The Colombo Traffic Symphonic Orchestra

Driving in Asia is an experience everyone should attempt at some point. Don’t worry about driving on the other side of the road, at least the pedals are in the same place. If everything goes wrong, close your eyes and pray. In Sri Lanka, with the world’s greatest density of religious public holidays and every Bodhi tree a holy shrine, the very trees may be listening to your prayers. Just don’t hit a Bodhi tree as the populace will likely be angrier at that than any bodily injury you may have incurred in the process.

Of course driving in Sri Lanka is also quite dangerous. At last count at least five people are fatally injured each day in a traffic-related accident. That’s quite high, but let’s not dwell on such morbidly fascinating issues. Driving in western countries is quite simple, and frankly comparatively boring; you get in your car, adjust your seatbelt, straighten your mirrors, get into your lanes, watch out for traffic lights and off you go.

Driving in Sri Lanka (and I suspect most of Asia) is truly about participating in a symphonic conversation conducted in concert with a giant stage production. A stage where cars weave in and out skirting pedestrians and leaping around suddenly acrobatically twirling drunks while avoiding certain deaith and dismemberment by the other vehicles on the road.

Let me describe the opening allegro movement of this car horn symphony on the streets of Sri Lanka.

“Hi I’m here!” beeps the Nissan Sentra
“Oi, I know you’re here, just beeping twice!” honks the Nissan Prado.
“Your owner is old, my car is newer!” barps the Toyota Corolla with the new license plate and the stylish driver in a suit.
“Watch out I’m thinking of moving out into the next lane!” sounds the Suzuki Maruti
“What lane are you talking about? I’m already here!”
“This is Sri Lanka! What the hell are you all talking about lanes?!”
“Hey watch out for that pedestrian!”
“I’m honking to the pedestrian as well!”
“Okay now I’m honking so the pedestrian knows I’ve gone!”
“Honking twice. That three-wheeler is barely moving!”
“Get out of my way I have vegetables to deliver!” A truck with headlights blinking incessantly.
“Ha yoooou may think you’re big but I’m bigger!” A towering and teetering public bus bears down on the truck. The conductor is frantically waving out the opposite side as if warning everyone in front that the driver and bus has gone mad. The bus passengers are all praying silently.
“Oi, I’m here too!” A three wheeler with the engine of a lawnmower on steroids tries to pass the bus who’s passing the truck who’s passing a pedestrian who’s now wondering why he didn’t just get in a car to cross the road.

Now for the slow movement:

“Ah, just honking even though there’s no other cars!” A small Maruti passes by.
“Hey you on the motorbike, I’m behind you!” A bike laden with an entire family passes by with a car gently nosing its way out to pass them.
A bus coming from the opposite gently blinds the car with its powerful lights
The car pulls back.
“Thanks!” The motorbike honks.
“No problem now, I’m passing you!” The car moves out and passes.

And then the Minuet:

A drunk twirls seductively waving his arms in the air and falls gracefully across onto the road.
A motorbike swerves.
“What the hell are you doing you stupid bugger?!” The car driving opposite honks.
A pedestrian dances across to the drunk.
The drunk waves conducting the minuet of the cars on the road.

And finally enters the Rondo:

“Get out of my way, get out of my way!” The sirens of a motorcycle are blaring.
“Can’t you see I’m important, I have ‘police’ written on the side!” A black car with shades honks deeply.
“Look I SAID get out of our way, your little lives are worthless!” Another motorcycle with lights and siren blaring.
“You should know by my deep honks and flashy car that I am one of your ministers you pathetically struggling people! Out of my way!” That’s the big four-wheel drive with the wife of a government minister or one of his children.
“No, don’t listen to him in front, remember to vote for him in the next election!” A smaller car beeps plaintively as it now passes in the motorcade.
“Okay you can go back to business. I said go back to business!” The last motorcycle zooms by with its sirens blaring.
“Hi I’m here!” beeps the Hyundai Accent.

Remember to master the techniques of conversing with the horn when driving in Sri Lanka or you too shall be an uninteresting statistic on a news item. If you come to Sri Lanka, take the moment to sit by the side of the road (I suggest behind a concrete barricade), close your eyes and listen to the undulating conversation of horns and sirens. The giant conductor in the sky is telling a lively story about life, politics and death. You just have to listen.


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