In April 2019, I was heading on a month long surfing trip to Ahangama, Sri Lanka. Little did I know the trip would be full of surprises and challenges.
Surfing from sunrise to sunset, drinking coconut water straight from the coconut, trying local cuisine, interacting with a foreign culture and meeting people from North America to New Zealand. Although the dream I was living was not just full of joy and laughter, the last days of the trip were memorable, but not in a way you would think. What sort of mindset and attitude do we ought to have known how different our travel destination’s customs are. Cancel out of fear? Act the way we would back home? Do thorough research? Being overly cautious? I think it might lead us to forget why we are there in the first place. I’m not saying we should turn a blind eye to how things may differ from our usual perspective, but then how to cope? Depending on the location, constantly looking over our shoulder takes away a sort of ‘free-spirit’ which most surfers are driven by.
On the day of my arrival, the 3rd of April 2019, I thought I had been fully prepared for this trip but as reality showed, I was not. Stepping off from the plane I was informed that my surfboards had been stuck in Abu Dhabi and my visa would expire a week before I was scheduled to leave. I felt like I was stuck with one foot on the plane. I was ready for my adventure in Sri Lanka, but apparently, Sri Lanka was not ready for me. Surprisingly, I was not bothered by it. After being picked up from the airport by a chauffeur, I experienced firsthand Eastern religious customs – no pictures can be taken on Buddhist places of worship nor any Buddhist images. It was not a rule tourists had to follow, but rather a sign of respect. In the whole surfing community, wherever we surf, regardless of location and how popular it might be amongst tourists, the newcomers must always respect the locals. Due to the fact it’s their country, their home, and seasonal surfers just come and go, we are not there to stay. Culture involves countless aspects, even the small things we might not take into account can be a violation of their ideological customs. However in our pursuit to be respectful to the local population, there will be moments where we lose ourselves in the wonder of the country we are exploring and forget to take these customs into account.
On the 21st of April, it was a bright sunny day, the swell enabled us to surf up to 4 hours and, due to the low tide, reefs were exposed making us more cautious than usual. Wherever you look on the horizon, surfers with salty blonde bleached hair catch your eye immediately, restless undulating waves clash with surfboards as the turquoise ocean swallows you into its mystery and the people, giving me a new sense of appreciation and belonging. As four of us just got back from our session, all we could hear in the distance was the flow of police cars rushing onto the highway, heading toward Colombo. At that moment, we could hardly notice the chaos on the streets, still hyped from a sensational surfing session. Only minutes later would we hear the explosion that, like a switch, awakened us to the gravity of the events that were unfolding on the island. The silence amongst us was dreadful. Turning on every news outlet, headlines of Islamic terrorist attacks in churches and hotels captures our attention immediately. Unanswerable questions arose — What has happened? How close was it? What are we going to do? My heart was beating out of my chest, wondering about unexplained and unthinkable things. Even though we had received warnings of uprisings and conflicts occurring on the island, it never stopped me personally from coming to Sri Lanka and I was not the only one. But why is that? Shouldn’t the horrifying news scare us and make us think twice about travelling so far from home?
My heart was set to go on a surfing trip, and nothing would have changed that. It might sound selfish and naïve, but I think this sort of attitude is much needed in these situations, which took place while I was planning my trip and even being there. On the one hand, I highly recommend doing thorough research on ethics and specific customs the country practices. It helps to avoid disrespectfulness and embarrassment towards locals. No matter where we are travelling to fear is inevitable. Rather than trying to control situations the best we can do or, as I did during the devastating times locals had to go through over the Easter Sunday, was to be there for them as you would be for your community back home. When I had been in Ahangama for almost a month, it made me understand how vital the support from the community is. Due to the difficult times, we must endure quite often these days, doing what we are passionate about and caring for the people around us are key features in our ability to cope with hardships.