Finally, at 12:50am, Friday, 15 August 2003, I landed in Sri Lanka. Yeah, okay, the plane I was in landed, and I arrived. Walking out of the plane, the humidity hit like a wave and immediately, I was damp and uncomfortable.
Heat – not anywhere near as bad as say, Kelowna BC during a heat wave. Fahim and I joked for weeks before I flew over about how I needed to come to Sri Lanka to cool down. The humidity more than makes up for the heat, though.
And then there's passing through Immigration, which consisting of standing in line with everyone else, then finally showing the passport and a form I filled out on the plane, getting my passport stamped, moving on to the luggage claim area, and through customs. Nothing the least bit complicated or intimidating, except for the armed guards.
Customs had a few different lines – I chose the one labelled "Tourist – nothing to declare". I pushed my cart through, saw that a few people had open bags, being searched in this tiny area that couldn't even be called a room – more like a flow area. I'm looking around, wondering, do you want to search me? Do I keep moving? Will you shoot me if I just walk by? One armed guard met my eyes, saw the questions, and waved me through. I'm not one to argue, so I rolled my cart through, hoping I hadn't misunderstood. Whew.
Next there's a huge lobby where Fahim promised to meet me – and it's virtually empty. It's close to two in the morning, I'm tired, I'm hot, I probably smell, and I can't find Fahim. He promised me he'd meet me. I looked everywhere, and finally, through another set of doors leading to the outside, I see him. Fahim. Fahim with his long, flowing, curly black hair. Finally.
Fahim. The one and only familiar thing in this country. I hug him like he's the anchor he is. Finally, one of the armed guards tells us to move along – we're blocking traffic, and the people behind me are impatient to leave the airport. Okay, so the kissing doesn't help our concentration levels any either.
We hire a van, load all my luggage, and convince him to take us to the cargo building so I can pick up my cats. Fahim tells me that he received a phone call shortly before he saw me telling him that cargo had two live animals. What, if they don't announce that fact, we can assume they're dead? Not very reassuring.
We have all the paperwork filled out, all the necessary forms, and in theory, it should be a simple process. It isn't. For the first hour or so, Fahim and I traipse up and down, from one office to the next, getting this form signed here, another part of the same form processed here, and on and on it goes. Finally, someone takes pity on me and takes me to where my cats are, where Fahim leaves me, and the same man gets me some water for the cats. I'm not supposed to let them out of their cages, but at least being with them is something.
After a couple of minutes, I have a crowd of short Sri Lankan men surrounding me and my cats, asking me questions. What are their names? Where am I from? What am I doing here? Why did I bring my cats?
One man brings me outside to show me a neighborhood cat – tiny. Probably weighs in at three or four pounds, and it's a full grown adult. Oberon weighs in at a hefty 13 pounds and change, and tiny Tellulah weighs in at a measly 7 pounds and change. This cat, this native Sri Lankan cat, was half Tellulah's size. Now I understand their amazement at Oberon.
After a half hour or so, the animal quarantine officer comes by and wants to inspect the cats. I take Tellulah out first, he takes a look at her from three feet away, asks to see the second, and as I'm stuffing Tellulah back into her cage, he walks away, not bothering to even give Oberon a cursory inspection. But this is all the opportunity I need to give them love and affection and even walk them for a couple of minutes.
Eventually, I'm told to put them back, and I don't feel like arguing with anyone who could make it difficult for me to get my cats released, so I comply. One old man very kindly asked me if I'd like something cold to drink, and offers to take me to the commissary. I comment that I only have Canadian, US, and Hong Kong dollars, and will they take any of those? He so kindly offers to pay for mine for me. We sit in the commissary for a few minutes with the other employees, and I think I'm causing a bit of a stir.
Always the questions – what am I doing here? Why bring the cats? Why would I want to live in Sri Lanka when Canada is the land of milk and honey? When I try to explain that, as nice as they think Canada is, it has its own problems, they look at me like I'm completely nuts. Maybe I am.
Back down with the cats, I continue to wait, and finally, sometime after four, Fahim comes walking in with all the paperwork in his hand, and finally, we're ready to go. We pick up the cat crates and lug them out to the taxi and wake the driver up so he can drive us to our new home. Sometime at around 5 am, we arrive at our house.
There's no furniture – Fahim hasn't purchased any. He wanted to wait until I was here, to make sure I'd be happy with whatever we got.
First interruption. Houses in Sri Lanka are made predominantly of brick and mortar, but the doorjambs are usually constructed of wood, and in the case of our house, we have some kitchen cabinets also made of wood. Insects like termites and ants chew the wood, and they're everywhere here. If a house here was built of wood, it wouldn't be standing in two years, partially due to the wood, but also because of humidity levels. Our bathroom door and some of the cupboards have been taken over by ants, and there are holes with wood excrement on the floor. We spray and the bugs die, and then joy, we get to clean up the dead bug carcasses.
