Here it is in the raw…I wrote this in my first days before I had any internet or phone connection.
It’s kind of a neat record of what it’s like to arrive in a new home in a new country ready to start a new job.
Arrival and the First Days
Taking off from San Francisco, I cried as I watched the city disappear behind me. I’d gotten really choked up when I hugged my brother good-bye at the airport. I think reality really set in for me at that moment: “I’m really leaving”. This isn’t just some good idea I had. It’s a reality. I arrived at around 11:15 on Wednesday night. The flights were pretty uneventful. Even so, I couldn’t get much sleep.
The ride was a little turbulent. Probably no more than a flight is usually, but with every bump, I thought of Abby and I hoped she wasn’t too scared. I’d left her off so early in her crate at the cargo department. The people there seemed really caring about her, but I knew she was scared. And I knew it was going to be a very long day for her.
I had hired a local woman named Ashwini to clear Abby through customs and deal with the quarantine, so that was one thing I wasn’t going to have to worry about. I could just go directly to my new house. A colleague named Hector picked me up from the airport, along with his wife. This is the first time I’ve ever been picked up from the airport like that. It was a very luxurious feeling walking out of the baggage claim knowing that there would be a person standing there with my name on a sign, knowing that I wouldn’t have to navigate a new public transportation system or haggle with a cab driver to get me to my hotel.
I wasn’t even going to a hotel anyways. Hector brought me directly to my new house so that I could wait for Abby to arrive. As we drove through the streets, I couldn’t really see very much. It was very late and very dark out. Everything seemed so calm and so serene. I knew that during the day, this place will have a bustle unlike any other, but during the ride, I got to see it sleeping.
My New House:
I’ve never lived in my own house before. When I was a kid, we lived in houses. Once in college, we rented a house, so I guess that counts. But as a grown up, I’ve never lived in a house. This is something that I really wanted. Since I have a dog, my school arranged for me to have a house so that I can have a backyard. Hector explained that there simply aren’t many alternative living options for the people who have dogs at our school. And the houses that are worth living in aren’t exactly small.
I was blown away when we arrived. On the first floor it has a huge garage with an electric door. There’s a modern kitchen with a washing machine and a half bathroom. Then there’s the living room/dining room with huge glass doors that open into the backyard. There is a patio area, and then a raised grassy area. And behind everything is a giant wall (think Game of Thrones) that separates my yard from the one behind me. On the first day I brought Abby back there, a monkey (Wildling?) ran by on the top of the wall and threw a piece of fruit at us and then ran off!
On the second floor, there is another living room that has a covered balcony that overlooks the street. The living room is kind of a loft, as it overlooks the dining room below. There are two good sized bedrooms (one furnished, one not) and a full bathroom. One of the bedrooms has a small balcony that overlooks the backyard. The other bedroom has big windows that overlook the street.
Then there’s the third floor with the master bedroom. It’s pretty amazing. There’s a sleeping area with a nice big bed and a row of windows overlooking the back yard. There’s also a window that opens to the living room below. I didn’t know this when I was closing them the first night, but there’s also an emergency button right below these windows. I accidentally pressed this button and for about 10 minutes the emergency alarm rang and I had no idea how I set it off until later when I was laying in bed and I saw the button. Oops!!
Anyways, there is no official closest in master bedroom. Instead, the area going from the bed to the bathroom is pretty much a giant walk through closet. There’s amours and a chest of drawers with more than enough space for 2 peoples’ belongings. I brought a lot of clothes, so it’s perfect for me. There’s also glass doors that open up to an enormous balcony that overlooks the neighborhood. And then there’s a good sized bathroom with a very decent shower and lots of counter and cabinet space.
My favorite thing about all the bathrooms and the patios outside is that the floors are made of this really great stone that is very stable when wet (you don’t slip easily on it) and it dries very quickly. No bathmat required for the showers! And it makes for a very attractive floor!
So that’s my great new house. It’s more than I ever imagined I would have and I feel very grateful. It’s like a won the lottery! I feel a little bit ridiculous being just one person living in this huge beautiful house by myself with just one dog. So once we’re all settled, I’ll be getting a sibling for Abby! And I’ll be urging all my friends and family to come for a visit!!
