Rajagiriya at rush hour. Swarms of tuk-tuks and commuter buses belching fumes crowd the streets; an ox stands in the middle of the main road, oblivious amid his own mayhem. Further chaos is caused by an old man on a rusty bicycle with what appear to be 10 foot iron poles – the kind used to reinforce concrete – tied to the back, leading to a precarious balancing act.
Every evening I fight my way through the melee on my way home. Rush hours are chaotic in big cities the world over, but it’s the local mayhem specialities – the driver of an overloaded truck dashing from his cab to be handed his bushel of errant bananas by a traffic policeman – that create a very individual madness in each metropolis.
I skirted past the ox and the old man last Thursday and it was then that the thought occurred: this kind of thing feels normal after six months in Colombo, but if I was to go to London, would the lack of dangerous masonry and farmyard animals in the highways seem unusual? The variances and the individual elements here have become part of the common theme.
I started delving deeper into this definition of normal. In the Sri Lankan context normal should not be confused with mundane, as mundane would suggest boring, which is certainly not the case. Perhaps exciting normal would be an apt way to put it. And I went further: Sri Lankan normal and normal normal are different. Sri Lankan normal is common place now, but would not happen as a matter of course in London.
I superimposed the exciting Sri Lankan normal definition on to actual scenarios, with interesting consequences:
- Being pulled over by the police six times since buying The Beast, once on a charge of dangerous driving due to not indicating when overtaking a petrol tanker. This kind of thing is most definitely normal, even to be expected, in Sri Lanka. It didn’t happen to me in London.
- Receiving an unexpected two-palmed bottom grope whilst standing at the urinal in the gents’ toilets of a Colombo bar, within 72 hours of arriving in Sri Lanka. This is not so clear cut. It hasn’t happened since, but it did also happen to my colleague that very night. So it may just be a one off or common practice in that particular bar.
- Feeding bananas to a bull elephant on the roadside. Scenarios with wildlife encountered on the road are certainly exciting and normal in Sri Lanka. If it’s not elephants, it’s slowing to allow monitor lizards to plod nonchalantly across the dusty tarmac, swerving to avoid tortoises, frogs, mongooses, and even snakes. Regrettably, I hit an egret near Hambantota that decided to swoop into the path of The Beast. Luckily the latter is not normal, as animals, apart from scratchy old dogs, tend to be avoided at all costs by motorists.
- Locals who go out of their way to help, even when the consequences result in more confusion and uncomfortable situations for everyone involved. Yep, this is very normal. An example is when we asked a man at the Sinhala Institute of Culture if they did Sinhala lessons. He said they did, and that he himself could teach us there the very next day and even free of charge. After two hours spent passing scribbled Sinhala script back and forth on bits of old paper and a discussion about Shakespeare, we discovered he was not a teacher, and indeed had never taught Sinhala before. In fact he appeared slightly shocked at the suggestion.