Thursday, December 17, 2015

Benefits: Now and Then

Following up on my previous comments on pay, I figured I should outline some differences in the benefits... Then I realized that I generally don't care about the majority of benefits offered by employers. Not to sound privileged, but I have a young, healthy family and many of the small differences in benefits plans don't actually hold much weight for me. I have private term life insurance so the difference between 2 or 3 times my annual salary in life insurance, or the difference between health plans offered by Aetna or Blue Cross Blue Shield... just doesn't drive my employment search.

So what is important to me? Well, I have a young, healthy family that I want to spend time with. Similarly, I joined the Foreign Service to see the world. Travel and Vacation time (sometimes combined) are the benefits that matter most to me.

My last job had great benefits for a private company. I worked for a well-funded government contracting company, in a high-demand sector, which created a "buyers" market when it came to employers. My family's healthcare coverage was free (both sides paid for by the company), I got a company branded clothing allowance, free coffee, things like that. However, when it came to leave (as is always the case for hourly-paid-contract-positions), all of the companies were fairly standardized: 10 Holidays, 15 Vacation days, and 5 Sick days. Maybe one would mix it up and call it 10 Holidays, 20 "Flex days," but it always totaled up to 30 days.

Thirty days per year is a lot of leave by some standards, but... really isn't that much leave. In addition, if you tried to take any big trips, you'd never hear the end of it. I took 3 weeks off to go to New Zealand over Christmas... and was still hearing about my "exorbitant time away from work" 10 months later (when I eventually left that job.)

The Foreign Service gives me the standard U.S. Government leave plan: 10 American holidays, 13 vacation days, and 13 sick days. However, in addition, I get up to 10 local holidays and an extra 20-30 days of home leave every 2 years. Similarly, when I've traveled for work, I've gotten travel-comp time (similar to vacation time, but Post specific) equal to the time spent travelling (outside of work hours). Finally, I also get inclement weather days. At my last job, if the weather closed the building I worked in, I was invited to take leave or "work extra" to compensate later in the month. During training, I got 2.5 snow days due to bad weather in D.C. On top of all that: upon three years of government employment, I even get a bump up to 20 vacation days per year.

Let's work all that out. At my last job I got an annual 30 days of leave (25 discounting sick leave). Full stop. Now I get an annualized 56-61 days of leave (if I use all of my sick leave) or 43-48 days discounting sick leave. In addition, forget being frowned upon, it is actually required that I take a 4-6 week vacation between posts. On top of that, at my current post I am entitled to an R&R... so one trip's flight is paid for.

All-in-all, it's been a busy year for me. Between travel-comp and regular comp time (pre-worked hours), I've taken 33 days off, in addition to holidays, without using any annual leave. Not too shabby. 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Flooding in Chennai. Emergencies in the Foreign Service.

I've been out of communication for awhile, due to the extreme flooding in Chennai (pictures below, courtesy/stolen from I have a handful of posts backlogged, and I'll start posting them now, but before that I think I should comment on the recent situation in Chennai.

This is my first major natural disaster. I grew up in Florida, so there was always the threat of hurricanes, but it never manifested (while I lived there). In every sense of the word, this was a disaster. The death toll is currently in the 300s and there are an estimated 1.5 million displaced (at time of original writing... probably changed by the time I actually finished and published). That's as many people as the total population of San Diego or Philadelphia. Many of local staff and some of our American officers were flooded out of their houses.

I (personally) was very fortunate to be largely unaffected. We lost internet for a week and experienced regular power outages, but our house remained high and dry. I live on the corner of some major roads and my car was able to drive through the water on them (even at their highest). I did have a brief scare when a car passed me in the other direction and his wake lifted my car up and put it down a meter (yard) to the side. I guess I can market it for resale as half boat / half car!

Back to my regularly scheduled programming.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Fame and Fortune

It was bound to happen. A handful of people here at post have mentioned my blog to me, but all of them knew me... before they found my blog. For the first time, I met someone who knew me, because of my blog. I was very flattered to be recognized by Ken (pictured), and generally happy to meet him. I'm glad my blog has helped untangle some of the mystery behind becoming an IMS. 