I had stayed up pretty late that first night, hoping that Abby would be dropped off. The next day, I accidentally slept until about 3:30 pm. I woke up feeling so worried that I’d missed Abby’s drop off. See, my phone isn’t turned on yet, I don’t have internet access yet, and I kept the gate locked, so if someone came to my house, they’d have no way of ringing the bell. As luck would have it, by the time I got dressed and made a cup of coffee, I looked out the window, and there was a car there!!!
I opened the garage and there was Ashwini, who I’d been emailing with for the past 6 months!!! I was so happy to finally meet her. She’d been so helpful in the importation process and seemed like a really great person. And best of all, she had Abby!!! And Abby was in really good spirits! We chatted for a little while, and she told me how great Abby was through the whole process. Ashwini told me how relieved Abby seemed when she arrived and called out her name. She wagged her tail and did her classic “Abby look”, where she makes eye contact and wags her whole body. And she was so friendly to everyone who handled her. Ashwini couldn’t say enough about what amazing temperament Abby has. I knew this, but I felt like such a proud mother hearing someone tell me what a calm, easygoing dog I have. It looks like Abby is an excellent international traveller!
Once I have my phone up and running, I’m going to get in touch with Ashwini. She said she’d bring a dog over for some socialization with Abby and to talk about acclimating her to life in Sri Lanka. There are some technical things I need to be doing regularly so that I can export her again if/when I decide to move to another country. There’s also some things that are specific to having a dog in Sri Lanka: like the ticks, for example. I freaked out a little because I let Abby out to go pee, and she came back with a tick on her paw. It hadn’t burrowed in yet, but it was working fast! She didn’t go anywhere crazy (there’s nowhere crazy to go in our backyard anyways!). That’s a little disheartening, so I’m going to talk with Ashwini about what kind of solutions there are to that kind of thing.
And then there’s the street dog issue. They are literally everywhere. Even in my neighborhood, which seems to be a “nice neighborhood”. I had read about this before I came: it seems as if there are little packs of dogs that claim different areas as their territory. So in my little section of the street, there are 4 dogs that lay there and live there and that’s their section. And it’s like that for the rest of my street, and presumably the rest of the country.
As a side note, according to this one article I read about it, this is the reason why it does not work to simply remove the dogs from the streets, which they have tried in the past. If they were to remove the 4 dogs from my section of the neighborhood and put them in a shelter, then not only would they most likely not be adopted and end up being euthanized, but it wouldn’t solve an problems, because a new pack of dogs would just move in. And in the process, it would cause a lot of commotion because 1) there might be a fight with another pack of dogs trying to move in too, and 2) there would most definitely be territory fights with the dogs who “own” the existing territories in close proximity as well. So the solution that has been developed is a very long term solution that requires a lot of work and a lot of patience. It’s a kind of a catch and release approach. The street dogs need to be captured, vaccinated, sterilized, and released back into their territories. Over time, this will address the rabies issue and eventually it will lower the population of dogs on the street. Eventually. There are organizations that are doing this right now, but the government seems to want a quicker solution and has considered going back to just capturing (and presumably euthanizing) street dogs.
What does this mean for Abby and me? It means there’s no way in hell I’m bringing her out there! While we live in Sri Lanka, Abby will have to be a house dog. She can go in the backyard (I’ll figure out the tick situation). She can go on all the balconies. I’ll get her a dog to play with at home. And on the weekends maybe we can go to the Dog Haven or the beach or something. This is the business that Ashwini runs here in Sri Lanka. I don’t think it’s terribly far from here, and I’m pretty sure I can pay her (or whoever she pays) to come pick Abby up. Basically, it looks like it’s a doggie hotel. There’s lots of open space for them to run in, home cooked meals for them to eat, and Ashwini loves dogs, so there’s a really caring person to look after them! She has also studied dog behavior and works with dogs on behavior issues. She’s kind of the Sri Lankan Cesar Millan.
The First Days
The school set me up with some supplies so that I don’t have to go out and stress about what to have for breakfast or where to buy toilet paper and soap right away. They also gave me a settling in allowance in cash, which was really nice because I spent my last dime on Abby’s plane ticket…and thank god my brother was there because it cost more than I’d budgeted, and I was a little short so I needed to borrow some money from him!
Even so, I wanted to explore a little and see what is around me. Without a map of the area, I was a little worried about getting lost. I can’t even pronounce my street name, so I cautiously explored. My neighborhood is very residential. I live at the end of a dead end street with some nice looking houses around me. Seems like mostly families live around here.
