Saturday, December 27, 2014

Around Chennai: Mahabilapuram

Mahabilapuram is about an hour drive from downtown Chennai. It's one of (the few) tourist areas that people visiting Consulate members tend to see when they come to Chennai. We had our first visitors from the US in town, so we decided to (finally) hit up the sights. We started off by seeing the Shore Temple. The details of the carvings are pretty impressive, considering it's 13 centuries old. My diplomatic ID card lets me buy the vastly cheaper "local Indian" tickets, but my family and visitors had to buy the tourist tickets (which cost 25x as much). 


From there, we hopped back in the car (it's really nice having a driver, since he can pick you up and drop you off at the entrance, alleviating all the stress of dealing with the crowded and sometimes distant parking lots). We took a short drive to Pancha Rathas, which is a group of five chariots chiseled out of enormous boulders. It was relatively crowded owing to the nice weather this time of year in South India. 


Now that's an Elephant.

I really enjoyed these [random strangers] taking their "Hear no, See no, Speak no evil... and thumbs up!" picture.

Another short drive led us to the "main event" in Mahabilapuram. There is a long stretch with many little carved caves and reliefs, as well as the lighthouse and "Krishna's Butterball." Our driver dropped us off at one end and we walked/hiked through the stone hills to the other side. There were a decent number of monkeys hanging around, looking for food handouts. We saw one open and drink an entire bottle of mango juice, while the ecstatic tourists took pictures.


Those are some heavy earrings.

Krishna's Butterball
We ended our day trip with lunch at the Seashore Garden Restaurant, a place quite acurately named due to its location.

https://www.google.com/maps/views/profile/116232336565129998209?gl=us


Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas from India




T'was the night before Christmas
When all through the house

Not a light bulb was shining
Not even a [computer] mouse

The appliances all sat
With their power not on
In hopes that GSO
Soon would be anon

The child was nestled
All safe on a chair
While shadows from flashlights
Danced here and there



Uuuuh, this is getting hard to maintain... so...


But I heard them [GSO] exclaim
As out of sight they were driving
Happy Christmas to all
And we'll be back in the morning



Ok that was pretty strained. It seemed easier in my head when I was driving home from work. Anyway, it's our first Christmas in the Foreign Service, and on paper it was pretty lousy. In reality, it was quite pleasant, TAKE THAT PAPER; you're always lying to us!


I should start from the beginning, and I'll recap at the end. So we have some family visiting and after 5 days of traveling (standby, and being bumped from flights several times), they arrived at our house at around 2:30 AM on Christmas Eve. I had an extra long day at work, but an hour or two before leaving I got a frantic call from our housekeeper saying that one of the AC units was smoking and she'd turned it off. Thinking she'd done well, but might have been overreacting a little, I planned to submit a request to GSO that it be repaired, and just not use it for few days. (One missing air conditioner is not really a big deal when you have 7 in the house, and we were coming up on several holiday days.) Shortly there after I got a call from my wife... Apparently the AC unit had caught fire and my housekeeper had turned off all the power to our entire house. This seemed a little more serious, so I called GSO to have them look into it immediately (yes... fires are always an emergency). When the maintenance guy got to the house, he attempted to turn the power back on. Approximately half of the house stayed dark, and the light bulbs from the other half started making popping sounds and turning off. (Hooray?) He quickly turned the power back off and had the landlord call an electrician. Long story (a little) short(er), the electrician left with one AC unit and most of our lights working. However, our refrigerator and microwave were not so lucky. We moved most of our chilled goods to the freezer (separate unit, still working) and the rest to our upstairs neighbor's refrigerator. The GSO guys came the next day (Christmas), conveniently arriving shortly after we finished opening presents to continue repairs.


To recap, my Christmas eve was a sleep deprived work day, with overtime, where my house caught on fire, our power was out for several hours, our refrigerator and microwave broke, and we had only one AC unit to cool the house, all while having guests from the States. Sounds pretty bad, right? Well... not so much.


The positive side. We had several people (even the CG) offer to let us stay at their house if needed. We had upstairs neighbors who could store our food and let us heat up meals. Christmas day we had (previously arranged) plans to be at a friends house. The GSO folks were fantastic: they came quickly, fixed as much as they could, and had no issues with coming again on the holiday day to continue working. Best of all? I don't have to pay for any of this. Having just gotten rid of my old house, I can truly appreciate how lucky I am to not have to replace every major appliance in my house... as well as paying electricians overtime (and/or holiday pay) to come fix the faulty wiring in my house.


We've been jokingly saying "Welcome to India" or "Welcome to the Foreign Service," but honestly we still had a great Christmas. We opened presents (most of which were shipped half way around the world by our family), we spent the day with friends, and had good food. We're quite lucky; many of the locals here would have never had any of these problems, since they live everyday without air conditioners, refrigeration, or even power.


Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Corridor Reputation: Bagels and Blogs

Corridor Reputation is a big deal in the Foreign Service. They literally teach you about it in the first 3 week orientation class, heck they even named their internal social networking system "Corridor." I don't think the term is really unique to the Foreign Service, but I'll define it anyway. Corridor Reputation is what precedes you when people ask your former (or current) coworkers about you. As you can imagine, this is always an important thing to maintain in any job. That being said, it's even more crucial in this job, because your future assignments (after your first two) are decided by 'bidding' or 'lobbying' for the position. If people have heard of you (in a good way), you're more likely to get the jobs you want. If you're known as a 'screamer,' well... enjoy getting posted wherever is left.

I'm a pretty friendly guy and generally good at getting things done at work, so I've never had any issues with my reputation preceding me. <brag>In fact, my last job as a contractor, before this job, I literally got the job because some higher up I'd never met or heard of found out I was in the list of candidates and told them to take me. </brag> All boasting aside, Corridor Reputation isn't something I've overly concerned myself with. That being said, I can feel myself being inexorably changed... I'd be lying if I tried to claim that I never consider my reputation while at work. In fact, I've taken on some projects that I probably wouldn't have cared about, except that they'll give me nice exposure to other IMS around the world.

Of course, let's face it. I made bagels for a CLO bake sale (which are unavailable locally) and I have this blog. I should just resign myself to being the "Bagels and Blog" guy. I'm pretty sure it's already begun. The Management Officer here (jokingly?) told me bringing bagels in once a week should be added to my work requirements... and I learned from my social sponsee that my blog had some readers in the 134th Specialist class. I guess the moral of this post is: if you want to succeed in the Foreign Service, learn to bake bagels. Wait no... I mean, be that guy with crazy hobbies... No... that's not it. Oh yeah, be nice and work hard! Yeah, we'll go with that one.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Closing Day

Who has two thumbs and no longer owns a house? THIS GUY. It took around 6 months, but we finally closed on our old house in Maryland. It was a good house, and we would have been alright continuing to live there, but there was really no sense in keeping it once we moved overseas (it wasn't even close enough to DC for commuting... as I learned in the Spring). 

Bye, bye "Home" category in Mint.
One of the downsides to the Foreign Service, is that it's very difficult to plan ahead. I mean, you rarely know where you'll be living in a few years, so you're always in a state of flux. This starts pretty much from day one, since you don't know when or even if you're going to get the job. This can lead to some unfortunate housing situations, as happened with us. We ended up selling our house at a substantial loss. The market hasn't been great and rental values aren't really amazing (not to mention the incredible unreliability and headache involved with having renters), so we were pretty much forced to sell, when the market was flooded with houses. 

We're not the only ones; I know of people who have sold houses they've lived in for around 18 months or even worse, who literally got their offer letter for the Foreign Service on closing day for buying a new house. Of course the nice side of this, is that we can look forward to not having to pay for housing in the foreseeable future.

 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Two Years in India, Week 26: 26% Down

Well, here we are. A quarter of the way through my time in India! I've definitely been slacking on posting recently, partially because I got out of the rhythm when I was in Germany for training and partially because I've been working a lot. 

It's crazy to think that 26% of the way through our tour we're still (albeit somewhat due to laziness on our own part) unpacking. I can really understand why some of the Foreign Service old hats say you spend half your time "in transit." I don't have any profound insights for my quarter-way mark, so let me tell you about my week.

Monday, the mail room (which I'm the American in charge of) received their record highest number of diplomatic pouches. Something like three times the usual and twice the norm for the "holiday season." Needless to say, the area was pretty much packed full until people started picking up their boxes. 

On the computer front, we had some planned and unplanned outages that required extra hours at work. We have contractors here working on our facilities, who require my escorting from time to time. I went to the airport three days in a row and spent countless hours on the phone preparing for and executing one of our diplomatic pouch deliveries. I built spreadsheets and access databases. I went to several CLO functions and a couple appointments at the Med unit (finally getting those long overdue vaccinations). Most importantly I checked approximately 123490183249013 e-mails.

It all sounds impressive, right? It's probably not - we're a pretty laid back post compared to those of some of my compatriots. I mean, I still had time to take a few hours off and visit a craft show featuring crafts from around the country (at local prices... we bought way more than I'd expected) and to have breakfast with my retired upstairs neighbor (poori, dosa, and filter coffee, of course). 

