Tuk-Tuk—Story No. 2 from Sri Lanka (Bob Caplan, guest blogger)

We’re happy to republish another fun email by Bon Caplan.

29 January 2011
Hi Family and Friends,

Thanks for all the swell notes and news. Since last writing you, Greg and I climbed the 11,000 round-trip stair steps of Adam’s Peak to see the sunrise. Louisa and Anita bagged about 5,500 of them, deciding that 2500 descending steps should be their limit in order to pursue greater glories in the future. It would be great for Anita and me to sit at water’s edge here, enjoying with all of you a plate of papaya, mango, and fresh curd or perhaps a beer. Together we would watch the pond herons and great white herons take flight against the darkening skyline of mountains and silhouetted trees. What follows is probably some of what we would probably tell you about our day. And no doubt, were you here, you would have accounts of your own.


“Majestic Hotel, two-fifty (250 Rupees).” The driver nods. No argument here. We have offered more than local customers, but hopefully not outrageously so. Two dollars and fifty cents for 15 minutes and 5 kilometers. A pair will do, two tuk-tuks.

Greg and Louisa take the green tuk-tuk, Anita and I the red one. Louisa turns on her wide-screen camcorder, flicks on the sound. Ready for action.

We have just finished a tasty dinner at The Muslim Hotel in Kandy. Hotel means restaurant in much of South Asia. The Muslim Hotel’s three-walled open front edges the sidewalk and reaches back toward the alley. A fourth wall is not needed in this mild and humid mountainous reach. This place speaks of the ages. The cream-colored, sooted walls look as if they were last painted in 1912 or maybe ’15. The floors have an opaque grime covering that hides the source material. All this sets off the marble-top tables, wiped clean after each party and supported with black cast iron uprights of lacy design that may have arrived in the 1920s by English steamer, and might have been poured at British foundries. Or perhaps they have another story.

We enter the restaurant passing glass displays that face the street, displays with sweet and salty fried snacks. On our left is a glass partition behind which stands a man and bank of fist-sized wads of glistening dough. He reaches for one, tosses it as if he is making pizza, spins it on a hot metal surface, adds some spicy vegetables, folds it, and sends it into an over to become tri-cornered roti.

Our guidebook indicates that women are usually seated in back in a “family” section. A waiter points us towards a corner table hidden behind the baker. Louisa points to an up-front table and takes it. “It is better here,” says the waiter, pointing to the original table. Too late. I throw up my hands. “As usual,” I say, “the women control us. What can I do? I am ONLY a man.” I laugh, and he joins me. My comment is, of course, hyperbole, but less so for my culture than for his. So we both, I suppose, laugh for different reasons.

The Muslim Hotel is reputed to serve up superb samosas and naan. We order a variety of dishes including samosas, add in some ginger tea, and finish with a sampling of deserts weighed out and charged by the kg or fraction thereof. Rupees 560 for four, about $1.30 each and superior to $8 a person buffet we had at a tourist trap earlier today. As a popular advertisement for credit cards goes, food excellent, ambience priceless.

Sri Lanka’s tuk-tuks are 3-wheeled putt-putt taxis made in India. If you have never ridden in one, I can assure you, it is exhilarating, even accelerating. The engine is mid-ship assuring that the driver and passengers equally share the soothing massage of the two to four stroke engine. Appointments and controls include a fuel gauge, axe handle length starter lever, padded passenger bench behind the driver (seats two comfortably, three if the third is a child reasonably, and three to four painfully), accelerator and brakes on the handle bars (like a motor scooter), and black tonneau cover to shelter the occupants from sun and rain. Depending on the owner’s taste’s there may be various chrome accents and hand-stencilled sayings such as “Colombo Express” or some paramour’s name. Performance dept.: Torque is impressive. From a dead start, there is a head-jerking instant, off-the-line burst of speed reminiscent of a pumped up golf cart. Acceleration? 0-60 mph in…uh…let’s see…we, actually, these beasts top out at about 20-25 mph. So we’ll just say 0-60 in an infinite number of seconds.

Turning radius: I knew you’d ask. A Bajaj can probably do an about face in the circumference of a 1964 Cadillac Le Baron’s engine compartment. (Those of you who are from the Post-Detroit-Iron Age may wish to imagine an engine compartment large enough for a queen-sized bed, hopefully with its occupants well-warned and standing on the side lines along with the on-looking crowd and press corps.)

