I decided to go back to Sri Lanka… 🇱🇰

By the time you read this article, some of this information could be dated. The reason for me to delay publishing this article is that I needed to get all the information and for privacy reasons.

Date arrived: April 4, 2021

When I first moved to Canada, I was lucky enough to just make it before the entire world went into lockdown. I left Sri Lanka 3 days before Sri Lanka closes its borders and I moved into a new apartment a day before Toronto went into a full lockdown. At that time, I was very lucky and everything was falling into the right place.

To attend to a few personal matters, I started planning a quick trip back to Sri Lanka in late September 2020 and from the very first step, things felt a bit hectic. The Covid-19 operations were taken over by the Sri Lankan Army and I really thought because of the reputation they have, the processes would be really smooth and transparent. But, oh boy was I wrong!

The short version is, if a Sri Lankan living abroad wants to come back to Sri Lanka, it’s not as easy as buying a ticket, hopping on an airplane, and coming here. The process might take longer than 6 months. So if you are a last-minute plan kinda guy, don’t even think about coming back to Sri Lanka until Covid-19 is eradicated.

found this on Twitter

Pre-journey!

If you want to come to Sri Lanka first and foremost, you need to obtain a Landing permit (Update: from April 5, 2021, onwards, the government has changed the process, and now Sri Lankans will not need a landing permit to come back to Sri Lanka). Requesting the landing permit is not as easy as it sounds. You will first have to email to the consulate general or the embassy in your country of residence and then they will send you a form to be filled. In this form, you will be sharing all the personal and professional information along with purpose, during, and other relevant traveling data. Upon sending this document, the following is the process to get it approved.

Even though this process seems to be pretty straightforward, this is a messy process. The lack of communication and coordination makes this process 10 times longer and confusing.

Let’s hope that for some miracle you got the Landing permit. A Sri Lankan citizen, who was born and raised requested to visit Sri Lanka again and after months of waiting finally got the approval. If you are someone who’s booking your own ticket for your travels, the following steps could be a bit new to you.

I usually book my own tickets when traveling, but a friend of mine who went to Sri Lanka a few weeks back told me it’s better to go through a travel agency because there is additional work to be done and it’ll be easy for me to go through a travel agency. Because of that, I contacted an agency in Sri Lanka and the travel agent was really helpful from the first step. She gave me all the information from what to do to when to do it and when I compare the prices, it was all worth the price.

First I had to send the landing permit to my travel agent to proceed with the ticket booking and once I select my preferred dates, she booked the flight and added it to my loyalty account with the airlines. The airline sent a detailed email on where to do the PCR test along with a discount code and 2 days before my flight, I got the required pre-departure PCR test done. Then I sent that report to my travel agent and she was able to handle it with the airline and get the ‘okay to board’ from the airline (without that, they won’t let you in even you have the landing permit and the negative PCR test).

Waiting for the flight at Toronto Pearson International Airport

After months of pre-journey preparations, and days of suffering and struggles to get on board the flight, finally I was sitting comfortably on an aircraft heading towards Dubai. As expected, everything went well and everyone onboard kept their distance and respected the Covid guidelines. After 13 hours of a long flight, I landed at Dubai International Airport.

Until my next flight to Colombo, there was an 8-hour layover and I decided to roam around a bit and do some duty-free shopping at the Dubai airport because I heard that things might be a bit chaotic at Sri Lankan airport. After getting the things I need (and I must mention, there were a lot of discounts and offers at DXB) I was waiting at the gate to get on the next flight to CMB.

After another 4–5 hours of flying, I landed in Sri Lanka at 8:30 AM on Easter Sunday. As expected, I felt I’m back in Sri Lanka as soon as I landed because all the Sri Lankans on that flight started behaving like Sri Lankans as soon as they put their feet in this country. From getting out from the gate, going through health checks and customs, to joining the queue to go to the quarantine center, everything was chaotic. No social distancing, no queues, everyone is acting as it’s their own property, pushing and cussing all over the place and boy-oh-boy, it was a hell of an experience.

Now we are getting to the part, I really want to discuss in this article series. As of now, most of the government processes are overlooked and managed by the military. Sitting Sri Lankan president being an ex-Army officer, it’s understandable to involve Army in running the country. They obey rules, they respect orders and they get the work done at any cost. Alright, now let’s talk about the cost!

For the longest time, we’ve seen everywhere how people come back to Sri Lanka complain about the quarantining proceedings. But every time an authorized person who is in charge of the proceedings comes to the media or shares a press release saying everything is in order, we are doing everything on a grand scale and everyone is happy with the operations. After staying for 7 or 14 days quarantined and return to normal life, no one wants to continue those complaints because what’s done is done and it’s over for them. For the next people who go through the process, well that’s their problem.

