Colombo, Sri Lanka Report of what it's like to live there - 09/30/20
Personal Experiences from Colombo, Sri Lanka
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No. This is our fourth overseas assignment.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Washington, DC. It takes about a full day's travel time to get back to the U.S. We usually transit through Dubai or Doha (about 5 hours). Then it's about a 13-hour direct flight to JFK. Then a connecting flight to DC. It's pretty taxing. But think of all the miles!
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
We live in a colonial-era home, as do some others in the community. Many more are now living in modern apartments with good amenities (swimming pools, attached malls, restaurants, etc.). The old homes are charming and usually have big yards. But they also come with common problems like leaky roofs, inadequate power outlets, etc. Most homes and apartments are located near the embassy, but not walking distance. Walking to the embassy is possible but not ideal because of heat and confusing traffic crossings. Traffic is bad here, so commutes can take a long time (20-30 minutes) for a short distance if it's rush hour.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Local fruit, vegetables, and seafood/fish is cheap and plentiful. International foods are available but require some know-how to get them, either by going to international markets or joining an expat WhatsApp group for various companies that sell good quality bread and cheeses. There is a commissary at the U.S. Embassy that sells a lot of American staples (flour, sugar, etc.), junk food, and alcohol. Local household cleaning products are fine and inexpensive. But liquid clothing detergent and dishwasher detergent can be very expensive locally.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Sausage, cheese, olives, wine, pre-made tortillas for quesadillas, some household products, specialty beauty products, and sunscreen. You can get wine here (locally and at the commissary), but there isn't a lot of variety. Beauty products for fairer skin and lighter hair. Sunscreen is available here locally and at commissary, but the spray-on kind is hard to find.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
UberEats and PickMe are the main food service apps, but there are others. You can get most anything delivered, including Dominoes, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, McDonald's, Burger King. Restaurant options include Sri Lankan (of course), Indian, Sushi (pretty good here), Chinese (also pretty good).
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
There are always lots of outside pests in our older home, from ants and roaches to chipmunks to lizards and snakes. I haven't had a snake in the house, but I know others who have. Geckos are very common. The newer housing doesn't seem to have those problems.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Everything through the U.S. Embassy DPO/Pouch. It's slow, but it's better than nothing.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Household help is inexpensive. Most people have housekeepers who cook. Some also have drivers and gardeners. Having help seems like such a luxury when coming from the U.S. But it is almost essential here in order to get things done. For example, for letting the garbage men in to pick up the garbage to doing the grocery shopping to maintaining yards that are constantly in grow mode because of all the sun and rain.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There are several gyms, including a CrossFit gym. There is a gym at the Embassy. Locals gyms can be expensive, more like western prices.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Everyone still prefers cash here. Some places will charge you less if you pay cash instead of with a credit card. But you can use credit cards at most places. There are a lot of ATMs and they've never given me a problem.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Most churches in Colombo have at least one English service or mass per week. But we haven't been to one since the Easter Sunday attacks.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You can get by in English for most everything
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
It is not easy living in this city with an able body. I can imagine having a physical disability here would be very challenging.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Local buses are all private, which means that they are all competing for riders. Buses are old, drivers go too fast, and we are advised against using them. In-country trains are considered nice, but we've never taken one. "Regular" taxis are hailed through Uber, PickMe, Kangaroo Cab, and others. You can use an app to call a tuk tuk or hail one yourself. Tuk tuks usually overcharge foreigners. But that usually means paying about $1.50 for a ride instead of $.50.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
Sri Lanka only allows cars with steering wheels on the right (they drive on the left). So most people get their cars at post from departing expats.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes. Internet was already installed at our home when we arrived. But we had to call to upgrade the service. It has worked pretty well, but there are occasional glitches.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
I brought my unlocked phone from my last post and bought a pre-paid SIM card at the airport when I arrived in Sri Lanka. Local plans are cheap and you can pay by the minute or the month for data.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
Veterinarians seem few and far between here. Kennels, too. We have a dog, but we adopted her when we arrived. Sri Lanka is overrun with street dogs. I am unsure about whether animals must quarantine upon arrival.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
Most expat spouses work at the Embassy. Otherwise, they telecommute to other jobs in the U.S. or volunteer.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
You can volunteer with the street dog charity Embark. There are always opportunities to volunteer to work on school or embassy events.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Dress casual most always. Formal dress if you plan to attend the Marine Ball or similar event. But in general, bring more flip flops and fewer heels.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Sri Lanka feels very safe and there is little to no crime. Like most places, there is occasional street harassment from men (if you're a woman). The Easter Sunday terrorist attack happened while we were at post (and we were evacuated for a time afterwards). So that continues to put me on edge, even if the rest of the country seems to have gotten on with things.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Dengue Fever is still common here. Local medical care is considered good, but I have not used it often because I can take advantage of the healthcare providers at the embassy. Dentistry is cheap and good.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Air quality is moderate thanks to sea winds, but sometimes it's not great.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Everything is constantly in bloom, so there's always some pollen. Old houses can be dusty and moldy, no matter what you do. Monsoon time can be difficult for those who get allergies from mold and mildew.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
No winter blues here! A particularly lengthy monsoon can dampen the mood, though.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
It's always about 85F, whether it is sunny or raining. It's usually rainy from May-July and August-December. The rest of the time it's hot and sunny.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Most families send their kids to the Overseas School of Colombo (OSC). It's on par with other international schools. The commute can be far if you live downtown (30 min to an hour each way). But the kids seem to like it ok. Sports and music programs are inadequate in my experience.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
There are school counselors and assistance for special-needs kids. Our kid has benefitted from these services and the school has accommodated our needs.
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
There are several preschools, including ones that are closer in town to where people live. I don't know whether they are expensive. Our school (OSC) does not really provide before- or after-school care. But there are after-school activities (from sports to crafting to community service) that can fill this gap if you need. A lot of working parents employ housekeepers or nannies to help with childcare.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
There are some, like soccer and ballet. But I have been disappointed by the options.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The expat community here is pretty small. If you don't know someone from work then you probably know them from school. Morale is so-so - probably best when the weather is nice and you can head to the beach for the weekend.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
There are quiz nights, exercise groups, book clubs. There is less mingling between expats and locals here than I've experienced at other posts.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
This post is probably better for families than for singles.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
There doesn't seem to be much here for the LGBT community.
5. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
Sri Lankans are welcoming and friendly. But they don't go out of their way to befriend expats in my experience.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
This is a multi-religious, multi-ethnic society and most people tend to get along with one another. But old tensions from the Civil War (which ended in 2009) still have potential to flare up.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Some of the most beautiful beaches you have ever seen in your life. The mountains around Nuwara Elia are stunning.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Haven't explored enough to know about "hidden gems". The obvious ones are quite nice. In Colombo, a sunset drink at the Galle Face hotel is a must.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Lotions, spices, teas, textiles, and gemstones are the main things people buy here.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Inexpensive cost of living for expats. Nice weather most of the time.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
3. But don't forget your:
Sunscreen, bug spray, and surfboard.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Not a particular book about the country. But "The English Patient" is an incredible read and was written by Sri Lankan-born Michael Ondaatje.
5. Do you have any other comments?
Sri Lanka is a lovely country and some people absolutely love it. However, it's remoteness can be lonely, especially during these Covid times when we can't leave the island.