Anyway that’s not what this post is about. As I was writing I gave an example of a “returning difficulty” and that was plugs and sockets and the safety thereof. I was scared to use them at first because to get a two pin plug into a 3 pin socket, you first have to stick something into the top pin of the socket. Now, from a very young age, we are told that it is extremely dangerous to stick anything into a socket that isn’t a plug! So when I first got here and was told to do that, I instinctively baulked at the idea because my mum and dad said it was a bad thing to do! I noticed however that everyone just does it here so I very quickly accepted that I’d no choice, got used to it and got on with it. Now that I’m on the final strait, I wouldn’t say it worries me but I AM becoming aware of the safety implications again.
There are lots of other examples of “returning difficulties” and although I think it’s quite interesting to track your own emotional pattern when doing something like this 3 month trip, I’ve done that in my journal and what I really want to talk about today is this whole issue of health and safety.
It’s one of the first things that really strikes you when you arrive in Sri Lanka and I think it was the potential for danger that really freaked me out when I got here. Having been brought up to be ultra cautious just tying my shoelaces, you can imagine the adjustment was a challenge. And if you can’t imagine, let me tell you why …
Danger 1 - Driving
I arrived in Sri Lanka and was picked up at the airport by a very nice man and a minibus. I said to the driver “there’s no seatbelt”. “Yes” he said in broken English “yes, seatbelt there”. “But it is broken” I replied. “Yes” he said again “seatbelt broken”. Simple as that. I have not worn a seatbelt since I got here but that first time, I was completely unnerved by it.
Seatbelts are the single most effective way to save your life in a car crash. They reduce deaths by up to 50%. It’s not an imagined danger, it’s a very real one. But you have a choice in Sri Lanka. You can worry yourself sick about it and change nothing. Or you can decide to kick back and enjoy the situation - and change nothing. As both those options end with no change to the situation, I decided to relax and enjoy myself.
Danger 1 – Driving continued …
It’s not just the lack of seatbelts that makes the roads in Sri Lanka danger zones, it’s … well, everything really. Where do I start? They drive on the same side of the road as us. And they also drive on the other side of the road. I’ve always hated having to turn right onto a main road and for the first year of driving, I used to turn left and wait till I found a roundabout to come back on. But I should’ve known there was an easier way. All you do is turn right onto the right hand lane, and trundle along there dodging the oncoming traffic until you can nip over to the left lane. Simple really – if you don’t mind risking life and limb! At first my eyes were nearly popping outta my head when they did that. After a while I learned to close my eyes and hope for the best and now? Well now it just seems natural to me.
Overtaking and tail gating …
… are both normal practice in Sri Lanka. Now I know we overtake and it’s perfectly acceptable but in SL they won’t wait a second for you to speed up. If you’re the slightest bit slower than them, they just bump you out the way and move on. OK they don’t exactly bump you but they drive right up to you beeping away and overtake regardless of what’s coming toward them. Yesterday I was too late to walk to work and got a tuk tuk. At one point coming along the busy Wackwella Road, we were faced with a tuk being overtaken by a bus being overtaken by another bus – they were all driving like nutters and they took up the whole of the two lanes. We nearly ended up in one of the many open drains they have here! Even the tuk driver gasped. On that occasion I did think the closing my eyes routine was a useful one.
… you can go roundabout whichever way you choose. My dad was driving people home from a wedding in Perth once and as he got onto the final roundabout before you enter Port Glasgow, he starts saying “look at that idiot driving the wrong way round a roundabout – ‘oi, eejit, you’re endangering my wife’” or words to that effect. Said wife very gently pointed out to him that whilst she was not a driver she was quite sure it was he who was going the wrong way. And it was. Well he’d fit in well here because they just go the quickest way they can find.
Honestly nobody obeys any of the highway code out here, in fact I'm not sure there even is one! I had to laugh when I saw a learner driver out with an instructor the other night. I mean … why?!
The beeping of horns …
… is constant, it never ends. On my first road journey on the day I arrived, I was quite unnerved by it. My driver who seemed (and is) so patient and mild mannered, was continually doing it too. It took some time to figure out that it’s not an aggressive thing here, it’s a communication tool. Well, no it’s not. They beep to say speed up, they beep to say move over, they beep to say I’m overtaking, they beep to say thanks. But there’s no difference between the beeps so how they think they’re communicating anything at all is beyond me. All they’re doing is creating a cacophony of noise and on that day, giving me a migraine not to mention a nervous breakdown!
I should say that the photo is courtesy of this guy who tells the tale of SL roads much more succinctly than me!
You are getting the picture that the roads here don’t feel safe I guess. The buses here are completely crazy. OK the bus DRIVERS are crazy. I’d love to say not all of them but I can’t. Because it is ALL of them. They drive like men (not seen any women yet) possessed. Apparently in Colombo they race each other. Take last week, for instance, Thea and I (housemate and colleague) were ordered to get the bus or a tuk tuk home because there were cricket fans getting carried away further up the road. There were dozens of them dressed up (some as VERY convincing women), banging pots, beeping horns (of course) and dancing in the street ahead of Richmond College’s match against Mahinda College. Anyway we were not allowed to walk so we got a bus.
