Socialists Need High-End Electronics Too – Sri Lanka

Socialists Need High-End Electronics Too
Sri Lanka

You ever see the movie “Tears of the Sun”, the Bruce Willis vehicle where he saves people in Africa or something? Yeah, me neither, but I didn’t need to – I saw the trailer, and thus I saw the movie. The trailer, like all American Movie Trailers, showed basically the entire movie, beginning to end. I saw it with Charlie in the cinema a while back – he astutely noted that they had, in fact, showed particular restraint by not showing Bruce actually receiving the Medal of Honor in the end, nor had they rolled any of the closing credits, thus leaving at least some of the movie a mystery.

I discovered there is a reason for doing this, other than pure sadism: most Americans do not like surprises. It’s a well-researched fact. Why do you think McDonald’s rules the planet? You walk in one anywhere in the world, and you know exactly what you’re gonna get: heart disease.

Maybe that’s why it is not overly surprising that on April 16, 2005, I, Conor Grennan, American citizen, knew far more about the in-flight movie I was about to watch for the first time (Ocean’s Twelve) than about the country I was about to enter (Sri Lanka). For example, I could name at least nine actors in Ocean’s Twelve – the only people I knew for sure were in Sri Lanka were at least one Sri Lankan man in a straw hat and one elephant (if I was to believe the cover of the Lonely Planet). Perhaps this is not a surprise, when you consider that the marketing budget of Warner Brothers likely exceeds the entire GDP of Sri Lanka, let alone the budget of their tourist board. And also, I’m kind of a dumbass.

Nevertheless, I was excited, to say the least.

Whatever I might look forward to learning about Sri Lanka, it seemed that I would be learning it on my own. I was literally one of four white-skinned folks on the entire flight. Most people heading to Sri Lanka were, astonishingly enough, Sri Lankans. (This may seem self-evident, but I’d invite you to take a flight from London to a place like Bangkok, say in December, and note the ratio of tourists to Thais on that flight.)

For whatever reason, this fact made me somewhat self-conscious about being a tourist to the point where I made a feeble attempt to hide my guide book by throwing a packet of peanuts on top of it. I don’t know where this instinctive embarrassment came from – I don’t embarass easily. I am even less sure what in heaven’s name led me to believe that this furtive caching of the guide book would allow me to appear any less like an American tourist than if I had, say, taped it to my face and began barking the Pledge of Allegiance.

In spite of this groundless embarrassment, I found myself to be on a high (and thankfully a natural high, as you shall see shortly) about getting off the well-worn tourist route, at least for a time.
My education about Sri Lanka began on the 9.30 p.m. Cathay Pacific flight from Bangkok to Colombo. More specifically, it began when the air hostess handed me an Embarkation Card, to be filled out by all foreigners upon arrival.

(Let me pause for a minute here and relay to you why it took me a couple of minutes to even glance at this card: Cathay Pacific has one of the coolest in-flight features I’ve seen on an airplane. The video screen switches from a dull map of the region to a grainy black and white screen, like peering through night vision goggles. It takes a few moments to realize this video camera is mounted on the underside of the aircraft, and what you are seeing is the front wheel and the runway ahead. As you take off, you see the world speeding past you, slowly at first, then reaching a dizzying speed, just two meters above the ground. It gives the uncanny sensation that they had mounted some kind of helmet-cam on Superman, if Superman was afraid of heights, or perhaps had simply gotten his cape caught in the landing gear of a 727.)

The first lesson was that Sri Lanka was not simply “Sri Lanka.” It is officially known as The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. I didn’t like that name, not that anybody asked me. Hell, I didn’t even really understand that name, and I remind you I spent eight years working on public policy in post-communist nations. It conjured up images of downtrodden factory workers stepping into a voting booth, pulling the curtain behind them to ensure nobody could see their selection, pausing for a minute to contemplate the importance of the decision at hand, then checking the only box available: Socialist.

The name of the country, however, concerned me far less than the words in CAPITAL LETTERS on the left of the Embarkation Card. There were five points on this card, suggesting that before you entered the country, these were the five things you absolutely needed to know.

Of these Five Points, there were three that included phrases in CAPITAL LETTERS. Again, let’s pause to consider this. If there are going to be only five points, they’d better be pretty damn important, wouldn’t you say? And, on top of this, as an extra level of emphasis (think Orange Alert in the United States), if you are going to CAPITALIZE certain phrases, you are probably going to want to pay particular attention to which points you capitalize; I can assure you they will attract the most attention.

