Who’s Going to Drive?


JUNE 2017, Negombo, Sri Lanka

We were walking down a road in Negombo discussing transport. It was our third visit to Sri Lanka in as many years, and as usual right in the middle of monsoon season, when the deals are good and the beaches empty. And the rain. The problem was not the transport, but the cost thereof. To give context: we had come via Jaipur, the gemstone capital of India, if not the world, and thus funds were low, although the gemstones were weighing down our pockets.

We had booked and paid for patches of accommodation on our journey, and had budgeted for the days in between. We had budgeted for food and drink. But then Jaipur happened, and here we were discussing our oversight of the transport budget – never mind the considerable shrinkage of our original (shoestring) budget for food, drink and additional accommodation. About that we could worry later.

The problem was we were expected in Ratnapura (where Jay had signed up for a faceting course) in the next few days. Although only 96 kilometres south-east and inland from Negombo, it is a three-hour journey (by car), through mountainous terrain. There is no train route to Ratnapura, and taxis are expensive. Then consider thereafter we needed to be 167 kilometres down to the south-west side for our pre-paid Airbnb cottage (no trains again), and that was a rough three-to-four-hour trip by taxi, which costs. And we had all the luggage.

I registered the sign on the lamppost from the corner of my eye, but paid little attention, and it quickly faded from thought. Yet a block further down the road, I was reminded of its lettering when Jay proclaimed:

“Let’s hire a tuk-tuk.”

I did my thing where I kind of pretended I had not heard her. When her ideas stick, they somehow come to some form of fruition, against mainstream betting odds. I tried to ignore the idea and hope it suffocated in the humid Sri Lankan heat. But, alas, it was not long before it was repeated:

“Hey? Why not? Let’s hire a tuk-tuk. It will be much cheaper.”

It had stuck and I needed to turn on my brain.

“Who the fuck is going to drive the thing?”

It was an instinctive question. It came without thought to its rhetorical nature.

“We hired a scooter last time.”

“Yes, but that was at the beach. A tuk-tuk? On these crazy roads up into the mountains? Don’t be silly babe.”

“Just think about it. We’ll have our own transport; it will save us so much money and time. And we’ll Google the back roads.”

“Sure babe, but I don’t know how to drive a tuk-tuk. Remember the busses on the bike. They nearly killed us. Now you want me to drive a tuk-tuk into the mountains of Sri Lanka.”

“It can’t be that difficult. About a billion people worldwide drive tuk-tuks. You’re always bragging you started driving bakkies on the farm at eleven.”

When it sticks it sticks.

“And anyway, I also don’t have a license for a tuk-tuk. Who in their right mind is going to rent a tuk-tuk to a novice, unlicensed driver to take into the mountains of Rantnapura and beyond?”

And as I asked that last question it dawned on me that I had inadvertently played a trump card, and unstuck this idea for good. For indeed, who would rent a tuk-tuk to a novice, unlicensed driver to take into the mountains of Sri Lanka and beyond?

Me, receiving my first lesson from Tiron around a basketball court.

I can report his name is Tiron (*perhaps not his real name), one of many young Sri Lankan entrepreneurs trying to build businesses in a volatile touristic economy. Cees, the Dutch owner of the guest house, had backed Jay that it was a fantastically stickable idea, and he had summoned Tiron with tuk-tuk.

Tiron first gave us a show of the tuk-tuk, starting and revving it, to assure us it was alive, and then presented the papers to assure it was legal. Then he came in for the negotiating process. I was at the table, but my mind was elsewhere – how did this come by so quickly, and where is it going to end? In the end we had to give Tiron $300, some of it deposit, but it worked out to about R200 a day for transport. When all those short tuk-tuk trips with tips are added, it becomes a bargain. And it would save time. And the freedom.

When we started with the final paper work there were questions. Have you driven a tuk-tuk? No. Fine we will take you for lesson. Do you have a license? Not for a tuk-tuk. International driving license? For a car yes. That fine.

From there we headed to the location where the lessons would take place. Much to Tiron’s dismay there was an unexpected cricket match taking place on the field, but the basketball court was available. And that is where I received my first and only lesson to drive a tuk-tuk. A full fifteen minutes long.

Just to check that I was not a complete idiot, Tiron had me drive to drop him back at work on the main drag. We took our little red devil home proudly, and Cees helped us push it into the driveway. We asked Cees if we could stay another night as I needed to practice my tuk-tuk, and then we let Ratnapura know we will be one day late. But they know us, and knew that already.

But that’s another story.

Join us on our reminisces of our travels through Sri Lanka as we hire a tuk-tuk and travel the breadth and length of the island. We will talk about travel and stones and all things Sri Lanka. Please pass on to those you might think interested.
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