Photographer Steve McCurry’s shots of stilt fishermen inspired me to go to Sri Lanka, images indelible in the mind as they are perishable in the print of a 1997 National Geographic magazine pulled from a sagging shelf or cardboard box by a kid with few years and many dreams.
Years later on old Ceylon’s south coast I stood on the night side of dawn and waved down a bus, riding along the black coast in a seat crowded by Buddhist posters and flashing LED icons, jumping off at an empty beach. In the dawn's blue half-light I watched the tide lap around the crooked fisherman stilts, empty, reminding me of black crosses marking watery graves. No fishermen came at dawn, none at dusk. Not on that beach or any other I visited.
McCurry’s work for National Geographic was the earth my boyish dreams had rooted in and as a man I had gone to Sri Lanka because of a quadrangle of light and shadow captured by a master who pins a moment of time to a 35mm frame; like a butterfly collector I wanted my own specimen. But the stilt fishermen are extinct and where they once sat you find only fishers of men, locals who pose for tourists and their dollars.
It was night when I returned to the beachside town of Mirissa, but there was something alive in the night. The tropic dark shuddered from drumbeats and the percussion of firecrackers, the road lined with hundreds of locals, and the heavy air was ripped through by brass horns. Stomping, whirling, their bodies painted with mermaids and sweat-shining, young men danced to music by the light of a single road flare.
Passing the torch from hand to new hand they beat the road with the steps they danced every year along their neighbors’ doors and through the town to the temple, driving devils into the night. Of the hundreds of onlookers only a few were tourists; it wasn’t a show for them. It was a fusion of tradition and modern music, old beliefs passionately phrased in new words and a grammar that made sense to the on looking hundreds that lined the road.
I was a tourist and this tradition wasn’t made for me, but they made room for me between the black night and red glare. Looking through the camera’s lens I felt the proof of the moment, something made true by the dancers' sweat and flashing eyes and not a contrived replication of a dead tradition.
Finally, unexpectedly, I was connected to the elusive and authentic moment that inspired me and uncountable others to travel and see with their own eyes what a great photograph can only poorly translate.
Too often globalization has swept its sickle through the world’s unique traditions, reaping continents of age-old customs only to sow them with a monoculture of factory second t-shirts and other First World detritus. Too often we travelers come too late, the world has moved on, and what was uniquely beautiful about a place and people is preserved only for its tourism value.
But though the world’s size has diminished through air travel and internet, all culture remains local. Every tradition and custom has its time, its moment in the light. When that time has gone then, like the dancers’ road flare, the torch is passed from one hand to a new hand but the dance does not stop.
Tour vans from beach towns will drive holidaymakers to shores where bare-chested men scramble up fishing stilts and jig rods with no line over seas with no fish. Tourists snap photos, the van drives off and the man leaves his perch for the shore, leaving the fishing stilt to mark the place where a tradition was buried at sea.