Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Settling in...

As I write this piece, I am sitting in the living room of my temporary home, the guest house, watching a movie about Cuba on cable TV, tickled by a little breeze that is being encouraged by a hardworking ceiling fan, and I felt for a moment that I could be pretty much anywhere. I took that as a sign that, after a little over ten days in Jaffna, I believe I am, for all intents and purposes, more or less settled.

I probably won’t consider the process complete until I find a place of my own, which has proved to be an interesting challenge in our little town of many houses. The old and the new houses are up for rent for the same reason; the owners have long fled the war and are living abroad. That is not to say the ones that are being newly built stray very far off the usual design staples: bathrooms are generally small, as are kitchens, which do not make space for refrigerators and only accommodate the ‘stove-top’ type stoves (no ovens in sight). Once I realized this was the general style available, I returned to the first apartment I had seen when I arrived. A week in town and a few house visits were all that was needed to normalize the apartment design, which I had first thought was being made as concessions for floor space and ‘new innovations’, and certainly didn’t think it was the norm. I now have to deal with another issue: exaggerated rents brought on by newly expressed demand.

The end of the war and the re-opening of the main A9 highway linking the Jaffna peninsula to the rest of Sri Lanka has brought with it a lot of interest for business development potential; which means that there are more goods in the stores, people seem to have positive outlooks on potential job opportunities… and that companies are asking about houses to rent out as guest houses for their surveyors. Only one or two have actually rented the houses so far, but the simple presence of expressed interest after years and years of none means that landlords are multiplying their rents to see how lucky they might get. I just happen to be entering the real estate scene at this point, as the rents are vaulting, and before landlords have heard enough “That’s outrageous!” to adjust their rents back to something normal. (Just to give you an idea, my potential landlord wanted $300 a month in rent, the usual rent for a similar-sized house is $90. See why I think they’re just throwing out numbers to try their luck??)

In any case, we’ll just wait and see how that turns out. And that outcome and moving date will not only translate into the unleashing of my photos and decorations onto walls and table tops, but will also signify when I can have consistently hot showers with a newly-installed hot-water head (Jaffna’s standard bathrooms have one tap – and not a hot water one – so my showers are planned by sun-hours!), and when I can double or triple up my mattress so that I can sleep on my sides without waking up to bruises, though that has not yet stopped me from having a good night’s sleep.

In the meantime, I am slowly getting to know my new town… and it is sweet. When I first arrived, I likened it to a town I’d visited in Southern Yemen; it was hot and sticky, and the buildings and roads seemed stuck somewhere in time, an arrested development of sorts, but cable TV, mobile phone networks and internet had arrived. When I took my first walk through town and found the bus station, and the two-block-squared town centre, and heard about the extensive Jaffna University program, I likened it instead to the town my father grew up in. Just to be clear, I loved Yemen, and what could I possibly hold against the town that nurtured my father? So, yes, I am liking the tiny town of Jaffna.

One way in which Jaffna differs from both towns, however, is in its abundance of dogs and other animals that roam the streets. This is a population that is clearly gentle towards animals – I mean, I have never seen so many animals live to such ripe old ages as some of the dogs on these streets. So in the city of few cars, the true perils I face when walking to and from work each day mainly involve not getting startled (read: jump-out-of-your-shoes-startled) at some of the friendlier dogs that decide to charge towards me and accompany me (interestingly never quite coming any closer), and avoiding stepping into any of their doggy poop. The main plus from this is that I no longer hear the numerous “Hello Miss”, “Good morning” and other strained English greetings from passing bikers. As friendly, and innocent, as it all is and as quaint as I found it at the beginning (especially when some would try to indicate their additional fluency with a drawn out “Good evening” or “How are you?”), it all got a little tiresome after a while. And so I have now become one of those callous foreigners who ignores these continuous greetings, occasionally responding with a smile, and being distracted by the dogs helps ease the weight of this antisocial behavior on my conscience. The absolute peak of these experiences happened today as I was biking back from town. I had once again underestimated the distance back, was getting very hot and tired, and was focusing solely on maintaining a pedaling rhythm that would get me home faster. Suddenly, a motorbike slows down to my pace and the rider starts speaking to me. My first opportunistic (and survivalist) thoughts jumped to the possibility that this was someone I knew and I could latch on to him for speed as I had seen so many other bikers do as they chatted with their motorbiking friends. Not so. It was just young man making small talk, asking me where I was from, and then, cleverly recognizing that I must work for an NGO of some sort (what else would foreigners be doing in Jaffna?), started telling me of his time working for an NGO. I believe what followed was some form of a brief CV – I wouldn’t know as I stopped listening when I realized that he could not serve my purpose, and that I was wasting too much energy on listening rather than pedaling.

Though I must admit that I was sad to see him go in the end, if only because I could see that he reached the intersection I was aiming at much quicker than I did.

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