It was a long wait of around 30 minutes. As we expected the doors of the plane to close when more ‘buses’ shrieked to a halt, one after another carrying hoards of passengers. Every passenger was overloaded with ‘cabin baggage’ – a huge suitcase and a pack of three bottles of whisky. The aircraft was looking more like a Bihar train. Unlike the aircraft staff, the passengers already sitting in the aeroplane were watching with awe as every possible space in the aircraft was stacked with liquor. There were women, men and children carrying the three-bottle pack of the ‘prized’ drinks.
Once the doors closed, the aircraft turbines started. Instead of moving forward it started moving backwards triggering a comment by businessman Rauf Ahmad Punjabi that the aeroplane seems inebriated.
After the plane gained the requisite height, the pilot switched on the lights. There was a total mechanical response. Half the passengers changed the SIM cards of their mobiles replacing Indian SIMs by Lankan ones. Three-fourth passengers took out tiffins they had brought from home and started dinner. It was only later that we came to know that they all were small time “businessmen” who purchase the three-bottle pack from the duty free shop and flew to Colombo to sell it. “We get this pack for US $ 68 and we sell it for Rs 10,000 in Sri Lanka,” one young boy said. “We also take 20 kilograms of merchandise mostly silk saris that are in demand.”
A middle aged ‘trader’ from Chennai who could speak Hindi, Tamil and a bit of English said, he flies four times a week in this late night flight. “It will be the same flight that would fly me back tomorrow night,” he said. His estimation was that a trip with three-bottles of whisky and other merchandise makes a neat saving of Rs 4000 after deducting the ticket expenses for the 90-minutes flight. Tourism being one of the major drivers of Lankan economy needs lot of costly liquor that comes from India.
The same culture, aircraft staff would tell me later, exists on the flights to Kabul. The only difference was that the Sikhs and the Khans would take an empty suitcase as cabin baggage and fill it to the brim with chocolates.
Hindi-Paki Bayi Bayee
The island nation’s airport is manned by a huge workforce that includes a number of workers from both India and Pakistan. Not far away from the Rann of Kutch where they have eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, here they work with each other as comrades, friends and colleagues. Sri Lanka which has tourism as one of the main sources of its GDP, visa on arrival is permitted to the residents of as many as 77 countries. The easy visa regime coupled with fascinating beaches and cheap services makes it one of the best locations for travellers. It gets around half a million foreign tourists every year and it expects a boom as the guns have fallen silent. January and February 2010 have witnessed a jump by 32 and 67 percent over the arrivals in 2009.
Till recently the home to one of the worst civil strife, Sri Lanka will take a long time to come out of its impact. In Colombo, otherwise humming with activity round the clock, the concertina wires are still intact but are suitably protecting the security enclosures only. Still most of the roads leading to the capital city are manned by a number of police posts but the system is civilized and humane. A cop would raise the ‘stop’ sign and the bus would come to grinding halt, another cop with the gun will see the identity of the driver and let him go. There are lines of civilians passing through the marked lines and in certain cases being frisked as well (perhaps because of the elections that are round the corner). But a system of barricades and searches as it exists in Srinagar, cannot be seen anywhere in the capital of the strife torn nation. Even newspapers carry some stuff that looks similar to Kashmir. A feature in Sri Lanka’s Sunday Observer newspaper last week talked about how erstwhile LTTE young militants have set up a cricket team and want to get laurels for their country.
My Tamil driver said the LTTE is over. Though the gun battles were always far away from Colombo but they have stopped. He ruled out the possibility of its grand revival but asserted the Tamils seem to be where they were for many decades. He said in the nine province and 25 district Sri Lanka with over two crore population, the power is with the majority Buddhist Sinhalese forming 69 percent of the population. Muslims (called Moors) and Christians make eight percent each and the rest 15 percent are Tamils. Muslims, he said control business and the Tamils – mostly Hindus, are neither in power nor in business. “We do small jobs but some of us make great doctors and engineers,” he said. Domination is clear. The Sunday Times reported that 38-year old Sarah Melanie Perera, a Sri Lankan Buddhist lady who converted to Islam in 1999 and married a Bahrain Arab would be kept for 30 days behind bars. She has written two books in Sinhala about her conversion which the Lankan police see as “offensive”.
“It is the third best airport in the world,” a Jammu gem was heard saying in Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport before leaving for Colombo. After his flight landed late after midnight at the Bandaranaike International Airport, his 7-kms drive to his Negombo hotel through lanes made him say that “Jammu has better infrastructure than Colombo”. His 30-km drive to the cosmopolitan Colombo the next day after a good sleep finally forced him to admit: “No, Sri Lanka is a country”.