Colombo Taxi

Colombo’s 3 wheeled (“trishaw”) taxis – life savers or death traps ? The answer lies somewhere in-between – at the intersection of poverty, third world transport infrastructure, as well as other factors hidden in traffic and exhaust smoke. This post is a fling of context to act as a starting point to a complicated subject.

The trishaw driver – obviously a maniac, a two (soon to be four stroke) three wheeled polluter of sound and air. An accident waiting to happen in the form of a road flea intent on driving up your blood pressure in the clogged artery of the daily commute. Supposedly a legitimate target of hate or at least displeasure. Beyond a doubt, somebody’s son (haven’t seen any female 3 wheel drivers but what do I know – I just blog here). A hard life from the dark scrawny arm frantically pumping the starter leaver when stalled at a light. While we honk our rage from air conditioned (or non air conditioned) chariots. However the laws of physics (as applied to the two stroke engine) ignore the horns. If he is sweating its most likely from the rising price of gas.

He might be the next mayor (however likely that is). Perhaps he might have even more unlikely dreams of getting his child/children into a “good” Colombo school. There is a chance that at least a few trishaw drivers have shacked up in a shanty with a convenient address or fixed one with someone living there for that very purpose. Will try not to speculate as to where he sees his hopes in the face of the current education zero sum game. Till he attains these dreams he’s got a better chance of getting stopped at the next checkpoint while you and I woom by. If he owns the ride (pawned his life for the loan) it is bedecked with symbols that matter.

Before him (usually) are deities for protection as he weaves through the traffic fabric, looking for the next opening. Faster he ends the hire, the more time for another. On the back is the name of the son or daughter or mother whose welfare the days taking depends. I’d bet that worry is his constant passenger. On a frivolous note, the BRIGHT plastic flowers (mainly yellow) before the handle bars. More fake antennae than a mobile command centre or an UN 4 wheel drive. Perhaps Ayshwaiya Rai in a blond wig (surrealists – they are everywhere). For atmosphere, he has quite a few in options from fractal seat covers, the usual film start posters to hip interior lighting. My favourite is the black light which always looks very cool at night.

For practical types (we must be practical now) there are the bright red luggage racks complete with a tiny ladder. Saw one on a trishaw piled high with furniture – with 4 adults stuffed in the passenger seat. The narrow purple or green sun visors I’m sure has some practical value. Assortments of tiny lights – yes frivolous – but good visibility in the gloom of hardly lit roads. Its the closest you can get to flamboyant low income public self expression on the road and still get away with it. However your chances of seeing a “Yet another Royalist is ahead of you” sticker or anything fashionable trishaw mafia is quite slim.

Despite the regalia (how ever flowery) he is/can be/has to be tough and aggressive. To keep that choice spot in the afternoon heat or the shade. Ready to pull harsh words from the hip faster than a wild west gunslinger. Impressed I quietly give the two exchanging verbal shards their space on the burning pavement outside the Majestic city/ Unity plaza car park. You could almost here the hiss of angry venom in the tight dark skin pulled over boney faces. The scene pulls a minor crowed, which dissipates disappointed when there’s no brawl. Behind the tough exteriors sketched irresponsibly in such fleeting descriptions, is of course another human. Whose complexities we don’t have the bother to consider. Besides, in the rush of just trying to get things done in a third world life we must prioritise. We have enough of life’s excrement to paddle through. Empathy is futile, inconvenient, and ultimately a weakness no? It is just a relief to let him be defined by the visibility of his profession and stereotyped by negative encounters with people of greater expressive power.

The SLB does not contain many trishaw drivers – mostly passengers – so the stereotype is mainly negative. No doubt there is as always a degree of truth (even lies have a kernel of it). And it is less dramatic to blog about an uneventful, conversation free trishaw ride. News must be dramatic, and successful, eye ball catching dramatic news is about bad things that happens to other people who you don’t know. Cerno is not a clubbing boozing type and consequently cannot describe the experience of a tipsy search for a “three” at 3am.

All I can say about my trishaw rides is the relief of finding some moving shade (and a ride) on a hot day, being cooled by the wind flowing in, and being thanked when I paid the fare. The sound track to it all kindly provided by the two stroke under my seat. Seems I’ve run out of gas so we have reached wherever this post was going. If you are feeling lost then we both have something in common. Thank you for riding. Its all right if you leave a comment behind.

Trishaw art, Galle-Colombo road


10 thoughts on “Colombo Taxi

  1. I like my local guys, one old seeya and his two sons-in-laws. Nothing makes me feel more like I’m home than to hop into Sirisena’s trishaw and catch up on things while he gives me an underpriced ride somewhere (I always tip him around 40%)…


  2. poojitha: Glad you liked it 😀

    N Looks like you have “favoured” customer status 😉

    A question for your local guys (assuming they own their 3s): How are they managing with the rising costs and finance company loan payments (with the high interest rates)?

    Heard a friend with financial links wonder how people can run a business and repay loans at the current interest rates. Just curious about how that part of the economy is coping.

    Happy (and safe) riding 🙂


  3. dunno machang…must ask them the next time I’m down…hopefully Sirisena will still be around! I reckon they own their own put-puts.

    btw for trishaws with nitrous installed hop one from Clancy’s, the ones in the night that is…whoo ha!


  4. N: Forgot you were on another tectonic plate. ;D But (to paraphrase Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City) world is a house and the countries you live in are its many rooms. 😉

    I guess we all have our favourite rooms but that is another post that’s brewing..


  5. Hehe…I like that saying…without doubt my favourite room is the one I grew up in. Will be back soon for good! 🙂 Well maybe after I try out one more room…


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