I guess I can check off the "fame" part of "fame and fortune." Unfortunately (for me), the most likely people to read my blog are those who are joining after me. So I have a job for you all. Get promoted quickly, so I can leverage your knowing of me into sweet jobs, AKA "fortune!"

Yeah. Probably not. Anyway, Ken mentioned someone in his cohort was having a hard time. I want to give a shout-out to Tom. Keep in mind you're at a low point on the Menninger Curve and, in some ways, it's best to have your hardest tour first. Not only does it set easily surpass-able expectations for future posts, but it's the only time where "equity" matters for bidding. People posted in the harder posts from my cohort went to places like Sydney, Prague, and London. Also, if I heard the situation correctly, I imagine you have a heartfelt thanks from everyone else in your cohort. Keep up the good work; before you know it, you'll be staring your departure in the face and (hopefully) wondering where the time went. 

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Halloween Costume

In the spirit of celebrating American holidays while overseas, I dressed up for work on Friday, October 30th. The office was having an "orange and black" color theme day, so I integrated that as well. I am (dressed like) a Foreign Service Generalist. To fully appreciate this, I should note that I've never worn anything other than khakis and a polo shirt to work in Chennai... This 'costume' was so out of character that I got comments from pretty much everyone... I received plenty of laughs and even some tips, such as: "Start every sentence with, 'When I was in <insert previous post>.'

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Ayudha Puja

I mentioned Ayudha Puja last year, but it's worth revisiting. This year, we went to attend the group puja of a bunch of vehicles at one of the multi-family-residences. As it turns out, I parked in the wrong place... so I was invited to get my car puja'd as well. SCORE!

The puja (or pooja) is a multi step blessing process. First the vehicles (or tools) are cleaned. Then they are sprinkled with turmeric powder and kumkuma powder (also turmeric, just mixed with slaked lime which makes it change color) and palm leaves/flower leis are tied on.
Next, offerings of puffed rice and fruit are placed in front of the vehicle. Camphor is placed on top of an ash gourd and coconut, lit on fire, and the smoke is wafted around the blessed items. The gourd and coconut are then smashed open in the street (and left for passing animals).
Finally, a lemon is placed under each wheel (of the car) and the car drives forward, crushing them. This is said to bring good luck for the year. I like to think it means my car is now invulnerable. I wonder if I can get them to reduce my $70/year car insurance rate, in light of my car's new found power.

On a side note, everyone tells me that the minor "bang" I had yesterday was obviously because my car wasn't puja'd last year.

Monday, October 19, 2015

First Love Tap, Driving in India

I guess it was bound to happen. Driving to work today I got into my first "bang" or fender-bender, as non-Indian's call it. Of course, neither of our fenders were bent... so "bang" is probably a more accurate term. It was completely my fault, I was looking at the side of the road at the group of personal drivers from the Consulate, who were getting breakfast at a food stand. The car two cars in front of me slammed on his breaks for no reason and caused a mild '3 car pile up.' In the end, we all got out, the personal drivers came over, and everyone agreed (in Tamil, without me having any clue what was going on) that there was no damage to any of the vehicles. The other two cars drove off... and I finished making my way to work. The only real damage done was to my reputation as a driver in the eyes of the personal drivers. I'm pretty sure they were shaking their heads and saying, "Silly American, this is why you hire a professional!"

I was quite lucky; had there been damage, I could have spent several hours at the police station. At least, that's what has happened to other officers in the past.

Note: The pictured car is not mine, but is the same make/model and is just as (un)damaged.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Great (Pay) Expectations

When I joined the Foreign Service, I expected to take a fairly substantial pay cut. I was making 6 figures at my last job and figured I would start as a low FS-5. That being said, I've been (pleasantly) surprised by my actual compensation. In my initial guesses, before getting hired, I really didn't understand how overseas pay was calculated. Here's a breakdown of my current pay modifiers:

All Foreign Service Officers, while overseas, get "Overseas Comparability Pay" (OCP) of 16.14%. In Chennai, I receive 15% "Hardship Differential." In addition, I get a 5-10% "Cost of Living Adjustment" (based on some wonky math, so it ends up being 4-8%).

This changes my original belief of making $43,378-$63,702 to $60,369-$91,881. That's a pretty substantial difference. In addition, I was also fortunate to qualify for a much higher step than I'd expected. Throw in free housing and utilities,  drastically lower expenses ($5/month for a cell phone plan(!), $20/month for high speed internet, et cetera) and things are much better than I'd expected.

