Sri Lanka Experience

by Thilak S. Fernando

Extending my holiday in Sri Lanka for the tenth consecutive month observing, studying and assessing the suitability and adaptability to return to my roots, I came across many things on a daily basis, some of which were quite interesting, others exciting, inviting and hilarious, along with a few which are repulsive, and at times quite disturbing and irritating.

While I found the tooting of the motor vehicle horn had diminished to a remarkable and a creditable limit I could not say much about the discipline on the road by all users - both motorists as well as pedestrians. I realized that if I were to drive in Colombo then I too had to join with the rest of the motorists who seem to take a suicidal approach at every turn of their steering wheel. If I were to cross the road on any yellow pedestrian crossing, I had to be pretty bold about it and, more or less, take my dear life into my hands before doing a bee-line at 120 mph to get to the other side, as all motorists keep zooming towards pedestrians mercilessly so as to run everyone down! In the case of ‘three-wheelers’, I had to do a tango in the middle of the road to avoid these flimsy frames of metal coming and hitting me! However, pedestrians are becoming increasingly aware of their right of way on a yellow zebra crossing now, with a little help from police constables whenever they appear on the scene. It is encouraging to see how pedestrians are learning to command the motorists quite often, using their ‘hand signals,’ to say, Hey! Stop there will you, this is my right of way!

Sri Lanka is certainly not the island I used to know a decade or two ago. This goes for the palatial houses one sees these days in and around Colombo (along with the high-rise buildings and office blocks and twin towers etc), that have changed the skyline of this city remarkably. Talking of motor vehicles there are umpteen models of modern flashy motor cars seemingly overtaken by dual-purpose vehicles, most of them carrying school children. Equally tri-shows (three wheelers) are contributing to the disarray and traffic congestion on roads increasingly. The fast food outlets, such as McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken etc., are always full to capacity at any given time- needless to say there are other eating out places too, quite in abundance, apart from star hotels, with a high degree of hygiene and decent interior deco.

One experience or the irritation I cannot erase from my memory is the exorbitant charging tariff of the Avanhala at Ambeypussa, which is a road side outlet run by The Ceylon Hotels Corporation for the convenience of travelers on the New Kandy Road. This was the most unpalatable and infuriating experience I encountered with their prevaricate charging systems! Just imagine someone having to pay Rs.75/ for a bottle of aerated water, Rs.28/ for a small aerated water, Rs 25/- for a packet of Milo Chocolate drink, Rs.75/ for a Packet of 100g Cashew nuts, Rolls @18/- and Plain Bun @ Rs.18/- (Purchase receipt No.13 – OR 2989 – T: 67299 on 20.03.2000 for Rs.303/- @ 6.36 p.m.).

What amazes me is that all these consumed food items have a fixed pricing tariff all over the country by their manufacturers, and in such circumstances why is the Ceylon Hotel Corporation’s Avanahala at road side charging Star hotel rates especially on items like aerated water at Rs.75 a bottle and Milo chocolate drink, which is being advertised day and night on the television and sold all over the country for Rs.15, charged at Rs.25? My inquiry into such exorbitant charging made the cashier with a wry smile comment: ‘Sir these are the prices given to us from Head Office’. I turned back and walked out thinking to myself that the nut of that Head Office man who fixed these prices needs to be examined! Will any official in the Price Control Authority or the Manufacturing companies of these listed items care to investigate into this matter as, this in my mind, can be put down to day light robbery by one of the anchor points which try to promote tourism in Sri Lanka, The Ceylon Hotels Corporation!

I found the computer literacy, especially among the young in Colombo, and e-mail usage on the increase dramatically. Colombo folk are certainly ‘with IT’! Go to Majestic City or Crescat Boulevard and who can say that you are now in ‘good old Colombo’. With escalators running up to 2-3 floor levels and looking at the variety of goods available (even Microsoft Office Pack 2000 CD for Rs.250) and the number of eating outlets at Crescat Boulevard, Colombo city has certainly moved with the times quite rapidly.

With so much advancement to be seen in Colombo, if there is one thing that is lacking in Suburbs (Pradeshiya and Town Council areas) it has to be the garbage menace. It is nauseating, if not a health hazard, to see the dumped heaps of rubbish in ‘siri siri’ bags scattered and stockpiling on main roads for days. Its amazing to see that even the very Council rubbish carts which collect these piles from the road-side dumping them on open land creating worse rubbish yards allowing rats to breed and bacteria to grow and thrive! Why cannot such rubbish be incinerated is a million dollar question! The plastic ‘siri siri’ bag which is accepted as an environment enemy in Sri Lanka appears to be the biggest hazard today in these parts as they create an indecorous sight having scattered all over the area – even right in front of the beautiful turf overlooking the Kotte State Parliament building!

