"I went to get my kite," recounts Chris, the charming surfer who was born in Zanzibar and is half-Sri Lankan. From the horizon, it seemed like a dream wave. Luckily others around him had more sense and had heard that this was no ordinary wave. Or else we wouldn't be having this conversation.
He is drawing a map of Sri Lanka in the sand. It looks like a spiral earring hanging from the tip of India.
"This is where the tsunami came," his stick licks practically the entire coast. It begins near Negombo where we sit where his beach hut once stood (see before photo left and his Negombo Watersports website) and continues south encompassing all the southwest, south, and east.
I spent the better part of a long afternoon and early evening with Chris and some of his staff. Right through tea at sunset, which he explains is a Sri Lanka custom.
He has sold me on the virtues of the surfer lifestyle. Although I think he was actually trying to sell me on kite-surfing lessons. Or, once he sensed I was a kindred spirit, a possible romance.
"Mellow" is their catch word. (More on Chris' philosophy of life and surfer attitudes really must be the subject of a more thoughtful post when I get back.)
I love that word: mellow.
He is keenly observant sponge: "You learn with open eyes", "Learning is good for long life". Fascinated, like me, by global cultures and different people. He travels to the Maldives, Hawaii, Thailand and India each year on the surfing off-season to participate in surfing and kite-surfing competitions.
"Russian," announces Chris.
"Russian. That family is Russian." I glance over at the boy and girl prancing around the swimming pool and their attendant parents sipping beers.
I tan easily and after six weeks in the tropics, my complexion is olive which is throwing everyone off. "You are from where?" They are puzzled when I respond, "USA."
Just days before, an Israeli bursts into Hebrew tongue as I walk past the Starbucks with a towering Buddhist spirit house set right next to a Shiva and Ganesha shrine tucked on a sidestreet near Khao San Road in Bangkok. It doesn't occur to him I'm not Israeli.
The staff women at the Negombo guesthouse presume I am from India because that is their perception of a foreigner that isn't completely creamy complexioned.
But Chris runs up to me expectedly as I walk the beach, "Are you from Italy?" He is learning Italian from another customer and has almost got the "Italian look" fingered. I learn he already speaks German much later: "Have you ever seen snow?" "Once - in Germany."
Today I am in Moratuwa, a town 23 km south of the capital of Colombo not even listed in my Lonely Planet guidebook, but the HQ for several NGOs. And I am conspicuous. Are the stares because my skin has different tones than everyone else in town...
(No one - strangely not even the enterprising open-aired three-wheeler taxi drivers - dares to speak to me. Except the bright-eyed fishermen's children living in matchbook plank houses near the train tracks just fifty meters from the sea.)
Or because I am a woman alone wearing trousers rather than a skirt?
"Ten years ago women did not wear trousers in Sri Lanka," I hear Chris echoing to me from Friday.
Yet Western influences are changing Sri Lanka. He explains that people don't realize the trap they are falling right into. While a local skirt may cost 150 rupees, the Western-style trousers are 500 rupees. So they end up worker longer hours to obtain the desired fashions.
"We let our hair grow long and the saltwater naturally makes dreadlocks," continues Chris, whose ebony curly hair in a short ponytail is tucked under his cap. "Like Bob Marley." He explains the rest of their distinctively cheap surfing attire and shows me his dolphin tattoo etched by his kitesurfing buddy.
But I know it's their dark chocolate skin that also sets them apart from the chic surfing masses in the Pacific. Say what you will of surfers, but you couldn't say the Negombo boys are discontented trust fund babies squandering their inheritance or first-world slackers.
He says they draw murmurs of "Those must be the surfers from Negombo." It's their brand of word-of-mouth marketing. All the travelling is part-networking, part-teaching, and part-the-perks-of-their-lifestyle-choice. "We have fun, and everywhere we go we tell people to come to Negombo and visit us."
"So surf fashion is your marketing," I say. He misunderstands me and vehemently agrees, "Yes! Surf passion."
There's no reeling Chris in as he lurches into an intense discussion on surfing passion which I silently decide is actually more accurate.
His simple storefront and surfer cafe have yet to be rebuilt, but that doesn't stop Chris from being confident that tourists will return by April and he can regain his foothold and "grow back up slowly." (I thought Thailand gave a paltry 20,000 baht to business owners affected by the tsunami but Sri Lanka gave their businesses zero - or naught, as they say here.)
"I have easy life. When customers come, I teach. If no customers, I relax." I wonder how he can say this with evident ease. After five hours, I've ascertained that his situation is precarious from any rational, analytical, balance sheet perspective.
But I've also ascertained he surfs life itself. In the first hour of our conversation he was scooping up the sand showing me how it's clean now. It was motor oil black after the tsunami. People were back to fishing within the first three months. And he was back surfing on Negombo. He contrasts to the situation in Galle, just south: "In Galle, the tsunami hit hard." Just as they are starting to get back to normalcy, then Galle had to deal with flooding. It's always something. "Difficult life," says Chris with equamity. "But it's nature."
I've only stratched the surface. Chris taught me a lot about simplicity, focus, choice, nature, acceptance, and the open secrets to a "long life."
"They have money," says Chris of his foreign friends, mostly European, that come to Negombo to surf after they've amassed enough vacation time to head back to Sri Lanka, "but they not free."
p.s. Flickr photo has a few kite surfers riding in the background. I don't have any shots of kite-surfing Friday because conditions were not conducive due to the "gusty land wind," as Chris observed.
p.p.s. I spent the past week say goodbyes in Khao Lak including teaching Mon how to blog (more on that later), taking a 13-hour bus to Bangkok, wrapping loose ends in Thailand, etc. Left Thailand on the 13-month tsunami anniversary and arrived in Sri Lanka in the wee hours of the 27th.