There was somebody drowning in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The circumstances called for action.
I was swimming at isolated Goyambokka Beach in southern Sri Lanka, the kind of undeveloped, mostly untouched beach you read about and dream about, free of volleyball nets, vendors, and squawking package tourists. There was nobody there except the two of us, and there was absolutely nothing to do.
Cracked coconut shells were scattered across the creamy brown sand, nervous sea crabs scuttled into and out of and back into their tiny hideouts in the turf, and palm trees—clusters upon clusters of skinny, lilting palm trees—helped keep the beating subtropical sun, a veritable melanoma microwave here in equatorial South Asia, from melting away the sunscreen.
We shared this magical space with a sociable gang of local beach dogs, who couldn’t figure out why their playful shows of friendship were met with friendly, but firm, indifference. How do you tell a dog that it’s adorable, but that you want nothing to do with its unfortunate case of mange?
Also, I had skipped the optional (but recommended, and very expensive) pre-trip rabies vaccination, and was already mildly terrified about the prospect of frothing at the mouth, on an agonizing march to certain death in central Sri Lanka, after the house dog at our guesthouse in Kandy had licked my shin, just once, a few days earlier. For the record, I don’t think I contracted rabies.
All guests at the Palm Paradise Cabanas, a heavenly little beach-bungalow resort located just outside “downtown” Tangalle, are warned about the unpredictable undercurrent in the swimming beach waters. Swim, by all means, but don’t go too far out, we were told. The middle of the cove should be fine, but stay away from the rocks on either side.
It was here at check-in that I first introduced to a loosey-goosey, middle-aged Frenchman, who along with his wife had that morning moved from our bungalow to the one furthest away from reception. They did this, he later confessed, so that they could have extreme New Age tantric sex all afternoon and night without disturbing the other guests. Just kidding.
He was dressed in loose-fitting linens covered in pan-Asian designs, the kind tourists buy in Southeast Asia to blend in, only to stand out as the only folks in town dressed in loose-fitting linens covered in pan-Asian designs. Aside from his silly outfit we didn’t think much of him; he had apparently lost a pair of shoes and was convinced they were still in our bungalow, but we looked, and a member of the cleaning staff looked, and they weren’t there, so that was that…
… until we saw him drowning.
Or, at least we thought that was somebody drowning way out there. It can’t be… right? Is that just a large bird repeatedly flapping its wings, or is that a body bouncing up and down in the waves, like a buoy in a thunderstorm, flailing its arms in the international sign of “Help me, I’m fucking drowning out here!”
Squinting from shore, we weren’t entirely sure; we’d been at the beach for at least 45 minutes and thought we were the only ones there. But… wait… yes, my god, that is somebody! He must be a mile from shore! What do we do, what do we do, what do we do?!
I pictured myself frantically sprinting through the sleepy resort grounds to summon assistance, then trucking back to the beach and into the water, where I’d power my way out to sea with breaststrokes of lightening and drag the poor bastard to shore. By then, a small crowd would have gathered on the beach to witness the American’s herculean rescue. They’d cheer as tears of admiration trickled down their smiling faces; the mangy dogs would keep a respectful distance in honor of my heroics.
Later, I’d pose with the grateful swimmer and talk with reporters. “Just doing what anybody would do,” I’d say with casual coolness. Our picture would be plastered across the front page of Sri Lanka’s Daily News. I’d meet President Rajapaksa and be given a ceremonial key to the country.
Oh, the glory!
Meanwhile, four fisherman in a weathered rowboat had shoved off from a neighboring cove and were headed in the direction of the human buoy. And as I peered back out to sea, I noticed that it wasn’t just arms we were seeing, but legs too. They seemed to be flipping in cadence: first the arms were sticking straight up, then the legs, then the arms, then the legs. The boat was nearer now, almost on top of the person, and just as quickly as they arrived, they changed direction and began prepping their fishing poles: the guy wasn’t drowning at all, but, strangely, enjoying a casual swim.
We stood there knee deep on the beach, confused, as the daft Frenchman slowly made his way back towards shore, flipping, kicking, flailing, flipping, kicking, flailing, fully unaware of the scare he’d given us, on a day when the waves were particularly feral, after we’d all been told it wasn’t wise to swim too far out.
The Frenchman and his skinny wife seemed to magically appear every morning between 8am – 9am for one of these suicidally adventurous swims, after which they’d disappear into their cabana for long stretches of the afternoon before jumping back in the water to tempt fate once more before dinner.
They may have sandwiched their swims around extreme New Age tantric sex sessions in that remote bungalow, with Sting’s Sacred Love on loop, but I can’t say for certain.