We got on the bus and the driver was furious at being held up by these cricket guys so when we got moving he went absolutely mental - driving like a lunatic, overtaking everything and he just kept his hand on the horn the whole time. No beep beeping for him, it was just one long beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep! We were laughing hysterically because we didn’t know what else to do. Eventually we bolted it off the bus when it stopped. I thanked the driver for a very pleasant journey (the nutter) and once again vowed never to go on a public bus. It was another one of those moments (and we both agree, there are many) when you have no choice but to trust that fate doesn't want you to die!! Seriously, it's not a safe country – I will continue with the roads although I accept it’s sounding like an obsession!
Danger 3 – Being a Pedestrian
When I first got here I did wonder how on earth anyone ever crosses a road. I thought perhaps people just live their lives on one side of the road or the other. Their house, their work, the shops they buy from are all on one side and they don’t actually need to cross the road. It’s perhaps an idea for the future in Sri Lanka because going from one side to the other is a truly hair raising experience at times. There are no traffic lights in Galle, there appear to be no rules about zebra crossings either because being on one doesn’t seem to affect the speed of the traffic. I used to stand waiting for the traffic to die down but it doesn’t. Ever. So now, I more or less just wander into the road and keep my fingers crossed that I can successfully dodge the traffic! There is no point in looking left, right and then left again because by the time you’ve looked left again some lunatic is coming up behind you, having driven along the railway track at 80mph and with the windscreen blacked out so they can’t see what they’re knocking over. OK slight exaggeration but only slight. To be honest, I don’t even feel nervous crossing over anymore although the fact that I’m mentioning it at all is an indication that, as I said at the start, being on the final strait allows your mind to start noticing again.
Danger 4 - Homeless Dogs
Actually it’s a very sad sight to see so many cats and dogs starving and eaten away by fleas. Many of them have lost limbs (no doubt trying to cross the bloody road) and their wounds are infected. I started off with a fear of dogs. Not a huge fear, but some nervousness. I’m much more of a cat person. But here there are dogs all over the place and you just cannot live here if you can’t overcome the nervousness. I should say that I’ve only once had a dog be aggressive toward me here. Most are probably too hungry to bother. I was told that many are afraid of human beings so won’t come near you. I pass half a dozen or so just on the path outside my house. The thing is even if you overcome your fear, it’s not a good idea to touch them because many are infected with rabies and rabies kills. Again, you put that out of your mind and just don’t take any risks. One of my housemates can’t resist however. She loves dogs and so she feeds them and tries to treat their fleas. The best thing about the dogs is every morning and every night when the mosque starts broadcasting its chants, the dogs join in so it’s one long howling session. It’s very funny, very entertaining.
Danger 5 - Water
Clean safe drinking water was one of the most immediate concerns in Sri Lanka after the tsunami and they really did reach crisis point. I read a great story recently about the Lion brewery in Colombo. (We are all fans of Lion Beer out here.) After the tsunami, they stopped brewing beer and started bottling water – it was much needed. Anyway obviously things are different now and bottled drinking water is freely available. But we’re warned about some of the tap water. You can’t drink it without filtering it first and I’m lucky enough to have a filter at work and home but you still need to be careful. I’ve been in people’s houses where they’ve been extremely hospitable to me and then given me a glass of water. I can’t ask if it’s been filtered because there’s a language barrier and I don’t want to cause offence. Normally I just say thank you but I’m not thirsty whether I am or not. The chances are it would be okay but all of the UK departments of health are quite clear that if you take the risk you could end up with serious health problems. This is the reason why in the 69 days I’ve been here, I’ve used bottled water even to brush my teeth. It’s not easy to remember after a night out on the town I can tell you.
The final danger no 6 – electricity
This one makes me laugh it’s so bad. And I do believe my friend Patrick had the same thing in Malawi. This is one that no-one can pretend is about being over cautious but there is nothing we can do about it. Can you believe that our shower is plugged into a socket IN THE SHOWER?! Yep, you step into the shower, plug it into the socket and switch it on.
There is nothing anyone can do to guarantee their safety wherever you are. The other day 60 soldiers died over here in a freak lightning strike. And anyone who reads this blog will remember my own brush with something similar. There are no guarantees about anything so life is part careful planning, part chance. If I lived my life here according to our safety standards in the Western world it’d be simple – I’d just never shower, drink no water and avoid roads, traffic and dogs – in other words stay indoors smelly and thirsty. It’s a strange feeling that my subconscious is now letting me take a peek back at how I felt when I arrived and I wonder how long it will take me to readjust when I go back. Hopefully I won’t be taking my straighteners into the shower and skipping blindly but hopefully across Sauchiehall Street. If you see me doing any of these things, please stop me!