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