I walked out to the main road, and was hit by the hustle and bustle of Battaramulla. It is unlike anywhere I have ever been before. They supposedly drive on the left side of the road, but there were cars, motorbikes, and tuk-tuks flying by in every direction. I was completely floored by the altogether otherworldly feeling of the place. I was fascinated. I was a little scared. But mostly I was just in awe. And then I had the thought that this place that is so extremely foreign to me is all that some people have ever known. And it made me think just how strange my little neighborhood in the Outer Richmond would seem to these people. I love thinking these thoughts. I love feeling all these kinds of feelings. It’s one of the biggest reasons I like to travel.
I don’t travel so I can feel comfortable. I was comfortable on my safe couch in San Francisco with my West Elm ottoman to rest my clean feet on. I was also often bored and had a nagging feeling that there were experiences that needed to be had way outside my comfort zone. Don’t get me wrong, I truly enjoy being comfortable. In fact that West Elm ottoman should be arriving in early October with the other stuff I shipped. But here, when I rest my feet on that ottoman, they will be weary feet, dirty and exhausted from my days of experiencing and exploring. And teaching. Don’t forget that part. I do have a job here!
No Internet, No Phone
I will eventually have both of these services. In fact, on Friday, I was told that I could go down to my school and set these services up. Hector had mentioned that he would come check in on me, but I wasn’t sure if he was going to pick me up and bring me to the school for this. I was honestly a little nervous about venturing out without a map and trying to find the school. But I also figured that this would be the best way to get to know the area, so I set out on foot. In the wrong direction, as I came to find out. It turned out that I had no idea where to go, so I flagged down a tuk-tuk and asked him if he knew the Overseas School. He said “of course!”. I asked if he had a meter, and he said he did. He was just about the most friendly guy ever. We chatted along the way. I should have paid more attention to the route he took, but I was more focused on trying to understand what he was saying. He said he had a daughter who was a teacher. Or maybe she goes to school. Or maybe she’s in school to become a teacher. I couldn’t quite make it out. Anyways, within about 5 minutes, we arrived! It was 106 rupees, and I gave him 200 and left him the change. He gave me his phone number in case I wanted to ride with him again. Later, once I’d come out of the school, another tuk-tuk driver approached me and asked if I was a new teacher at the school. He introduced himself and said that he often drives the staff around, and offered a ride. I was headed across the street to buy a few things, but I said I’d look for him later.
After buying some supplies, including a few adapters so I could plug in my laptop and phone, I headed home. I knew it wasn’t too far, and I knew the general direction from which we came, so I decided to try walking. I felt pretty comfortable knowing that there are a million tuk-tuks zipping around, and I could show them my address (which is in my phone) and they’d probably be able to take me there. So I walked on down the road. And I kept on walking. Some things looked a little familiar, but I couldn’t be sure. I had a very rudimentary map that I’d downloaded from the Trip Advisor ap, but it didn’t allow me to search on it, and I couldn’t find my street on it. But I could track my direction, and see if I was at least on the right track. Anyways, I made it to my little area. At first I walked right past my street, but then I saw a sign I recognized from my walk earlier, and I turned around, and it all looked so familiar. I did it!! I figured out how to get home!!
This kind of thing might not seem like much of a victory, but I love this feeling. You take the most basic thing like buying a bottle of water or finding your way home for the first time. In America it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. But abroad, it can be such a major accomplishment. I felt so proud of myself. I even did it without much of a map! I remember my first days in Hanoi, and how extremely lost I would get…and that was with a hard copy of a map AND my gps map!! And here I am just outside of Colombo and I did it!!
I was relieved to come home and see Abby relaxing on the couch like she would do back in San Francisco. She was happy to see me, but didn’t seem too bothered that I had gone. I’m very glad for that because I know this must be very stressful for her, and my having to leave might be a bigger stress for her.
As it turned out, I wasn’t able to get my phone set up or the internet turned on. I made it to the school, and met with a really nice guy who was in charge of arranging it all. He said he had the people down there at noon, but none of the teachers were there. Hector said that he had just brought all the other new teachers to their new homes, and they weren’t able to come down to set up their phones and internet. So the people who had been at the school left and they would return on Monday when we get to set up all of our other stuff like banking and cable. So, I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t get connected with the world, but it was fine. I do feel a little isolated without any way to communicate with my people back in the States, but I’ll be texting, emailing, and Skyping with them all in no time!