In this case, the Embarkation Card had curiously combined the rules for filling out the card itself with some fundamental bedrock laws of the country itself. If you were just going by the CAPS, your first impression of this country (perhaps already a little jittery knowing it contained the word Socialist) was the following:…..USE BLOCK CAPITAL LETTERS…..ONLY BLUE OR BLACK INK…..DEATH PENALTY.

That’s what you read upon first scanning the card – swear to god. And I can assure you that nothing gets you reading the small print faster than the idea that using the wrong color pen is going to end with you blindfolded against a wall with a cigarette in your mouth.

As it turned out, the DEATH PENALTY was thankfully reserved for slightly more severe offences, namely, the possession of narcotics. No wonder people weren’t flocking here. If Thailand, and especially the Full Moon party, was any indication, most backpackers that came here were probably strung up before they reached baggage claim.

I thankfully had no drugs in my possession, and was thus able to sleep soundly after that long day. The delayed flight only arrived sometime around one a.m. on April 17 (two a.m. my time) at Bandaranaike International Airport in the small town of Katunayake, 30 kilometers north of the capital, Colombo, west coast of Sri Lanka. I stumbled off the plane, completely groggy, my natural high faded into the ether. It was in that state, eyes half-closed, blindly following the herd, that I realized that the herd was breaking up. Several Sri Lankans were peeling off to the left, rather than following the corridor. Believing they would lead me to the Promise Land (read: the toilet), I followed that group, only to find myself suddenly and quite unexpectedly shopping for duty-free consumer electronics.

I cannot overstate how confused I was at that particular moment, being half asleep and suddenly wandering into a kind of Sri Lankan Circuit City – I can only try to illustrate it by relating the very first conversation I had in Sri Lanka, which took place in one of these strangely situated duty-free stores, at a volume that sent my ear drums burrowing deeper into my cranium in shock and fear.

“Hello sir!! Welcome! Come in! What are you looking for today? TV, yes? Where are you from?”

“Uh, America.”

“And what are you looking for? A TV, yes? We have flat screen models right here � the Samsungs are the top of the line, you cannot find them at this price in America, I can assure you!” his voice rising into a shrill.

“I don’t know…where is customs?”

“No problem with customs, sir!” he laughed heartily at this suggestion. “This is a duty-free item! Listen to the sound on this Samsung! It’s like being at the cinema! You like the cinema?!”

“Yes…no, I mean immigration, I’m actually looking for immigration…” I croaked.

“Don’t worry sir! You can’t miss immigration, it is just down this hallway!” he assured me in a reassuring tone. “We can deliver this TV to your address here, if you just…”

Let’s leave this good-natured yet painfully enthusiastic gentleman in mid-sentence for just one second – he is about to be interrupted anyway, so you’re not missing anything – and I will paint a picture of what I was seeing through my half-closed eyes.

Showing on the TV was a cricket match. I assume it must have been tape delayed, I was absolutely not interested. From what little I know of cricket, it is not a particularly loud or raucous sport, certainly not at moments like the one showing on the screen at this particular time. (Think Tiger Woods lining up a putt.) The bowler (pitcher) was just starting to make his run and heave the rock solid ball at the batsman, who was about to take a whack at it.

Simultaneously, I watched as super-imposed little green vertical lines were racing across the screen, left to right, indicating that this jovial salesman was still absent-mindedly turning up the volume (which of course had no effect, since the cricket stadium was silent), completely oblivious to what was happening.

The television, having reached its maximum volume, began to emit a low and dangerous hum, like the soft growl of a rottweiler. This drew the nice man’s attention away from the US Dollar signs in my eyes and back to the TV to see what was making this curious noise, a mere two feet behind him.

He turned around just in time to see the wooden bat make contact with a cricket ball. And at maximum volume on a top-of-the-line Samsung, this sounded less like the satisfying crack of wood and more like downtown Hiroshima, circa 1945.

I was ready for this, I had been watching it, but had been unable or unwilling to cough out a warning. My very first Sri Lankan friend, however, was not ready for it at all. So what he said next sounded like this:


I think I literally saw his hair blown back, but that may have been my imagination. He fumbled frantically for the volume control, while I took my leave. It was a rather dramatic entrance into this country. But it did serve to illustrate first-hand what I took as yet another important lesson: the Sri Lankan people are, to put it mildly, a hardy and enterprising people. Any peoples that can survive poverty and a civil war in the shadow of the world’s second largest population, and still come off an airplane at one a.m. ready to mortgage the farm on a home entertainment system, well, they’ve gotta be made of pretty powerful stuff.

On the other hand, any country whose immigration process starts with the hard sell of high definition TVs should seriously consider removing the word “Socialist” from government stationary.

You’ll thank me for it, Sri Lanka.

Read all of Conor’s adventures at: How Conor is Spending All His Money.