Other's mileage may differ, certainly many countries have lower hardship differentials (or none) and are much more expensive than the US (Hi, London!). That being said, we've actually been saving more in Chennai than we ever did living in the DC/Baltimore corridor, despite the lower gross pay. I've heard more senior officers say that you save money while overseas to be able to afford going back to DC (where you don't get free housing, differential, or COLA). I could definitely believe that.

Of course there are a lot of "quality of life" differences as well, both good and bad, but I'll save those, and how my benefits have changed, for another post. (Hopefully? Soon).

Note: Why oh why did they discontinue these AMAZING one rupee coins? Eeeeeeeeeey!

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Unannounced 132nd Specialist Class Reunion at FSI

You know, I think I may have been the only person from the 132nd specialist class to even bother showing up for the reunion at FSI on Monday. Of course... it was unofficial... and unannounced... and... uh... made up by  me. BUT COME ON FOLKS!

Joking aside, walking the halls of the Foreign Service Institute... running into people I met on the other side of the world, I guess this makes me a true Foreign Service Officer. I scheduled some time on my R&R to stop by and see some of my (departed) friends from Chennai who were in training (or working) there. It was neat to be back, albeit briefly (and unofficially). I think that's one of the experiences (for better or worse) that IMS miss out on: extended periods at FSI. We don't tend to get language training, which tends to be the longest training, so we spend less overall time between posts. Similarly, we seem to get more funding for mid-tour training than many of our counterparts (at least at this post).

PS: That's a picture of Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean.

Monday, August 24, 2015


I got promoted! Whoo hoo, par-tay, celebraaaaaaate! Oh wait, it was an administrative promotion*; I earned it merely by not getting fired over the last 18 months. Well, whatever, it still counts! If I keep up this rate of promotion, I think I'll be running the entire Department of State in like... 10 years. NOTE: That is not how it works.

On a more serious note, my cohort received our 18 month administrative promotions from FS 5 to FS 4 beginning this pay period. It's the first milestone in our IMS careers, next up: Tenure**. Unforunately, getting tenure is a merit-based-competitive thing, so we may not all get it at the same time (on our first try). Then again, my cohort was pretty awesome, so you never know.

* An "administrative promotion" is a pay grade increase that is guaranteed as part of your hiring. It is non-competitive and kind of represents the end of your 'training period.' Getting them depends on your position and the grade at which you enter the service. Since all IMS have the same job and grade coming in, we all get an upgrade after 18 months.

** Tenure is a formalization of your job with the State Department. It represents the end of your 2 to 6 year probational employment. Effectively, there's not much difference (for Specialists), except that once tenured you're eligible for competitive-promotion. Also, if you don't receive tenure on your 3rd attempt, you're effectively terminated from the foreign service.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Actually a Diplomat, Part 3: Now I'm just Cheating.

It kind of seems like I'm cheating at this point. I mean, I'm not sure it counts as "successful diplomacy" when I "score" a mention in the Consulate's facebook feed... but you know what, I'll take it anyway. You know how many government agencies put me on their social media before taking this job? Zero (At least... as far as I know?)
"If I had to pick my favorite thing about living in Chennai, it would have to be the food. I’m a bit of a fanatic when...
Posted by U.S. Consulate General Chennai on Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Traveling in India (or: how I learned to stop worrying and love staying home)

It takes so much willpower not to use a Dr. Strangelove style subtitle for every post... Anyway, let me start off by specifying that this post is heavily biased by the fact that I have a 3 year old, who hates being in the car-seat. We ordered a "mifold" booster seat for him (pictured); we're hoping that'll be slightly better, but they're not even being sold yet.

Traveling in India is not like anywhere else I've traveled. It is an enormous country, with countless things to see, but every time we go to plan a trip, we encounter the same stumbling block. Namely? It is an enormous country... and while there are tons of things to see, they tend to be very spread out.