The guy at the school seemed to feel really badly that I’d come all the way down there and couldn’t get my phone or internet turned on. I assured him that it really wasn’t a big deal and I was eager to see the school anyways. So he offered to take me on a tour of the school.
It’s really big and has everything you could want. And all the indoor parts have central air conditioning!!! I’m really going to enjoy that part!
I was able to stop at a grocery store to pick up a few things. I managed to get some adapters. Not the exact ones I needed, but I was able to make them work.
Getting On in Battaramulla
These first few days have been a little strange. This experience is unlike any other I’ve ever had. Usually when I arrive in a new country, I go out and start exploring right away. When I’m a tourist, there’s a time crunch. I want to see as much as possible in the amount of time I have there. The times when I have moved to a new country in the past, I remember going out right away and walking around, getting lost, and getting found.
But here it feels different. My area of Battaramulla isn’t exactly the kind of place that makes for a pleasant walk. The main street is busy and congested and there aren’t any sidewalks. The cars and trucks sometimes give off horrible exhaust fumes, making it sort of uncomfortable. The road itself is a bit unfinished in some parts, so it’s a rocky, dusty walk. Also, I’m not really sure of where to go. I’m not in a city at all. It’s not like I can just walk out my front door and go and explore things. I have to get into a tuk-tuk and ask to go to someplace specific. Without a phone yet, I can’t call a taxi or get an Uber (yes, there’s Uber here!). So like I said, this makes things a little strange.
I’ve also been reluctant to leave Abby for too long during these first few days in Sri Lanka. She really seems to be acclimating well, and I want to continue that trend. So when I leave, I don’t want to leave for the entire day just yet. I know I’ll have to leave on Monday for my orientation at school. But hopefully by the end of next week I’ll have a maid hired, and she’ll be here all day with Abby.
The other thing is that I don’t want to spend a lot of money just yet. This settling in allowance is generous, and should last me until my first paycheck, but I want be sure of that.
It’s not a bad thing. Staying put in my new house is just fine. It’s just so different from how I usually arrive in a new country. But I’ve had the chance to unpack all my bags. I’ve taken an inventory of all the stuff I’ll need to buy eventually. Things like nightstands for next to the beds, more towels, some little rugs, maybe a bookcase, etc. I’ve also had a chance to really get over the jet lag and get used to the climate. The heat is pretty strong here, but it’s actually not horrible. I understand that it’s the end of monsoon season, so that means it doesn’t get quite as hot as the dry season.
I have my Kindle with lots of books loaded on it. I have my laptop. And although I don’t have internet yet, I do have tons of DVDs to watch, so that’s been really relaxing. All in all, it’s been a nice couple of days.
But I suppose I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t have darker thoughts creeping into my head. It’s never all sunshine in rainbows in anyone’s head, and moving to a new country…to a country like Sri Lanka, will bring those thoughts on. For me, at least.
I am surprised that one of my darker thoughts is about my safety. I think I was a little tainted by things I’d heard from other teachers before I came here. My house seems to be very secure. It even has a security system (which I don’t know how to work yet). But for some reason, my darkest thoughts are about my safety. I keep all the windows and doors securely locked when I’m not using them. I keep the gate padlocked. I do everything I’m supposed to do. And yet my mind wanders to ways in which one could breach these precautions if they wanted to. I think about how someone could get a ladder and climb over my gate, and then sneak into my back yard and break the window. Or how someone might be able to scale the side of the house (like Spiderman?) and break into the bedroom window on the second door.
I frequently hear thuds on the roof, which made me positive that there was some kind of a ninja plotting to get into my house and take my laptop and rape me. *It turns out that the roof is made of tin, and there’s all kinds of animals all over the place throwing stuff and dropping things, and that’s probably what I’m hearing.
It really does surprise me that my anxiety has been channelled into this type of fear. I lived in the city of San Francisco for 10 years. Someone even attempted to assault me right outside of my door a few years ago. I’ve been to two of the most dangerous cities in the world (according to that World Bank list they put out every year). Never before have I had such constant anxiety about my safety. So why all of a sudden am I such a Nervous Nelly?
