Finding Sri Lanka, and then discovering it

Before the tsunami, Sri Lanka was not easy to enter - at least not for a foreign correspondent. You visited the embassy, met a diplomat, shared a cup of milk tea, then got your visa a week later. Or longer. After the tsunami, I got there in a day.

Landing in Colombo's tropical climate at midnight on Dec. 28 and being instantly waved through customs signaled how much this small island off the Indian coast of Tamil Nadu needed help. The airport itself was a relief coordination center. In a corner room, past posters for Sri Lanka's Yala elephant park and an incongruous duty-free special on European peppermint wafers, Sri Lankan officials met reporters and diplomats. No one felt sleepy. Our questions were basic: Where did it hit worst? What roads were washed out? Much information eventually proved wrong. But it was amazing to find officials treating us like family. That was Day 3.

Even after we spent two weeks in damaged villages, coastal landscapes, and refugee centers, one of the tsunami "side stories" was the amazement locals felt at simply being recognized by the outside world. In a way that citizens from large nations don't always "get," there is a profound desire by those in smaller locales to be acknowledged in the control centers of the world. The tsunami was a global-scale tragedy in an era of globalization. Many Sri Lankans expressed hope that Americans and Europeans will better know where Sri Lanka is.

"I think Americans ... have no idea what it is like to be from a small but proud country," said a diplomat from a small Central European nation. "You go abroad, and the first questions aren't about who you are. They are always 'Where are you from?' When you say 'Sri Lanka,' or 'Moldova,' and the retort is, 'Where is that?' - well, it is absolutely crushing."

Yet suddenly after the tsunami, world leaders crowded this nation's tropical-scented hotel lobbies. Sri Lankans are proud that science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke lives here and owns a scuba-diving school (wiped out in the wave). But a dazzling new level of fame arrived: US Secretary of State Colin Powell, Kofi Annan of the United Nations, James Wolfensohn of the World Bank, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fisher. Sri Lanka's president said half her time in the days after the tsunami was spent greeting dignitaries.

Sri Lankans turned their satellite dishes to CNN or the BBC and saw famous correspondents reporting from just two villages away. UNICEF volunteers from distant places were suddenly standing in their kitchens. US marines last seen in Baghdad were in their backyards, next to the family water buffalo, offering help.

Sri Lanka has an ancient civilization. It was governed by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British for hundreds of years. Today it has a literacy rate of 92 percent. Yet, as in most small states, there's a sense that this tiny teardrop island has been off the world's radar.

"It took the war in Vietnam for Americans to pay attention to Southeast Asia," says Kingsley Wickramaratne, governor of south Sri Lanka. "Very few Americans knew about Vietnam or Laos or Cambodia until the 1960s," he says. "The tsunami is, curiously, a form of free advertising for Sri Lanka. We may get a boost in tourists after the [cleanup]. The world has paid attention."

Aid is arriving from the centers of globalization. A need for clothes in the aftermath was eased when a boatload of T-shirts and sweat pants was distributed on Day 2. Displaced children were found wearing a certain jet-black T-shirt with American rap and rock stars depicted in a cheap air-brush style: Eminem. Nirvana. Snoop Dogg. Aerosmith. Even the image of Elvis Presley was seen amid the tsunami rubble. In Galle, a Japanese photographer wearing a Beatles T-shirt with the White Album depiction of the Fab Four was shooting refugee kids who wore Beatles T-shirts from the "Yellow Submarine" days.

Historically, many large states have assumed that small states are irrelevant or vassals. Or they just haven't paid attention. Joseph Stalin, standing before a wall map of Asia, once famously inquired about Sri Lanka. He thought it must belong to India. When told it was an independent state, he replied, "Why?"

Many Americans did not know where Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia were until the Yugoslav breakup in the '90s. The Baltics, newly independent in those days, were confused with the Balkans, far from where Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia are located. Koreans get annoyed at being misidentified as Japanese or Chinese. Not until the breakup of the Soviet Union did a range of small states get recognized.

The overseas response to the Sri Lankan tsunami may have reached its apex. Even by the second week, the government was turning away volunteers.

Media have found Sri Lankans to be friendly at a time when they had a right not to be. Monitor photographer Andy Nelson, who has spent time here and in Baghdad, said, "How often do you go to a place where people smile and rush to greet you, and you are invited to sit for tea in a pile of rubble where your host's house used to be?"

Young survivors eagerly hand out e-mail addresses, not always with the intent of gaining something in return. Again and again I heard: "We can talk to you." Sometimes it was said in English. One correspondent said the message he heard was: "Think about us. Don't forget us. I want you to know where we are on the map."

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