Zandi came up with a great idea before they left Sri Lanka. What if I rented a tuktuk and drove through Sri Lanka? As I like creative and sometimes shitty ideas I accepted the challange. It took a bit more trouble than I initially thought but I succesfully rented a tuktuk and my backpacking trip became a roadtrip.
To get a tuktuk is not a big deal but it needs some preparations. First of all, I needed a Sri Lankan driving license and for that I only needed a valid UK licence for motorbike or car. As I have a licence for both I was good to go. I believe it’s possible to get one without a motorbike licence but I wasn’t given a clear answer when I asked just out of curiositiy. Why would I want to know when I had one anyway? They just didn’t understand it. Anyway, before applying for my licence I had to extend my visa as I only had it for one month inititally. That’s when I was sucked in and met the world of paper lovers. Or the bureaucrats in other words. Here in Sri Lanka everyone loves papers. Or paperwork. They love writing everything down at least three times. And signing everything twice . And then stamping every single signature. They adore every type of paper from tiny ons to A4. But they hate the A4 actually. They cut every A4 paper into half. I’m not sure if they do it to save money or the Earth but they just love it. They use A5 for printing and photocopying too. I only realized that when I had to print out some offical forms which I had to send back to London. Where else would I do my paperworks than in Sri Lanka? I found an internet cafe where the guy could only print out my forms onto an A5 sheet. I kindly told him I prefered A4 as I still need to fill it in and I can hardly read the questions. He told me that it’s no possible, Sir. Say that again? Not possible to print out on A4? I showed him how to change a few settings but he was adamant. No sir, no possible. It only took me one and a half hours and three different cafes to have my forms printed out as I wanted.
To extend my visa I had to go back to Colombo. Since I travelled back to the capital with Zandi it was really convenient to sort out my papers at the same time. It would only take 1 day. In theory. In practice? Nope. I read various forums on the internet about how this visa extension works but it was simply so complicated so I thought I’d just go there and see what happens. I’ll try to be brief. Once I arrived to the Department of Immigaration I had to queue for about 10mins to get a form. Once I filled in the form I had my photo taken. Then I had to go to another counter where my papers got signed without anyone checking any information I had given, then I received a number. Then I was told to wait until my number was called. I sat down and waited patiently. About one and a half hours later my number appeared on a TV screen. I quickly got up and handed over my forms to a guy who again didn’t even look at my papers he just checked a form with my number on it, signed it, scanned it and told me to go to another place and wait there. What the hell is going on? I only waited to wait more? I guess they just wanted to know if I was still around and didn’t go home.
I walked to another waiting room where I waited for another hour. When my number came up again, finally somebody took my papers. But without even remotely showing any interest he just signed it three times, stamped it, took my passport, gave me another piece of paper and told me to come back tomorrow. Wtf? I thought it would ’only’ take 4-6 hours to get my visa. No, Sir. Come tomorrow. I would have liked to ask a few questions but he was already busy signing another visa application. There was no point to argue so I left peacefully. I waited 3 hours just to be told to come back tomorrow. As I walked through the hall I felt sorry for the other applicants with huge backpacks queueing for the forms as I knew they would have to come back the following day. They were mostly white tourists from Europe or the States but it was a bit odd to see a few monks in saffron robes waiting for their visa. They are devoted, holy people and still cannot escape the world they live in. They could at least practice how to be patient. Meditation practice. I spent the rest of the day with drinking and doing nothing as without my passport I couldn’t go to get my license.
The next day I got a taxi back to the immigration office. Which was a bit annoying as the office was out of town and I had to pay a hefty sum for the drive. Twice so far. Since I knew my way around I confidently walked into office where I was the previous day and sarted asking around where I should wait to get my visa. To my surprise I got another fuckin’ number and was told to wait at the cashier counter. Sure, why not? I had the whole day to wait around. In about an hour I was called to the counter and I paid the visa fee. Once I received at least 3 receipts signed at least twice I was sent to another office to finally receive my passport. As I entered I saw many familiar faces from the previous day. None of them were jolly to be there again. I sat down and waited. Luckily, I had my guidebook with me so at least I finally had the time to think about where I should go next. I only had one hour to go through my book as I heard my number being shouted through a loudspeaker. No screens this time. But who cares? I got my 3 months visa. I am more than a 100% sure that it’s all about the money and noone read my application as I clearly remember fucking up a few details in the form.