Almost every itinerary we find includes a 2-4 hour flight and then several (often per day) 2-5 hours drives. Ooty is an excellent example. Every major Indian city has nearby "hill stations," high(er) elevation cities that are used to escape the heat of summer by locals. Mumbai has many within easy drive of the city (2 hours). Chennai's primary hill station is Ooty, which is a solid 2 hour drive... from the nearest city, which is a 6 hour train ride from Chennai. Alternately, you can fly and then drive 4 hours. Sounds like an easy weekend, right? There are exceptions, of course, but it seems like all the things on our "must-see" list are grueling trips.

Sightseeing with a small child is already pretty rough, but the idea of doing it interspersed with periods of screaming about being in the car-seat has really caused us to become home-bodies. Other than for work, we've done almost no travel since coming here. It's a depressing affair that we're going to have to remedy in our second year - if we want to hit all of our "must-sees." On that note, over the last year I have been awed at how much the "veteran" officers at post have traveled.  I kept thinking they must have seen EVERYTHING... and now I realize, they probably just procrastinated like we did... and are rushed to see everything before moving away!

It's going to be a busy year.

Friday, July 24, 2015


Visitors. Talk to any expat and they'll almost certainly tell you, "No one comes to visit you." It doesn't matter where you go, how cool it is, or how easy (or hard) to get to it is. The sad fact remains that far fewer people come to visit you than you (or they) think will come. When we got this job we heard a chorus of "We'll come visit you!" When we got assigned India, we heard a multitude of people say, "I've always wanted to go to India, I'll definitely come visit!" However, in the end... the showing tends to be poor. I like to think this isn't a reflection on us (I do bathe...) or the people involved. The reality is that people have limited funds, limited vacation time, or other obligations that tend to get in the way. Also, once you're gone, there's an out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality.

Of course, we're not actually a good example, we've been fortunate enough to have a bunch of visitors, both family and friends. We've had people come for a few days or up to several weeks. It's been a huge morale boost for us. Every time a new person comes, you get the sense of awe and wonder of living in a new place all over again. There's a certain joy in dragging your visitors around town to experience all of your favorite or most unexpected things. We've definitely seen an appreciable increase in our moods while we have visitors. Besides which, it motivates us to get out and do things (fighting the constant intertia to hang out at home).

The downside to being in Chennai, is that almost everything our visitors want to see... is in north India, several hours' plane flight away. It's like visiting a friend in Florida, having always wanted to see the Statue of Liberty and Niagara Falls. Generally speaking our visitors just stop by on their way to see the more famous sights in India. Don't get me wrong, we still show people the local hot spots, and they certainly get a less touristy view of Chennai. We just feel bad every time we put someone on a plane to go see the Taj Mahal without us, because we're really not interested in seeing the same thing over-and-over when it includes 10+ hours of travel each way.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Actually a Diplomat, Part 2: Bastille Day!

Happy (early) Bastille day! (As previously mentioned, nobody wants to work on a holiday.) Tonight was the French representational event, celebrating Bastille Day. I was rather surprised to receive an invitation, but was grateful to accept. Let's be honest, who can say no to an evening of French food and wine!? It was a fun time and I left feeling sorry that the French Consulate is so far away (3 hours by car, in Puducherry), since it makes it hard to hang out with people I would otherwise have considered to be new friends.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Don't Cry for Me, Argentina (is my Next Post!)

Well... I won't say I had a pleasant evening. I must have eaten something that disagreed with me, and I spent all night paying for it. I was so ill that I couldn't walk more than a few feet without a break in the morning... HOWEVER, the one nice thing (?) about being sick in the middle of the night... is checking your work e-mail and seeing your next assignment!

Summer of 2016 will be busy: I'll be packing up, leaving Chennai, spending a summer in the US on home leave, and then settling in my second post, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Bidding wise, B.A. was in our top 10 (number 10, to be exact) and was a "high bid." We can't complain with that, especially considering the moderate hardship diffrential rating of Chennai, which directly effects bidding power.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Job Perks

Generally when you talk about "job perks," you're referring to monetizable benefits. Joining the Foreign Service is pretty much the opposite. This job is all about the "experience" fringe benefits. I'm not even talking about the swanky parties, getting to live overseas, or (possibly meeting) visiting VIPs.

