A visa run to Colombo, November 11, 2005

Lily grinding coconut
We need Residence Visas, and, of course, we expected that would require some paperwork. Just what else it would require, we were soon to find out.

In Kandy, we'd filled out the forms to the best of our ability, and, armed with letters from BPS extolling our service, we were up before dawn and left the house by three-wheeler at 530. Kandy Railway Station is smaller than we'd realized, and a very pleasant place to wait. The ladies waiting room has a little carved elephant carved into the doorway. He's painted black with white tusks and bright eyes. The contrast with Indian railways was everywhere amazing. The toilets were clean (if very, very slippery), and there were no crowds. We'd booked the observation car, and it was quite comfortable, except that the front seats (with full windows) were very warm when the sun finally came out. The other interesting thing is that we were always traveling backwards. (Therefore, our “front” seats were really the back of the train.)

We don't want to exaggerate the rail system. It isn't plush or particularly extensive, but (unlike our AMTRAK experience) the trains were on time. Going to Colombo gives you a graphic sense of how high Kandy is and how much of the country is mountains. There are many tunnels and going backwards meant we never saw light at the end of any of them. What we did see was that as soon as our train passed, people emerged from the sidelines and started walking the tracks. Workers to work; students to school. The train tracks were the flattest, easiest, most direct way to get anywhere. At several points the grade was extremely steep and the views spectacular. (Big wow!)

Roads get the best face forward of most houses, shops, flats, and schools. Train tracks get the rear ends of buildings, which are always their unfinished, unpolished, and least attractive aspects. That was certainly true as we left Kandy and entered Colombo. In the mountains, many homes were the exception to that rule, and we saw their beautiful villas. We noted how little “cadjan” we saw anymore. Not too many years ago, many roofs and even walls were made of this, beautifully woven palm fronds. Now many roofs are corrugated metal. More efficient, perhaps, but much noisier in the rain. There are also more brick houses with tile roofs.

On the train we got a call from our Sinhalese friend who recently got her PhD from U of M and has resumed teaching at Colombo University. She promised call us again in the afternoon to see how we'd progressed with the visa application and to arrange to meet for dinner.

As soon as we arrived at Colombo Fort Station, we got a three-wheeler to the Ministry of Buddha Sasana (Religious Affairs), giving the address typed into the letters we were submitting. We arrived at the address and climbed up a few steps to a door above which hung a sign with the Buddhist flag. We went down a few steps into what looked like the printing outlet of a Buddhist Ministry. Hoping this led to the Ministry itself, we announced our business to two ladies who seemed to be in attendance. One of them repeated, “Visa,” and indicated we needed to go to the next gate. No, the side door of the shop did not lead there. Up the steps and down the steps with our little suitcase on wheels, and down the street to a gate with a huge Wheel of the Law welded onto the grill. The place was under serious destruction, renovation, construction. We went past the main entrance to what looked like an office building (A man was washing a car right in front of the entrance.) and entered a back door leading to two offices with glass fronts, but no identification. There was a lot of nondescript activity going on in both. We chose the door on the left and entered. When they heard what we wanted, several of the men began giving instructions at the same time. Finally, we understood that the Ministry had moved. Someone called out a new address, and we asked them to write it down. With this paper firmly in hand, we hailed another tuk-tuk. The driver didn’t know the street, but he recognized Colombo 7, even though we were already in that part of town. We passed the homes of lots of VIPs and politicians and passed at least two sides of Colombo University. The driver kept asking if we knew the place or if this was it, and we consistently replied with the address. He seemed very reluctant to ask any of the many soldiers and police officers we saw guarding all the important-looking buildings, so we finally told him to stop, and we asked for the address ourselves. The first soldier pointed back where we had just come from. We turned back , passing several intersections. When it seemed we had probably gone too far, we asked again. The soldier pointed back. Ah ha! It must be somewhere between here and there. We turned at one of the intersections and passed many more offices and ministries. We asked again, and a guard pointed across the street. There, indeed, was another gate with the huge Wheel of the Law. It was a simple matter to go inside the compound and sign in, but we thought it would be a good idea to have the driver wait for us, while we found out what was what. Within a few minutes, we learned that there was no reason to be there at all. We had been told that we needed approval from this office before applying to the Department of Immigration, but an authoritative gentleman told us that the rules had changed. Since Immigration had our reference number, all we needed to do was go to there and submit the application. (He didn’t tell us this at first, so we telephoned (with our cell phone) to BPS, and one of the women in the office explained it all to Mr. Seveviratne first. We thanked them, got back into the tuk-tuk, and decided to try our luck there.

