A Strait Apart - Part 1

by sidin in ,


(I was in Sri Lanka, by which I mean Colombo, for a week recently. While not the first country that pops to my, or your, mind when one thinks of traveling abroad, I was adequately excited about the journey. A new a country is a new country is a new country is a journey that might lead to a blog post about it. That might lead to travel book contract. Who knows? Anything to get out of Dwarka no?

Also they sell booze in Sri Lankan supermarkets. Just like that. No fatwas or anything. So.)

Sociology

There are good things and bad things about flying from Chennai to Colombo. The good thing is the fact that you land in a foreign country after just about an hour in the air. I find this endlessly fascinating. And a little bit fraudulent.

Perhaps the years of shuttling up and down on the Kochi-Abu Dhabi sector leads one to believe that all international flights should take at least 3 hours. In fact any serious flight, it is somehow ingrained into my head, should take at least three hours. Less than that is infra dig. More than that is glamorous.

Now I know what you are thinking. “But surely you will tell us why it is ingrained into your head like that? This is not Christopher Nolan picture for you to reveal things randomly for kicks. Maybe I should read this post in reverse…”

!ecneitaP !nam etunim eno tsuJ

Thanks.

See, the thing is there is, or at least used to be, this unspoken caste system amongst NRIs.

At the bottom of the pyramid were the guys who went to the Gulf: UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and, the horror, Oman. (Within this there were the sub-castes: Abu Dhabi was superior to Sharjah but inferior to Dubai. Ajman, an emirate so small that I once tripped over it and fell into Umm Al Quwain, was inferior to everyone else.)

Right on top though were the American, European and Austro-Zealander NRIs. They travelled in nine-hour flights, lived in cosmopolitan environments and their children developed accents. And when they brought back cheeses on holiday it was not in bottles and not made by Kraft.

When we brushed past these non-resident giants in the airports, we cowered in awe in our Thai clothing bought from KM Trading during sale.

(KM Trading official slogan: ‘A company with a state of mind.’ See here.)

And in between us, in this hierarchy, were the South-East Asian NRIs. They were mysterious and rare, these fellows. So rare that if Vasudevan lived in Singapore, back home they would call him Singapore Vasudevan. But Abu Dhabi Sunny was just Sunny. Boo.

Therefore the duration of the flight that brought you home, or took you away, was indicative of your NRI-intensity. Anything less than 3 hours meant a domestic migrant, who deserves only to travel by train, and anything greater than 4 or 5 meant endless sophistication.

Which is why to this day I find short international flights a little… thought-provoking.

So one moment you’re taking off from Chennai, the next moment you’re landing in Colombo. A completely different country. Visas are given on arrival, yes, but still a different country. Surely this is make-believe?

Entertainment

Yet the sucky thing about this is the fact that Jet Airways treats the Chennai-Colombo sector like a bona fide international route. They provide you with all kinds of in-flight entertainment options, most of which are pointless under the circumstances.

Let me illustrate. (hh:mm)

0:00 Flight has taken off and you have started movie: Saving Private Ryan. You look forward to a nice non-veg meal, and much disembowelment.

0:07 Pilot interrupts to wish you a safe and pleasant journey, as if there is any chance this can end vastly differently for both of you. In the panic you hit a wrong button and restart the movie. Advertisements roll again.

0:15 Just as that American fellow’s arm falls off, the cabin crew interrupts to tell you that even if the alert is switched off you should still leave the seat belts fastened so that in case of any turbulence you are able to comfortably develop hernias. This same announcement is made in many different languages. Hilarity ensues when Anglo-Indian stewardess from Tamil Nadu laboriously reads Hindi instructions off a sheet and mistakenly says “Yeh udaan shauchalay hai.”

0:17 As tension is building up on the beaches of Normandy, cabin crew interrupts programming to inform you that you are welcome to buy exciting things, such as plastic planes, plastic watches and premium Patek Philipose watches from the in-flight duty free.

0:18 Hello there, says the announcement, beverages such as beer, beer, other beer and one small bottle of red wine will now be served. By now you are beginning to lose patience. Every time the movie is stopped for an announcement it automatically rewinds two or three minutes. You have seen the same bastard being shot four times.

0:25 The only non-hot stewardess in the flight taps you on the shoulder to ask if you want the paneer or the chicken. You pause the movie, think about it briefly, and then ask for the chicken. She informs you that there is no chicken, but there is paneer. You say ok to paneer. She serves the guy next to you chicken.

0:34 Just when you are able to make sense of the bloodshed on your screen and the story begins to make sense, the guy in front of you leans back completely in his seat. The payasam falls into your lap as one congealed lump. You reach forward and stab the old man in his eyes with your fork. But only in your mind. Thankfully the restroom is nearby and it is free.

0:37 You are back in your seat. Moments after you put on your headphones, the pilot announces that the plane will now begin its descent into Colombo. Convinced there is no point in trying to see this movie anymore, you switch it off and settle into a terrible funk.

0:48 The plane still shows no sign of landing. Meanwhile the guy next to you is racing through Friends episodes. Inspired, you put on your headphones and restart the movies.

0:49 Immediately the shauchalay lands in Colombo.

Slightly bewildered by the whole experience, and more than a little grumpy, I walked into the altogether decent Colombo airport. I spotted security staff everywhere, but they all looked clean, happy and actually welcoming. “Ayubowan!” said a woman in uniform as I walked past her into a concourse of some kind, “Welcome!” She smiled broadly. My anger cooled.

