Monday, June 30, 2014

First Day of Work

This week started like any other, except: Oh yeah! It was my first day at my first post! My sponsor picked me up for a moderately early arrival time (I guess he likes to get a bunch of visas done before people start showing up in the morning). Once at the consulate, it became readily apparent that I was one of the first new people for the summer transfer season (in my case THE first person). I could tell because almost every one I ran into knew I was new. This was nice, because people regularly just walked up and introduced themselves. Of course, the downside to this is that many of them then immediately told me they were on their way out the door. So now my mind is cluttered with tons of names and faces that will shortly be disappearing from Chennai.

Anyway, my first day was busy with meeting people, administrative paperwork, and trying to memorize combinations to doors and safes. I got several short tours of different parts of the consulate, including (but not limited to) the consular section, HR, the canteen (that's cafeteria, in the US), the commisary, and the space I'll be working.

Midway through the afternoon, the GSO arranged a car for me to go home, pick up my cats, and take them to the government of India quarantine facility. This was one of the two "inspections" required to allow my cats to stay in the country without having to actually be quarantined. The facility was a 45 minute drive from my house and the inspection consisted of approximately 2.5 hours of waiting with 5 minutes of showing the cats to a veterinarian. I'm not complaining though, the cats passed...

All-in-all, it wasn't a bad first day!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Two Years in India, Day 1

I’ll be honest, our first day in Chennai did not live up to my pre-arrival expectations for myself. I really understand why our sponsors make sure to stock our kitchens with a couple days’ worth of food. Back in the States, I’d had high hopes that I’d immediately venture out for breakfast or lunch, like I have every time I've traveled overseas. However, we didn't quite make it that far. Between the two-ish hours of sleep and the end of all our travel-related-stress, we were pretty content to hang out in our apartment to unwind a bit. We ended up making breakfast and taking a 3 hour nap (awful for getting over our jet lag, but we couldn't help it!) for lunch.

We were just thinking it was time to go out for a walk (and by we, I mean my wife and I, my son spent the entire day pointing at the front door and every balcony door and saying, “Outside?”) when we noticed that it was much darker outside than it had been all day. Over the next 30 minutes the sky darkened even more and then unleashed a huge amount of rain. I’m from south Florida, so I’m no stranger to downpours, but this was even heavier than I’m used to there! I was later told that it was probably the first rain of the monsoon season, which should indicate the end of the hottest part of summer.

A little while later, our sponsor swung by to check on us. Coincidentally, our upstairs neighbor stopped by at the same time to introduce himself. We were going to go out for dinner, but my son was sleeping in my wife’s lap, so we ended up just going out for takeout. It was early for dinner by India standards (around 5:30), so we went to one of the only places they knew was open, a pizza place named Ox and Tomato.

Guess it’s time to try to beat the jet lag. Wish us luck!

The Arrival

Post two of our traveling to India, not to be confused with the movie from the ‘90s involving aliens and global warming.

We were met at the baggage claim by someone from the GSO, after using the Diplomatic Visas and Airline Crew line in immigration. I guess we kind of stood out as the only people to have two cats… I have to say, I've never been met at an airport by anyone other than family, but in this case it was a huuuuuge relief. It pretty much marked the end of our stress, since we knew everything would be taken care of from then on. It ended up being even better than we expected, because we slowly realized (once all bags on our carousel had been taken), that the bag containing my son’s car seat hadn't made it.

I've had misplaced bags before in the US. I can’t stress enough how different a process putting in our claim was. In the US, my general experience had been that waiting in line was the ‘hard part.’ The line wasn't that big at MAA, but the process after that was an adventure. We spoke to 2 people at the Airport Assistance counter and filled out some paperwork. Then we were walked over to the immigration folks where we spoke to 3 more people, some more than once, and with slight changes and additions to the paperwork. Finally we headed back to the airport assistance counter where we spoke to another person, before finally settling things. Somehow, during this process we also ‘went through customs’ even though my wife and son were hanging out with all the bags near the carousel. The plus side was, all we had to do was walk out after that. No one in India (to my knowledge) asked about the cats, but my guide left me for a few minutes to talk to people, so it’s possible he just greased those wheels without me knowing.

