Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Love is Blind

I think it's largely the ugliness, anger and corruption in Sri Lanka which stops me being in love with it. You can't be blind to what goes on here. The war, the deep seated racism, the disappearances, brutality, the lack of concern for the North and the East of the country. The corruption in every walk of life.

It's what, for me makes Sri Lanka unloveable. The government's corruption in particular. Where to start? Some small examples: they upped all the minsters' monthly fuel allowance from $2000 - $3000 just before they had to vote on the 2nd reading of the budget, which many in Parliament want to throw out. Strange timing. (This in a country where an average salary would be $100 a month, inflation is at 19%, the cost of living for Joe Blogasinghe is rocketing) Another was a scam whereby Ministers (and I think all MPs) were exempt from paying the 400% import tax on luxury vehicles and some were then selling them on to business people at less than 400% mark up but still at a tidy profit.

Even the former Sri Lankan cricket captain, Marvin Attapathu, complained about the corrupt nepotistic system of selection, whereby favours are given in return for a place in the team for someone's son etc. Thereby also sounding the death knell to his Test career for having spoken out.

Some of the examples are simply laughable, so unsubtle are they. Our ever resourceful president bought his son an Aston Martin on a whim recently..... And not even his salary would cover such an extravagance, nor is it 'family money' To appreciate the true irony of such an unsubtly corrupt gesture, you have to live here and use the roads. There are no motorways, the rds are full of potholes, cows, carts, stray dogs and far too much traffic. I have never gone over 80km/h. Mostly you do 40km/hr. An Aston Martin in Sri Lanka, wd be like owning a race horse on one of the (smaller) Maldivian atolls. I mean the president could have made his point about his status with a Lotus Elan or maybe even an Audi TT. There are only 2 Ferraris in the whole of Sri Lanka. Still that's politics here for you....

Depsite being a democracy and having an independent press, one of the cabinet minsters recently phoned the editor of the most outspoken newspaper with a death threat. They are the stuff of life in Sri Lanka, from firing an employee upwards, it is a national past-time. I have lost count of the number of 'abusive threat' situations I have heard stories of.

The press offices of one of the other newspapers suffered an arson attack for the 2nd time in 2 yrs. Carried out by 10 masked men, who strangely, despite this occurring in a very high security area, and in a city where there are more police and military than white lines on the rd, managed to escape. Impossible unless the police and armed forces were in cahoots....

This is a government which vilifies NGOs, who are spending vast amounts of foreign money to try and sort out the country's problems for them, accuses the UN of collaborating with the LTTE when they import emergency rations for all their staff, which is standard international procedure in volatile regions, accuse Amnesty of using their cricket ball campaign solely to try and destabilise the Sri Lanka cricket team and make them lose. It's a heady mix of megolomania and paranoia all rolled into one.

After living here for a while, time and again you come up against the fact that as a foreigner you are not welcome. On Wed night a bomb was left in a busy shop at evening rush hour time. It exploded killing 17, a civilian attack. Historically and by public statement the targets of the LTTE have always been military and government, this was quite a departure. When a vehicle carrying foreigners went through the area soon after, a 4WD, white NGO vehicle, it was mobbbed by a very angry crowd. The anger you can understand, but why target foreigners? A parent at my son's school who is a security advisor, said this is very common. It doesn't matter what your logo is, UN, diplomat or NGO, you will get mobbed. Seems strange to me, when this civil war has nothing to do with the international community. If anything the latter should be paying it more attention.

Then of course there are my two friends who separately,got taken down side streets in a tuktuk and then had the driver 'demand sex' from them. Both of them dress sensitively, one often even wears Salwar Kameez. Three other people I know have woken up to find a male intruder in their bedroom, another has been stalked, many of us get repeated harassing phonecalls from people and get 'stalked' by phone.

Last week I was meeting M in Colombo for a much needed 'date' one evening and I arrived late, because I got flagged down by a policeman, so of course, in this country of road blocks and check points I stopped. he said , as they always do, "Where are you going?" I told him, he then said "me, Parliament rd" He kept saying this, it was just as I realised that he was telling me he wanted a lift that he opened the door adn got in...... What to do??

Then he said "Japan" I said "no, English" but he kept saying "Japan" I realised he wanted me to take him to Japanese Friendship Rd next to Parliamnet. So I had to go 10 mins out of my way to drop this man off for his shift at a check point opposite parliament. By the time we got there, this policeman in his 50s, was asking me for my phone number and card. I pretended not to understand so he gave me a cheery wave and off I went. I like to persuade myself that he just wanted to arrange a regular lift to his duty spot.

When I told M he was absolutely furious. I was quite surprised. Took him half an hour to calm down. He was outraged that a policeman had arrogantly flagged down a car, because he could, and made a woman alone in a car, at night, drive him to his check point. Of course in the East they do this, the army flag you down and force you to carry them with their guns. you can't refuse, but if an LTTE saw you, you'd be for it. And vice versa. The LTTE do it too. It happened to a driver in my husband's NGO even though the vehicles have stickers saying "No Guns" What are you going to do? Say no??

