For the longest time, it didn’t really hit me that I’d be moving to Sri Lanka to teach English – for nearly half a year too. As a South Indian brought up in Dubai, I’d seen my share of sun & rain and rice & curry. How different could it really be?
It didn’t help that the flight to Colombo was barely an hour from Chennai. Heck, it took longer to get to Delhi! With my broken Tamil and dusky complexion, I was prepared to slip into the milieu.
Come 16th February and I find myself at Bandaranaike International Airport. I hadn’t realised Sri Lanka was this popular – the airport is crammed with tourists! The immigration queue is long and I use the time to look around and gather my first glimpses of Sri Lanka. From the way the women drape their sarees (very different from the Indian way – they wear them with pleats that border the waistline) to the loopy Sinhalese that leaps out from the numerous signages. Once I’m done, I quickly spot Sebastian’s grin at Arrivals (it helps that he’s tall).
As we walk out of the airport, it finally hits me. Slowly. The humidity, at first. And then the realisation that this was it – my home for the next few months.
During the drive, I make for poor company. I keep veering away to stare at my surroundings. It’s something I always do during my first ride in a new city. The billboards. The roads. The people. The skies. The first word that comes to mind is ‘open’. Sri Lanka seems to have a sense of openness about it. Could be the clear wide skies. Or the lack of tall structures. Or fewer people around. I try to absorb as much I can.
We reach the house, and after all the time spent poring over the teachers’ blogs, I cannot wait to see if it really is how I’d imagined it to be. I am not disappointed. I can sense the warm homely vibes that everyone spoke about. In fact, I already start thinking of ways to personalise my room. Once the other teachers troop in from school, dinner is like a family affair. There is an evident sense of bonhomie as everyone shares their day or anything else they want to. Having joined the term a little late, I had the usual worries – how long would it take me to become ‘one of them’? Clearly, my concerns were unjustified. I easily join in the banter. Post dinner, I set off on a walk with two of the teachers and the house dog, Cassius. There’s a lovely trail behind the house and a wetland park that I think will make for a great morning exercise spot (update: there has been no execution on that thought yet!). Also, I keep seeing mini Buddhist shrines everywhere. Lovely spots of serenity that seem to pop up randomly in the streets.
The next day, the local bread tuk-tuk wakes me up sharp at 5 am. I lie in for a few minutes and listen to it blare its way through the locality leaving everyone wide-eyed in its wake. I quickly get ready thereafter – I cannot wait to get to school! What makes my day instantly is when I spot a locker with my name on it. That is my teacher moment. And I haven’t even taken my first lesson yet!
I send a pic and an excited message back to my family. I shadow Sebastian and Mark through their lessons. It makes me want to go back to being a student. But also, a part of me gets carried away, and I’m already thinking of fun ways to engage with and teach such a diverse set of students – I’ve spotted at least 5 different nationalities so far. Lunch is a communal affair with much chatter. I find that I’m taking to the local cuisine quite happily. The sambol (an accompaniment to rice, string hoppers etc.) has already become a favourite – I haven’t tasted anything like it before. In fact, everything seems new and fascinating. Even the Sri Lankan Rupees that I withdraw during lunch break. I love how they convey the country’s culture through their colourful, artsy designs.
By the end of the day, I’ve settled in. I’ve picked my favourite corner in the staff room, identified where the coffee is kept and started imagining what the days ahead at school will be like.
I get lucky with the weekend so close by and spend the next day (a Saturday) sleeping in. It starts with a lazy English breakfast thanks to Roger and Lazar – I’ve already become used to their smiles and ‘Good Mornings’ and decide to practice my Tamil with them. They welcome it with grins and even invite me to watch Star Singer on Sun TV. At the house, I find that there’s always someone who’s up for an impromptu walk around town or a chat over chai. I join some of the teachers for a stroll in the evening and we go all the way to Water’s Edge and beyond. Less green, more city – charming nevertheless. I click away. What is it about the skies here, I wonder. I’ve never fancied myself as a photographer and yet every pic I take looks great. The skies pour down on us on our way back and I get a taste of my first Lankan rains.
Did I really ask myself how different Sri Lanka would be? Quite a bit, it turns out. And I am glad for that.