Wild, wayward and free: A glimpse into the world of Beach Boys | Sunday Observer

Wild, wayward and free: A glimpse into the world of Beach Boys

We grew up with this coast, Loku says when we ask him about the recent allegations of assault just one town over. Bent over one of his mammoth surfboards while waxing it, he pauses. Tall and broad, he possesses the swagger of a man in his early thirties who already runs a lucrative business. But for a moment he appears vulnerable.

This is the only way we know how to make a living. The beach is all we have. Why would any of us dare to do anything that would harm our livelihood

The Beach Boys of Sri Lanka live in a universe of their own, governed by their own set of rules. Young men with beachy curls and scruffy mugs,barefoot and under dressed and peacocking in torn cotton camouflage -pants,crowd the island’s pristine beaches. Eagerly, some say overly so, they lurk around coastal visitors both domestic and foreign and offer their services with facial expressions that have been, in turns, described as “fly on the nose,” “dozing off,” and “very, very hungry..” The range of their professions runs the gamut; they are boys who spend their days on the beach, yes, but some teach surfing, some tend bar, some give guided tours by scooter, some waiter. What unites them is a reputation for wild and wayward behavior.

Lately, their bad rap has gotten even worse. As allegations of harassment and assault sprang from the sands of the Southern Province earlier this year, mass paranoia ensued, fueled by fear that the tourism industry was in jeopardy. Many said the Beach Boys—and the casual culture they perpetuate in coastal towns—were to blame. People called the boys menaces, called them predatory, called for them to stop working, called on politicians to ensure this.

Which brings us to the following question: Why do the Beach Boys do it?

What makes the Beach Boys invest their youth—and subsequent lives—into catering niceties? What among the accusations hurled their way is fact and what is fiction? What does the term ‘Beach Boy’ even connote? And what does a day in the life of one look like?

To get to the bottom of these questions required consulting the single source consistently overlooked and more often than not unheard in this conversation: the Beach Boys themselves. For the better part of two weeks in May, we shadowed a handful of them as they went about their lives. We watched them work and watched them play. We lived as Beach Boys live. We learned a lot.

Loku, the owner of a surf school in Weligama, starts his mornings early. At 6 AM, he leaves his inland home and heads to the beach to set up shop.

It’s off-season, and the unpredictable weather at this time of year means tourism wanes. But save for a few morning storms, within an hour the waters are bustling, chock full of foreigners on surfboards and Beach Boys teaching them how to ride.

Like many coastal destinations in Sri Lanka, Weligama was once a sleepy fishing village that transformed rapidly in the years since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami upended what was once familiar. Its sea is still turquoise,its palm trees still waltz, and its locals, for the most part, still smile.

But now, budget travelers donning signature packs that fit the kitchen sink are as common a sight. Luxury honeymooners, too, have begun frequenting the area.

And the economy has re-configured itself to accommodate this influx of outsiders. Stilt fishermen are paid by hotels as often for their poses and smiles as for their daily catch. Tuk-tuk drivers make regular trips to Galle and Unawatuna and Mirissa and Matara and back, depending on the size of the swell in each place. Rice and curry joints use less spice in their recipes to appeal to milder palates. And local boys have benefited too,working as waiters in western-style cafes or, like Loku, providing visitors with surf lessons and turning their leisure into livelihoods.

“We grew up with this coast,” Loku says when we ask him about the recent allegations of assault just one town over. Bent over one of his mammoth surfboards while waxing it, he pauses. Tall and broad, he possesses the swagger of a man in his early thirties who already runs a lucrative business. But for a moment he appears vulnerable.

“This is the only way we know how to make a living. The beach is all we have. Why would any of us dare to do anything that would harm our livelihood?”

Over the course of our stay, we are introduced to a motley crew of characters between the ages of 16 and 35 who joke that their lives have become fodder for the beach. All of them acknowledge that the recent assault in Mirissa might have occurred as the media and police portrayed itsubsequently, though they remain unconvinced. Still, they insist that such behaviour is the exception and not the rule.

Loku’s brother Anu, also a skilled surfer and “Beach Boy,” has been in a relationship with an Australian woman with whom he has been living with for two years now. They met while she was on holiday, and after a few visits back home she decided to stay in Sri Lanka for good.

“A Beach Boy is the best guide a foreigner can get,” Anu says. “Who else knows this monster,” he says referring to the ocean, “and this beautiful town like we do?”

When we ask where he thinks the stereotype of Beach Boys as predatory originated, he answers honestly and admits there is a chance that a Beach Boy might come across as accosting foreigners when approaching them for the first time to offer a service.

