Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Mind Your Please and Thank You’s

Last year, when I was in East Timor, I was asked by a former consultant to fix a passport problem. He had overstayed his visa and they had banned him from every coming back.

“How stupid do you have to be to overstay your visa?” I thought.

Today, I found out.

After extending my stay last week and moving hotels, I completely forgot. I only had a thirty day visa and my new flight had me leaving on the 32nd day. Of course, I didn’t realize this until today; the day before I leave.

Oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit.

I called Susan. Her reaction was classically forthright: “What do we do now, Madam?”

We collectively freaked out and then hung up on each other. I called my friend at the US Embassy, who told me to contact American Civilian Services, who as it turns out, are only open from 1-4 on Mondays and Wednesdays. D’oh. Dead end.

Susan called a friend of a friend who said that US Citizens have a seven day grace period. I refused to believe that unless it was in writing. Our comptroller called a friend who worked in the Immigration office. Susan called another contact who said that it was only a 24 hour grace period and we’d have to pay a $50 fine to extend it. We decided to gather all the paperwork and go down to the Immigration office ourselves.

I tried not to think of the what-if’s. What if they don’t issue it; what if I have to stay, what if...Susan kept patting my hand, laughing nervously and saying she’d make it right. We both shook our heads at each other, hardly believing what an adventure we’d gotten ourselves into. Susan is like me, in that she realizes the futility of her situation when its out of her hands, and keeps her sense of humor.

I think this is what saved us. The Immigration office was a crush of people, whom I towered above. We climbed four flights of stairs (and stares) in and out of air conditioning until we came to a semi-filled room in the Visa section. We were directed to station number #2, where Susan pleaded my case. The woman there stated it would cost $100. I didn’t care; I was determined to get out of the country! Better plead my case here in the visa section and pay my dues, than at midnight tomorrow night with some ornery passport control agent.

We were directed to fill out a form, go get a passport photo, and bring it back. Luckily, there was an entrepreneurial photographer on the floor landing (in the wicked heat). The result, of course, were three very sweaty photos of me looking terrified. Dutifully filled out, we went back to station #2. Then passed to station #1, then the guy next to station #1. I had written that I only needed an extension for one day. “One day, Madam?” he queried. “Yes!” Susan and I replied together. “Just enough to catch my flight…” I explained. I thanked him in Singhalese, and gave him a wan smile.

He shook his head, disbelievingly, glanced from Susan's eager face to mine, and changed my request to three days. “Just in case,” he stated. Then he signed the papers and directed us to station #3.

A long line was forming in front of Station #3, a glass room with a large man behind a desk. Apparently, extensions are only processed before lunch and it was a little before noon. We had only thirty minutes – tops – to get this done. The line crawled. We laughed at my photos. I chewed my hangnails. Susan assured me I could live in her basement, if need be.

Station #3 hardly looked at us before signing the paper, shooing us away. We went back to station #2 ( by this time, I was feeling a bit like a ping-pong ball). They directed us to Payments, who directed us back to Station #2, who wouldn’t take our money. A woman there said she liked my necklace. Another man behind the desk just wiggled his head from side to side in that charming Sri Lankan way, which I understand now to mean “Not a problem.”

"Boham Estuti" I said to them again, "Thank you."

We submitted the final all-signed paperwork to a man behind yet another desk, next to five signs labeled: NGO, Student, Private, Clergy and Resident Indian. I wondered if they had a lot of visiting clergy… However, I didn’t have much time to ponder this, as within twenty minutes the last man came back with a load of passports, including my own. Then they shut down for lunch.

Whew! Under the wire. Susan commented that it was probably a) my saying so many thank you's and b) the innocent, urgent look on my face. "Your charm wins again, Madam," Susan said. I'm not sure, but I think I'm running short on how much I can rely on my charm. I told Susan as much and she just laughed at me.

As repayment for their help, I took Susan and the rest of the office out to lunch to celebrate my freedom. Needless to say, productivity was not very high for the rest of the day.

Police Checkpoints

Although the war is officially over, police checkpoints around the country and city of Colombo still remain. My first hotel was located within spitting distance of the President’s compound, which meant roadblocks, check points, traffic stops and lots of machine guns. I don’t feel threatened; after awhile they just seem to blend in to everything else on the street. Just one more hoop to getting home.

Mostly, the police checkpoints are just annoying. They wave over your car, check your national identity card, ask where you’re going and wave you on. No one bothers to ask me for my papers; I’ve already blogged about how un-Sri Lankan I look. However, Susan and I seem to get pulled over a lot more when we’re together, but they don’t hassle us too much. I flash a smile, meet their eyes and test out my three Singhalese phrases. Susan teases me that I use my charm on them; I think they just panic when they see my pale face.

