Pokie Tarantulas

The tropics are known for large bugs-hornets, roaches, ants-they all seem to be on some kind of miracle grow hormone.  Until now I have forgotten this is also true of spiders.  I found this tarantula in my bedroom when staying in Vavuniya.  Apparently he's a Sri Lankan ornamental tarantula nicknamed a 'Pokie'. 

I have a new found appreciation of  sleeping with a mosquito net in the security of knowing I will not wake to find this guy in my bed. 

Hopping Gates in Colombo Part Deux

It was my friend's 35th birthday party in Colombo and I made my way in for the big event...she called it her official entry into the Middle Ages.  Kind of dramatic if you ask me. 

I was happy to be able to take the train with one of the other expats in Batticaloa.  Aside from being my cycling and badminton partner she also lived in Afghanistan the same time as me and we have a ton in common.  Not only did she provide some much needed comic relief on the 10 hour overland journey, but also a place to go in the morning. My friend had sent me an SMS to warn me that there was a crowd of emergency aid workers in the process of a bender at our guesthouse. 

As much as the idea of walking into a house tired and exhausted to find a crowd of drunken expats sprawled out over the place appealed to me-I instead took my friend up on the offer of an extra bedroom in her Colombo guesthouse. We had the opportunity to go for breakfast at Cinnamon Grand hotel, where I was told by a man from the Seychelles that there's a village inside of the hotel.  I don't know if this was true...considering the man was slamming shots of vodka at the time I don't know if it's trustworthy...however, given the size of it this could very well be possible.

In the afternoon I returned to our guesthouse and then spent the day shopping with my friend before heading the posh Galle Face hotel for drinks.  It was an absolutely lovely setting.  Dim candlelight was spread across tables that sat right on the edge of the water with waves crashing down.  Many a gin and tonic was had along with wine for a crowd of about 30.  There even appeared to be some random people who somehow joined us and didn't even know my friend, but had somehow made their way to our table.  I somehow became surrounded by a group of people who had all previously worked in Afghanistan--all about the same time as me.  It seems at the moment I'm surrounded by a load of people with experiences in Afghanistan, Sudan and the DRC-it's an interesting bunch to say the least.  I also met a Brit who apparently had been rejected by MI6.  Or at least he told me he had been.  Most likely it was a pick up line, but I entertained the notion and let him chat me up for a while.  Whether true or not, he definitely had some good stories to share about it.

  At about 3am I returned to my guesthouse.  I had been told that our guard had improved dramatically since the last time I had to climb the 3 meter wall with the help of being put on the shoulders of a stoned tuk tuk driver.  Unfortunately I had a bit of an altercation with my tuk tuk driver this time as he tried to charge me a ridiculous amount of money.  I suppose it was the drinking and my past experiences fighting with Arab taxi men as I immediately yelled something at him Arabic and he responded by saying nasty in Sinhalese before driving off into the empty street.  Sometimes things are best left to be lost in translation.

The next 1.5 hours were spent attempting to yet again try to get in the gate.  I called the guard and at first it rang, but then he switched his phone off.   Unlike the last time I had to hop the gate, I was alone and in a skirt and heels which resulted in many a man driving by-turning around and driving by again.  Apparently I appeared to be a hooker of some sort.  Unfortunately for these men I immediately approached them not to tell them how much I charged, but instead to tell them I had been locked out.  There were four men who did this-one even called the police, but they never did come.  I kept banging on the gate yelling, Hello Mr. Security Guard!" But nothing. 

I was being attacked by mosquitos, I was tired, kind of drunk and actually considered taking a nap on the pavement when a truck drove up, then turned around and came back stopping where I was standing.  Again, he thought I was a hooker, however this guy proved useful.  I explained my situation and asked him if he had a ladder or something I could use to climb the gate.  He told me that he did have one in his house.  I asked him if he wouldn't mind getting it and he agreed saying he'd return in 10 minutes.  I only half believed he would do this and sat down on the sidewalk with a sense of defeat.  Just as I was beginning to think that my yelling at the tuk tuk driver was some kind of karmic retribution, the truck driver returned with a proper ladder.  He extended it out, helped me climb it then he did the same to help me down on the other side.  He then climbed back over the wall and packed up the ladder.  I asked him how I could thank him--with the tuk tuk driver I had offered him money, but he had refused. This guy asked me for my phone number and told me to stop by the Bay Leaf restaurant where he worked. And then he drove off.

And once again I'm reminded of the kindness of strangers, even if it means breaking into one's home.