Since I was already in ’waiting in offices’ mode I took another taxi to get my Sri Lankan driving licence. I hoped it would be quicker but unfortunately it was worse. Once I arrived I was shown to the foreigner counter which I thought was a good sign as there are less foreigners than Sri Lankans in this country. There was only two people in front of me. I waited for one fuckin’ hour! One. Fuckin’. Hour. Why? Because someone always appeared out of nowhere and jumped in front of us. Which is in fashion in this country. If you don’t push the money to the face of the shopkeeper and say what you want even before saying hello you starve to death. Being in this country for a month I had time to get used to it. I don’t even say ’hi’ or ’thank you’. Only on special occasions. I just walk into a shop, put the money onto the counter and say ’two cool beers’. That’s it. That’s all I say. And I leave. The shopkeeper says even less. So who are these guys pushing really hard to get a licence? They are agents who can arrange for a Sri Lankan licence in 15 mins for foreigners. Obviously with some extra money. It costs three or four times more than through standard procedure. It’s for those who don’t have a day to waste. But I do. I have nothing else but time. And I also wanted to experience this whole process. And I could also practice how to stay calm.
So when it was my turn I thought that was it,finally in the finish . Nope. Far from it. Another photo and another form to fill in. But at least that guy showed a little interest in my details. He signed and stamped it multiple times and I was herded to another counter. The 2nd clerk checked my form and signed it again. And I had to go to another counter where all my paperworks were scanned. Then off to another counter where I paid a fee, got another five signatures and was shown to another counter. Where I received multiple print-outs with shit loads of signatures. And finally, at the 6th counter I received my Sri Lankan licence. 4 hours later and 2000Rs short I had everything necessary to stay in the country and drive a tuktuk.
They just love this shit. When I was in Hiriketiya I had to wait 20 mins to exhange sterling to rupees. I had to fill in three froms and speak to two agents just to get my money. It’s the same everywhere. Like at the post office. I just wanted to get stamps for one letter. The first guy measured the envelope and wrote down the weight onto three different papers. The second guy checked that the weight was measured correctly and calculated how many stamps I needed and third guy finally gave me the stamps. And they always deal with multiple customers at the same time. It would be much faster if they were dealing with one person at a time. But that’s Sri Lanka. Red tape at its best.
There is a place called Negombo just off Colombo by 20kms. For some reason Negombo is the place to go and get a tuktuk. It was easy to find one I just needed to get a good deal. I was told it was possible to ask around on the street as most of the drivers are renting their tuktuk as well so they might know someone who knows someone who has the best deal in town. It might be cheaper but a bit shady too. Driving in this country is stressful enough for me. I didn’t want to worry if something happened to the tuktuk or me. The agency sorted out the insurance and they even promised if anything went south I would get another tuktuk within 24 hours anywhere in Sri Lanka. After I signed the agreement I took a first glimpse at my new friend who were to become my companion for the rest of my stay. She was a beauty! Red reinforced steel alloy body, three wheels, a powerful two spark 4 stroke engine with a max speed of 65km/h and Hydraulic Expanding Friction Shoe type brakes. I have absolutely no idea what all that means. The guy also kindly offered some training which was a really good idea as I was shitscared. He took me to a training ground. Which was essentially a football pitch. No kidding. Or maybe a cricket ground. In 2 minutes he quickly showed me the ropes and handed me the keys. Your turn. Good luck. Fuck me.
The three wheeler is a really simple car. Or bike. Or something in between. It has one more wheel than a bike but comes without doors. Also it has a co-rotated clutch level. I googled it. The clutch is on the left hand bar and to change gears the handle needs to be turned up or down. Vespas use the same system if I’m correct. The brake pedal is on the right side operated exclusively by bare foot. It wouldn’t work otherwise. But I was specifically told I should only use the brake in emergencies. Otherwise I should use the horn. It has a windscreen wiper but no liquid. The whole thing feels really dodgy. But there are more than 1.2million tuktuks in Sri Lanka so they must be good for travel. The top speed is limited at around 65km/h but the speed limit is 40km/h anywhere in this country. 40km/h is not much. I could almost get out and take a piss without even stopping. But at least I can enjoy the scenery and even if I hit something at that speed I’d probably survive. The cow would for sure. And I like that I don’t have to wear a seatbelt and a helmet.