Closer to 'work,' we have frequent drills and micro training sessions. Some are pretty normal (fire drill), but others can be quite novel! For example... I can count the number of times I put on a hazmat helmet or extinguished a fire at my previous jobs (any of them!) on zero hands. Besides, I (finally) have a job where I occasionally get to hit computers with giant hammers! Let's face it, that's the biggest job perk of them all.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Second Tour Assignment Update

Good news, everybody! We get to wait another week before learning the results of our bidding. I know what you were all thinking... "One week of suspense wasn't nearly enough, we really need to eek out as much anticipation as possible!"

All joking aside, it was kind of a bummer to get the e-mail announcing the delay, but that's how it goes. This is still only a taste of what we'll have to go through next bidding cycle, when we're not entry level anymore. It'll make this year's four weeks start-to-finish look like a cake walk!

Update: I got assigned!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Happy Fourth of July!

Happy Birthday United States! (Ok Ok, it's a few days early, but no one wants to work on a holday, right?) Tonight was the US "national day" representational event. Every country's diplomatic community celebrates one major holiday at their overseas posts ... It's fairly logical that ours is Independence Day. This event is loved by some, feared by others, but as the only event we throw that is allowed to be sponsored (by American companies...), it tends to be a big deal. Most of the Consulate staff participated in some way or another. It ended up being a heck of a party, with lots of good food and interesting people.

Forgive the glasses... my eyes looked like I was a madman...

Friday, June 26, 2015

Bids Away!

Map Courtesy of Jeff
Might as well continue my song-based bidding posts.

Yesterday, we listed places that are far away.
Now it looks as though we’ll wait for days.
Oh, I believe in yesterday.

Suddenly, I’m not as stressed as I used to be.
There’s no shadow hanging over me.
Oh, yesterday came suddenly.

Where we get to go, I don’t know, they wouldn’t say.
I bid somewhere strong, now I long for next Thursday.

Next Thursday, the results will be on display
Now I need a place to pass the days
Oh I believe in next Thursday.

Where we get to go, I don’t know, they wouldn’t say.
I bid somewhere strong, now I long for next Thursday.

Next Thursday, is when the results are on display
Now I need a place to pass the days
Oh I believe in next Thursday.

On a more serious note: Yesterday we submitted our second tour bid list consisting of 42 positions, in 37 countries. We're told we'll get the results no later than next Thursday. The person assigning second tours tries to give priority to people currently in more difficult posts. Chennai is in the upper middle in terms of "difficult," so we should get assigned somewhere between 15th and 25th. We learned in our last bidding cycle that everyone has different priorities... so there's always a chance we'll all get our first pick (but it's highly unlikely)! Anyway, now I get a throw-back to last year (and the year before) as I reacquaint myself with my old nemesis: The Waiting Game.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Text Messages in India

Junk calls and texts are a part of life here. It's a slow day if I only receive one advertisement or scam text. Wrong number calls are generally a weekly occurence. However, yesterday (and again today) I received this pleasant gem. I assume it's a Public Service Announcement and not some ornate hoax/scam. Either way, it made us chuckle! 

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to text this guy back; apparently I can get a 12 lakh life insurance plan for just 50 rupees a month!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Dream Post-er

Every night I hope and pray
A dream post will come my way
A place to rest at night
And know the magic of its sights
'Cause I want (yeah-yeah, yeah)
A post (yeah-yeah, yeah)
To call (yeah-yeah, yeah)
My own (yeah-yeah, yeah)
I want a dream post
So I don't have to dream of home

That's my way of saying my 2nd tour bid list was just released! Time to get researching!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Cultural Differences: Clothes

Ever the casual enthusiast, shortly after being assigned a sponsor last year, I inquired about the dress code. I was told that I was lucky, because in the IRM section we could wear polo shirts and slacks (pretty much what I've worn to work at every job I've had). Perfect! After arriving, I quickly noticed that I was one of the few people wearing polo shirts to work. In fact... people regularly jog or take morning walks wearing them. Fast forward many months. I got a terrible poison ivy rash on my arms, and in an effort to refrain from scratching, I wore a button down long sleeve shirt. I was complimented by someone in the Med unit for wearing such a nice shirt, because "you're normally just wearing a t-shirt." 

"Whoa whoa whoa!" I protested, "I'm normally wearing a POLO shirt."

"In India, we call those t-shirts too."

