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Eyes wide open – Negombo’s Magical Waterways

Eyes wide open – Negombo’s Magical Waterways

By Juliet Coombe

I step onto a boat excited to see wildlife so near such a bustling happening city, as Negombo once just a small little fishing hamlet is today an exciting destination in its own right with HSBC fashion shows and contemporary are exhibitions. Each turn took us from one section of the Hamilton Canal to the other, watching birds dive into the waves we created behind us, as we cut our way through the colourful boats I had visions of more distant and dreamlike places such as Murano in Venice. We are in search of adventure with Hassanta our Jetwing naturalist guide, with a friendly grin and a few ideas up his sleeve.

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The Negombo lagoon, though not like the one evoked by Jetwing Lagoon hotel restaurant’s name, is vast and varied and will take you to a host of different sights, ranging from the solitude and beauty of the natural mangrove plantations, resplendent with wildlife, to busy canals where fishermen were busy mending their nets and are preparing to embark on their next expeditions and view us like creatures from another distant universe as we accidentally ram one of their boats, though fortunately not causing damage and made the children from the surrounding houses rush out to see us. I also learn that the curious looking dead floating foliage stick like rafts dotted around the lagoon are manmade habitats for attracting crabs and fish for the fisherman.

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At one point we passed by what looked like a prison camp, complete with barbed wire and high watchtower, and as I contemplated the ease with which one might escape from such a poorly sighted and maintained military camp, I hear that it is actually a prawn farm and protected due to the very high value of its delicious stock. Further along we see large fishing vessels painted in brilliant hues of reds, azure blues and orange and displaying the nazar, an elaborately painted eye that protects against, by looking straight into it, the evil eye of envy that wishes misfortune on others and is considered by many to be the most insidious force in the world. For the fisherman it is protection against the unpredictable seas and size as I discover does matter, the larger the trawler the bigger the eyes as often these boats go out to the high seas for weeks on end.

For those that stay at home and wait for their bounty, we found, scattered along many of the banks of the northern reaches, small fish and crab farms made from square wooden cages with nets. Sadly for one snoozing owner, a heron picked out a huge fish from one of the enclosures and made off with it, in its inimitable prehistoric fashion, all beak and jagged limbs, missing only a bloodcurdling screech as it triumphs over its hapless prey.

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At the other end of the lagoon we see great edifices of Negombo erected to the great glory of God along the edges of this town of hundreds of wonderful temples, churches and mosques, rich in tradition, the spirit of cooperation and looking outwards for the greater good. We alight from the boat to look around a fish farm and later a walk in the old quarter known as Negombo Fort, where simple Catholic shrines have Old women sitting outside them with skin is as weathered as the dried karawala fish they lay out and cover in salt crossed themselves before closing yet another dried fish deal. A delicacy enjoyed by the fishing and rural folk through out the island. Watching them as you walk along the main frontage gives one a real incite into how these people live carrying huge whicker basketfuls of deep sea fish risking their lives on the ocean daily for this salty delicacy and playing card games between tots of arrack or the local moonshine. Here time stands still and there is no nicer way than to discover Sri Lankas beautiful wildlife and real Negombo living than from a boat.