Road rage is absent on Sri Lanka’s chaotic streets. All very enlightening, as Rob Ainsley meditates on…
I’ve been cycling in Sri Lanka. Partly to do its End to End, partly as an excuse to eat curry three times a day. Very good it’s been too: friendly people, lovely scenery, and frequent roadside stalls selling 50p fresh-fruit smoothies.
Travel opens up the mind. And other parts, depending on the purity of the ice in that smoothie. It’s about insights into other cultures, with cycling the best way to do it. And my biggest cultural enlightenment was on the streets.
Sri Lanka’s roads can be chaotic. Usually – a legacy of British colonisation from 1802 to 1948 – vehicles drive on the left. But buses – perhaps as a nod to the Portuguese, who also once ruled – often drive on the right. While the ubiquitous, clanky, rusty old town bikes – maybe because the Dutch were once in charge, too – can go any direction, nonchalantly carrying vast loads on the back rack. Half a banana tree; a six-foot pile of logs; a family of four.
It’s quite common, as you’re freewheeling the 80km of downhill from Nuwara Eliya to Kandy say, to round a corner and find a bus bearing down on you, overtaking a lorry, which is overtaking a motortrike-taxi in the shoulder. And a cow.
But don’t worry, they’re all taking best-practice safety measures: hooting. You meanwhile dive for the gravelly verge way to your left, hoping it’s not blocked by a pile of sand, or pack of feral dogs. (These are everywhere, have no road sense, and sleep in the middle of busy streets. Occasionally one runs after you, barking. I find shouting GO HOME!, suddenly pointing at them, scares them off. Which proves that, while a few phrases of Sinhala or Tamil won’t go amiss, you can get by in English.)
Signs are rare. With expansive place-names such as Modutakampaddankaddikudiyiruppu, they’d block the road anyway. And road markings are virtually non-existent: at junctions, streams of traffic ghost through each other. It’s not the custom to look as you merge into traffic from the left, either. You simply go, and get absorbed. Signalling is, I assume, not actually illegal, though I’ve never seen anyone do it.
I assume cycle helmets are not actually illegal either, because although nobody normal wears one, I did bump into the Sri Lankan Army Road Cycling team, all with lids. No fancy carbon frames or electronic shifting for them: they rode cut-down versions of upright town clunkers – 28 inch wheels, rod brakes, single speed. They were still plenty faster than me.
I’ve had several close shaves. Buses passing near enough for me to smell the armpits of the guy riding the footplate. Pity him for what he must have smelt.
Yet it’s never felt any more dangerous than cycling in Britain; and actually, less threatening. Partly it’s down to speed. Though buses go as fast as they can (fortunately, not that fast) traffic generally goes at a pace you can blend with.
But mainly that non-threat is down to culture. Lanka calmness. In four weeks of cycling I haven’t seen a single road user losing their temper, shouting or remonstrating. Buddhist serenity may be a factor, but up in Hindu Jaffna, the same rules apply. People just move out the way, smile, and get on with things. (Having experienced a thirty-year civil war and the 2004 tsunami, perhaps they can put being cut up by a taxi into context.)
It’s catching. I’ve not lost my rag here either. Even when an oncoming motor-trike passed between me and the mosquito about to sting me. In Britain – though usually pretty controlled – I might have been shouting and gesticulating. And all that ever achieves is ruin my mood, ruin my day.
So when I get back to England I’ll take a bit of Sri Lanka with me. That road repose might just spread. Even if not – even if White Van Man continues to yell and wave his silly fist – I won’t rise. I’ll smile, my only retaliatory finger-gesture being the Buddhist open-palm symbol of fear dispelled. Let’s all get karma.
As for the after-effects of that dodgy chicken curry in Anuradhapura, though, that’s one bit of Sri Lanka I’ll happily leave behind.