How to escape the bureaucracy and corruption on holiday in Sri Lanka?

My biggest fear throughout the whole holiday was, how to "not be cheated."

7 mins read
Jaffna , Sri Lanka [ Photo: Nawartha Nirmal/ Unsplash]

I can state that I had the time of my life, enjoying the unforgettable memories of the places I lived when I was young and enjoying the traditional charm and simple beauty of the people and countryside of Sri Lanka.

The memories have remained the same. But, there has also been a cataclysmic abyss beyond recognition in today’s Sri Lanka. I may relate a poignant example of what has changed beyond fancy.

All that remains of the memory of Cargills, the once department store at Fort, Colombo, is the facade of the building. It is a deep shame that the inside store is decrepit, a loss of its charm, with floors and shelves empty. What instead has happened is that Cargills is known island-wide, as a much-restored food store – a supermarket. Similarly, I can relate to the many, many instances of lost nostalgia for Sri Lanka.

Lost forever in Sri Lanka?

I tried to follow my soul’s compass to assess the change that has taken place in fifty years. The people I met all over Colombo, in the buses, trains, and countryside, including in Jaffna, all seem outwardly happy but inwardly bereft of living a decent, honest, and unfearful life, in spite of the omnipotent presence of the security forces and Police now running around not only in three-wheelers from Police stations countrywide but also in jeeps and Army trucks – a show of security presence.

The face of the coastland in Colombo has changed beyond recognition. Instead of the old-style Sinhala homes and houses, a cosmopolitan City has arisen, with the whole of the south-side beach coastline from Fort to Mt. Lavinia, now studded with high-rise hotels and houses, in one way blighting nature’s landscape.

A noticeable but prevalent unease in attitudes

Everywhere I found a sullen calm of behaviour, rumblings not yet outspoken among the majority people of Jaffna particularly but also in other towns of Sri Lanka.

In Jaffna, it was generally about the behaviour among the hierarchy, of some of the religious orders. Whilst in Jaffna, it was especially, ranging from the Catholic Bishop of Jaffna to the ordinary Priests, for not taking corrective action against priest abuse. The accusation was unproven is about a somewhat non-truthful, unbecoming imposture of chicanery and uncharacteristic cheating behaviour towards the majority Hindu population.

Perhaps, as stated, it is due to an unfaithfulness to the tenets of the religion. I was shown a side of the sham of their priestly order that ashamed me. Perhaps, money is the root of all evil, or was it the abuse of one woman by a Priest recently, resulting in the suicide of the woman in the Peninsula? Someday soon it will and must be corrected by the hierarchy of the Church. It cannot be swept away.

My reason for stating is what I ascertained from my stay, mostly mingled with the majority Hindu populace of Jaffna, who perhaps had reason to share this overbearing sentiment with me as an overseas stranger. There seems to be an unease of disquiet, which so it seems, may have overspilled during my visit, perhaps to obtain redress of past grievances.

On the other side of the coin, the opinion is that this is a sham spread to create a division among the religions in the Jaffna Peninsula, by unscrupulous and unknown persons “to divide and rule.”

Fairness and justice seem to have gone out of the window in dealing with officialdom.

There is an air of bureaucracy, injustice, and cowardice, to say the least, an incompetence when dealing with government officials and officialdom, especially in Kachcheri’s, Registrar General Offices, and Police stations all over Sri Lanka.

The machinery of government is bureaucratic and broken in the extreme, to say the least. Corruption, inefficiency, and mismanagement reign supreme, according to informed sources. Everywhere people are having a hard time, whether applying for a Sri Lanka Passport, or a Birth Certificate or to get Land registered in government offices, or even to make a complaint of injustice and foul play at Police stations.

There are queues of people waiting for hours on end, inside and outside these offices, just to get an application form, or to make a complaint, let alone get redress. Inefficiency reigns supreme, as able talented officers of government have left the shores of Sri Lanka after the debt crisis seeking employment abroad.

What is lacking in almost every walk of life?

The plight of ordinary Sri Lankans is unbearable, not to mention existing “unknown power cuts” and the known “Cost of Living” crisis.

Though Sri Lanka is not a Police State as yet, ordinary life is mirrored and monitored beyond normal security and can be “bought” only with a “Bakshi,” a “Santhosam,” a handout. A “financial thanksgiving” is expected as a matter of course. This is perhaps due to the inability to live within one’s means. Wages are inadequately poor in comparison to other neighbouring nations due to restrictions on debt curtailment. Corruption seems to be a debt bond. With loan finance among thriving finance companies, ranging from a minimum of 20 to 26 per cent and over, the poor remain forever in cyclical debt. It appears the only way out of poverty is “Black Money.”

The way corruption exists is unknown to many. Unbelievably sly but novel methods are used to cream the public of their hard-earned money.

