The Most Dangerous Job in Sri Lanka

Hey. Let’s talk about driving. Specifically, driving in Sri Lanka. Or as it should more accurately be called, defying death every single breath.

Sri Lanka road safety

I live just a short metro ride away from downtown D.C. in a very lovely, historic neighborhood with all the restaurants and shopping my little heart desires located just blocks from my doorstep. Literally, there I live two blocks from both a Trader Joe’s and a larger, conventional grocery store. I work from home, but when I did work in an office every day, I took the metro, which is an 8-minute walk from my house.

These days, when I have an appointment or something that necessitates I go into D.C., I usually metro or take Uber. Which is all just to point out that 1) I’m used to putting my life in the hands of transportation strangers, and 2) my driving skills have certainly not been tested in quite a while and are probably not honed into a fine laser beam of awesomeness, so I’m not judging any Sri Lankan drivers skills or finesse.

But, I will point out, we’ve been to lots of countries where there are few (if any) traffic signals and whole families zip around piled up on mopeds, slipping in and out of traffic like they’re being carried along a fast-moving river current. And while these road encounters were sometimes heart stopping, nothing prepared me for the calamity and chaos of Sri Lanka’s roads.

Sri Lanka buses

First of all, “roads” is a pretty generous term. Sri Lanka does not have the best road system. It’s pretty limited and seems to rely mostly on old cart tracks, some of which have been paved, a bit. Sri Lanka’s first major highway, the 80-mile E01, opened in 2011. For comparison, Smithsonian.com notes, the U.S. interstate system is 46,876 miles long.

But mostly, while in Sri Lanka, drivers like ours (Thilani, aka Tilly from SL Driver Tours) must navigate narrow, two-lane highways crowded with cars, trucks, buses, “collective” buses (private for-profit buses that compete with the city buses), “gypsy” buses (vans with people hanging on to the sides, the tops, the back), tuk tuks, mopeds, motorcycles and bicycles.

Tuk tuk artwork in Sri Lanka
Tuk tuk artwork in Sri Lanka

There are no traffic lights or signals (except in very big cities like Colombo or Kandy) and there appear to be no traffic rules whatsoever. People are honking and passing and overtaking nonstop.

By the way, these roads have no shoulders to pull over to or use for passing, so people use the middle of the road to pass, resulting in a head-on game of chicken as vehicles bear down from the opposite direction.

The sides of the road, meanwhile, are packed with stray dogs, food stalls with open fires, makeshift vegetable and fruit stands, and people walking (there are no sidewalks), including children walking to school as early as 4:30 a.m., when it’s still dark out. Overhead lights are few and dim, making for especially dangerous driving conditions at night. The first note in my trip notebook is “Driving is pretty intense.”

Sri Lanka delivery truck
Do you want to share a narrow windy road with this delivery truck?

Sure, we’ve been on worse roads (the 50 km rutted and congested road from the airport in Arusha, Tanzania comes to mind, as does the road from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh in Cambodia). But I’ve never been somewhere where none of the cars were blaring music or talk radio. It’s completely silent except for the sounds of honking and some yelling. It has got to be the most dangerous job in Sri Lanka. Maybe the world.

Tilly told us that four people die every day from road accidents in Sri Lanka, but actually, the number might be higher than that. In 2015, more than 2,700 people were killed in road-related incidents. Luckily, we didn’t see any accidents during our 10-day stay, but that’s probably due only to the skill of our excellent driver, Tilly.

Car from SL Driver Tours
My view for most of the trip. Tilly definitely provided premium service, without injuring or killing anyone.

The guys over at World Nomads also have a pretty good description of the driving conditions in Sri Lanka.

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Honestly, I Blame Birds for This Particular Poe-Tastrophe

Well helllllllooo, kitty cats (man, I miss me some Brandi Glanville. Hopefully those BV ladies will be back on Bravo soon).

Let’s jump right back into this blogging thing, shall we? Should we start with a sad little story of a not-at-all young girl and her lost keys? Well, technically, they were not lost, per se. They just weren’t safely ensconced in her little grubby hands like they should have been.