Ayubowan

The narrow but tall-ceilinged concourse had dozens of huge Buddhist lanterns hanging from the top. There was some crowd in the airport but there was little rush or hustle or bustle. I didn’t feel completely at home, there were too many strange brands being advertised around me for that, but I didn’t feel completely alien either.

I strolled about in panic for a bit before spotting the lines for immigration. And then I suddenly remembered. I might still not make it out of the airport.

There was this small matter of passport validity.

I was going to be in Sri Lanka for just a week. But my passport was only valid for another two weeks after that. At Chennai airport that morning, an officer at passport control gave me some grief. The girl, with braided hair, gold rimmed glasses and sex-less churidar, looked exactly like one of those ladies who graduate from Electrical Engineering without once speaking to anyone on campus. Except maybe God.

She said I could not go to Sri Lanka because my passport would expire soon. I told her that I was coming back in a week and I had tickets. She said that Sri Lanka would deport me on arrival. I told her I was prepared for the consequences. She said she had to discuss with her superior. My heart bungee jumped into my belly.

Nothing good comes of anyone in an Indian airport discussing anything with his or her superiors.

She first spoke to one guy, who told her to go speak to another guy, who told her to speak to someone in a room who sent her back. She then called up someone very, very high up in the Indian government, maybe Mukesh Ambani, who asked her what my profession was. “He is saying he is a journalist,” she said, looking at my press card.

Kindly note the sentence structure.

Immediately everything fell in place. She said it was ok. My passport was stamped and I raced through various check posts.

At Colombo passport control I prepared for a repeat. The man at the counter had a nice round face, signature Sri Lankan facial hairlessness, a ready smile, and was dressed in a smart white uniform. There was a picture of the President, Mahinda Rajapakse, on a wall behind him. And various tourism board advertisements around Rajapakse’s portrait.

“Hey! Your passport is getting over sir.”

“Indeed. But I am leaving in a week.”

“Ah good. Make sure you do. Or you’ll get stuck in Sri Lanka. “

Behind him there were pictures of waterfalls, jungle, beaches, seafood, and jolly men in skimpy lungi-like clothing.

“I will try my level best not to get stranded in your country,” I promised insincerely.

And that was it. What usually took at least an empowered group of ministers back home had happened in two minutes with much smiling thrown in for free.

I was very much liking Sri Lanka already.

The rest of our business tour party, including some young children, waited for our transports to arrive. Meanwhile I went to change a traveller’s cheque.

Again: smiling, cursory identity check, profuse politeness, endearing Sri Lankan accent and hassle-free efficiency. I was wearing my orange beach shirt with yellow flowers, and had just got a haircut, but there was more to the politeness and enthusiasm of the women at the exchange counter than just my animal magnetism.

These people were, perhaps, just generally nice people.

Galle Face Green

Our itinerary in Colombo included a conference the next morning and several days of meetings over the course of the subsequent week. With at best an evening or two of leisure thrown in. As we bussed to the Taj Samudra—sweet—most of the gang made plans for a shopping trip that very evening.

Personally I was keener on getting some sleep, and then going for a long walk on the Galle Face Green, a sea-facing patch of lawn right in front of the Taj Samudra hotel. During the “war”, as most Sri Lankans call the period of conflict with the LTTE, Galle Face Green had been roped off by security forces. This was to prevent crowds, and the temptation for LTTE suicide squads to have a blast.

But now it was open again, the crowds were back, and at night it made a great place to walk by as the choppy sea pounded into the sea wall.

There was food to buy too. A Sri Lankan colleague at Mint had recommended that I try some of it, especially the Isso Vadai, a prawn cracker with whole prawns stuck to a crunchy little pancake. Like Delhi chaat, vendors topped Isso Vadais with chopped onions and a squirt of special sauce.

After checking in, and a quick nap, I nipped down to the beach for a walk and some new-atmosphere-inhaling.

The sea that first night was tremendously violent. Within minutes my spectacles were so flecked with spray that I took them off, and tottered down the walking path. Galle Face Green has little illumination save for food cart lanterns and the occasional wash from streetlights. So every once in a while I’d almost walk into someone or sideswipe a food cart.

At one point I went and sat right next to a couple who were, how to put it delicately, making out like bunny rabbits hopped up on Musli Power. I apologized quietly, and quickly went away. No scene was created and sadly there was too little lighting for BlackBerry photos.

But then slowly I began to realize something; Sri Lanka hardly registers on the decibel scale. You could sit all day in the lobby of the Taj Samudra and the loudest conversations would be invariably from the Indian tour parties, or from inside the bar showing World Cup matches.

Even the college and school kids at Galle Face Green, excited like young people anywhere who were in the midst of necking couples, wouldn’t create a ruckus. Bad language, at least in the forms I could understand, couldn’t be heard anywhere.

This was a nation with no market for noise canceling headphones, I thought to myself while demolishing an Isso Vadai.

But the real culture shock would hit me as I proceeded to do two things over the subsequent week: stand in buffet lines, and go shopping for clothes in Odel, one of Colombo’s biggest department stores.

All that and more in Part 2 of A Straits Apart. Shortly. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe in August.

p.s. Pictures of Ajman, Galle Face Green from Wikipedia. The wonderful picture of Isso Vadai from Skyscraper City here. Shailaja's portrait thanks to Blaft. The rest of the pictures are all mine. Ahem.