Saturday night I was out with some non-Sri Lankan friends. All five of us piled in the backseat of a taxi to Gallery CafĂ©. I don’t know if we were conspicuously crammed, or if something was going on in the city, but our little car got stopped not once – but twice – by police checkpoints. Much to our surprise, they demanded our papers.

Three of my friends are diplomats, but only two of them had copies of their passports. Us Americans are told to leave them at home, so Anu and I were out of luck. The diplomats produced their copies, and argued their immunity to the men with the machine guns. It devolved quite quickly into heated discussions. I slunked in my seat. I thought the poor driver was going to drop dead with terror. Finally, they let us go.

The second checkpoint wasn’t much better, as everyone was exasperated, hungry and a bit shaken. More demands, more paperwork. I slunk further. The policemen didn’t seem to know what the word “diplomat” meant; nor do I think it did much good to be shouting it at them. I was thinking of Susan, and my subtle flirting, but was too nervous to even look up, let alone smile. I was tucked too far back in the backseat; and trying very very hard to be invisible.

I don’t know if anything was going on in the city last night, or if it was just plain over-vigilance by the police, but it definitely put a damper on the evening. Luckily, on the way back, we didn’t get stopped, but I no longer consider them “just an annoyance.”

Monday, July 20, 2009

You Can't Always Get What You Want

...but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.

I certainly haven't gotten what I thought I wanted lately. I came to Sri Lanka content to distract myself with work, lick my wounds and order room service.

But, as always, the universe had other plans.

I am so grateful to have met and made wonderful friends in my short time here. I didn't learn much about local culture, or Sri Lanka, but I had someone to hold my hand, laugh with, and remind myself that there is still a whole world of wonderful people out there who want me in their lives.

I am truly blessed.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Perfect Sri Lankan Sunday

A few weeks ago, I opened up a book I'd brought with me and out drops my Minnesota fishing license. "Huh, that's random," I thought, "Hope I don't lose this!"

I didn't lose it; and in fact, I brought it up at a Nepali supper last Sunday with a group of friends.

"You fish?" Yacoub said.
"Sure...why not?" I replied.

...and that was the start of a lovely weekend. Yacoub ended up inviting myself, Anu, Barbara, Jill and others out to his and his uncles place on Lake Bogoda, just outside Colombo, this Sunday (today). Turns out, he's a huge fisherman. He wanted us there at 6am, but we ended up rolling in around 9, some of us hungover.....and some just really, really tired.

Still, that was enough time for a four hour troll up and down the lake, (which eventually turns into the sea). The fish they go for are much bigger than my usual widemouth bass. Unfortunately, I didn't figure this out until AFTER I got a hit, and didn't set the hook properly. So, as usual, The Big One Got Away. We trolled for a few more hours, seeing monkeys, a sea monitor (Sri Lanka's komodo dragon :) and cooking ourselves on the prow. (We literally watched Stefan turn from raw to well-done in front of us!)

At one point, Stefan knocked my flip-flop off the prow and we had to turn around to get it (once we realized it was missing; about 20 minutes later..) Yacoub announced that I'd make out with whoever found it, I think as an incentive for Stefan, but lucky for me, it was Jill that eagle-eyed it out of the weeds, and she wasn't interested in cashing in. Although little alcohol was involved, we kept ourselves diverted by the amazing number of double entendre's that come from fishing. Yacoub's friend even read all of our palm's. (I apparently, am in for two kids and I don't keep in touch with my family well..)

We got back in to the boathouse around 1pm; more friends showed up and the beer started flowing. Yacoub's house is set on a hill, with a large wrap around veranda. His mom made two large bowls of biryani, sambol and spicey chicken. After we ate our fill, the jaggery came out (sri lankan creme caramel), as did the hammock. Some unsuccessful waterskiing was pursued by the Germans, another fishing tour went out and a motorboat ride at sunset rounded out the day.

I am crispy, exhausted and I have tiny niggling ache at the back of my head - but - what a wonderful day. I don't feel I've missed the Minnesota summer at all; in fact, the Minnesota summer has come to me.

Friday, July 17, 2009

It Matters What Road You're On

After extending my stay in Sri Lanka, I was forced to move hotels. Apparently, I’d overstayed my welcome at the Cinnamon Grand (also, I was getting a little sick of hotel staff opening my door without knocking, but that’s another story). Given that, and all the maddening weddings (I stopped counting at 15) I am happy to leave.

