Pedestrian Crossings in Colombo

"Bi-directional" pedestrian crossings so that pedestrians won't bump into each other (Sri Lanka News Online)

A couple of weekends ago, on a Saturday afternoon, I was driving past the Apollo Hospital on the way to the supermarket and was approaching the pedestrian crossing opposite the hospital. Traffic was moderate for Colombo, and I’m doing around 30-kmph. A pedestrian gallops across the crossing in the usual I’m-Gonna-Cross-Here-So-Stop-You-Bastards stance necessary for using such crossings in Sri Lanka — arm, umbrella, or newspaper held up to catch attention, steely determined look firmly on face, brisk pace, etc. Elvitigala Road has three lanes in each direction with a center island, and I was in the inside lane, alongside the island, driving towards Kirillapone. I always try and stop for pedestrians on crossings and so I followed procedure and slowed to a stop.

The guy crosses in front of me, and as soon as he’s clear I start to roll. Just then, I notice a young woman about to step on to the crossing, three lanes away. She’s going to take half a minute to get to me, and I’m already on the crossing, so I just keep going. She crosses unhindered behind me and goes merrily on her way. So do I — or so I think.

I’ve barely gone fifty metres when a cop appears from beneath a shady tree and crosses two lanes of traffic, making cars brake and swerve, to flag me down. Puzzled, I steer across the centre and outside lanes to the pavement. Cop leans in on the passenger side and asks me for my licence. I ask him what the problem (actually, what his problem) is. He tells me that I did the right thing in letting the male pedestrian cross, but that I had violated the road rules by driving on before the woman had crossed.

I look at him in disbelief and point out that I didn’t hinder the pedestrian in anyway and that she had crossed without any problem. He says that this is not the point, and that it’s a violation he has to book me for. Now the cop speaking to me is the most junior of three, the other two — a sergeant and a sub-inspector — are still under the shady tree, watching disinterestedly.

Junior breaks off his conversation with me to flag down two more vehicles, clearly for the same offense as mine. While I wait for his return I see random pedestrians crossing the road without the aid of any crossing, dodging between vehicles, unencumbered by the presence of the guardians of the law. A hundred metres further on is the Park Road intersection, and I watch a bus run through the red light followed by a trishaw and a motorcycle that both do U-turns and head back past the hospital. The law enforcement trio cheerfully stop a van for driving across the pedestrian crossing.

Junior comes back to my car and demands my licence once more. I ask him if he expected me to have waited while every pedestrian who strolls up to the crossing has crossed, since it isn’t a light-controlled crossing. Junior shrugs and holds out his hand for the licence. I hand it over, pointing to the intersection and the fact that a bus is cutting across three lanes of traffic to turn onto Park Road, through a red light, of course. Junior feigns interest and squints into the distance. Then he tells me that he’s there to enforce the law where he is and not where he isn’t. I ask him why he doesn’t then position himself where dangerous offenses are being committed and not where minor violations are easy to detect. I suggest that maybe the shady tree is the determining factor, and he walks off to deliver my licence to the sarge. When he returns with the charge sheet I ask him if he isn’t ashamed of himself and the disgrace he brings to his uniform. I say it loud enough to see the sub-inspector’s jaw tighten. Clearly annoyed but unsure if my lecture is actually a violation, Junior drops the charge sheet onto my passenger seat and walks off to continue fighting crime. Continue reading “Pedestrian Crossings in Colombo”

Drop in the Price of Chillies in 2009

img00250I was hoping for a fairly uncontroversial ad awards this year, following on the heels of 2008’s scam issues; however that doesn’t look likely. Everything seemed very low key at first. There were no embarrassing judges telling us our work was shit in the forums. There weren’t any catfights between CEOs and C-oh-ohs over whose ads were scam. Everybody was ready to toe the line, divide up the Chillies, and go on home in the same sedate rowboat. Sound almost Slimmish, no?

And Slimmish it was. This year’s panel of local and international judges decided wholesale was the way to give out Chillies, doling out a record nine (count ’em, nine) Golds, a Grand Prix, and a Best of Show. That’s more Golds than has been awarded in all three previous years put together. And don’t even get me started on the dozens of Silvers, sackloads of Bronzes, and what looked like millions of those silly Finalists that were handed out. Couple this with a new scoring system that moved away from the so-called Olympic system to a point-based system, and you have a Chillies show that was fundamentally different from the previous years.

