On a Wednesday evening last week, we found ourselves stranded on Parsons Road, Colombo 2 trying to hail a tuk-tuk in an attempt to get home before the power went out in the area and the roads that lit our way fell into complete darkness. However, it was near impossible to find anyone who was willing to take us there, thanks to literally no one having enough fuel to take a detour from their intended destination.
Although the authorities had advised vehicles not to line up at fuel sheds, no one appeared to be heeding these warnings, with the CF De Mel & Sons CEYPETCO Lanka queue going well past Cinnamon Lakeside.
After struggling for well over an hour to hail a tuk-tuk and even standing at the end of the fuel line in the hopes of enticing a driver with a freshly filled tank of gas to offer us a ride, we decided to walk home in the dark as the streetlights alongside all the commercial buildings lining the streets gave out when the power cut hit the area.
Thankfully, a tuk-tuk driver by the name of Roshan came to our rescue, sharing that we were actually his first hire for the day: “I was waiting in line all day to get petrol and I had to expend the little I had in the tank to get here, and now my wife is calling and asking me to pick up something for dinner but I haven’t made any money today to spend,” he said. “I just waited in the tuk-tuk all day, and now I have to drive around hoping for the best, but because most people are not going to be stepping out and I myself will likely not have enough fuel for many trips, it will be a futile effort,” he added.
Sri Lanka’s ‘fuel queue diaries’ or stories from the fuel lines have taken over our lives. Everyone has a story to tell as they wait in one line or another, attempting to obtain gas or petrol. Things are certainly taking a turn for the worse, with agitated crowds attacking one another, worried they will lose their position in the line while also being paranoid that others are receiving special treatment or getting more or easier access to basic necessities.
It has tragically become a common sight to see people napping or dozing off in long winding queues that cross city borders waiting for their chance at a limited release of the fuel they need for the day. If you log on to social media you will see the everyday middle-class citizen uploading clip after clip of them attempting to live a life in the fuel queue and attempting to keep themselves entertained, filming TikToks and making video diaries. Others are attempting to be productive and some even share advice on how to optimise your time as you wait in the fuel queue. It has become such a norm that we are finding ways to best utilise our time and live with it.
Similar to how we saw Facebook groups pop up during the pandemic to help people get groceries delivered, now groups are being dominated, and even being created specifically, for updates on where to get petrol, how long the lines are, and what kind of crowd you can expect. There are even memes of people recommending the best methods to relieve yourself while in the queue, so as not to lose your spot when you leave to look for a toilet. There are even hilarious updates of people setting up DJ stands to party while they waste away their Friday night at the fuel queue. While tragic and incredibly unfortunate, one has to appreciate the resilience, and the silver lining mindset, but underneath it all is frustration and a lack of choice; what else are we to do than persevere?
Towards the end of last week, while we waited in the fuel queue, we spoke to Jayamaha, a Wellawatte resident who kept an early morning alarm to make it in time for the queue before everybody else. “There’s always someone faster, someone more desperate. I am here because my mother is very ill and I am actually not going to work these days, but I need to have the fuel just in case there’s an emergency and I need to take her to the hospital. I can’t leave things to chance,” he said. “I have seen some reports on the news of children dying of preventable conditions, how some people were unable to transport them quickly enough to a doctor or to the hospital, and I just want to avoid this. I will not be able to live with myself if my mother suffers because I am not quick enough to get her medical attention,” he added.
While many sit nervously awaiting their turn and others nap leisurely because they have no other choice, there are some who have decided to stage mini protests as they wait in line. One such person attempting to tape a bristol board that read ‘GotaGoHome’ onto their windshield shared: “My heart isn’t really in it. I am just pasting this so the heat doesn’t get to me while I wait inside, but since it’s a blank space I wrote this. I want to stage a protest, I want to yell and scream, but I also need to fill my tank and get to work,” he said.
The authorities continue to advise the public to not queue up at sheds, but how truly realistic is this request? Fuel is an essential need, not just for the middle-class Sri Lankan in their cars heading to their offices, but for the everyday Sri Lankan, the daily wage earner. With shortages in food, petrol, kerosene, and, of course, electricity, it seems that at least for the time being, Sri Lankan petrol queue diaries are likely to continue and each day will see the general public trudging their way through yet another day filled with uncertainty.