I must admit I didnt think I had a choice, but as M pointed out if I just drove on, they wouldn't have shot at me! He didn't have a gun, I was in a busy built up area. I guess the fact that he was in uniform lulled me into a false sense of security. And that was how I got attacked 18 yrs ago in a church in Stuttgart, the guy I thought was the caretaker assaulted me, in broad daylight, in a church with several people looking around it. I was upstairs on the balcony looking down, he had a broom and a bunch of keys..... Bingo, fooled me. We found out, having reported it, he didn't work there, he wasn't the verger.

I know, I know, not in love with the place, but still a fool.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Arranged Marriage II

Maheswary's 'arranged marriage' plan got me thinking.

I think of my time in Sri Lanka a bit like (how I perceive) an arranged marriage. When the idea was 1st mooted, I had no interest whatsoever, didn't want to even consider it. I buried my head in the sand, pretended it wasn't happening. As time went on, however, and I realised this was a serious proposal, I thought, well maybe I should look at some photos, get an idea of what I am letting myself in for. My interest was caught a little, I even began a mild flirtation, but mostly it just seemd incredibly scary, too unknown, too crazy an idea.

How could I give up all I knew and loved to launch into the unknown? Would we be compatible, would I even like Sri Lanka, would there be any degree of mutuality? After all looks aren't everything, and much of Sri Lanka's beauty is only skin deep.

So once I had entered in to this 'arranged marriage' I discovered all of Sri Lanka's foibles, idiosyncracies, suppressed anger, ugliness. We have fought many battles, I have cried many tears, not just of frustration, there is much that I dislike, but also things that are endearing, and now make me smile and I think fondly 'Oh Sri Lanka'. I have settled into the familiar rhythms and routines.

It is true to say I have been changed by this partnership, but I still want to change so much in return. Too big a task for me. And perhaps that's not such a healthy attitude either.....

But am I in love? No, I cannot say I have fallen in love. However, I would say I have reached a state of contentment with my lot. And there's a lot to be said for contentment in a marriage.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Arranged Marriages 1

Our house helper, as I call her, for want of a better word wants my help. Everyone here says 'maid'. I just can't bring myself to do it. Domestic worker sounds like a euphemism to hide the fact that someone is doing a lousy, low status job (like Refuse Technicians) So house helper it is. Thanks to the Dutch community for that one.

She want sto go and live in England. She is 38, single, too poor to marry because her family can't afford a dowry, and in a boring, dead end job. She speaks and reads 3 languages, with 3 different alphabets, has A Levels, does the simultaneous translation of the service in Singhala at her church, and leads the choir. As I have always said, there's a bit more to her than the average househelp I have encountered here.

Oh, and she's Tamil. 3 yrs ago, the Danish family she worked for, offeed her the chance to go back to Denmark with them. She declined. I asked why. She said 'because things weren't so bad here then' She feels that as a Tamil, she has no future here, but certainly a whole load of insecurity and mistreatment on a daily basis. After the LTTE attack which took out ssomethign like 16 of the army's aeroplanes and then the Government's killing of the number 2 in the LTTE, security has once again increased.

So Maheswary has almost nightly visits from the police to her block of flats. Raids basically. They come between 12 and 3 in the morning. She has to get up , stand by her bed, and wait motionless whilst they go through her stuff (and her parents' and sister's whom she lives with) No they don' t have search warrants. This is a Tamil area. This is reason enough. Evidently.

So she has decided that I am her lifeline. It's a burden being the 'great white hope' but then who said 'with great wealth comes great responsibilty'? In Sri Lanka, we do have 'great wealth' comparatively. Everyone asks for help. M's tutuk driver said "Will you get me a job in England?". Our son's violin teacher said, when he heard I worked at his interantional school "Can you get me a job there please" That's how it works in this country, as long as you know the right person to pull strings, rules/laws etc are no object.

It all happened because Maheswary was entering the Green Card Lottery so I offered to pay for her flight in the (very) unlikley event that she was one of the lucky 50, 000 worldwide who won. She then said that actually she wanted to go to England where she has a cousin, and would I help with her flight?

Initially she wanted to go on a tourist visa (sh eknew she wd never get a work visa) and said that the Tamil church comunity have told her once there that they could help her get a work permit. I have spent hours explaining the immigration laws/visa requirements/work permit requirements etc. It is very hard to convince her that she's wrong, especially as she knows Sri Lankans who have, somehow, managed it. I explained that she wd be living illegally once the 3 mths were up and working illegally from the start. AND that England is hellishly expensive. We couldn't afford to sponsor her to live there for months. That's what the visa requires, to prove you won't become a 'public charge' . It really isn't that straightforward. And she would probably be considered a flight risk and refused a visa anyway.

I have scoured immigration/visa websites too looking for a way. The one way she could get in legally is to come in as our family's househelper on a domestic worker visa. If she worked continuously as a domestic worker for 5 yrs, she could apply for indefinite leave to remain. Otherwise with no sought after skills, no money to study there is no option. However we are not staying in the UK, but going to our next posting. (More of that post in another post....)