At least the driver knew where Immigration was (Colombo 4), so we renegotiated the fare (Ken is getting very good at this!), including his waiting time (Glad we did that, since there were NO other for-hire vehicles plying the streets of this elegant neighborhood; otherwise we might still be there!), and headed out.

Immigration was a sprawling, confusing, complex, seething with humanity. Sri Lanka requires no advance visa for casual tourists, but for people like us, wanting to stay longer, there was a special entrance. We went in and were directed up a flight of stairs. Visakha sat with the travel case and waited while Ken scouted things out. We went into a crowded waiting area with lots of foreigners, but realized that they all had plastic numbers while we had none. Visakha asked, this time, and was told to go out into the hall and turn left. Doing that, we came upon a bespectacled gentleman behind a high desk in the hottest part of a hot corridor. In front of him was a hand-lettered sign that said "Residence Visas." We waited as he thumbed through someone else's documents. When it was our turn, we submitted our papers with passports. As soon as he started going through ours, some Southeast Asians (we thought) appeared and tried to cut in line. He was unperturbed and filled out a “chit” for us and directed us to a large, glassed in room behind him. Then he turned his attention to the next person.

In the center of the glassed-in room there were desks arranged in no particular order that we could determine. Around them ran a high counter, with hand-lettered cardboard signs taped to the countertop. Some of these read“Private”, “Spouse (male)”, “Spouse (female)”, and others had a string of initials which referred to nothing in our experience. When we finally got a clerk's grudging attention (eye contact was avoided as long as possible), he directed us to the far corner of the room. To get there we had to walk in the narrow space between counter and outside wall, squeezing past others also trying to find where they belonged in the scheme of residence visas. Ken was directed to the furthest end of the counter, and Visakha waited in the corner of the room. When Ken got there, he saw that the hand-lettered sign read, “Religious Work.” The woman at this desk took our papers, looked them over, and directed us to a desk in the middle of the room. We started to give the papers to the woman we thought she indicated, but that woman pointed to the woman at the desk in front of her, who pointed to the woman at the desk in front of her, who directed us back to the first woman, who then directed us back to the third woman, who . . . (You get the point!)

Over and over we crossed paths with two monks we supposed to be from Burma. Two other Mahayana monks, Chinese perhaps, were also making their own rounds of desks and counters. One of the clerks we approached had a desk piled high with limp papers and passports of a variety of colors. The clerk ignored us as long as possible, writing with cramped letters in a huge ledger, evidently processing some red passports. Finally she had to look up. She accepted our papers with a pained, pinched expression. “She has a headache,” we thought to ourselves. We could certainly see why, as other clerks brought more work for her and laid it on the pile.

Another clerk went through our papers and asked where the approval from the Ministry of Buddha Sasana was. One of the other clerks remarked that she had heard that that was no longer required. But what was required? There seemed to be some confusion here. We were asked to wait. Ken stood patiently beside one of the desks. One of the clerks, (At this point we were not sure which one, noticed that it was difficult for Visakha to continue standing in the middle of the office, so she directed her to a chair in the hallway. Ken continued standing. Finally, he asked one of the clerks what he was waiting for. She pointed to one of the other clerks and continued working on one of her many cases. After a more interminable minutes, that clerk closed her files and indicated for Ken to follow.

She led him out of that office and back down the hallway to the office of the Assistant Controller himself. That worthy official looked briefly at the applications, said something incomprehensible which still seemed to indicate that something was seriously missing, and tried to close the matter. His telephone rang, and Ken took this opportunity to call BPS again. He got Mr. Seneviratne and explained where he was and that he did not understand what was needed, just as the Assistant Controller finished his own call. Ken handed him the phone and asked him to explain the problem to the Administrative Secretary of the BPS. The AC again spoke, saying this time that it was not his place to talk with anybody, but he still took the phone. Ken stood back while he rattled instructions off at 100 words per second as can only be done in Sinhala. After a few minutes he handed the phone back to Ken, and Mr. Seneviratne explained that it was necessary to get a letter from a “high priest” in Kandy specifying that we were of use and should receive a residence visa. (Aha! That’s why we didn’t need approval from the Ministry at all. We needed approval from the highest monk in old Kandy.) Before signing off, Ken asked if BPS could arrange that, and Mr. Seneviratne assured us that they could.