Also, the Locally Employee Staff here are amazing. I've been told they're some of the best in the world (though, I doubt that's easy to objectively measure). I can confidently say that my job would be a gazillion times harder without the dedication, knowledge, and skill of my LES. I guess my point is that if I've learned anything from this job, it's that every day is different and there's always work to do. It's kind of a nice change from the last few years where I mostly sat on my butt doing the same thing every day. Besides, I get to go hang out on the tarmac at the airport!

I'm looking forward to another 74ish weeks in India. (NOTE: My previously estimate of 100 / 104 weeks in India is probably skewed now that I'm spending at least 4 weeks in training, not to mention vacations and R&R... oh well, I still like the idea of 1% per week)

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Indian Driving License

Lock up your children and hide your pets, because I can officially drive in India! After many months of waiting (read: procrastinating), I finally applied for and got my "India Driving Licence (Tamilnadu)." I immediately flexed my newfound power by driving to work the rest of the week. 

My first impression of driving in India: Holy Crap! It's a heady mix of terror and exhilaration as you pretty much drive like a maniac and magically everyone around you anticipates your movements and casually drives around you. Don't get me wrong, it's not like there are no road rules. There are obviously tons of them, they're just unspoken... and I don't know them all (yet). For example, in the US you would never make a person going straight stop to let you turn onto the road. Here, there's no need to come to a complete stop before your turn... essentially ever. If that makes traffic stop to let you in, so be it.

Honking has different expectations here also. Motocycles ("two wheelers") regularly honk just to verify that you know they're there. With lanes being a fluid concept here, it makes sense that the 'little guys' are the most vocal. The cacophany of horns is a little confusing at first, but makes sense pretty quickly. Flashing your brights here means the opposite of what it does in the US, which was also confusing for me at first. It essentially means, "I'M GOING FOR IT!"

Writing about driving in India always makes it sound so bad, but honestly it's not. After five months in country, I have yet to see an accident! I'm told they're mostly caused by trucks and buses, generally at night, and in less urban areas. That makes total sense to me, because traffic does not move quickly here. I almost exclusively drive in first or second gear, and I rarely have the occasion to make it all the way up to third.

It's strangely liberating to be able to drive again... next challenge: getting gas!



Friday, November 28, 2014

Jury Duty

I imagine it's pretty rare to be super excited when you get a summons to jury duty. Don't get me wrong, jury duty is an integral part of our legal system and it is a civic duty to participate. I mean, if I am ever on trial, I know I'd like to have people like me on the jury. That being said, it's super unexciting to get summoned while overseas. Supposedly you can file for exemption... which I did and was denied. Due to the Thanksgiving holiday and massive time difference between India and my home state, I got to spend several stress-filled days thinking I'd have to book super expensive flights home. Fortunately, my denial was just a misunderstanding and I ended up being released from the committment, at least as long as I'm living overseas. 


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Why We Skype

"This is why
Why we Skype
Why we stay up late
And this is why
This is why we Skype"

It might sound weird, but since we moved half way around the world, we actually seem to talk to our families (via FaceTime and Skype) more frequently than when we lived in the same time zone. That being said, we've come to realize something. Other than our parents, everyone wanting to Skype with us has an ulterior motive. Engagements and pregnancies seem to be the prime suspects. Don't get me wrong, we're flattered that people want to tell us and that they're willing to go through the effort of arranging a 'face-to-face' meeting. Of course, at first we thought they just missed our charming personalities and wanted to hear about India from the horse's mouth. Maybe I'm just underestimating the awesomeness of my blogging, but apparently that's all people need! :-D

The song has nothing to do with this post, but I like it, and writing a post named "Why We Skype" got it stuck in my head. 




PS: The video only plays in the US, sorry people elsewhere. You'll just have to go buy the album or something!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Technically Another Job Opening

Good news IMS fans! The job req is open again. It turns out the Department of State really needs IMs these days. Just think, you could have the pleasure of working with me at your first post! (You know, if it happens to be my second post.) So if you do join and go somewhere awesome, start convincing them they need me early.

Just think, this picture could be you! (Assuming you own a red shirt and look like me with a different face...)

Saturday, October 25, 2014

HHE has Arrived!

Well, it's finally happened! Two days short of 4 months after arriving in India... our House Hold Effects (HHE) have arrived! Our general feeling of joy and celebration at this was quickly squashed by the realizations that:

A) We have way too much stuff.
B) We have to actually unpack all these boxes.

Right now it looks like our old house vomited (albeit using the Vomit-O-Matic) all over our new house. It's like Christmas in October... or what I'm calling "OctChristOberMas." I guess we have some unpacking to do.

PS: This is officially my 100th post on this blog... Whoo hoo!