Now I have many questions for the Chillies organizers, but it all boils down to just one really: WTF?

Let me explain.

I’ll start with the two scoring systems that have been tried for the Chillies — Olympic, and point-based. With the Olympic system that was in place over the last three years, metal value won — a Gold beat a Silver beat a Bronze, etc. Pretty simple. A Grand Prix or Best of Show trumped everything and the agency that got that baby scored the night. Now, there was a bit of a fuckup last year. Leo Burnett won a bunch of silvers (relatively a lot by the Chillies standards of the time), and looked to be 2008’s most consistently creative agency. But not quite. You see, Triad (which had won next to nothing all night) suddenly pulled a Gold out of the hat and had the last laugh. So this time, the Chillies decided “that’s not fair” (and to be fair, it really wasn’t very fair), and decided to move the goal posts. Onto the cricket pitch. They also forgot to tell Triad, apparently (though more of that, later). This time there would be a point-based or tally system. It didn’t really matter whether you won one Gold or three Bronzes, because each award was apportioned a point value, and at the end of the night, you totted up the score, and the agency with the most points won. To make matters worse, a fourth place slot was created so that if your work was too crap to win a Bronze, you’d still get a point for it. Then, to add an element of farce to the night (and no, I don’t mean the drag show), the Chillies decided there would be a Grand Prix and a Best of Show! Now, ladies and gents of the Chillies, I hope you’ve noticed that Grand Prix means “great prize” in French — in other words, yup, the best of show. So while international ad shows have one or the other, we have both. Continue reading “Drop in the Price of Chillies in 2009”

Two-Thousand Bucks for a Suicide Bomber

Spot the Suicide Bomber by Hurtful Orison
Spot the Suicide Bomber by Hurtful Orison

I’d just finished a 19-hour film shoot and was pretty exhausted by the time we wrapped. It was past 3am as we piled into the van that was taking us back to the agency — one of my writers, this client servicing bugger, and myself. It hadn’t been the most stressfree shoot, and tired as I was, my body was tense and I was turning over the next day’s takes in my head — takes that were scheduled to begin at 9am.

The van’s abrupt deceleration snapped me out of my thoughts, and I groaned inwardly as I saw the armed soldier waving us down. Army VCP. I was sitting by the rear door and slid it open before the van had stopped. A soldier peers into the dark interior of the vehicle.

“Any Tamils?” he asks in Sinhalese.

This is the first time I’ve heard this asked at a checkpoint, and the client servicing bugger — Tamil — hands over his ID. The troop looks it over, asks him where he’s from — Ratnapura — and hands the ID back. They’re more interested in my ID, which looks like it’s been through the digestive tract of an elephant thanks to my having gone swimming with it in my pocket, years ago. With a stern instruction to get a new ID, we’re waved off.

A couple of minutes later, the van slows down again — police VCP. Out we get again. Continue reading “Two-Thousand Bucks for a Suicide Bomber”

The Mango Tree

Jungle clearings attract both prey and predator. Nothing, however, moved on the pre-dawn streets of this clearing in Borella, an eastern suburb of Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, Colombo. An unseasonal November rain, pushed by the winds of the northeastern monsoon soaking the far side of the island, had crossed the Central Highlands and slicked down the dark streets of the city. Rain dripped from the leaves of the huge old trees that dotted the clearing. A few sleepy crows cawed in annoyance at the wetness. The intersection of Baseline, Kynsey, and Bullers roads, next to the Kanatte General Cemetery was an open expanse of a hundred and fifty metres across, a clearing in the manmade jungle of the city. Beyond its landscaped roundabout and trimmed islands, the concrete, brick, and tin of the jungle crept in, topped by the tangled vines of telephone and power cables. And like any jungle, it stank. Of man, and other animals. Of garbage, urine, and oil. Of rotting food, dead animals, betel juice, and crow droppings. But most of all, it stank of fear.

It was Bastille Day, November 13th 1989; but if the date was the celebration of the birth of revolution, it would never be that again in Sri Lanka. This was how a revolution died – not with heroic words and brave last stands, but with betrayal, corruption, and murder in the dark. Continue reading “The Mango Tree”

Interview with the Vampyr — a Sri Lankan Mercenary in Iraq

A private military contractor in Iraq (Ed Kashi/Corbis).
A private military contractor in Iraq (Ed Kashi/Corbis).

