Between Patience and Panic in Fuel-Starved Sri Lanka
The van driver asks me to sit in the front seat beside him as we head towards a petrol station. “Put on your sunglasses,” he instructs. “You need to act like a tourist.” Once my sunglasses are perched on my nose, he instructs further. “If they ask where you want to go, say Sigiriya,” he says, referring to the ancient rock fortress town and tourist spot. “What should you say?” I dutifully echo back, “Sigiriya.”
After landing in Sri Lanka I have been co-opted into this pantomime so that the van driver can get fuel. “Guests,” he explains, referring to foreigners or tourists, can skip the kilometres-long queue at the petrol station and tank up straight away. This might seem like an incongruous, even unethical move; to allow foreigners first dibs on a commodity locals are struggling to find. But this is fuel-parched Sri Lanka and if there is a pragmatic shortcut, this driver isn’t going to let it pass.
The island nation of 22 million has been reeling under inflation and fuel shortages for more than three months now. Serpentine queues outside petrol stations have become a common sight. Sordid tales of spending a week sleeping in a car to get fuel are no longer remarkable. I am in the middle of a week in Sri Lanka in July, close on the heels of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s toppling.
I take all manner of transport in this time; trains, bikes, motorbikes, tuk tuks and the occasional car. Every trip is an exercise in tactical planning, a game of miniature logistical chess.
As we pass a petrol station one sunny morning in Colombo, we find Thusitha Kumara, waiting in line with his red Hybrid. “It’s going very slow, but nothing can be done without staying here,” says Kumara, 43, a marketing professional. He is sitting outside his car on a plastic stool he has carted from home. “Without fuel how can we do our jobs?” To use the toilet, he took the bus home, and his wife brought him meals when he waited. Kumara was to take his child to the hospital, but that plan fell apart. Guess where the doctor is? Also in a queue.
People are taking turns to wait, eking out short shifts in relay fashion, and staying alert for any rumours on when the next fuel shipment might come in. One talks about how the monotony of waiting is broken when chatter about a new shipment buzzes through the lines. There is even a Facebook community that indicates on an island-wide basis where and when fuel might be found.
In Colombo, where the streets are usually packed, traffic has ground to a halt. The roads are wide and free. A resident tells me the cab-hailing apps barely work like before. Buses heave under the weight of overcrowding, often precariously tipped to one side, people dangling from the footboard. One hotel employee tells me he hasn’t been home in days, it just isn’t worth the trip. Those who commute to work do so at a great personal inconvenience—hours waiting to get on a bus or train, then emerging drenched and gasping for air. I spent my days in Colombo walking, to the extent possible. One resident jokes: “Well, we are getting you to cover your daily step count.”
All of which means the bicycle has become one of the island’s hottest commodities.
In Wennappuwa, on the west coast, I pedal around on a borrowed vehicle; a pre-teen girl’s pink bike fitted with a basket and bell. Bike prices have spiked, along with the prices for bike parts, and bike locks. Bike theft is a real concern. A journalist I know is covering the crisis by cycling around Colombo. The shortage is so grave that one man I met even resorted to making bicycles from spare parts in his home workshop. So far he has managed to sell two. But it isn’t just bikes. In Jaffna, there are news reports of a man starting a horse chariot service. Outside the tourist town of Negombo one morning I see at least three bullock carts.
Naturally, prices for autos, or tuk tuks as they are called locally, have also shot up. In Colombo, a 5-km ride that cost LKR 1,000 six months ago is now LKR 6,000. Thissa Kumara proudly shows off his carefully sourced fresh batch of fuel in a shiny green Sprite bottle. A few times I rode his tuk tuk when the distances weren’t walkable in Colombo. Once, by a stroke of luck I manage a lift from two Indian journalists who have a full tank of petrol thanks to the magic of the press card. Their driver is triumphant, bursting with schadenfreude as we whiz past long queues. Journalists have suddenly become valuable too. Thissa Kumara chases me down a few times, hoping my press card would also help him jump the queue. But it is of little use when the supply itself had run dry.
This was what daily movement in Sri Lanka has come down to—improvisation, the kindness of strangers, a little bit of luck, a whole lot of inconvenience. And of course, forays into the black market.
I watch one morning as N, a tourist taxi driver conducts a series of phone calls to arrange for petrol. Eventually a man comes, and discretely hands over a plastic bag containing two giant Coke bottles full of the liquid gold. We paid LKR 10,000 for the stash. Inside, a pale yellow fluid glistens full of promise. N holds it against the sun to inspect the colour, and then the smell. It looks like the real thing, but he wouldn’t know until he started his car up. What if he has been sold a dud? Eventually it turns out fine, the car guzzles the petrol, and we are on our way.
But relief is temporary. A few days later I need to travel to Colombo, and a friend wants to go to Wattala, a suburb on the way. Plans, plots and stratagems are hatched. Maybe we could get two motorbikes and borrow fuel from so-and-so? Maybe we could take so-and-so’s mini truck and sit in chairs in the back? Maybe we could suck out the extra petrol from N’s car and put it in the bikes?
Phones are furiously worked all evening, but nothing materialises. Private taxi prices rang alarm bells: upwards of 30,000 LKR for a round trip. Eventually N found a few dregs of fuel to drop me by bike to the railway station. As each of our road options are failing, he asks, “Have you ever experienced anything like this?” I shake my head. “And neither have we.”
This story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation
IF YOU ARE PLANNING TO TRAVEL TO SRI LANKA..
- Though there have been widespread protests since April, they have been largely peaceful. Though some countries have put out an advisory telling their citizens to avoid non-essential travel, there has been no specific communication from the Indian government. Hotels, travel agents and tourism sector employees in Sri Lanka are keen on tourists.
- Food is more expensive. Several restaurants are closed. Finding cooking fuel remains a problem. There have been reports of supermarkets running low on some stocks, but none of the supermarkets I visited in Colombo or Negombo suggested this.
- Movement is difficult, but not impossible, especially with advanced planning. It depends on which part of the country you are travelling to. Tourist taxis have been undertaking tours of the island for incoming visitors, albeit at a higher price. Taxis and autos are more expensive but available. Ride-hailing apps are erratic. Trains and buses are a good bet but tend to be very crowded. The flip side is that roads are clear and there is little traffic.
- Fuel is costly. But petrol stations are giving preference to tourists. The typical price for fuel is between LKR 450 to 550 per litre. On the black market, prices start anywhere above LKR 1,500.
- Curfews have been announced from time to time in Colombo, but this has had little impact outside of the capital.
- Power cuts continue, though for fewer hours a day. The bigger hotels, however, seem to be equipped to deal with them.
- Tourism, one of the main engines of the economy, has virtually vanished. It peaked in 2018, with 23,33,796 arrivals but has been on the decline since. The country was hit by a series of setbacks starting with the Easter attacks in 2019 (19,13,702), and then the pandemic in 2020 (5,07,704) and 2021 (1,94,495). This year so far there have been 4,11,377 tourists but the months of May and June saw a significant drop.