At night, soldiers dropped dynamite into the ocean at random – small depth charges designed to deter militants from sneaking into the harbor underwater.
So when boaters docked in Galle, Sri Lanka, they usually headed for a nearby hotel. The dull thud of the explosions reverberating through the hull made it hard to sleep on-board.
I was a teen when my parents, brother and I cruised into the harbor on the sailboat we called home for seven years. It was 2003 and would be another six years before the Tamil Tigers militant group would be defeated and the civil war that racked the country for 26 years would end.
I couldn’t resist spending one night on the boat to hear the blasts.
Thinking about it all 16 years later and 9,500 miles away, it sounds a bit crazy. Wasn’t it dangerous? Yet the view on the ground was dramatically different. Violence was rare and tourism thrived. There was so much more to the country than the politics and conflict.
There was the elephant orphanage, Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic and rolling tea plantations – the music, dance and firewalking. No doubt, the most dangerous part of it all was the driving. Our smiling tour guide earned his nickname, Mario Andretti.
What I will remember most are the people.
So my stomach churned when I read about the devastating series of bombings that killed about 250 people at churches and tourist hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday. Apparently, it was not the work of the Tamil Tigers, but an obscure radical Islamist group backed by ISIS.
News from halfway around the world tends to come to the U.S. in the form of wars, terrorist attacks, natural disasters and trade spats. And the last time I remember big news out of Sri Lanka was in 2004 when it was swamped by a catastrophic tsunami.
No news is good news, as they say. It’s something El Pasoans know all too well here on the border, which tends to get national attention when there is an immigration crisis or cartel-related violence. But there is so much more to this region.
When my family and I were in Suakin, Sudan, I remember one man saying his mother did not want him to go to America because she was afraid he might get shot – her view of the U.S. shaped by action movies, westerns and crime dramas. We heard a similar story in Egypt.
The influence the media has on how we view the world is one point I hoped to get across to more than 100 Wiggs Middle School students who recently visited El Paso Inc. for a field trip. I hope the students had as much fun as we did. There’s something about hanging out with young people that makes you dream again and see things like new.
The 6th graders got to see newspapers being printed on our big printing press with a tour by El Paso Inc. founder Tom Fenton, and El Paso Inc. Publisher Secret Wherrett and I had the chance to speak briefly with them.
I talked about how the news is made and what journalists do (and what they don’t do).
A recent poll by Reuters/Ipsos for Columbia Journalism Review found that nationwide about 60 percent of people believe journalists get paid by their sources. I occasionally receive phone calls from folks wondering how much a story costs – not from shady characters hoping to influence our coverage but from people who innocently believe that’s how the news is done.
The students and I also discussed the power of television, social media, books, news, video games and other media to shape what we know about the world – our mental maps. Could they imagine what countries like, say, France and Russia are like? Or do they have opinions about celebrities and politicians such as President Trump? Yet they may have never been to those countries or met the president. We know about them from what we watch and read. That’s one reason news organizations have an obligation to get things right.
One of my professors in college described the job of the journalist this way: “To see the world clearly – as it really is – and help other people see it clearly, too.”
That’s what we strive to do here every day.
Hopefully, it will be a long time before Sri Lanka makes headlines around the world again. And the music and dancing can resume.