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Living in Sri Lanka - foraging in lockdown

Updated: Jun 25, 2021

For the last ten months I’ve been living on a skinny isthmus of land that separates the Negombo Lagoon from the Laccadive Sea on the southwestern edge of Sri Lanka.

The warm sea currents ebb and flow refreshing the vast Arie Lagoon, whose placid, watery fields yield crabs so splendid that even in Singapore's seafood restaurants they're known as 'Ceylon Crab'.

With its densley-populated canals, fishing communities and many beachside hotels, Negombo and its larger Gampha district have endured more and longer lockdowns than most other parts of the island these last 15 months.

Out here on the edges of the lagoon, literally 'fringe dwellers', we cling to the mangrove-edged shores, where harvesting lagoon or sea is the main economic activity.

It has no postcode, and no street name.

'Thalahena' says it all.

Thalahena, Negombo, Sri Lanka.

Thalahenites survive the stringently-enforced lockdowns knowing they can sustain themselves with seafood, the bartered produce of household gardens and subsidised staples of rice and lentils.

But what happens when a ship whose leaky containers catch fire, spilling nitric acid into the sea just beyond the port it was waiting to enter?

Image: Al Jazeera: The fire broke out while the Singapore-flagged MV X-Press Pearl was anchored about 9.5 nautical miles (18 kilometres) northwest of the capital, Colombo [Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP]


Within days of the MS Pearl raging uncontrollably with oil-fed flames just offshore from here, fishing was banned for a distance of 8o km along the coast, and suddenly there wasn't a boat to be seen on the lagoon either.

Deprived of work, my neighbours mend their nets, attend to home improvements and spend uncountable hours chatting, waiting for the monsoon to swoop in, when they can justifiably do even less. Antsy adolescents turn up their awful amplifiers, and little girls in pleated frocks play hopscotch in our lane, thankfully too narrow for vehicles to enter.

Now entering our second month of lockdown, I don’t step beyond my gates, save for the bread man to whose fluffy sweet wares I’ve finally succumbed as my food stores diminish.

A sweet bun pumped with raspberry-coloured glug arrives oven-warm in a singing tuktuk at the irresistible hour of 3 pm.

It’s tempting to buy two.

His 6am counterpart brings giant slices of pre-toasted bread and flaky curried vegetable pastries.

If I feasted on nothing else but bakery products all day I’d spend less than a dollar, and, yes, undoubtedly sport the pot belly that most people here - man, woman and many children – carry about unselfconsciously.

Vegetables have become pricey. Fatal floods destroyed market gardens upcountry in a pre-monsoon deluge two weeks ago.

It seems that the Teadrop Isle can't take a trick at the moment.

The delicious curry aromas that used to waft into my garden when I first moved here two months ago have ceased, and I’m guessing that in the absence of fresh fish and affordable vegetables, seasonal yams and jackfruit are filling up families.

Unfortunately, I’ve not yet acquired the taste for a nice starchy tuber curry, so when Saranga calls on Saturday morning to say the supermarkets have re-opened , we're on our way immediately - I'm imagining long queues and my favourite brown bread already disappeared.

Saranga is my tuk tuk driver. I say 'mine', because he's always on the spot, helps me avoid dud fruit and vegetables, and will trundle through a rainstorm to deliver a new battery for my mouse.

These days, any travel is exciting.

Four kilometres towards the mouth of the inlet, and the famous fish markets by the bridge, normally a thronging, smelly hub of commerce, are abandoned.

Image (A.K.): Negombo fish markets, 19 June

We navigate the zig zag of security barriers and I flip open my passport for an officer who may have been in school last week.

Already he’s acquired the contrapposto stance that accompanies the insouciance I associate with ill-fitting khaki uniforms anywhere. It's eerily quiet.

A few trucks sell pineapples and papaya. The supermarket is closed. And the next one. All of them. So much for urban rumours.

"Let's try the Tamils?" I suggest, remembering a dark, cluttered shop where it takes two people to ring through the purchases - one to read the label, the other to punch in the keys.

There's a small queue, no sanitiser, and a curiosity towards me that wearing a mask seems to facilitate with less covertness than usual.

The spherical little lady in front of me, barefoot but well dressed with flared frock and a dipping petticoat whose broderie anglaise edging suddenly reminds me of a school sewing project, crinkles her eyes in friendly acknowledgement.

I love these guys. Sacks are shouldered from their footpath delivery into a backroom where young men operating heat-sealing machines busily re-pack everything from chia seeds to dates into small, unlabelled bags piled up on messy shelves.

Grains, spices, cornflakes, OJ and aforementioned seeds and dried fruits - a month's worth for around 10,000 rupees (reality check: a housekeeper working 8 hrs /day, Monday-Saturday earns 25,000 - 40,000 rupees)

Should you ever need to find them, just ask for the church of St Sebastian (the one that suffered the brunt of the Easter Sunday bombings two years ago), with this shiny shrine pointing the way.

On the way out I'm pinched on the back by the petticoat lady who grins when I whip around to see what the heck.

Around the corner, the only organic fruit vendor I know of keeps a low profile. The gate's locked.

He only has what he has.

There might be pineapples in abundance one day, and boxes of straw-packed eggs the next. But I come to see him for the best chili paste and chili-with-Maldive-fish sambal I've ever tasted.

It's in another home-packed bag, and through the door I see his wife and daughter smoothing out gilded foil on cardboard cake plate circles ... Tamil home industry at work again.

Today he has dragon fruit and avocadoes. Hmm, could be a painting too. And the man in the truck across the road has a great deal on papaya ... 50 rupees a kilo (that's 30c). Saranga knocks them all for a strong hollow sound and chooses a good one as big as a soccer ball.

We're doing well here.

Now unless you have need to visit a pharmacy in Sri Lanka, chances are you'll never know the riches they can offer.

Choose one close to a fancy private hospital, and it's surprising what's inside.

Slipping past the prescription queue inside the aptly-named 'Unique Pharmacy', I make straight for the till, behind which sits a low display stand piled with a random assortment of ridiculously expensive imported delicacies.

Older Sri Lankans remember the days when bringing back anything imported was enough to guarantee Christmas cards for life; when lipstick was a luxury and foreign labels the bee’s knees.

The thrill of finding an industrial-sized jar of Polski ogorki cannot be over-estimated, but the true gold? Real pesto Genovese sauce. OMG. I’ve suddenly become a hoarder.

That evening my new landlord drops in – did I tell you I’ve moved? - apologising that he couldn’t bring a bottle of wine, but would the brandy do?

”All the bloody liquor stores have been closed for weeks.”

“Oh well, maybe that’s not such a bad thing for a little while?”, I venture.

“Yes, yes, but all my friends are saying our wives are looking like witches” he laments.

I’m mentally scanning these two parameters for cause and effect, until he says, “you know, the beauty parlours are also closed for too long”.

I casually reach to smooth down the fringe that I cut by myself last month, which hasn’t done at all well with the humidity.

“Let me know what I can bring next time – did you hear? The lockdown’s been extended”.


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