I walk into the bar at the Sapphire, knowing I’m early for this interview, but I don’t want to keep my contact waiting. He’s obviously a busy man, but has been convinced by a mutual friend to give me half an hour of his time.

The bar itself has a certain well-worn charm that reminds one of friendly little pubs in Europe — all dark wood, fake leather and dim, smoky corners. Except that there’s no smoke anymore. Sri Lanka’s draconian anti-tobacco laws have banished smoking to a glass-walled cage at the far end of the room. I curse softly and park myself in a cubicle, ordering a gin-and-tonic, and wait for the man.

The place is more or less empty — it’s not yet 6pm — and ten minutes later, I’m on my second G&T, when he walks in. Or at least I assume it’s him. I’ve no clue what he looks like, though he should recognize me since I mailed him the link to my blog the day before. It’s all a bit James Bondish, and I feel quite silly until he spots me and veers over to the cubicle.

Major Rohan — I’ve agreed to use only his first name, and not take any pictures — shakes my hand and sits down. He’s a big guy in his late thirties, close to six feet, but athletically built, with shortish hair and skin that’s negro black from long hours in the sun. He’s dressed in a short-sleeve button-down shirt and jeans, and looks exactly what he is — a businessman out for an informal drink. Continue reading “Interview with the Vampyr — a Sri Lankan Mercenary in Iraq”

Black Thoughts

July usually passes me by without too much notice, beyond the vague worry that there might be a Tiger attack on Colombo, and a few flashbacks to that weekend in 1983. But this time it’s been a bit different. I’ve found myself reliving that day a lot more this year. It isn’t the fact that this is the 25th anniversary of the carnage which most people see as the starting point of our war, though that has been the focus of a lot of attention. What did it was a phone call a couple of weeks ago.

My mobile rang with an unfamiliar number, and an equally unidentifiable male voice asked for me. When I confirmed that it was indeed yours truly, the voice asked whether I was an old boy of Wesley College. I groaned inwardly, and confirmed this too, expecting to be hit by my school’s OBU for a donation or offer of membership of some committee or whatever. However, it wasn’t any of these things, and the next question blew me away.

“My name is Cedric,” he said, “do you remember me?” Continue reading “Black Thoughts”

Leo Burnett & Triad Win at Adfest

festival_index.jpgSo it’s finally happened. The avowed mission of the Chillies “to propel Sri Lanka’s advertising and marketing communications industry to world class standards” became reality last weekend with Leo Burnett and Triad winning a silver and bronze respectively at the Asia Pacific Advertising Festival held in Pattaya, Thailand.

In the rather vindictive aftermath of the Chillies, Colombo’s top agencies had awaited Adfest with baited breath, expecting the international ad show to exonerate their victories and vindicate their grouses. Whether these two awards will do so will only be told in time, but the fact that Triad has already taken out a full page ad in Monday’s papers gives some inkling of the need to speak with a louder voice when actions fail.
Continue reading “Leo Burnett & Triad Win at Adfest”

Buying a Practical Car


All of my driving life, I’ve had practical cars; from the Datsun B210 Sunny I got my driving license with in 1989 to the Ford Laser I gave up last year. In between there’s been a Nissan FB14 Sunny, a Nissan Presea, a Toyota Corolla and a Toyota Corona. They were all nice, decent, reliable vehicles (OK, maybe not that Datsun). And dull as mud. None of them ever really appealed to me, or made me feel affectionate about them, except for the Presea which I drove for three years. At least the latter wasn’t as common as the others, and had a bit of a stance about it. I drove that car from Unawatuna to Trinco and from Colombo to Batti with very few complaints. But also with very few thrills. None of them were over 1.6-litre, and they were all four-door saloons with lots of boot space. The only car that stood out over that period was a bright yellow (and I mean bright) first generation Kia Rio hatch that I drove for a few months, and the less said about that the better, except that it took off from a standing start like a cat with chillie powder up its arse.

