View from the back of a bumpy trishaw
It was racing day on the Galle Road. There were bikers and joggers, each surrounded by about five motorbikes and trishaws. The sportsmen were fatigued but their mechanized escorts were having a hell of a time, occasionally tossing buckets of water
to make themselves useful for fun. Sri Lankan traffic is a joke which only becomes tolerable if you get it. Then it’s OK. You never go quite fast enough to kill yourself, but you can get angry enough to kill others. The trick is to avoid both and somehow enjoy the absurdity of these logic bending wormholes we call roads.
For the longest time there were no speed limits at all. First off, there are no posted signs, so one is expected to simply know. Second, some court ruling banned speed guns as being unreliable and not admissible, so the cops had no way of measuring your speed at all. The result was that they basically stopped clocking speeding at all. They would religiously cop you for crossing double lines, but you could go almost any speed you liked. These days, sadly, seem to have come to an end as I was recently copped heading south. With a speed gun, which was accurate. He let me go, but those were the days.
Sri Lankan roads are excellent if you drive in the middle of them. My friend had a driving instructor who advised him to straddle the lane marker and sorta follow it. Many trishaw drivers and others follow this policy and, indeed, it can be quite pleasing. If I’m alone on a road in the East or somewhere I do drive in the middle. In the city, however, it’s madness. There seems to be a basic lack of empathy borne, perhaps, of necessity. One has to be a bit of a madman to survive in a mad world.
There is basically no concept of a passing lane in Sri Lankan traffic. There is a road and the road sorta degrades near the edges. The ‘slow’ lane is for parked cars, children, malarial ponds, steep cliffs. There is a passing lane of sorts, whereby ministerial convoys will commandeer the entire middle of the road, but this is designed to stop traffic in both directions.
People driving in the slow lane still like to keep a good 10 feet from the side of the road, making both lanes impassable. It takes a lot of honking to get them to stay within the lines to which they are like ‘what?’ I suppose it is rather pointless to adhere to a dotted line when there are living and deadly things herding you into the middle of the road.
Sri Lankan traffic cops serve to basically monetize the chaos. At traffic stops, for example, they will be tasked to check for one and only one traffic violation. Taking a u-turn for example. They have the book for u-turns, they know what u-turns look like, that’s what they’re doing. Set up at a spot where people need to take u-turns (Galle Road, say) they catch a fair amount of fish. If, however, you should speed by this stop, or have 18 people in your trishaw, or be riding without a helmet, or lights, or wheels – not within the realm of perception. That traffic stop is designed to perceive one particular traffic violation and that’s it. If you have an accident directly in front of them they will walk over. Barring that, almost anything goes.
If you should get copped for, say, drunk driving, the police often do not have a car. They will instead get in the passenger seat and have the suspected drunk driver take them to the police station. This would theoretically make them accomplices in the act, but it is necessity. If you get copped and want to bribe them this is pretty much normal. You just hem and haw for a while, they mention how annoying court is, and you basically stand around and say ‘what can I do?’ If, however, you do not have appropriate change, the cops are generally happy to sit with you as you go the nearest ATM. Truly service with a smile.
Human habitation seems to cluster around transport networks. In Sri Lanka the habitation is literally on the transport network. The Colombo-Galle highways is also the front door, promenade, and playground for thousands of people. These range from slum-dwellers to sun-roasted German tourists. On certain roads if you hit someone you just keep going (to the nearest cop shed). Around Colombo University or in certain Wattes, for example. In a fatal or near fatal accident the driver and sometimes bus passengers will be dragged out and given a swift vigilante justice.
As you pass through towns you will notice that there is no ‘ring road’, the ‘highway’ is also the main street. As such you get to pass through, essentially, the center of the local marketplace, complete with herds of humans, goods and chattel crossing and criss-crossing at any time.
Sri Lanka is improving its road network, which is good, but the improvements immediately destroy the roads. One artifact which can be counted on, however, is the speed bump. Or hump, if you will. I have been places where there are no noticeable roads, but they’ve still placed speed bumps. The maximum speed is about 10km but it seems essential to reduce this to 2. These bumps are placed with people of no particular knowledge of cars and are often more dangerous than any of the obstacles on the road. There are small stupas to the god of undercarriage destruction.
Another facet of construction is that it is eternal. The road from Medavachchiya through Menik Farm was horrible and then got better. Then, inexplicably, it got horrible again. I think they tore the whole thing up to widen it, or to rebid the contracts. I don’t get it. The Anuradhapura-Puttalam road is also perpetually under construction. And this in patches. The road is carpet for about 500 meters before your car plunges off an edge into gravel, rocks, tremors and a pit of despairing souls. And then this repeats for like 50 kilometers. In darkness.
None of the visual horrors of the road, however, can compare to the unseen. It is not that Sri Lankan roads are unlit, which they generally are. It is more that Sri Lankan drivers willfully blind each other in a moving tragedy of the commons. Cars, you see, are equipped with high beams which give more light. Sri Lankan drivers seem to think that these, being brighter, should be used all the time. They either don’t know or ignore that these brights blind and infuriate oncoming traffic. Flashing your brights has no effect, except perhaps altering the REM characteristics of lumbering truckers. The only solution is to drive with your own brights on, trusting rage to heighten the senses enough to see.
There are moments when the light as strong as the light dying people see. You don’t know whether you’ll end up in Hades or the next bend of the Kandy Road. It is usually the latter, but who’s to say the two are not the same. Then the road is plunged back into darkness as your pupils reel. This eyeball strafing repeats, never giving you a chance to adjust to anything except impotent tears. This is night driving in Sri Lanka.
I’m sure there are more stories, but I have to get back on the road.