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Chennai Holidays: Deepavali

video
This week's bonus holiday is courtesy of Diwali or Deepavali, the festival of light. Let me just start by saying Diwali is a BIG deal. Most cultures/religions have an Autumn holiday to celebrate the harvest, but Diwali is the biggest and most celebrated holiday for Hindus, much like Christmas for Christians (slash most of the Western world). It was prefaced with several weeks of major sales and people cleaning and decorating. Starting nearly a week before the day we started hearing random fireworks going off. The evening before the holiday they began in earnest with literally thousands (if not millions) of fireworks going off. Diwali had scattered fireworks going off all day, but was otherwise one of the quietest days we've seen in India. There was almost no traffic and relatively few people on the streets. Once night fell though... the fireworks really picked up. The attached video (definitely watch it with the sound) gives you an idea of what it was like. We are lucky that we have roof access to our building and our building is higher than most of the surrounding buildings and trees. It was literally a 360 degree firework display. Every direction and every distance there were fireworks. From street crackers, to rooftop roman candles to professional grade sky bursters(?), you could literally read a newspaper by the light of all the fireworks. I know I'm using the word literally a lot, but standing on the roof seeing that many fireworks going off is... well, indescribable... I did my best, but it doesn't do it justice. At one point, I saw 5 roman candles going off on 5 different rooftops at the same time and that was in one direction. Oh yeah, and it went on for hours both nights!

Edit: It is now officially 2 days after Diwali... and there are still periodic fireworks going off (at midnight)!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Dogs and Traffic

Picture courtesy of Adventures of an American Expat blog
I was eating dinner this evening and I saw a dog cross the road. That seems pretty uninteresting, right? WRONG! This dog walked to the edge of the road and looked both ways. He started to cross, saw some traffic coming and backed up. He waited until the traffic slowed, looked both ways again, crossed halfway, watched incoming traffic until a break opened, and then finished crossing. Honestly, I think he did it better than I do. Kudos to the feral animals here, I bet they're all good at that, because I haven't seen a single roadkill since getting here.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

High Hopes = Higher Disappointment

Well, after nearly 4 months (!) of waiting, our HHE was finally scheduled to be delivered. Needless to say, we were pretty ecstatic. I was the first new officer to arrive this summer, and I'm going to be one of the last (at least not the last) to receive my stuff. If you find yourself packing out from DC and get assigned "Victory Van Corporation," I feel for you. My stuff sat in their warehouse for 2 months after I arrived at post until they got around to shipping it.

Anyway, as a cruel twist of fate, monsoon season appears to have decided to start in earnest... and our HHE delivery for this afternoon was cancelled on account of poor weather. Future delivery date TBD... I hadn't really been missing my HHE (other than my kitchen supplies), but having it dangled and jerked away was a real letdown. Oh well, at least it's in the country and presumably will be delivered soon.

Note: I doubt this infographic is accurate, but I can't help noticing that "Shame" turns you into Spider-Man.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Holding Hands

Holding hands is definitely a cultural thing. In the US, it's rare to see adults, who aren't romantically involved, holding hands. In India, public displays of affection are frowned upon, so you don't see couples walking around holding hands. However, I pretty regularly see men walking around holding hands. This wasn't a huge surprise, I knew that it was common in parts of the world. I expected to see people holding hands... much like the picture for this post. Instead, I regularly see much more involved hand holding often including both hands from one of the participants. What I really wasn't prepared for was middle school-esque level of playing/fiddling with each others hands. It's not uncommon for me to see two men holding hands and one of them is playfulling pulling the other's fingers, or caressing the inside of their palm. It's hard to describe, but it's so over the top I just had to mention it.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Chennai Holidays: Eid al-Adha

Nothing like a BONUS bonus extra holiday. Today's holiday, Eid al-Adha, was originally a work day. However, the Tamil Nadu government declared it a holiday last week, so we got it off at the last minute. Score! Last minute 5th day to my long weekend. Of course, this makes us feel pretty silly for not planning a bigger trip (we did go somewhere, but more on that later).

Anyway, Eid al-Adha is an Islamic holiday honoring Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice his son (Ishmael). Muslims of sufficient affluence celebrate by sacrificing an animal and dividing the meat into three parts. One part is shared with their family, one part with their friends, and the third part goes to the needy. Of course, there is a good deal of ceremony and praying involved that I'm not really qualified to describe.

