Tuesday, February 10, 2009

In Praise Of The Tri Shaw

I'm coming to the conclusion that Tri Shaws, or Tuk Tuks as they're called by many, are probably the best form of transport ever invented. Ever. So, they're not as good as planes for crossing the planet, they're not as good as high performance cars for getting somewhere quickly and in poseur fashion, they're no way near as good as a normal and boring cars for getting you to your chosen destination in a dry, non dusty and non dirty way.

But, by and large, they're pretty damn perfect for day to day things in a country like Sri Lanka.

I'm a fan of the two stroke beauties and I'm proud to declare my, erm, fanness. They're not the best thing in the world for me, given a choice between a big pile of white string hoppers, a good session on a grand snare drum or a ride in a tri shaw I'd struggle.

I take them all over the show whenever possible, with limitations. I tend not to take them at night in Colombo, as the likelihood is that I'll get stopped every thirty seconds at a checkpoint and the chances of getting a dodgy driver are higher than during the day.

There's something about them that stimulates the senses and makes the passenger feel a part of the environment, rather than someone just travelling through it to get from A to B. Or, as is the case in Colombo; to get from A to B, passing B several times but having to double back because of the one way system and therefore taking nine times as long as anyone ever did before the traffic calming measures were cleverly introduced.

It's the openness of a tri shaw that creates this feeling of being involved with the world outside. A couple of weeks ago when I was in the motherland and at the GLF I stayed at the Fortress in Koggala, half an hour or so from Galle itself. Each morning we'd jump in a tri shaw to get to Galle Fort. Those journeys to and from the Fort are exciting memories for me.

Chugging along and watching the blueness and beauty of the sea on the left, thinking of the power contained within the water and the devastation and loss caused by the tsunami made me feel a sense of awe. Gazing at the glimpses of street life as we whisked through it was continually fascinating. It's a bit like watching snippets from lots of different plays acted out in front of me.

On one day I saw a funeral pyre being made in the morning, then saw the ceremony taking place in the evening, then saw it burning later in the evening on the final journey back to the hotel. But I didn't just see these stages of the event. I smelt them and heard them and felt the wind from them. It was all encompassing and all engrossing.

My last sight of the pyre was at about 11 PM and all that I could see was the remains, the last bits of what had been a big and imposing looking thing in the morning. The fire was burning itself out and a solitary man sat close by, watching and smoking a cigarette. In a car I would merely have seen all this, in the tri shaw, I felt it, heard it, smelled it and probably tasted it.

Some time ago Ford ran a series of TV adverts here in the UK in which they showed examples of the Ford Transit (a van) as being the "backbone of Britain". They showed how the van's used by every type of tradesman, from upper class antique dealers to dodgy builders. Well, if the Ford Transit is the backbone of Britain then the tri shaw has got to be the backbone of Sri Lanka.

Observing the various guises of the humble tri shaw never ceases to fascinate and amuse me. The traditional passenger carrying variant is the most common by far but what Sri Lankan hasn't seen them in every shape and colour. Coca Cola ones are my personal favourite, the ones that seem to shoot around Colombo delivering our favourite soft drink to all and sundry. There are Walls Ice Cream ones, Pizza Hut delivery types and a whole world of others out there. You probably have your own favourite.

The nature of a tri shaw dictates that it doesn't have the potential to act as the blank canvas that many buses are, as recorded by the Right Honourable one himself here, here and here. But there's still some of that uniquely Sri Lankan graphic design to be seen. One of the things that struck me week before last was a sudden burst of Bob Marley decorated three wheelers. Maybe they've been around forever and I just hadn't noticed, but they're everywhere now.

I saw one with "Bob" lettered to the left of the rear window the other day. I looked at it with my puzzled expression. I'd never make it as an actor because I only have two expressions; puzzled and interested, and they look quite similar anyway. But, I gazed at this one and wondered if there was a slim chance that the driver was called Bob, unlikely in Sri Lanka. As we say in England there were two hopes of this being the case; Bob Hope and no hope.

Then I saw a picture, resembling the face on the Turin Shroud and I guessed that this was another Bob Marley tribute shaw.

Why? I understand Mr Marley's impact and influence on music, I really do. But I haven't seen an Elvis shaw, or a Chuck Berry or a Beatles shaw. It's unfair and I'm thinking of starting a protest group about it on Facebook. Give it a short, as yet unspecified, while and there might be Mahinda shaws everywhere.

