Wednesday, March 14, 2007

I Love You, America

These days, I've been amused by Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. After describing the difficulties of dealing with local rodents and "discharg(ing) the necessities of nature," in Brobdingnag, Gulliver takes a moment to justify the details he dwells on in order to defend himself against "being censured as tedious and trifling, whereof travellers are often, perhaps not without justice, accused." It takes a very dull mind indeed to find the particulars of life for a little man in a land of giants boring, but being weary of entanglements with airlines and consulates is understandable. So bear with me, patient reader, and remember that I am an amateur, writing these lines in their first draft in a notebook with unlined paper at a table not far from the white petticoats of a turquoise sea, and all that follows is the path to this paradise. You are definitely reading on a computer that probably sits on a desk, and you may be escaping momentarily whatever keeps you there. In which case, I apologize for the method of delivery; if I could put these pages in a bottle, release it into the sea, and be sure they'd find their way directly to your hands, where you would unroll them and inhale the scent of a palm fringed Sri Lankan shore, I would. But I can't, and so I'll bend my meager talents towards the tale at hand.

As I mentioned before, on February 21 Talia and I took a rickshaw to the Thiruvananthapuram airport. We arrived at 8:30am to catch a 10:30am flight, which would have us landing just before noon. I needed to be in the city by 3pm, because I had to apply for a renewal of my passport at the United States Consulate between 2 and 4pm, the only hours, on Mondays and Wednesdays, that the Citizen Services section is open. If I missed the Wednesday hours, that would mean hanging around Colombo for 4 days, or leaving and making a special trip back. All this to point out the magnitude of my agitation when, after arriving 2 hours early for my flight, the woman at the check-in counter stated cooly that it had been pushed back to 1:30pm due to technical difficulties.

There was nothing we could do, and I still entertained the hope that I could be at the consulate by 3:30, so we wandered around the airport (which passengers aren't allowed to leave after receiving a boarding pass), ate a greasy breakfast courtesy of Sri Lankan Airlines, played a game of Scrabble, wandered around more, and waited. During the course of all this nothing, we found out, from a witless security guard, that our flight had not been moved due to technical difficulties, merely consolidated with a later one due to passenger numbers insufficient for a profitable flight.

I ended up missing the consular hours on Wednesday, and it was in a state of utter frustration with ways of doing (or not doing) things in South Asia that I made my way there on Thursday morning, by now well versed in trying all possibilities. Sri Lanka has been at civil war since 1983, so Galle Face, which would be (and has been), a posh, leisurely seafront promenade in other political circumstances, is a heavily guarded, strip of cement and tar hosting foreign embassies, Sri Lankan government offices, a few shops, and a few luxury hotels. After 20 minutes of trudging down the empty sidewalk past soldiers behind sandbag barricades, gladness pierced my my mood of urgent, absent irritation at the sight of the American flag dividing the air behind a tall, concrete wall.

My plan was to beg someone in Emergency Services, which has much longer hours and is for stolen passports and the like, to help me out. But the sturdy Sri Lankan receptionists who run the visitor register and bag x-ray looked at me dubiously as I explained my problem, so I just stood there looking bewildered and eventually one of them called the main building. After a brief conversation with someone in an office, somewhere behind the wall of security, the woman hung up and waved me through; I was in. I walked through a parking lot, beneath the flag, and into an office building, several stories high, with a certain squareness and overuse of dark faux-wood panelling that made me feel sure it was designed in 1981. After one more bag inspection, I put my shoulder to a dark-tinted, bullet-proof glass door that was so heavy I needed the whole weight of my body to open it. I was brimming with satisfaction at American efficiency, rationality, and work ethic (no it's not a holiday, yes, someone can help you), but when I glanced up at the wall behind the gold-lettered wooden arrow proclaiming "Citizen Services" to see the blankly self-satisfied smiles of Condi, George, and Dick falling upon me from frames simultaneously serious and cheap looking, their heads in front of that same flag that had nearly brought tears to my eyes a few minutes before, my patriotism swung back into a more balanced position. I followed the arrow and entered a waiting room with short, dark wall-to-wall carpet, empty plastic chairs lined up neatly in rows, a window looking into a work area, a rack on the wall full of travel warnings, and beneath it, a large shelf with about 15 square compartments housing American magazines.

To reach a consulate employee, you have to open a door into a small room containing a small window, and ring a bell to get the attention of someone inside the workspace the window reveals. I guess that small room is for the purpose of that highly prized commodity which I've suffered so much without during my travels in Asia, privacy. When I rang the bell, a petite, bright eyed Sri Lankan man, probably about the same age as me, came to the window immediately. I explained my situation humbly, apologizing with "I know this isn't an emergency service, and these are not official Citizen Services hours, but...." Miraculously, the man, who's name I later discovered to be Suneth, handed me two forms to fill out, gave me clear directions to the passport photo shop across the street, and said, "Let's get this underway."