Once outside the airport we met my social sponsor, hopped in a motor pool van, and headed into town. Originally we thought we’d be in temporary housing for a brief period, but the renovations on our housing had been completed, so we were actually headed ‘home.’ I really surprised our sponsor by recognizing a restaurant that I’d seen was very close to our apartment when checking the area out on the internet. I don’t think he was expecting me to say, “Oh, we must be nearly there” when heading to a place I’d never been!
At this point it was past 3am, but we couldn't contain our excitement and we immediately started checking out our ‘new digs.’ My son quickly noticed that we’d been loaned a box of toys and immediately got down to business pushing his ‘car’ all around. This place is way nicer than our old house was, but I’ll go into details in another post. I will say, it’s readily apparent that we’re not in the US. Ignoring any differences in architecture, electric plugs, or whatever… Chennai just smells different. Not bad, but there’s a noticeably different smell in the air. Also, the random sounds of the local animals and frequent quick bursts of car horn create an unfamiliar cacophony.

PS: We’re in INDIA!

Friday, June 27, 2014

Flying (halfway) Around the World

Departure day started out with good news - namely that the paperwork for importing our cats had come through. While printing it, the manager of our hotel noticed that it was from India and commented that that was his country! He was delighted when he learned we were going to Chennai, since he has family there. It’s interesting, everyone from India that I've spoken to about my posting has immediately said something to the effect of “you’re going to have a great time.” Of course, they've also invariably then said some variant of “It’s really hot there.”

Anyway, when booking our hotels we’d slightly miscalculated the time it would take me to go home to pick up the cats, so we ended up all going. This ended up not being a bad thing, because we had some last minute repacking to make sure all our bags were underweight (Psh, we had like 25 lbs. to spare!). I mowed the lawn for the last time in what I assume will be a long time, we packed up the cats, and started our 24+ hours of travel. 

Things kind of stopped going our way when we arrived at Dulles. We had tried to check in for our flight at the hotel, but the online system had tripped up due to our pets. The result was that my son was checked in… and my wife and I were not. It took about 6 people and 30 minutes for us to get checked in, and even then it was sans boarding passes. We’d have to pick up those at the gate. Of course, if this was the worst thing that happened to us, I’d say it was a great flight. Unfortunately, it wasn't quite that simple.

Our first flights tickets had us sitting separately. Technically, it had my 2 year old sitting by himself… but that didn't seem like a good idea. Fortunately, the singleton seat was an aisle, and we were able to trade a center aisle middle seat for it. The man came to take his seat, which my wife was in, and was perfectly happy to get a better seat (albeit further back in the plane) without the adjacent small child, go figure! The flight to Frankfurt was pretty easy, though our son didn't really sleep at all, which is unfortunate on a red eye. The cats seemed content enough, though I did put them on my lap (in the carrier) for a while to pet them.

Frankfurt is where things got interesting! We arrived at the gate to pick up our boarding passes (keep in mind, the tickets I’d gotten from Travel included seat numbers), where we were informed that the flight was overbooked and we’d have to wait until they could find people to bump to another flight. Hooray… We heard them offer to bump people on the intercom (to a flight that arrived at 8am instead of midnight and included a 600 Euro airline voucher, not bad!), but weren't called up to pick up our boarding passes until everyone else on the plane had boarded. Then they had to clear our cat paperwork, which took a bit of time. They’re very sensitive to not letting people bring animals that aren't pre-approved, because they (Lufthansa) have to foot the bill for the return flight if the animal is denied entry.