But she has not rested on her laurels. I take my hat off to her for her tenacity. She discovered a loop hole I didn't, when reading through the visa guidance forms I gave her. She is going to ask her cousin to arrnage a marriage for her. She says it has to be with a Tamil, a Christian, someone prepared to marry a 38 yr old non westernised Tamil etc. M thinks this is even more of a tenuous proposition than any of her other ideas. However she could then get into the UK legally on a tourist visa, marry and hopefully 'live happily ever after'. She would have had an arranged marriage here, and considers this the norm, even though not part of her religion. She would love to be married and has no chance here.

This has kept me awake at night. I so feel for her, and want to give her the chance of a new life. To live in peace, to be treated fairly, marry, settle down, have her own bathroom rather than sharing one with 50 others in her block. Normal aspirations. If only it were as simple as buying her a ticket....

Saturday, November 10, 2007

India for Beginners

Perspective is all. Having returned from India in more or less one piece, I see Sri Lanka with new eyes, at least from the point of view of living here. With my fresh perspective I now think it's a breeze (well only for a few wide-eyed moments) We thought, living in a 'watered down' version of India, we wouldn't find it too much of a culture shock. We did. Many things were very familiar, but we were amazed actually at the differences. Everything was so much more extreme. The poverty, pollution, traffic, dirt, roadside rubbish and congestion were SO much worse. there are far more beggars sleeping on the streets. Everywhere. Far worse disabilities. Far more persistent hassling. Every available public railing was turned into a place to dry clothes in Delhi and Jaipur. You could smell urine everywhere as you rode in tuktuks.

Yet the infrastructure, roads, trains, shopping malls were all so much better. It was a strange mix. Returning to Sri Lanka, the place seemed so calm, gentle and 'sane'. Of course we know this is so far from the truth in terms of the corruption, the war, the prejudices, the human rights abuses etc. But on the surface, the traffic is not as crazy, the pollution is less, the poverty is less extreme. I felt so thankful to live in Sri Lanka and not India. It took me a year to get used to 'here' as it was.

Our son was wowed by the Taj Mahal "I can't believe I'm here actually seeing the Taj Mahal. I must be dreaming" And for some reason he seemed to wow the India tourists.

After the 4th request for a photo of him with an Indian family he said to me

"See I told you I was famous"

"Yes all these years and I've never realised I wasliving with a celebrity " I replied.

"Well, actually I only found out myself yesterday" He admitted to me. On his arrival in India.

By the 8th request that day, and by the end of a 2 wk holiday, our 7 yr old was realising the onerous burden of fame. I don't know why Indian families wanted to pose with a complete stranger. Our daughter of course felt it was beneath her to oblige anyone.

We had a few hairy travel moments, beyond the usual travel by cycle rickshaw, camel etc. Our son flew off the 2AC bunk on one train trip ( a fall of about 5 ft) I'm glad we weren't in "3AC" which has three tiers of bunks... He nearly got run over in Delhi. A car brushed him, despite my borderline neurotic vigilance, as I yanked him out of the way. And he fell headlong on the uneven paving and gave himself an egg head. Hazards that shd have been familiar coming from Sri Lanka.

Whilst travelling in a car, we approached a level crossing as the bell was ringing and the barrier coming down. Our geriatric Dukes of Hazard taxi driver tried to 'shoot the barrier' but failed (I'm glad to say) So we sat with bonnet a little under the barrier waiting for the train to pass.. Meanwhile people continued to swarm across and motorcyclists limbo-ed under on their bikes, or got off leaning them over to crawl under. Not one of these people looked to left or right as they crossed. They obviously all knew they had a good 30 seconds in hand, after the barrier went down, before the train came.

At the airport I got stopped at security and discovered that I had left my Swiss Army Penknife in my rucksack which I was using as hand luggage. It was, of course, confiscated. This made my Clarins shower gel moment at Heathrow pale into insignificance. I have no idea why it was in the bag I was carrying round Delhi. Not such an Alpha mum that I was carrying it as a weapon to protect my children. Nor did I require the use of the corkscrew or hoof pick whilst shopping in Delhi. I think it was just one of those Girl Guide moments, a nebulous 'useful' thing to have in an emergencyto lull you into a false sense of security. "It'll be ok, I have my Swiss army penknife with me" Must be a product of my Famous Five reading childhood (as I never quite made it into the Girl Guides, actually).

Speaking of which our son consumed 6 Enid Blyton books whilst on holdiay which was very admirable, but I'm sure very bad for the digestion. He will no doubt now assume criminal tendencies in any person he sees who was unfortunate enough to be born with eyes 'too close together', not to mention telling his sister she can't help 'because this is boys' work and you're a girl'

Still just as well he had a few books, as everytime we waited at a station there were announcements saying a train was delayed. One announcement cited no less than 4 trains being late, the first 4 hrs, then 5 hours, one 7 hours, and the last, I kid you not, 9 hours late. The blow was softened by the announcer stating with pronounced sincerity and emphatic sorrow "The late arrival of this train is deeply regretted" Maybe she was speaking for the passengers rather than the Rail company....... Puts that ol' perspective on the lateness of British late trains though.

It did cross my mind to wonder what could possibly make a train 9 hours late, but then I remembered I was in India, and as we were beginning to find out. Anything can happen in India.....