I arrive in the capital city of Sri Lanka, Colombo. I don’t speak either of the two major languages here though there’s a fair amount of refined as well as rudimentary English here. As I do in Indonesia and everywhere else I travel to on this side of the world I rely on ride-hailing services like Grab or Uber to get around. Here it’s Uber. And Uber is great but it’s clearly not the way to get around here.
The way to travel in Colombo as in much of the rest of Southeast Asia is two or three wheels, not two feet or four wheels. Not that there aren’t cars here and plenty of them, as well as trucks and buses and semis, but it’s clear that two-wheel motorcycles and bicycles and three-wheel tuk-tuks rule the urban roads. They not only can but do go where larger vehicles can’t, more adroit, nimble, and therefore faster than larger and more expensive cars. Though they are at a disadvantage in terms of mass the tuk-tuk drivers are fearless but also presciently cautious. They are insistent on finding a way forward and securing the most advantageous position in the pack but can be unexpectedly polite and yielding in the next moment. They are often studies in moving contradictions.
It does not occur to me immediately that I should be using tuk-tuks instead of cars. But after I’m introduced to it by my colleague, I’m hooked. Hooked despite what might strike a newcomer from the West as some very serious considerations.
As many advantages as fewer wheels have here there are definitely disadvantages. Safety comes to mind immediately despite the curious caution at times displayed by trucks buses, cars, tuk-tuks, motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians and even the stray dogs that wander the streets with a listless, sullen deference. I trust drivers in Southeast Asia far more than I trust American drivers, but this is undoubtedly only because things move slower (usually) because of congestion in Southeast Asia, and because local news is not inundated (or doesn’t mention at all) the number of maimings, ER visits or deaths daily as a result of traffic accidents. I don’t see accidents, but it’s a big city. Perhaps a certain level of ignorance is necessary to avoid the alternative paranoia. By letting go of what could be to some degree, I can experience and mostly enjoy what actually is at the moment.
There are other aspects to safety other than accidents, though. Riding in an open-air tuk-tuk in a city where emissions controls are optional at best poses an entirely different set of risks. By the end of even a short ride smoke and soot and ash and dust are a second skin not only over my exterior but probably over a terrifying portion of my interior as well. A burning develops in the back of my throat after a day here. But that’s all before I meet Seka.
I meet Seka my first full day in town. I walk out of my hotel determined to find a ride to where I’ll be teaching and there is Seka, waving me down with a broad smile dividing the darkness of his face with the brilliant white of his teeth. We negotiate the price to where I want to go. A simple matter, a single trip. I am foolish and practical and so very Western in these matters, seeing things in bits and pieces. Seka sees this very differently, more holistically perhaps. Perhaps simply even more practical than I do. For Seka this is not a one-off ride but the start of a relationship, full of possibility in both geography and time and money that greatly exceeds a single 15-minute ride across town this morning. He sees opportunity, and necessity. He takes me on as his responsibility for the duration of my time in Colombo.
Certainly if I need a ride to work in the morning I will need a ride back to the hotel later, will I not? He asks when I’ll finish and tells me he’ll be waiting for me, in the same place he’s dropping me off. Does that mean he’s going to wait here all day? Will he leave and come back? My inability to understand the physics of his life makes me dubious. But, true to his word he’s there waiting for me even when I finish early from my teaching. Waving and smiling and making sure I don’t accidentally go with someone else.
And again it’s not simply a ride back to the hotel. For though I certainly must be tired at the end of the day, I will at some point need to get dinner, will I not? And of course Seka should be ready to take me whenever I want. So a time is agreed upon and when I come out from my hotel that evening he is once again waiting. As he will wait for me while I eat.
Seka speaks some English. Not a lot, but enough to get across what he needs to – to ask pertinent questions and share a few tidbits about local areas of interest we pass through. Not nearly enough for me to make sense of the Hindu stickers on the inside of his windshield. They might not even be his – many drivers lease their tuk-tuks and don’t own them outright. Likewise his mobile phone is not smart in any sense of the word but serves his limited needs. At times we have difficulty making ourselves understood. He’s confused by Google Maps on my phone and prefers to ask another tuk-tuk driver or local for assistance in telling him how to get to where I want to go. Many times he doesn’t need to ask anyone else for help, but rather knows not only the obvious way to get someplace but the preferred way. He ducks down alleys and narrow one-way streets in order to avoid the even more claustrophobic mass of humanity descending on key market areas like Pettah in the late afternoon.
