A visa run to the Maldives

The visa run is a term synonomous with working abroad.  Depending on what country you are visiting, there is always a time limit to the visa.  Sometimes you can pay a mild fee to have it extended-sometime an exurbient amount depending on your nationality and how long you want to extend it for.   Whatever the case, you can always have the option of doing a 'visa run'.  A short holiday to a nearby country so that you can re-enter on a new visa without the hassle of the paperwork. 

I am now approaching month 4 of waiting for the appropriate visa to be stamped in my passport.  It's not a personal matter-or even a national one-it's  a matter of what mood the official is in that day and if he feels like getting fifty more signatures and rubber stamp marks before making it official.

After receiving word that I have to wait yet another 3 weeks and my visa was set to expire after 30 days upon entry, it became necessary to either file for an extension or do a visa run.  Given the time it takes for any bureacratic matter it was decided to send me to the nearest country.  The fact that the Maldives are the nearest country and that my colleague and friend from when I worked in Afghanistan made it the most unexpected and pleasant visa run to date.

I don't know if it was my lack of sleep, extensive writing or poor planning, but I made every traveler mistake aside from leaving my passport at home.  I packed in such a rush that I left virtually everything that would be useful...I only realized this after my 12 hour overnight train from Batticaloa to Colombo.  In Colombo I tried to use my credit card, only to learn I had brought an expired one with me...my others were locked in my closet at home.  Same was true for my underwear, bathing suit, laptop power chord and sunscreen.   My poor planning actually shocked me-usually I'm good at packing on the fly.

It wasn't such a big issue until reaching the airport-which by the way took a ridiculous amount of time.  I had called for a taxi because I knew it would take an hour to get to the airport.  Instead, a tuk tuk driver shows up and not that this has anything to do with it, but he was albino.  I've never actually spoken to an albino before.  His tuk tuk broke down four times on the way to the airport and once he actually broke down in the middle of traffic.  He had to get out, pull the tuk tuk through the traffic lanes and then do repairs on the side of the road.  While waiting on the third break down a herd of cattle walked on either side of us, Michael Jackson's Thriller was playing and the albino driver was pulling a chord trying to start the tuk tuk like  a lawnmower...and oddly this all seemed normal to me. 

An hour later arrived at the airport.  Had given myself a two hour cushion not realizing I was now actually approaching the cut off time for check in.  Albino driver did not have change, I was angry and made him feel bad.  I just can't help it when I'm tired. 

Go to the Emirates check in counter.  Give my passport and itinerary.  The clerk looks at it, types in my name, then gives the screen a funny look.  'Do you have the credit card you used to purchase this flight?'  Any other time I would say yes, but I had only the expired card with me.  After I told him I didn't, his manager came over and explained I needed to show the card.  Then I became a bit angry.  I asked why-they said it was stated in the instructions when I bought the ticket-which by the way I have yet to find.  Then they stared at me blinking.  I told them that I was up to a Silver status with the airline so why was I having this issue.  They said it happens everywhere...I assured them this was not the case.  

So the solution was I had to carry all my things and follow a man like a criminal to the third floor office in order to log on to the computer and show my credit card account online for verification purposes.  The Internet was beyond slow and he just stood over me watching.  After nearly 15 minutes the screen finally loaded and I was able to get my boarding pass. On the way out I asked him what the deal was with the flights and he told me there was a ton of fraud in the area.  Usually men from India buy tickets with fraudulent credit cards and then try to bribe their way onto the flights.  I stared blankly at him and told him I wasn't Indian and I was a frequent flier, so I really didn't appreciate the treatment.  He told me that the same thing would happen in the Maldives.  For the record, it did not.

And on to the Maldives I went.  It's a tiny set of islands-the smallest country in Asia.  Sea leves are rising and threaten the future of the country.  The coasts are already shrinking and looking at the main island of Male looks like a series of buildings sitting on top of water-they quite literally are.  It's predicted the country will eventually be underwater...yet they still continue to build on the island. 

Following the 2004 tsunami the country has experienced a radical wave of conservative Islam and nearly all the women are now wearing hijaab.  On the landing card I had to complete was a list of forbidden items...numbers 3-7 include the prohibition of anything contradicting Islam, idols for worship, pork and/pork products and dogs...all directly related to Islam, though it's not an Islamic state.  My theory is that the Saudis have a hand in doing some behind the scenes funding.

