The unusually large waves, bellowing like blue behemoths performing a roaring symphony to an enraptured audience of the sun’s finest rays, draped in gold and crimson garments.
The droves of surfers, carrying their sea-scarred boards along the deep dunes while gazing toward the water in anticipation of the battles ahead. The uncomplicated cabanas and roadside shops, filled with people wearing bright smiles and colourful beachwear. Nothing at Arugam Bay seems normal to an outsider. It is as though someone switched channels on life and brought the volume down by several decibels.
Yet ironically, it is the outsider who has essentially built and come to define this quaint little beachside community, a few kilometres from the town of Pottuvil. Following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, much of Arugam Bay, known locally as Ullai, was left in ruins. With its infrastructure in shambles, Arugam Bay banked on its reputation as a surfing hotspot with foreign visitors to rebuild.
As it turned out, this strategy did not just resuscitate local life, but imbued it with a fresh dimension as travellers from all parts of the world, who flocked to Arugam Bay’s pristine beaches, transformed it into one of the world’s top surfing destinations.
In a way, according to a cook at one of the many compact restaurants that line the main road (who, in line with the skewed reality of the area, is an economics graduate), these events also isolated Arugam Bay from the rest of the country.
This is felt keenly in every aspect of life here. A careful glance in any direction will quickly reveal to you a large and diverse international population. For the majority of them Arugam Bay is now a regular exotic retreat, a place with which they have integrated seamlessly. Along the beach it is not at all unusual to see Sri Lankans and tourists from everywhere between Australia and America engaged in the animated conversation which only blossoms between close friends.
Along the beach this deep familiarity and friendship is even more conspicuous as local and visiting surfers exchange opinions on the waves and surf techniques as well as personal anecdotes. Their echoes of laughter crescendo with the slap of a back, thigh or arm, a familial gesture in an atmosphere of acceptance. There is an electrifying bolt of camaraderie, which surges as high as the tide, whenever someone, who pulls off a masterful sequence of manoeuvres in the water, is applauded.
After an exhausting spell amidst the waves, most surfers gather at the small restaurant housed at the main Surf Point, the principal battleground where the water is at its most violent.
The sparsely furnished yet charming eating house opens out on to the Surf Point in a way where it has become an essential part of it, a recuperation zone where surfers take stock of their day’s performance while refuelling for another run of the waves.
Away from this central hubbub, in a quieter corner of the main surfing area, 15-year-old Dixon cradles a board almost thrice his size as he trots enthusiastically through the water’s white wake. Although particularly pint-sized for his age, Dixon sheds his diminutive stature once he weaves his way among the sea’s mighty ridges and caverns. With his body tilted, arms aloft and face twisted in concentration, Dixon transforms himself into Prospero, conjuring up a magical repertoire through his board to tame the encroaching tempest.
Although most of life at Arugam Bay is shrouded in a mist of friendship, understanding and respect, it does possess an exploitative underbelly. The main manifestation of this is the exorbitant pricing of food, lodging and transport. Do not be surprised if a plate of rice and curry sets you back over Rs. 1,000 or a ride of a few kilometres from the beach in a tuk-tuk lightens your purse by more than that amount.
But looking away from the huge rippling waves with their hordes of surfers and the crass capitalism of some establishments and individuals, there is one more mask on Arugam Bay’s eclectic visage: a unique nightlife.
By 11.30 p.m. on a Saturday night, beachside clubs are packed like a can of sardines. With strobe lights flashing, beautiful and exotic women gyrating and bare-chested, long-haired Lotharios bordering the dance floor, Arugam Bay’s nocturnal haunts are oftentimes more alive than any of Colombo’s.
Yet there is no sense of superficiality, no intoxicating clouds of perfume and cologne, no judgmental glances or legions dressed in their Sunday best. There is just music, dancing, conversation and uninhibited fun. You are free to be yourself and are toasted for it.
In a way that pretty much is the underlying philosophy of the entire Arugam Bay experience. It is a soothing brew which calms your senses and speaks to your soul. And much like the cascading waves and procession of picturesque sunsets, it is easily accessible to anyone who wishes to find it.