Around Batti: coastal lagoons, Kattankudi, Passekudah, Kalkudah, ‘Tea with Mr Stephen’

Coastal lagoons

From Panama to Trincomalee, the lagoons were not affected by development during the 26 year civil war, so they are home to the most pristine mangrove forests in Sri Lanka. Now, however, they are under threat as people return to the area. Mangrove forests are vital to the eco-system because they trap nutrients washed down from higher ground and recycle them into the system – otherwise they’d be lost to the sea. They support an incredibly diverse amount of species, including prawn, shrimps, barramundi, fiddler crabs, migratory wading birds, buffalo, elephants, deer, salt-water crocodiles and honey bees. Also, without their presence the east coast would have been even more severely damaged by the 2004 tsunami, as their massive roots help dissipate wave energy. They truly protect the coast. In the north and south of Sri Lanka, 99.5% of the forests have been lost and it is imperative that the same doesn’t happen here.

For more information see http://www.rainforestrescueinternational.org. Rainforest Rescue International is a non-profit organisation based in Galle, working to protect vulnerable environments such as the mangroves.

Kattankudi beach

Kattankudi beach

I decided to stop briefly in Kattankudi on my way to Batticaloa, and hired a three wheeler driver to take me over to the beach. There wasn’t a lot to see. On the way the driver asked if I wanted to go swimming, to which I said ‘no’, and he told me he’d love to see that. He said it several times until I lost my temper and told him I was angry – I know he simply had no idea but in the end enough was enough. ‘Angry?’ he said, surprised. Meanwhile we were trundling down a lane next to the beach and there was nothing but half ruined buildings on the other side of the lane. Not another person was in sight and the sand was bare.

Opposite Kattankudi beach

Tsunami damage was very bad here and rebuilding has been slow to happen. Apparently, much of the land along Kattankudi beach is owned by wealthy Muslims, and they have so far showed no inclination to develop it. Although both Muslims and Tamils live in Kattankudi, there is division between the two communities. The coastal fishermen are mainly Muslim while the Tamil fishermen dominate the lagoon.

Back at the main road I drank a coke in a small, open-sided shop and attracted a small group of curious onlookers. The atmosphere was friendly, however, and I bantered with the men. I even offered to buy the auto driver a coffee, having quickly given up feeling grumpy with him. All along the east coast, barbed wire and corrugated iron fences still surround many houses, to keep out the Tamil Tigers. The LTTE frequently made night raids on fishing boats, to steal diesel engines and fuel.

Passekudah beach

Passekudah Beach

The water is so shallow here that you can walk out into the sea for nearly a mile, or cross from one side of the bay to the other. This has made it popular with families and their young children. 

Passekudah beach

An enormous luxury hotel complex has recently been constructed at the north end of the beach, and more hotels are on the way, but at the moment it still has a ramshackle feel about it. There are a lot of ruined buildings around, either from the war or the tsunami. Shops near the car-park sell tacky souvenirs and there’s a giant coca-cola bottle next to one of the cafes. When I went swimming I changed in the back of a wooden police post building. The plump, genial policeman was standing outside it on the sand, contentedly smoking a cigarette, and readily agreed to my request.

Soon afterwards the whole edifice was commandeered by a group of lady teachers from a school in Kandy, who had brought their girls out for a trip to the beach. A long journey which meant them leaving at 6am.

Well on Passekudah beach

The girls went swimming in T-shirts and shorts, which is supposed to conserve their modesty but ends up being just as provocative as a bikini! The water was perfect for swimming but the shallows were full of small broken pieces of coral, which doesn’t look good for the condition of the reefs further out. After my swim I rinsed with water pulled up from a well belonging to the Sri Lankan army.

Passekudah is a fishing beach so you can watch the fishermen land their catch, and one of the hotels rents out boats by the hour.

