Sunday, December 26, 2010

Back In The Bay - The Boxing Day Tsunami 6 Years On

The Boxing Day tsunami hit Arugam Bay, on the East coast of Sri Lanka at 8.45am six years ago, taking the lives of 300 people, roughly twenty percent of the community’s population.
Approximately two hours previously an undersea earthquake with a magnitude of between 9.1 and 9.3 had struck off the coast of Sumatra, near Indonesia’s Mentawaii Island chain, and the resulting waves of tsunamis caused devastation across the Indian Ocean. The International community rallied and donated more than US$14 billion for aid and reconstruction.
But how have some of the communities affected by the tsunami bounced back? The list of coastal areas impacted by the tsunamis includes some of the most revered destinations in the surfing world, so it’s inevitable that places that we hold dear to our collective hearts were affected.

It’s six years on, and the small village of Arugam Bay, spread out along the stretch of the bay from the lagoon to the point that draws surfers, seems to be back on track; there’s a new bridge over the lagoon, hotels are doing a brisk trade in the high season and there are multicoloured fishing boats and outriggers pulled up on the berm.
But talk to any fisherman mending nets on the beach and you can tell that the memory still cuts deep…”and then the wave came and everything died” as one man told me.
I didn’t want to dwell too much on the past, but I was interested in the knock on effects and the hangover of this enormous natural disaster years after the international money donating public have moved onto the next cause and the aid agencies and volunteers have moved on. Sri Lanka is an interesting case to look at because of the additional ingredient of a long running civil war which only ended in May of 2009.
There are still piles of rubble and half destroyed buildings stood on their concrete foundations which are destined to remain as reminders. In January 2006 the government, which had been accused of standing by idly and contributing little to the relief effort, enacted the now infamous “100 metre rule” which forbade anybody living within 100 metres of the Indian Ocean from rebuilding their homes on the former site and forcing many fishermen inland away from their boats and the sea. This measure was designed to protect coastal communities from the possibility of more tsunamis however given the right amount of cash in the right hands, there appeared to be loopholes with the result being that many hotels were rebuilt in the same spot, and on many other parts of the coast the whole debacle was seen by locals as a back handed way of acquiring coastal property ripe for development.
The new bridge that crosses the head of the lagoon from Pottuvil to Arugam is very impressive, and should be at a cost of over US$10 million which was stumped up by the US taxpayer. The locals are appreciative, but unsure as to why such a fancy bridge was required in view of the still ongoing reconstruction. Likewise, the wide main road through town (the only road in town) was being resurfaced whilst I visited, and pushed further south. Word was that this resurfacing work was being funded by the Chinese with many holding the cynical suspicion that this was a favour in the bank waiting for the time to come when land rights on the coast further south are opened up. Walking on what remained of the old road surface, I couldn’t quite see the need to re-tarmac it for the second time in six years and shared the local’s suspicions.
It’s not like tuk-tuks cause undue wear and tear.

And I can quite understand the interest. The East coast of Sri Lanka is beautiful, remote and undeveloped in comparison to the West coast, due in large part to the civil war and the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) presence. Army check-points and roadblocks still interrupt the main road and soldiers toting AK47s regularly climb aboard the buses and patrol the beach. It felt odd running up the point in boardshorts with a surfboard past four man armed patrols in combat fatigues with heavy boots sinking into the sand. But with the advent of a tentative peace in May 2009 Sri Lanka is becoming more and more popular and it won’t be long before the East coast pops up on the radar. At the moment the bumpy ten hour bus ride puts off all but surfers and the most determined backpackers but that could easily change.
The only hope is that the locals of Arugam Bay retain their community spirit in the presence of development. Following the Boxing Day Tsunami the government proposed several large hotel complexes to help fast-track the areas recovery which were rejected by the Arugam Bay Tourism Association. It seems that local businesses prefer things the way they are, and want to maintain progress at a home-made and locally led rate. All power to them. At present the village gives you the impression that you’re onto something new despite the fame of the wave breaking on the point for the past twenty plus years, you wouldn’t want to be queuing for set waves with too many more people and there’s a nice atmosphere about the place.
It’s worth remembering that recovery and rebuilding communities, homes and livelihoods takes a lot more time than these natural disasters remain in the consciousness of people around the world for. The memories linger and it takes time for things to return to any semblance of normality, during which it’s all too easy for areas to be opened up for exploitation of their natural beauty and resources by people more shrewd and cunning than they are compassionate.

