy growing up and a rural way of life fading away, with an underlying background of a tortuously hot summer. The start reminded me a lot of Of Mice and Men, but then Buti’s own style comes through. It’s very clean prose with a streamlined story, sprinkled with touches of the poetic here and there, and a lot of action is crammed into 148 pages. Well worth checking out.

Despite a few smug looks between one another as the few of us early birds had a good surf to ourselves, people were only heading in one direction with their boards – into the water. By half six there were enough people to have to give way on a few waves. By seven it was already what you would consider busy. At half seven the beach was overcrowded and surf etiquette was already long gone. But this was okay for me, I’d had my fill, and what with the strange sleeping pattern and strong coffee, a throbbing headache reared up. I went back to the hostel – just in time for breakfast and to say bye to some backpacking buddies who were leaving – and then went back to bed.

Proper decent feed like.

When I woke up at midday I had only one thing on my mind: kottu! I went to a really cheap locals’ spot recommended by the hostel, but I discovered they only start serving kottu there at 1.30pm, so I had to get something else. Even though I went in alone, I found myself eating in company again. This is one of the highlights of travelling alone. When I go into these places I’m actually pleased when I find all tables are taken; it means I have to be a little brave and ask to sit with people, who always seem welcoming. Yesterday I bumped into a German bloke called Johannes and we ate curry and rice, which came with two surprises. First, having expected one dish, the guy serving us brought out SIX little pots of different accompaniments for our big mounds of rice. I was overwhelmed. It was outstanding. Apparently that’s how they do it here. Then, midmeal, Johannes and I looked up as the corrugated roof above us started rattling. Suddenly, at the end of the eaves, a group of monkeys appeared (not sure which type), some carrying babies, and one-by-one they made the huge leap across the dirt road populated by sporadic tuk-tuks and ambling backpackers.

Family chillin' before sussing out their next move.

Today my compadre was a Norwegian dude whose name I’ve forgotten how to pronounce. He was very welcoming and smiley, and came complete with a pure bronze tan and topknot. He told me about his recent adventures in India and mentioned a party just the other side of Mirissa tonight, as we sampled egg biriyani washed down with cardamom-heavy Sri Lankan black coffee (food: excellent; coffee: okay, but in totally honesty I’d take an americano with a splash of milk from Starbucks any day). This is not the first time I’d heard about this party. Everyone in town seems to be going. At least, in the backpacker community; which represents a decent proportion of the population. It’s at a venue called The Doctor’s House. Not sure whether that’s the official name of the place. Not sure whether I want it to be. Either way it sounds very ominous … let’s see how this night goes.

Random pics from today and last night:

Fresh fish and veg followed by tinnies and DOUBLE-apple-flavoured shisha generously bought for the table by a hostel buddy. No idea what the double bit meant.

A single star out in the night's sky. Taken from hostel balcony.

Classic colourful Sri Lankan bus with unicorns and shit on the shiny plastic interior.

A boat called 'Zebra' with a stray dog sleeping beside on Weligama beach.

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