On a Wednesday night in September (20th), around 7.30 pm, I boarded a bus (No 3344), from Pettah, which was taking passengers on the highway, to Negombo.
The big Bus was full and I got a seat about 5 or 6 rows down from the entrance in the middle row. People who sit on these seats have to get up and make way for the passengers who get off after Katunayake.
As there were a whole lot of passengers I got busy with my phone just like the others. Suddenly someone prodded me. When I looked up it was the conductor. He didn’t say “buy your tickets” and instead prodded me with his finger! He didn’t give me a ticket and I demanded one, upon which he gave me two. This helped me later on.
A couple of minutes later, I heard the conductor shouting “Four Hundred!” “ Four Hundred!” nastily and someone from behind shouting back “No, I won’t give!”. When I looked behind, in the row behind me, there was a young foreign couple and it was the girl who was retorting. I then inquired form her whether she bought the ticket and she said she paid RS 300. I told her a ticket cost Rs.130 and they should receive a balance of Rs.40. I asked her as to why the conductor was demanding another Rs.400. She then looked behind and indicated that it was for their baggage – two medium sized suitcases kept standing upright just behind the last row of passenger seats. I was shocked! As the suitcases weren’t on two seats- in which instance some conductors charge for the seats taken- being charged Rs.200 each per bag meant that they were being charged more than the fee for a one way ticket to Negombo!
I asked her as to why the conductor was demanding another Rs.400. She then looked behind and indicated that it was for their baggage – two medium sized suitcases
Then the conductor was shouting nastily at them saying, “get down!” get down!”. By now we were passing Technical College. I was alarmed, wondering as to how they could get off with their bags etc. in the middle of the journey, mainly because this was a foreign couple and also given that it was now night. I inquired form the conductor as to why he was charging for the baggage. He didn’t answer me. When the young man next to me advised me, “let the bus conductor and the tourist sort it out”, I protested. The girl next to him said “Now when we go abroad, we don’t have to pay for our baggage”. I agreed with her and we continued discussing the rude behaviour of the conductor. The guy kept quiet. When such an attitude is showcased in public by males like this, no wonder commuters are harassed. Not only conductors there are occasions when the bus drivers are nasty too! Commuting by private buses, especially in Sri Lanka, with the deafening music that blares, one has a memorable experience to say the least!
Then there was this wonderful young man from Kochchikade who protested aloud and sternly demanded that he can’t make them get down like that in the middle of the journey. I was also able to mumble something in protest. Thereafter the conductor returned to the area near the door of the vehicle. Mind you, 95% were male passengers in that bus and not a single passenger protested except this young man! It was just this young man who stood up and I salute him!
8.30 pm or so, I intended to get off just one halt before the main Negombo bus terminal in order to get a taxi to get home. But as the tourists didn’t get down, I thought I should disembark at the terminal itself, lest these two are harassed once again.
To my surprise, a big made lady ( I am a teeny weeny by the way) too intended to get down, but she was too stayed on. We started discussing the rude behaviour of the conductor. The boy, who stood up for them, got off with another boy and remained looking up at the bus without going his way, until the tourists got down. All other passengers dispersed!
The young tourist couple got off last as they had to collect their bags. And before we could get to them taxi drivers surrounded them to obtain the fare for the hire. When we went towards the couple these taxi drivers became very hostile. They were just as vicious with us as we were when dealing with the bus conductor! We told them that these two had some problem in the bus and that’s why we want to talk to them to know whether anything untoward happened when disembarking from the bus. But the taxi drivers were shouting and waving their hands saying “What happened in the bus is over, now you let us handle them”. We were horrified!
However, we managed to ask the foreigners whether they were forced to pay the Rs. 400 the conductor was demanding. The girl said “No, I didn’t give them” very emphatically.
The Russian girl was clad in a Saree and the couple’s concern now was to get a room and they didn’t know where to go and were concerned about the prices too. I suggested to them to go to Ethukala where there are plenty of guest houses. The taxi drivers were still shouting and waving their hands disturbing us. Then the other lady took the phone and said she would call the police (she was actually dialing the police), they quietened.
The young tourist couple got off last as they had to collect their bags. And before we could get to them taxi drivers surrounded them to obtain the fare for the hire
This lady told the young couple that she would go to the police and also find a place for them to stay overnight. She took them away quickly and they too went happily with her. She would have mentioned the word ‘Police’ to drive fear into the taxi drivers. We were quite concerned because we were near the taxi drivers’ stand. I managed to thank the young man for being so civic minded, but unfortunately could not ask his name nor the name of the lady, who was so concerned. But the boy told me that he was from Kochchikade when I asked him and we parted our ways quite shaken.
When I returned home I promptly called the Ethukala Tourist Police who asked me to contact the Negombo Police in turn and I did. There was a very courteous police officer named Sargent Gamage at the Special Unit to take down such complaints by tourists. He took down all details and promised me that he will contact the conductor and take appropriate action and thanked me for bringing this incident to his notice.
When I followed it up the next day he said he had already notified the Negombo Bus Depot about the conductor and the driver. They had been told to report to the Negombo Police Station. Then on September 22nd when I called Sergent Gamage, he said that this bus belonged to the Katunayake Depot and that he had instructed them to told the conductor and the driver to report to the Negombo Police Station. He old me that this would take 2-3 days, but told me not to worry and that he would certainly follow up the incident. It then occurred to me that since they ply on the Colombo-Katunayake Airport route, they probably fleece the tourists for their baggage, otherwise this conductor could not have brazenly asked, before all of us, for Rs.400 from a bus that plies from Colombo to Negombo. Could we, the Sri Lankans of this so called ‘paradise isle’, who are full of love and compassion, allow tourists to experience such a difficult situation? No wonder there are warnings given to tourists through the internet they they shouldn’t travel to Sri Lanka. These warnings suggest they might be murdered, raped or gang raped, fleeced of their precious money and belongings and be abused!
I hope the Russian couple, despite experiencing this unpleasant incident, realizes that there are also people in this ‘Paradise Isle’ who care!
The Ministry of Tourism, the Tourist police and the Private/Public Transport Ministry should take note of this and afford these tourists the necessary courtesy, security and whatever that goes to make their stay in this country pleasant and memorable.
On September 23, in the morning, I received a call from Sergent Gamage. He said that the conductor and the driver had reported to the Negombo Police Station and an inquiry was in progress. I reminded him that since they ply the Colombo-Katunayake Airport route, they are probably used to fleecing the tourists for their baggage and he said “may be”.
I salute Sergent Gamage for following up on this complaint quickly and reprimanding them for ‘highway thuggery’. I am so thankful and proud that there are still such fine police officers such as Sargent Gamage in the police department and wish him an unblemished career in his chosen profession.
Ms. N. Wickramasinghe.