A particular case in point is how “Thee-wheel” auto or “Tuk-Tuk” drivers, who are simultaneously Police informants/intermediaries, and “transport essential persons” to ordinary citizens and tourists, have to be on the good books of the Local Police Stations. The forced provision of free handouts of drink, cigarettes, and money, at the beck and call of Local off-duty Police officials at Police stations, is a well-established practice. The choice is “freedom” or be “forced reprimand,” or “harassment-booking” and penalty by Court Order. Seldom is it talked about that Auto drivers are called on their mobiles to put the key-money into the Police Official’s Bank Account. If not done, the Auto driver is reminded, coerced until this is done. By no means is every Auto Driver on the List of Callers – only trusted drivers are able to command this “special treatment” on being on Police Mobile Call Lists.

In recent days, we are informed the Government has offered “a stimulus increment pay package” (an increase to the paltry pay of Police officers). It is conditional on every incident of crime reportedly penalty awarded by Courts. Talk about the award on “Crime and Punishment,” people are condemned to bribery and corruption.

Tourists, please note:

Porters at Colombo Bandaranaike Airport on duty moving disabled, infirm passengers, called “Free wheelchair-bound passengers” by Airlines, now demand, as a matter of course and right, a so-called “Support Sir/Madam,” otherwise one is left waiting for attention, irrespective of other circumstances, tiredness notwithstanding.

My biggest fear throughout my holiday is how to avoid being cheated. My biggest fear throughout the whole holiday was, how to “not be cheated.”

It is not as if I was price-cheated, buying goods and services in shops, restaurants, or in hotels, but cheated or robbed by ordinary but friendly people, using uncharacteristic methods to hoodwink tourists. I was worried about robberies in hotel rooms, in trains while travelling, and other ways of losing my money in transit. Luckily, I was covered by Travel Insurance.

Tourists, be aware of baggage loss in trains, particularly in the Jaffna-bound trains at night. Both the “Yarl Devi” and “Uttara Devi” trains have Night Security Personnel. With it all, baggage is reported to be stolen at night near the “Murukandy” Station by gangs operating on the trains, with or without connivance.

What happens to be the latest and safest way to hoodwink tourists?

The latest modus operandi is using the charm offensive, by Tour Guides/others becoming overly friendly, extraordinarily helpful, and making tourists lose their guard, being careless.

I must unashamedly state that I was living in the shadow of being cheated and couldn’t do much but accept the folly of my ways to fall into this trap.

There is no need to teach tourists to beware of friendly ways of being too trustworthy on holiday and being cheated. Thieving has become a way of living in the “exorbitant cost of living” Sri Lanka, with which most tourists are well acquainted.

The advantage of a holiday in Sri Lanka

Although redress and recompense may lack on holiday, there are ways of making the best out of one’s holiday, as I did to my advantage and in a big way.

I was on medical advice in the UK, that no amount of Vitamin B deficiency can recompense. Medicinal medicine, without natural sunshine, is ineffective for the elderly and the infirm. I got this in abundance during “my long holiday in the sun in Sri Lanka.” But, I had a price to pay.

I enjoyed the Sun at the uncharacteristically empty beach surrounding off the coastal beach off The Mount Lavinia Hotel, Colombo and at the beaches in “Charty” at Karainagar, Jaffna. I managed, with the help of my friends, a waist-deep dip in the salubrious saltwater at the sea and hot sands at the beach in Kankesanturai (KKS) and the day-out at Cashurina Beach some miles from Jaffna, in the Peninsula.

Tourists are warned to never miss the sight and serenity of the “Old Dutch Fort Hammenheil” built around a small island between the islands of Karainagar and Karaitivu, Jaffna in Northern Sri Lanka. A small single room for occupation inside the Fort was commissioned by the Sri Lanka Navy, during the tenure of Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne. Today, the Sri Lanka Navy provides a short boat ride and a Single Room to sleep the night at this quaint Dutch Fort and to experience the beauty of sunrise in the morning.

The aches and pains of old age can never be mitigated by Western medicine without herbal Ayurveda treatment. This can be obtained at Kaithadi Free Herbal Hospital, Jaffna Peninsula, with free herbal oils to apply as treatment.

Returning back to the UK (1 November 2023) with the thud and thundering sound of the landing gear of the Qatar aircraft touchdown, on a sultry sunny afternoon at London Heathrow, was a relief of sorts.

The experience of a journey of a lifetime at my age, to my land of birth, with lessons learned, will remain embedded. I expect many more Elderly Sri Lankans will follow me, in months and years to come, and experience much pleasure/happiness from their visit.

I expect the Government of Sri Lanka to give pride of place to accommodate and facilitate more of such visits by the Elderly Sri Lankans living abroad.

Victor Cherubim

Victor Cherubim is a London-based writer and a frequent columnist of the Sri Lanka Guardian

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