That cleared things up nicely. Nothing more for us to do in Immigration. As we left, we noticed the two Burmese monks going to yet another clerk in hopes of getting to the bottom of the mystery of residence visas. The Mahayana monks were nowhere in sight.

When we finally checked in at the Grand Oriental Hotel (formerly known as the Taprobane), we were pretty ragged. Showers and a bit of CNN perked us up. We checked out the buffet at the Harbor Room--the desserts looked great, but the curries were heavy on the meat and a bit too spicy for us. We were going to have dinner with our friend Dushy, but probably not in the Harbor Room. Ken had spotted an advert for a restaurant called the Taprobane at the Colombo Plaza Hotel, serving vegetarian meals. We had had breakfast at five that morning, so we were feeling rather peckish and ready for something new. Dushy had no objection, so we hopped into a three-wheeler, and away we went. There was a lot of construction going on at that very fancy hotel, so, to get to our destination, we had to take an obscure stairway that seemed to be heading towards a dungeon, but actually opened onto a lovely underground garden, at the side of which was the very attractive Taprobane Restaurant. Unfortunately, the buffet didn’t begin for another hour. Could we sit and talk over tea? Of course, we could and did, with tea already included in the meal. We had lots to catch up on and the hour flew by. Dushy sympathized with us over our visa frustration, and we had to sympathize with her over her heavy workload. (One colleague is studying abroad and another is on sabbatical, so the staff in her department are stretched thin.) We also talked of politics, both American and Sri Lankan. At last a waiter informed us that everything was ready. There was a great cheese selection, a variety of freshly baked breads, vegetarian curries, and a whole selection of pastas that the chief would cook before our eyes with vegetables and sauces of our choice. Visakha ordered linguine with garlic and onions in olive oil; Ken had penne with a cream sauce; Dushy got roasted veggies with feta cheese. Of course, we sampled everything and all were delish! The best of all, though, might have been the vegetable kebabs with tofu. (Maybe because we’re missing the taste of soy sauce?) There were also some very interesting salads--carrots with oranges, and a red cabbage cole slaw, but the desserts “took the cake” so to speak. Fruit salad, handmade chocolates, a mango cake to die for, and much, much more. What a relaxed, leisurely meal!


The afternoon ride back to Kandy was beautiful in a different way. It was a pleasure to be leaving the hectic (well, by Sri Lankan standards) city. We couldn’t help noticing a contrast in pace of life and in friendliness too. Dushy had mentioned how unfeeling the bus drivers are in the city--rushing passengers, even the elderly, to get on or off quickly. We saw that as we approached the Colombo Fort Railway Station. In Kandy, she said, that just doesn’t happen.

The train chugged past paddy fields, some being plowed with water buffaloes, a few with tractors, with lots of elegant white paddy birds stalking their prey. As we climbed up into the mountains, we noticed many unfamiliar kinds of trees, but we did spot a few teak trees in flower, reminding us of Burma and Thailand. This time, the observation car had a number of young European travelers with their ungainly backpacks. Watching them brought back memories of our own backpacking days. One couple spent almost the entire time reading, evidently preferring the printed page to the remarkable scenery unfolding around them. Another couple took some flash pictures through the window. Can’t believe they were any good! They then took turns taking photos of each other. Cute! As we went up through rocky passes and narrow defiles, we could enjoy a lingering sunset which kept switching sides as we made our way to Kandy town.

Of course since our car was at the rear of the train, we had to walk the length of the platform in Kandy Station. We were reminded of arrivals at Moji-ko eki in Kyushu, on our way to the Burmese Peace Pagoda in Mekari Koen. The layout of the stations is almost identical, with benches and a waiting room, even to the location of the restrooms. Here, though, we were going to catch a ride -- home.

Lily making string hoppers Our bed, net up Net down

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