A quick internet search comparison between and shows the truth in this. Well... I made it half way through, why change now? It does make me wonder if people would notice if I started wearing regular t-shirts to work though... better not chance it.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Sounds of Chennai

Living in India is definitely an experience for all of your senses. Everything is more colorful, there are active spice mills on side of the street (and other less savory smells, from time to time), the food has more flavor, and, of course, there are a lot of sounds. 
Our house is situated on the corner of a medium-sized intersection (busy, but no street light), and we have a constant barrage of sound 24 hours a day. Horns, calls from chaiwallas (tea sellers), and other passing bike-based vendors (think cardboard recyclers, vegetable carts, or tailors) comprise the bulk of the cacophony. Add in the random parades, political drive-bys such as the one in the video, and religious processions... and things can be quite noisy. Sometimes fireworks go off, because "Hey, we had some fireworks and [maybe even] something to celebrate."

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Streaming Abroad

Consistently, the most important thing for incoming officers is immediate access to the internet. They say it's to check in with their family, so their spouse can keep up with her online-grad-school work, or any number of legitimate reasons, but let's face it. We all know it's because they want Facebook and Netflix. That's not an accusation, I was totally the same way.

Facebook works everyhwere, so that's not a problem, but Netflix has regional content blocking. Most of the people I talk to in the Foreign Service use Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to bounce all of their internet traffic off a US based host to get around this (we are Americans afterall, it makes sense that we have access to American content, right?). However, I've slowly been converting people from VPNs to a much more appropriate "Smart DNS" service provided by Unblock-Us. VPNs are difficult to configure and use, can only be used by one device at a time (or require expensive network gear), generally cost more, and in most cases, are scarily unsecure. Unblock-Us works by changing who your computer, phone, whatever asks when it attempts to find the actual IP address of the website you've requested. So when you type in a web address, such as, it points you to servers in the US, rather than the regional servers for your location. For Netflix, this allows you to watch as if you were in the US, but is much faster than a VPN, since the data only has to travel from Netflix to you, rather than taking a stop at your intermediate VPN host first. In addition, Smart DNS service can be set up with literally any device or network gear, so you can use as many devices to watch Netflix on your home wireless connection as your bandwidth will allow.

Disclaimer: I've used Unblock-Us ever since moving overseas, and recommend it to pretty much everyone. After 11 months of suggesting it to people, I figured I might as well sign up as their affiliate, so everyone that signs up using my link above gives me a free month of service.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Watching Music

So... back in January I was in Agra to support the (cancelled) Presidential visit. While there, we did some "Ice Breaker" games, one of which involved choosing (by walking to one side of the room or the other) which of two options you prefer. When the question "Would you rather never watch TV again or never listen to music again?" came up, one of the Locally Engage Staff with me leaned over and said, "I don't understand the question, how can you listen to music without TV?" I chuckled with him and didn't really think much of it. However, several months later, I was again faced with this cultural difference. Another local mentioned that he'd purchased an iPad so his wife could "watch music"! This made me realize that, in India, music and film aren't seperate. All (or nearly all) music is created with a "music video" or as part of a movie soundtrack. So the idea that a song could be created just as audio... doesn't really make sense. Don't get me wrong, people here listen to music with headphones and no visual all the time, and they've clearly had traditional music from before the time of television. That being said, the two are so closely coupled that I've been asked what would be a good song to download, by an American, "such as Arnold Swartznegger, Silvester Stalone, or Michael Jackson."

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Driving in Chennai (after 6 months)

That traffic cop is manually changing the light.
It's probably time for a review of my experiences driving in India. As terrifying as it was to begin... it quickly became second nature. In fact, in some ways, it's more pleasant than driving in the US. I mean, you have to laugh at randomly getting cut off or pedestrians risking their lives to let you test your brakes. However, there is something to be said for driving in a place where every driver is paying attention. In the US, we expect traffic rules and conventions to be followed to the letter, when they're not, we're often so zoned out that we crash before noticing the change. In Chennai, traffic and road conditions are a constantly changing thing that demands your attention the entire time. I just recently saw a man fixing a pot hole in the middle of the biggest intersection of the city, with traffic passing him in both direction, and I had little doubt that no one would hit him. Driving here isn't very hard, because the other people on the road are very forgiving of any mistakes you might make: Accidentally merge into someone? They're expecting it! Not sure if your unpowered light means it's red or green? If no one's coming, just go! The only exeptions to the forgiving traffic are the busses. Busses in Chennai would never get anywhere if they drove politely... so instead they just ignore all traffic that isn't the car in front of them. They will merge into you and run you off the road because, hey, THEY'RE A BUS. What, did you not see them!? 

