Aparna has been asking me to write a blog about working abroad post graduation and I’ve been putting it off for long enough to write a short book…
So I’m prefacing this post. The first part is about living abroad – challenges, tips, etc. The second part is about my job – what do I do and my experiences at work. The third part is about the travel experiences I’ve had on side trips from work conferences.
Part 1: First Year Abroad straight out of college
It has now been almost 2.5 years since my CASI internship ended in New Delhi at the Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group in 2011. After returning from my internship, I spent my senior year at Penn searching for US based jobs and after 9 months of searching relentlessly, as Penn seniors do, I landed a job with the International Water Management Institute….in Sri Lanka! Not exactly close to home – like I was planning – but I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to head back to South Asia (especially considering the scene I made when I left my host family in Delhi at the end of my internship – I almost considered skipping my senior year of Penn to stay with them…).
The first thing on my list to do when I arrived in Sri Lanka was to plan a trip back to Delhi to see my host family. The family I lived with during my CASI internship has become part of my extended family. I love them dearly and felt much more comfortable moving to Sri Lanka knowing that they were just a 3 hour flight away.
It didn’t take me long to realize that living and working abroad is much different than having a two month summer internship.
My first slap to reality was getting used to sitting at a desk from 9 to 5 every day and doing all of my work in one place – although I think this must be a similar revelation to those working full-time in the US. I also had no idea how to assess my performance – no grades, no midterm exams, nothing to mark progress. My boss was also based in a different country so that didn’t make it much easier. I realized that this was the first time in 17 years that my performance wasn’t based on an A to F scale.
My second slap to reality was finding housing. Colombo (the capital of Sri Lanka) is not the easiest place to find a shared house or apartment unless you’ve tapped into the right networks. That took me over 8 weeks and a couple of backstabbing drama filled housing wars…..
And my third slap to reality was making my own network in Sri Lanka. I must admit, this was the most challenging. I learned a lot about “ex-pat life” during my time in Sri Lanka and traveling to various conferences, meeting people in their 40s to 60s who have spent their entire adult lives in the “ex-pat world” hopping from one international job to another.
Oh and a fourth – mood swings. This is a common trend I’ve found among friends working abroad. One day, you’re out having an amazing adventure with a group of international friends hiking, surfing, drinking in little bars, stumbling upon elephants bathing in the river, laughing, and thoroughly enjoying your life abroad and the next minute your horribly depressed, have no idea what you’re doing with your life, convinced nobody wants to hang out with you, and cultural differences that you can normally brush off turn into day ruining events (e.g. being stared at in the most intensely violating way every time I walk anywhere in Colombo and having men make a kissing sound when I walk by – some days, I could brush it off….others it would take every ounce of self restraint to not go screaming over at them…)
At my lowest moments, I found my CASI network waiting with open arms. Some of the interns my year and the year after have talked me through some of my major downs. Aparna gave me advice that drastically changed my experience in Sri Lanka. She told me to make a list of 10 things that I could do, in my control (this is an important factor!), to make myself happier. It took me a while to make that list. At first, I thought about it but brushed it off. After a string of “bad” days, I decided to make that list – and take my happiness into my own hands. And things started changing. I made goals for myself, started recognizing the things that made me happy, and I felt in control of my activities – and therefore more relaxed.
After traveling for work fair amount, I’ve found a couple of fool-proof ways to meet new people.
1. Join the Hash House Harriers
If you like running and drinking and you miss college humor – this is the group to join. There are Hash House Harrier groups all over the world. Look it up. You’ll meet a bunch of older folks these days in many cities but it’s a fantastic way to expand your networks, get a good run in once a week, and have some fun! Don’t worry – you don’t have to be a star runner to join the group. There is a separate trail for walkers which is equally enjoyable. I’ve hashed in Colombo, Vientiane (Laos), and Addis Ababa (Ethiopia).
2. Ultimate Frisbee
Another ex-pat staple for some reason….you’re bound to find an Ultimate Frisbee group in any major international city (and even a bunch of smaller ones!). I played in Colombo and in Vientiane, Laos (where I spent 5 weeks working from in October). I hate sports that involve flying objects – but for some reason, I don’t mind ultimate too much and the level of skills among players varies greatly. It’s a great workout, you’ll usually meet a younger crowd of ex-pats, and people are usually good sports about newbies…
Part 2: My job
I work for a global research program on natural resource management for sustainable agricultural development. The ultimate goal is to achieve food security while protecting and enhancing our ecosystems to sustain the livelihoods of farmers and provide adequate food and nutrition for a growing population.
The program is called the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems and is housed in the International Water Management Institute – which is where I was based in Sri Lanka.
I found this job through the Princeton in Asia fellowship program (recommended by a former CASI intern who was a previous fellow) and joined IWMI in Sri Lanka as a communications intern. I didn’t necessarily like the idea of communications – but I really liked the sound of the program and I know communications is a skill set that is useful in any position.
I run our program’s blog (Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog)– which has actually become quite a successful project. The blog was started in order to challenge scientists, researchers, and the development community to think critically about agricultural development – what’s working, what’s not, what are we doing wrong, what issues are we failing to address, why are millions of dollars poured into development with little coming out?
