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  Sri Lanka Journals  
Each member of the Commonway Team wrote personal journal entries of our journey in Sri Lanka.  What follows are words and pictures of  our journey.
Sharif Abdullah's Journals: DJ Mitchell's Journals Christine Harbaugh's Journals
     
BANDARAGAMA - DAYS TWO AND THREE: 
Sri Lanka Journal # 1

(This entry is delayed by several days: the radio phone in Bandaragama is broken, so I am sending this on my return to Sarvodaya’s headquarters in Moratuwa.)

I’ve got a rare evening alone.  I just finished hand washing my handkerchiefs (main use for handkerchiefs: napkins at mealtime.  When you are eating rice curry with your hands, napkins are important -- at least to me.  Napkins seem as unknown to Sri Lankans as silverware.)

[NOTE:  A Sri Lankan expatriate took offense by the above remark.  My intention was not to disparage Sri Lankan eating habits.  That Sri Lankans have different eating habits from Europeans is a fact; whether or not one chooses to feel superior (or inferior) does not change those facts. For more on this, please see my book, "Creating a World That Works for All", where I discuss culture, eating habits and inclusivity.]

I’ve been involved in non-stop vision sessions with Sarvodaya’s leadership since my arrival on Sunday.  Day One was an all-day session with Vinya Ariyaratne, the new Executive Director of Sarvodaya and son of A.T. Ariyaratne.  (I had a very brief meeting with Ari on Sunday, before he left for a donor’s meeting in Europe.)

Yesterday and today was a day and a half session with Sarvodaya senior managers, the new management team that Vinya has put in place.  Also today, I started meeting with the District Coordinators -- that meeting will continue through tomorrow afternoon.  Then, back to headquarters.

The Sarvodaya training center here at Bandaragama, about 45 minutes ride from headquarters in Moratuwa, is a wonderful retreat facility, a really pleasant setting to conduct in-depth discussions on the future of the organization.

The War:

The main topic of all of the discussions and visioning exercises is the war.  Now that everyone understands the importance of ending the war, that economic and social  development in the context of a shooting war is impossible, we have been engaged in an analysis of the conflict and identification of practical and spiritual steps to take that will make violence impossible and peace a reality.

The Rats:

By now, most of you are familiar with my “rats in the cage” experiment. Put two rats in a large cage with adequate food and water.  The rats will co-exist peacefully.  Then, send an electric shock through the metal floor of the cage.  The rats will attack each other.  They know nothing about the forces that are causing their pain; all they know is that they are suffering and there is another rat in the cage.

Sarvodaya’s leadership is well aware that the forces that pit the Tamil and Sinhalese rats against each other are more complex than ethnicity. The history of colonialism, the oppressive living conditions of the underclass (in both groups), the erosion of the village structure, the effects of globalization and the spread of urbanization -- all these unite to make a powerful electric shock to the system.

The Solutions:

The forces of separation and violence are powerful, more powerful than simplistic solutions that we should “just love each other”.  Today I led Sarvodaya’s management in a fifty-year “future scan”, to envision the post-war future for the island.  Then, I asked them to conduct a twenty year “future scan” for Sarvodaya: how must the organization change to create the optimal post-war scenario?

Any and all solutions must serve to reduce or eliminate the electric shocks to our rats in the cage.  People can and will learn to live together and coexist.  The only question is whether they will do this before any further blood is shed.

Peace,

Sharif Abdullah

     
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INTO THE WAR ZONE: 
Sri Lanka Journal # 2

Sarvodaya’s senior leadership, in consultation with the District Coordinators for the northern districts, has determined that the shooting has subsided enough for us to visit the war zone.  We leave this coming weekend.

We leave the relative safety of the West and South on Friday evening, spend the night at Anuradhapura in the North Central Province.  Saturday morning, we go to Amarivayal, the northernmost village in government hands.  We will be about a kilometer from the most recent fighting, and will be able to literally walk into Tamil Tiger country.  We will spend the night in the province, since the roads are in Tiger hands at night.

