80,000 people live in Galle and most of them appeared to be at the bus station. The level of commotion and noise gave the impression that some major incident had just occurred leaving this trail of screaming horns, people running and shouting, buses parked randomly across the dust and general bedlam in its wake. But no, this was just Galle bus station.
My tuk tuk driver had taken my 1000 rupee note to get change and had disappeared into the mayhem; I could see my bus filling up with passengers and the driver climbing into his cab. I decided I would have to put my lost change down to experience and ran for the bus. As I reached the door I heard:
“Madam, madam, your change!”
I grabbed the money and shouted “Thank you!” over my shoulder, before sliding into the nearest empty window seat and wiping the sweat from my eyes as the bus began to pull out of the station. My panic to get onto the bus before it left was soon shown to be a completely unnecessary piece of Western energy expenditure as more and more people casually stepped through the open door of the moving bus. A cigarette vendor sauntered on with his goods and sold several packets before disembarking gracefully and heading towards the next bus. The entire bus filled up, all seats occupied and standing passengers the entire length of the vehicle.
We eventually picked up speed and the ‘in-flight’ music began. The big seats were tatty but remarkably comfortable and I sat back and relaxed. After half an hour or so, my eyes felt heavy and I fought back sleep, intent on seeing as much of the Galle-Colombo Road scenery as I could. Through my half closed eye lids, I thought I had slipped into a reverie as the bus appeared to drift over the road into the oncoming traffic. Suddenly, there came the wail of car horns, a screeching of brakes and wild shouts from within the bus as the vehicle swerved hard, back into the left hand lane and almost into the ditch. It would appear the driver’s seat was also comfortable and he had apparently nodded off at the wheel. There was a great deal of excited shouting from the passengers, greeted with defiant, gruff retorts from the driver who seemed to think it was all a lot of fuss about nothing.
The kerfuffle died down and I settled back into watching the road fly by. Five or six minutes later the bus veered again and there was a loud crash followed by glass and metal shards flying past my window, smacking hard against its surface. The bus came to a dead stop, sending all the standing passengers hurtling forward and fruit and vegetables raining down on our heads from the bags on the overhead shelf.
From my vantage point I could see the remains of our large rear view mirror dangling from a wire and the long, deep gashes in the side of the bus that had been coming towards us when we crossed the carriageway and smashed into it. There was pandemonium on the bus. Passengers were shouting and waving fists at the driver who had scrambled out of his seat and was squaring up to the driver of the bus we had hit. People were getting off both buses to survey the damage and remonstrate with the driver.
I sat quietly at the window, watching the scene. One of the standing passengers leaned over to me:
“They are disputing the cost of the damage” he said, nodding towards the two men, who remained locked in aggression. “Our driver refuses to pay the sum being demanded by the driver of the other bus. He says it is just a scratch and as he will already have to pay to replace the mirror on his own bus, he has no more money to pay.”
After many more surveys of the damage and repeated shouting from all concerned, stalemate was reached.
My informant updated me: “We will have to get off and wait for another bus. This bus will not be going on.” I reached for my rucksack and got to my feet just in time to see both drivers laughing and a bundle of rupees changing hands. I was confused. My impromptu travel guide enlightened me: “The other driver suggested they go to the police to settle the matter,” he grinned, toothlessly. “Now it seems the price is acceptable.”
I slid back into my seat and the bus eventually resumed its journey but this time there was not one driver, but dozens. At every junction there were shouts of “Stop!” and on every bend “Look out!” and “Slow down!”
I arrived back in Bentota and gratefully disembarked. On the roadside I passed a small group of tourists with their English speaking tour guide.
“It is not advisable to use the public buses on the Galle Road, there have been known to be accidents” he said. I kept my head down and made a beeline to The Golden Grill for a curry.
Andrea (Andy) Montgomery is a freelance travel writer and co-owner of Buzz Trips and The Real Tenerife series of travel websites. Published in The Telegraph, The Independent, Wexas Traveller, Thomas Cook Travel Magazine, EasyJet Traveller Magazine, you can read her latest content on Google+