On the second day of our time together I asked him to take a detour on the way back to the hotel. I wanted to check out at least one billiard spot in town, as is my custom. Now he knew something more he could do. It was clear I was less than impressed with this place after returning after just 15 minutes or so. I know another place Seka said and off we went.
We wound through tiny alleys and residential pathways as he peered in each of the open doors. He finally stopped and pointed me into the darkness of one open door of one house out of 30 on this little stretch of road. I was a little reluctant, but decided to trust his direction. It might used to have been a bar or restaurant, but there wasn’t much of it left now except for a single carefully covered pool table. Seka asked the old man sitting inside about playing but the man made it clear he wasn’t interested in getting the table ready for me. Even when another man closer to my age wandered in and offered to play with me the old man refused.
We tried two more spots, one of them turning out to be an enjoyable and memorable experience even if not my best billiard experience. Seka was always obliging. You happy I happy sir.
I thought I was hiring a rider for a single trip but Seka became my accidental-intentional sidekick for my time in Sri Lanka. Each morning he was waiting outside the hotel to pick me up and each evening he waited along with a dozen other tuk-tuk drivers and was happy to take me back to my hotel. But over our time together Seka began to take it upon himself to not be just a chauffer but also a guide. And so it was that on my final night in town I told him where I wanted to go for dinner. Off we went, but not towards where I had told him. He obviously had other ideas about where I should eat – not at the lousy Chili’s franchise but rather where Sri Lankans eat. We stopped at a locals bar so I could try the national liquor, arrack. It’s a distillation from palm sugar popular in many places here. The flavor can be mellow and even smooth. He allowed me to buy him a bottle of beer but refused to drink it. For later. Safety first! he said with a smile and I certainly didn’t think it necessary to argue that point.
He launched us without hesitation through a flurry of streets already choked with pedestrians, tuk-tuks, cars, vendors, and increasingly, the amazing odors of some sort of delicious food. We swam upstream in his tiny land-boat against an oncoming tide of hijabs and men in flowing, Arabic dress in the process of being disgorged from a nearby mosque and intent on finding their own sustenance from one of the literally seven billion different restaurants and food vendors in these four square blocks. He suddenly pulls over and just tells me to get out and find something to eat. A year ago I would have found that suggestion ludicrous. But I’ve threaded my way through enough Southeast Asian populations to be intimidated any longer. Seka followed close behind, less worried about my safety (which was never endangered) and more out of concern I might not be able to find him again.
I wandered between roadside grills covered in varying types of meat in differing states of readiness. I peeked in tiny restaurants with only four or five seats, already packed with people sitting and standing and shouting to have their orders filled. The unfiltered neon lights of the shops contrasted starkly with the dark streets outside, and the beautiful dark skin of every person in that street contrasted with bright flashes of white teeth as they laughed and shouted, and the whites of their eyes that pivoted to follow me. To marvel at this curiosity in their midst. Not unwelcome, but unexpected. The smells were too numerous to even discern let alone try to describe, but skewed heavily towards Middle Eastern palates. Muslims make up roughly 7% of the population of Sri Lanka, roughly equal to the number of Christians. But this, this was their neighborhood and this was their food. And it smelled incredible.
I settled on Bawa’s Restaurant on Meeraniya Street and for the first time in our three days together Seka entered the restaurant with me. Tuk-tuk drivers are ubiquitous but definitely have their boundaries. One person explained that there are two distinct groups of Tamils in Sri Lanka. There are those who have been there a long time, hundreds and hundreds of years and have become very successful and launched themselves around the world to continue their success. And then there are the Tamils who arrived only a couple hundred years ago to work the tea plantations in the highlands for the British. These Tamils were often from the lowest Hindu castes in India and not only are treated differently by others, feel themselves to be different as well even after multiple generations.
