Sri Lanka is a gorgeous country, no doubt about it. But you need to travel the back roads to truly appreciate it, past the villages, the jungles, the temples and the majestic trees. The island is only 445 km (277 miles) long and 225 km (140 miles) wide so getting to its corners it not too hard to do. Many roads are being widened and paved although the construction crew can be a little unconventional.
I had no difficulties hiring a vehicle and driver (either tuk-tuk or car) as I went along. Tuk-tuk drivers are everywhere and if it wanted a car for a longer trip I’d make the arrangements through my hotel. The country was once a British colony so many of the drivers speak some English.
The drivers were all different, of course, and that’s what made it special because I was seeing the country through many eyes. I constantly asked questions about what I was seeing and they were not shy about throwing a few questions back at me such as “How old are you?” quickly followed by “Where is your husband?” and ending with “What do your children do?”
They were quick to understand that I wanted to see stuff outside the usual tourist itinerary. Like farmers and fishermen and school kids, women sweeping the dirt outside their homes, everyday life. They would say, “Is it good? You happy?”, for a happy customer could mean a tip.
I met one tuk-tuk driver who told me he had driven a French couple for 5 days and in the end they gave him enough money for a down payment on his own tuk-tuk. Now that’s generous and this guy was so happy. He kept saying, “They changed my life, they changed my life.” He had their name stenciled in big letters across the window of the shiny new vehicle and laminated photos of them taped to the walls.
Once, on a Sunday, the vice principal of a big high school was my driver because he wanted to practice his English. He was rather humourless. When I told him we didn’t need to stop for photos of stilt fishermen because they would want money from me he rather crossly said that they have to spend their day perched on a pole in the sea, under the hot sun, and sometimes they don’t catch very many fish. Okay, I felt a little sheepish but he was treating me like one of his students!
My favourite driver was Dull. I hired him for three days to take me around the Cultural Triangle and then over to Kandy in the hill country. He was totally professional, extremely well mannered and thoughtful too. I met his wife and four-year-old daughter and visited his wife’s family’s store. He drove me down all kinds of back roads and would get as excited about the stately trees as I did. I think I would return to the country just to see the trees.
Dull tried to answer all my questions. About arranged versus love marriages, living together before marriage, the stresses and strains between the country’s various religions. Discussion about the country’s long civil war were probably the most difficult for him for every driver seemed to know that Tamils came to my country, Canada, as refugees during the civil war. I asked him if he had to fight in the war and he said no, that he didn’t know what he would have done if he had been forced to because he would never use a gun for he is a very devote Buddhist.
He learned English on his own. He also studied Japanese for two years and his grandfather helped him financially to do that. At the time he didn’t know that hardly any Japanese would visit Sri Lanka. He wished that he had studied French and Italian for he really likes the Roman languages.
His dream is to have a B&B for foreign tourists. He has the land and the roof. It will take a few more years to do the walls. He knows foreigners want a very good washroom. We chatted about the need for a website.
The man he works for lives in Italy most of the time. He returns to Sri Lanka a couple of months a year and during that period there is no vehicle for Dull to drive. It is very difficult to get ahead in Sri Lanka if you are not in one of the upper classes.
One driver got my business as I was getting off the train in Kandy. He was in the passenger area instead of outside waiting like everyone else but I soon learned that such shenanigans were typical of him. He was a tuk-tuk driver and talked me into giving him all my business for a few days. He then talked his boss into letting him have a car so that he could drive this “gentleman lady” to the coast. And on the way there he talked me into meeting his “brother” who happened to own a safari business.
The “brother” gave me the craziest driver for the safari in Yala National Park. He was skinny, wore filthy clothes, was missing a few front teeth and had the biggest smile. His body odour was overwhelming. On the way to and back from the park he stopped a couple of times to buy and smoke a single cigarette or to have a pee in the bushes.
He wanted to be my guide although he spoke not a word of English and kept patting the seat beside him to suggest that I stay with him and not join the park ranger in the back. This is because it’s the rangers and not the drivers that get the tip.
But the ranger was a jerk, very rude to the driver. The driver said nothing, just did his job very skillfully. So I gave the driver and not the ranger the tip. A VERY big tip. He gave me a VERY big toothless smile. We were both happy.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2013