It would be lovely to see some vehicles decorated with pictures of famous Sri Lankans. A multi coloured tuk tuk with pictures of Dominic Sansoni plastered down one side would be brilliant. Perhaps, if they can be found, pictures of him sober down the other side would be good too.

The individual adornments on three wheelers are sheer class too. I suppose each vehicle is the equivalent of an office to its driver and he, or she, though rare, adds touches, charms and trinkets to make it personalised. From the fake aerial stuck on the rear window to the cheap and tacky religious icon resting on the dash board they're all there. Some have sound systems to make your ears bleed, though probably not my ears as I'm a drummer and therefore immune to many loud noises.

I'll leave you now, with apologies for the long and pointless post. The thing is that I really do have a soft spot for three wheelers. So much so that I'm now building my own little fleet of the chaps.

I'm toying with the devious plan of taking lots of photographs of them with captions. Things like yesterday's one and other amusing scenarios, none of which I can think of right now.

I saw them at Odel, on the ground floor, that section just before Delifrance, where the touristy souveniry things are. I'm going to buy some every time I go there and build up an army of them, perhaps even a fleet, maybe a herd of tri shaws,

Herd of tri shaws?

Yeah, of course I have. They're brilliant.


Anonymous said...

I love these cute tuk tuks. I was going to ask you where you got them and and you already answered, Now if I can get my Grandma or her driver to buy them for me!
But I don't like to ride the real ones! I consider myself to be a dare devil but tuk tuks make a porcupine out of me as I am a bit of a hairy fellow. The last time I rode one, I got off it with all my hair standing up. I am not really sure how they (my hair) did it 'cos my hair is usually all curled up! lying low.
But I want those tiny ones.

mcboom said...

On the flip side of the coin the explosion in trishaw numbers have lead to increased pollution in Colombo (2 strokes and one of the worst polluting engines on the planet with their 2T oil mix) and traffic congestion.
Increased taxes on cars and vans along with the lack of an efficient public transport system has lead to the trishaw becoming the most popular mode of mass transport in Sri-Lanka. We are going to have to live with them and dodge them on the roads..like it or not !

ViceUnVersa said...

Re: Bob M - There is a huge 'Kaya' following in SL. Stoning is a popular alternative to alcohol due to it's mass availability and competitive price.
An amusing but completely useless fact is that if you go to a really poor rural funeral home, you will find everyone completely chilled out - stoned!
Unlike the boosted skunk and shit that's fricked out in the west, the weed in SL is exceptional. Unless you smoke the one's soaked in formalene.
So therefore, huge following for Bob Marley in the motherland.
However getting stoned and then riding in a scooter taxi is definitely a dangerous proposition.
I could go on for ever so shall stop.

Dilsiri Welikala said...

You know whats better than a tuk tuk? METERED TUK TUKS! They are superb, you dont haggle you just call get in and go... Call them, +94-712500800

Sachintha said...

Hey I also stayed in Koggala Beach Hotel while I was in SL the last time. Isn't it awesome?

Btw, trishaws are indeed the best! And know what, I always enjoy the bargain with driver as opposed to most people. Most times I know the price and I try to get the guy to it somehow.. or I pretend to leave. They always get the price down.. LOL
In case they offer a reasonable price, mostly I'd pay a bit more than that... It's fun...

Sean said...

I once saw a Bob Marley decorated trishaw that made my day. In addition to Marley’s face and the Rasta flag, it also had the words:

“No girl... No tear...”

painted on the back window. I wish I knew the thought process behind the conversion of “No Woman, No Cry” to “No girl... No tear...”

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

KS - Yes, it has to be said that riding them can play havoc with the appearance, but that's also part of the fun.

McBoom - Thank you, I didn't know that about 2 stroke engines.

DD - And thanks for that info too. I still think that there are other famous people who should adorn three wheelers too though.

Dilsiri - But the haggling is part of the fun isn't it, as Sachintha says in the next comment.

Sachintha - Yes, a lovely place.

Sean - Only in Lanka!

Tradesmen said...

Big fan of the Tuk Tuks, they certainly make you feel alive - probably because you have your life in your hands!