Friday, August 29, 2014

Chennai Holidays: Ganesh Chaturthi

One of the perks of working overseas for the government is that we get the day off for some (or all) of the host country's holidays! I figure what better way to show my appreciation than to learn a little more about what's being celebrated. I've already missed Indian independence day (though I mentioned it at the time) and Idu’l Fitr (Ramzan), but I'll catch them next year.

Today's holiday is for the festival Ganesh Chaturthi (also known as Vinayaka Chaturthi). It celebrates the elephant headed god of wisdom and beginnings, Ganesh. You can read the details in the wiki article, so I'll talk about the festival in Chennai.

The festival is biggest in the Mumbai area, but I'm told it is observed all over the country. Followers celebrate by creating and honoring clay idols of Ganesh. They are given offerings of fruits, herbs, and plants, and after 10 days they are paraded around the city before being thrown into the ocean. Our housekeeper told me that fruit and vegetables are very expensive today (due to the high demand), with prices averaging around 10 rupees above normal. She said the prices will stabilize again by Monday.

I actually volunteered to work today (to earn comp time for a future trip), so I wasn't able to walk around and see too many of the idols in our neighborhood. Fortunately they should be there for awhile, so I'll get another chance. I  did see  several stands selling them on the auto ride to and from work, as well as an increased number of vendors selling offering flowers.

The clay statues shown in the pictures above were around 10 rupees. Pretty crazy.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Internet Around the World

Jeff over at RambleOn was recently talking about how he got some obscene (160mb/s) internet plan essentially for free (I forget exactly, but something around $40/month) in Sweden. I just want to set the record straight that that is not our experience in India. The internet companies here are insane. Specifically the qualitiy of service for similarly priced service plans makes no sense. Without further ado, here are two of the options:

Just for the record, I currently have a plan with the top company. I'm obviously going to attempt to switch carriers, since the other one offers lower prices, significantly faster speeds, AND higher data limits. I just don't understand why anyone (other than people like me who didn't know any better) would go with the top carrier. I'm so confused. The other odd thing, is that all the plans appear to have abysmal upload rates. I really notice this when I'm uploading pictures for the blog (or to my online backup). I haven't seen a plan with upload speeds higher than 1mb/s (in the US we got 5mb/s with the worst plans) and in practice they're closer to .5 mb/s.

Either way, I guess I should be thanking my good forture that ours is still relatively cheap. Here's a sampling of speeds and prices from some of my other new hires.

Moscow: $200/month for 20mb/s
Zimbabwe: $150/month for 10mb/s
Senegal: $100/month for 10mb/s (theoretically, but it's rarely reaches above 1mb/s)

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Two Years in India, Week 8: "Tourist Guilt"

Another day another rupee. Ok, that'd be a terrible wage... Nothing major to report this week other than learning the hard way this week that drinking tea with dinner will keep my son up all night. Consequentially, I zombied my way through a few days of work. My new boss is very enthusiastic about making improvements to our facilities and processes. He has good ideas and hopefully we can implement most or all of them, but it's been quite a change in the intensity of the work week since he arrived!

Since I don't have much to report on the work front, I do want to briefly talk about a new personal experience I'm going to term "tourist guilt." (Honestly, I stole the concept from a fantastic web series named Masa Off Grid, where he mentions builder's guilt. It's the feeling of guilt you get when you're enjoying something, but have a lot of work you 'should be doing,' in his case: building a house.) Anyway, living overseas for two years is very different than visiting a place on vacation. Deep down I know that, but I still feel like I have to make every day or week count. Maybe that is partially my own fault for tracking each week as one percent of my time here (8% or 1/12 of the way through!). Whatever the reason, the past few weekends we haven't made it out to do any real 'sightseeing' and I've felt kind of guilty - like I'm wasting time or missing an opportunity. It was particularly bad on the three day weekend. It's not completely my fault, since sightseeing with a two year old isn't the easiest thing in the world... but still, it's India! I don't want to leave in two years regretting that I didn't see or experience enough! We'll see how that pans out, maybe this week I'll finally stop and get food and/or tea at the street stalls near my house. They are insanely popular with drivers and as my neighbor said, "They can drive anywhere, so these must be good."

