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. 
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.)


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!