“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” ― Blaise Pascal, Pensées
On April 28, 2014, I wrote an article titled “Is a Passport Necessary for the Queen of England, US President, and the Pope to Travel Abroad?” After reading it, my friend Joe Croos, a constant reader of my posts, now living in Germantown, Maryland, USA, forwarded me the following hilarious piece of writing sent to him by his friend Tony Rajanayagam.
Neither Tony nor Joe knows who the original author of this article is. Obviously he must be a Sri Lankan.
I enjoyed reading every word of this sarcastic, thought-provoking dissertation, and wish to share it with you.
I have used my editorial discretion, to strike out two phrases in the first paragraph which, though hilarious might seem objectionable to a few. Also, I have added images to spruce up the presentation.
There are three things in the world that are of no use to anyone, viz. a man’s breast, a priest’s balls,, and a Sri Lankan passport. The uselessness of the third item becomes absolutely clear when one tries to apply for a visa to go abroad.
Today, international travel for a bona fide traveler from Sri Lanka is fraught with unbelievable red-tape, undesirable paperwork and unforeseeable pitfalls. It is, for example, much easier for the proverbial camel to go through the eye of a needle than for an honest Sri Lankan passport holder to enter the United Kingdom. Everything in life has a price.
Ironically, these days, it is relatively easy for a Sri Lankan illegal immigrant to enter any western country of his choice and claim asylum, become a citizen and sponsor his kith and kin. This way, entire villages from Jaffna peninsula have been uprooted and are now relocated to Scarborough in Toronto, Canada.
A Sri Lankan passport is not unique. Israeli passport is the next most useless document as it is not recognized by 23 countries in the Middle East and also by North Korea and Cuba. Presenting an Israeli passport to an immigration officer in a Muslim country would be the equivalent of waving a red flag at a bull in Spain.
Although the Sri Lankan passport clearly states that “The President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka requests and requires all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary” the document is more often than not treated with total disdain while its possessor is regarded with suspicion by almost all countries including Bangladesh, Benin and Bulgaria.
Although the purpose of the Sri Lankan passport is to promote and facilitate international travel, the way in which its owners are treated at foreign embassies makes one wonder if it was instead designed to dissuade and restrict international travel as much as possible.
Applying for a visa to a western country in Sri Lanka has become such a complex, confusing and complicated activity that some people, especially old men and women, come down with the condition known as “visaitis“. This is a relatively new disease which emerged in Sri Lanka at the end of July 1983.
The symptoms include a certain dryness of the mouth, dizziness, and mild dementia. Patients afflicted with this disease also suffer from outrageously watery diarrhea and are in the habit of passing urine frequently, and in rare cases, may be subject to catatonic schizophrenia. They can be nervous, irritable and immune to therapy. The mere thought of going to a western Embassy or High Commission in Sri Lanka is so traumatic that one or two people have in fact died of a broken heart, following the mandatory medical check-up.
There is a particular Hindu place of worship known affectionately as the “Visa Pillayar Temple” (VPT) in Colombo where people go to break a coconut and offer a silent prayer to ensure success prior to their interview (or interrogation) for a visa at the Embassy. Visa aspirants from places as far away as Valluvettithurai (VVT) in the north come to VPT to collect the vipoothi (holy ash), which when applied on the forehead is supposed to confer divine protection during the inquisition at the Embassy.
The insults start at the gate of an Embassy where you experience the taste of what is in store for you in the country you plan to spend your hard-earned money.
At the French Embassy in Colombo, rated 9.5 in the “Richter Scale of Rude Shocks,” it is the illiterate gatekeeper who functions as Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the entrance to Hades, to whom one must give the sop to slip into the Embassy.
At the Japanese Embassy in Colombo, you cannot see the visa officer through the one-way opaque glass window when you submit your application. He can see you, but you cannot see him. The experience can be quite unnerving. It is a bit like speaking to an Oracle in Greece.
The application for a Canadian tourist visa is 10 pages long and has more than 60 questions, including the names, places and dates of birth of yourself, your wife, your siblings, parents, grandparents, your wife’s relatives, your in-laws and outlaws! All these details have to be submitted first electronically before you are given a date for the interview.
Once I went to the Bangladesh Embassy in Colombo to apply for a visa. The Embassy looked more like a tuck shop and I was the only applicant. Even then that bored consular officer rudely told me that it would take five working days to issue a visa!
In the Indian Embassy, one would witness the death of common sense. However, much you gather the required documents you need to substantiate your application for a visa, the officer will ask for the one that you forgot to bring.
By contrast, the US Embassy in Colombo offers one of the best services in the world. The US staff are extremely kind, helpful and patient and they genuinely try to assist the potential visa applicant to the best of their ability. The US evaluation process is very fair, thorough and proper. If you are a genuine visitor to the USA, you need not worry. You will get a fair hearing. All the US immigration officers are trained well to be civil and polite to the visitor. They would often engage you in small talk just to find out if you were a genuine visitor or not to the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.
Today, many embassies have subcontracted the TT Services to deal with the initial stages of processing the visa.
More recently, on arrival in Christchurch, New Zealand (the Land of the Long White Cloud), the immigration officer asked me, very politely and with a pleasant smile, what the purpose of my visit was? When I told him that I had come to deliver a talk on elephants at the University of Canterbury, the bewildered officer exclaimed, “But we do not have elephants!” and stamped my passport and wished me a pleasant stay. It spoke so well about the country of just 4.5 million people and 60 million sheep.