Note: The picture is the Ramakrishna Math Temple in Mylapore, taken during a morning walk a few weeks ago.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Under Attack

It's 3:50am... And we just had a temple procession pass by that literally was launching fire works at our window height. The drums were fairly loud... But the cracks of fireworks (every 100 ft or so) sounded like gunshots. Every third or fourth one was a big one, sounding like a cannon. Scared the heck out of everyone in the house.

Note: I was told in the morning by our housekeeper that it was the end of Krishna Janmashtami. One of the local temples paraded their deity around at 12:00-3:00am. I'd say they were running a little behind!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Two Years in India, Week 7: A Wild IPO Appears

"You use SHOW HIM AROUND. It's SUPER EFFECTIVE!" that I have the super-nerd title out of the way... As the title implies, the new IPO arrived this week. I'm not here to talk about my coworkers, so I'll pretty much refrain, but I will say, it looks like we'll have a good two years together. I've been told by some of the 'old hats' that approximately 1 in 10 posts I go to will have some sort of personnel friction. In a 20 year career, I'm looking at 7-10 posts... so here's hoping I never have any problems! 

The new IPO spent most of the week taking care of paperwork and spinning up on what's going on around the post. He has some great ideas for things to work on while we're here, so we should stay busy. Not to brag... but I'm totally going to. He'd mentioned that he was a little nervous working with a first tour person, but when he got here he was relieved to find I had everything under control. He said he was impressed with how well I was doing so soon after starting (end bragging).

Other than that, the week was pretty standard. I got to spend another night at the airport (hooray!) and I'm now officially sponsoring the last arrival for the summer season. It'll be an interesting learning experience, since they've already started asking me questions that my extensive seven weeks of time here haven't taught me! Fortunately, there are plenty of people I can ask.
The week ended with one of the three mandatory holidays in India. Friday was Independence Day. We were warned (a little) by the RSO and (a lot) by our all-arounder to avoid crowded places, since they can be targeted for terrorist attacks during the holiday. We decided to heed their warning (nothing happened) and hung out around the house. We spent the afternoon at one of our friends houses that has a nice yard for the kids to parallel play (at least my son just rode someone's balance bike around and otherwise ignored the other kids). I also caught up on sleep from my overnight pouch run.

Seven weeks, or 7% down... 93 more to go. We didn't take advantage of this three day weekend, due to my late night working this week, but we're currently trying to figure out what we're doing for our next couple long weeks. We're hoping to make an overnight trip somewhere (or somewheres). 

One last thing, our new (permanent) driver, Subramani, started this week. He's been good, but my son keeps calling our car "Sundar's car" after our last driver. Also, every time we go downstairs he says we're going to see Sundar... He really liked Sundar, too bad we couldn't (and didn't try to) steal him from my sponsor! Fortunately, he seems to be warming up to our new driver also.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Taking Care of Business (and Working Overtime)

It's always interesting to learn differences between being a Foreign Service Generalist and a Specialist. This week I learned that Generalists are only eligible for paid overtime (or comp time) until they get tenured. Specialists, on the other hand, maintain their eligibility throughout their career. The lack of volunteers to escort diplomatic pouches at the airport with me suddenly makes way more sense. I wouldn't want to do it either, if it was unpaid!

I should specify, I end up working extra most days, but it's generally 10 or 15 minutes here or there. I'm not staring at the clock for the moment I can bolt... but for things like this week's pouch run (5 hours in the middle of the night) or the poor folks who are assigned to be Duty Officer on a three day weekend and spend all Saturday at work... without credit or overtime. Bummer!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

First Game Night

Well, you know what they say. You can take the gamer out of the city, but you can't take the ci... wait that makes no sense. On the plus side though, we held our first game night in India! With the limited game options (until my HHE arrives), I kept it small, but we had a good time. We played Love Letter and Hanabi, which aren't technically board games, but who's counting? Shortly after arriving, I posted on the consulate's social page advertising my love of board games and I have fortunately received a lot of inquiries and interest from people. I'm hoping this means we can establish some sort of regular game night. It may sound odd, but this is one of the biggest things I miss from living in the US. It makes sense though, Game Night was one of my two regularly scheduled social events (the other being Nerdy TV Night, a name that became grossly misleading in recent years as we ran out of nerdy shows we wanted to watch). 