Anyway, the flight ended up having 20 no-shows, so the overbooking was moot. We were even ticketed 3 adjacent seats. The cats were a little more stressed out this flight. Side note on cats: while walking around (or sitting and waiting) at the airport, the cats would periodically make their plight of being in a carrier known to everyone within earshot. I had expected that to be a mild annoyance to people in the vicinity, but it actually appeared to have the opposite effect. We were regularly complimented on how pretty our cats are, and many people said they wish they could bring their (or just have a) cat. It was kind of funny walking around with the cats meowing, because people would look around a few times… then spot them and say something like, “I THOUGHT I heard a CAT!”

This post is getting really long, so I better wrap it up. The flight was fine even though the movie selection was much more limited than the previous one. Between the two flights, we both managed to watch “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” which is set in India and had been recommended to us. It was a cute movie and we both enjoyed it. One final parting thought: Why do they serve breakfast burritos near the end of the FRA-MAA flight, when it lands at midnight? 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Boarding Time!

We're on the plane about to take off. Next update (about our predeparture fun) from India!!!

I've been saving this line: "so along Maryland , thanks for all the crabs!"

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Pre-Departure Stress

It’s the day before we leave and all the stress of the move is coming to a head. Today was my last day at FSI and the Basic EMT class was pretty interesting. I went through the “departure from FSI checklist” and headed out to pick up my wife and son from the Smithsonian, where they’d spent the day. I dropped off one of my classmates at his apartment, and during the ride we noticed that the rental car’s AC had stopped working. Bummer, I thought, but I’ll be returning it tomorrow anyway. Turns out, I was wrong. A couple blocks after dropping him off, the car completely stopped responding to the gas petal. It would idle, but wouldn’t accelerate any more than that. Fortunately, since it was still moving, I was able to pull out of traffic to a side road. Unfortunately, it was insanely hot, and it took a little over an hour for the tow truck to come get me. Another hour later and I had a new (upgraded) car from Alamo and had somehow skipped out on paying for most of a tank of gas. Probably not worth the time in the sauna… but I guess it's good practice.

Anyway, my wife and son had made their way to a friend’s house on the metro, so I headed over there. We had a pleasant dinner talking about how excited we were to get to India, and how insanely nervous we were about not yet having the paperwork from the Government of India (GOI) regarding importing our cats. With one business day left to get it, we were certainly cutting things close.

I should mention here that the import paperwork is submitted (and generally taken care of) by one of the people in Shipping at the consulate. Without his hard work, this process would have been incredibly more difficult. It was definitely not his fault that things were coming down to the wire. Instead, I blame the USDA. The GOI requires 5 business days to process pet import applications. However, the USDA will not allow the pet to be certified for export until 10 calendar days before departure. Since you have to get your local vet to sign off, and then mail (FEDEX overnight) the paperwork to the USDA regional office (Richmond for us), the process is almost guaranteed to induce heartburn.

Oh well, 48 hours from now we’ll be in India!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Pet Panic

Are our cats coming with us to post? Beats me. We're hoping they will, but the timing for their paperwork is pretty atrocious. Our vet said he can't certify animals to go overseas any earlier than 10 calendar days prior to departure. Then you have to bring, mail, or fedex the paperwork to the regional USDA vet (Richmond for us), and have them give, mail or fedex it back to you. The Government of India, on the other hand, requires the paperwork be submitted 5 business days before arrival. Here's where things get really sticky. India is, for all intents and purposes, one business day ahead of us and it takes 24 hours for us to travel to India. Also if we don't have the paperwork from the Government of India in hand, Lufthansa won't let us board our flight from Frankfurt to Chennai. So if we do the math... 10 calendar days before the 26th is the Monday the 16th... overnight to Richmond and the USDA vet signs off on the 17th. Fedex back to us on the 18th (after our scanner was packed and taken) arriving around 8pm. We scanned the documents in and sent them to post on the morning of Thursday the 19th... after Chennai's business hours. They receive them on Friday the 20th... Now if all goes well, the paperwork should be completed before our arrival 5 business days later, right? Great... except we have to have the paper in our hand when our flight leaves 4 business days later...
The culprits.
So once again, here's hoping our cats can come with us. Not looking forward to the prospect of shipping them separately (especially after paying the extra $750 to take Lufthansa instead of British Airways, so we'd be able to bring them with us). 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Pack Out Panic

