Of Bestie’s Air Massage and Christmas Shopping in Arabia...

It felt like time travel. I was walking through the alleyways of an Arabian souq (market), and for a moment, I thought I was wandering across the movie-set of The English Patient. There were vendors selling spices, silver trinkets and various nuts and seeds in their little kiosks or just by the wayside. Arab women clad in their burkas and abayas sat behind their arrays of gadgets and knick-knacks. Their eyes pierced through the inch of opening in their burkas like the full moon on a dark night: mesmerising and inviting, and capable of alluring the vulnerable young men to buy utterly and completely useless things for a riyal or two. Some fell in the trap while the others just stopped for a good bargain. Muffled in the hustle and bustle and the chattering, I could hear the women giggle behind their black masks. Men sat in long, wodden benches in little coffee-shops, smoking; enjoying the mild wintery breeze. There were small stalls and trolleys piled up with layers of gum that looked like honey-bee combs, and there were wheel-barrows that were portable corn stands. The far side of the wheel-barrow had a little coal-fire burning, and the vendors sold freshly cooked corn to the young, old and the hungry – trotting around the souq. Occasionally, my eye would spot the beautiful prayer beads in array, and I fought to resist the temptation to be the world’s largest bead collector.

Walking under the canopies, weaving through the narrow alleyways, I ended up in an open area that somehow reminded me of the Pitt Street and Market Street in Sydney. Only a hundred years earlier, and in a basic, primitive manner. Or was it a flashback of the Fort World Market, I wondered for a moment. But this was grandeur in scale and much more intriguing and interesting in sight. A little boy ran behind a football, and disappeared in to a narrow passageway as I tried to find my bearings.

As I made may way through the open square to reach the other end, I discovered another fascination: the silver shops that sold beautiful Yemeni jewellery. Rough and uneven, with coloured glass-work, they told stories about the nimble hands that crafted the designs. I imagined those beautiful Arab women sitting in their corners in their humble abodes, tinkering with metal to crate these fabulous ornaments. No wonder they wear them with so much pride on occasion, I thought to myself.

Beyond the silver jewellery were the fabric shops. Like the good old story about the black abaya in Prophet Mohammed’s days (peace be upon him), the fabric sellers were the highlight of the market. Yards and yards of beautiful designs in psychedelic colours, drawn like canopies from the roof to the ground covered my sight. From black-on-black designs to everything imaginable under the sun were on offer, and the shop assistants were serenading us to just walk inside and take a look. They knew that if we stepped in, we wouldn’t be able to resist their charm and the attraction of the selection. An occasional tailor shop displayed with much pride some wedding gowns that adorned amazing needle-work. I knew that under the abaya, the Arab women were very fashionable. But this, was far beyond what I have ever imagined. This was Paris, this was haute couture for the average Arab woman.

Just two days before the Christmas, I was discovering the downtown Jeddah. The old market, where sailors from around the world met the Arab merchants long before the dollar was born. Thousands of years later, only the buildings have changed, but not the habits of their inhabitants. They souq is still old-fashioned, they still like to drive a good bargain, and offer you a cup of seylani chaai if you were a good customer.

Wondering through the maze, we were looking for a shop that sold something that was supposedly banned in Saudi Arabia.

And finally, we were directed to a little shop that sat by the waterfront. It looked like mini China and the shop was (cleverly camouflaged?) with cosmetics, cheap electronics and all kinds of fancy items at the entrance. We look around and approach a shop assistant who gestures us to follow him up a wooden staircase. Up the staircase, zig zag through the aisles, we are taken to a back corner and the shop assistant points his hand to a rack, with much delight.

As we see what’s on display, my friend’s face lights up. Underneath a pile of “elegant” lamps that had a not-so-elegant penguin on the box and “Bestie’s air-massagers,” we’ve finally found what’s impossible to find in Saudi Arabia: Christmas Cards.

And they were musical too.

The elegant lamp, the forbidden cards and the Bestie’s Air Massager: New Concept ot (sic) Health


Very Merry Christmas!

So it is Christmas. The first, since the guns have gone silent in the North.

Part of our country still lives in limboland, not knowing how or where they would be, tomorrow. Homeless, refugees, IDP’s, war-victims – call them whatever you may. It is sad to see some people still live in tents, five years after the tsunami. Like they say, here in Paradise, change comes very slowly. Sometimes, painfully slowly. How long would it be before we hear the Christmas carols from homes beyond IDP Shelters, is still anyone’s guess.

Reality around us quite sad and sombre.

The world beyond our little island is infested with floods, natural disasters and other calamities. There is a volcano waiting to exhale in the Philippines.

There were floods in the middle of the desert in Saudi Arabia and Oman, the penguins are bracing for a smaller Arctic, and the Chinese have bought Volvo and Saab. What is going on in our little planet, I wonder.

Then, under the blue skies of Paradise, I discover that a bad week or a lousy couple of decades cannot take away the legendary Sri Lankan smile. This Christmas, I notice an aura of happiness, contentment and relief around us.

