Sri Lanka Report

March 28, 20

10 6 02 , 80 14 E, Galle, Sri Lanka


On the way home from school.

Sri Lanka was beautiful, the people were outgoing and welcoming, and the food great.  But we also had some negative impressions of the country.

As Mike Dukakis famously said, “A fish rots at the head.”  So let’s start at the top.

The majority ruling party has just won a presidential election, helped by the jailing of the opposition leader, one General Fonseca.  The charges appear to be trumped-up.

You can’t really get to the bottom of any of it, because there is a complete absence of objective analysis in the news. We’ve read from sources outside of the country that those in the press who’ve tried to report objectively have similarly found themselves locked up.  So too a woman who (gasp!) converted from Buddhism to Islam, and wrote a book about her thoughts. Though she’s jailed without charges being leveled, the authorities have commented that her book is “offensive to Buddhists,” and so off to jail she has been sent.

The newspapers do report some of this, but with the threat of jail hanging over their heads, the stories are anything but robust. There were reports about the Fonseca show trial, but in an indecipherable legalese that makes it obvious that the reporter has not or will not digest what is being reported. Thus, while the 8-column banner headline on page one quotes the President as saying that the “People stood by me at all times,” with the subheading, “Villages see tremendous development,” hidden on page three is the news that “[t]he writ application and habeas corpus application filed in the Court of Appeal by Anoma Fonseka, the wife of General (retd.) Sarath Fonseka against her husband’s illegal arrest and detention was listed for resumption on March 30 . . . .”

Other parts in the newspaper range from the bizarre to the downright macabre.

One story described — quite seriously — how Sri Lanka’s president has formally offered the services of his “spiritual healer” to treat David Beckham’s torn achilles tendon.  The shaman, we learn, has had “special powers since the age of 12.”

Under classifieds appear not peer-to-peer attempts to find suitable dates, but instead parents seeking to marry off their kids.  Try this one on for size:

Buddhist Deva parents seek educated well-mannered partner for female 28, 5’3″ with assets [sic!]

Owns house, car, and substantial dowry.

She is currently working and draws six-figure salary.

CIMA part qualified studied at Visakha Vidyalaya.

Brother engineer, sister doctor.

Reply with horoscope and family details.

Only after reading more adds do we discern that the request for “family details” is meant to distinguish from others that state that “caste is immaterial.”  One gets the sense, then, that it is the lower castes who are writing that caste is of no matter.

The police blotter was also a treat to read.  Not only for the stories themselves, in which no detail was too gory or personal, but for the absolutely unbelievable illustrations that were paired with the narrative.

For example, a story about a beating was paired with a crude drawing of two chaps clubbing their prostrate victim. The drawing of a bus knocking a hapless, frowning stick-figure cyclist into the air was paired with a story about the cyclist’s untimely death. Perhaps the ickiest, however, was the picture of what looked like a gurgling, wide-eyed baby pawing at the air under a tree. Unfortunately, the story was about how the baby had been found dead after her mother left her to die at the spot.

We couldn’t understand how this could could be tactful in any culture.

The corruption starting at the highest levels of government trickled down and permeated every aspect of Sri Lankan life.  Every day was an obstacle course of bribes and misrepresentations

For example, we were required to present a pass at a secure gate each time we left and returned from the harbor. There is a huge, weathered hanging over the area where this takes place, which reads “It is a punishable offence to demand and or to offer and or to accept bribes. Hence all are warned not to commit this crime.”

Got it!

We could tell many stories on this front.  Here’s one.  

One day when we returned carrying three jerry cans of diesel fuel, a stony-faced officer on watch told us that we needed a “letter from our agent” before he would allow us to enter. This was news to us, so we turned around and walked back to our nearby agent’s office.

As we passed by a group of Tuk Tuk drivers, they told us that no letter was needed, but what the officers was really after was a bribe. We entered our agent’s office, and told him that we would not pay a bribe. So, in turn, our agent himself walked over to the officer, and, after speaking, said that “the officer would like to speak with you.”

So, back we went to the officer. “OK,” he smiled, with a Sri Lankan head swivel and a wave of the hand toward the gate. “Please, go ahead.”  We gladly did, not unmindful of the fact that we were passing under the “No Bribes Allowed!” sign.  