So what's the point of this? Oh, I don't know, maybe to emphasize how different this is from Canada? In Canada, I freak out when I have a spider. Here, I've been bitten by so many bugs that my arms have a hundred red bumps. I whine.
We've rented the upper portion of a house. Three bedrooms, and by Canadian standards, reasonably spacious. No carpeting, no hardwood floors. The houses are constructed of either cement or brick in Sri Lanka with either cement or tile for floors. In our house, we have tile in the bathroom, dining room, and living room. The bedrooms, kitchen, and patio are painted cement. We have lots of windows, and all of them are grated – to prevent break-ins, the theory goes. Here, everything is painted off-white with brown for accents. Our house is no exception.
Showers here are different. First, not all houses have hot water. Those houses that have hot water – some have hot water heated by electricity, others have hot water by virtue of a black tank of water on the roof that absorbs the heat during the day. Our house doesn't have hot water. It doesn't have cold water either. There's one temperature – sort of close to lukewarm. When you're used to having hot showers at whim, it's cold. I'm finally starting to get used to it. I don't scream as loudly when I step under the water. It's even beginning to feel nice when I take my two or three showers in the middle of the day to cool down.
Toilets are also different. People don't use toilet paper here. Lest you think that makes them unhygienic, read on. Bidets that use water to clean the underside are common here, and when a bidet is broken or unavailable, they modify – use a shower head type of sprayer that you use to spray your underside to clean. Much easier on the sensitive body parts than the softest North American toilet paper, especially when one has a case of Delhi Belly, traveller's stomach, or whatever you may want to call an upset tummy that results in frequent visits to the porcelain god. Yep, it takes some getting used to. Okay, so for those of you who already knew what a bidet was and how to use it, hurrah. I wasn't one of them, so there. But now I'm educated and feel much smarter.
Diversion over. For now.
At sometime after 9am, Fahim and I got married with his best friends, Robin and Deeno, as our witnesses.
There's a Chinese restaurant just down the road called the Silver Spoon Restaurant, although calling it a Chinese restaurant may be a bit inaccurate. It has Chinese, Indian, Sri Lankan, and a few other types of foods on the menu. Fahim and I chose Indian. Because he's Muslim, he can only eat halal meat, but since we can't tell if their meat is halal or not, he chooses fish instead, which is always halal, or something along those lines. If I'm explaining it poorly, blame it on my ever-continuing jet lag. We had Shrimp Masala and Fish Biryani and a mixed fruit juice, but which fruit, I have no idea. No matter. It was excellent all the way around – wonderful flavours.
We went to a money changer here before we did our shopping. Money changing can be done either at an official money changers or on the black market. It's not done at a bank unless you have a bank account to deposit the foreign currency into, and then withdraw the rupees. The moneychangers we went to were inside a photo developing shop. In changing my Hong Kong dollars, we quickly found out that the moneychangers don't like Bank of China dollars, which are used interchangeably in Hong Kong along with Hong Kong dollars and they don't like US currency in bills less than $100. Canadian money? Are you kidding me?
Mattresses. Here's a quick lesson on Sri Lankan mattresses. They're nothing like what we can get in North America. A standard Lankan mattress is a few inches of foam rubber encased in a cloth cover, and it's usually on some kind of wooden framework. The concept of coils, springs, pillow tops, and all the rest doesn't exist here. Can you say my mattress is going to be shipped here?
Alas and alack, it isn't here yet, so we had to go out and buy a mattress. They're measured not by king, queen, double, etc. They're by the foot. We bought a mattress 6' by 4' – we'll make do until my queen arrives. In all fairness, the foamie we have isn't that bad. Okay, I wouldn't want to sleep on it for the rest of my life, but for a month or so, I'll live.
Another comment about rented housing in Sri Lanka. When it's unfurnished, they really mean unfurnished. No fridge or stove or any other appliances, no closets, no cupboards, nothing. Just a framework, and you provide everything else. So Fahim and I had the fun of buying a fridge and stove at the Singer store.
When I think of Singer, I think of sewing machines. Here, at the Singer store, I didn't see a single sewing machine. They had fridges, stoves, washers, all the major appliances.
About fridges and stoves here. They're small. In N. A., we really have monster everything. The fridge here is something like five feet tall, and in N. A., it would be a good size for a single university student. Here, it's typical for a family fridge. Here, you buy groceries to last for a few days, no more. Even in the fridge, things go bad quickly. The stove we bought is a gas stove with a kicker. Gas isn't hooked up to the house – we had to buy a tank of gas (propane or natural gas? who knows? who cares? It's simply called gas) that comes in a two foot tall bright blue cylinder. Fahim tells me that his family typically goes through a cylinder of gas in about a month.