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.

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)