Today I moved to my new digs, the Taru Villas in Colombo 3. Off a busy street, this unassuming gate opens up to a finely clipped fresh front lawn, and refreshingly empty grand hall, done up in Dutch and British Colonial style. There are ten rooms, and only three people staying here. After the hustle and bustle of the Grand, I am happy to find a quiet, contemplative space.

After unpacking and doing a bit more work, I headed out to meet some friends for dinner at the Mango Tree, a local Indian restaurant known for its excellent food. Seeing as I hadn’t gotten my bearings yet, I took a cab. Many streets are one way in Colombo, punctuated by occasional police check points and at times out and out road closings (for Ministers driving by), which results in some very frustrating and circuitous routes to get to a destination not so far away, actually. If you were only a bird.

This was exactly what happened to me tonight, on my way to Mango Tree. I teased the driver that he was taking me in circles, just for an extra fare (you pay by the km). He complained about the one-ways, which was indeed what had happened. I arrived at the Mango Tree, paid him the $1.50 fare and joined my gal pals for a fun evening. At the end of it, I thought about walking back, but as I didn’t really fancy a walk in the dark by myself to a place I wasn’t quite sure I could find again, so I called a cab.

I had looked up the hotel address online, and was confident it was #20 Park Road. The cab takes off in the direction of cab road; only it’s the complete opposite direction of where I think we should be going. At first I thought it was just the one-ways again, but after years of travel, I’ve learned to follow my inner compass (which is pretty darned good, if I must say). After a few zooming kilometers, I KNEW we were going the wrong way. Knowing my new place is near a local landmark hotel, I said that hotel’s name and the cab driver perked up. Ma’am, that’s in the complete opposite direction, he said.

Yes, I realize that, I said, sorry, sorry. I am new. Please just turn around. The big chain hotel was the only place I could tell him to go to that I knew was remotely close to my new place. And, thinking quickly, in a worst case scenario, I knew that the concierge there could look up the number and address of the Taru Villa and explain it to the cabbie.

This is indeed what happened. Except the concierge didn’t know, either, and he ended up walking up and down the street, asking the tuk-tuk driver’s if THEY knew.

The cabbie was mystified.

“Don’t you know the address, madam?”
Shamefacedly, I had to admit I had no idea what the address was. Apparently it was NOT Park Road. Damn.

“Do you have the hotel number?”


“Do you know the NAME?”

“Yes, it’s Taru Villa. It’s near here. I know it. It’s not far from the Gangarama Temple.” (we’d just passed it, but the roads are so winding behind it, I quickly got lost trying to direct him.) In that second, the concierge comes back from his night walk up and down the street, and says to the cabby, essentially, in Singhala:

“This idiot girl is staying at the Taru Villas. It’s on 20 Park Street, about thirty meters behind you.”

The cabby then turns to me and says in English, “OHHHH. The Taru VillaSSS. (extra emphasis on the SSSSss).

“Yes,” I say, “Taru Villa.”

“VillaSSS,” he says. “On Park STREET.”

“Right. Not Park Road,” I say.

“No, STREET. It’s different madam,” he says, by way of explaining.

When I finally arrived safely home, I paid him $10 for his trouble - and my embarrassment. I laughed with the hotel owner, asking him if they’d moved hotels from Park Road to Street and he gasped, “But that’s on the other side of town, madam.”


Sunday, July 12, 2009

National Museum Saturday

Saturday afternoon, I decided to go check out the National Museum of Colombo. I'm slowly learning my way around the city, through taxis and various rides from friends, so I'm feeling more and more comfortable venturing out on my own. Although my taxi driver didn't really seem to understand me, I ended up in the right place.

My guidebook had mentioned that it was 65 rupees (about 50 cents) to get in, so imagine my surprise when the ticketman asked me for 500 (about $4.50)!

"Why so expensive?" I asked him.
"You are not from Sri Lanka, madam?" He replied
"Well, no," I protested, "but I could be a Burgher. How do you know I'm not Burgher?"
Without missing a beat, the man said, "Then, where's your national identity card?"

...nuts. He had me there. I laughed and paid him the exorbitant amount.

Flat out, I'd say the best part of the National Museum is the beautiful colonial building in which it's housed. A large, white monolith, with ionic columns set back in a large field, I felt like I was walking into old school Washington DC architecture again. The walkway terraces between each exhibit room were wide and open, letting the tiniest of breezes flow through. I could've settled in right there on a rocking chair, a tonic and a good book.