Child Soldiers...the Baby Tigers of Sri Lanka

Back in 2005 I had a job working with the U.S. Department of State's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.  We create a report mandated by congresss to be submitted annually on efforts made by governments to combat the trafficking in persons.  After drugs and weapons the sale of humans is the most profitable.  The stories I would hear were hearwrenching and the types of trafficking varied--sex, labor, domestic help.  Details of a trafficking victim are hard to take, but the one that I would actually get a sick feeling in my stomach over were the forced recruitment of child soldiers.  Children are often kidnapped or forced in some other way into a militant group and exposed to the grossest of atrocities in order to indoctrinate them. 

I suppose this personal history of mine is one reason why seeing this billboard as an anti-trafficking message in one of the rural villages in the east of Sri Lanka struck such a chord for me.  It serves as a reminder to what a child is and what they should be. In this case it makes reference to a child that should be carrying a cricket bat instead of the grenade launcher.

I asked a colleague of mine about this poster and she explained the above to me.  Until now I've been cautious not to push people into telling me their war stories, but am always listening attentively when they share.  This was one of those times.  My colleague told me her views of the Tamil Tigers-Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE). 

Yes, they stood up for Tamil (minority ethnicity in Sri Lanka) rights, but they were brutal and they were vicious.  They required every person working or living in the LTTE controlled villages of the north and east with a family with more than one child to give one up for the movement.  If you failed to do so, they would extort you for all you were worth.  In my colleague's case, her father was working in on eof these villages.  she had one sister and one brother who had passed away years earlier.  The LTTE came after her father demanding either her sister or her join.  He staunchly refused and they put him in prison as a result.  Her mother went to them, begging for them to release them and they said they would if she either give up a child or pay 150,000 rupees...this from a family that makes 6,000 rupees at the most a month.  When she asked how she could pay this, they said easily-give us your house and land and go with your children to live in one of the many IDP camps being run by ICRC and the UN.  Eventually the mother got the money from loans and the father was released.  He soon after took a job in Saudi Arabia in order to avoid further extortion and protect the family.

Sadly, many of these children 'disappeared' following the violent end to the war in 2009.  It has been explained to me that what took place here in the final years of the war was a genocide.  To date, there are approximately 300,000 people who vanished from the northern Vanni region without a trace.  Among them are more than likely the child soldiers-robbed of their childhood and their lives taken before they even had a chance to live them.

Here is a recent article published by IRIN regarding the missing children: 

FP's 2011 Failed State Index

I find myself divided over my feelings towards Sri Lanka.  People who have traveled to Sri Lanka always say how much they love the island and how nice the people are.  It is beautiful and yes, the people are nice for the most part, however, I see a very sinister side to the society that the government goes to great lengths to cover up. 

Having been working in the post conflict areas of the east and north I have a different take on all the beauty.  Sometimes I think I'm blowing things out of proportion and then I see rankings such as Foreign Policy's Failed State Index. 

Sri Lanka has earned the dubious honor of being listed in Foreign Policy's top 30 failed list and shares the same category ranking as sunny destinations including the Rep of Congo, North Korea, Iran and Rwanda.  It's #29, coming just after Eritrea and step above Sierra Leone.

I suppose I'm not the only person who doesn't see the island with the rosy colored glasses that many visitors have the luxury of wearing. 

"You must leave the country now."

The processing for my official work permit and visa began in March.  Five months and two visits to the nearby Maldives later and it has been processed.  If everyone had gotten every piece of paper signed and chased down the official who puts the official stamp on the form--developing countries love the stamps, bureaucracy would fall to shreds without them--then I would have had my visa a couple months ago.  Instead the form that needed the appropriate official's signature on it sat collecting dust on a desk for three weeks until someone realized that my entry visa was about to expire. 

Under any other circumstance I would have had to collect my visa in my home country, but considering the US is on the other side of the globe this was not an option.  The original plan was to send me to Bangkok as I would have to depart Sri Lanka in order to gain the appropriate entry visa.  I've never been to Thailand and would love for the opportunity, but not for a 24 hour visa run.  Instead I suggested to look into the Maldives...I had already been there for a previous visa run and I have friends living in the main island of Male, not to mention it's less than an hour's flight from Colombo

The request was sent to the man known as the liaison.  Described to me as a hustler who will wear a leather jacket and jeans even if it's 40 degrees (roughtly 100 farenheit) and 100% humid.  The liaison said he'd make a few phone calls and notify me of what was to come.  A couple hours later I receive a text message stating, "you must leave the country now, check your email".  Sounded ominous to say the least.