Note: This is not how you play either of these games...

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Two Years in India, Week 6: Acting IPO

I sipped from the cup of IPO power this week, and it will be hard to let go. Actually, it was pretty much the same as every other week. I continued doing the day-to-day things that justify my presence in country, but as a bonus this week I got to go to the section heads meeting. (Note to self: when representing your section at a section head meeting, prepare something to say about your section.) Anyway, I spent the rest of week six cleaning up our space in preparation of the actual IPO's start date on Monday.

Fun fact: I've now shredded/disintegrated around 100 kgs of unneeded documents from the '80s, '90s and today (read: 2000s)!

Fun fact 2: I found a bunch of gas masks circa 1985... they're expired, so we have to destroy them (in case someone tried to use them in a real emergency and they didn't work... leading to government liability). Anyway, the fun fact is that oxygen cans from 1985 smell awful.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Useless Air Baggage (UAB)

Well, there's good news and bad news. The good news is two full weeks after it arrived in India (five weeks total), our Unaccompanied Air Baggage (UAB) cleared customs and was delivered this week! The bad news is that we did a terrible job choosing what pack in it. In our defense, our pack-out was backwards. Rather than packing our UAB on the first day and our House Hold Effects (HHE) on the second day... we had to guess what would fit in our UAB because our HHE was packed and taken away first. This brings us to:

Mistake #1: Not using our full allowance.
  • We were allotted 600 lbs of UAB. We used <250 lbs. Mainly because we're terrible at estimating weights and were terrified of being overweight.

Of course we also did what (we've heard) is common for first tour officers and that is:

Mistake #2: Terrible pre-packing planning.
  • Call us cocky, call us naive, but in our minds we saw this as any other overseas expedition we've taken. More specifically, we didn't think we'd need anything outside of what was in our suitcases. We were even less concerned because we knew we'd have the "welcome kit" at post, which has all the necessities, right? And... they do sell stuff in India.
Mistake #3: The welcome kit is awesome, but it doesn't have everything.

I guess you live and you learn. We've started a spreadsheet of things to make sure we pack in our UAB for our next move. It's a long ways off, but this way we don't have to try to remember in two years what we miss now. What's on the list, you ask? Well, it's still in progress, but here's a teaser.
  • Choice kitchen supplies (I miss you, fancy cookware)
  • Extra toiletries (for those that you care about the brand - or softness, in the case of toiletpaper)
  • (More) Cat food and litter
  • (More) Diapers and wipes
  • Pillows, sheets, and blankets (Sorry welcome kit, but we don't want 1ft thick pillows)
  • Board games (you know, if you're into that)
What did we actually pack? 
  • The 'rest' of my clothes
  • Cat litter (but not enough to hold us over until our HHE arrives)
  • Diapers (see above)
  • A stroller (I guess this qualifies as a toy, since my son never sits in it, just pushes it)
  • Extra shoes (...)
  • The cover for the bread knife and one chopstick (kitchen items somehow left behind by the HHE packer)
  • Toilet Paper (small victory)
  • Aerosol Sunblock and Bug Spray (Deemed too dangerous to ship via boat, go figure)
  • Candy
I will give a quick shout out to my social sponsor... we arrived at our house on our first night to two big boxes of loaner toys. That was pretty much the best thing that could happen, because without those I'm pretty sure my son (or wife) would have gone insane by now. (And something to note if you do become a sponsor, since every parent we talked to here would have LOVED if their sponsors had done the same!)

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Lahks and Crores

Who wants to be a millionaire? Well you probably already are... in rupees. At 60 rupees to the dollar, it takes less than $17,000 to be a millionaire. Don't get me wrong, that's still a lot of money. Anyway, in South Asia I've seen things advertised using a counting metric I was not familiar with. Enter the lahk. One lahk is 100,000. That seems convenient, right? But wait, there's more. A lahk is not written in standard numerical notation. Instead of 100,000 you would write 1,00,000. So 1.2 million (a word I've never seen or heard here) would be 12 lahk or 12,00,000. Now, I know what you're thinking. What's above lahks? Well it turns out they thought of that too! Ten million is 100 lahk (1,00,00,000), or one crore. Of course you can take it one step further to one "lahk crore," which is 10,00,00,00,00,000.