“Looking back at my past, yes, I know that some of the things I may have said to people when going up to them could have been in bad taste,” he says. “But that was only because I was not very good at speaking their language. Have I ever done something physically inappropriate? Absolutely not.”

Both Anu and Loku are quite candid about sexual relationships they maintain with tourists they meet on the job. But they, as well as the other Beach Boys we spoke with, seem to understand consent quite well. Each was adamant to reiterate that stepping out of line either verbally or physically would translate to a significant threat to one’s employment and livelihood, and insisted this is especially the case for the less regulated tourist operations of the southern coast, where so much of a person’s business is reliant upon word-of-mouth suggestions.

Most tourists we spoke with, especially women, expressed feeling safe as a traveler.

“I have to say, I’m a member of this Facebook page for Sri Lankan backpackers, and there were some messages there that I read before I came that worried me a bit. But I haven’t had any bad experiences in my time here,” says Rianne, a tourist from the Netherlands we met in Galle.

Still, mutterings about Beach Boys as dangerous—rising in the wake of the recent incidents—have already had ramifications, though for now they are measurable only in a few anecdotes. Ana and Beatriz, also from the Netherlands, told us they adjusted their trip and decided to skip Mirissa and Weligama altogether after hearing about the assaults.

To some extent, the ramifications are not just mutterings.

If Weligama beach is known for its waves, then Mirissa beach was, until a few weeks ago, known for its parties. But in the aftermath of the alleged assault of Dutch tourists here in April, that is no longer the case.

On May11th, on the orders of the President, a litany of restaurants, bars, and hotels that propped up the tourism sector along Mirissa’s coast—23 in total, including Water Creatures, the bar where the alleged incident took place—were demolished by the Coast Conservation Department. Now, the beach is lined like a war zone with rubble yet to be cleaned.

The Government’s reasoning for these demolitions is that the structures were illegal or unauthorised. Some had gradually expanded their establishments without obtaining prior permission. Others, according to Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) Director General Upali Rathnayake, lacked the proper licenses required to serve alcohol or play loud music after hours.

But the Beach Boys say the strict action taken is retaliatory, collectively punishing the owners and employees of 22 establishments for a crime allegedly committed by just one of them.

“What we had was an ad-hoc understanding with lower-level officials,” says Gimhan, the owner of Silva’s Surf Home, a guest house he runs adjacent to his family’s home just meters from the beach. Many of his friends who worked in the now-demolished Mirissa establishments have lost their jobs,and have been dismissed as sexual assailants in the time since.

“Business owners here would definitely like to be licensed and legitimised,” Gimhan continues. “We like this Government and its push for transparency. Our entire community depends on this beach, and a legal license whether it’s for liquor or tourism would go a long way in protecting our livelihood. But getting one is not so easy.”

Rathnayake of the SLTDA insists the law mandates that all tourism services in the country be licensed, from hotels and restaurants to guest houses and camping sites to any variety of guide service which is sold at a price.

Further, he says that the Beach Boys who skirt this mandate aren’t providing a valuable service to the tourism economy—or, if they are, only to what he terms “freelance” travelers, or those who don’t plan in advance.

“As a country we are trying in the long run for a lower number of guests with higher incomes. A high-yield tourist is the target of our organisation. We want a return on tourism, so we want a quality tourist. A quality tourist always plans and comes and knows what he wants. And when he does that, what is lacking to him? How is the service of a Beach Boy necessary?”

Ironically, the tourists we spoke with all point to the ability to escape a commercial tourist sector, to be a freelance traveler in Rathnayake’s words, as a primary appeal of the island. And they seem to understand that the Beach Boys are an integral part of this experience.

“What’s it like being a tourist here? Really easy. It’s like, you don’t feel that much pressure to be a tourist. People want to invite you to have the local experience. We didn’t really plan our travels through Sri Lanka, we just decided where we’d go the day before,” says Gabrielle, a Puerto Rican living in Thailand and traveling the country with her boyfriend.

“We’ve met great locals who’ve recommended great things. So I would say interact with locals as much as possible,” she continues, adding, “As a woman I felt really freaking safe.”

Gimhan as well says that the local, freelance nature of tourism here—and the ability to fraternise with locals rather than avoid them—is what so many of his guests feel sets Sri Lanka apart as a tourist destination.

“They love the local alcohol, the local spicy seafood, the local hospitality,” he says. As for the stereotypes and rumors and allegations plaguing the Beach Boys?

They’re clearly worried. But all they ask is for travelers both local and foreign to come see what a Beach Boy is for themselves.

“A Beach Boy is a beautiful person,” says Loku. “We are liberal with our vision and ideology. We are soft like the waves. We need to be.”