Batticaloa’s ghosts in the water | Daily News


Batticaloa’s ghosts in the water

Juliet Coombe says Batticaloa is a beautiful town where fish sing to you and the jelly fish are giants.
Batticaloa jelly fish are like ghosts in the water
Batticaloa jelly fish are like ghosts in the water

Batticaloa is the largest of three lagoons in the area stretching 56 kilometres and opens up into the sea at two points. A fascinating marine world with bright white martian like jellyfish streaming past me as I head towards Bar Road and the iconic landmark lighthouse.

I marvel at the bravery of the fishermen with their sarongs tucked up around their thighs, and wonder how they can continue wading with nets poised in their hands with such large creatures blobbing around them. Men in dug-out wooden canoes master the currents, all their senses alert before flinging great finely woven nets around shoals of squirming silver fish. As they stand barefooted at the water’s edge leaning on one of the boats with jellyfish swishing their ankles they explain that the lagoon is a difficult area to fish because of the shallow sandbanks not weirdly due to the frighteningly large jelly fish that they seem to have learnt to live along side.

There is a bustle of movement and excitement as a boat arrives back, floating in with the tide. As the light turns golden local buyers from restaurants and markets eagerly gather round and noisily debate the weights and prices of the hoard of small fish and prawns that are unloaded onto the sand from the salty interiors of the boats wooden cool box. They ask me if I would like a jelly fish or two with a twinkle in their eyes and I wonder for a minute why the area has not specialised in rice and curry jelly fish.

Moving onto the beach to watch the sun set I enjoy a sweet tea with Meera Mohideen and his friends reminiscing about the 500 kg turtle that recently got caught up in their nets which they released and the amazing shoal of whales they had seen out in the deep water earlier that morning. It is clear that nature fascinate these old men of the sea who are in awe of the lagoon and ocean that provide them their daily sustenance.

Diesel engines disappearing from fishing boats moored off Kattankudi Beach and a barbed wire fenced beachfront is only part of the story that the fisherman have to tell about life as a fisherman in Batticaloa over the past 40 years. The town although recovered from the civil war, still have a long way to go to attract tourism and new businesses to the area. Batticaloa’s main artery is a thoroughfare of crumbling houses, shops, and eateries called ‘hotels’. (N.B. Don’t confuse this with our understanding of the word as you will be disappointed and find yourself sleeping on a table used to serve food!)

Kattankudi I learn is excellent for seer-fish, barracuda and tuna and a fascinating spot to see the remnants of buildings that collapsed during the Boxing Day tsunami half sunk into the ground as if giants have thrown them there. Looking out to sea and down the beach, which stretches all the way to Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka’s surfer’s paradise, it is momentarily possible to forget that this is a place that has seen tsunami, civil and war and isolation. At times as you wander around the town enjoying local snacks at the kades and little shops you feel that you have entered a different country, far removed from the serenity of the Hill Country or the tropical heat of the Southern coastline.

Perhaps the best way to explore the area is by bike along Lake Road, where you will pass ruins of houses decimated by the waves with only remnants of water wells as a reminder to all of the devastation that took place across the island in 2004. There are several religious buildings that collapsed like the magnificent facade and entrance of Morugan Alayam Tamil Temple and Santa Maria Church on the beach, which the locals have decided to keep as a memorial to the worlds largest ever natural disaster killing a quarter of a million people across the Indian ocean.

My first proper stop is at the Kallady Bridge built by the British in 1924, one of the oldest and longest iron bridges in Sri Lanka, which crosses over the 53-kilometre lagoon, where we learn singing fish can be heard at midnight. Some local people think it is the song of the mermaids that live in these mythical waters. As we bike along the idyllic stretch of lagoon stopping for a coconut drink to cool off we see where the sea planes land and what remains of the Dutch colonial fort and then head in land to the colourful Batticaloa food market.

In the market we start in the vegetable section and learn how snake gourd is good for combatting cholesterol, and discover how buckets full of black cherries currently in season combat diabetes. The boys were amazed by the size of the giant bottle gourds, which are excellent for curing urine infections and the huge variety of herbal leaves for sale by women from the local farms, which are brewed to make all sorts of medieval style healthy medicinal teas.

On we bike to do a homestay cooking class. After drinking refreshing lime juice we head out again on our bikes to have a go at one of the islands oldest forms of net fishing. The bike ride reveals village life, even a snake crossing the road if you are lucky and also some of the sadder aspects of consumer rubbish, which really need addressing. Heading off in a outrigger fishing boat after putting on life jackets, I have a go at throwing the incredibly heavy net, which resembles a giant spiders web. After an exciting hour of throwing huge nets, jelly fish watching and catching a hand full of fish, even making ones own fishing line for the kids with a string and hook attached to a bottle, we head back to our bikes and explore the rest of this friendly town.

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