I am, however, qualified to say thank you for another bonus day off!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Chennai Holidays: Vijaya Dashami

Vijaya Dashami is the 10th and last day of Navratri. It literally means "the triumph of righteousness over evil." There are a ton of stories of various sinister demons and deities being defeated on this day. Hindus celebrate with parties, gift giving, and prayers for the upcoming harvest season. It is the beginning of a very festive season around here, as we get ready for Deepvali!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Chennai Holidays: Mahatma Gandhi’s Birthday and Ayutha Puja

Today is a 'twofer' on the local holiday front. Mahatma Gandhi (who is kind of a big deal around here) was born on October 2, 1869 and it is also the Ayutha Puja, which falls on a different day each year (depending on the moon). I'm going to focus on Ayutha Puja, because I think most people are familiar with Gandhi. Though I will say, "Gandhi Day" is one of the biggest holidays here. It is one of the three government mandated holidays, so everyone (including most retail/food employees) gets it off.

Ayutha Puja is the 9th day of the Navratri festival. It is a celebration of tools and weapons. Tools are blessed, placed on pedestals, and worshiped. Vehicles are washed and blessed as well. I know the GSO spent some time observing blessings over various consulate equipment, and many personal drivers for consulate employees are blessing the cars they drive. We don't currently have a driver, and our all-arounder is Christian, so I think we will have to go without. It would have been an interesting event to observe, but maybe next year.

First Illness in Chennai

Perfectly planned to ruin the upcoming long weekend, I have officially gotten sick. This is the first illness for our family since moving to India. Much to everybody's surprise, it is just a cold and has nothing to do with my digestive system. Fortunately, it looks like my son will be following suit... so it'll be a fun week!

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Breaking News in India: Chief Minister Jaya Convicted

This just in: Tamil Nadu's Chief Minister Jayalalithaa was convicted of accepting bribes and sentenced to 4 years in prison and an additional 6 years before running for office. I'll put some news links below, but the only western news source I saw that even reported on it was the BBC. Although this seems like a pretty big deal (imagine a state governor getting convicted while in office), it is actually not the first time she'll be leaving office to serve time in prison. The whole Wikipedia article linked above is pretty interesting, it really gives you an idea of how much different politics are in the "Worlds Largest Democracy."

This whole thing hasn't affected us too much, though our Regional Security Officer (RSO) did briefly request that we all return home and stay there. This was primarily a precaution against possible riots. I was talking to one of my employees from the mail room, and he said he was sad to hear about her conviction. He said despite her guilt, the case is from almost 20 years ago and (in his opinion) the government has been running much better since she took office. With the last Chief Minister, government offices (which officially open at 10) would often open at 10:45 or 11:00 and then shortly there after shut down for tea. However, since her taking office, they open at 10:00 every day. His testimony was certainly biased, but it does give another glimpse of how fluid the government is here.

BBC Article
Hindustan Times Article
Indian Express Article

Two Years in India, Week 13: Sponsorship!

One Baker's dozen weeks in Chennai. I'm going to run out of unique ways to count weeks soon. Nothing major to report on the work front, things are just chugging along. 

The biggest news this week was that new officer I'm sponsoring came into town! I learned that there are a ton of work related responsibilities to being a sponsor that I totally failed at (like arranging the expediter to meet him and his family in baggage claim). Fortunately, I was able to flag them down on their way out of the airport and things went fairly smoothly from there. Oh well, hopefully I can make up for it with awesome social sponsoring! 

I do feel a little weird being a sponsor when I haven't even received my HHE yet (at my first post, none-the-less), but the post was really hurting for sponsors since fully half of the officers transferred this summer. I've definitely been taking notes on "dos" and "do differentlys" of being a sponsor, so I hope to iron things out for next time. I'm a pretty social person, so I'm planning to volunteer as a social sponsor every transfer season. Let's face it, there's no better way to meet the new people than to pick them up at the airport in the middle of the night!

I have a funny work anecdote to share this week. When I was flying solo at post, before our IPO came, I had to make a list of end-of-year purchase items for my department. Being relatively new, both to post and to the Foreign Service, I didn't have a great idea on what we needed. This turned out to be a bummer when the IPO did arrive and pointed out all these great things I could have requested (doh)! Anyway, one of the purchase requests that I did put in was for safety shoes for the mail room staff. They regularly carry heavy pouches and it only takes one broken foot to more than cover for the cost of the shoes. This seemed like a pretty run-of-the-mill thing to me. However, now that we've received the steel-toed shoes, I realize that it was a much bigger deal for my staff than I'd realized. Shoes in India are kind of a status symbol (which I don't understand, because they're not that expensive, but people generally only wear sandals). Apparently many of the LES from other departments have been quite jealous of the mail room's new shoes... also, morale in the mail room has skyrocketed. All for something that seemed so trivial to me at first. Guess I still have a lot to learn about working with people from other cultures!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Calling all Office Managers

I don't want to make people think that IMS are the only specialists that I care about... That being said, a req just opened for Office Management Specialists! People regularly say the OMS are the people who make the post operate day to day. Their duties go way beyond the Office Manager stereotype of being "just a secretary." Often working directly with the front office (Ambassador or other prime officer), they can be involved in high level diplomacy almost from day one. It's quite a unique job!


