So I ran down to "Gent's Choice" yesterday to buy a blue button down shirt (full sleeves) for my friend's birthday. Gent's Choice is at the start of Trinco Road, just across the bridge from Batticaloa. I expected to overpay. The clothing stores around here are owned by folks from Kattankudy and they are bargaining experts. Whatever, it's a trifle.
I went up to the first floor where the shirts are tightly arranged on open shelves and within a minute or so I'd found what I thought was appropriate. I'm a 15.5 so I figured Charles, who's a little stockier than me might find a 17 a comfortable fit. Just about had my purchase ready to take downstairs when the "salesman" ran up out of breath and like me, barefoot. It's common courtesy to take off your shoes, even if they're just a pair of flipflops, before you enter the store.
Having a foreigner in there was just too good a chance to pass up. He had to make conversation, however he could hook me in. I didn't mind and I don't mind. You never know where a talk might take you. Anyway it was hot outside and I'd just come from the hospital where I visited my friend Shadeesh. It wasn't as grim there as I expected it to be, not by a long shot, but still his wife shed a few tears and I felt a little bit of desperation. Shadeesh broke his leg three weeks ago and they've been waiting for surgery. Finally it's been scheduled for this Tuesday, when two plates will be put in. The bed and surgery are free but Shadeesh will have to pay about $200 for the plates. There's also the possibility that surgery will be put off another week. Tuesday is "orthopedics" but there may be more serious cases to take care of. People come to the teaching hospital here from as far away as Ampara and Polonowurra. It's like a foreign country to them here in the Tamil-speaking East and it must feel pretty frightening.
Well my discussion with the "salesman" in Gent's Corner took a frightening turn too. After showing me a good dozen shirts that were exactly what I didn't want he quizzed me on all the foods I eat and don't eat, my (non-existent) interest in sports, and how long I'm in Batticaloa, what I'm doing here, and how much I pay for our room. Not unpleasant or scary but my red flag went up when he let me know that he has two wives.
"Very nice," I responded. "One is enough for me."
"Yes but I have two!"
"Very interesting. You must be rich."
"No! I poor man!" He say.
"Well, you are rich in wives."
"Only one child I have."
"Very nice. How old."
"One and a half." He answered. "Sir. I can arrange something for you!"
"I have a room."
"I can arrange wife for you in room."
"No thank you. I have a wife. She is here in Batticaloa with me. I will go now."
Downstairs he gave me my ridiculous "discount" on the shirt and tie I got for Charles. I was fed up but I kept smiling. Foreigner's Duty. At the end, after I had slipped on my flipflops and was unlocking my bike he ran out.
"Sir, when you leave Sri Lanka in three months you sell me bicycle OK? I want to ride bicycle from Kattankudy to Batticaloa. You can do?" If you can't trade a wife maybe you can trade a bike.
"No Habibi. The bicycle belongs to my host. I am using it but it is not mine to sell."
A colorful enough interchange if not particularly interesting. Got to experience the fawning obsequiousness of another Kattankudy native. But it troubled me in retrospect.
I've traveled hundreds of miles in Sri Lanka and I've visited hundreds of places. I've encountered people of all stripes. And I've had experiences with drivers all over the island, some of them obnoxious, some respectful. Charles, whose birthday it was, is a driver who helped us with some tricky travel to and from Colombo, and he's been great. The only truly horrible encounter with a driver was in 2013 when I was traveling alone. The driver had been arranged by my guesthouse in Arugam Bay. I was taken to two holy sites, one Hindu (Okande) and one Buddhist (Kudimbigala). On the way back as we passed through an incredibly beautiful landscape the driver steered the conversation in the direction of marriage and sex, just like the "gent" in Gent's Corner did. I was told he could arrange a hotel room for me. "Already have one."
"I can get girls for you in the hotel room."
"Maybe you're interested in boys. I can get that too."
"Take me home. Now."
The driver was a parent himself, a self-professed devout Muslim. I question how he or the sales person in Gent's Corner could rationalize let alone defend the form of human trafficking they proffer. Yet they do. As a single male traveler it seems I'm fair game for this kind of "trade" and apparently there are no religious or ethical compunctions to this kind of behavior. Isn't the East of Sri Lanka broken enough? Is it possible that these people can offer up human bodies, children's bodies for sex with foreigners? What would their prophet say? Or doesn't it matter?
I guess I'll have to take another look at my history books to see who fueled the human slave trade in the Indian Ocean and ultimately contributed to the horrific trafficking of human bodies from Africa across the Atlantic. Could it have been the "people of peace?" Why are they still doing it here in 21st century Sri Lanka?
Human trafficking must be a hard habit to break!