Photo by Jim SoliskiColombo, Sri Lanka, is an agreeable city—except for the fact that the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government have been locked together in a grueling civil war since the early 1980s. The downtown area boasts lovely Palladian architecture from British colonial times, but many buildings are bunkered and cordoned off with razor wire. Photography is not permitted.
I was on a bus once when a security check halted our progress. Passengers were ordered to line up on the sidewalk, produce identification, undergo scrutiny, and then move to another area. I remained on the bus alone, lacking any urge to become involved. A soldier in full battle gear saw me—the lone figure sitting inside a bus that was supposed to be empty—and he boarded to inspect. At seeing me there against orders, his expression changed from surprised to grim. The military figure was turning bureaucratic in front of my eyes. But he still had enough weaponry and ordnance to revert back to his army roots in a single heartbeat.
"You have identification?" he demanded.
The day before, I had left my fully stamped passport in the Canadian embassy to have pages added. The embassy photocopied page one and the entry visa. I handed the trooper the copy.
"You have no passport?" he asked.
"It's in the Canadian embassy getting more pages. They gave me this."
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He didn't seem to like this answer. He stood for a few seconds in leery silence, and then his expression switched to uncertainty, most likely trying to settle in his mind if my presentation represented terrorism. His eyes moved the length of my body, stopping at my size 10-and-a-halfs. They intrigued him, probably because of their size—huge by Asian standards. His gaze shifted from my feet to my bag on the floor to the black shoulder bag clutched tightly on my lap and back to my eyes. It felt as though we were in a showdown in a cowboy saloon, but I could sense his conclusion: I looked innocent enough. But what page of the army manual covered misplaced Caucasian cargo? What path to take, which uniform and hat to wear?
After two years of crisscrossing Asia, I was confident that my shrug could compete with the best. I lifted my shoulders up and down in the universal shrug of the weak and unofficial and asserted my position: "Not my war."
This pulled him out of his reverie. He glanced at the paper once more, as if it held some answer for him, some clue to behavior under arms in a bus and, his face doing angry like I thought only Pacino could, dropped the unfolded voucher in my lap. The soldier turned smartly and exited the empty bus in silence.
The hush continued as I sat there sweating in the uncirculating equatorial heat, wondering by how much I'd just dodged a bullet.