On the Shores of the Indian Ocean

OK, los amigos. so much world, so little time has been keeping notes for a few days now, trying to sort through the jungle of thoughts and impressions that are cropping up more quickly than cornfields in Iowa. As we near the end of week two, I’ve decided to call a halt to it and just throw them all up here on the blog, so they can ooze down into your consciousnesses like a Pollock painting. I’ll caption the photos that I’ve thrown in purely for visual relief now, so you know what you’re reading around if indeed you read any of the text. Last Sunday (the day after Chuck’s birthday; happy birthday, biggest bro – did you get all my voice mails?), I went with two colleagues from MSF-Spain (who are also trying to start up relief work here) to a really glorious beach resort just south of town, and we lay around like slobs reading and sleeping for the whole afternoon. Coming after a lovely yoga class, this was a great way to remove myself from the traffic and other joys of Colombo’s streets, and recharge my mental batteries for the week to come.So people seem to want updates from Colombo. At the start, let me say that if you’d like an idea of the general situation, and of the needs we’re trying to address, check out the World Food Program, UNHCR, and ICRC websites: they seem to be updated fairly regularly and give basic facts that’ll interest you. Since this is my personal blog site, I don’t really talk about the work we’re doing here – it’ll be my own reactions to life in Colombo.

One week on and I’m finding the differences between Colombo and Beijing fascinating. I really love the opportunity to switch so rapidly, from a pretty established pattern and life in Beijing, through a glorious vacation in Malaysia, to what’s rapidly becoming a fairly established life and pattern in Colombo. The opportunities for comparisons and learning more about the world and how people shape their lives, and cities, and countries…well, it’s just incredibly rich for me. So much more rich, I think, than if I’d gone back to the US between assignments, for example: that more or less makes the US the comparison ground for one’s impressions of the rest of the world, and that’s just all wrong since of course the US is so out of the mainstream, in terms of how most of the world lives.

My friend Bart in Holland opined, when I told him I’d be coming to Sri Lanka, that he was glad I was finally going somewhere that really needs MSF, or something of that general tenor. I’d been laboring under the impression that Sri Lanka was actually ahead of China on most development indicators; this impression came from my correct sense that Sri Lanka’s healthcare situation is generally quite good. Indeed it is better than China’s for the broad mass of citizens so far as I’m able to tell (health care and insurance more broadly available, not a whole lot of endemic diseases of the sort that afflict millions around the world each year, like TB, AIDS and malaria). But – much as an MSF volunteer might wish it so – a country’s health stats don’t necessarily predict its development status: Sri Lanka lags rather behind China on indicators like per capita GDP and so on. Though it is well ahead of all the other South Asian nations, as far as I can tell.

But consider a few random factoids I’ve perceived: ATMs and credit cards are way more common in Colombo than Beijing. Why? Is the banking system just more open – yes, banking in China is a Byzantine, insane nightmare – or is it just a different path of development? There are far more “mixed” supermarkets here than in China: even in Beijing, you find cheese, pasta, cornflakes and other “western” foods only at the select “western” supermarkets; here just about every market has at least a few such basics. Why? I don’t think there are that many more expats here, really. Are these tastes inherited from Colombo’s colonial days? Lord knows Sri Lanka is blessed with a magnificent indigenous cuisine (when next you see me, I shall be completely round!), but perhaps the average Joe here appreciates variety a bit more than the average Jane in China? And finally, my favorite indicator: not many bicycles in Colombo, as opposed to every Chinese city I’ve ever been in (well, except Chongqing which is too hilly). Don’t know if cars and 3-wheelers per capita are more or fewer here than in China, but in Colombo the motor-vehicle to bicycle ratio is wayyyy higher than Beijing! I think this is a pity – yet, however much Beijing’s streets scared me as a bicyclist, Colombo’s seem a bit scarier.

And not just because of the occasional car bombing. In fact, mostly NOT because of that. 18 months in China quite thoroughly numbed me to worries about the many times a vehicle I was in came within two centimeters of another moving vehicle, and it’s a good thing since that happens, if anything, even more often here! But I’m not yet quite used to all the gun-toting soldiers on street corners (they don’t seem trained to point those things down at the ground…and when the car I’m in drives past in such a way that it’s pointing directly at me, I always wonder “does that gun have a safety? Is it engaged?”), or the sandbagged entrances to important government buildings or residences. Turns out while I was sunning myself in Malaysia there was a car-bombing aimed at the Pakistani High Commissioner, on August 14 (google search: Pakistani High Commissioner Colombo).

My appointed rounds occasionally take me past this spot, and I wish I could find a security-conscious (read: I’m not really sure I’m allowed to take, let alone post, a picture of this) way to take a picture of this spot: there’s sort of the burned shell of a small tree on the sidewalk, and on the wall of the building right next to where it happened, there’s a splatter pattern of pockmarks (seems they packed the bomb with pellets or something of the sort) for quite a wide radius. Then there’s the really lovely restaurant I ate in last week after a movie with a (new, non-MSF) friend. The next day, out with another (new, non-MSF – aren’t I little Joe Popular!) friend, I found out that it’s directly across the street from where a breakaway faction headed by a former high-ranking LTTE guy has set up office. (They’re supported by the government, so they can have an office in Colombo.) Now, a brief reading of the past 30 years of Sri Lanka’s history tells us that the LTTE is a bit like the mafia, in that you don’t sign up then sign out like a gym club membership. Then you add the fact that this breakaway faction (google search: Karuna faction) has been fighting the LTTE for a few years now – well, basically, many feel it’s just a matter of time until another car bomb goes off trying to target someone from that office. Result: not so much for that lovely restaurant any more. Moral: one moves on to new restaurants here for different reasons than one does in NYC.

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