However, that was only when I could get away from the millions of schoolchildren charging about. My guess was that they were middle schoolers, judging from their size, gangliness and rusty hygiene measures. For the most part, I was able to walk unmolested among them, peering at pottery, jewlery pieces and a pair of Buddha's golden shoes. But in one particularly boring room (photos of one of the founders in pre-independence Ceylon), a group of boys began following, surrounding me, giggling and asking for the time. In fact, I turned around so fast that I almost ran one over. They're just kids, but not wanting to play "goofy foreigner" for them, I quickly left the room.

Aside from the architecture and the overall wilted beauty of the building, I thought the jewlery, stone statues of hindu gods through Sri Lanka's history and the returned crown jewels of the King of Kandy (the place, not the food) were the most interesting. I couldn't determine if it was real or not, but in one room a giant skeleton of blue whale hangs ominously from the ceiling - that was pretty cool, too.

Despite all that, it was extremely hot and humid in the building. I was ready to leave after an hour. I haggled for a tuk-tuk, and tootled back to the hotel enjoying all the exhaust fumes that Colombo has to offer. That evening, I ended up participating in the Hash and then out for dinner with Matt (another company employee here) and some of his friends. Overall, it was an extremely pleasant Saturday. Sure beats cleaning my apartment! (Although I am starting to miss my cat...)

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Poya at Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara

Yesterday, July 6th, was Esala Full Moon Poya Day in Sri Lanka. The full moon period of the month is an auspicious time for Buddhists, and it's a holy day (holiday) every month. So, the entire city of Colombo emptied out over the weekend, as folks headed home to attend their local Buddhist shrines or just spend time with family. Also worth noting, no alcohol is sold on this day.

Luckily, earlier that weekend, my co-worker and I went to the Marines Annual 4th of July picnic at the State Department Recreation House (basically, a pool). We ended up meeting some fun Australian diplomats (I know, right? Party diplomacy!) and spending the rest of the weekend hanging out with them.

On Poya, two Australians, myself and another American on TDY here for a short time went to Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara, a little outside of Colombo. It is supposedly the spot where Buddha taught on the last of his three visits to Sri lanka and home to some beautiful friezes in the image house. We wanted to watch people celebrate poya and generally see what it was all about.

Like all Buddhist shrines, you must remove your shoes before stepping on the hallowed ground. The compound itself was large and covered in gritty sand, which snuck in between every toe and creeped up my leg. There were scores of people there, all dressed in white. Some squatted on the ground, others had brought newspapers or sheets of plastic to sit and pray on. Still others had brought mats and were curled up to sleep in the many porticos along various outbuildings.

We viewed the reclining Buddha inside the great image hall. There was a push of people going inside, all with their hands clasped to their faces, cupping frangipangi petals. We had no idea to buy flowers (although after we left, we noticed tons and tons of vendors along the walkway to the shrine), but a kind woman silently slipped me some petals from her bag, which I shared with the others. I laid them at the feet of the reclining Buddha, along with piles and piles of others. We also gazed at a frieze that depicted a woman bringing over Buddha's tooth in her hair.

Later, when we were circling the large white dagoba where its said that Buddha preached, a woman went up to my friend Jill and offered her some incense to burn. She helped Jill light the punks and stick them in the sand pot before one of the many Buddha statues.

While we obviously stood out, what with our white legs and constant cameras, people were kind to us, offering smiles and nods as we mingled among the crowd. We left after an hour and headed for a Thai restaurant, remarking how much fun it was to be out of the city, out of the hotels and part of local customs.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Hey, Buddha! Wake up!

There are tons of beautiful Buddha's around Sri Lanka (on nearly every street corner, actually) and some very, very large ones. The funny part is that whenever I take photos of his large serene face, this flashes on my camera:

"Warning! One or more subjects may have closed their eyes."

Someone should tell him to stop meditating and start mugging for the camera...

Pinnewala Elephants

On Tuesday, on our way to Batticaloa, we stopped a bit out of our way to the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage (and more here). We (Susan, Kanak and I) arrived right as the 2pm bath was to begin; and right as an enormous downpour started. We stood in the middle of the forest, under the canopy of the public washroom, as a herd of 89 elephants were driven towards the river (about 1 km away).

One elephant in particular, stopped near where we were waiting and wrapped his trunk around lovingly around the fence near us. It was really neat to see such a powerful animal be so darn cute, but when I went to take a picture he of course turned away.

Susan and I stole an umbrella from one of the staff and made our way to the river for an overpriced lunch, overlooking the frolicking animals. It was really touristy (and if you've ever seen African Elephants on Safari, it's hard to be impressed by the tiny size of the Asian elephant (although they are still magnificant)). The other downside was that it took us about 1.5 hours out of our way, meaning that it was late in the evening by the time we arrived at our hotel. Ugh.