Sunday, March 27, 2016


I love language. I especially love listening to the different ways that other cultures use English. India has been an endless supply of quirky phrases that form a kind of code among those of us who have spent time here. I assume with time, we'll phase out our use of these phrases, but in the mean time, we'll continue to amuse ourselves by using them.

Here are a handful of common ones that we love.

The oil was very less in the pot.
I am here only. 
On Thursday itself. 
Do the needful.
I am knowing.
I have a doubt.
They are having a marriage.
"Kay-gees" for kilograms.
Playing pool, my opponent announced which "port" he would sink the 8 ball in.

In a similar vein, we've very much enjoyed listening to people speaking in Tamil... with random bits of English included. E.g. Tamil. Tamil, Tamil, Tamil, ask the driver, Tamil, Tamil, Tamil, cannot do it, Tamil, Tamil, informally only, Tamil...

Finally... As part of a team building exercise, we were instructed to walk to separate sides of the room, depending on our answers to various questions. When the question, "Would you rather never watch TV again or never listen to music again?" came up, one of my local employees leaned over to me and asked, "How can you listen to music without TV?" I was pretty confused, until I realized... all popular music in India is from movies. The culture doesn't support bands, just singing actors. So in his mind, if the TV industry disappeared... so would popular music.

PS: That sign sure was "a Quality..." 

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Indian Sports

Quick note here... over a year ago, my boss was telling me about a bunch of games he used to play as a kid living in rural India. Some of these games would be just this side of terrifying for most parents. Below are brief descriptions of several that I can remember.

Gilli Danda (? or a local variant) is played with a long stick and a short stick. You balance the short stick on a rock like a see-saw, then hit the raised end to launch it into the air. Then you have to hit it with the long stick and call out the number of paces it went. If the other team agrees, you get that many points. If they disagree, you have to hop on one foot to the short stick. If your other foot touches, the other team will hit you until you're on one foot again. If you over-estimated the distance, you receive no points, if you underestimated, you get double points.

Kabaddi (or a local variant) is played by having one team send one player to the other team's side of the field. His goal is to touch as many players as possible while holding his breath and return to his side of the field. If he returns before inhaling again, his team gets one point for each opponent he touched. The other team, of course, tries to tackle, grab, or assault the player into exhaling...

Lagori/dikori is a game where a pile of stones are set up in a particular manner by one team. The other team attempts to hit the pile with another rock to known pieces down. Then the defending team tries to rebuild the pile, while the offensive team tries to hit the defenders with balls or rocks. Each defender that gets hit is out of the round.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Preparing (Mentally) to Leave

I wonder if everyone has the same sense of excitement when learning their onward assignment. Since finding out where I'm going next, I've definitely had a shift in my perceptions of work and life in Chennai. I'd like to think I never went completely "FIGMO" (Forget It, Got My Orders), since I see my departure more as a deadline, than an excuse. However, the fact that there's a coined term for that (in the Foreign Service) means that it must be something people regularly struggle with. For me it was a more subtle change. I was more exasperated by the quirks of my office and coworkers, but that happens near the end of most jobs.

The biggest change I've noticed, at least in retrospect, was the lack of desire for Indian food. When we arrived in Chennai, I ate at the canteen (low end South Indian food) every day for two months. Following that, I ate my housekeepers cooking 4-5 nights per week. After R&R... we never really got back to eating Indian food. Sure, we still had Sangeetha Saturdays, but we noticed that we were eating out (at non-Indian restaurants) more often, and having our cook cook less frequently. It seems silly, but I think it was the end of my excitement peak for living in India. As my excitement waned (and my excitement for Buenos Aires waxed), I had less and less interest in integrating with my local environment. It's also a self-defense mechanism. The more I point out (to myself) the negatives of my current life, the easier it will be to uproot and leave.

HOME LEAVE NOTE: I wrote this post during home leave and post-dated it... I can now say that... during my last few months I focused on all the negatives, until I was pretty excited to be leaving. Literally as soon as I left, all I could think about was all the positives that I was now missing. Sorry for those that had to live through my last month in town. I'm sure I was a big ball of pessimism, but it was just the situation.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Heart-felt Statue

I'm not one to talk about political topics on this blog, so I won't. However, you can't spend two years in Chennai without commenting on the sheer number of billboards for the Chief Minister (Governor): Jayalalithaa. The attached image shows 4, but panning the camera would have revealed at least 6 more, for one intersection. I even read of a man who sculpted a bust in her honor, using his own frozen blood.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The South Indian Breakfast

The following was (shamelessly) ripped from the Community Liaison Office's newsletter (you know, with permission).