I spent three days on the islands and they are gorgeous.  Did not get to do diving as I had planned-mainly due to my lack of credit- but did do some snorkelling and saw more marine life than I have ever seen in my life...including a series of black tip reef sharks.  At one point a shard was swimming towards me and a freaked out and crashed my leg into some coral...I still have a funky rash a result.  Apparently the sharks don't go after humans, but they sure do make you believe they will. 

Nearly all the workers in the Maldives are Sri Lankan...I began distinguishing the Maldivian men from the Sri Lankans based on their long wavy beach hair or afros, which there were many.  Maldivian men also take pride in using copious amunts of hair gel and wear designer sunglasses, so very Lebanese of them. 

When speaking with the Sri Lankans I would tell them that I am working in Batticaloa and everyone had the same reaction.  Their eyes got wide and they would repeat as if I were joking...'Batticaloa?  Are you playing with Tigers?' Referring to the Tamil Tigers no longer in the area.  One man got very emotional and thanked me for working in the area.  He condemned the Sri Lankan government and the discrimination against the Tamils that has gone on too long.  He really looked shaken.  It's sad but refreshing to learn that a country has a divide between what their government does and what the citizens believe. Sadly, their voices are usually never heard.

Learning Tamil

If there is one recommendation I can give to anyone planning to live abroad (aside from being patient) it would be to learn the local language.  The benefits that come from taking the time to learn the language are countless.  I'm not talking about mastering the language and then writing a thesis on the correct grammatical usage.  What I'm referring to is learning what I refer to as 'traveler talk'...how to buy things, asking directions, describing yourself...the basics.  Nothing is more frustrating when you are surrounded by ten people all with the same confused look on their face while you try to explain slowly what you need.  And no, repeating the same phrase louder does not work.  I've seen that method used by many a foreigner-only perpetuates the image of being rude.

Locals appreciate you taking the time to learn it-they know it's difficult.  By speaking to someone in their language it shows that you're not the typical tourist-or expat for that matter.  I knew a British expat in Cairo boasting that he has managed not to learn one word of Egyptian Arabic in the 15 years he lived there.   Knowing a few phrases and familiarizing yourself with the pattern of speech eases the anxiety of thinking people are talking about you.  It gives you independence and a sense of accomplishement.   It also opens lines of communication that allow you see a part of the culture along with understand it. 

The biggest perk is most likely that you begin receiving the 'local price'.  Nearly every developing country mildly, or more often blatantly, charges foreigners a higher price based on the fact that they know you had to throw down a lot of money to even get there...so the idea is that paying an extra dollar for your meal isn't such big deal.  Depending on how long you live in a place will indicate how lenient you are to this institutionalized inflation for foreigners.  After a year in Cairo I was cutthroat with the cab drivers to the point where, when my mother visited me there, she actually told me she would disown me if I continued to argue with people over $2 USD.

Last night I got my first price as a local when I ended my Tamil lesson and received a massive discount in my tuk tuk ride home.  Apparently my yelling random phrases from my notebook seemed to strike a chord with the driver.  He even gave me his number should I ever want a driver in the future.  This is another recommendation I have for language  learners-practice with the taxi drivers. My Arabic professor at the American Univeristy in Cairo encouraged me to do this and it was the best bit of advice she gave in that it is how I gained fluency in Arabic. The drivers were bored out of their minds and appreciated the fact that a white girl would sit in the back of the cab saying things like, 'the book is red'.  My methodolgy was to throw everything against the wall and saw what stuck.   Eventually those sentences began to make sense and I built confidence.  

I am lucky to have found a teacher within a week of arriving, thanks to my amazing boss who also began studying.  My teacher's name is Ragis and she is a retired Tamil and English language teacher.  She is proud of the fact that she used to teach American diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Colombo.   Her teaching style is old school in that she expects you to come to the class prepared and drills you.  The lessons are to be an hour, but she often goes for an hour and half, still only charging 500 rupees regardless.  This is the equivalent to about $6. 

So I'm learning Tamil now.  It marks my sixth language for which I've formally studied.  Tamil is a Dravidian language originating from Sanskrit and one of the 22 languages spoken in India and is an official langauge in Sri Lanka and Singapore. All of the signs in Sri Lanka are marked in three languages all with different characters for their alphabets-English, Sinhalese and Tamil. 