Amidst disaster and general misfortune, we find a reason to smile. We are known for our smile, and the optimism behind. We are known to forget the yesterday easily. We are known for our ability to look beyond petty issues like global warming and worry about more important matters such as who should be the next President. Or who would win the game of cricket tonight. Or would there be enough parking at Odel.

Be it politics, cricket, shopping or life-at-large, we live in eternal hope. When hope fails, we move on with a big smile and a bigger level of optimism. All in all, there is hope in Paradise. Abundant.

We, the islanders of Paradise, are a happy bunch. Or a funny bunch, rather. And I like being one.

Let’s hope for a better tomorrow for all of us.

Merry Christmas everyone!


Computers for Baboons

So there I was. Counting the minutes at the Gate 7 at the Colombo International Airport since 5 O’clock in the morning. I had arrived early, the Emirates flight carrying my kiddos were due at 8.30 am. Nope, I’m not bonkers to drive to the airport that early, it just so happened that I arrived in the island the same morning.

After what felt like an eternity – and a few random conversations with some strangers on transit – the kids arrive sound and safe as I flipped the pages of Who moved my Cheese for the umpteenth time.

Hugs, kisses and pleasantries exchanged, documents signed and kids are “formally” handed over to me by the ground staff. And off we go – rushing to meet my wife who has been eagerly waiting at the arrivals lounge. We proceed to the immigration counter and I produce all three passports. The immigration officer punches a few keys on his computer and informs me that the kiddos aren’t eligible for visa on arrival. Me being the Paradisian, has no issues, but my own kids aren’t allowed entry to the country.

He tells me that there are only 80-odd eligible countries in the list and the passports that my kids carry aren’t in the list. I know they are, this isn’t the first time they are visiting the island.

I request the officer to check by the passport numbers – since they’d previously held Sri Lankan Residence Visa the reference should be in their system. Bloody hell, this is my country and my kids should be granted visa on arrival, even if they came from Mars.

As I peep across the counter to see what’s going on, I discover the officer punching-in the passport number without selecting the matching country from the drop-down menu. The guy hammers the “enter” key even without glancing at the screen.

The result: Afghanistan. The country at the top of the list. And no visa for Afghans on arrival.

I grit my teeth, take a deep breath, count to 10 and ask him to select the country carefully. The blithering idiot repeats the same performance and insists that I should have applied for kids visa before arriving in the island..!

I was too tired to argue with idiots, or to spare him a lesson from Computer for Dummies. I demand to see his immediate boss.

The supervisor checks the kids’ passports, puts a note on the disembarkation cards, walks over to the same counter and orders the man to stamp the passports. The circus monkey stamps the passports and enters the details – yet again under “Afghanistan” in the computer. Suddenly, I had kids who are related to Mulla Omar and those long-bearded extremists that sleep with their goats.

I have no idea how many tourists were awarded the Afghan nationality that morning at the Colombo International Airport. Hope none had any issues on their departure.

At least my two didn’t, thankfully.


Holy Sh*t!

Just arrived in Jeddah last evening. As the plane descended, there were rain-clouds a few hundred meters above the ground level and the evening light reflected on the puddles and pools of water down below in the city. I never imagined Jeddah to be this wet. This was unusual.

Jeddah and rain doesn’t happen that often. When it does, they don’t blend well either.

While I was away enjoying the good life in Paradise, the city of Jeddah had been greeted by millions of Hajj pilgrims. Along with them came the heaviest rainfall in the recent decades.

On the 25th of November, a few hours of heavy rain unleashed “flash floods” that killed a little over a hundred people and rendered thousands homeless. Closer to a thousand people are still unaccounted for and an estimated six and a half thousand homes have been destroyed. Closer to 5,000 cars have been written off or washed away, not to mention the hundreds of brand new cars that went under the water in their storage facilities. The damage runs into billions of dollars. All this, in just four hours of heavy rain.

But this, is nothing compared to the biggest problem.

Imagine a typical “Lanka” petrol tanker (bowser). Fill it up with sewage. (Yes, sewage). Multiply it by 3,000. Empty them in a lake. Continue this practice for over 10 years, every single day.

Now imagine this sewage-lake at a higher level of a mountain and a city built in the valley below.

That city is Jeddah. What separates the city from the invasion of sewage is a tiny dam built with reinforced sand, not concrete. This dam has shown signs of weakness with the unexpected rainfall that filled the reservoir to the brim. The city of Jeddah was about to get flooded in sewage if the rain continued non-stop. Thankfully, the rain ceased and mellowed down giving room for the emergency crew to ‘pump’ the sewage out of the reservoir and bring the situation under control. But the situation still poses a threat with the continued sporadic rain.

Imagine a city flooded in sh*t..! Now that, is a real problem.

And we think the uncollected garbage bag in front of our gate is a cause for concern. ;)