Guest post by Graham Rankin
My two weeks in Sri Lanka kept me in the capital, Colombo, most of the time. I traveled across town each day between my hotel to the building where I held my training class. It always seemed to be rush hour both ways so I had an opportunity to observe the usual heavy traffic of a major city combined with some more unusual sights of a Southeast Asian country. I enjoyed being driven everywhere; in the mornings by a driver and car from the hotel and in the evenings taking a cab. Automobiles are expensive and with gasoline equivalent to $4.86/gallon, it is too much for most workers. Salaries are low compared to the US, so most Colombo citizens take mass transit in the form of buses or by tuk-tuk (3 wheeled vehicles imported from India) or motorcycles.
Being a former British colony, driving is on the left and must negotiate numerous “round-abouts” or traffic circles. It seems that whoever honks the loudest has the right of way and the white line down the middle of the road is only an “indication” of where one drives, rather than a hard rule.
There are some traffic lights at some major intersections or traffic cops direct traffic. The large white gloves they wear have red reflectors on the palms. Several major intersections have no traffic control whatsoever so you just have to sit back, stay calm, and let your driver honk his way through.
Road construction made matters even worse along with pedestrians, handcarts and things OSHA would definitely object to. Amazingly in my two weeks there, I saw no accidents.
Cabs are relative inexpensive by American standards. It cost 900 Rs (about $8) to ride across town, about 30-40 minutes. From the airport (well outside the city), the trip costs $28. Cabs like other cars there, are mostly Japenese or Korean subcompacts with the occasional hybrid like a Toyota Prius. I highly recommend taking one, but metered cabs must be arranged well in advance or you need to negotiate the fare before leaving. Also, I had been forewarned that even with the address written down, your driver may need to stop and ask directions. Fortunately most know the location of the major hotels so getting back is easier than going some place. It took a few days for the hotel drivers to learn the way to the Government Analysts Building located on a small side street off a major street so could be hard to find, and understandably, not someplace most people would need to know. I did tip the driver of the hotel car 100 Rs (less than a dollar) as well as the cab drivers. It may not seem much to us, but wages are low there.
A common question cabbies asked was is traffic as bad in the US as in Colombo. I said yes in the big cities like Colombo, but at least we don’t have tuk-tuks. Everybody hates tuk-tuk drivers there so this always got a big laugh. Tuk-tuk drivers in Colombo make New York cabbies seem like someone’s granny.
I did brave taking a tuk-tuk from the city market. You sit in the back and hang on tightly to whatever looks most connected. I probably was overcharged at 250 Rs ($2) for what should have been 150 Rs. Another gullible American, but he didn’t get a tip! However, upon finding out that I was an American (I was often assumed to be from Australia), he asked my opinion about the US pushing for the UN to investigate possible war crimes by the Sri Lankan government. You probably are unaware of the issue here, but it was front page news there. My response was “I don’t always agree with what our government does, just like you probably don’t agree with yours”. I figured that was a good neutral response and certainly satisfied my driver.
Reminder to self: next time I travel, to be a better world citizen, read up on current events.