When I returned the completed forms, he asked me to wait in the lobby while he ran everything through the computer. I took a seat in the empty room, and as I sat, thinking up negative and positive aspects of being from a country where it's generally agreed that a question deserves an answer and time is precious, my eye was drawn to the magazines. These must have been old issues of subscriptions of Americans working in the consulate, because the selection ranged from Time to the New Yorker, to Sports Illustrated to Madamoiselle. My day just kept getting better; the flag, efficient bureaucrats, and now magazines.

As my adoration of my native land reached its peak, I unearthed from the pile what must have been a July issue of GQ. And there on the cover, peppily alluring I suppose, her outfit combining army camo and the American flag, was Jessica Simpson, famous for her talent for being famous. The most prominent lettering on the cover combined to read something like "Jessica Simpson and 45 Other Reasons To Love America." For me, bone white teeth revealed by vacuously wide smiles, single-mindedly tended muscles, and costumes calculatedly casual and accidentally revealing down to the last detail, are high on my list of 45 reasons to be disappointed with what we do with our freedom. And what is this conflation of sex with bloodshed and patriotism? I know it's nothing new, but have we learned nothing, ever.

Shortly, Suneth called me from the window next to the shelf, gave me my papers, and explained the steps of the process to me. I would need to pass under the portraits again and enter the room on the left side, pay a cashier, and wait for an official to ask me some questions. Then, my request would be sent via DHL to Washington D.C., where a new passport would be issued and sent to Sri Lanka, again via DHL. It would take four to seven working days; it was then Thursday, so I should call the next Wednesday to see if it had arrived. When I picked up the new one, the old one would be cancelled. I was surprised that I'd be allowed to keep my current one with me, because I'd read that a citizen's current passport must be included with an application for a new one. I asked Suneth about this and he replied, "we have deemed it imprudent to deprive American citizens of their passports."

The constructions of non-native English speakers all over the world are often charming, and it's always a treat to hear someone actually speak an antiquated word like "deem," but I sometimes crave my language fast and loose, all flung together and tossed up in Tupperware. After I paid the cashier 67 USD, a large, fit, middle-aged man with thinning red-blond hair and disconcertingly pale blue eyes interviewed me through a pane of glass. I forget his name and his title, but he was clearly high in the chain of command.

Shuffling the two pieces of paper that comprised my application, he asked general questions about my presence in Sri Lanka, mixing in some relaxed "umms," and "ahhs," not out of hesitation, but out of confidence and leisure as his voice boomed out through the microphone behind the bullet-proof glass and into the ears of waiting visa applicants. As I was leaving the window he called me back, remorselessly mispronouncing my name. "Oh and, Ms. Brecker, you weren't planning on going east were you?" "No, just Kandy and the southwest," I answered, nearing the window in order to be heard. "Good, there's a war on you know." "Yeah, I read about that, thanks." He suggested I go back to Suneth's window and register my presence in the country with the consulate in order to receive travel warnings, and I did.

I left the consulate that day glad to be registered with my government as a citizen abroad, and as I passed back under the flag and onto the hot Colombo sidewalk I thought something like, "that's why we're a super-power, because we get things done!" But, even as national pride swelled into gross generalization, experiences at the DMV and my encounter with GQ's sex, blood, and power soup kept me from wallowing in it too wholeheartedly. The consulate seemed to contain the whole country, with its wall-to-wall carpeting (which it takes the coffers of a prince to maintain), its foreigners, its natives, and its mix of trivial and serious magazines. Even GQ, which lost my respect with its cover, called me back with some of the reasons to love America listed in its pages. My favorite was, "#36 Kris Kristofferson's Sunday Morning Coming Down." It's the Willie Nelson rendition that I've felt deliciously sorry for myself to the tune of over the years, and seeing the lyrics there in print summoned up Willie's voice, and that called up that particular American something that I won't even attempt to put my finger on.

While Suneth and the computer were confirming that I'm not a terrorist, I got the idea of borrowing a few magazines. I chose an old issue of The Atlantic Monthly with a forecast of the consequences of the reversal of Roe V. Wade as the cover story and a copy of The New York Review of Books containing a consideration of Joan Didion's latest, The Year of Magical Thinking. I returned them when I picked up my new passport not seven, but eleven working days later.

P.S. I was not allowed to take pictures of the United States Consulate or The United States flag.


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