Once I had my 20min training I was left alone with Bip Bop. Yes, I named her. I had to. I was planning to leave Negombo the same day but I was too scared to drive. I quickly booked a room and rushed to a bar to have a nice cool beer and plan my first roadtrip in Sri Lanka. I didn’t see much of Negombo but it was very similar to a messed up beach town with lots of tourists and cheap bars. I wouldn’t stay there for more than a day. There are better places with better beaches in the southern part of Sri Lanka. It’s a good last stop as the airport is about 15mins away.
The place I booked was one of the shittiest so far. I had my own room with a bathroom but noone told me that all the other guests would use the same bathroom. So they walked through my room every time they left something behind. The only good thing about this place was its name. Sylvester Villa. I had to stay there…
The following day was THE day. Drive or die in shame. Or both. I wasn’t sure how it would go and how far I could go so I roughly planned my trip and aimed at a city around 130km away. Which isn’t that far. By car it would take 1-1.5hrs on the highway. In Sri Lanka with Bip Bop it took me 6 painful hours. It’s too much. These vehicles are designed for quick trips and short distances. Not for roadtrips. Nowadays I only drive 50-60 kms a day. Anything more than that is just too painful. I mean it’s comfortable as I drive sitting and I can lean back. But the stress and the bumpy roads are a killer. My wrist hurts the most after all that gear changing. Even my skin peeled off around my thumb. But I am fuckin’ loving it! It’s such a good way to travel in Sri Lanka. Obviously, I miss out all the fun which comes with traveling on jam packed, hot trains. It’s a bit lonely. But it has so many other benefits. I can go anywhere anytime I want. I can stop for as long as I want. And since I want to take a lot of pictures it’s really convenient. If I see something interesting I just stop. I can end up on roads that are not even on Google maps. I can stop where other tuktuk drivers park and we always have a conversation. Just a few words. Usually I end up giving them cigarettes but in exchange I get to know a few local gossips. Although I miss out on the little chit chats with fellow travelers but I have other chit chats with other tuktuk drivers which I wouldn’t have otherwise. I’m one of them now. And they treat me like that. Everyone is really curious about why I drive a tuktuk. And they love it! I even had a few passengers. As from a distance I look just like any other tuktuk and people try to hail me. But once I get closer and they notice that something is really weird about that Sri Lankan guy as he is white and pale they just smile. And I smile back. I stop for foreigners though. Once I took a German couple to their hotel and another British couple to the train station. But my favourite story so far is about a school boy. I was driving in the mountains and I stopped only to take some photos. Out of nowhere a little boy approached me. Where are you going? – he asked. Nurawa Eliya – I said. That’s good, and he hopped in. Without asking me if that’s ok or not. It was so weird that I couldn’t say get the fuck out. So I took him home. We drove around 30kms and had a basic conversation. Once he was home he got out with a big smile. He has a story of a lifetime. Me too! I was jut wondering how his mother let him drive away with me. And also why didn’t we take her as well? It’s fun. Really fun.