When I was in Colombo, a Sinhalese part of the island, I went to a bookshop trying to find a Tamil phrase book.  Despite multiple books for Sinhalese, not one book was offered for Tamil at any of the three bookshiops I visited.  I didn't find it all that surprising, but did believe it showed the feelings toward the Tamil speakers...I mean it is an official language spoken here.  Even in Afghanistan you could find Pashtu books, albeit difficult, in Kabul where most speak Dari. 

As I mentioned above, learning a language can teach you a lot about a culture.  It can also highlight the indirect discrimination towards those that speak it, which is the case here.

Dahab vs. Batti Diving

Blue Hole Dive Site-Dahab
I first began Scuba diving back in 2006 when I was living in Egypt.  I would try and escape the craziness of my base in Cairo and would head towards what has now become my favorite place in the world-Dahab. The nearest city to Dahab is Sharm el Sheikh, where Ex-President Hosni Mubarak's residence is and where he's been hiding out since getting the boot this past spring. I really do not like Sharm-it's a jaded over-the-top beach resort city that does not represent Egypt.  You're better off speaking Italian or Russian because that is who the Sharm tourist market caters to.

Dahab is different-it's a sleepy bedouin town on Sinai.  Its name is Arabic for gold and it describes the color of the rolling hills of the Sinai Peninsula that crash into turquoise waters of the Sea of Aqaba...from the shores of Dahab you can see the red sands of Saudi Arabia.  Two hours drive away is Mt Sinai where you can hike to the top to where Moses supposedly received the ten commandments.  Dahab is notorious for people going for  weekend and then staying for a month.  That happened to me twice.  In those times I would dive in the mornings and then experience the 'chill factor' of the place which consists of laying around, being lazy, drinking Sakaras and smoking sheesha (Egyptian for narghila and hookah for all of my friends in the States).
Saudi Arabia in the distance

I was warned when I was certified for diving in Egypt that I would be spoiled for the rest of my life due to the amazing dive conditions in the Red Sea.  The water is crystal clear, the reefs are full of marine life and schools of fish are everywhere.  It's like the cast of the Little Mermaid dancing around every time you dive.

So I wasn't entirely surprised that the diving in Sri Lanka is not up to par with Dahab...nowhere else I've been ever has.  I went with a Canadian woman working with an NGO that de-mines areas of conflict. She too, had been to Dahab in the past when she was working in Oman.  Our dive master was an ex-sailor named Fernandez who has been diving since 1983.  He was probably the most professional dive master I've been with in that he actually verified our certifications--you can seriously walk into dive locations around the world and pretend you're certified without anyone questioning it. Dahab is one of these places that don't really care.   This is no good because people can and have die as a result of not knowing what to do.

The boat used for diving did not represent the same caliber as the instructor.    It was a little, rickety boat that can fit four people at most.  We had to gear up, prop ourselves up on the side and then do a back flip off while making sure we didn't bang our head off the side of the boat.  We stayed down for nearly an hour.  When we surfaced there appeared to be a storm out at sea with five foot waves making us bob around.  We were supposed to do another dive to a ship wreck, but the wave were too rough.  Instead we went back to the dive center and do the ship wreck tomorrow.  The ride back had us going up with each wave and then crashing down sharply.  It's a good thing none of us got seasick.

And then I was introduced to the docking methods used by Sri Lankans.  Instead of slowly approaching shore and tying the boat to something-the captain kicked up the motor to full gear and went full throttle onto the beach...seriously we hit ground and after a huge bump were on land.  We stayed for lunch and Fernandez asked my friend about the demining situation in Sri Lanka.  It seems everyone keeps comparing the mines here to the situation in Cambodia.  It is predicted that it will take another 20 years before Cambodia is free of mines.  In Sri Lanka it remains unknown.

Fernandez then shared with us some stories from war times and was saying how much happier he is now that it's over.  It also became apparent that he is not Tamil, but Sinhalese.  Until 2009, if he tried to run his dive shop the LTTE-Tamil Tigers-would harass him and demand money for him to run the business.  He described them as 'pistol gangs' that would shoot anyone who didn't pay up.  Despite being Sinhalese, he said he didn't like the label of terrorist being put on the Tigers.  He said as a result the Sinhalese government always looks at the Tamils with a suspicious eye. 