Saturday, September 20, 2014

Two Years in India, Week 12: New CG

One dozen weeks in Chennai. That could be a book... I guess... Anyway, week 12 was most notable due to the arrival of the new Consul General. The consulate was a flurry of last minute activity as everyone tried to tie up all their projects before he arrived. 

He is incredibly friendly and invited all of the consulate families to his house for dinner and drinks on Friday. As with every time I've been to the CGR (Consule General's Residence), the food was delicious and the drinks were... included. (Ok, I'm not much of a drinker.)

On the work front, I finished cleaning out the mail room. I was rewarded with (and I quote) "Wow!" from the management officer. I've always been good at cleaning up cluttered work spaces and I'm looking forward to starting in on our storage room. Unfortunately, I've been warned that messy storage rooms are endemic in the Foreign Service. Fortunately, that'll give me a great selling point when it comes to bidding. "Take me, I'll clean the heck out of your Embassy!"

Last but not least, I took the IPO on his first (at this post) pouch run. Nothing like staying up almost all night at the airport. I'm looking forward to doing it again next week when my sponsee comes into town. Though... next week I won't get to take awesome selfies with airplanes and tractors!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Indian Bank Scheme: Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana

The first we heard of Prime Minister Modi's new "banking scheme" was when our "all 'rounder" Harriet, asked for most of a day off to go to the bank an open an account. Bank accounts are something we take for granted in the US, since the minimum balances are so low that pretty much everyone (that wants one, at least) has one. This isn't the case in India, where minimum balances and monthly fees make bank accounts unobtainable for huge portions of the population. It's estimated that less than two thirds of Indian households have access to banking services. Harriet is a prime example; she makes much more working for us (probably twice) than she would performing a similar job for a local family, and she still couldn't (or wouldn't) afford a bank account. That's one of the reasons gold is so popular here, it's a way for people to store wealth.

Anyway, getting back on topic, the Prime Minister announced a plan to allow people to open bank accounts with zero minimum balance and much looser identification requirements. To encourage people to do so, he sweetened the pot with free accident insurance and life insurance. The new bank accounts will also allow for microloans after a set period of good standing. The goal of this scheme is to break the current dependence on usurers and ponzi schemes for loans and investments (respectively). It also may help reduce burgulary rates, by giving people an alternative to storing cash (or pawnable jewelry) in their houses.

The government has a lofty goal of 7.5 crore (or 75 million) new bank accounts by the end of the year. Numbers like that always put into perspective the amount of people in India... that's more than 20% of the population of the United States. Harriet left our house yesterday in time to get to the bank before it opened. Even so, she ended up waiting at the bank for 6 and a half hours to register for her account.

The Hindu Business Line Article
ZeeNews Article
Reuters Article
BBC Article

I can't help but notice that the American news companies either didn't notice, or didn't care to write about this topic. (And the comments on BBC and Reuters exemplify how most Westerners just have no concept of the impact something like a bank account can have for someone living on a few dollars per day.)

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Two Years in India, Week 11: Consultations in Delhi

This is a little late in coming, but better late than never!

This week started with pretty standard work days. The IPO and I are still in the process of making our spaces look presentable. I'm told this is an endemic problem for IRM. Since we're the only people allowed in our area, there's never any pressure to clean up messes. Maybe that'll be my future selling point for bidding: "Do you have a messy PCC? I'll clean the heck out of it!" Anyway, I finished cleaning up our secure mailroom this week, which was met with "Oh, wow!" by the management officer when she happened to see it. Here's hoping for the same response when I finish with the (currently a disaster zone) storage room.

On a more interesting note, I spent Thursday and Friday in New Delhi. I flew up to meet my counterparts there (and one from Mumbai). It was great to see the different facilities, both for work and living. The Embassy is pretty nice and the housing compound is awesome, but I think I'm happier in Chennai. Aside from the extra stress of working in an embassy, the facilities are surrounded by the "diplomatic quarter" of Delhi, so it barely feels like India. There's something to be said for stepping outside my door and being on the streets of Chennai.

Side note: I am yet again struck with the realization that "making friends" in the Foreign Service is tough. I really enjoyed hanging out with my fellow first tour IMS from Mumbai and her boyfriend, but alas, the chances of us ever working together are pretty slim. Of course, if I keep making new friends, I'm bound to have a tour coincide with them eventually, right!?

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Two Years in India, Weeks 9 and 10: Long Weekend

Weeks 9 and 10 sandwiched a four day weekend, so I might as well write about both at the same time. If that logic doesn't work for you... let's just say I was out of town last weekend and didn't get a chance to write a post.