Driving in India is much like downhill skiing in that you rarely have to consider the people behind you. Unless they honk... that's the common way of saying, "I'm here! Please don't hit me while I pass you!" The first time I was driven to work (months and months ago) and the driver forgot to unfold the sideview mirrors, I thought it was hilarious... now I know, you just don't have to worry about cars behind you, that's their job.

I have a feeling I'm going to miss the semi-lawless driving here, when I leave and am forced to regularly obey ALL traffic laws. On that note, I'll leave you with an AMAZING ARTICLE on the unwritten rules of driving in India and a couple of "pro-tips." 

Pro Tip #1: In India you drive on the left... Unless you're driving in the wrong lane of a divided road... Then the best practice is to drive on (your) right. Now it makes sense why all the locals told me to "just stay to the right (of the left side of the road) and you'll be fine." There are fewer people driving in the wrong direction or boldly just pulling out whenever the heck they feel like it when you bear right. 
Pro Tip #2: If someone flashes their high beams at you here it means, "I'm going for it! You better get out of my way." I definitely pissed off a few people before I learned THIS.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Chennai Holidays: Tamil New Year’s Day & Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s Birthday

Today is one of the holidays in Chennai that the other posts in India don't get. The Foreign Service caps posts at a maximum of 20 holidays (10 US, 10 local) per year, but since different posts (and different consulates) have different local holidays... there's some flexibility. New Delhi had a day off last week, we have one this week!

Anyway, this week's relaxation Tuesday is thanks to Tamil New Year and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar's birthday. Tamil New Year falls on the vernal equinox which is generally April 14th. Ambedkar's claim to ultimate fame (I mean, let's face it, is there any bigger honor then getting your birthday off from work?) was for his work in fighting class discrimination in India. 
Last Saturday night saw unusually crowded streets, at least for that time of day/week. We also noticed some fireworks being set off (though none today). In the end, it doesn't seem like a very big holiday around here, but it is none-the-less a welcome mid-week day off!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Actually Another Job Openning

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...)

(Yeah, I know this is a repeat of a previous post... so sue me...)

Friday, April 3, 2015

Chennai Holidays: Good Friday

Today is Good Friday, which also happens to be a holiday in Tamil Nadu. The following is an excerpt from Live Chennai on how Good Friday is celebrated by Christians:
The Good Friday celebration starts by kissing a plank of wood depicted on the cross of Christ. After this ritual people perform other practice which starts from 3 o’clock where narratives read out four gospels from the holy book and latter on general communion service is performed at midnight after which a burial takes place. On Good Friday particularly, the bells of the church remains silent (which rather on other days doesn’t) because this day is marked as a SAD DAY for Christians.
People follow the example of Jesus Christ and keep fast on this day as according to one story – Christ fasted in desert to overcome the Evil One for forty days before the beginning of His teachings. However, this period of forty days is popularly known as ‘Ash Wednesday’. This ends on ‘Lent’ also known as ‘Good Friday’ following the other day i.e. Easter Sunday.
Many people even today perform a three-hour service on Friday in remembrance of the death of Christ in which one service includes seven distinct elements stating seven utterances of Christ when he was hanged on cross. This incident is famously depicted in the small town near Goa (in India) called Panjim which celebrates Good Friday in large spirit. Many people gather there to take part in the celebrations which is held in full bloom in the churches.
That's one of the interesting things about India. As with most (historical) polytheistic dominant cultures, they are very tolerant of religions. This seems odd to say considering the tensions and history between India and Pakistan. Still, there are Muslim and Christian communities in Chennai that appear to live discrimination free.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Very Foreign Service Weekend

What a weekend! When some people think of being a diplomat, they think of swanky parties with high society and foreign policy makers. (Or maybe that's when they think of James Bond.) Either way, I never did. As a specialist, I've never expected to be rubbing elbows with big wigs... instead, I expected to be spending my time... well, much like I did this weekend.