When I landed in Sri Lanka at 8:30 AM, I made sure that I rushed to all the queues and get all the procedures done as soon as possible. I was able to collect my luggage and went to the customs checking and come out of the airport gate at 9:15 AM. I didn't even stop at the duty-free shops. As soon as I stepped out, all I saw was mayhem. A handful of Army and Military police officers trying their best and failing to control the crowd coming out of the Airport.

As soon as I came out of the gate, I was given a token with my flight number and I was advised to proceed in a queue. Along with a few familiar faces, I remember seeing in the aircraft, I proceeded accordingly. As I mentioned, ‘Sri Lankans being Sri Lankans’, no one was patient, and soon that 1 queue became 5 queues merging into one.

At the end of that queue, there was a table managed by a few army officers and they asked the following questions from all the passengers.

  • Did you get both doses of vaccine?
  • Are you going to a paid or a government maintained quarantined center

Based on your answers, they will collect your passport and the first token, enter your records into an excel sheet and give you another token along with the passport, and ask you to sit until they get back to us. The second token was with a number and you can see a board with a hotel name on it near the table.

Passenger handling at the BIA by Sri Lankan Army — April 2021

What these officers are doing is that, if you are going to a paid quarantining center, they will pick one from the available pile and put it on aboard. Collect the number of vacancies and ship them to that hotel.

When I was waiting for my flight in Dubai, from an official contact, I got to know that the Army commander had decided to do the hotel assignment based on the flight and because it’s easier to keep track of the passengers. As a passenger, this is very concerning for me because, if I’m paying the full price and I have some special requests, what if the place I’ve been sent to doesn't have the capability to attend to those requests. Yes, I understand that this is not a vacation, but if someone is not getting the service they are paying for, that is a violation of their rights. But luckily, the flight I was on from Dubai to Colombo was assigned a good hotel in Tangalle which had all my requirements. But unfortunately, when I got to the counter, the officer in charge said that the hotel assigned is not available yet and I will be redirected to another 4-star hotel in Mirissa. I said as long as they have what I requested, I don’t mind and the officers assured me that the place is a 4-star resort. Because I needed to support the proceedings and thought these officers are not misleading the passengers, I agreed to go to that place.

After spending 2 hours in the queue and getting a hotel (4 stars as the army officers claimed) to be quarantined, we were advised to be seated again until the buses are there to pick us up. We had to wait more than an hour to finally get the word to get onto the bus. I put my luggage on the bus and got in and sat down. I must mention, no one was caring about social distancing. The bus was packed. After waiting another 30–35 minutes on the bus, another army officer got onto the bus and said the bus was having some trouble and asked everyone to get onto another bus and put all the luggage into a container truck which will follow that bus to the quarantining center. PERFECT!

So the journey was from BIA to Mirissa. 176 km and 2 hr 31 min if you maintain the average speed. If you are driving a heavy vehicle, of course, it could take somewhere up to 3 hours and it’s completely understandable.

But the journey I had to take took almost 6 hours!!! Surprised? Let me explain. So the convoy had 4 vehicles! One escorting vehicle, two passenger busses, and a container truck! To be honest, it felt a bit like a VIP when we cruised through traffic lights until we enter the highway from the Katunayaka entrance. As soon as we enter, instead of keeping the recommended speed limit of 100km/h, the convey traveled somewhere around 50–60km/h. I was super tired to noticed that so I kinda dozed off a bit. But when I woke up, the bus was parked at the side of the road and the driver was outside and smoking a cigarette leisurely. A few minutes later he got on to the bus and telling a passenger that the other bus driver was going all over the road because he almost fell asleep at the steering wheel and that’s why they stopped for a bit.

After few minutes we started moving forward slowly and again after 30 minutes we stopped. This time most of the passengers got pissed when the driver got out from the bus and, sat down on the roadside, and started smoking another cigarette accompanied by a few army officers (no they didn’t smoke). Some of the elderly passengers started making a scene and started scolding everyone. Then a soldier got on to the bus to explain the situation. From his words (translated).

Sir, we are stopping here because the driver in front of us is falling a sleep at the steering wheel and we gave him a few minutes to rest his eye. Otherwise he could have met with an accident with all the passengers on board. What do you prefer, meeting with an accident of going to the quantine hotel a bit late? These are not army boys! If they are, then we will get you where you want to go on time. I myself haven’t selpt in 4 days and serving people like you. These are civilian drivers. As we take care of you, we have to take care of these guys also. Kindly try to understand!

This makes complete sense to me! In fact, I kinda encourage this, even I’ve been on flights for 30+ hours and haven’t had anything to eat since I landed in Sri Lanka for more than 6 hours. But the concern was if the drivers are tired, why were they assigned to drive passengers in the first place? Why they couldn’t find another driver or create some kind of a shift-based system to handle this more effectively? Who knows!