Vietnam Revisited

During the day, the government controls the roads, and about fifty feet on either side of the road.  The Tamil Tigers control everything else. The government controls the cities, towns and villages during the day; the Tigers run them at night, with the government troops bunkered down into their perimeters.  Although the government claims to hold a “line” that the Tigers recently pushed ten miles southward in their assault, the reality is that the Tigers operate freely hundreds of miles south of the government “line”.

The “Hearts and Minds” of the Villagers

As I have stated before, neither the government nor the Tigers have clean hands in this dirty ethnic/civil conflict.  Both sides use the villagers as pawns in their campaign against the other.  One of many examples:  the Tigers force the Tamil villagers at gunpoint to pay “taxes” to the Tigers.  The government troops then come along and imprison the same villagers for “aiding and abetting” the Tigers.

Another example:  the government will appropriate a farmer’s land, set up a base, ring it with land mines, then move to another base -- leaving the mines behind.

Both the government and the Tigers seem to be in a race to see who can lose the “hearts and minds” of the villagers and destroy their own credibility.
 
 

Conflict Resolution -- Up Close and Personal

As many of you know, I do not hold any university degrees in conflict resolution.  My only experience is in actually resolving conflict, not studying it.  Commonway’s “theory” of conflict resolution is definitely evolving as we are actually engaged in the process of resolving conflict.  (This could be another way of saying that we make up this shit as we go along, but I would never say anything like that.)

I say this because I definitely had ideas about what would “work” in Sri Lanka while sitting in my office in Portland, Oregon.  Now, sitting in Sri Lanka, still hundreds of miles from the War Zone, I know that my idea about having American “peace witnesses” carrying webcams would never work in Sri Lanka, for dozens of reasons, logistical, psychological, practical and otherwise.  And, some things that would have never come to me in Portland are being readied for testing here.

In short, conflict resolution can be studied only after you have resolved a conflict.  Peace-making and peace-talking are two very different things.

We are going where no other Westerners are venturing.  All Western aid groups have ordered their personnel out of the area.  There is a censorship blanket over the northern part of the territory, so no news crews will be filming footage in the areas.  (And, as we unfortunately know, Sri Lanka is one of the 70+ wars that the American-dominated news media pays scant attention to.)

The only reason that we will be able to go is the high esteem enjoyed by Sarvodaya on both sides of the conflict.  Sarvodaya vehicles are not searched at military checkpoints.  Sarvodaya workers are allowed into areas where others are turned back.  And, most importantly, Sarvodaya’s local Coordinators, who will accompany us on our trek, are well known to both sides of the conflict.

As supporters of an organization pledged to Gandhian principles, it would be bad publicity for either side to kill us.  Our biggest danger is from the weapons that are indiscriminate -- stray bullets in a firefight and the ubiquitous land mine.

Our entire trip will take five days.  We are not taking computers with us, not the least because there are no phone lines that work in the North.   I will check back in immediately upon my return to Sarvodaya, to let you know that I’m in one piece.

Peace,

Sharif

 

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MEN WITH GUNS -- AND ARTILLERY: 
Sri Lanka Journal # 3

Greetings;

We learned so much, experienced so much on our journey around the island, it will take awhile to process all of it.  Here is a bit of it:

Visiting a Village
The first Northern village we visited consisted of a dozen visible houses, ranging from brick to mud, about a mile down a deeply rutted dirt road. Before proceeding down the road, Our host, Manel, the Sarvodaya District Coordinator in Padawiya, stops and speaks to  people on the roadside.  Getting back in the truck, he says, “No terrorists now.  It’s safe.”  Will it be safe later, when we leave the village?  He shrugs.


Sharif, Manel and village elders

Our stopping was an occasion for the entire village of fifty to turn out, starting with the little children, then the adults, finally two of the village elders, both white-haired men who had an air of dignity that made their sarongs look like the dress of royalty.

Glasses of water were offered by a very serious young man carrying a tray.  As I very slowly reached for mine, I sent an inquisitive glance to Manel.  “It’s good.  Deep well”.  The deep wells in most of the small villages have been dug by labor organized by Sarvodaya.  Their depth makes the water drinkable without boiling.  My glass tasted great on a hot day.

[NOTE:  I also learned that you do not have to drink the water offered; it is both practical and symbolic.]