Lets tie this all back into rupees:

INR5              ... tea
INR1 lahk       ... a moped
INR1 crore     ... a medium to high end two bedroom apartment (1000sqft)
INR1 lahk cr   ... Apollo Space Craft

I don't know about you, but I want to be a lahk-crore-ionaire.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Sugar Cane Season

Mango season is on the way out... just in time for SUGAR CANE SEASON! I've seen dozens of these sugar cane juicers around, but only in the last week.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Two Years in India, Week 5: First VIP Scare

Well, it was quite the exciting week. My entire post was in a frenzy because a VIP scheduled a last minute visit with 7 days notice... Oh yeah and it's 350km away in Bengaluru (Bangalore). I've been told you normally get somewhere between 2 weeks and 3 months notice for this kind of thing, so we had our work cut out for us. As the only IMS currently assigned to Chennai, I had the dubious honor of going to Bengaluru to support the visit. Saturday found nearly as many of us at the Consulate as on a standard workday. Everyone was scrambling to get things done, in my case, to prepare the computers, phones, and printers that would be accompanying us. Sunday, the motor pool convoy left with all our equipment.

Having never been to Bengaluru, my family decided to come and hang out at the hotel. We were staying at a five star hotel with a very nice garden (one of the perks of supporting a VIP visit in the State Department is the fancy digs).

Monday morning, we headed to the airport for our very first domestic Indian flight. Flying in India is a little different than in the US. First off, my wife and son's (one way) flight to Bengaluru was ~$55 for both seats, booked within 24 hours of takeoff. Second, you have to show your tickets or itinerary to even enter the airport. Then we went through a line to scan our baggage. After scanning, they placed a zip tie (or sticker!) around the zippers to stop it you from adding things before taking it to the check in counter. Our next surprise was the separate security lines for men and women (10 men's lines vs the 1 women's). The flight took around 45 minutes and our luggage was waiting at the carousel when we got there. However, Bengaluru is known for it's bad traffic and our hotel (The Leela Palace) was on the far side of town. It ended up costing more and taking longer to get from the airport to the hotel, than from airport to airport.

Once we arrived, one of my LES and I began setting up what would be the control room for the visit. Honestly, this is what I'd expected most of my job to be when I got hired. Hooking up laptops, printers, and phones was no problem. We also had to organize rental vendors and help all the FS officers with their remote-access "Go Tokens." Although I wouldn't say we were very busy, we were busy enough that I did not regret having two of us present. Monday ended looking like everything was on track for the visit...

I awoke Tuesday to news that the visit had been cancelled. The rest of the morning consisted of a decent amount of breakdown and packing of our equipment, followed by salvaging what was left of our holiday (Ramazan). It was too late to get flights back on Tuesday evening, so we ended up getting a mini-vacation at the hotel. (Shucks!)

Between returning to Chennai and taking my cats to their quarantine inspection, I missed work on Wednesday. I spent Thursday and Friday resolving all the problems that had been ignored for the last week due to the potential VIP visit. Nothing really major, but I do want to brag a tiny bit:

This week I got my first real "victory" at work! I've been feeling a little strange being put in charge of people that have been doing their jobs (in some cases) for longer than I've been alive. I often feel like I'm not really adding any value to the consulate's operations (excepting in the functions of my job that LES can not do). However, this week (late Friday afternoon, none-the-less) I was able to resolve a problem the mail room had been having with funding approval for one of our courier services. This had been an on going problem for weeks and the manager of the mail room was unable to get it resolved.  In the end it wasn't the biggest deal in the world, and I doubt I'll be winning any Nobel prizes for it, but I was glad to finally feel like I was able to help my staff, rather than just taking credit for all their hard work!

Next week I'm in for a new adventure: I will be acting Information Programs Officer (IPO). The IPO we had been borrowing from Delhi is headed home. I've been handling almost everything anyway, under his guidance... but it's still a scary thought! He did give me a pretty strong vote of confidence with the Management Officer and it's not like he (and all the rest of the IM team) aren't just a phone call away in Delhi. Anyway, next week I'm in charge of all the Information Systems for the consulate... if we fall off the map you'll know who to blame!

PS: I didn't name the VIP because the visit was never officially announced.