After all these, I finally got to the place where I was supposed to be quarantined for 7 days. (I’ll write about the whole quarantine experience in another article). The most disappointing factor about the hotel was that when I was assigned a hotel I specifically mentioned that I will be needing a quiet place with a good internet connection to work remotely with my Canadian team. The officer in charge guaranteed that and said since this is a 4 star rated hotel and I don’t have to worry about it. First and foremost, don’t use google review ratings as hotel ratings. Even though they claimed it was a 4-star resort, I kinda knew something was fishy, but after looking at google photos, I thought it was kinda nice. (FYI: the Aliya resort and spa in Sigiriya; that luxurious hotel is also a 4-star hotel. It’s an actual 4-star rated hotel). This is where I blame misusing professionally shot photos on their google page. The photos I saw online and the ones I’m experiencing now are like the land and sky!

Of course, this place would be a decent quarantine center for someone who doesn't want to spend a ton (because it was a 9000LKR-full board for a single occupant and 10000LKR for double sharing). Actually, for people who are coming from middle eastern countries and want to save their hard earn money, this is an ideal place. The food is decent, the staff is very helpful and the room is livable.

But for someone with a few special requests and doesn’t care about where the location is as long as those basic requests are met, this is not the place. I mean, I personally requested a place with a reliable WiFi connection and a quiet place to get my work done, from the get-go because I want to spend my hard earn money at a place where I can get the work done without any problems. It’s simple as that. If you think that’s a selfish reason, let me give a selfless reason. Why would someone willing and can afford to stay at a more expensive place is cramped at this place where that place can be allocated to someone who really wants to save some money for their families?

By the time I write this article, it’s only been 40 hours since I put my feet in Sri Lanka and barely 24 hours since I came to this hotel. I was lucky enough to reach out to a few of my contacts in the Sri Lankan Army and explain the situation and request a change of places to spend the rest of my quarantining days. But why didn’t they take my request seriously in the first place way before I put my foot on the airplane and even at the airport? It was neither a huge request nor have the resources to do so. The officers who handled this were ignorant, misleading and now see where everyone lead to because of that.

Let me tell you the funny part of this whole experience. When I was talking to the Army officers I know, you know what they said. They said this entire problem is created by the management of the Army itself. Army soldiers and officers are good at a handful of things. Fighting in a war, defending and protecting the country, and obeying rules are only a few things. Sri Lankan tri-forces are the gems in its citizen’s eyes because everyone is really proud and grateful for what they have done. But what will happen if you try to test the skill of a fish from the way it climbs a tree? It’s the same problem here!

As an engineer, I tend to think about a solution when I am faced with a problem. When I was waiting at the airport and on my way to the quarantining center, I thought of a simple solution using which the government could have mitigated this entire problem from the first place (including the request process). As far as I’m aware, the Sri Lankan Army has a cyber unit and they are doing wonders. But why couldn’t they just wrote a few code lines and create a simple web app to ask passengers to book their requested quarantine center for their budget and convenience? Why convenience? At the quarantine center, I was assigned to, there were a few people from Anuradhapura. That’s 325.9 km and 5 hr 36 min away from the quarantine center. Has anyone thought about how they are going to go back home after completing the hotel quarantine?

Actually, you don’t have to write an application to get this done. You can create a simple google form to get the work done. Don’t believe me? Here’s something I just created while writing this article. https://forms.gle/WVCAESU4GN1keogC7

With the exported excel sheet from this, you can actually manage the situation much better.

So there you go! I didn’t only point to the problem, I proposed a solution as well. I know things are easier said than done, but if you actually think about it, it’s possible to get done.

If we get back to the point, while I was talking to my contacts in the Army, what they said was everyone is disappointed about the current proceedings with managing Covid cases and everyone blames the Army. Because a handful of people goes on media every day and speaks a high game and get praises from the president while a majority of soldiers and officers are suffering without any rest. As human beings when someone is at the breaking point, they make mistakes. After committing for the well-being of the rest of the population, these Army boys and girls are way past their breaking points. But does the country leadership or even the Army leadership knows what’s going on at the ground level? When the leadership says everything is going well to the people, people think everything is going well. Unless you experience it from the ground level itself.

By the time I complete this article, it’s been a few weeks since I completed my mandatory quarantine period (both at the hotel and home). Now in late April 2021, Sri Lanka is going through another Covid-19 wave and the authorities are trying their best to keep everyone safe.

The purpose of this article is not to point fingers and blame the people who are actually working on these matters. I just wanted to show what’s wrong with the processes so someone can attend to that and fix it. As Mahatma Gandhi said, If you want to change the world, start with yourself. So this is a big process which you can’t fix from top to bottom. Because the entire process is 90% corrupted. But we can focus on that 10% and work on that.

That’s been it, guys! I hope this article gave an understanding of the processes going on in Sri Lanka and if you like this, please read the 2nd article I wrote about my quarantining experience. Until we meet again from the next article…

Signing off:
Kavindu Narathota
(www.narathota.com)

Read more: http://www.narathota.com/#blog

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Kavindu Narathota

Kavindu Narathota

After working in the tech industry for a while, I learned a thing or two about Software & Product Engineering. www.narathota.com