As we were talking and more villagers started gathering, I noticed one tallish man standing toward the back, carrying what looked like an Eastern European assault rifle.  The hair on the back of my neck went up.  I was trying to find a way to get Manel to notice him, then I remembered:  the four of us were probably the only people in the immediate area who spoke English.  “Manel, there’s a guy over there with an assault rifle.  Should we be concerned?”

Manel looked.  “No.  He’s Home Guard.”  Since the LTTE attacks on the northern villages, the government has been arming a few men in each village with small arms, enough to discourage or perhaps slow down an LTTE attack.  This may allow the military to hear the shooting and respond in time to save the village.  Of course, with no electricity and no telephones, it is difficult to determine which villages are under attack.  And, there is nothing that prevents LTTE fighters from slipping between villages and attacking those more in the interior.
 


And, as the Home Guard moves to the front and shyly poses for a photo, I cannot help but wonder if this short-term solution will lead to long-term problems.  If 128,000 troops cannot contain and defeat the reported 5,000 LTTE fighters, I don’t see how arming a few thousand volunteer villagers will do anything besides hardening the hearts on all sides.

We indicate that it’s time for us to go.  Two of the villagers begin to talk rapidly to Manel.  “They’re making us tea,” he says.  I calculate how long we will be in the region if we have tea at every stop.  We reluctantly decline and move on.

A Roadside Interview
We are leaving a refugee camp, on the way to another, when Manel honks down an oncoming vehicle.  He explains that it is the government Education Director, Mr.  P. K. Wilson.  Both vehicles pull over and we have an impromptu meeting with Mr. Wilson between two lushly green rice paddies.

As we are discussing the difficulty of educating children when all of the local schools have been converted into refugee centers, we are interrupted by a sound like abrupt thunder on a cloudless day. “Artillery”, says Manel, matter of factly.  The sound is clearly to the south of us.

What do you do when you realize that you are standing in the open, north of the line of engagement, technically in LTTE territory, with artillery shells flying overhead?

You finish your interview, pose for pictures, then visit another refugee camp.  What else would you do?  Run for a place of safety?  We left safety far back, 150 miles back in Colombo.  (Even that safety is false:  while we were conducting our interview underneath an artillery barrage,  Sarvodaya workers barely missed being blown up in an attack on a bank in downtown Colombo.)

The Refugee Camps

There are about nine refugee camps in the area, serving about 1,850 families, just under 10,000 people.  Their villages have been overrun and occupied by LTTE fighters in the recent wave of violence in the northern regions we are visiting.

The camps are on the campuses of the elementary schools that dot the area.  This of course closes down the schools.  The authorities are trying to move the families so that the schools can function once again.  They move the refugees on to encampments made of huts that the refugees themselves construct.  The government provides corrugated metal for the roof and some land -- the rest is up to the villagers.  (Since the skills of building are still in the village, most of the huts go up in no time.)

We stop at the first refugee camp, an elementary school campus with 3 or 4 buildings of open-sided classes.  All of the desks and chairs have been piled up outside in the rain, to make room for the families of Maha________- village.  They can’t go home right now.  The Tamil Tigers are the unwanted guests in their village.

Plastic sheeting and woven palm mats provide privacy for the families. A row of outhouses behind the school provides sanitation.

As soon as we stop, our vehicle is immediately mobbed by curious children.  For young people who have never seen a television, we must be very entertaining.  Three giants, two of them white.  Everyone, including the youngest ones, stare with unflinching eyes at us (except for the teenage girls, who break into uncontrollable giggles.) Within minutes, we are the epicenter of the camp, with hundreds of people of all ages staring at us, not with hostility but with curiosity and eagerness to connect.

We meet the head of the camp, inspect the rice stores, examine the common kitchen, an open fire in the back of a building, with a big kettle for rice on the fire and 3 or 4 women cutting an amazingly small amount of vegetables for a curry.  Forty kilos of rice per meal feeds the families.  As we move, the bubble of humanity moves with us.