We finished up lunch and then some of his staff drove us across the lagoon to show us where we were to meet them for our dive tomorrow.  The landmark we chose was a bent palm tree.  My friend and I decided if we ever open a bar then that is going to be the name of it.

grieving is a process

Back in 1999 there was a hit song by Baz Luhrman that came out  called, 'wear sunscreen'.  It's actually not so much a song but a speech with background music.  The speech is written for a graudating class of seniors in the US.  Every sentence is piece of advice he has learned from his experience at life with the only scientifically proven fact being that you should wear sunscreen-which I do daily...not so much because of the song but just because it's common knowledge. 

I remember many of the lines including the one that says that you should know that, 'worrying is about as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum.  The real troubles in our lives are the ones that blind side you on some idle Tuesday.'  And true enough, on an idle Tuesday I received news that my Aunt Trudy passed away.

There's no one set way to deal with a loss of loved one-especially when you're abroad for it.  Even more so when it's someone you really cared for and it kills you to know your family is back home hurting, too.  It's times such as these when the importance of your family becomes blazingly clear.  Not that I ever take them for granted, but in the end its your support system that gets you through it all and are the people that are there for you when all the dust settles.  My father's family is large and of Italian descent and I know it sounds cliche but family was and still is everything.  As much as I've traveled through the years I have to say that I could not do it without knowing of their support.

I've been overseas before when shocking news such as this and I think the worst thing about it is that you can't do anything.  You're helpless and you don't want to burden others with what you're going through.  I usually go into a state of denial until I return home and it hits me that I will never see that person again.  It's true regardless-if you're gone you're gone whether you're in the next room or next continent.  I have noticed that I've become hardened as a result of having to go through the grieving process alone.  Though I guess there's some truth that what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger. 

If there's one thing that will carry on in my memory of Aunt Trudy it will be her laugh.  She had this energy and loud voice and hearty laugh that would project through the whole house when she was around.  You always knew when she arrived for a visit.  Lord how I already miss that laugh.

What lies beneath Sri Lanka's pretty face

Sri Lanka is a strikingly beautiful country.  Sadly its human rights record is anything but.  Some parts of the country remind me of a shiny Christmas package with a big red bow on it...then you tear it open and find a lump of coal inside.

The contrast of natural beauty paired with a history of gross atrocities is not something new for me.  Afghanistan,Yemen, Lebanon, Peru-all places making headlines in Western news outlets for some type of danger...all are places I have lived or visited and  have found two truths in all...the people are friendly and the landscape is gorgeous.  All juxtaposed with hidden images and histories tucked away just under the surface.

On Friday I traveled for a meeting to Trincomale (more commonly called Trinco) on the eastern coast of the island.  White sand beaches were met with turquoise blue waters then stretching into the dark blue sea.  Balmy breezes swept through lush palm trees bringing relief from the tropical sun and heat.  People walked along the beaches near dive shops.  It's a beach bum's Shangri La paradise.

Flashback to two years ago and it was better described as hell on earth.  The LTTE were battling Sri Lankan forces for control of the north and east of the country.  Those caught in the crossfire and who were unable to flee either by force or circumstance suffered unspeakable horror.  Ethnic tensions in town resulted in the killing and maiming of civilians.  Their bodies, both whole and dismembered, were dumped in the streets.The LTTE actively recruited militants by kidnapping children.  There is an educational disparity in the country due to a generation of children who were kept at home by their parents from fear they would be abducted en route to school.  LTTE guerrillas forced each family to give a family member for the cause. To be sure the LTTE got a member as ordered, they required each family to hang a family photo on the wall of their home. Men not in the photo were shot dead if by chance the LTTE did a surprise check on the house and found a man at the home not in the picture.

Simultaneously the Sri Lankan army shelled the areas of LTTE control-the same areas where innocent families were being terrorized for recruitment.  There's an unwritten and undocumented history that goes with the counter offensive to the LTTE.  One which has left entire villages of fatherless and with only single mother households.   The census of the northern Vanni region prior to the conflict was roughly 50,000 males.  Today, it's 30,000.  Yet the official record here indicates that not one civilian was killed in the conflict between government forces and the LTTE. The discrepancy of 20,000 raises alarm bells as to how this could be true.  My guess is the answer is waiting to be dug up in the north.  Until then, 20,000 people can just 'disappear'-vanish into thin air overnight.

