One of my favourite places in the world: the port town of Negombo in west Sri Lanka. It is also a tourist spot with travellers often starting or ending their trip to Sri Lanka here as the international airport is close by. There is a nice sand beach opening out onto the Indian Ocean and to the south of the town, the Negombo lagoon with mangrove swamps lining its southern shore.
The people of Negombo are intimately connected with the sea: the town’s largest industry is commercial fishing, ahead of even tourism, and Dutch fluyts and Portuguese caravels left their mark long before the British arrived, both physically – there is a Dutch-built fort overlooking the harbour and a Dutch-cut canal long enough to take you to the next town – and spiritually, with the town being home to a very large Roman Catholic community. Many, many locals will answer to names such as Joseph or Jude and Negombo is often referred to as ‘Little Rome.’ At almost every street corner there is a roadside Catholic shrine, this particular one devoted to a somewhat nautical Virgin Mary, keeping a watchful eye on those at sea.
One of the features of the Negombo coast I like is the local fishing boats, called oru or thoni, which can be seemingly either outrigger or full catamaran and have a most unusual sail-plan. The local conditions – a lee shore for much of the season and a vicious rip-tide (you can see the current flowing before your eyes, just standing on the beach) – seemed to have spawned this craft, which is light, weatherly and fast, with a very shallow draught. It is also small enough to work both sea and the lagoon and pass under the various bridges between the two. It is a great pleasure to see the local fishermen at work in the morning and the masterly way they steer their craft around the water at high speed. The square sail is set between two poles, with the sheet usually controlled by the man at the tiller: just one other hand is needed, to set or cast the nets, for a day’s fishing, though the larger variety, such as the photo above, seem to have a crew of three or four. Although these craft can sail pretty close to the wind and go about almost in their own length, when the wind is dead foul the masts are struck down and instead used as setting poles, usually two at a time:
Last time I was here in 2007 I hired a small motorised skiff to take me out fishing and many of these little craft would hail us and come alongside, mostly for gossip with the skipper but also holding an unshakeable faith in the idea I would give them cigarettes – even though I don’t smoke. I suspect a number of them had already consumed that seamen’s other essential (in this part of the world it would be coconut toddy, homemade or otherwise) and were chancing their arm in the hope of obtaining some of the other. However, none seemed to hold it against me that I could not oblige them with tobacco and although we had no common language on parting the friendly smiles, always appearing brighter in a sun-tanned, weather-beaten face, and enthusiastic waving and hailing were no less typical of the friendliness and hospitality that is extended to visitors to the wonderful island of Sri Lanka.
The smaller boats are almost like glorified canoes and can be handled by one man working alone. I snapped this man casting a net for sardines on the lagoon shore in the early morning. Local catches include prawns, sardines and cuttlefish, with the large prawns taken from the lagoon particularly prized. After the early morning’s work a lot of the native craft are heaved directly onto Negombo beach, often with the sail set to dry. There is another reason for this: if you have a white face and walk for just twenty paces on Negombo beach, a boatman will almost certainly ask you if you fancy going for a ride on his craft for a small fee. I did not indulge this time, but there is always next time. Closer to the fish market the offshore fishing fleet is moored, and you will see the larger powered boats:
The west coast of Sri Lanka is a major commercial fishery and you can see on sale at the fish market bluefin, skipjack and dogtooth tuna, seer fish (wahoo), groupers of all sizes, many different sharks and other big pelagic species. In the local Negombo supermarket I couldn’t resist snapping the fish counter, replete with steaks of seer, shark and tuna, sardines, cuttlefish and of course, the prized lagoon prawns:
Anyway, this is just a short story about Negombo. I will soon be writing up the important part of my trip, the eating, but for now you will have to be content with my tales of Negombo fishermen, and close with a slightly poor photo (taken with a simple point-and-shoot digital camera I had with me) of some of Sri Lanka’s famous green bee-eaters: some people trek miles through nature reserves to see these birds, I looked up from the hotel poolside and they were above my head!