Travelling in developing countries requires a different attitude. Often the road conditions and driving styles are not what would be acceptable at home, but you have little choice when you need to get from a to b and the only option is by road. The drivers themselves often have images of gods at the front of the bus to protect them … and you have to hope that their gods will see fit to protect the non-believers among the passengers too!
After India we thought we had encountered the worst driving conditions and most aggressive drivers, but some Sri Lankan bus drivers gave the Indians a run for their money. We had three bus journeys where we wondered whether we would get to our destination in one piece.
The first was the two hour trip from Kandy to Dambulla where the driver drove erratically and aggressively the whole time. The worst moment was when he attempted to overtake two cars driving abreast while approaching a blind corner. That manoeuvre didn’t come off as a vehicle rounded the corner before we reached it and he had to back off. What surprised me was that two policemen travelling on the bus said nothing to the driver about his obviously dangerous driving.
The second was on another two hour journey from Pelmadula to Haputale, where the bus driver drove like a maniac, trying to overtake every vehicle on his side of the road. Half way through the trip he stopped and took a break. From then on he drove slowly and considerately – it was as though he was a different person. We tried to guess what had happened. Maybe he had been rushing so he had time for a break? Maybe he had urgently needed to go to the toilet? Maybe he was dying for a cup of tea? Or a whisky? Or a sedative? Maybe his twin brother had taken over? Maybe someone had asked him to slow down during the break? We will never know the true reason, but we were grateful.
The third instance was the four hour journey from Anuradhapura to Negombo, which was our last bus journey in Sri Lanka. Before we boarded the private bus, we asked the driver when he was leaving. “In ten minutes,” he said. An hour later he finally left the station! Then he drove very slowly through town trying to pick up more passengers. By this time, even the Sri Lankan passengers were getting a bit toey. However, as soon as he was out of town he tried to overtake everything in his path. He was pulled up twice by police, but was allowed to continue driving. The man next to me said that the conductor would have paid the police a bribe as the man who owns the fleet of buses is very rich.
But, on the whole, Sri Lankan bus drivers were more careful and considerate than Indian bus drivers. They didn’t blow their horns as much and, although they were as skillful, there was not as much ego attached to their driving skills. One very enjoyable bus journey was the trip from Deniyaya to Pelmadula, which took four hours and cost about 74p. This was a very scenic drive, along narrow, windy roads surrounded by tree-lined fields. Despite being a main road, little traffic travels this route. People could get on or off the bus anywhere, not just at designated bus stops, and the driver picked up everyone … even when you thought he couldn’t fit anyone else on the bus. In addition to transporting passengers, the bus served small local communities along the route by dropping off and picking up mail, parcels and newspapers. This fostered a real sense of community, and the driver stopped a couple of times for a quick chat with people he knew.
On another trip, from Dambulla to Sigiriya, we got on at the bus station and put our backpacks on the engine casing at the front of the bus. The bus was relatively quiet when we pulled out, but at the next stop a lot of people got on, and big bags of eggplants, beans, chives, and other more exotic vegetables were loaded on top of our packs. Eventually, it was difficult to see the driver amongst the bags of produce.
Snacks sold at bus stations are often put into recycled paper bags. Not recycled bags as people in Western countries understand the term, but bags made from old newspapers or children’s homework. I had vegetable rotis in bags made from graph paper with neatly written equations and immaculate graphs drawn on it. This was obviously a top grade student as all the answers had a tick against them. Another time, my samosas were put into a bag with beautifully neat Singalese writing all over it, and again the answers were all correct. I wondered if only the homework from clever Sri Lankan children is used for bags?
Besides the usual food vendors that come aboard buses and trains, some people take advantage of having a captive audience to try to sell other things or beg. One man limped to the front of the bus and proceeded to tell his sorry tale. We had no idea what he said, but it must have been sad as many people donated money to him. On other buses, men tried to sell a variety of products, such as medicinal products in small coloured glass bottles, children’s colouring books, and place mats with 3D images embedded in them. I didn’t see many sales. The person sitting next to me told me there is no unemployment benefit in Sri Lanka, so people have to earn money any way they can. This would force them to become entrepreneurial, but surely there must be better products for them to sell to people on buses? Things like blow up travel pillows, or … I don’t know! What would you buy from a vendor on a bus?