"The South Indian Breakfast

It’s not surprising that multicultural India has various culinary traditions. The differences are evident from the first meal of the day. South Indian breakfasts are considered to be one of the healthiest, as they provide a well-balanced diet full of nutrients giving us a good dose of carbs, proteins, and fats - despite being light on the stomach.

The preferred breakfast option in Chennai is the humble idli. Idlis — along with their mandatory side dish, Sambar — have won the place of pride as the healthiest of all the Indian breakfast menus. This is the finding of the “India breakfast habits study” sponsored by Kellogs. Steamed fermented lentil and rice flour batter, the idli is like the anti-hero in movies with the surrounding cast bringing in glamour like chutney, sambar, and what South Indians call “gunpowder” — pounded chilli powder floating in oil — but one cannot do without the main character. Somewhat bland by itself, the idli can be eaten by those in the pink of health as well as those recuperating; it can be had at any time of the day and night.

Dosa - a thin, crispy crêpe-like food made from the same fermented rice and lentil batter as idli. When served with spicy potato folded inside, it is known as masala dosa. Methu Vadai – this savory donut is made of lentil flour and spices. Venn Pongal – a savory lentil and rice pudding. Mandatory sweet rava kesari – dessert made out of semolina and sugar.

The ubiquitous Thaali – a Thaali is nothing but a sampling presented on a single plate: a great way to taste all that is on offer. All items in the thaali differ in the way they are cooked, apart from the ingredients used.

The perfect ending to a South Indian breakfast is a cup of steaming hot filter coffee! "

As a bonus, here is a picture of my son playing at a restaurant, shortly after filling up on mini-idli. He's quite the hit with the wait staff.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Trip Report New Delhi

The final stop on our whirlwind tour of the Golden Triangle (plus Amritsar) was New Delhi. We were all pretty sick at this point, so we didn't see as much as we would have liked, but that's how it goes sometimes!

We started our day off with an entertaining subway ride. It was the most packed I've ever experienced (beating out both Hong Kong and Japan, at least in my experience). I went between two stops with only one foot touching the ground... the rest of my weight being supported by the crowd. My son was so smooshed that he constantly was saying, "You're too close! I need more room!" which garnered quite a number of laughs from the surrounding passengers.  

Parliament Building
"The Mall"
Presidential Estate
Street food!

We were also fortunate enough to be in town during the one time of year that the Presidential Palace's Mughal Gardens are open to the public. Cameras are not allowed inside, but (apparently) phones don't count.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Trip Report Amritsar

Although not technically part of the "Golden Triangle," we heard Amritsar was well worth visiting. February was a beautiful time of year to go, the weather was delightful (though it did rain one of the days). We started off by seeing the Golden Temple. We'd heard that it was a more impressive sight than even the Taj Mahal (though...obviously less famous). Honestly, we did enjoy it more. The surrounding plaza is beautiful and the kitchen serves over 100,000 free meals daily and is staffed by volunteers. Just seeing the scale of the operation was stunning.

Roti maker
Looks like my kitchen!

Later in the day we headed to the the Pakistani border to view the Wagah Retreat Ceremony. This ceremony is a deafening pep rally, which consists mostly of cheering, singing, and rigidly formal marching, as the border crossing is closed each night. It was quite the sight, but bring ear plugs!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Trip Report Jaipur

Jaipur has the honor of making up the third corner of the New Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur triangle. OK, OK, there's probably more to say about Jaipur. Unfortunately, our tour was pretty much a whirlwind of sight seeing. Below is a sampling of the proof. Not pictured is the elephant ride up to the top of the Amber Fort, when some guy tried to sell us a quilt. At the end of the haggling he announced that the price he was giving was in US dollars, not rupees... so we promptly threw his $300 quilt back to him. Good luck on that one, buddy.

Amber Fort
Amber Fort
Jal Mahal (Water Palace), I was disappointed it's not open to the public.

Hawa Mahal (Temple of Winds)
We were a bit surprised to see that the Hawa Mahal is just... on a street... downtown, with traffic rolling by non-stop. Always expected it to be... less urban. Also, it's essentially just a screen. The queen and her daughters could climb up the narrow building and watch the street below without their being seen. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Begin the End (of my time in Chennai)

Ok, ok, so I stole the title from a Placebo song. Honestly though, it's about as happy a song as I feel right now.

My family left India this morning, for the last time in the foreseeable future. They're off to start home leave slightly before I do. We're all excited about our next assignment, but we're also quite sad to be leaving Chennai. Perhaps that's the default state in the Foreign Service: happy to arrive, sad to leave, repeat until retirement. It'll be a hard transition for my son. He'll miss our nanny and (of course) mini-idli with sambar. A few weeks ago, he told our nanny that "we will go to Argentina and [she] will stay in India, but [he'll] come back and visit." Now if you'll excuse me, I have some sadness to wallow in, intermingled with pack-out, check-out, and finally my own departure. Change is hard.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Trip Report Agra: Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri

In February, 2015 we took a trip to see the "Golden Triangle" in Northern India. Our trip started off in Agra, which I had just been to the month before to support the Presidential visit to the Taj Mahal. So... it ended up being a repeat for me, but not for my family. Besides, it's probably worth seeing twice in your life (though I'd recommend not doing it back to back....)

