Jun 15, 2012

Sri Lanka's Slow and Rich Roads

Why did a 115 km trip from Kandy to Colombo take 8 hours?

First stop was the Temple of the Tooth Relic - a sacred place where Buddha's tooth is kept safe. The tooth miraculously survived the burning of his body, escaped destruction by one King's hammer by turning into light and becoming a star for a while, and was smuggled into Sri Lanka hidden in the hair of a young woman. In not-too-long-ago times it was a symbol of power - whoever held the tooth was ruler of the country. The tooth has been moved to various new temples built in its honour and to protect it from invaders who recognize its power.

For lunch we randomly chose one of the hundreds of buffets lining the entire route. In addition to the usual rice (red and white), curry dahl, chicken curry, "ladyfinger" veggies and papadum, this place also sported pumpkin, chinese fried rice, and chinese veggies. All you can eat with your fingers for $2.

Next stop was a co-op store that our country director Somasiri helped start during his last job with Oxfam. Various small-scale producers have come together to open this roadside store to collectively market their goods - one of many ideas we are considering with my current project. I was able to support them and hopefully please my wife by purchasing $8 worth of: caraway seed, black pepper, cumin seed, mustard seed, heritage red rice, dried jackfruit, palm syrup (for the boys' pancakes.)

By now we'd run out of money, due to having to pay cash for our fancy hotel last night. Instead of the $156/night, we were given the local $50 rate as long as Somasiri officially paid as our "travel agent." Which meant cash. So we stopped in a bigger town for the first of several unsuccessful attempts to use my international debit card. Somasiri also couldn't access his account, so our super-driver Nishantha managed to withdraw enough to bankroll us the final 80 km, which included:

The Cashew Capital of Sri Lanka - a place where about 50 small stands and shops line both sides of the road selling roasted cashews - plain, salted and spicy. Ironicaly, this isn't even a cashew-growing region - they're brought in from the north - but since Somasiri was a boy they've even learned in school that this is the place to buy cashews. Yes Sarah, at $15/kg, there are some coming home.

Another 10 km brought us to the pineapple-growing and selling region, with prices ranging from 10 cents for a fist-sized pineapple to $1.20 for a feed-the-family variety. Across the street we bought three humungous avocado for 75 cents. I'll take these stands over a McDonald's drive-through for any road trip.

I finally found single razor blades at a little shop, but caused confusion by trying to buy a whole package. They only sell them individually - most people buy just enough razors, soap, salt, etc to get them through the next shave or meal or wash. Buying in bulk is either a luxury they can't afford or just a consumption pattern they haven't adopted. So we had to open the little box and count them out (5, if you're curious), then multiply the unit price. Nearby, Nishantha also found a place for me to buy a "Rice-Hopper" press so I can make my own little rice-pasta pucks like I've been enjoying each breakfast time.

The final - or perhaps first - reason for the long trip is the road. Not the condition - Sri Lankan roads are incredibly well-maintained, smooth, painted. But this second-busiest highway in the country is still 2-lane with a 2-foot shoulder on each side. Shared by (in reverse pecking order) sleeping dogs, pedestrians, 3-wheeled rickshaws, local busses, trucks, express busses, cars, and fancy SUV's like ours. A good average speed for a skilled SUV driver is 40 km/hour. There's never an open road to hit the 70/km speed limit; instead, an endless parade of slower vehicles to successively pass. Passing is accomplished when the traffic coming the other way is single-or double-file only, and not any big fat busses. Then we pull out into right over the centre-line, the vehicle we're passing pulls over a bit, the oncoming traffic all squeezes over, and we go straight down the middle, usually cutting back in just before an oncoming vehicle also pulls in from his own passing. Just like I observed in Chennai, everybody does their part, acknowledges their place in the pecking order and exactly what they have to do to allow this system of continual near-accidents to flow smoothly.

Not to be outdone by the rural highway's adventures and attractions, Colombo showed its true big-city colours by throwing Rush Hour in our path. The first afternoon rush hour starts at 1:00, when every child in the city (it seems) is picked up by his/her parent who wait in their cars 3-abreast, blocking as much of the streets as possible. Just as this eases up, the usual end-of-work rush hour kicks in. So our pain-staking 40 km/hour now seems like a luxury as we sit and crawl our way to a few more unyielding bank machines then finally back to the welcome arms of our beautiful guest house.

So, that's the report on traffic, shopping, history, religion and much more that one can learn about Sri Lanka on a simple 115 km drive from the Buddhist capital in the hills to the modern capital metropolis by the sea.


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