Friday night started with a regular ol' uneventful Classified Pouch run. After grabbing a few hours of sleep, it was time to get ready for the next event. Saturday afternoon was dedicated to something I'd never heard of before: a "Progressive" or "Safari" dinner. This is a multi-course meal (in our case, 6!) with each course hosted by a different family, at a different house. The whole process took around 7 hours and was enormously entertaining. We had about 40 people shuffling between houses, chatting, eating, and generally having a good time. I very much hope we'll be able to organize these in the future, since it's a great way to spend a day and is very inclusive. The final event for the weekend was on Sunday morning, when I hosted a small class on baking bagels (and making cream cheese). Despite the bagel's unobtainable status in Chennai, they have yet to become a form of currency. They do however make coworkers very happy on Monday mornings. The class went well and also involved a lot of chatting while people mixed ingredients and kneaded dough. I'll probably try to host some more similar classes in the future, since I have a lot of random and useless (but interesting!) skills and enjoy hosting things.

Before I joined the Foreign Service, I anticipated events like these. Community building at post is a big deal, because we spend so little time in each place that it can be difficult to make local friends - they already have friends and know we'll be leaving. This probably leads us to making more and looser social bonds with each other. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Actually a Diplomat

Well, I guess it's time to come clean. I've now 'made it' into both the local newspaper and the Department of State's "State Magazine." I think it's time to admit that I'm no longer "Technically a Diplomat." 
To be fair, neither is for anything I specifically did... In fact, our invitation to the British High Commission's National Day event was actually due to my wife's position as the CLO Coordinator. I will, however, take the credit (or shame?) of being the only participant of Pie in Chennai to own a pie-bird

Friday, March 13, 2015

Around Chennai: Guindy National Park

Guindy National Park is located pretty much right down town in Chennai. It covers approximately 1 square mile, making it one of the smallest national parks in India (or the world?) and one of the very few national parks located inside a city. Unfortunately, public access is extremely limited, so each year the CLO organizes a guided hike through. Our trip started at 6:30 in the morning (to avoid the heat), but ended up getting delayed a bit, due to some confusion with the gate guard.


Spotted dear, bounding off to the left, just after seeing a couple jackals run to the right.

One of two "tamed" Spotted Dear stags that the park foresters feed.

The walk was quite pleasant, albeit a little warm by the end. Even in March, things are starting to heat up. As we walked around, the foresters (think park rangers) continually pulled our their camera to show us how much nicer the park was over the previous few months. They highly recommended coming between November and February next year, which I think will be the CLO's plan. When you're in Chennai, it's a nice place to check out. You're almost assured to see some of the fauna, as the park isn't very large and there are a lot of animals in it.

Our hike ended with a walk through the Guindy Children's Park, a smallish but much more accessible zoo attached to the National Park. As with zoos everywhere, it was neat to see the animals, but kind of depressing to see their cages.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Menninger's Morale Curve

Whatever happened to the frequency of my posts on this blog? [For those not reading this blog in real time, I've since back-posted several articles.] Well, let me tell you a story about cultural readjustment and morale overseas. As it turns out, I'm not actually the first person in the world to move overseas. (I know, right? I was shocked too!) The PeaceCorps and Foreign Service have been doing this for awhile and they (and others) have studied the effects on their people. Both have found that morale forms a W over the course of a two year tour. The transplantee starts the W with a peak of high expectations and excitement for being in a new place. Their mood slowly worsens as the honeymoon ends and they fall into their first valley, commonly called culture shock. Things start to recover as they accept their situation and adjust their expectations. This is where the Foreign Service diverts from the graph. Our middle peak comes right around when we're learning where our next post will be. The realization that we're leaving causes people to "check-out" from their current position and start fantasizing about the onward assignment. Finally the last peak begins the honeymoon period of your next post.

So... when I was starting to have motivation issues approximately six months after I arrived, my more veteran colleagues quickly pointed out that it was "just my time." It's kind of depressing how cookie-cutter my symptoms were from the link above. I love Chennai (and that's not the middle peak speaking), but I think any major life change has its challenges and we pretty much changed every part of our life when we took this job.

Anyway, since February I've gotten over my hump and things are smooth sailing again. I've thought of a bunch of potential blog posts, so things should pick back up. I'll be curious to see how this curve compares in the future when I'm more acclimated to this lifestyle and experience other posts with higher or lower hardship ratings.