Again, I’m a bit behind with my blog so when I write this I already drove more than 1000kms. That’s a lot. Even by car. But now I can drive confidently. Even in the dark. It took me at least 600kms not to be afraid to drive after sunset. As the towns are not flooded with light and also Bip Bop hasn’t got the best lighting system I see shit. But after two weeks on the road I can now understand how the traffic works here. There is one rule. There are no rules. Nothing. If you can go then just go. They might have heard about the highway code but definitely no one gives a shit about it. The pedestrians are in the bottom of the food chain. Everyone hates them. Me too. A zebra crossing or a pelican crossing only increases the chance of survival but not guaranteed. Next up are the tuktuks and the motorbikes. They are relatively fast but still expendables. The next level is for the trucks. Yes, they are way below the top predators. Buses are the most cruel of all of them. They stop for no one. Literally. I don’t think they even have a break. Instead they have massive and loud horns. Their favourite preys are the tuktuks on a 30 degree downward slope with double white line and hairpin corners. If they overtake you you have to step on the brakes as they think if they don’t see you then you are not there and they start coming back to your line. Once I was overtaken by a truck which was overtaken by a bus at the same time. We are talking about single line traffic. Obviously, I was the one ending up in the hard shoulder. Instead of brakes they use horns. Every. Fucking. Time. But after driving more than a 1000kms I’m starting to understand the ’horn language’: I’m on your left side/ Watch out, I’m overtaking you / Fuck you / Would you care to go to hell? / Do you need help or why else did you stop in the middle of the road?’ / Go. Away. Now / Hi, how are you?/ And based on the questions you have several answers too: Sure, no problem / Where are you, on my right? / This is my road, find yours bitch / No, you fuck yourself / Go ahead then, asshole / I’m good but my engine stopped and I’m a rookie so don’t abuse me/. On the other hand I noticed, sometimes, they say thank you. One short mellow burst of the horn. And it works. Traffic is like a huge organism. One big family.. Everyone knows their place within the system. No one hates the other. Everyone is calm. If someone cuts in front of you you don’t become mad or angry. Why would you? You would do the same. From the outside it looks mental and crazy as hell but once you are in it all makes sense.
The odd thing is that there are so many policemen on the roads. Like every other kilometer there is one. Or two. They come in pairs. They are everywhere. My firts encounter with the law happened in the mountains when I was about to leave a roundabout. A policeman stopped me. It was night so I thought I forgot to turn on the lights or something. He asked for my papers and it was all fine. I was so proud to show him my Sri Lankan licence. Then I was told the reason why I was stopped. I didn’t give right of way at the roundabout as in Sri Lanka the vehicle coming from the right has the right to go first. Say what? Have you seen what’s going on on the roads? Noone gives a shit about the highway code. No one yields to the coming vehicle. They would only give way to Buddha if he was sitting on a bus. They drive as they please. I mean he was right but then he can stop everyone on that basis. And probably that’s what they do. I was told by a local guy I met in a bar in Kandy that you can always, always buy yourself out of trouble. Everybody does that. I started thinking about a figure how much I should give him? 1000? 2000? 5000? How much is enough? But I got away with a warning. As I was about to drive away one of the policemen approached me. Shit. What now? He asked me if I drank alcohol. I said the truth that I would never drink and drive. So no. I didn’t. Sure? – he asked again. Yes, I’m sure. Do you like beer? – he asked again. Yes I do, but I didn’t drink I swear. He then asked my phone number as he wanted to drink a beer with me sometime. Wtf? He asked me out? Just friends, no official. Well, I gave him my number as I couldn’t say no to policeman. And he left. And I drove away. He never called….
The roads are pretty good. The main roads at least. Any road with two or more digits are shit as hell. Once I had to drive on a road full of pits for 3 hours. Half way through I thought I just kill myself. My wrists were in pain from shifting gears all the time. The road itself was about 25kms. It took me 3 hours. A marathon runner would have done the same distance quicker. In the middle there was a 3 km stretch which was the best road I have ever seen in Sri Lanka. Wide, flat as a glass and no traffic at all. I found out later why. I was driving through a military base. After I saw half of the Sri Lankan army ground forces I was back to the same shitty road for another hour.
To be honest the first 100km was the scariest. I drove slowly next to the curb. I was like a shy animal in a jungle. Around 400km my confidence was back to normal and after 700km I was using the horn instead of the brakes. I’m not overtaking buses, trucks and other tuktuks. And I hate the pedestrians. They are reckless and they are everywhere. Zandi had a really good example of how they drive in Sri Lanka. There is a scene in the 4th the Harry Potter movie where Harry gets on a tripledecker bus and they drive through London. As crazy as it can get. If there are no more lanes they create one more. Or sometimes two more.
After leaving Negombo my real road tripping in Sri Lanka began. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I was ready for anything. Whatever happens on the road I would take it. In my next post I arrive to a holy place up in the northern part of Sri Lanka where monkeys stole my breakfast and left a huge mess in my tuktuk and where I almost helped a monk to get to Nirvana a little bit earlier than he expected….