It all sounds so eerily familiar to tales told to me by Peruvians when I studied there in 2003.  During the 1980's there had been a hunt for left wing Maoist guerrillas in Peru.  The name of the organization was Sendero Luminoso or the Shining Path.  They too, forced recruitment, more often by calling a community together, shooting the mayor and then saying men were to join or be shot as well.  The Peruvian government responded by ransacking homes looking for anything that could indict a person as being a leftist--like books with Communist themes.  As a result, many people disappeared and were never seen again.  Even in 2003, nearly twenty years after the scare, my host mother was apprehensive to talk about Sendero for fear of being labeled a supporter.

Don't get me wrong in that Sri Lanka is a beautiful country and wonderful place to visit-it truly is and you should.  It depends what you want to get out of it.   You could come and visit the tourist areas and have an amazing beach holiday.  I wish I could, but that's not my purpose for being here..It depends on how far you want to go to know the history. Some choose to ignore it and that's their choice.  Others come an try to change it.  I myself have come to learn from it and transfer the lessons learnt so that it hopefully doesn't happen again--here or elsewhere.

It's just that uncovering the country's dark history takes a bit of the joy out of the good food, white sand beaches, emerald tea fields, massive Buddha statues and stupas--along with the delight of seeing elephants roam free. This is precisely what I thought to myself when I experienced my first elephant sighting while driving home from Trinco to Batti this past Sunday.  My driver was so excited for me he nearly caused an accident by swerving off the road so that I could watch the elephant standing on the side of the road chowing down on some ferns.  My driver is named Arul and he is Sri Lankan of Tamil descent.  He lived through the war, lived as an IDP and experienced more than I believe I could ever endure.  Seeing him so excited about that damn elephant despite his having seen them so many times before made me smile.  It drove home the fact that even though life can be so cruel to us we need to focus on the small things that can make us happy.  And so I do. 

Hopping Gates in Colombo

My colleague and I arrived in Colombo following a 6 hour journey from Vavuniya just in time to hit the after work rush hour.  My colleague had a meeting to attend at 7pm and she suggested I attend in order to learn the background on a project she will be working on.  We would have been precisely on time had the driver known where our house was, but unfortunately this was not the case.  Our driver is Tamil and the ethnic makeup of Colombo is Sinhalese.  He was clearly uncomfortable asking directions using his Sinhala and I’ve been told that this happens often with the two ethnicities being divided and even more so after the war.  I was recently informed one of the greatest fears of a Tamil driver would be to hit a Sinhalese child with a car in that more than likely the driver would be dragged out and killed in the street.

So this is the background to why we drove in circles for some time.  Finally we found the house dropped our bags and then jumped in a tuk tuk taxi for the meeting.  We met with a German man and Scottish woman, both the heads of two other NGOs.  It was a working dinner meeting  in a posh dinner spot called the Park Street Mew-high ceilings, plush leather couches, trendy paintings and everyone wearing black.  I stuck out like sore thumb in just having come from the field-sweaty, hair unkempt and dressed in a flowing pale blue skirt and loose cotton top.  They seemed not to notice my scruffiness-or perhaps this is expected from field workers.  We sat for a two hour discussion on an upcoming proposal for monitoring food security in the northern Jaffna area-still under control of the LTTE.  Development buzzword lingo was flying around the table and I felt like I was back in my Human Security class only these topics were relevant and interesting.

Following the meeting we went to a nice Italian restaurant to get some pizza and wine.  Our waiters were clearly ready for us to be finished and had a taxi waiting for us to take us home.  After leaving the gate, we could smell the marijuana before we could see anyone smoking it.  As it turns out, the source of the weed was our fearless taxi driver behind a tree having a midnight toke while waiting to drive us home.  I think that his being stoned helped with the events that were about to unfold.

Around 1am we returned to the house and to our surprise our guard had locked the gate from the inside.  My colleague called the three numbers the guard had left with her just in case any event of this nature should take place.  Unfortunately every time she dialed there was no answer.  Except for one when a person answered and informed us that it was not the number of a guard.

Meanwhile our stoned taxi driver sat waiting for us to go in the gate.  When he realized something was wrong he came and asked us what was going on.  After about 20 minutes of trying to call and clanking on the iron gate to try an wake someone up it was decided that we would need to go to a hotel or somehow get over the 8 foot wall-avoiding the sharp points at the main gate. The taxi driver was happy to assist.  My colleague was first-she stood on his shoulders and then managed to pull herself up the wall and got really scared at the top because she was afraid as to how to get down on the other side.  The taxi driver jumped the wall and helped her down on the other side.  They checked the guard station, which had all the lights turned on, but no guard to be found.  The taxi driver returned and jumped back over to help me.