I didn’t own any of these cars, because I was determined not to own anything so mind-numbingly boring. So I rented them. The closest I came to owning one was being married to someone who owned a car. It was a Mazda 323 hatch, and I guess I owned it, technically, since it was my wife’s (and when you’re married you share everything right, especially headaches), but I liked to think of it as my car-in-law. When I got married and moved to the land of the autobahn, I was thrilled at the prospect of buying a good, solid, and fast-as-scheisse German machine. Fantasies of Audi TTs and BMW Z4s were always just wet dreams, but a surely a Golf GT wasn’t out of range? These ideas were quickly banished by my German wife’s determination to stick with a Japanese car (the sacrilege) which had better after-sales service. So as I watched little old ladies whizz past me, doing 160kmph in their Miatas, I determined never to buy a car until I could afford one I really really liked. Continue reading “Buying a Practical Car”

Chillies ’08 — Were the Judges Scamming?


Personally, I felt a bit scammed by the judges forums at this year’s Chillies. Not just because the judges’ comments weren’t really indicative of Saturday’s results, but in some cases they were downright misleading. The reason the forums are thought to be useful (and therefore popular with the ticket-buying agencies) is because they give us a peek at the thinking behind the foreign judges’ thinking process when it comes to deciding who gets awarded and who doesn’t. In 2007, some of the entries that were heavily criticized at the forums (eg: the Hit Ads integrated entry) predictably bombed on the awards night. Therefore it was pretty easy to deduce just why the campaign failed in the judges’ collective opinion.

In contrast, this year, entries that were shredded at the forums, like the Alumex campaign by Triad, went on to win metal, while creators of work that won initial high praise (such as Leo Burnett’s ‘coffee cup’ and O&M’s ‘other side’) were left scratching their heads as to why their entries didn’t score higher, or in the latter case, weren’t even awarded. Obviously, not everything’s of equal standard, but it would have been cool to understand why a piece that received no criticism didn’t do better. In the case of the Coffee Cup, I thought it was a much better piece of communication than Triad’s Walls. The former in addition to being brilliant, also did its job in selling the Harry Potter brand; on the other hand, the Walls did a shit job in selling the paint brand (I don’t even know which brand it was), but appealed to the judges sense of karma by going beyond advertising into the realm of community service. Continue reading “Chillies ’08 — Were the Judges Scamming?”

Scamming the Chillies

The record-breaking Thrust SSC, the world’s fastest ‘car’

A scam is defined as “a confidence trick or confidence game, also known as a con, scam, swindle, grift, bunko, flim flam, or scheme, is an attempt to swindle a person or persons (known as the “mark”) which involves gaining his or her confidence,” by Wikipedia, and is basically a dishonest venture. The term has become rather infamous in Colombo ad agencies over the last couple of years, particularly since the launch of the Chillies, Sri Lanka’s leading ad show. In this context, a scam ad isn’t advertising some sort of con scheme, but an ad which is, in itself, a con. The Chillies defines a scam as any advertising clearly developed solely to win at awards shows, with no legitimate client source or though clearly having a legitimate client, has no legitimate client need or rationale. This is expanded on by Chillies Steering Committee member (and CEO of Lowe LDB, Colombo) Mike Holsinger who suggests that the definition can be broken down into four areas of suspicion:

1. Is it for a legitimate brand, product, service, or event?
2. Has it been paid for by a client or sponsor?
3. Does the media scheduling reflect the timeline connected with the brand, product, service, or event?
4. Does the brand, product, service, or event warrant the cost of the ad and its scheduling?

If an agency cannot answer “yes’ to all of the above, the ad may be flagged down as a possible scam and investigated further. According to the Daily Mirror of 21st Feb 2008, 79 entries were flagged for further investigation, and the responsible ad agencies were called on to defend their entries. Of these 79, only 30 passed close scrutiny, the remaining 49 being rejected. According to Mike Holsinger, in the vast majority of the instances, the respective agencies simply didn’t show up to face the Chillies’ sub-committee, thereby acknowledging that the entries were in fact scams. A few were rejected because the sub-committee wasn’t satisfied with the agencies’ clarifications.

So it all seems pretty serious and above board, right? Well, it would be if ad agencies weren’t peopled by such sneaky bastards. Anyone who attended the two Chillies judges’ forums over the last couple of days will tell you that there were a couple of entries in there that definitely smelled scammish. On both evenings, the judges (and particularly American ‘Creative at Large’ John Merrifield) tore apart a campaign for an aluminium brand that had been entered in the print and integrated categories. There were others that obviously found loopholes in the wall. Continue reading “Scamming the Chillies”