"Notes from the Field": 
   Journal Entry # 6: 
Reflections on the Journey  




It’s amazing that most Americans have never been through a real security check.  The security at most US airports is to screen out loonies. (Given our population, that’s a full-time job.)

Security at Sri Lanka airport is the tightest I’ve seen anywhere. Troops with mirrors on wheels with long handles, to check the undercarriage of every vehicle that pulls up with passengers.  Every passenger gets out, along with all luggage, for a vehicle inspection. This is a block away from the terminal.

This of course does not apply to Sarvodaya.  In general, Sarvodaya vehicles and personnel are not inspected at checkpoints.  As we pull up to be inspected, my driver says, “Stay in car”.  He gets out, shows his Sarvodaya credentials, then begins a conversation with the soldier on his side.

The soldier on my side has other ideas.  “Get out,” he says.  This time, the intense Sri Lankan stare is backed up by an automatic rifle.  His finger is on the trigger.  I open the door and step out.

“No, no, no,” the other soldier and my driver come around to my side, my driver pushes me back into the seat, the soldier closes my door. “Sorry, sorry” the other soldier says, then turns to have a conversation in Sinhalese with Mr. Intensity.  My driver gets back in and we’re off. I smile and wave at Mr. Intensity -- hopefully interpreted as “No hard feelings” and not “Screw you, buddy.”


I’m riding in the cargo hold of a 747 filled with one of Sri Lanka’s most abundant exports:  young women, teens to twenties, destined to be housekeepers in wealthy homes in the Middle East, or, if they are lucky, Europe.  I’m one of the few men in the airplane.

I ask the young lady sitting next to me where she is headed.  “Cyprus”, she says in flawless English, “I was very fortunate.”  Probably because of her English, she will make twice as much as some of the other girls on the plane,  almost $500 per month, as opposed to $250 per month for work in Saudi Arabia.  I mentioned that I thought the Saudis were rich. “Yes,” she said, smiling, “that’s how they stay that way.”

I tried to do the math in my head:  600 girls, sending back home an average of $300 per month -- what does that do for the Sri Lankan economy?  How many planes like this take off from Sri Lanka every month?

There are probably a lot of housekeeper flights.  One indication was that the airport officials in Bahrain, our transfer point, were READY to handle several hundred terrified girls.  “CYPRUS!” bellowed a huge man in an airport uniform.  He held up his hand as the girls destined for Cyprus gathered around him.  Another yelled, “OMAN!”  Still a third screamed “EUROPE HERE!”  A fourth scanned plane tickets as they exited the escalator, and gave them a smile and a gentle shove in the right direction.  (The escalator seemed to be the most daunting part of the journey for the girls.  They handled an international plane flight, but apparently no one told them about the moving stairs.  There was an airport official to pull them onto the escalator, then another at the top to turn them around -- they were looking at where they had been -- and pull them off.)

As I was exiting the transit area, I spotted my former seat companion in a long line waiting to be processed.  I gave her a smile and a “good luck!”  She smiled back, the confident smile of someone facing an unknown that promises to be better than what has been known.


Because we missed our connection to London, I had to spend a night in Bahrain.  I was really disappointed -- it’s a very bland, modern city, what a city would look like if you staffed the planning department with bankers.  I was looking for Arab culture; I got the culture of money.  I asked the desk clerk at the hotel the location of cultural spots.  “We have six mega-malls, two in walking distance!” she said enthusiastically.  What about Arab culture?  “Stay in your room and watch it on television,” she suggested.

(I actually tried that: lots of Arab culture on television -- but broadcast from nearby Saudi Arabia.  Bahrain really does seem culturally inert.  (I’m sure I’ll hear from some Bahrainis who will take issue with me on this!))


Overheard between two first-class passengers while waiting to take my seat:  “We want to hold the meeting in a secure location.  No one wants another Seattle.”

Interesting if “Seattle” becomes a metaphor for processes out of control, like “Los Angeles” is a metaphor for urban growth out of control, or “Calcutta” for poverty.


I’ve got a coat and hat on, yet everyone is saying how warm it is.  The Sun is at an oblique angle, literally 45 degrees to the south, yet it’s noon.  In the morning, the blades of grass in my yard crunch underfoot, having been frozen the night before -- how would I explain this to people who have never experienced frost?  The holidays are in full swing -- but no butter lamps, no Bodhi trees, no roadside Ganeshas peering out from their shrines.  Lots of “Peace on Earth - Goodwill to Men” -- but in my mind is the distant thunder of artillery.

It’s good to be back with friends and familiar places.  But, right now, Portland seems like the foreign country.


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