Ten days ago, I went to Polonnaruwa, one of Sri Lanka’s ancient cities. Pretty harmless, right? Yes, I thought so too – a little hiking, cycling, appreciation of nature and 12th century Buddha statues.
Oh, if life were so simple in this country.
I just got around to posting the photos from Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, and Dambulla, which is why I am only now telling this story.
On Saturday morning my friend Sarah and I rented bicycles and set off with our archeological spirits in high gear, trying our best to dodge the hundreds of monkeys that scamper over the ruins. I first thought they were adorable when they came right up to us; then I discovered they do this all the time. In fact, they kept trying to steal my camera. It actually got kind of annoying after awhile.
Sarah and I became separated as we started exploring the huge expanse of the ruins. Cycling around, I discovered a path “less traveled” so to speak, and naturally started speeding along the dirt road. After about one kilometer, the path started uphill, so I left the bike in the shade and kept walking a bit further until a temple emerged.
An elderly man was selling chopped mangoes and a tangy new fruit called wood apples for 20 cents, and I needed a break.
Ten minutes into my conversation with the mango/wood apple man (which consisted mostly of hand gestures due to a language barrier), two police officers rode up on a motorcycle.
“Passport, please.” I handed my passport over to the first policeman, the leader of the duo, and he started flipping through it. “You are British?”
Um, ok…was this a test? “No, American,” I said.
“What are you doing in Polonnaruwa?”
Another test? “I came to see the ruins.”
“Is that your bike back there? Why did you leave it?”
“The path is uphill, so I thought I would walk.”
“Where are you staying?” I gave the name of my guesthouse in town.
By this point, the policeman had sauntered over to me and put his hand on my shoulder. What started as a routine police Q & A had now really pissed me off. No one, seriously I mean no one, puts a hand on my shoulder unless I say it’s ok.
“Are you alone? This is a dangerous area.”
Not the least bit intimidated or scared, I wondered how best to extricate myself from this situation. He obviously just wanted a bribe, and there was no way I was giving him one.
This man, his hand on my shoulder, and his tone of voice bothered me a lot more than the miniscule chance that 1 of 12,000 LTTE fighters in a country of 20 million people had chosen this weekend in the 30 years of conflict to start targeting tourists and was now waiting to attack me in the 1km stretch between the temple and the main path. But saying that and spitting in his face definitely wouldn’t help me very much.
I glanced at my mango/wood apple friend, but he was cleaning up his stall and had no idea what was going on.
So I blithely said, “Well I would have come with my husband, but he works at the US Embassy and had important meetings with a couple of MPs this weekend.” The wife of an Embassy staff member would not be staying at my budget guesthouse, but I was counting on the fact that these guys had clearly not been the brightest cadets at the police academy.
Sure enough, his hand dropped away immediately and he stepped back. He muttered something to his friend in Sinhalese; I heard the word “Embassy.”
Ha, take that! I had to turn away and start walking towards the temple to hide my smile. Score 1 for the girl who thinks on her feet, 0 for the power-tripping losers who don’t think at all.
But my smile quickly faded when I considered all of the people that wouldn’t be able to fall back on the protection of an American identity in that situation.
I hung out in the temple with the security guard for an hour. He probably thought I was a little odd. One can only take so many pictures of a faded mural after all. Since camera flashes weren’t allowed, my 20 odd photos were all blurry anyway. Finally a family came in, and I left with them to make it to the main path. The police officers were still there, eating the poor man’s mangoes.
I briefly berated myself for getting off the beaten path as I tend to do. It usually leads to an interesting discovery, but it can also get me in trouble.
Then I realized that if I don’t get off the beaten path, I only see what the other tourists see. The conflict here is not in one’s face. As a tourist, it’s easy to pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s easy to hear and see only the beautiful peaceful parts of Sri Lanka. It’s like a recipe really: read only the English newspapers, travel only to the southern beaches and Kandy, have faith in the men in uniform.
If I want to understand what Sri Lankan civilians must endure, I have to venture outside my comfort zone. And my little Q & A does not even merit comparison to the suspicion a Tamil man would have faced in the same situation.
Posted By Madeline England
Posted Jul 24th, 2007