Sri Lanka Report

March 28, 2010 6 02 , 80 14 E, Galle, Sri Lanka
This entry is out of date-order, as we catch up on some old notes that we took, but didn’t get around to posting. Here, then, are our not-so-fond impressions of Sri Lanka.

When Mike Dukakis ran against George Bush the elder in 1988, he criticized Bush for intimating that his subordinates were to blame for failed policies Bush had championed as VP: “A fish rots at the head,” said the Duke. (That was the second most memorable 88 campaign quip, finishing runner-up to Lloyd Bensen’s put-down of Dan Quayle, “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. You, sir, are no Jack Kennedy.” Both comments were panned at the time as “overly harsh,” but history has treated the quotes, if not the Duke himself, differently.)

Here, in Sri Lanka, yet another dysfunctional Asian country, lack of candor seems to flow from the top down too.

The majority ruling party just won a presidential election against a supposedly spirited opposition. It probably helped that the ruling party managed to jail the leader of the opposition, one General Fonseca, on what appear to be trumped-up charges. But you can’t really tell, because there is a complete absence of objective analysis in the news. Those in the press who’ve tried to report such shenanigans objectively have similarly found themselves locked up. So too a woman who 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.” Sounds like a good enough reason to us.

The newspapers do report some of this, but with the threat of jail hanging over their heads, the stories are anything but robust. Court proceedings are reported 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 macabre.

One story described how Sri Lanka’s president formally offered the services of his personal physician and “spiritual healer” to treat injured footballer David Beckham. Beckham has torn his achilles tendon, of course, and orthopedics suggest that he’s down for at least six months, but that for all intents and purposes, his career is over. (Oh that Wayne Rooney might also miss the World Cup game against the U.S.!) The president had offered the services of Eliyantha-Lindsay-White, who has had “special powers since the age of 12,” which he blends with “traditional ayurvedic treatment.” Lindsay-White commented that Beckham’s “condition can be easily treated.” No word on whether Becks is coming, despite Lindsay-White’s promise that “within three days he can go back to playing.”

Under personal classified’s appear “Marriage Proposals”, just like at home. Only different. “Buddhist Deva parents seek educated well-mannered partner for 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.” (Judging from the other adds, “family details” seems to be a code to distinguish the advert from others that state that “caste is immaterial.”)

The police blotter was also a treat to read, not necessarily for the stories themselves, but for the accompanying illustrations. So, a story about a beating is paired with a crude drawing of two chaps clubbing their prostrate victim. Or a picture of a bus knocking a hapless, frowning stick-figure cyclist into the air is paired with a story about the poor pedalist’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 imagine how that could be tactful in any culture.)

But back to the corruption. Who cares about government misdeeds if such an approach doesn’t permeate everyday life? But it does.

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 sign on the building 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.”


We could tell many stories on this front, but one will suffice. One day when we returned carrying three jerry cans of diesel fuel, a stony-faced guard 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 that the officer expected a bribe. We went to the agent, and told him we’d pay no bribe. He went to the officer, and returned, saying, “The officer would like to speak with you.” 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 were often probed for our willingness to pay bribes. Some folks paid them without a fight, and others, like us, steadfastly refused. A customs officer visiting a neighboring boat grabbed a bottle of scotch, and said, “This is mine.” No, it isn’t, they said, and they refused to let him take it.

A picture is worth a thousand words, but until we get to a place where we can post them, our words will have to suffice. There is an oversized statue of a statesman in the center of town, in the middle of a major rotary (or traffic circle or round-about or what have you), and it is one of the first things you see when you exit the train station and arrive in Galle. The fellow is grimacing slightly, 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.

At least we could trust our agent and our Tuk Tuk driver, no? Not quite.

We have previously written about the antics of our agent, Windsor’s, insisting that we pay $200 for a 1/4 mile tow into the harbor. Things only got better. We had a used part, worth about $5.00, shipped via FedEx from the U.S., and sent to us in the agent’s care. When we went to Windsor’s to pick it up, it was given to us with a stamp over the FedEx waybill that added an additional 2,768 Rupees in charges. Mr. Windsor himself told us that he had personally paid the FedEx agent this amount, and that we now had to pay him. Something didn’t seem right, and as we asked him to explain the customs charges, the discussion turned to other earlier problems, including the request for the $200 tow. In the end, Mr. Windsor stormed out of the office, yelling at us loudly as he exited.

Walking back to Leander, we inspected the hand-written customs charge. It appeared that the itemized customs charges, although hard to read, indeed added up to only 768, and that the initial customs charge had been in this amount, but someone had added a “2” in front of the “768” after the fact. We called FedEx. They confirmed that Mr. Windsor had been charged only 768 Rupees, and they graciously emailed to us the actual printed customs charge sheet. FedEx explained that that they had included this typewritten form in the package. It had been removed.

When we we went to settle our account on the day we were leaving, we said that we’d pay only 768 for the customs charge. The assistant with whom we spoke insisted that “Mr. Windsor had paid 2,768 to customs, and you must pay that amount.” We showed him the FedEx email and invoice with the correct charge. Without changing his expression, he shrugged and accepted our 768 payment.

But the Tuk Tuk driver, he was OK, right?! He APPEARED so, and acted awfully friendly. He drove us from place to place, hustling into shops with us, or more often, just before us, to “ensure that they don’t charge you tourist prices!” What he was actually doing, we eventually learned, was setting a price with the some of the vendors that was more than the price charged to locals but included a commission for him. We discovered this when we were buying two Styrofoam boxes after he’d spoken to the shop owner, and he said “don’t pay anymore than 240 each. That’s what he agreed upon.” After the Tuk Tuk driver left, the vendor said no, they’re 230 each, and that’s what I’ll charge you, because that’s the price.” We wanted to hug him!

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 corruption was frustrating for us, as petty as it often was, we must admit to understanding why it happens. Maybe this anecdote helps explain what we mean.

On the first day, when we walked from the boat to the gate, 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 each day, and we quickly grew to like her like she was our own.

But by the fourth and fifth days, she was becoming increasingly less eager to leave her shady spot. An inspection revealed a rather nasty growth protruding from her genital area.

What to do? We got permission from the guards, and took her to the vet. It was a complete hassle, first trying to corner her after she moved away from our rope and carrying-tray (it wasn’t THAT hard, as she was obviously lame), tying her up, and then transporting her 10 miles in an open-air Tuk Tuk through congested Galle traffic. (Oh we got such unbelieving glares from the throngs in the street. What are those people doing with that filthy dog?) We got her to the vet, who said that she had an STD and another infection, which we hadn’t seen, in her bowel tract. The vet said that both were treatable, but that the treatments would be expensive. How much? $30. No doubt that included a non-Sri Lankan markup, but that’s not expensive, we thought. Come see an American vet, and we’ll show you expensive! So we paid the vet, the dog got his shots, we got a prescription, and back we went to the harbor.

But the point of this story is that our Tuk Tuk driver took the whole thing in, including our payment of the vet’s fees. $30 is about what he earns in four very good days. (When we returned, our driver was besieged by questions from the other drivers and the guards — how much did it cost?) 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, might we not 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, and was a bright spot in the visit. Perhaps there are many more Sri Lankas 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.” 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.” “There,” said the waiter, pointing to the mozzarella. “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, play kissy face. Actually, it was more like “kissy neck.” The girls all sat straight up, seemingly disinterested, while the fellows nuzzled at their napes.

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, 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 envelope, telling us, in a somewhat convoluted message, that the envelope with the money had been given to the vet.

But we wonder. If the vet opened the envelope, why did the agent send us the email?

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