When we started to book our Sri Lankan vacation, we asked around regarding transportation. While taking the trains and buses would certainly be maximum immersion into the daily life of Sri Lanka, we have determined that our preferences lie safely away from the “backpacker” end of the backpacker <<–>> luxury scale. This is the result of several experiences with the backpacker option and also due to our short stays in the countries we visit – we would rather be doing and seeing things than figuring out our next mode of transportation. We decided to rent a car and driver for the 5 days we were in Sri Lanka. There are places to coordinate this ahead of time, however, we did this upon arrival at our first hotel in Colombo.

While I am relatively sure I *could* drive in Sri Lanka, it would be a ridiculously stressful and intense experience. Although Melissa and I make a very excellent navigator-driver pair, I think that driving here would have had us at each other’s throats – I think that if you can’t happily blame missing a turn on each other, then there isn’t a sufficient amount of candid communication within a relationship. This point became clear within about 5 minutes of being on the road.

There are a myriad of aspects of Sri Lankan traffic protocol and interaction that are worthy of comment, the use of the horn seems the most intriguing to me. Melissa assures me that Sri Lanka is a must easier place to drive than India – so these are naive comments that probably need to be revisited after my first trip to India. To an American, the horn has a single solitary meaning, whether it is a light tap to the horn (in the parking lot of a suburban 4-th grade t-ball game) or a long blast (on the highway during rush hour): “WHAT ARE YOU DOING, YOU @#$&%* IDIOT!?!?!”, only delivered at different volumes. Much like the various tones of Chinese language, my American ear has yet to fully understand the subtle horn exchanges in Sri Lanka. Let us consider a few cases:

1) Possibly the most prevalent example: a tuk-tuk (3-wheeled bumper car meant for transporting tourists and giving them practice in bargaining) is puttering slowly in your lane, well, in the only lane that is. I can only assume that there is a defined pecking-order which places these rolling toasters somewhere above motorcycles but well below anything with four wheels. My external observation is that those lower in the hierarchy are expected to hug the outside of the road, or in some cases off the road in order to let higher-ranked vehicles the ability to pass. In this case, a horn is warranted to remind the tuk-tuk that he still had a good six-inches on his left side, which he should utilize in all haste. It is amazing the number of tuk-tuks that are not clear on this point.

2) In this case, we have vehicles of similar standing, however, one is much slower than the other (I have no idea how “bad” drivers survive in this environment – I would assume there is an extremely fast attrition rate). Here the horn can be deserved for one of two reasons, as far as I have been able to tell: a) a friendly reminder to say, “I am here, don’t turn right or try to pass someone else!” b) You are an idiot and going so slow I would like to punch you in the face (not sure, this could be the American in me speaking).

3) Consider a motorcyclist or bicyclist, who is either carrying a car door and so is somewhat preoccupied carrying a car door or seems to have only clocked about 10 minutes on his bike and is meandering back and forth in the lane. This person gets a reminder honk that he should really re-think whether he (or the car door) belongs on the bike.

4) Another circumstance that warrants a beep is when someone is either on a side road or on the side of the road and thinking about entering traffic. Because the turn-signal is actually reserved for indicating that you want to pass, its use in actually indicating a turn seems to have long-since died out. Therefore, it is quite impressive that Sri Lankan drivers are able to sense when someone plans to merge without seeing a blinker (someone should really look into this related to ESP).

5) Possibly the most harrowing of honk-related episodes, which happen roughly every 5 minutes is that a fast moving object, typically with wheels, is careening towards you in your lane (recall there is only one lane, and apparently, it isn’t even yours). Here a honk is relevant to remind them that, hey, they are in your lane so they should consider returning to theirs. Although this usually works, it is not unusual to one vehicle passing another and a third vehicle overtaking the first. In this case the most you can hope for is about half of your lane and you should hope that your car has sticked to its no-diesel diet.

While the memory of Sri Lankan drivers regarding their defensive driving training is quite short, their memory of recent traffic transgressions is equally as short. In the end, the road is narrow and filled with tuk-tuks, and those that find their way around, find it with their horn.



The background image is a photosyth (full image) taken from our 32nd floor apartment.

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