Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sri Lanka Diary #2. Running errands in Colombo and a drive to Matara: only a few “small problems” to be resolved.

Having expended more than 90 minutes at the airport in my fruitless attempt to install Dialog GSM’s portable internet service, I was now late for a dinner party in my honor, hosted by a friend who values punctuality. To save time, I chose to negotiate transport to Colombo and a vehicle and driver for the next day with the first Airport Transport employee who accosted me. His firm I shall call “Reliable Tours and Travels.” He was cordial and the price he offered, with little haggling, for the drive to Colombo plus a car and driver to run errands and make the 160 KM run to Matara, on the Southernmost tip of the island, seemed reasonable. I signed on and paid for the service in advance - about $130.00 US. My only requirement, I said, was a driver who knew Colombo and was reasonably fluent in English. The Reliable Tours employee, whom I will call Mr. Gunawardena, assured me he understood fully. “You wouldn’t want to make such a long trip with someone with whom you could not speak,” he volunteered, corroborating my views.

The next morning, my car and driver arrived punctually in a comfortable vehicle with - as we discovered - only one small problem, brake pads that, while they functioned effectively, made a rasping noise each time they were applied. It then unfolded that there were two other small problems, the driver, whom I shall call Mr. deAlwis, had only fragmentary knowledge of English or Colombo geography. Fortunately, my knowledge of Colombo is sufficient, after many years, and we were able to communicate sufficently to reach my various destinations. There would be no extended dialogues between Mr. DeAlwis and myself, however.

With errands completed, we were ready to depart on your journey. But wait.... There were two other small problems. First Mr. Gunawardena had not informed Mr. deAlwis, not a regular employee, that he would be making a 320 km round trip, lasting the entire day an into the evening. Second, Mr. deAlwis had no funds to purchase petrol (gasoline) for the vehicle or meals for his journey. A triangular mobile phone conversation in English and Sinhala between Mr. Gunawardena, Mr. DeAlwis and myself, as we drove through Colombo’s chaotic mid-day traffic, ensued. This was futher complicated by a third very small problem - Mr. DeAlwis’ mobile phone ran out of minutes in the middle of our conversation and we had to switch to a back up. Mr. Gunawardena of Reliable Tours apologized for the miscommunication between himself and Mr. DeAlwis. He would provide the funds immediately except that... there was a fourth small problem. He was not in Colombo. He would have to drive through heavy traffic to a rendezvous - estimated (unrealistic) waiting time for us while he completed the journey, about 30 minutes. Fortunately I was carrying sufficient emergency cash - a routine practice - so that I could cover the costs of Mr. DeAlwis’ return trip and pay for his lunch and dinner. Further negotiations with Mr. Gunawardena remain, however I believe that in the end, I will recover the funds.

The conversation between Mr. DeAlwis, a most polite and congenial young man, (especially considering the unanticipated agenda for his day) was limited, however he did share some information about the circumstances of his employment. He was not an employee of Mr. Gunawardena but of a “middle man” who owned the car with the rasping braks. The car owner contracted with Mr. Gunawardena who contracted with me. Mr. DeAlewis compensation was “15%” which I assumed would be 15% of the gross amount that Mr. Gunawardena had received from me 12,500 Sri Lankan Rupees. Estimating (from the funds I provided Mr. deAlwis) that the petrol costs for the trip were Rs 4,000, this left Rs. 8,500 to be divided between Mr. Gunawardena, Mr. deAlwis’s employer, and Mr. deAlwis. I am assuming, then, that Mr. deAlwis received approximately Rs 1250 (roughly $11.00) for a day of work than began at 7 AM and would end at about 9 PM - about 14 hours - an hourly rate of roughly $.80 US per hour.

In the end, our journey was a pleasant one marred only by nagging concerns that the rasping brakes might fail completely - they did not. The five small problems we encountered were easily resolved with patience and relative good humour. Parts of the journey, along Sri Lanka’s southwest coast road, were quite beautiful. We arrived safely and - hopefully - Mr. deAlwis returned to his new wife of only six months safe, sound and not too late in the evening.



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