Well, I think there’s a few things going on here. First off, there are several homes around me with barbed wire and video cameras outside. If things were super safe, people wouldn’t have the need for such security precautions. Secondly, I heard some unfortunate stories from some other teachers about safety issues, which I think feeds the fear. Then there’s the fact that I’m all alone with no way to communicate to the outside world yet. I don’t know my neighbors and they don’t know me. So if I were in trouble, I’d have no way to get help. That first night when I set off the emergency alarm? No one came. It magically turned itself off after like 10 minutes (thank god!). Granted, it was really late at night, but no one came to see what was going on. I don’t blame my neighbors for not coming to see. After all, no one even knew I was here, and it’s not like they’re going to go in and see what kind of squatter has decided to break in. The other thing goes back to this being the first house I’ve lived in on my own. I’m not used to being all alone in a building like this. For the past 10 years, living in an apartment, if there was a noise that I didn’t make, then I could assume that it was a neighbor. Here, alone in this big house, if there’s a noise that I didn’t make, then my mind automatically assumes it’s a bandit and a rapist. In my old apartment, the walls were paper thin, which annoyed me most of the time, but often gave me a little piece of mind that if something awful were to happen, I could scream and someone would hear it. If I scream here, no one will hear it. And if they do, would they even do anything about it?
I’m not naturally such a worry wart. I am usually very rational. I am usually very relaxed. I think that the biggest reason my mind’s darker thoughts have focused on safety is because I have this general (normal) anxiety about moving to a new country. Sure, there are lots of perks to this new move, and I’m up for a lot of great adventures, but the reality really sets in once you’re all unpacked and sitting in your living room: I did it. I really did it. I’m in fucking Sri Lanka! I’m a world away from everyone I love. I just moved my dog away from one of the best cities to have a dog to one of the worst (in terms of being “dog friendly”). And some of those “dear god, what have I done!” thoughts start to creep in. And for me, my mind has channelled all those “dear god” thoughts into this fear and anxiety about my safety.
I’m getting used to all the noises I hear in the house. Every time I run a faucet, the water heater in the garage hums. When I flush a toilet, there’s a rumbling in the pipes. One night, I heard two big booms coming from downstairs. It was just the broom and the mop falling over. The garage is so empty that the noise echoed and you could hear it from upstairs. And after walking around my neighborhood a little, I’ve seen that most houses look like mine, which means that they are all pretty secure. Every person I’ve been in contact with has been sweet and friendly. Yes, people look at me, but it doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable. They just seem curious. And I am curious to look at: I’m a big white girl with blue eyes and brown hair. They don’t get many of us around these parts!
I’m still worried about the tick situation and a little sad that Abby’s only place to go outside has ticks in it. I just applied a treatment of Advantix, which is supposed to repel ticks (and mosquitos!). I’ll have to just trust that she’ll get some ticks on her, and I’ll find them, and I’ll take them off her. It’s not that big of a deal. Ashwini said that I live really close to the veterinarian that she likes to go to. That’s very comforting. She said they do house calls. That’s even better!!
All in all, I think I’m having a lot of very normal feelings for my situation. I remember when I first arrived in Hanoi, I had a lot of anxiety. In fact, that first day, I was really hating it there and was plotting to get out right away. The traffic was so intense there, I was too scared to even cross the street. No joke: I walked around in circles trying to muster up the courage to cross the street. I was also very intimidated by the street food scene. No one spoke English and I literally didn’t know how to order food. So not only was I walking around in circles, but I was hungrily walking around in circles! Eventually hunger overcame me and I just plopped down at a spot where a lady was selling pho. It was amazing. Not just because I was starving, but because it was amazing pho. From that moment on, I had no more fear. I went to every spot I felt like going to, and I ate some of the best food I’ve ever eaten in my life. I’m sure I’ll have some very similar experiences here in the Colombo area.
But if I’d have just moved to Hanoi, like I’ve just moved to Battaramulla, some very dark thoughts would have crept into my head. I’d be questioning my decision, and plotting my next move already. I won’t say Hanoi was my favorite city in Vietnam, but I got used to it. And I got used to Vietnam in general. I got good at figuring things out and having a good time. Things were hard at first, but then they got easier. And I think that’s exactly how Battaramulla will be. Things are hard at first, but then they will get easier. And when I say hard, I don’t really mean hard, do I? ….well, I did have a minor medical emergency my first night. I stubbed my toe hard on something in my garage. Luckily I had a first aide kit handy!!
But for the most part, Abby and I are chilling, and taking it easy!