On a day to day basis, I edit blog posts, conduct interviews, commission new posts, work with scientists, researchers and professional journalists. I also manage the blog site – I’ve learned how to use wordpress, social media, and monitoring and evaluation tools for website traffic.
I have had some incredible opportunities to travel with this job. I have been to Sweden, Ethiopia, India, Philippines, France, Thailand, Indonesia, Laos, and Poland all for work related conferences. If you want to read more about my travel experiences – see my personal blog here.
Working and traveling has been incredible. Although traveling for work is less glamorous than I thought – it’s a decision I’d weigh more carefully in the future. I travel mainly to conferences which means I fly into a new exciting place, am trapped in a conference center all week where I work my butt off, then squeeze in an incredible weekend vacation, and then back on a plane.
What I feel like I’ve missed is a true country experience. My work is not specific to the place I live (I could basically do my daily tasks from anywhere in the world with an internet connection). Living and traveling in Sri Lanka was amazing – but my job had nothing to do with anything going on in Sri Lanka. So I’d recommend to those looking for an in depth experience where your work and life revolve around the place you’re living in – don’t join a big international organization on a global project!
And I’ve also learned a lot about the “development world”. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is somewhat of a game – not to be too pessimistic or critical. But after attending a number of conferences – where sessions have interesting titles, well-renowned researchers with government officials present – but I have seen very little (if anything at all) come out of these conferences and events.
It’s quite a political game – people have been rehashing the same issues for years – with little movement forward. And I question the usefulness of conferences that take people away from their day jobs and do little in terms of moving ideas forward and creating change. That said, it is usually in the side conversations, coffee breaks, and hallways discussions where things really do move forward – so perhaps there’s a reason behind all of the hubbub but it still seems like a massive mis-use of money. I could continue but I won’t….
Part 3: Travel & Fun
I have to be grateful for the incredible travel opportunities I’ve had over the past 15 months. Sometimes I have to remind myself that it isn’t normal to be traveling every weekend. But then again, that’s what’s keeping me abroad!
So here are a few highlights:
1. Sri Lanka Surf
After making my list of 10 things to make myself happier, as advised by Aparna, I decided that I wanted to get better at surfing. I started traveling every weekend (during the season) to the south coast of Sri Lanka to a bay called Weligama – one of the world’s most perfect spots for beginner/intermediate surfers. Once I decided to start doing this every weekend, I soon found a group interested in joining me. We’d take the bus down, rent boards, spend the day surfing, grab some vegetable rotis on the way home and head back (about 2 hours each way). It was totally and completely worth the journey. Some of my happiest moments in Sri Lanka were sitting out in the ocean, in luke warm water, with the sun beating down on me, smiling friends on the beach drinking beer, and catching waves into the most beautiful sunsets.
2. Lalibella, Ethiopia
In October 2012, I traveled to Ethiopia for a work conference. One of my co-workers (based in Laos) and I decided to travel to Lalibella after the conference. Lalibella is a World Heritage Site and I think people have even called it the 8th wonder of the world. It was unreal. Ancient churches carved down into solid rock. I have an entire blog post on the experience here.
After touring the churches, my co-worker and I climbed a mountain to a place called Lalibella Hudad. Some genius decided to build an eco-lodge at the top of this mountain – equip with small huts with mattresses and separate a little kitchen. The closest village was a 30 minute walk away farther into the mountain which is especially far considering it took 3 hours for us to get to the top of the mountain where we were staying. And there were no roads so everything we were using, eating, sleeping on was all transported by people or donkeys.
The mountains of Ethiopia are especially incredible because they are so old – the tops are all plateaus in this area. Imagine looking out from the top of a mountain at a ridgeline of flat topped mountains with the most beautiful landscapes below. Hands down, one of my favorite life experiences. We were the only 2 people on the mountain that night. Surrounded in tall grasses and a tribe of baboons. I’ll let the pictures explain the rest…
After 4 months in Sri Lanka (November 2012), I went back to see my host family in Delhi. I’ve never felt more at home – it was such a relief to be in a family setting, surrounded by people who knew me well and cared for me unconditionally. I ate countless rotis (my favorite), was stuffed full with Indian food like any good Indian family would insist upon, and slept like a baby. A trip filled with laughter and love. I attended another Vedanta class with my host mom. And sat with my host grandma – she was still incredibly witty at age 90 and I was grateful to hear more of her stories about life in Lahore before it became part of Pakistan. She’s an incredible woman with such an amazing family. (Since then I visited once more in December 2013).
It was also I think a strike of fate that I went to India for a conference in Gujarat on Water Policy. I didn’t realize that Vijay Shankar from SPSS was attending the conference as well – until I ran into him at the CASI reunion that just so happened to be taking place one day after the conference. Who could ask for a better trip to India – filled with CASI joy J
The same week I was in India – was during the CASI reunion. SO I got to see Juliana and Dinesh – which made me feel even more at home to have a piece of Penn with me in Delhi.
I was recently relocated with my job to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Feel free to get in contact with me if you’re interested in learning about life in Ethiopia!
About Me: I was a CASI intern in 2011 in New Delhi at the Chintan Environmental Action and Research Group. I graduated Penn in 2012 with a B.A in Environmental Studies and have been living in Sri Lanka and now Ethiopia since graduating. You can contact me at abby.waldorf(at)gmail.com.