We were frequently probed for our willingness to pay bribes. Some foreigners pay them without a fight, but there is something in us that insists on being treated like the locals.  So we have steadfastly refused.  Others passing through here on boats share the same stories.  We were told by another boat here that a customs officer visiting their boat picked up a bottle of scotch, and said, “This is mine.” No, it isn’t, they said, and they refused to let him take it.

There is an oversized statue of a statesman in the center of Galle. The fellow has the slightest hint of a grin, is looking straight ahead, and both of his hands are by his side. But one of his palm is curled and upturned, in the universal gesture of “put something here, please.” If you were trying to portray graft in bronze, you wouldn’t change a thing about this statute.


Appropriately, this is the statute that grants visitors coming into town. Perhaps this gesture is meant to mean something else, but it sure looks like he is looking to have his palm greased.

We have previously written about the actions of our agent, Windsor’s, who had wanted $200 for help moving our boat 400 yards into the harbor.

They continued to try to wring money out of us. For example, we had an inexpensive part shipped to us from the U.S.  With our boat out at anchor, we needed to have it sent care of our agent.  When we went to pick it up, we were told that we had to reimburse Windsor for a custom charge in the amount 2,768 Rupees, which was five times the value of the part.

The paperwork looked fishy. The itemized customs charges added up to only 768.  It didn’t take much detective work to figure out that Windsors appeared to have added a “2” in front of the “768.”  As we tried to explore this, Mr. Windsor became increasingly belligerent, telling us that he had personally paid the FedEx agent this amount.

We left, without he package, and called FedEx. They confirmed that Windsor had paid only 768 Rupees in customs charges, and emailed to the actual printed customs charge sheet, which Windsors had removed from the package

When we we went to settle our account, we said tat wde’d pay only 768 for the customs charged.  When there was again resistance, we produced the FedEx email and invoice with the correct charge. Without changing his expression, the agent shrugged and accepted our 768 payment.

We learned that even our trusted Tuk Tuk driver, who was exceptionally friendly and helpful, was not being 100% straightforward.  Although he claimed that he was entering the various shops we were visiting before us to ensure that we were not paying “tourist prices,” we later learned that he was actually arranging for his commission   One particularly honest vendor let the cat out of the bag.  The irony is that, in this culture, the honest vendor is probably the one who will be penalized for not playing the game.

Although the attempts to constantly overcharge us were frustrating, the following story provides some background as to how it develops.

As we passed outside of the gate each day, there was a stray dog that got up from her spot under a shady tree and, tail wagging, walked over to greet us. She was a bit bedraggled, but she came to us regularly, and we quickly grew to like her like she was our own.

But by the end of the first week, she was becoming increasingly less eager to leave her shady spot, and eventually stopped moving at all. An inspection revealed a rather nasty growth protruding from her genital area.

What to do?

With permission from the guards, and took her to the vet. It was difficult to do, tying her up and then loading her onto an oversized food tray that we had procured.  We then transported  her 10 miles in an open-air Tuk Tuk through congested Galle traffic, getting strange looks from the locals as we passed.

We got her to the vet, who said that she had both an STD and an infection, in her bowel tract. The vet said that both were treatable, but that the treatments would be “very expensive.”

We braced ourselves.

How much?


We heaved an imperceptible sigh of relief, and paid the vet.  The dog got his shots, we got a prescription for more meds to give her, and drove back to the harbor.

But the point of this story is the reaction of our Tuk Tuk driver when he saw us shell out $30 for a street dog that we had never met before.  The driver earned that much in about a week of work.

Could you then blame him, and others, for trying to get at some of this western largesse? Sure, our driver took commissions without our knowing, but they were often pennies on the sale, and maybe, in some circumstances, it was less than we’d be charged as foreigners without his intercession. And he probably has been given tips from Americans that were ten times what he would otherwise charge, teaching him that he should ask for more. If we were in his shoes, we might also charge a different price for westerners?