Safety equipment: Beeping horn. That’s about it, but hey, do you want a tuk-tuk ride or what?!
Ok. Ready? Here’s the scene. You have filled up on goodies from The Muslim Hotel, set on a price, and climbed in. The two drivers pull back on their axe handles, uh, starters, say something to each other (I’m just guessing, but here’s a wild and likely way-off speculation: “My ride is paying me a fortune, 250 rupees. How about you, Siri?” “250? Ha-ha. I milked mine for 300.” “Ok, ok, but I bet you 10 rupees that I beat you to the Majestic.” “Oh yeh?” “Yeh.” “You’ve got yourself a bet, sucker.”) And—whoa!! We rocket out into the night’s traffic. There goes the torque. I glance at Anita. Reassuringly, I see that she didn’t get ejected. Zoooom! Wow, right between two trucks and a bus. The way these guys are driving they could thread their way between Newtonian and quantum physics without even making Shroeder’s cat wink.

There’s Louisa with her camcorder. “You’ll never get me on your lousy video,” I shout, feeling the competition of the moment. “Think again, buster,” Louisa screams back over the whine of our chariots, “I’ve got image stabilization.” “Image-smimage,” I yell back. “With these roads you’re gonna’ need earthquake stabilization.” Her and Greg’s tuk-tuk takes the lead. Hey Greg, no fair offering the driver an extra 10% if he wins. Zap, zap, zap, zip. A haa! Now OUR driver has the lead, using a tricky manoeuvre (English spell check here, folks) in which he’s straightened a rather ragged line of Buddhist monks heading for home while bringing a screaming ambulance (which Sri Lankans prefer to ignore, especially in heavy traffic like this) to a full stop.

Say, what’s that white thing ahead of me in the dark? In the blinding oncoming light of a few more tuk-tuks, an Indian-made Maruti sedan, two Mitsubishi jeeps, and a Tata truck I discover that the white thing is my hand. My hand? Gads, I’m holding the handrail too tight. I must have squeezed the blood from my hand. I wonder where it goes when you do that?

My body sways right, then recovers. We’ve just curved around a stopped bus (right hand drive, folks; add two points for further disorientation regarding whether you are about to be killed or not). My free hand brushes against my leg. Feels wet. What’s that? I am wearing my headlamp so I can read the currency when we get off at the end of the trip (optimist, Bob? Don’t you mean IF you get off?). I flick on the light. My right pant leg is spattered just below the knee, some kind of red glop, looks like strawberry jam. Let’s see. Of course! It all makes sense. Three hours ago we were finishing a visit to the National Botanical Gardens just outside Kandy. Giant bamboo, a ficus that spread 2500 square meters, splendid palms, orchids. Magnificent. Some bird must have bombed me. A sway to the left. What’s that? We’ve narrowly avoided something enveloped in a cloud of diesel. I look to the left. The Temple of the Sacred Tooth is lit and reflects in the still waters of Kandy’s central lake. The tooth is Sri Lanka’s most precious relic, and no wonder, for it is believed that all of The Buddha’s words passed by that tooth.

We brake hard, then the driver throttles it. I am slammed back into the seat. I look at my pant leg and wonder if the mess will come out. If not, I’ll have to toss the pants. No matter. Sri Lanka is a major clothes manufacturer for many companies abroad. My pants may have been made here. Anyway, I’ll just pull up the pant leg and see if my leg is full of slop. Another jerk to the right, then a return to the left. Look at that! The stuff has dribbled down my leg. It even feels a little crusty. What a mess. I look at my fingers. Red. The stuff smears easily, shines. Hmmm. No notable odor. That’s odd. There is a throttling sound on the tonneau. We turn off the main road, climb steeply up an unlit lane, and disappear into a downpour. In its midst, the following comes to mind and takes this form:

“Say, Anita.”

“Yes, Bob?”

“Question for you.”

“Yes, Bob?”

“Do you think tuk-tuk drivers charge extra for small animals?”

“How small?”

“Oh, really small.”

“How really small, Bob?”

“Oh…I’d say about the size of a leech.”
—- —
Bob Caplan, Ella, Sri Lanka, 29 January 2011.

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