We want pictures, but are very self-conscious about pulling out our cameras.  We ask Manel if it is okay for us to shoot a few pictures.  He looks at us uncomprehendingly for a few seconds.  “Sure.  Why not?”  As I start shooting, with the residents gazing directly into my lens, I realize that Sri Lankans in general do not have self-conscious hang-ups about being photographed (except of course the teenage girls, whose giggles have reached epidemic proportions.  A few threaten to implode from giggling.)


Young and old in the refugee camp

I also realize that we are doing for the villagers what the rest of the world is NOT doing:  acknowledging their existence.  I doesn’t matter whether or not we see how much rice they have, or how they cook their meals.  What matters is that these foreigners got into a vehicle to come to see THEM.  For a few moments, their pain is acknowledged, their suffering seen, their determination and dignity felt, their hopes for themselves and their children shared.


Christine with village woman at refugee camp.

We are the only Westerners for a radius of perhaps twenty miles or more.  The Western aid workers pull out of active conflict zones (the local residents are not so fortunate).  A Sarvodaya worker refers to them as the “parachute” aid workers:  “they drop in when things are safe, spend a day looking around, then write their reports back in their air-conditioned hotel rooms in Colombo.”
 

Men with guns -- and Artillery
[NOTE:  Some people did not catch my reference to “Men with Guns”.  This is the title to a John Sayles movie about death and conflict in Central America.  It is a very moving story, very difficult to watch, with parallels to all armed conflicts everywhere.]

We’re going to bed to the sounds of artillery, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire.

I’m awake at night, walking outside in the pitch-blackness of a night without electricity, hearing rifle fire, probably within 200 yards. Artillery sounds more distant -- I guess five miles.  The rocket-propelled grenades sounding like deadly fireworks are much closer -- sounds like just down the road.

Manel says: “No danger from artillery; they’re shooting over our heads. Only danger when they miss.”  He grins.

The small arms fire comes from all around:  North, South, East and West.  There is no front line.

End

     
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  EXORCISTS AND MEDITATIONS: 
Sri Lanka Journal # 4

Howdy--

This is a really quick email re the last two days.  I haven’t been getting much sleep.

THE EXORCISM
The village exorcism was great!  We arrived in Bandaragama village on Saturday around 9:00 pm; the "Tovil" ceremony was just starting.  The village doctor, two dancers and two drummers were just getting started.  They had constructed elaborate altars out of fresh palm; one to the spirits, one to the gods, one to Buddha.

About 50 villagers present, swelling to 100 or more when things got started.  The doctor stopped chanting to smile and wave when we came in.  (Two of us had a “treatment” with the doctor two days before; that’s how we got invited.)

The exorcism is performed on a person or family that has been experiencing misfortune or mental/spiritual problems.  They are not frequent.  As one observer kept leaning over to remind me, “You are very lucky to be here”.

The exorcism itself is part spirit work, part cultural exhibition, part village dance and a big dose of comedy mixed in.  There was one possession that took place while we were there, the head of the family went into trance, with wild dancing, screams, other voices, etc.  He passed out after about 10 minutes.  I was told that this process would repeat itself into the early morning hours, becoming more and more serious with each possession.

One event:  I want to take pictures, but don’t know if it’s appropriate.  I take two quick ones.  The main drummer turns and gives me a scowl, then says something to one of the attendants.  Sure enough, the attendant comes over to one of the people in my group and speaks to him in Sinhalese.  My friend turns to me and says, “The drummer worked very hard on these altars.  He wants you to take his picture.”

The drummer has positioned himself in front of the largest altar, still wearing his fierce scowl.  I stand to take the picture.  “Get closer!” I walk right into the center stage and snap two pictures.  The drummer speaks to my friend.  “He says to tell you he is full happy now.”

During a break, the village doctor steers us to front row, center stage.  He is very happy to see us, and we go into a back area for tea and sweet dark cakes.

The early parts of the evening were pretty funny, by design.  One drummer dresses up as a demon, with demon mask, wild hair and a reindeer sweater like your aunt would wear.  Accompanied by wild drumming, he goes climbing around the altars, swinging through the trees, with fire, explosions, etc.  He then calms down and starts an Abbott and Costello dialog routine with the village doctor, while everybody is rolling with laughter.  Once in awhile the demon rushes out into the crowd, chasing the little kids who are screaming and laughing at the same time.

