1000 Rupee note on the Tantra bar
I’ve been on the bus and trishaw a lot lately and I realize that I have to carry two distinct currencies. I still go to post places but I’m on (semi) public transit and I can’t even use the same money in both. There are gradiations, but there is one note which seems to effectively divide along class lines. The 1000 Rupee note is entirely useless in a bus or trishaw. You might as well offer a conductor USD and a trishaw drive will have to get change somewhere. That same note, however, is de rigeur for buying gas, ‘posh’ food or paying cover. Finding appropriate change is now one of the constant annoyances of my life. I can go to a First World Party in Bolgoda, but then I need change for Pilawoos and the three home. No car and you miss that petrol wormhole between one and two, forcing you to deal with the third world in between.
Third World – Bus
Currency: Coins, 10s, 20s (Best), 50s
I don’t mind the bus. At rush hour it make-a-me want to die and I just don’t do it, but they have some interesting iconography. There is also a certain freedom you get from public transport, being just you and the iPod, though the heat kinda beats it out of you.
Public Transit is fascinating for me cause it develops its own culture almost involuntarily. In Montreal each metro station had its own color and the cheery blue trains would chug around quite contentedly. There was even a rainbow metro stop for the gay district. In Colombo there’s no metro (god forbid we be underground) nor is there a coherent bus line. The buses simply go and the buses simply stop, mostly where they will. The big buses are all circa one date, I’d guess the 70s. There must have been a lot of new buses then. Now they’re all old and stripped down to bare seats and metal.
All the iconography of the bus system is in the buses themselves. Many have a portrait of Lakshmi behind the driver, coins flowing from her hand. Some have a portrait of Soma Thero, the Buddhist TV monk who died a few years ago. Besides them, the commonest Saint I see is John Cena, though that I rarely see inside the bus.
Now, as to the currency, there are divisions within the buses as well. If you take the big bus a fare from Battaramulla to Kollupitiya is about 7 Rupees (honestly guessing, I just give a 10 and don’t count the change). If you give a 10 or 20 is fine, they can fit and change that amount from their money-fisted hand. Fifty is more sketchy and 100 is effectively a loan. They’ll hold the money and give you when you get off. A thousand is a joke. 1000 cannot be spent on a bus.
The private A/C Buses are a bit different, but not much. The fare is about Rs 22, so 50s are fine. 100s are still sketchy but they work. 1000 again, not legal tender.
Second World – Trishaw
Currency: 20s, 50s, 100s (Best), 500s
The Second World doesn’t really exist, but as much as it does, trishaws kinda bridge the gap. I’m not crazy about the threes, but there the best and most available point-to-point transit. They can also cut through traffic, but it’s a rather precarious existence. It’s also not especially cheap. I pay about 250-300 to get ‘downtown’ from the Mullah and 100-200 for hops about. Can end up spending 1000-1500 a day if is a lot to do. It’s also hot and if I lean back my the back of my shirt gets soaked with sweat. Colombo is also velly polluted and you get it all in the face. That said, Trishaws are always there.
In terms of iconography, you can identify the driver’s religion pretty easily. It’s either Buddha (though the Buddha often appears with Lakshmi and Ganesh), or the Hindu Lakshmi/Ganesh, or arabic writing from the Koran. Or a pink Jesus, or that bald headed friar holding the baby. Sometimes if you’re the first fare the driver will touch Lakshmi and pay obeisance. There are also the classic classic posters in the back. Big fat chinese babies, baby penises, baby bums, flowers, ultimate cheese. One of my regular drivers has Rambo and Bruce Lee, which is pretty cool. Then there’s the writing on the outside. ‘Face is the Mirror of the Heart’, ‘Mother’ and the classic ‘It’s My Style’.
Currency-Wise, Trishaws are effectively the go-between betwixt the two worlds. I don’t think any bus-rider could afford to take Trishaw’s often, but if you have to move goods or babies that’s what it is. I honestly don’t know if they can make enough money from the carless few, nor do I know what their petrol costs are. I don’t know how many people inhabit the realm between bus, motorbike and car, but it seems to be enough to keep hundreds of trishaws running.
The best note to have in a Trishaw is by far a hundred. Then you can pay the fare and walk away, asking for Rs 50 change at most. Anything low sucks cause counting it is a pain. Five hundreds sort of work but they may not have change. 1000s, however, are the worst. If I’m walking around with a few thousands I may not have any money at all cause only 1/10 drivers will have that much change (depending on time out of day). It inevitably means stopping by a kade (which itself doesn’t want 1000s) to get change. Sometimes I seriously feel like I’m carrying dollars, the note is so useless.
obviously not this car. more car photos
First World – Car
Currency: 100s, 500s, 1000s (Best), Credit
Driving makes you irrepressibly angry, so I guess it’s a trade-off, but is definitely more comfortable than the above options. You can drive around in an air-conditioned cocoon, ensonced in your own music and conversation. Parking, however, is a bitch and there’s no soul to the beast. Cars are like big culture condoms that keep people apart from each other. I’m not saying they’re not good, but there are no chance encounters in a car, no random connections, and interaction is generally limited to honking and anger. Cities without public transit are some of the most dead cities I’ve been too, mainly cause they’re lacking that interactive space.
People don’t really keep religious or personal iconography in their cars. Some people go to extremes, but cars seem to be mostly functional, their only expression a long-term accumulation of junk in the backseat. Maybe people that drive aren’t as religious, I dunno.
Cars are one area where Sri Lanka matches and even outpaces the First World. The 100% tax on automobiles means that every Corolla is effectively a Beamer (as someone said). In the States you can look through the paper and buy a $1000 clunker, but that doesn’t seem to happen here. What’s annoying is that the papers don’t even post prices for used cars. Gasoline is also more expensive than most other countries. All this means that a Rs 1000 note ($10) is definitely legal tender for driving, as that won’t even fill up your tank. Most people that drive aren’t going to Odel or Cricket Club, but a lot do, and those places a 1000 or Credit Card is de rigeur. When I unfold a wallet full of well-rubbed 20s and 100s for a Rs 800 bill it just feels futile and annoying. 1000s are crisp and they can cover most situations you encounter in a car.
I’m not sure exactly what I’m getting at, but I just find it curious that there seem to be two distinct worlds where I need two different sets of currency. In the States or Canada there is one default note – the $20. You can use that for a taxi, for gas, for food, or for buying a stereo. I’ve never felt like there was anywhere I couldn’t tender a $20, nor have I ever felt like a $20 was too little.
However, here I don’t know what the default note is and I don’t know what bridges the two worlds. I need 20s to take the bus and I need 1000s for a night out. There’s no default I can carry. You’d think a 500 would work, but you can’t buy a Rs 22 fare with that and they’re honestly hard to find. The ample 100 doesn’t work either cause buying a (global) meal with that is like paying with one dollar bills. You have a fat wallet and no money. The only solution I’ve found is to carry both currencies. I carry 1000s and jealously horde any 100s I can find. There is a class divide somewhere, and it starts with the two comparments in my wallet.