Ten percent of the way through my first tour and things at work are starting to feel "normal." I'm still regularly asked if I'm "settling in" - it will be interesting to see how long that lasts. My bet is until the next arrival/departure season. I don't have a lot to report except my building excitement to visit Delhi in the near-ish future to meet my counter parts on the "mother ship." (As a consulate, all funding for Chennai goes through the Embassy in New Delhi.) We also had to let our driver go last week, when we learned he was on the RSO's DO NOT HIRE list. It was kind of a bummer, since we liked him, but he was very nice about the whole thing. I'll go into more details in another post; I'm due to write one about the pros and cons of employing household staff.

I did have another small victory at work this week. The State Department uses a system called iPost to continuously monitor the health of the computer networks of overseas posts. To make it more competitive (because, why not?), they tell you what rank you are out of all of the posts in the world and those in your region. When I arrived at post, our world-wide ranking for one of our networks was around 125th, and as of this week we're number 1! Although this doesn't win me any awards, further bilateral diplomatic relations with India, or anything like that... It was still a good feeling and it can't hurt my chances of getting tenured. It almost felt like cheating, since it wasn't that difficult and Chennai isn't a very busy post, so I had the time. I've been talking to the other IMSers from my orientation class and they sound way more busy. I guess that's one of the benefits to going to a consulate!

Side note: The day our HHE was supposed to arrive in Chennai (according to the shipping department) has come and gone and I haven't been contacted. Guess I'll fall back to expecting it when the company that shipped it from DC estimated it would arrive (October 10th).

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Hidden Cost of Pets in the Foreign Service

It's pretty amazing to me the number of people who have pets in the Foreign Service. I'm not talking people who joined while they had pets, but rather people who know what's going on, and still choose to continually get new pets. We've recently learned that there are rather substantial costs attached to bringing your animals overseas with you. I'll give you a brief outline of what it cost us to get our two (healthy) cats to India. (All prices are estimates from memory)

Vet Bills: vaccinations and healthy inspects ($2-300 total)
USDA Vet Bills: Certifying them to go overseas ($80)
FEDEX: Due to the timings involved in the paperwork we had to FedEx or drive it to/from Richmond's USDA facility ($50)
Motor Pool costs: Once in India, we had to take the cats to the quarantine facility to be inspected, twice. ($5 and 6-7 hours of work time)
Quarantine Inspection/Expediator Fees: ($115)
Plane Pet Fee: In cabin ($300)
Non-City-Pair price difference: Our city pair was through Heathrow, which doesn't allow pets. We are allowed to break the city pair because of this, but have to pay the price difference ($750)
Pet carriers: Soft ones that would fit under our seats ($50)


All in all we're looking at an extra $1500. Maybe that's not the end of the world, but if you consider it's for a two year posting, that's around $50 per month... not counting their food, litter or continuing vet bills.

On the other hand, having our cats walking around like they owned the place and generally acting like cats did give our new house an immediate sense of normality. I'm told it's small things like that that help you avoid culture shock and keep your resiliency. I guess it was probably worth it, this time. I doubt we'll continue to adopt new cats though, when ours pass away.

One last note, we adopted our cats when they were 12 years old (pretty old for a cat) and it was an insanely traumatizing experience for them. It was weeks or months before they got back to acting what we've since found to be normal for them. We expected a similar transition when moving... but it just didn't happen. They took the change of scenery in stride (though perhaps they were just thrilled to be out of the carriers after their 25ish hour torture session)!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Around Chennai: Weekend trip to Kanchipuram

Chennai isn't really known for its weekend getaways. In fact, we rarely hear about anything other than Pondicherry (Puducherry). Well... in an effort to break the mold, we took advantage of our long weekend to leisurely see the nearby town of Kanchipuram. 

Kanchipuram is about 100 minutes away by car (at light traffic times). It's a pretty big deal among Indian tourists, because there are a lot of Hindu temples there. It's sometimes nicknamed "City of a Thousand Temples." While this may be technically true... Chennai probably also technically has 1000 temples. There are mini-temple shrines all over the place. Anyway, the temples are only open from 6-12 and 4-8, so we decided a day trip was not ideal.  

View from our hotel, the GRT Regency.
We strategically planned our drive during my son's nap. Consequentially, we arrived at a perfect time to hit the "afternoon opening times" for the temples. We started with the Varadharaja Perumal Temple.

The entrance Gopuram
Since the inner sanctum of the temple is restricted to Hindus, this temple provided a 'tourist area' where you could see the "marriage hall." The temple had a hundred pillars, each ornately carved from one stone, many with quite erotic depictions (not shown).




