Few things are as thrilling as an iconic glimpse of a famous landmark, a decorated elephant walking down a busy sidewalk, or a tango dancer spinning across an Argentinian dance floor. Buzzing with excitement, I glanced out of the car window to catch a fleeting glimpse of stick fishermen perching atop a rickety stilt.
Breathless with excitement, we begged the taxi driver to stop. Smiling sardonically, he pulled over.
“Do you think we can take pictures?” we asked.
“I’m sure they won’t mind. If you hand over some rupees” he replied.
As we approached the fishermen they waved eagerly, so we clambered over the rocks towards them.
The older of the two men, whose stilt was much shorter than the other, climbed down to greet us and took the crumpled notes from my extended hand. The other posed with his fishing line; a small fish dangling from the bottom of it.
That should really have been the first clue.
Stick fishermen – an elaborately staged tourist trap
As we clicked away at the picturesque surroundings, the elder fisherman gestured for us to sit on the crooked stilt.
By now, it was beginning to dawn on us that we hadn’t just interrupted two fishermen going about their daily work, but had stumbled into an elaborately staged tourist trap. But, as we had already paid we figured ‘why not’ and posed for the pictures. Once back in the taxi the driver asked us if we knew what the men were fishing for. We looked at each other, realising that we hadn’t thought to ask.
‘Erm, herring?’ we guessed.
‘No’, he said, turning to us with a twinkle in his eye.
‘They were fishing for dollars!’ he laughed loudly.
As it turns out, stick fishing is not a tradition dating back hundreds of years, but came about due to food shortages in the 1940s. These days, however, it is not an effective or profitable form of fishing and it is reported that many of the stilt fishermen dotted along Sri Lankan shores are there solely for tourists.
They are, quite simply, fishing for dollars.
Although this is a side of travelling that makes me sad, it is not a bad way for them to earn a living. Many suffered losses in Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war and the 2004 Tsunami. For stick fishermen, making money by tourism is a better prospect than others.
As for the tourists, it doesn’t cost much (about $1.50) and the photographs look great. What do you think?
Do you feel cheated by tourist traps, or do you think that such tourism helps to preserve cultural practices that might not exist otherwise? Where else have you experienced tourist tricks like this?