There were certainly bright spots. Lalith Hettiwata was the naval officer who first came to our ship, and befriended us. He twice had us over to his home for dinner and drinks, and on other occasions gave us gifts of fresh pineapple and coconuts. He was warm and cordial. Perhaps there are many more Sri Lankans like him, and our short, work-related stay kept us from meeting them.

We certainly did reach out, but communication was difficult, and the results of our attempts were often quite humorous. At a restaurant, we asked the waiter to clear away an ashtray. “Yes, yes,” he said smiling. And bring us some water please? “Yes, yes.” He left, leaving the ashtray, and returned five minutes later, without water. “May I please help you?” he beamed? OK, how about menus, we replied, with much gesturing.

He returned with menus. Yay!! The food was described in Sinhalese and English, but we weren’t familiar with the English names either. But ahhh! there were pictures on the menu next to some of the items, including a very appetizing looking salad of tomato, mozzarella, basil, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil. “I’ll take that!” Sima said.

“Oh no, sorry, – those are just pictures. For show.  We actually don’t have any of those items here.

We learned that the two dozen pictures of appetizing items sprinkled about the menu had nothing to do with anything that the restaurant served, but were just random pictures copied to make the menu look nice.

Smiling, and trying to make things good, the waiter said, “We have no tomatoes, but we can make you eggs, like the picture you like.”

“What eggs in what picture,” we asked.

“There,” said the waiter, pointing to mozzarella cheese.

“Oh, that’s OK. We’ll try the mixed noodles.” He said he understood. We wondered, and were kept in suspense until he returned with, oh my gosh, mixed noodles!

We hadn’t planned on stopping in Galle, but were compelled by the need to fix some things. Some of the fixes were hard to do. We remounted the alternator; repaired a broken field-wire connection inside the alternator; replaced the heat exchanger; pulled off the transmission, removed the broken damper plate and installed a new one; replaced three gaskets on the exhaust manifold; took down the sails and replaced UV-damaged stitching (with the help of a local seamstress); and checked and cleaned all the connections on the VHF radio.

The repairs got done, and it was about time to leave.

We spent our last day wandering Galle’s historic “Fort,” which is actually the old, walled original town. It was beautiful, organized, and quiet, a sharp contrast to the scruffy city. The streets were lined with stone houses, shops, and churches that dated two hundred years and more from the times of Dutch and then British occupations. It was a restful tonic to wander about on a sleepy Sunday, away from the congested streets of Galle.

Our guidebook described some turrets along one of the embattlements that were supposed to be a safe haven for amorous young couples. Sure enough, into each of a dozen turrets was squeezed a pair of lovebirds, and not a single one was empty. In fact, there were several couples lurking nearby, waiting for their turn. The turrets were not more than three feet wide, and open to to plain view, but couples would nestle themselves into the space, and, with an umbrella providing a false sense of privacy.

Now we’d seen it all, and it was truly time to head out.

What happened with our dog, in the end? Did she get better or not?

Feeding her the follow-up antibiotics was quite a challenge! The first day after the vets, she seemed to remember that we were the obnoxious ones that had dragged her across town to have a man in a white smock stick a finger up her butt to break an infected cyst and then poke her with syringes. Not surprisingly, she walked away as we neared. In the following days, she allowed us to approach her, but she wouldn’t eat any of antibiotic-laced food that we gave her, despite our multiple menu options. Finally, Paul spoke to his mom, who advised him to wrap it up in a slab of meat. That worked, and our charge feasted on bacon and antibiotic sandwiches for the next several days.

The genital growth diminished, and she seemed to be getting better. We telephoned the vet, who said that it was important that she have a second set of injections, to finish off the STD and the infection, or they would simply return. He couldn’t come before we left and, although he was a government vet, he required that we pay him additional sums for the new injections, and also compensate him for his travel time. We agreed, but had no choice but to leave the money in a sealed envelope with our agent. Inside of the sealed envelope, we also left a note asking the vet to email us to confirm that he’d received our payment and delivered the shots.

We never got an email from the vet, but DID get one from the agent’s assistant with whom we’d left the sealed envelope, telling us, in a somewhat convoluted message, that the envelope with the money had been given to the vet.

But if the envelope was delivered sealed to vent, how did the agent know to send us an email?

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