Kalkudah Bay beach

Kalkudah Bay beach

Kalkudah Bay is much deeper than Passekudah and perhaps for that reason it has largely been ignored by the developers. It’s a startlingly beautiful stretch of coast. Clean white sand sweeps in an arc from one end to the other, backed by nothing but palm trees and forest. Fishermen also use this beach and their brightly coloured boats were pulled up on the sand, but when I arrived in the afternoon I had the whole place to myself. Enormous dragonflies danced around my head and oyster-catchers hopped along the shore. Before the war, this was the beach foreign surfers came to, but on this day the pale blue sea looked very mild. It was still incredibly hot and a couple of dogs wandered along and sat down in the surf to cool themselves. Take a picnic as there is nowhere to buy anything.

Sentry post near Kalkudah Bay beach

You can reach Passekudah and Kalkudah Bay by catching a bus to Valaichchenai, which is about an hour’s journey from Batticaloa bus station. Get down in the main street and switch to a three wheeler. The beaches are about 5km further on. On the way you pass a lot of barbed wire, and there are still uncleared mine-fields in the area. It adds a sobering dimension to a trip to the beach.

‘Tea with Mr Stephen’

Mr Stephen outside his snack bar

One of the most striking entries in the 2009 edition of the Sri Lanka Lonely Planet is a short, boxed description of Lonely Planet author Stuart Butler’s meeting with a man who ran a tea shop near Kalkudah beach. Mr Butler described it as ‘the most moving encounter I have ever had while travelling,’ which is strong stuff coming from a man who travels for a living. Even before I read this account, while I was still in India, I met a young English couple in Kerala who begged me to remember them to Mr Stephens (his surname is actually ‘Stephen’, but was misquoted in the LP), if I ever made it as far as Batticaloa. They told me he hardly ever saw tourists as not many people go that way. So six weeks later, on a day trip to the beaches, I felt pretty much bound to find him.

The local bus dropped me in the centre of Valaichchenai, the nearest town to Passekudah and Kalkudah Bay, and I asked several likely looking people – cafe owners, students – if they knew Mr Stephen’s place, but they hadn’t heard of him. Even the auto-rickshaw drivers, who normally know everything, didn’t seem to have any idea what I was talking about, although naturally one of them pretended he did so I’d jump into his auto. All the Lonely Planet had to say was that ‘Stephens Snack Bar’ was ‘close to the Mirovadai junction’, so the auto man buzzed me along there, then spent at least ten minutes asking people he knew for directions.

‘It’s closed down,’ he told me at last. ‘Stephens is working at the beach now.’ I was dismayed but not surprised, having already been let down by the wild elephants and the singing fish.

‘OK just take me to the beach then,’ I said, thinking I’d just go for a swim instead, but about 2km before the beaches, right next door to Victoria’s Simla Inn hotel, we came upon the snack bar.

Mr Stephen's tea shop

I needn’t have wasted time asking around for it as it was impossible for a backpacker to miss, having now become a sort of shrine to the Lonely Planet, Sri Lanka 2009 edition. A sign beside the road was painted with a copy of the guidebook’s cover, while the tiny concrete building itself was a vibrant yellow colour, with ‘MR STEPHEN’S TEA SHOP, the most famous in the world!’ written on one side in bright blue paint, and ‘TEA with Mr Stephens’ written on the other side, next to a fluidly executed caricature of a man with a bald head and hooded eyes. There was also a separate, older sign that read ‘Stephens Snack Bar. Kalkudah’, and a thatched, circular, open-sided hut containing some tables and chairs. The whole place was locked up behind a barbed wire fence, but a phone number was painted on the front side of the concrete shack and I gave it a call.

‘Hello, yes?’ Mr Stephen said. ‘Where are you? Don’t move I’ll be there in five minutes.’