But tonight Seka came in with me. It’s not uncommon for businesses to offer incentives of money or product to tuk-tuk drivers who bring them customers. Perhaps that’s what was happening here. Or perhaps the bill for Seka’s food was lumped into my bill. Regardless he tucked (ha!) the box of chicken and rice into the shadowed recesses of his tuk-tuk to take home later to his family. Not only safety came first but also business.
He was ready as usual on my final morning to take me to the office I was teaching in on Layard’s Broadway. But he was also insistent he would take me to the airport in the evening. This was problematic. I tried to dissuade him but he wouldn’t hear it. Of course it wasn’t too far. He had taken me this far, he would fulfill his duties to me. But Bandaranaiki International Airport is 35 kilometers to the north of downtown Colombo. I did not doubt Seka’s willingness. I might have doubted his tuk-tuk’s ability but not his ability as a driver. Most of all it was the thought of a 45-minute drive (probably longer at the slower speed of a tuk-tuk) through the exhaust fumes and general pollution of Colombo. I could still remember the smoky odor that occasionally drifted into a damp stench on my ride into town a few days earlier – and that was in a car! The thought of that long in that smell and pollution in a tuk-tuk was more than I needed to bear.
Seka was undeterred, and because I wasn’t sure when I’d finish teaching we agreed on a time to meet up again when I thought I’d at least know when I’d be done and ready, if I wasn’t done and ready already.
Which, it turns out I was. Much earlier than our appointed meeting time. I had no way to contact Seka. He couldn’t use WhatsApp. My phone couldn’t make voice calls. I thought perhaps he’d already be there waiting but he wasn’t. I searched through the other waiting tuk-tuks to no avail. And finally one of them pulled up and I hesitated only a moment with a twinge of guilt before climbing in. Maybe it was better this way.
It was certainly simpler.
How much? I asked after he saw where I wanted to go hunker down for a few hours before my red-eye flight that night. He waved upwards to the top of his tuk-tuk and replied Meter. A similar meter to what you’d find in an American taxi, if perhaps a little more basic. The same exact type of meter in Seka’s tuk-tuk. But Seka’s meter was never mentioned, never referenced, never utilized, and never even powered on as far as I could tell. It sat there dull and blank, whereas the meter in this tuk-tuk glowed red in anticipation. Only ride with a meter, the driver continued as I pushed in my suitcase and clambered aboard. If no meter, they cheat you! he said, clearly proud of his comparative honesty.
I nodded and smiled. He was right, of course. And by the end of this ride I’d have a good idea of just how much I had overpaid Seka the last three days. Seka never mentioned his unpowered meter or offered to use it. I noticed this immediately, of course. I know how things are supposed to work. I knew my fare would be higher, but when fares are calculated in terms of quarters and singular dollars, what did it matter to me, when it would matter so much to him? What’s a few cents more at the end of the day?
I wasn’t cheated by Seka. That would imply I didn’t know any better and would push the blame onto him and turn me into a victim. That’s a popular past-time for many folks these days but I abhor it. I knew better and went along with it anyways. I could have demanded or at least asked about the meter at any point but I didn’t. I could have refused to ride with Seka, could have accused him of dishonesty, even theft. But I didn’t. It wasn’t theft. I was an accomplice. I didn’t balk or even barter. Truth be told Seka only named one amount in our three days together – the first fare for our first ride together. I used that as the baseline for all our other rides and only adjusted it upwards if it was a longer ride. He never balked when I handed him the bill. He knew he was making good money. And now I knew it for certain as well.
And it’s ok. I don’t know if this qualifies as charity. Seka never tried to play on my sympathy and I never expressed any guilt or awkwardness at the vast difference in our lives and situations. I just paid him twice the going rate and he was always there when we agreed upon. I’d prefer to think of it all as an act of mutual kindness instead of charity. I’d like to avoid stripping him of that honor. Perhaps that’s the best that can be made of the situation. And if that’s the case I will certainly never complain about it.
3 thoughts on “Seka”
Loved this blog. Felt like I was riding along with you in your tuk-tuk. Going to have to google that. 🙂 Thanks for sharing.
That was my hope! Blessings to you as you continue to endure winter weather!
Thanks for sharing your experiences! Makes for very interesting reading!
Blessings on your teaching and reaching out to souls!