Its not bad at all around in Colombo. I have two memorable incidents, which I will hold so dearly to my heart about the honesty and integrity of the folks in Sri Lanka. Once I lost my expensive wristwatch at the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) after a swim on an evening around 8 p.m. To be frank, I had no idea where I had lost it, but I was so pleased to hear when I telephoned Mr. Ranjith Iriyagama that there was a watch handed over to him which matched details of my watch. May I take this opportunity to raise my hat to the Club for its code of discipline on its staff, and also to thank the person whom I did not have a chance to see personally and thank him for his honesty.

My second incident was losing my wallet with international credit cards, Sri Lankan driving licence, British driving licence, many other important documents and some money etc. Here again I was not certain where I had lost it, but on speck I telephoned the Colombo Rotary Club where I was with a friend the previous night. Lo behold ! there it was, picked up by a chap who had cleared the chairs on the turf. I collected it the following day having met the man personally and compensating him generously for his integrity. Same goes to the chap who picked up my passport which I lost at a funeral at Kottawa. Within a week it was returned tome by some one who knew me at the funeral house.

Public travelling is another area I voluntarily tried to get a grip with. I found that with the increase in frequency in routes and a variety of buses and air-conditioned inter-city coaches, travelling do not take time. The only hitch is that still there are small buses (normally known as a loaf of bread) still in operation where it becomes impossible even to stand at times of overloading. Various posters allocating seats to the clergy, pregnant mothers and disabled persons in these private buses as well as warnings to say that ‘harassment to women inside the bus is a criminal offence’ impressed me. After all, when talking of travel in Colombo one has many options if one hasn’t got one’s own air-conditioned vehicle. In my experiment I found that I could do a certain trip for Rs.300 by taxi or by bus only with Rs.9! Choice and the facilities are certainly there, but it will be entirely up to individual choice, I bet !

I cannot say much good about the Sri Lanka Telecom after all, even with all their impressive advertising. The basic irritation for me was to hear a recorded message most of the time, first in Tamil (not that I am biased) and then in Sinhalese to advise the caller about the congestion of lines. This becomes more cantankerous when the same message keep on repeating on the directory esquires as well. Are they congested eternally even 161 ( directory enauires) ? To report a fault on a domestic or business telephone is a nightmare. One is pushed from pillar to post with different telephone numbers before the person gets exhausted and gives up. May be Sri Lanka telecom is making good money or have they a policy to solve the employment problem in Sri Lanka that for every visit on a faulty call two employees have to come always! – one to carry the testing instrument and the other to attend to the fault?

Mobile phone, which is commonly called the ‘hand phone’ in Sri Lanka, is another area, which took my fancy. Today there are so many packages and incentives thrown by Dialogue, Celltell, Mobiltel, Hutchinson etc., which no one seems to understand clearly what is best suited for one. Phone card appeared to me as a good choice as I did not have to worry about monthly bills since I was there temporarily. But soon I learnt that there was something, in small print, to say that one needs to take or receive calls up to Rs.23 per day! Another system, which attracted me, was the full-page newspaper advertisements of Celltel offering one of their packages without any monthly rental! How many would know that one gets committed to pay Rs.500 at the end of the month, whether one takes to cover that amount worth of calls or not?

Unfortunately my endeavor to get a ‘Sri Lankan chip’ into my Nokia phone which I carried from London was unsuccessful. If any one is taking a mobile phone from abroad to Sri Lanka, the wisely advice I can give them is to ensure that the handset has the ‘980 frequency ’ which is the ‘chip’ used in Sri Lanka. In my research in Colombo market I found that there are a variety of interesting and novel phones, some with the EMW Safe Guard to prevent the user getting affected by cancer, and some vibrating types too which are very handy to use especially during official meetings etc.

Once it was a hilarious incident for us, the onlookers inside a mobile phone outlet, but it was rather a hair raising incident for the salesman of this particular outlet and quite an unpleasant experience for the customer who happened to be a rich mudalali who, unknowingly to the enthusiastic sales person, was a exceedingly ticklish type. He happened to be one of those who would jostle and hit whomever next to him while coming out with the cream of the Sinhala classical foul phrases when tickled.

The salesman going into historical graphics of Micro Tacpro phone, which has a vibrating battery, and explaining its uses to his prospective customer took a model vibrating type phone and inserted his own Sim card into it for a demonstration and simply placed the phone inside the mudalali’s shirt breast pocket and dialed. Being a demonstration of this novelty everyone around keenly watched how this modern electronic equipment worked.

Only Seconds passed, and as the salesman looked bemused mudalali became exhaustively tickled, affected by the equipment’s rigid vibrating action, and went berserk to the extent of swearing in Sinhala filth and hitting whoever was close to him, which he could not control at that hypersensitive moment. While the most embarrassed staff quickly removed the phone from the customer’s shirt pocket everyone fought hard to conceal their chuckling. It, nevertheless, helped me to buy one of the Nokia vibrating types. Whenever I was in public transport I carried the little thing and let it vibrate in my hand rather than entertaining or annoying other commuters with ‘Jingle Bells. Jingle Bells…Jingle All the Way’!