The auto-rickshaw driver grumbled when he realised I wanted to wait, but this was simply a prelude to the complaint show he intended to put on for me later. Mr Stephen arrived after five minutes, like he said, and I bought the driver a bottle of Fanta, which he sat drinking in his auto in the shade. Mr Stephen raced around the barbed wire fence and unlocked the gate, telling me how glad he was to see me. He went to make me a cup of tea and encouraged me to read through his visitor’s book. Since August 2009, when the Lonely Planet was published with him in it, he has been visited by a constant stream of people who, like me, were curious to meet this man and have, perhaps, their own ‘moving experience’. Such is the effect of the Lonely Planet, a guidebook that now has the ability to make and break people’s fortunes all over the world. In poor Asian countries a good review in here can be equivalent to winning the lottery. One hotel owner I met, who wasn’t yet in any guidebook, told me sadly that ‘tourists are like horses. They go straight to the hotels in their book and don’t look left or right.’

Every comment I read in the visitor’s book was positive and enthusiastic about Mr Stephen; re-iterating the sadness of his life story; extolling his virtues as a guide; exhorting those who followed to help him out. One girl had recently given him R5000 so he could build a toilet, and suggested that every person who came through also donate R1000 to the cause.

Mr Stephen appeared from his concrete shack carrying an excellent mug of builder’s tea, and sat down opposite me with a sad look on his face. He nodded at the visitor’s book.

‘Last month there were tourists,’ he said. ‘This month nothing.’

Unfortunately for Mr Stephen, even though almost every backpacker who passes his snack bar will stop, there still aren’t enough foreign visitors coming here to make his business viable.

‘Only foreign tourists are coming,’ he said. ‘There are plenty of Sinhalese but they drive straight past here to the beach. And the tourists only have a cup of tea, so I have no business. So it’s locked.’

He’s a tall, wiry man with a bald head and plenty of energy, but when I asked if he minded me writing a short feature about him he looked sadder still. I had the horrible feeling, in fact I knew, that since he told his story to Stuart Butler (on 3/11/08, according to the visitor’s book) he had repeated it many, many times.

‘In 1986 I worked in the administrative office in a hotel in Kalkudah. There were a lot of hotels here and it was the best place in Sri Lanka. Before the war everyone knew the best beaches were: 1st Kalkudah; 2nd Arugam Bay; 3rd Trincomalee; 4thHikkaduwa. After the war the first three weren’t functioning anymore. They still haven’t cleared all the mines.’

I knew this to be true because I’d already passed several minefields around Valaichchenai that day, fenced off behind coils of barbed wire.

‘After the tsunami I lost everything. However, my wife died from a hole in the heart, not from the tusnami like it’s written in the Lonely Planet. I don’t want to give people the wrong impression.’

Mr Stephen

When Stuart Butler visited he wrote in the notebook: ‘the best snack bar in Sri Lanka’, and in his article he described the place as’ immaculate’, with Mr Stephen sitting proudly inside it ‘dressed in a dapper white suit’. Sadly, the hope of that early time has not been sustained and Mr Stephen seems to have lost his mojo. He showed me inside his hut and it was no longer immaculate; no longer even a teashop. He can make tea using a one ring electric heater but I doubted he could provide anything else. It appeared to me that he’s now living almost solely on the handouts of tourists. A sad story indeed but I wondered about all the other people, equally badly affected by the tsunami, who have no publicity in the Lonely Planet and have not been given land. He continued with his sob story, looking unhappy, and it is probably entirely true, but to my dismay I began to suspect he was exaggerating the misery in the hope of generating more income.

‘This is not my own land,’ he said. ‘The Church gave it to me. Earlier I was by Mirovadai Junction. I lost everything in the tsunami. Then I was at the seaside for a while but the Church gave me land and built me this hut. More tourists are needed.’

I asked about the painting of his hut, in the hope of lightening his mood.

‘Louise Lockhart painted it for me in about February of this year.’

A very generous, kind act indeed, but to my mind it has only confirmed Mr Stephens’ new status as a backpacker tourist attraction, and I found it oddly demeaning to him.

‘I notice that in the visitor’s book a lot of people mention your love of music. What kind of music do you like?’

‘Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson.’

‘And you like dancing?’ I was asking stupid questions, based on what he’d said to Mr Butler about not dancing for 15 years. I’d also noticed in the visitor’s book that some passing backpackers had persuaded him to dance around his hut, which was a cheering thought!