At the recommendation of a random fellow temple goer, we took a walk around the temple tank to see the horses.

They did not appear to be doing well.
There was a nice photo op though.
Look at that "moush" (mustache)!

We decided to walk home to take in some of the street life (rather than taking an auto). 

Brick carrying, just the way we saw it in Amazing Race!
It's great seeing construction here, because concrete and such don't come bags, rather in piles.
The guy in the yellow shirt was hauling some from the pile to the mixer.
We couldn't tell if this place sold wood, or turned it into charcoal first.
Either way, it sure looks cool!
The festival to Ganesh was in full swing, here is one of the many statues we've seen.
Car wash water
As we neared our hotel, we stumbled upon something that made the entire walk worth it. MONKEYS! This was our first monkey sighting in India, and it was just as glorious as we'd anticipated.



If you look closely, you can see the baby clinging on.
I don't know what they were advertising, but I hope it's top hats.
City of a Thousand Temples. Some are bigger than others.
Home sweet home.
The next morning, we started by hitting up the local Saravana Bhavan for breakfast (an excellent South Indian chain). After breakfast, we headed to Kanchi Kailasanathar Temple, reported to have beautiful gardens. This was the furthest temple from town. We hired an auto driver to take us round trip, but ended up hiring him by the hour for the rest of the day.


The temple dates back to the 7th century. It was originally colored using vegetable based paints. Most of the paint has worn away by now, but the small remaining sections show that it was quite intricately painted. The bright white sections are where they recently re-plastered to protect the soft sandstone of the main structure.








I should clarify... when you're told a place in India has lush gardens, what they mean is... grass... Pretty nice grass, but... just grass.


As the temples closed for their daily siesta, we checked out a couple of the local museums. The first one, Kanchi Kudil, displayed a typical farmer's housing from a hundred years ago. 
Recliner
Water-catching atrium

We continued on to the Sakunthala Jagannatham Museum of Folk Art, which was a little more extensive, though still nowhere near what we'd call a museum in the US. 


I apparently didn't take many pictures, but they had a nice collection of silks, musical instruments, paintings, sculptures, and antique tools.

It also had a good view of  a nearby Gopuram.

Both museums were also people's houses, so it was a little weird walking around. The museum sections were mostly marked off, but it was still awkward.

A note about museums here: they don't have much info in their exhibits. We expected to need hours to explore each museum, but in reality, we spent half an hour or less at each.

After our temple closing and insanely hot weather prompted siesta, we headed back out, starting with Vaikunda Perumal Temple.


Being a temple to Vishnu... pretty much every carving was of Vishnu in some situation.


Every temple you visit in Kanchipuram has "tour guides" that start showing you around pretty much immediately after you show up. This is whether you want them to... or ask them not to... or don't have money... Rs 200 is the going rate for tip (at least for Americans). It is nice to have someone to take family photos...


Elephant battle

Empty temple tank

Mohanraj was pretty much on autopilot at this point, taking us to the "must see" temples. Next up: Kamakshi Amman Temple. This temple had an elephant that would bless you for a coin. 



Gopuram - the tall pyramid on top of the entrance to Hindu temples.

I don't know why, but I love panoramics.


Last but not least, we headed to Ekambareswara Temple. This is the largest temple in Kanchipuram and also the most commercial. Having made a tactical error in forgetting to restock my wallet with money back at the hotel, we had some problems dodging tour guides and "blessing givers." (We failed, but joke was on them, I wasn't lying when I showed them my empty wallet.)

NOM NOM COCONUT

Possibly the "main event" for the temple, this is a 3500 year old mango tree. We later learned that it had actually died 9 years prior, making this a 9 year old mango tree. Since 9 is way less impressive than 3500, they still go with the latter. They do have piece of the old truck on display (of course I'm skeptical of the claim, mostly because of the internet).


                                         





We picked up a 'parcel' (read: to go) dinner on the way back to the hotel, only to find our room was being serviced. So we took a walk up to the roof garden, where we saw yet more monkeys (and hurriedly departed when one got a little too close for comfort)! 


Dinner before...


and after.


By Sunday evening, we had visited pretty much all the temples we'd planned to see. So the next morning we decided to revisit the luscious "gardens" at Kailasantha for some play time for my son, before driving home at nap time.

Nearby houses, I love the tin OVER the thatch.



We ended the trip with another 100ish minutes drive home. If I had the trip to do again (and especially without a 2 year old in tow), I'd suggest doing it with only 1 overnight. I think arriving one morning, siesta-ing during the closing time, sight seeing again in the evening, and following morning would more than cover all of the major sights - unless you wanted to take advantage of Kanchipuram's other big draw: SILKS!