Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Walking to Work in SL

The fun of a walk to work in Sri Lanka

By Louise Gray

From Telegraph.com.uk

Louise Gray's blog of working for a tree conservation society in Sri Lanka

I have been in Sri Lanka long enough now to just about have a routine. In other circumstances that might mean things could get boring. Here it is quite the opposite. Take my walk to work.

As soon as I step out my front door on Kirula Road, Colombo 5 I am confronted by men with armfuls of guns. It is a local security firm and they are always very friendly but I have not quite got used to being greeted by groups of men unloading AK47s from white vans first thing in the morning.

I turn onto a dusty street already full of traffic to be greeted by a familiar cry: "Madam! Taxi!" It's the dawn patrol of tuk tuk drivers. I ignore them and walk on, but they persist. "Ok madam, get in".

"No, thank you," I refuse. "I am walking."

This will take some time to sink in as maybe one or two tuks trail me down the road hoping I will change my mind.

By the time I have reached my first obstacle fondly known as rat corner, because I usually narrowly miss stepping on a rodent at this juncture, they have peeled off.

advertisementI will get a few more by the time I turn on to Jawatta Road, the main thoroughfare I have to negotiate. The traffic is dreadful. Big Lanka Ashok Leylands, the local buses and undisputed kings of the road, roar past scattering terrified tuk tuks.

"There are zebra crossings which are meant to stop the traffic but the only protection they give you in Sri Lanka is if you are run over on a zebra crossing it is the driver's fault, whereas if its anywhere else it is your own fault. They would certainly not have much sympathy with someone so stupid as to attempt to walk to work, especially when I have so many offers of transport.

"Hello miss taxi?"

"No, really, I'm walking."

The roads I pass reflect the rulers of the country from the Portuguese Don Carolis Road to the very British Ascot Avenue. In the same way the places of worship reflect the mixed religion in the country, from the majority Buddhists, 18 per cent Hindus and minority Muslims and Christians.

The Buddhist shrine is always adorned with offerings of fragrant flowers, fresh fruit and water and I will often see worshippers stopping to offer prayer. The Hindu temple is even more colourful with its tangle of Gods and wafts of incense. By comparison the Anglican church on the corner and the mosque seem dull in the extreme.

Anyway I can never stop without attracting attention. "Aha! You want a trishaw madam?"

"No, I don't."

I'm really just being stubborn now as it is hot work walking in 30ÂșC plus and while there is no AC in tuk tuks there is a moderately cooling breeze. If you are lucky the driver will have garlands of flowers around the windscreen, pictures of laughing Chinese babies or psychedelic seat coverings lovingly protected by sheets of clear plastic.

Like London taxi drivers there is always plenty of chat almost always beginning with "Where you from?" followed by "You married?" I prefer to practice my Sinhala but this can be confusing for everyone involved.

I press on past various Sri Lankan ministries. I pass the ministry of water and irrigation and the ministry of youth empowerment and socio-economic development. There is also a ministry of religious affairs and moral enlightenment and a department of ayurveda. Sri Lanka has one of the highest numbers of ministries in the world with more than 100 members of cabinet. Unfortunately I do not go past the ministry of silly walks.

I also pass the national identification office where there is a massive queue of people every morning waiting to get identity cards. Since the end of the ceasefire between the government and Tamil Tigers earlier this year and an increase in terrorist bomb attacks, it has been necessary for everyone to have ID on them at all times for the many police checks. Almost in defiance of the ethnic conflict the queue is a mixture of Hindu Tamils, often with ash on their foreheads, and Sinhalese Buddhists.

"Bakeries" offer short eats like egg rotis from trailers on the back of bicycles, hawkers sell pineapple with chilli and disfigured beggars sell lottery tickets to the crowd.

There are intermittent pavements until I get to the streets around the embassies and international aid headquarters in an area known as Colombo 7. This is a bit like Sri Lanka's version of Mayfair hence you have "Colombo 7 mums" which I guess are a little like Stepford wives but with stricter morals.

Intermingled with the blaring horns of tuk tuks and buses are the sleek UN 4x4s. The streets are a little more leafy here and for a while I tried to practice identifying trees on the walk to work. But standing underneath a tree with my field guide to the common trees and shrubs of Sri Lanka invariably drew so much attention and tuk tuks that I soon gave up.

I do know that there are rain trees and Indian willow as I scuttle from one to another glad of the shade. Unfortunately there are not as many trees in Colombo as there used to be. Part of my job as communications advisor to Ruk Rakaganno, the Tree Society of Sri Lanka (http://rukrakaganno.sacredcat.org), has been firing off angry letters to the press complaining of this fact.

There are even rumours that trees are being cut to stop terrorists depositing bombs in them. This is a high security zone and soldiers in blue combats patrol the streets. At first it made me uncomfortable but after a couple winked at me, I got used to them.

I have got used to a lot of things in Colombo. The heat, the crows, the nice and not-so-nice spicy smells. I have even taken on a few Sri Lankan habits. At work I eat a lunch packet of rice and curry, I try not to think about bombs, I wobble my head when I don't want to do something but feel too polite to say no.

At the same time I try to keep an eye out for the unusual things like a monk with a mobile phone or a whole family travelling on one motorcycle. It is only a week before I leave Sri Lanka and I want to make sure I remember the extraordinary experiences and even the ordinary ones like the tuk tuk drivers who persist even as I am turning into the entrance of my work.

"Hello, madam, you need a tuk, tuk?"


Of course, I could always have jumped in a tuk tuk for 75p (after 10 minutes hard haggling) but where would be the fun in that?

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