And so we come to the latest edition of “Poe-tastrophes: Lessons for Supposed Grown Ups.”

At least I was fully clothed.

Last Wednesday, I came home, laced up my shoes and went for a nice little run. My forever travelling partner XFE was out of town for work again, so I ran a nice leisurely sweat-flecked three miles. On my way into the house after my run, I noticed that XFE’s black car was parked under a tree and covered in little bird souvenirs.

As I’ve mentioned here before, I am part of a dynamic two person car washing team that practices its’ skills every weekend, so I have a very vested interest in minimizing the workload ie: keeping bird crap off the damn car.

I went inside, took a shower and came back downstairs to go out and move the car, grabbing my cell phone just in case XFE called. I moved the vehicle and tried to get back in the house, only to discover that I had locked myself out with nothing but the car keys and my phone. (Since I don’t really drive, I do not keep the ginormous key fob on my key ring with the house key. In fact, my key ring, which I carry every day, only has the one house key on it.)

Now, obviously, this is not the first time I’ve ever locked myself out of a house. Far from it. I used to do it all the time at our old place, which is why I had a key in a tiny Ziploc bag hidden under a rock in our backyard. I would just squeeze into the narrow passage behind our house, retrieve the key and unlock the back door and no one would even know about my blunder. Including XFE.

However, this is the first time I’ve locked myself out of the new house. I had no similar system set up as of yet.

I ran through my (admittedly limited) options: smash a window (probably in the back of the house) and reach in and unlock the door. But the idea of gashed wrists kept me from pursuing this one.

I could just go to a friend’s house and drink wine and feel sorry for myself. I have three such friends that live near me. But that didn’t really seem like it would solve the whole not-having-a-key problem. Plus, Petunia might die if she had to skip a meal.

The only person I knew with an extra key to our house is our maid, Elizabeth. I immediately called her and demanded to know if she was in the vicinity. Her English is a bit limited, but I quickly surmised that she did not spend her evenings hanging around Old Town hoping to come to my rescue. Nor was she eager to leave her own family and come hang out on the stoop with me.

So, I had her text me the address and tried to drive over to her place. I used my supposedly-smart phone to get directions, and learned that this mere 15 mile journey would involve I-95 South, I-95 West, I-495 West, VA 236 and I think a few I-395s thrown in for good measure. All to go what is approximately 15 miles.

Now, as I mentioned, I really don’t ever drive. I ride the metro. Or, I read my magazine while XFE drives us to wherever it is we’re going. And I had no idea how to get to Fairfax. I mean, I kinda know where it is on a map in relation to Old Town, but I couldn’t tell you for the life of me how to get there.

I tried three different times to navigate my way to Fairfax and failed completely. I was so determined to figure this stupid driving thing out all on my own. Every time I’d retrace my steps and end up back near the start, I would talk myself into giving it just one more try. It suddenly had become vitally important to my self-worth that I conquer this seemingly mundane little project.

Eventually, about an hour in, I finally did find myself on the correct road towards Fairfax. I was soon detoured to a semi-familiar road near my house, at which point, I gave up and called XFE crying. He suggested I just call a locksmith. About 45 minutes (and $225) later, a very nice young Soviet-bloc accented man came and opened my front door.

Dude, I feel your pain.

It was actually pretty interesting how the locksmith did it. Apparently, we have quite a good lock that can’t actually be picked, so he inserted these two small inflatable plastic pillows in our door jamb and pumped them up. Then he used a very scary looking crowbar-type thing to jimmy the lock. It literally took him seconds and caused no damage whatsoever to the door jamb.

He complimented me on our house, wrote up the bill, took my credit card information, told me about their frequent user program (the next time I lock myself out of my house, they take $20 off the bill!) and left me to a sleepless night as I fretted about just how easy it was for the locksmith to get into my house. I literally didn’t sleep a wink. Instead, I spent a lot of time thinking about my bruised self esteem and places to scatter extra keys (ie: my neighborhood friends’ houses.)