So it was my turn.  I was wearing a skirt, and he told me to tie it so it was more like trousers.  He then once again put me on his shoulders and boosted me up so that I could jump the wall-unfortunately I could not manage to pull myself up on the left side due to a shoulder  injury circa 2009 when I had surgery.  So we were back to square one.  

My colleague at this point was trying to break the lock with a hammer.  I began running to neighboring gates to see if any other guards actually did their job unlike ours and may have a ladder.  The guard next door was indeed at his post along with an incredibly cute little dog.  The taxi driver had not left and came with me to ask the guard if he had a ladder.  The conversation took place in Sinhala and I had assumed there was no ladder.  I walked back to the gate with a sense of defeat. 

Back at the gate, my colleague was still trying unsuccessfully to break the lock.  Then I noticed the guard and taxi driver dragging a large metal frame for a gate with them.  They came to our gate and put the frame against the wall holding it in place so that I could use it as a ladder to get me to the top.  I managed to quickly get to the top and then once again our taxi driver jumped the wall and put me on his shoulders to lower me down on the other side. 

Following this he made his final jump over the wall in order to return to his taxi.  My colleague and I attempted to pay him extra and he refused-instead he gave us his number and said to call if we ever needed a taxi driver in Colombo.  Somehow I think I shall be giving him a call considering he did all that for $2. 

As for the guard, when confronted in the morning where he was the night before, he denied not being at his post.  He also said he had his phone with him at all times.  A blank stare was his reply when we said if all that was true, then why the hell we had to try for an hour to break the lock and jump the fence. 

 I believe it may be time to hire a new guard.  I’m going to suggest the taxi driver fill the post.

Bikes, guns, speeding and snakes

Woke at 5am today to make a 6 hour journey north.  The van had AC and I think I must be getting used to the heat here because the cold air hurt my skin..actually had to turn it off as a result.  The radio station had an eclectic mix of Beatles and Eminem music playing.  We saw a truck completely flipped on the side of the road-evidence of the insane driving here.  Just the other day I realized how used to erratic driving I've become.  Same goes for really big guns. 

The other day I was in a bike shop and these military guys wearing what appeared to be grass in their helmets had kalashnikovs or some other semi-automatic weapons on their backs.  You would think  a normal reaction would maybe be to question why they were wearing the hats or let alone show up ready for war in a bike shop-though this could be a guaranteed way of lowering a price. No, instead my reaction is to continue to bargain on the price of my bike basket and then give the armed guard a dirty look for standing in my way.  I clearly have to work on my bartering skills in South Asia as the shop owner wouldn't budge on his price...or maybe I didn't get the memo to come to the shop with a grass helmet and gun.  In the end, I'm still without a bike, which doesn't really matter since I'm traveling for the next week.

 My driver managed to not go above 80km/hour which I was thankful for.  On my previous journey the normal 6 hour ride was shortened to 4 due to extreme speeding to the point that the van went up on two wheels when we went around a bend.  To my surprise, law enforcement does ticket for speeding here-my speedy driver got fined 500 rupees for his attempt at race car driving on Sri Lankan highways.  What was strange was how he got the ticket-it appeared that there had been no signal to pull over, but then all of a sudden he pulled off the road, grabbed his wallet and ran off into the bushes.  Moments later a soldier appeared in full uniform and I saw him writing the ticket.  Then the driver paid the fine and returned to the car.  The apparent honor system is something I've never witnessed before.  However odd the procedure of ticketing may seeem, I am happy because the driver finally slowed down to only a moderate speeding pace. 

 I'm inVavuniya till Friday.  Interesting to see people out on the streets after 8pm.  In Batti where I'm normally based it's a ghost town after 8.  I was told it's due to the routine of war times.  Today was the first time I saw long tailed wild monkeys running across the street.  Still waiting to see the elephants and hoping that I never have the chance to see one of the vairous snakes sliterhing around the island.  My colleague said there was a massive one in the office the other day-about 4 feet, though thankfully not poisonous.  Sri Lanka is the daunting leader for the highest rate of venemous snakebites in the world.  Aside from all the various others reasons why someone may purchase traveler's insurance, the thought of paralysis from a big ass snake was enough for me to purchase a plan.

