Searching For The Fishermen

Trip Start Aug 06, 2011
Trip End Oct 06, 2013

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Thambapanni Retreat
Riverside Cabanas

Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Saturday, December 8, 2012

One of the truly iconic symbols of Sri Lanka is the stilt fisherman of the south coast- all of the guide books, postcards, promotional brochures, etc are covered with images of these pole sitters. The fishermen sit on a cross bar called a petta tied to a vertical pole planted into the coral reef. They hold the stilt with one hand while fishing with a rod or line using the other. They’re hoping to catch spotted herrings and small mackerels, which are then stored in a plastic bag tied around their waist or the pole. I tried to envision our favourite fisherdude,Sid H, propped up on one of these poles but it wasn't working for me- it really doesn't seem to be a productive or comfortable way to catch fish- no one knows exactly how and when the tradition started but apparently some of the older fishermen suggest that stilt fishing was started after the Second World War by some inventive fisherdudes. Fishing at the time was done from rocks protruding above the ocean surface. As not enough of these rocks were available for all fishermen, some used iron poles left over from the war and planted them into the reef. But even these iron poles were scarce, so the fishermen soon discovered that even wooden poles were strong enough to be planted into the reef and thus, stilt fishing in today’s form was born. The stilt sites were passed from father to son.

Stilt fishing is a dying art that is threatened by the very fact that it is so unobtrusive and therefore extremely picturesque: tourists visiting the area get attracted by the sight of the stilt fishermen, stay close by, wade in the sea, in short, do all the things the fishermen have been trying to avoid for decades – namely disturb the fish. There are many who suggest that it is already a dead art and the only stilt fisherman left are those who pose for tourists and charge for each photo taken. With Tina B feeding my delusions of skilled photography, I was making it a mission to capture one of these fisherman digitally (although having had our fill of photo posers, it had to be one of the genuine articles).

Our first stop was the town of Mirissa. No pole fishing but we did jump on a boat to do some more whale watching (apparently the Blue Whale, the largest in the world, was in the neighbourhood). While we did see a few blow holes, we ended up being more fixated on the bad behaviour of the boat operators- rather than whale watching, it was whale chasing, and every time a whale surfaced an entire fleet would chaotically race over for a look which, of course, drove the whale back under very quickly. I hope this is just a problem that will be resolved as the industry matures but at this point we wouldn't recommend whale chasing in Sri Lanka and it didn't appear that many others on our boat enjoyed the activity.

On our way to Unawatuna, we did pass a number of stilts that, by sheer coincidence of course, were positioned at the points where the roadway was closest to the ocean. Our driver was determined to find us a working fisherman so we stopped a couple of times, and, almost immediately, brightly costumed dudes would pop out of nearby straw huts offering to pose. We saw lot's of authentic celebrations including a procession of female monks receiving alms, Catholic parades, a funeral, and a huge picnic. We also saw plenty of people fishing in boats and along the shore but none were sitting on the poles and despite the best efforts of the driver, we weren't able to find that iconic shot of Sri Lanka. Even he was forced to concede that the posers may be the only link to a tradition that has moved beyond it's best-by-date.

We also stopped in the visit the old town of Galle, a fortified Dutch colonial village. Galle is the best example of a fortified city built by European colonialists in south and southeast Asia- it's a world heritage site and the largest remaining fortress in Asia built by European occupiers. We didn't even find the phony fisherman who would pose on a pole for peso's (although we did run into some guys who said, if we paid them, they would dive off the fortress walls into the Indian Ocean below- we passed on their bizarre offer).

So I wasn't successful in tracking down one of The Sri Lankan stilt fisherman but if our loyal blog follower stays patient I'm pretty sure I can get Sid H to prop himself up on a wooden pole in the middle of the Tottenham Pond once we're back in Ontario. Stay tuned.
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