It is often said that you can’t know a place until you’ve tried out the local public transport system. Nevertheless, transportation remains as one of my least favourite aspects of travelling. No matter how much local flavour it brings, there is nothing appealing about being jam packed into a barely-functioning bus as it judders over rocky roads, twisting and turning until at long last, you are coughed out at your destination, caked in a day’s worth of sweat (not necessarily your own) and grime. However, Sri Lanka’s public transport system (and the corresponding Sri Lankans who commute on it) brought me so much amusement throughout my trip that I felt the need to compile a list of my observations, which I have titled Sri Lanka Transport Model Facts.
SLTMF #1: In Sri Lanka, distances and the time it takes to cover them appear to be fairly unrelated. On good, paved highways, vehicles travel at up to 70km/h. Elsewhere, if you see a signpost which tells you that your destination is 22km away, you would be a fool to think that you’d be there in 20 minutes – the actual journey is more likely to take over an hour. As a ball park, vehicles in Sri Lanka travel at an average speed of 25kph.
SLTMF #2: Just when you think the bus is absolutely packed beyond belief, it is only half full. Buses are commonly seen tilting precariously to their left from all the passengers who have managed to cram themselves on to the bus and are only barely hanging on.
SLTMF #3: There is no bus stop. There is only bus briefly-slow-down-hop-on-or-off-as-you-wish.
SLTMF #4: At all times, it is necessary to honk. If someone is in your way, you must honk. If someone is approaching you, you must honk. If you are passing someone, you must honk. If you see a friend along the road, you must honk. If someone honks, you must honk. If in doubt, just honk.
SLTMF #5: Further to fact #4, if you see a friend, you must stop for a chat. After the customary honk of course. It is preferred that your friend be driving in the opposite direction, such that the chit-chat session holds up traffic entirely for maximum effect.
SLTMF #6: Drivers have an unnerving habit of using empty Vodka, Chivas Regal, Jack Daniels, Johnnie Walker etc bottles as their water bottles, and swigging out of it repeatedly while driving.
SLTMF #7: Seat reservations mean nothing to Sri Lankans – it only serves as an entry ticket to the vehicle, after which you are free to sit yourself anywhere you please. It is only the foreigners who troop dutifully to their assigned seats, only to find a snoring Sri Lankan occupying every inch of it. Consequently, a family of 24 holidaying Sri Lankans that have made 24 seat reservations will find it a most confusing affair to sort out their seating arrangements in a carriage of 30 pax, 6 seats of which are already occupied by law-abiding foreigners. Expect much shouting, shuffling, family conferences, and reshuffling before the seats are sorted out.
SLTMF #8: Having painstakingly sorted out their seating arrangements, Sri Lankans will opt to spend the rest of the journey NOT in their seats, but rather, standing around, chatting.
SLTMF #9: When embarking on a long journey with friends or family, it is necessary to bring along an assortment of percussion instruments like drums and tambourines. This is required for the mandatory long-trip sing-and-dance session.
SLTMF #10: Sri Lankans are enormously friendly, and the sight of a foreigner walking along the streets will garner much attention from the locals, who will want to know where you are going, and will want to help you get there. However, it is not uncommon to receive 10 different instructions from 10 different locals, with distances to the same place ranging from 500 metres to 2000 kilometres. Chances are, out of the 10, perhaps only three know where the place really is, and only one or two have actually understood the destination you are referring to. However, due to the ubiquitous head waggle which in the Sri Lankan culture could mean pretty much anything from “I understand you” to “What is this strange language you speak?”, you will just have to take your chances on who to believe.
Despite the mayhem of trying to get around in Sri Lanka, one of my most tranquil moments was taking the 7-hour cross-country train from Haputale to Colombo. Having splurged the full S$7.50 for a first-class (or observation car) ticket, I was treated to amazing vistas as the train snaked across the hill country.
As the rolling hills outside the window gave way to valleys, brilliantly green tea plantations and hordes of waving school children when we rumbled past a village school, the transportation hater in me had one of those rare moments where I thought, this isn’t bad at all.