Dhaba stand I ate lunch at most days during my TDY.
Nice Tandoor oven!
Agra Fort
Agra Fort
Agra Fort

Agra Fort overlook of the Taj... you know, in clear weather.
From Agra, we headed west to Jaipur. We stopped at Fatehpur Sikri before continuing on.
Fatehpur Sikri
Fatehpur Sikri
Fatehpur Sikri

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Rise and Fall of the Uber Empire (in Chennai)

Uber hit the expat scene in Chennai like water to a parched throat. Autos are plentiful, but you (or the driver) have to know where you're going... and negotiating a price can be tiresome. Uber solved this with GPS pick-up and drop-off points and mandatory metered pricing. For awhile, it was so popular that it really made us start wondering if future officers should even bother with buying cars. Sure, there were the occasional infuriating conversations where the driver called and asked for a landmark and you repeatedly told him to JUST LOOK AT THE MAP ON HIS PHONE... but it was still the easiest way to get a taxi. To give you an idea, sending our nanny home after a late-night of babysitting cost nearly 2/3rds as much and was haggle free, once we could just order her an Uber. She also feels enormously safer riding in a car alone at night, rather than trying to pick up an auto on the side of the road. Heck, at its peak, I even ordered a taxi in Chennai for my wife and son, while I was at a friend's house in Europe!

Unfortunately, sometime last year the Uber market just... sort of crashed. I don't know what happened, but the drivers just dried up. It went from always seeing a dozen cars nearby, to being lucky to see one (and rushing to request it)! There is still a presence, and it is still fairly reliable during the day, but no longer can we confidently say, "we don't need to arrange transport to the airport at 4am, we'll order an Uber." Ordering a taxi to take our nanny home is now a 10-15 minute process, or hoping a car will appear and that you'll be the person to get it. I couldn't say what changed, but here's an interesting article from WIRED on Uber's business model in India.

PS: We've tried OLA as well (a similar company founded in India), it's always been not-quite-as-good as Uber for us. We even booked a taxi in advanced to take us to the airport, using OLA, and it was cancelled 2 minutes before we had planned to leave (surprise!)

PPS: Uber doesn't operate in Buenos Aires, guess we'll see what the local market has when we get there!

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Getting Around: Chennai vs Frankfurt

I noticed something strange while in Frankfurt. Despite the relative similarity (both culturally and linguistically) of Germany and the US, I actually found it slightly more stressful to be in Frankfurt than I do in Chennai. I believe this is because I don't stand out as much in Germany. 

In India, I am very clearly seen as an expat, so when I walk into stores, everyone speaks English to me. In addition, English is the default written language for pretty much everything around town, except political ads. The result is a sense of relative normality in my daily life. Sure, there are people speaking in Tamil around me, but even then there are a ton of English words intermixed. 

However, in Germany... everything is in German (I KNOW, I was surprised also) and when I interact with people, there is always that brief confusion and awkwardness where I have to explain that I don't speak German (generally by saying "Englisch?" with a hopeful/questioning tone.) Once back in Chennai, I really realized how easy it is to get around here. Essentially everyone speaks English (at least enough for our interaction levels), everything is written in English, and as a foreigner it is the default language people approach me with. 

Friday, March 11, 2016

Trip Report Frankfurt: Festung Königstein, Heildelberg, Wiesbaden, Mainz

Back in November 2014, I attended a three week training course in Frankfurt, Germany. Fortunately, I was able to bring my family AND we have friends and family who live nearby. So, after class during the week (but mostly just on the weekends) we were able to see quite a bit of the surrounding area! Below are the (slightly) commented pictures from our extra-curricular sightseeing.

Burg Rheinstein
The Rhein

Römerberg Plaza, Frankfurt
Main River
Eiserner Steg, known for locks carved with lovers' initials

Frankfurt Am Main (indeed).
Römerberg Plaza, Frankfurt
Rural Germany, from Festung Königstein
Sunset from the Festung Königstein. I highly recommend visiting this place!

Festung Königstein
Frankfurt Museum of Natural History
Saalburg (recreated Roman) Castle
Saalburg (recreated Roman) Castle

Würzburg Residence
Festung Marienburg
Festung Marienburg

Festung Marienburg
View from Festung Marienburg