This week was an interesting week. Not so much from an "interesting things happened" point of view, but more of a "well that was interesting." So, my experience with moving is pretty minimal. I moved approximately four times in my life. Home to college, college to an apartment, inter-apartment, and apartment to house. I never really had that much stuff until owning a house, and I've never been moved by professional movers. So having people come to my house and box up all my belongings about as fast as I could point them out was quite surreal.
Our packout was split into three days, due to some archaic contracting rules. The first day they packed and drove away our HHE (that is, our slow-boat-to-India items). The second day they packed and took our UAB (unaccompanied air baggage) as well as packing everything for storage, except the furniture. The third day they were supposed to take the packed goods to storage as well as packing and taking our furniture.
The panic in the title of this post came in two phases. The first phase was the insane amount of worry when we realized we didn't have all of our stuff sorted, not to mention separated, in preparation of the movers arriving. This was despite my spending much of the preceding weekend dedicated to preparing for them to arrive. You wouldn't think this would be a problem, but having never done a move like this where the default wasn't "everything comes," we were very worried that the packers would get confused and pack the wrong items, or we'd be constantly rushing around trying to point them to the correct items. However, we did a great job of last minute preparing, and the packers were very patient with us. 

The second phase of our panic came on Thursday, the third day of our packout, when I received a call informing me that the truck broke down and we'd have to reschedule. This posed a problem, since we'd been planning to spend the next week in a hotel in Arlington (close to FSI, so I could avoid the dreaded commute). Unfortunately, this meant Elizabeth would have to be at the house on the following Tuesday to supervise the final clearing out of our house. 
The sudden change of plans rippled down delaying the painting, photographing, and therefore the listing of our house for sale. Hopefully it will sell quickly and that won't matter, but I guess time will tell. It also meant I'd get the 'joy' of another three commutes between home and DC. C'est la Vie... we're almost out of here!

PS: We had 187 boxes of HHE, this is about 15% of them (pre boxing).

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Blog Catch Up

I'm embarrassed to admit, despite my best intentions, that I've missed several minor milestones over the past few weeks. Rather backdate a ton of posts... I figured I'd just combine them all here. Enjoy!

May 12
We scheduled our pack-out and the "pre-packout evaluation."

May 13
We received our Diplomatic Passports (pictures of me sporting mine are forthcoming). This was also accompanied by a lot of groundless bragging to our friends (e.g. our son has two passports before he's two years old... that's 'two before two!').

May 23
After a brief delay, we handed our passports right back to get our Indian visas processed.

May 31
Pre-Packout Evaluation. This consisted of the assessor spending approximately 20 minutes walking around our (half-organized) house taking notes and asking us what percent of things in the room were going with us, and what percent were going to storage.

June 2
Our flights to India were reserved, paid for, and ticketed (in that order, none-the-less). This topic will have it's own post (eventually), since I want to detail the headaches we've had trying to get our two cats to post with us. However, long story short, we ended up having to pay the difference in airfare to fly through Frankfurt instead of Heathrow.

June 4
Our Visas are finished and awaiting pickup.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Graduation Day

Graduation day! I would never add music to any webpage, but you can try to imagine a Pomp and Circumstance March in the background while you read this. 14:00 found us sitting in the Wood Lobby at FSI. After a couple of speeches, one by Tin Cao (Assistant Dean of the School of Applied Information Technology (SAIT)) and one by Steven Taylor (CIO for the State Department), we were called out one by one and received our certificates. It was very reminiscent of college graduation, except with way fewer people. Our certificate included a copy of the class picture we took during IRM Tradecraft and the certificate posted above. It was a short, but pleasant, ceremony followed by another group photo, general congratulations and mixing with our instructors.

