When we returned to the visa application room to wait to be called to pay, it was if we had entered a different planet. The room was now thronged with people of every nationality you could imagine. I so wanted to take a photo of the rows and rows of people but thought better of it as this was a government building and I am trying not to embarrass the son and get myself arrested for doing something stupid.
There were white robed muslims wearing white crocheted skull caps, a koofi, kufi or koofi; head shaven, orange robed Buddhist monks; and one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. She had a tiny frame, and her long thick luxurious hair was worn in the one thick long plait. Her hair was a light auburn in colour but her huge eyes were kohl black with sweeping lashes and her lustrous magnificently shaped lips painted a beautiful shade of red (I thought immediately of Marion Creedon Hegarty’s workshop where she instilled in us the importance of highlighting what was best about ourselves and always to wear lipstick.) This woman was beautifully groomed and I think she was more Arab than Sri Lankan or Indian, although some of these women are really stunning. Her husband seemed to me to be an Arab and their little boy, about three, was just gorgeous.
The child ran, as all little boys do, racing about the crowded room, chased by a Chinese girl. She was so sweet with thin pigtails bouncing out from each side of her head. She wore shorts and a white top with a string of differently coloured tropical birds in applique designs framing the rounded neckline. Her face was more oval-shaped than the little boy’s and whether they spoke the same language or not, they spoke the language of childhood. Children don’t see colour or difference and theirs was the language of fun and play as they wheeled around between chairs and legs and brought a moment of joy to all who shared in their pleasure.
There were women in full burka wheeling pushchairs around. One little boy pushed his little brother’s pushchair up and down then tipped the front in the air and banged it down on the floor time and again. The smaller boy laughed delightedly with each bounce.
There were the inevitable back packers and groups of people travelling together, some of whom had their tour guide translate the procedures for them. There were also some people on their own or perhaps a couple who had employed a translator to see them through the process. The son and I, well mostly the son, managed to get ourselves through the system without asking for any translator or help.
There were people in wheelchairs, a couple of stressed out Americans, he calling to the counter every five minutes asking if their paperwork had come through. His wife followed him looking anxious and maybe they did have a deadline to meet but that is not how this country works as everything just takes a very long time.
There were the hippy type girls, one in particular who had a pigeon feather sticking vertically straight out of her head. She had tattoos, piercings, beaded bracelets around her wrists and ankles, and huge hooped silver earrings in the middle of which was the outline of a tropical bird. (My friend Mona would have loved these earrings.) What is it about pigtails these days? Everyone seems to have one. This hippy type girl had short unruly hair which looked as if someone had taken a knife and fork to cut it, but a long perfectly plaited pigtail hung down her back behind her right ear.
There were cheerful lads with dreadlocks and you just knew they were out to have fun, a very serious Chinese man who wanted application forms for his two sons, a Sri Lankan mother and daughter who were just ahead of us in the photographer’s queue, who looked anxious and doleful the whole day through. I wondered what they were so worried about. They both held the same demeanour, long sad faces getting more frustrated as the waiting went on.
Obviously we got chatting to others during the hours we were there. A lady approaching her half century, taking time out to leave the husband at home and visit her friends now that her children had grown up and gone. She was a freelance translator and could do her job from anywhere in the world. A pastor and his wife, both Sri Lankan but both working in Greenwich, London, for the past thirteen years, she at a Somerfield checkout and he preaching the Gospel. They were spending the winter in the warmth of Colombo.
Then there was the early retiree who had decamped from his London government desk job and his daily commute from the Sussex coast, with his Sri Lankan wife. His hoped-for pension had been drastically devalued but the offer of redundancy now or the department closing in three months – well there was no choice really and the redundancy too tempting to refuse. He has lost stones in weight since living here, misses his beer but not much else. He had a great disposition and was like a breath of fresh air in this sea of humanity we found ourselves. His wife of 12 years was beautiful and gracious and they are hoping to build on land they have bought here. The land is in his wife’s name and more of that later.
Apart from the two Americans, who wasted so much energy trotting anxiously back and forth to the payment desk, the hundreds who were in the visa room chatted amiably and shared news and travel plans and experiences. No matter what you did this was not going to happen any quicker and people just sat back and enjoyed each other’s company.
There was even a coffee dock which also had tea and soft drinks, where the man made me a sweetened Nescafe in a small paper cup which cost the equivalent of 25 cents. There was a machine too with chocolate biscuits and snacks.
Every so often a uniformed official would come through with a bundle of passports and application forms and call out a series of numbers We were V11 but there was no rhyme or reason or order as to how the numbers were called out.
However, people do not queue in this country. When the official came through lots of people jumped up off their seats to gather around him and when their number was called moved as quickly as they could to the payment desk where three officials sat behind a glass screened area. There was a gap where you could shove your almost 8,000 rupees, passport and paperwork through. You received a printed square receipt and then moved to wait over on the left hand side of the room for the return of your passport. That is the passport you have just handed back with the almost 8,000 rupees and your completed and approved application form. But the system is such that they cannot give you the passport there and then. It has to be taken elsewhere and you must wait until they decide to return it once more.