A race on the road

An American tourist in Sri Lanka
By Adam Valen Levinson

You drive like a local is everywhere both curse and compliment, a label given to one that has just saved a life or nearly lost one (or both). To earn such damnation/praise in Sri Lanka, a driver must adopt all of the British affinity for the left side of the road while rejecting every ounce of their trademark restraint, propriety, and unexcitability.

Almost every road in the country is two-lane (one in each direction), always curvier than topographically necessary, and rarely with room for central Asian third-laning between your lane and oncoming traffic. Passing has got to be fully committal, usually before a blind curve and with no shoulder for aborted missions. Honk honk.

The local fauna: sprightly tuk-tuk — three-wheeled doorless taxis with a backseat just wide enough for two fat Europeans, or three squished surfers, or five little children, or a local family of six; fearless bikers, slow but quick to raise the stakes — okay after a couple of swipes from your side mirrors, but fodder for some serious counselling after anything more; tourist vans (with local drivers) — always in a hurry and quick to form a grudge; other cars — unusually rare in most parts of the country, likely transport solely for tourists and cityfolk; and giant buses — the big game of the Sri Lankan roadscape. Challenge a big bus only from behind, passing only when the time is right, and only when you have obeyed the unspoken laws of the road.

First: never check your mirrors. Chances are you won’t like what you see. Common practice is that if you beep when passing, your prey will not attempt right then to pass the car ahead, shoving you farther right into the grill of an imminent fruit truck. Honk before curves and trucks and tuk-tuk know you’re coming; honk on (rare) straightaways and antsy drivers might politely shift left an inch or two.

Second: hold your line. Everyone is always trying to pass everyone. If you let a big van pass — or worse, a huge commuter bus — you’ll be smoking diesel fumes for miles. Suicidal bus drivers barreling around mountain curves seem to operate under the assumption that oncoming drivers are more attached to life, have done the math, and have determined who wins if they don’t move. But when you’re in leapfrog position with a battered, red fifty-seater on your tail, guard the centre line and keep moving forward.

One van marked only with the number 13, an X, and the drawing of a leaf took unkindly to this challenge. After a round of passing and repassing, Thirteen Leaf overtook us around a curve. An angry passenger stuck his entire torso out the window and shook his fist back at us — I responded by videoing him in the face, and trivializing his frustration. They pulled ahead but we caught up, jockeying for perfect pass position. Finally we parted ways as they pulled off to the side with a hand raised from the van — a sign of mutual respect, a salute to a worthy opponent.

The bright side of having just one lane per direction is that the action is focused, and there are no surprises coming from the left side. Except for bikers. And folks out for a stroll. And tiny children. But if you save one honk for everything that moves and respond to the offerings of the road, safety is at no risk greater than your dignity. In some moments, it may be tempting to put one on the table in a play for the other: what use is security if you’ve been passed by the slow campaign van of a corrupt politician? In some moments, you may look back to that left side and contemplate the inside pass — one that might coat your wheels with dirt and gravel and force commuters and orange-mongers to de-bike. This is not to be taken lightly: the left-side pass is for vengeance only.

It is a race, and the whole country is running. People are on (or in) the road all of the time, apparently just going places for the sake of going places. Tourists in many parts of the country are Sri Lankans from other parts; most places are not anywhere anyone has been and Western tourists are always something of a novelty. Asking for directions, a common response to “where is” was “tell your driver....” I’d hold up car keys. Cocked heads. Big smiles.

We drove out of the airport parking lot and into the congested Colombo traffic at six a.m. After five hours as both predator and prey on the coast-road (the alleged “best road in Sri Lanka”), we passed the Dutch fort town of Galle and parked outside the string of surf huts in tiny Midigama. The car was missing a little bit of paint from an unexpected encounter with a tuk-tuk (“no damage,” we told the driver... and the policeman looking on), and the intactness of its left headlight was compromised after a light lovetap to the bumper of a red bus — but we had earned every one of those 200 kilometres (5 hours in Sri Lanka, 1.5 hours in the UAE) in the true spirit of the South Asian communal driving experience. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

— The writer has reported for Haaretz in Tel Aviv and is the founder of the online travelogue He lives and works in Abu Dhabi.

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