My insurance purchase was further reinforced when I drove past the local hospital-still very glad to not need stitches!

Avoiding the hospital

I'm going to blame the fact that I had a bit too much of the local Lion beer at an expat dinner party last night as to I was so groggy this morning and ended up slicing my finger open while cutting a tomato.  It happened so quick it took me a moment to realize it was cut, though the sight of my own blood quickly made the alarm bells ring.  And there was A LOT of it.  The first bandage I put on appeared to work well enough and I carried on cooking until I looked down at the kitchen floor and it was literally covered in blood...I hadn't noticed that the bandage was leaking and it happened all so quickly.  That's when I started thinking that I may have to visit the hospital here and I just became exhausted thinking of the idea. 

I've been racking up some quality time in hospitals overt the years in facilities ranging from what appeared to makeshift clinics in Afghanistan and shacks on Socotra Island to modern royal health services in Bahrain for a whole load of various reasons...but I still became nervous thinking about being jabbed with a needle here.  I could be wrong, but I think the doctors and nurses who have witnessed gross atrocities including natural disaster and war would not understand my whining over a chopped finger.    Luckily the house I live in had a well stocked first aid kit so I could patch together a bandage to keep my finger from dripping blood everywhere and eventually it stopped.  The difficult thing about it was making sure it stayed clean...which isn't the easiest thing to do one handed, surrounded by kamikaze grasshoppers, sweating and having to find and use bottled water. 

But it wad a success and I wad impressed at my MacGyver-like ingenuity.  In the end I even made it to the beach and tied a plastic bag around it to prevent it from getting wet.  My friends thought it would be good to put it in the sea water, but I staunchly refused.  Glad all is in the clear as I travel to Vavuniya in the morning and REALLY don't want to have to think of going to the hospital there.  My friend and roommate from back when I lived in Cairo is here and lives there...recently she chopped her hand accidentally on a ceiling fan and decided against seeking medical treatment--I think that in itself gives an idea of the medical facilities here.  A little first aid training apparently goes a long way in the field.

Yemen on my mind

Ahmed 'Yella' in Sana'a
Yemen has been on my mind for the past few months and ever the more so as things appear to take a turn for the worse...at least according to the news. It's not so much the politics, but the people I hold dear to my heart that have been in my thoughts.

After a year studying Arabic in Egypt, I chose to go to Yemen for a job teaching English and to gain fluency in the language-actually the very name of this blog was created when I traveled there in early 2007.  With most of my friends taking their backpacks and hitting the well trodden paths of Europe and South East Asia, I went in the total opposite direction and covered up with a black abeya dress in Yemen.

Yemen is comparable to Syria as far as far as the Arabic practice goes because people actually want to use their Arabic and not English...many don't even have the option to do otherwise.
Mostafa of Al Mukalla
If you really every want to master a language, then you have to immerse yourself in it, which is just what I did.  Yemenis are notorious for their hospitality and will have you sit in their homes for hours only to then try and convince you to sleep over.  You can drop in at people's homes unannounced and they'll immediately have a meal sitting in front of you and prop cushions under your arms and back to make you feel comfortable.
 As a foreigner, if you have Yemeni friends, they will come in groups to your aid and/or defense if you ever have a problem.  And as I learned from experience;  if you are sick, they will show up to your home as a family and bang on your door until you let them in to then sit with you for as long as it takes to ensure you will be okay and feel better.

Khadija who became like a mother to me
So here I am in Sri Lanka, watching events of what appear to be a civil war transpiring in Yemen knowing full well that my friends are there and in some way being affected by the instability.  To be fair, they've had experience with wars and instability and brush off the name Al Qaeda-but still that bring little comfort when you care about people.

The vast majority of Yemenis do not care about nor do they support terror networks, though it has taken haven in remote parts of the country and is all Western news sources report on...from what I read and see they never clarify the fact that the AQAP is an unwanted organization and viewed by Muslims as being immoral for what they do.  In 2007, I was smoking a narila in the home of my friend Khadija, pictured here, when we heard news of the attack on Spanish tourists in Mareb-a suicide bomber had driven his car into their convoy killing the six Spanish tourists and Yemeni driver.  Khadija immediately condemned the attack, yelling haram! (sinful).  She then brought out the Quran and showed me the passage written that states Allah condemning violent acts against others.  I remember her telling me to tell others in my county that not all Yemenis are like the crazy ones.  I have tried to follow through with the promise that I would do so.