Once when I worked for WWF-International, I was a member of a small working committee planning the next International Theriological (= Mammal) Congress. Two countries, Australia and Colombia, were interested in hosting the event. The Australian delegate was interested in moving the Congress to Sydney, but cautioned us that the only requirement for the visa was that none of the foreign participants had any criminal record. On hearing this, the Colombian delegate jumped up in sheer joy and informed us that on the contrary, his Government would welcome delegates with a criminal record! The Congress was held in Sydney.
In the unlikely event of a visa being issued, it does not automatically guarantee that you’d be allowed to enter the country at the other end. That depends on the mood and the maturity of the immigration officer.
One of the most traumatic experiences one could have on arrival is at the Heathrow airport in London. You had been travelling 16 hours from Colombo and the flight lands at 9 am. It is supposed to be summer, but the sun is nowhere to be seen in the Land of Ceaseless Fog and Drizzle. Thus, even before the plane comes to a complete stop, you would get an idea of the weather that awaits you on arrival. Sometimes it appears that the plane had been taxiing through ginger beer or syrup. That’s the colour of the atmosphere outside.
On arrival I have to join the cattle class and then go to the queue reserved for aliens. No wonder I am often treated as if I am an extraterrestrial phenomenon!
Almost all British immigration officers are most unfriendly to non-Caucasian visitors, and often act like tinpot Hitlers. They are as hard as nails and bored as the people who serve you at McDonalds. They look miserable knowing they are stuck in dead end jobs.
Right behind his shoulder you can read in letters big, bright and bold, the banner that reads, “Welcome to Heathrow”. The welcome you receive is frostier than the weather outside.
The first question the bored and grumpy immigration officer with a smirk on his face asks the hapless visitor is: “When are you getting back?”
If you ask for a three-month stay in England, you are more likely to be given just a month. On the other hand, if you were to request for only a week, just to attend a conference and get back home, you may be granted a stay for six months. More disturbing is the recent news from the UK that in the future, visitors to Britain from ‘high risk’ countries such as Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Ghana coming to Britain on a six-month visit visa will have to put up a 3,000 pound (equivalent to Rs. 594,000 in Sri Lankan currency) bond as security, according to the Home Secretary Theresa May.
Sometimes things can go wrong. During my first visit to Australia in 1990, I flew into Sydney from Jakarta. Before the plane landed, we were given immigration forms to be filled. There was an additional yellow card that had to be filled as well, and one of the questions on it was: “Are you carrying live semen?” to which I promptly ticked the yes box, given that I had already fathered two kids.
As I cleared the immigration and moved to the customs, I was stopped and taken to a small room where I was interrogated by a big, bespectacled, Wagnerian white woman with a pair of enormous Bristols and a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp. She waved a yellow card at me and exploded, “Is this a joke?”
I was genuinely clueless as to why she blew her top and asked her what was it all about, to which she pointed the box I had ticked off to say that I was indeed carrying live semen. I told her that I believed so, to which the human volcano erupted once more and thundered in no uncertain terms that it referred to livestock and warned me not to make a joke of it ever again! It was literally a seminal experience for me. The yellow card is no longer issued.
In the 1960s, we had a Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) member from the United States who became friends with us while we were doing research on wildlife in Wilpattu national park with Dr. John F. Eisenberg from the Smithsonian Institution and his assistant Melvyn Lockhart. The VSO chap was a hippie who loved smoking ganja (marijuana). In his lucid moments he managed to learn a few words in Sinhala which Melvyn taught.
When he left Colombo, he was in fact carrying some ganja with him, and given his long hair and hippie demeanor, he was promptly stopped by a vigilant customs officer who wanted to see the contents of his handbag. In a flash of brilliance, despite the perspiration which had commenced its journey down his spine, he began to engage the customs officer in small talk, and told him that he had lived in Ceylon for a month and that he could even speak the local language a bit.
When the customs officer asked him to say something in Sinhala, he promptly remembered what Melvyn had taught him, and blurted out in a loud voice “මගේ පුක්කෙ මයිල් නෑ” (Transliterated: “Magey pukkay mayil naa“) meaning “my arse has no hair” in his native Texan drawl.
All the customs officers who heard him burst out in uncontrollable laughter and began to dance (a few even had tears of joy streaming down their cheeks). They complimented him on his language skill and wished him “bon voyage“. It was the hippie who had the last laugh.
Melvyn later received a “Thank you” note from Amarillo, TX.
As a Sri Lankan, I feel that we are treated abroad as if we do not matter, despite our education, ancient culture and proud heritage. We may be short on geography, but we are long on history. We deserve better treatment in the western countries. Unlike the ASEAN countries where citizens of the member states enjoy a 14-day visa free entry to each other’s country, we who belong to the SAARC cannot go to India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, or Bhutan even for a short stay without a visa!
In the final analysis, given the limitations of our Sri Lankan passport, it is far better for us to enjoy a local holiday than be subject to untold indignities and interrogations at the hands of immigration officers. As Blaise Pascal once remarked, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.“
- Sri Lankan passport (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sri_Lankan_passport
- Is a Passport Necessary for the Queen of England, US President, and the Pope to Travel Abroad? (http://tvaraj.com)
- Green MP has passport taken off her in Sri Lanka (radionz.co.nz)
- Three Sri Lankan women held, gold seized at Bangalore airport (thehindu.com)
- Terror suspect took photos of consulates (thehindu.com)
- Lankans in Libya to be brought back (colombogazette.com)
- British tourist to be deported from Sri Lanka for sporting a Buddha tattoo (vancouverdesi.com)
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