I have experienced spirit work in North and Central America, Africa and Asia.  There are many similarities to the village exorcism experience. However, I have never seen the use of humor and comedy as an integral part of a serious matter as expelling evil spirits from a person or house.  This deserves further study.

We leave around 2:00 am, since the Peace Meditation is the next day.  We try sneaking out to not make a scene.  The village doctor stops the exorcism, comes over to help us find our sandals, and walks us to our vehicle, with half the participants, to see us off.

THE PEACE MEDITATION
With a total of three hours sleep, we’re off to Kegalle for the regional Peace Meditation.  (It’s billed as a Peace March, but most participants come by bus.)  I want to go to sleep, but I’m riding with Vinya Ariyaratne, who has just come back from a week in Europe and wants to have a conference about donors and strategic planning.  My mind is numb.

After a wonderful lunch with a Sarvodaya supporter, we arrive at the large park next to a Buddhist temple.  The park is a sea of brown people in white clothes.  I estimate about 10,000, making it a reasonable size for this regional gathering.

After going about 20 feet, Ari spots my sandals and tells me to take them off and leave them in the car.  I have VERY tender feet -- the prospects of walking across this expanse of gravel in bare feet is daunting.  The stage looks like its about five miles away.  The sacrifices one makes for peace...

Ari’s entourage of 30 goes to an ancient chapel on the grounds of the temple, a tiny room with a figure of a Buddha in it.  It is one of the oldest Buddhist shrines on the island.  Ari offers a plate of white flowers, we offer prayers and we then move on to the stage.

The stage is a raised part of the park.  The central platform is flanked on both sides by about 40 orange-clad monks.  Sarvodaya banners flutter in the light breeze.  Behind the podium is the Sarvodaya leadership, including his son Vinya and his wife, and “honored guests”, including me.  Ari has a cushion to himself at stage left; the emcee is standing at stage right.

As the emcee is introducing the event, Ari turns around and motions for me to join him on his cushion.  I decline, indicating I am comfortable where I am.  He gestures again.  I get up, probably my most conspicuous moment ever.  10,000 faces, all wondering, “Who the hell is this guy?”

Vinya is introduced, and gives a short speech in Sinhalese and English, from the emcee’s mike.  Then Ari is introduced.  He takes center stage, abandoning me on the cushion.

Ari conducts the guided meditation in Sinhalese and English.  About halfway through, the skies open up and the rains come down.  All of the monks on-stage whip out umbrellas (what else do they have under those robes?).  Ari is offered an umbrella; he refuses.  For both of us.  A great opportunity to practice mindfulness.  I set my mind on wanting what I was getting.

I am trying hard not to fidget.  I am helped by the images of the war from my recent journey north; there are people dying, people homeless, yet I can’t sit still for 60 minutes for peace.  I will my body to calm down.

After the meditation, Ari speaks for another 10-15 minutes on the course of the meditation movement (more details on this in a later message). He admonishes the crowd for carrying umbrellas; “Because you brought umbrellas, it rained!  Next time, don’t bring them.”  The monks look very sheepish.

They sing a song in Sinhalese, then file out.

During the meditation, no one has spoken, no applause, no demonstrations, a model of self-discipline.  One very startling note: it appears that the crowd was 75-80% women.  This is consistent with the first march of 170,000+.   This may be the Sarvodaya secret weapon: that women will stop the war that the men have started.

Peace,

Sharif

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INTO THE LAND OF SERENDIB: 
SRI LANKA JOURNAL # 5

It’s frustrating.  I feel like we’re missing some key ingredient, some essential that will make sense of this picture.

How can such sweet, kind, smiling people, in a shockingly beautiful country, be at war with themselves?

A village boy... a future soldier??









We’ve left the war-ravaged villages and rice paddies of the North to climb into the hill country surrounding Kandy, the last of the Sri Lankan Kingdoms to fall to European colonialism.