I’ll end on a nice note though: The story of a friend of mine who arrived in Sri Lanka shortly after the tsunami. He decided not to change his plans and headed to the East coast to see how he could lend a hand and catch some waves in between. With another travelling surfer, he bought a couple of bags of cement and set about building a football pitch for the local kids to provide them with a bit of light hearted respite. They cleared some land, dug holes, stripped big branches which they lashed together and cemented into the ground as goalposts, procured a ball and then gathered a crowd of kids for the inaugural game.
Everybody plays cricket in Sri Lanka.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Da Cat

"To what avail the plough or sail, or love, or life - if freedom fail?
Freedom. Freedom to what? Escape, run, wander turning your back on a cowed society that stutters, staggers and stagnates every man for himself and fuck you Jack I've got mine?
To be truly challenging, a voyage, like life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen, who play with their boats at sea - "cruising" it is called. Voyaging belongs to sea men, and to the wanderers of the world who cannot or will not fit in.
Little has been said or written about the ways a man may blast himself free. Why? I don't know, unless the answer lies in our diseased values....Men are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of "security," and in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine - and before we know it our lives are gone.
What does a man really need - really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in - and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That's all - in the material sense. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention from the sheer idiocy of the charade.
The years thunder by. The dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed.
Dedication to the sea is the symbol of migration and movement and wandering. It is the barbaric place and stands opposed to society and it is a constant symbol in all of literature, too.
As Thomas Wolfe said, "It is the state of barbaric disorder out of which civilization has emerged and into which it is liable to return."

Sterling Hayden, Wanderer, 1964

Miki Dora, Da Cat, The Dark Prince of Malibu and the basis for every single damn counter culture surfing stereotype for the past 60 years. He was one of the most important, and possibly the most iconic individual, in the history of surfing - not for contest results, but for being at the top of the pile through the boom and then leaving the whole stinking mess behind in the persuit of his personal freedom to ride waves at any expense. He spent some time on the FBI's most wanted list, hung with film stars, smuggled gold and jewels, circled the world continuously, was a pioneer at Jeffreys Bay, pissed some people off, became a cult hero and kept surfing and sticking it to the man right to the end.
All he ever wanted to do was surf, and he did, at almost any cost. The path is made by walking and Dora walked it, that's why his name is permanently graffed on the wall at Malibu - to remind the rest of us what to do.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

My friend James takes good photos

So last weekend my friend James arrived on our doorstep with two bags full of high-tech camera equipment for some geeky camera club time.
James is studying for a degree in Press and Editorial Photography (photojournalism) down the road in Falmouth and was doing a "compassionate portraits" project, focussing on the impact of second home ownership in Cornwall. It's a pretty contentious issue, looking at the impact of unoccupied second homes on small coastal communities in the off season, when villages that are full to bursting in the summer months are reduced to virtual ghost towns in the winter. There's also the economic impact of sky high house and rent prices forcing locals out of the market and inland, or living a long way from their place of work if they even have a year round job that isn't tourist dependant. But then the income from tourism is what keeps Cornwall going and it's important not to bite the hand that feeds. In the morning James shot portraits of my housemate Ben and me with a whole load of remote studio flash gear and lighting that I didn't really understand, then he ran off around the village to get some more shots - you'd be well advised to check the results and read his piece on his very good blog right here. I've also taken the liberty of posting some of his other work above because I love the images. The middle photograph is from some time he spent on exercises with the Royal Marines, undergoing hostile situation training in case he goes off to take photos of war, and the bottom photograph is of the Crackington Haven Ladies Gig rowing team making their way out of Port Gaverne. Both shot on film, the way they should be.
Anyways, check the work on his blog, it makes me want to study photography properly so that I understand him when he starts talking about off-camera wireless flash set-ups and playing around with white umbrellas.

All images copyright James Allen 2010

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Seagulls (of Santa Cruz)

There's a seagull sat on the balcony railing right outside of my kitchen window. I can tell that it's still quite young because of the remnants of downy grey feathers on the crown of its head. It keeps staring at me, and it hasn't moved for about an hour and a half. I hope it's webbed feet aren't frozen to the railing or anything (we're having a "cold snap" in Cornwall right now).
I wonder if it's going to try and eat one of the wetsuit boots that're hanging up to dry next to it?
Made me think of these images that I shot a few years back in Santa Cruz, CA - a city with a pretty right-on red commie majority city council that tried to impeach George Doubleya for going to war illegally. Rad, a city trying to impeach a President. There's a good right hander that breaks off the harbour breakwall in the top image when big swells wrap into the bay, with some long running antagonism between the local surfers and the Harbour Patrol who try to arrest them for breaking a local by-law.
But back to seagulls.
A.k.a. skyrats, I quite like them and reckon they're pretty regal birds despite their penchant for stealing chips from tourists in the summer, waking me up every morning before my alarm goes off, trying to steal the days catch whenever I go fishing and crapping on my wetsuit when it's drying on the washing line.
They're the soundtrack of a life lived on the coast.
And how amazing would it be to live in a lighthouse? Apart from getting furniture to fit I guess.