Checked my email and received instructions that I must depart Sri Lanka as soon as possible so the liaison could work is bureaucratic magic and make my visa magically appear at the High Commission in Male.  He then said that I would have to remain in country for 4-5 working days in order for all to be processed.  My boss followed up with the message for me to follow the liason's message and get to the Maldives ASAP.  All expenses would be covered. 

I kept it professional and said that I understood the situation and if I must, then I would depart for the Maldives in the next few days.  Inside I was thinking, really?  I'm being ordered to go to a tropical paradise for a week??? I chose not to ask questions and fully comply with my orders.

There are times in my life where I sit back and say I don't deserve what I have.  This was one of them.  For the past week I have been in the gorgeous South Asian island nation soaking up rays, wakeboarding, kayaking, scuba diving with sea turtles and reef sharks, stargazing, karaoking and enjoying the azure blue waters of the Indian ocean while at the same time spending time with some amazing friends.  I even had the added bonus of my friend's mom who was visiting her from Lebanon, which involved amazing Lebanese food prepared with ingredients she had brought with her from Beirut along with my favorite past time of nargileh (hookah).  I told her that I had been dreaming of fatoush salad daily in Sri Lanka and eh made it special the day after I arrived.

The Maldives is an odd country.  Following the 2004 tsunami it has become extremely conservate and Muslim...more and more women are veiling and shops close during prayer times.  The conservative island is the main island of Male is where 150,000 of the entire 300,000 Maldivian population live.  It makes for some close quarters and near death experiences in narrow alleyways where men with slicked back hair and sunglasses drive like kamikaze fighter pilots.  Alcohol is strictly forbidden in Male, but is not on the multiple islands surrounding it-owned by various resorts.  Most tourists get off the plane and get picked up by a representative from the resort they reserved at and are jetted away by speed boat never seeing Male or knowing it's conservative nature.

I was happy to depart the Maldives on the first day of Ramadan-the holy month of Islam that involves fasting from sun up to sun down--from what I could see nearly every shop was shut.  Most definitely the restaurants were.  I met a really ignorant colleague of my friend who was a disgruntled teacher working in Male.  He kept making comments of Ramadan and then went as far as to say that babies die from being forced to fast.  This is just ridiculous and more importantly not true.  After clarifying for him that children are not required to fast until at least the age of 7 (or somewhere around there) and that there are load of exceptions so as not to harm yourself he seemed to not condemn the practice of fasting as much as he initially had been.

On the flight home I sat next to a woman in an abeya dress (black choir coat you see women in the Gulf wearing) who I discovered could not speak English when I asked her to move so I could get to the window seat.  I could tell she was not Arab but heard her say to the flight attendant that she had come from Dubai when he was handing out landing cards.  As we approached Colombo she tapped me on the shoulder and handed me her landing card and passport, giving me a worried look.  I was confused at first until I realized that she was trying to explain to me that she was illiterate and did not know how to fill out the form.  I glanced at her passport and realized that she was Sri Lankan and more than likely was returning home after having worked in the Gulf.  Knowing she did not speak English I gave a stab at her knowing Arabic and sure enough she did.  She asked if I was Egyptian and I explained no, actually I was from the US. She gave me a surprised look and then asked why I spoke like an Egyptian.  It made me smile....to date I still have the accent because of first learning to speak in Cairo. 

I helped her fill out the card and I then asked her where she was coming from.  She told me Riyadh, Saudi Arabia where she had worked as a domestic servant for the past two years  I've heard horror stories and witnessed firsthand the treatment of foreign workers in the Gulf and asked her how her life had been in Saudi.  At first she bulked at saying anything, but then she started detailing what she had been through.  She repeatedly told me the men in the house were bad and kept making motion of cutting her hands and head regarding the life in Riyadh.  I did not ask for the details of either but assumed she was referring to the notorious sexual assaults that take place against domestic help and the beheadings and hand choppings that take place as a form of punishment. In the city of Jeddah-the most liberal of all cities-there is a place nicknamed, Chop-Chop Square.  It perfectly describes the public chopping of people's limbs along with executions.  After asking her if she was happy to go home she broke into a smile said wholehartedly 'na'am.'-yes.  After landing we exchanged phone numbers and parted ways. 

Upon arrival in Colombo I was finally able to be stamped in without fear or thoughts of deportation from the  'it's absolutely forbidden to work in Sri Lanka without permission of the controller' sign that hangs above the customs desk at the international airport.   It appears the liason will not be instructing me to depart the country anytime in the near future