Tuk-Tuk Tips and Tricks in Sri Lanka

Ok, first the disclaimer: NO Meredith College faculty who were along on this trip to Sri Lanka were aware of NOR condoned the use of the tuk-tuk by us students in Sri Lanka. In fact, if you ever happen to meet a Meredith College study abroad faculty member, please kiss up for me by complimenting him or her profusely on the college’s serious warnings about the dangers of using a tuk-tuk.

That said, none of us died riding or hiring a tuk-tuk. Therefore, it must have been safe….

As you can see from the first picture, tuk-tuks are basically three-wheeled open carts. This article from Wikipedia refers to them as “auto rickshaws”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auto_rickshaw . Basically, they are smaller and faster than a golfcart and dart in and out of traffic like a cat through a kennel exercise yard.

Driving a tuk-tuk is a pretty good occupation in Sri Lanka. I met a man in the village of Welligama who had lost everything in the tsunami. He was trying to find money to buy a tuk-tuk so he could go back to making a living. From what I saw while I was there, the people of Welligama are a proud, self-sufficient group and were not interested in receiving help for longer than necessary (which brings me to another blog subject I want to address one day – the flags of the donating countries on the reconstructed houses – someone remind me).

For those who may be interested or who may be planning on visiting Sri Lanka (truly The Pearl of the Orient – if you stick to uncontested areas, anyway), I have compiled a list of four tips and tricks for riding in tuk-tuks.

The first two are related to the idea that people are people everywhere. In the fantasy book Jingo by my favorite author Terry Pratchett (Sir Terry Pratchett as of December 2008), a Klatchian guardsman compliments Commander Vimes on his tolerance and respect for people of a different culture. But then he asks them to respect them even further by giving them credit for being as ruthless and cunning as Vimes’ fellow Ankh-Morporkians. In that same spirit of respect, let me tell you about dealing with Sri Lankan tuk-tuk drivers. (And later I’ll tell you about being humbled by Uris when I tried to teach him slapjack.)

LESSON 1: Pick the old guy to drive.

  • The first reason for this simple: he’s probably more experienced and less prone to showing off (you hope). You can see from the second picture that the traffic is pretty tight there, and tuk-tuks are highly maneuverable. Picture yourself in a taxi that can not only weave in and out of lanes, but can fit right down the middle of two cars in lanes side-by-side and you’ll have some idea of the potential terror of riding in a tuk-tuk.
  • The second reason is a little more paranoid. As women, my fellow travelers and I had a dress code to follow. We were not allowed to show our shoulders or our knees. In the village (a misleading term – Welligama was actually bigger than the town I grew up in and had more commerce) especially, we stood out from the local women. Not only because of our skin color, but because of our dress and our demeanor. Even dressed modestly by our standards (and sweating profusely in the heat and humidity, by the way), we still carried ourselves more assertively, made more eye contact, smiled less reservedly and were just louder in general. Everywhere we went outside of the tourist areas, we were whistled at, propositioned to or glared at. Anura and Kairo, two middle-aged men who became my after-dinner drinking and philosophizing buddies, warned us that most of the young men would not understand that we were not easy just because we were different and we should be on guard accordingly. It seemed like the only men who respected us were the ones who got to know us. (I, personally, cannot fault them for that, since it was up to us to understand and respect their social mores.) Although there are many women in government and business positions in Sri Lanka, violence against women is not really so uncommon. (Progress has been made in that area over the last few years – see http://www.omct.org/pdf/VAW/SriLankaEng2002.pdf or google “women in sri lanka”.) Based on Anura and Kairo’s advice, we chose older drivers or drivers recommended to us by our friends in order to avoid potentially awkward situations. Oh, and we also walked in pairs or groups.

LESSON 2: Negotiate your fee up front.

  • This was another valuable tip from Anura, Kairo, and Aruna (the owner of the beach house we stayed in), albeit one that came a little late for some of us. In Sri Lanka, there are no meters in tuk-tuks, so if you don’t ask, don’t be upset when you pay the equivalent of five U.S. dollars to go half a mile. Everybody needs to make a living, after all. If you have settled on a price before you enter the tuk-tuk, then refuse to pay anymore when you reach your arrival point. It’s not like they can lock you in if you don’t pay.

The last two lessons go back to the life is bigger theme. My first tuk-tuk ride, with five of us crowded in with the driver, sitting in each other’s laps and clinging to the sides for dear life, was exhilarating. We laughed so much together during that drive. And I will never forget the nervousness and reluctance I felt the first time Rita and I hired a driver by ourselves to take us back to our beach house from Welligama, followed by the thrill of having navigated a totally new experience successfully and with aplomb. I think Rita and I may have danced a bit on our way to our rooms.

LESSON 3: Don’t close your eyes.

  • I’ve already mentioned the perceived dangers of riding a tuk-tuk, although assumedly the drivers wouldn’t still be driving if they had a tendency towards getting smushed by big buses. (And tuk-tuks don’t actually go that fast; I think it’s mostly the feeling of smallness and exposure that takes getting used to.) If you close your eyes, you won’t know when to brace yourself for a sudden stop or to throw your weight the other way to counteract the swerve around the big pothole. Opening your eyes makes for an easier ride.
  • Most importantly, if you close your eyes, you’ll miss EVERYTHING! Keep your eyes in, soak up the sights and the sounds and the smells, and really live in the moment. It’s not something you’ll want to forget.

LESSON 4: If you’re riding in a tuk-tuk, and you’re out on a back road somewhere, and the driver asks you if you’d like to drive, DO IT.

  • You might never get another chance.

~ by gypsyjonga on June 3, 2009.

2 Responses to “Tuk-Tuk Tips and Tricks in Sri Lanka”

  1. I always wondered what a tuk-tuk looked like. Pick the old guy to drive and keep your eyes open, sounds like a good formula to follow…Be around people who have experience that you need and be fully present in the moment.

    • And always be sure the price is one you’re willing to pay…

      Nice, Paul! A good formula indeed.

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