Every IMS class has one student that is voted for by the instructors and other students to be the "distinguished honor graduate," and I was surprised and incredibly flattered to be chosen for my class. Fortunately, I had spent no time preparing myself for such an honor, so I was woefully unprepared when my classmates called for a speech. I'm not much of an orator, but I would like to repeat part of what I said in my (very brief) impromptu speech.

I realized earlier this week that our time, as a full class, at FSI is quickly coming to a close. This really bummed me out, because I've spent the last four months meeting and befriending people that I'll shortly be thousands of miles away from. I knew when I signed up for this job that I'd be constantly shifting around, resulting in a constant change of coworkers, but this is the first time it's really hit me that I might possibly never work with any of the people in my class again. Of course we'll keep in touch, but I will definitely miss working with all my friends who have shared the start of this new life adventure with me. In that respect, I'm very glad to have been a part of such an abnormally large IMS class, since my chances of seeing my fellow new hires again is much greater when there are 23 of us, compared to the standard 6-12.

Congratulations IMSers of the 132nd Specialist Class!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Week 14 of Training: SIMOPS Continued

Today marked the end of an era. "What era?," you might ask. Why the era of the IMS core training for the Foreign Service 132nd Specialist Class. Yeah, I guess that is oddly specific for an era. Anyway, we finished up our last day of SIMOPS today. This is a mixed blessing. On the plus side, we're that much closer to going overseas. On the minus side, we have no excuse if we're awful at our jobs... I'm kidding of course, there's always an excuse.

The rest of the week was pretty standard. We had two days of 'open scheduling' when we could spend time with any of our instructors, if we wanted/needed extra training. The other two days we spent furiously trying to remember things we'd learned weeks and months ago. The whole process was pretty relaxed, so I'd hesitate to call it a "final" for our training, but we did brush on everything we'd learned. Tomorrow is mostly a day off; there will be a graduation ceremony for us in the afternoon, followed by some socializing.

For me, today marks my last day battling traffic to arrive at FSI before our 9am start time. Tomorrow I'll leave well after traffic has cleared up, and my last few weeks are full of consultation days and class at Main State. I can't say I'll miss the 2 - 4 hours a day of mind numbing traffic. I was fortunate to receive a parting gift from the commute though: when I went to change my destination in the WAZE navigation app, I received a ticket for texting while driving. That seemed fitting for my last day.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Week 13 of Training: SIMOPS

The end is in sight! This week we started the 'Simulated Operations' portion of training. SIMOPS is a two week capstone that reiterates everything we've learned, to make sure we're prepared to hit the ground running at post. Of course it doesn't cover managing Locally Engaged Staff (LES, formerly known as Foreign Service Nationals, or FSNs), which is pretty much the only part I'm nervous about. Oh well.

I was surprised to find out on the first day, that we actually had new material to cover. My portion of our class (we were once again split up on account of our unusual size), started the week by taking the two-day course "Classified Equipment Lifecycle Management." I'll include the excerpt from the FSI catalog so that I can really drive home how boring this class sounded.
"Training program provides students an insight to Classified Equipment Lifecycle Management (CELM) with specific emphasis on the destruction of obsolete TEMPEST equipment. Additional topics include the..." 
Blah, blah, blah. What that translated into was... taking things apart and then (more importantly) hitting them with a hammer! Essentially, it was every IT professional's dream. I wish I could say it was similar to the printer scene in Office Space, but that'd be a bit of an exaggeration.

After CELM, we spent a day running scenarios based on the DoS Applied Systems class, and finished the week by practicing terminating cables (and by terminating, I mean putting ends on, not ending the lives of). Friday was also the School of Applied Information Technology's (SAIT) summer potluck, so we spent a slightly extended lunch mixing with each other, our instructors, and the management for our little piece of FSI.

Note: The President was not in fact in our SIMOPS... Also, we don't wear suits anymore... Oh yeah, and that room is way nicer than ours!