‘I like dancing, but now I have no one to dance with.’

Then he showed me some photographs of his family.

‘I have two children, one boy and one girl. Also two grandchildren – two girls.’ He pointed to their smiling young faces. ‘I’d like to see them again but they live in Colombo and I need money to visit them. Last week I sold three R10 toffee bonbons. There’s no room to sleep in that hut and I’m still sleeping on a table. I bought everything in here – the cups and the cutlery, but I’ve had to go back to selling fish. I still need money to start my toilet.’

I felt sorry for him, but it was a slightly ambiguous response. Sri Lanka is full of heart-breaking stories and, on balance, his situation seemed to contain more hope than many people had. My doubt increased later when I remembered that the auto driver, when we were looking for the cafe, had told me Mr Stephen lived in a house near the Mirovadai Junction! I have no way of knowing whether this is true or not. The auto driver could easily have been mistaken and, even if he wasn’t, Mr Stephen seems basically a good man who certainly has some financial problems. I left him R400 and wished him luck.


2 comments

  1. HI, I just came across this as I am the girl who painted Mr Stephen’s tea house. We found him much in the same way that you did – through the Lonely Planet – and also found a thin, forlorn figure, clutching at the memories of a distant past. His hut was made from grey breeze blocks, which didn’t insulate his hut so it became stifling for him to sleep in at night. He slept on a plastic table once used for customers of his tea shop.
    We offered to render it for him and paint it a bright colour. Unlike you we did not spot it easily, our tuk-tuk had whizzed right past it as the grey breeze block made it merge into the scenery.
    He seemed thrilled about this and got to work helping us straight away. I am an illustrator so offered to paint his portrait which he thought was hilarious. He was so happy with the result he caught us a sword fish and cooked it on a bed of noodles. I was speaking to my dad on the phone afterwards and Mr Stephens grabbed the phone off me to have a chat with him!
    We still receive phone calls from a friend we made on Passekudah beach. About 6 months ago he rang to inform us that Mr. Stephens had died from a heart attack. Poor man. From your description he does sound like he had given up a bit. I wonder what will happen to the hut now?

    • Hi! Many thanks for your comment. I have completely neglected this website recently and am just getting back to it. Reading my account now, I do feel it comes across as a little harsh on you. You certainly made his hut visible, and enhanced his life. If it hadn’t been for the phone number painted on the side, I wouldn’t even have found him.
      What I was trying, and probably failing, to convey was the overall sense of discomfort I felt. I have had this experience before, meeting people who have been written up in the Lonely Planet. One of the LP writers has an unusual, interesting encounter and writes about it – so far, so good. But the tale is then published in a guidebook constantly in use by millions of travellers, and those travellers are naturally drawn to emulate the experience. The person at the focus of this attention is then confronted by strangers who are looking for what the guidebook has told them, and in order to satisfy this need the person often tells them what they think the visitors want to hear.
      I met a woman in northern India who was mentioned in the LP and she quoted word for word what she’d said at least two years previously to an LP journalist. It’s just another way in which the LP affects the people and places it mentions. (A whole thesis could be written about this! I’m indebted to Lonely Planet guides, as a rough first introduction to a country only, but travellers often expect highly accurate, up-to-date information and imagine nothing has changed.) If the person at the centre of a story is in a vulnerable situation, as Mr Stephen was, things become even more complicated. Certainly, life is hard for him, but I couldn’t work out if it was as bad as he professed, not without staying for a few weeks. What really struck me was the change from a proud man in a dapper suit, to a man repeating his story for tourist hand outs. After meeting so many people in sri lanka who had really nothing, his situation seemed better than most, at least judging by the large number of donations he had received. I wondered if he really did live in the hut, as he told me as well you – if so, why was it locked up, and he appeared from somewhere else on his moped? It was all very hard to decipher. I was only with him for half an hour and these are my impressions only, but certainly you did good! I am sorry to hear of his death.


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