We take winding (very winding!) roads clinging to the sides of steep mountains, painted deep, vivid green by the terraced rice paddies stepping down to the river valleys running below.  The houses of the paddy workers also cling to the sides of those hills, far from any roads and a very steep walk home.  In some places, the paths down are so steep that they consist of tall steps -- and those have switchbacks!  Up above, the clouds hug the tops of the mountains, and waterfalls tumbling down complete the picture of this paradise.

I see a farmer, thigh deep in rich, black mud, leading a brace of water buffaloes in tilling a very small paddy hugging the mountainside. Others are planting the young green rice shoots, or walking the paths on some errand in a land where it is impossible to hurry.

We stop for photos of a particularly striking valley.  Our vehicle is instantly surrounded with children -- the valley is so steep I can’t see where they’ve come from.  They aren’t begging or asking for anything: they are just looking at us with the direct, wide-eyed intense stare that we’ve come to get expect in Sri Lanka.  After the first few photos, the village adults start showing up.  We stop, bow, smile and get back in the vehicle before someone starts making tea!

The Arab sailors who first encountered this island called it Serendib -- “the land of happy surprising occurrences”.  It’s where the word “serendipity” comes from.  So what is this war about?

This war goes deeper than the obvious military conflict between the government troops and LTTE.  That is more symptomatic than causative. An indicator of how deep the internal war goes is the amazingly high suicide rate on this island, one of the highest in the world.  There is something about the Sri Lankan spirit that is at war with itself.

In Sri Lanka, one does not see hoards of angry, disaffected, gun-toting youth, like in America’s cities.  Sri Lanka does not have a culture that glorifies a warrior mentality, like the Maori or Samurai culture in Japan. What one finds are hoards of beautiful, smiling women, equally beautiful men, living in a paradise unsurpassed in its beauty. So what gives?

While traveling in Sri Lanka, I can't help but make comparisons to another beautiful island:  Bali.  Both islands are exquisitely beautiful, with wonderful people, gorgeous landscapes, and a deep spiritual tradition.  But  there is a transcendental quality that exists in Bali that I find strangely  elusive in Sri Lanka.  There is a peacefulness, a sleepiness, a timeless quality in Bali.  I would be willing to bet that Bali has one of the lowest suicide rates on the planet; I know that Sri Lanka has one of the highest.

Why?  Why does Sri Lanka harbor the intractable war, while Bali remains relatively immune to the issues that wrack the rest of Indonesia?

Religion

One thing may be the Balinese religion, an amazing blend of many different  currents, from Hindu to Buddhist to indigenous.  This is not a spectator religion, but is actively practiced by the entire population.   The high priests don't seem to have some staked out theological ground, a turf to protect.  The women weaving the temple offerings, the men involved in the kechak dance or the gamelan playing, the children watching the shadow  puppets, all in the context of the temple ceremony, each plays an integral part in the spiritual fabric of the society.  In Bali, near-constant spiritual ceremonies are an integral part of the economic, cultural and  social life of a village.

Is this the missing link?  When I attended the village exorcism in Sri Lanka, I asked how often there were ceremonies like this in a village. "You are very lucky to see one" was the answer.

Perhaps the coherent, cross-theological spiritual base in Bali creates the community-supporting conditions in what Dr. Ariyaratne calls the “psychosphere”.  Perhaps Sri Lanka’s indigenous spirituality can serve as a common thread to weave together the war-torn society.

Food

Another factor may be that Bali can feed itself, while Sri Lanka does not.  Sri Lanka is a net rice importer; Bali, with its near-miraculous three rice harvests per year, exports more rice than its populace eats.

As we are driving, we see huge bags of rice balanced on the backs of bicycles pedaled down the road.  The names printed on the sacks of rice are Vietnam, China, India... and yes, Bali.

I am told that the leading reason given for suicide among males is a failed rice harvest (in other words, economic stress).  What would happen if Sri Lanka’s poorest, most vulnerable population had “enough”? Would that be enough to return the serendipity to Serendib?

Peace,

Sharif

 

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REFLECTIONS ON THE JOURNEY: 
SRI LANKA JOURNAL #6

 THE SRI LANKA AIRPORT

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.”

IN TRANSIT

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.

IN BAHRAIN

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!))

IN LONDON

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.

IN PORTLAND

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.

Peace,

Sharif

 

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