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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Sri Lanka: Stilt Fishing in Unawatuna


I realized we were outside of Galle already when the scenery shifted to azure seas and unending white sands. I resisted telling my guide Sandrew to pull on the side of the road so I could combat the strong waves battering the shore. I saw a couple of surfers high five each other from afar and after another kilometer, a Sri Lankan couple gazing at the beautiful formation of whitecaps caught my attention. The wind was incessant attached with a yawning effect on me - on any other day I would prefer to just doze off while listening to the thunderous rolling of the waves. But unfortunately, not this day though.

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Since, we're on a southern shindig out to cover more ground I savored the sight of Unawatuna beach for a few more minutes until Sandrew stopped the tuk-tuk by the side of the road "look at them" he told me. From a couple of hundred meters away I saw figures of lean men sitting on makeshift crucifix of sticks and twine, as if chilling and reading a book - only they weren't - instead they were intently focused on their dangled rods, waiting to attract the school of fishes whirl-pooling underneath the strong current, into their waiting hook. (they don't use bait - making the practice more remarkable hey!)

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"Stilt fishing, it is called stilt fishing" Sandrew repeated himself. One of the men who seemed to be on a half hour fishing furlough walked towards us, shook hands with Sandrew and smiled at me. I wanted to ask him about the practice of stilt fishing but he had difficulty conversing in English, but it is obviously unique to Sri Lanka as I've never seen it anywhere else before.

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Later that day back at Templeberg Villa I did a bit of reading at this unusual practice and learned that it started during World War II when shortage of food along with over-crowded fishing ports necessitate  cunning new methods to source for daily sustenance. Initially using ship wrecks and downed planes as their base for fishing, clever minds eventually invented the use of stilts erected in coral reefs where a lot of fishes usually take refuge. Not soon after the stilts were constructed closer to the shore.

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Since then stilt fishing which always happens at both dawn and dusk, has been handed to the second generation of about 500 fishing families living near the shore lines of the towns of Weligama, Unawatuna, Kathaluwa and Ahangama. Studying their posture from afar I noticed the importance of having loads of patience while at the same time imagining that the stilts aren't the most comfortable thing to sit at for hours. 

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The unusual tradition of stilt fishing are extremely picturesque, however I sensed just after clicking a few shots - while still being politely entertained by the man whose smile remained long after our initial introduction, I felt probing too deeply into their practice - which happens to be a daily thing to them. For good or for ill, except a brief time in 2004 when the tsunami destroyed most of the stilts. To give them an air of respect for what they do, I set my camera aside and just sat by the beach while watching a few men, whose fortitude in exhibiting the utmost effort and patience - all just to preserve a unique tradition, is truly astonishing.


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