  What really frustrates me is that the jihadi networks have been so damn blatant all these years and only now does it seem anyone cares.  I was there as an English teacher and had knowledge of the training camps and who was involved in the recruitment for jihadis, which makes me question both intelligence networks and political officials who clearly had to be supporting them in some way. 

Part of my Yemeni 'family'
It's unclear what will happen in the next year, though the outlook does not look good.  The south has wanted to secede from the north ever since the country unified in 1990...southerners often refer to the northern as 'dahabashi' essentially the equivalent of a southerner  calling a person of the north a yankee in the U.S.

Niazi and a really big sea turtule at Sharma Beach
The political and economic forecast of the country looks shaky at its best.  I'm finishing with my Masters at the end of this year and am in the process of applying for jobs.  From the way I see it, at this moment in time my career can take me in two opposite directions and I'm weighing out the pros and cons of a return to Yemen not as a teacher, but in a political or humanitarian role.  If tomorrow  the opportunity arose for me to return I would not even think twice about returning...I suppose it will happen in sha'allah.

Rosaries are to Catholics just as walking on hot coals is to Hindus?

Not quite sure if rosaries and hot coals are at the same level of penance, but it's the only way I can comprehend why Hindus willing choose to walk on hot coals.  I learned of the coal walking here in Sri Lanka last week and thought I would have to wait some time before witnessing it.  I was extremely excited when I received an invitation to attend the ceremony today.  There seems to be festivals galore happening at the moment in Batti without a clue why.   The rituals of these festivals range from the mundane to the exotic.  Some even border on the grotesque.  My friend told me she nearly fell off her bike earlier today when she saw a procession of palm trees moving down the road...as she got closer she noticed there was a man dangling upside down hung by rings inserted into the skin on his back.Now that's something you don't see everyday. I think I actually would have fallen off the bike.

To be honest, I do not understand Hinduism-there are just so many Gods to know and ways in which to pay respects for which no one seems to be able to explain it to me.  The other day my driver pulled off the road as we drove by a temple and he then put ashes on the hood of the car.  I remember being in Nepal and my friend's wife telling me to wear green in the summer time because that was the God Shiva's time to rule and green was her favorite color.  But I'm not sure what happens if you don't do these things...or if you forget?  Something I do understand is that you must be born into it-you can't convert.  The only other religion that has this rule for which I'm familiar is the Druze of Lebanon and again, I don't understand that religion either.

So it's no surprise that I'm still confused about why I just witnessed 6,000 people walk on the coals.  Some you could clearly see the pain on their face while other seemed as if it did not bother them.  There was one woman who actually strutted across the coals and then immediately fell down in pain convulsing afterwards. No one could accurately explain why they did it.  From what I gathered, people make a contract with a God and if they succeed in walking on the coals then their debt is paid. The way I understand it that it's somewhat similar to the penance a Catholic may have to do for their sins...though 10 Hail Marys pales in comparison to the physical act of walking on hot coals.

Coals prepared for the walk
Coals before the event
Preparing the coals for the walk
The lead up to the actual walk was more entertaining than the walking itself.  Prior to the walk, the coals had to be fanned, smooted and then surrounded by incense and flower petals.  The crowd preparing for the walk were decorated in different colors and some had face paint.  They carried leaves that some were stuffing inside their clothes...and they kept taking baths in preparations for the walk.  We would sit and wait, then we would hear drums beating and everyone in the crowd started chanting and then the coal walkers appeared in a procession and looked out of there minds...some ran in circles while others seriously looked as if they were in a trance of some sort thrashing their head side to side.  Then they started walking...one by one they walked calmly and quickly across the coals.  No one yelled, they just walked.  It was amazing in that children as young as 4 and old as 80 did it.  Some carried their children.  The entire distance they walked was approximately 10 fee from what I could see.  After they walked they either continued to walk calmly or as other did they ran for water to be dumped on them.  One woman fell right over afterwards.

Oddly enough, just as the actual walking began,  the battery of my camera died-literally as the first man stepped onto the coals.  I was unable to capture all the people walking, which numbered between 6-8,000 and lasted for nearly 3 hours.  Though I could embellish this story with some mysticism by telling you that it must have been some divine intervention by a Hindu God...well don't believe this is the case.  Instead it grabbing my camera as I ran out the door without knowing if the battery was fully charged, which I'll make sure of next time.