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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Lotus Temple

We visited the Lotus Temple back in May but I am behind in my blogging and am just now getting around to blogging about it.

It’s actually a Bahá'í temple but most people call it the Lotus Temple because it looks like a marble-clad lotus flower (it’s also reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House). It’s a little more than 40 meters tall and can fit about 2,500 people. It is built in such a way that it looks like it is “floating” on 9 ponds and is surrounded by a 26-acre park-like setting. It was completed in 1986 and it’s the Mother Temple of the Bahá'í Faith on the Indian subcontinent. It’s somewhat of an architectural marvel and has won multiple architectural awards. People from all over the world crowd to see it every day. We had heard about it and decided to check it out.

It is indeed gorgeous and worth the visit but it is quite crowded. There were thousands of people there on the day we went, which was a hot one. The line goes fast though because each group of about 20 spends only about 5-10 minutes inside before being nicely guided to exit. The interior is simple without ornate decorations but very serene and conducive to meditation. Anyone regardless of their faith is welcome to visit the temple. Holy scriptures of the Bahá'í Faith as well as other religions can be read or chanted in any language and anyone can meditate/worship there. However, there can be no sermons or ritualistic ceremonies and no musical instruments can be played inside. You are not supposed to take pictures inside either. You also have to take your shoes off and leave them at a designated area outside the temple.

And because my pictures don’t do it justice, here are a few more that I grabbed from Google Image Search, where you can see the ponds, the interior as well as the temple at  night:
 
 
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Image sources:

Monday, July 30, 2012

Shoe Fetish

Chutney likes shoes. He likes any shoes really but there’s a special place in his heart for Mommy’s shoes. Black and silver are his favorite colors but pink is right up there too. What can I say, the boy’s got taste!

He can wear two shoes at the same time and they may even be the same color but they can’t be a matching pair because that’s just too… well, matchy-matchy and boring. And that’s not his style - he likes to mix it up a bit…

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More often though, he wears just one shoe, sometimes over his own:

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Pink’s nice too:

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What do you mean wrong foot? Nah, you’re looking at it wrong…

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In Bulgaria, he took his shoe fetish to a whole new level – he tried high heels (black of course)…

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… and wearing silver shoes in the nude… but it’s OK because Bulgaria’s in Europe and Europeans always run around nekkid, nekkid nekkid, right?

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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Foreign Service Offer

A week after landing on the register I got an offer to join the 169th A-100 (basic diplomatic training) class on September 10. Needless to say, we are very excited about the offer but also quite nervous. I have until Wednesday to respond to the offer and I would very much like to accept it but it’s not an easy decision for a number of reasons. First and foremost, there are no guarantees that there will be a New Delhi position on my bid list and even if there is, I may not get it. If that happens, we will have to split the family and we don’t want to do that. Of course, we knew that separation was a possibility from the beginning, so it’s not a surprise but it doesn’t make our decision any easier.

The fact that this is an election year and the State Department is facing serious budget issues makes things even trickier. The September class is the last class of the fiscal year and there’s no telling what will happen after that. If I defer now, I may not get another chance to join the service, which would be a total bummer because I very much want to be a diplomat. I think it’s a challenging but also very interesting and rewarding career. In my opinion, it’s much better than having to start all over at a new place every couple of years as an EFM (Eligible Family Member or a non-FSO spouse). But I don’t want our family (especially the little ones) to suffer because of my career ambitions. We have already decided that we like the Foreign Service lifestyle but when both spouses are in and there are young children involved, it’s complicated. Of course, we are not the only ones facing this decision. We know of quite a few tandem couples (couples, in which both spouses are FSOs), some of which have been able to stay together, while others have had to separate, so we are trying to decide what’s best for our whole family.

Right now we are trying to find as much information as we possibly can before we respond to the offer. We are doing research here at post. We have also reached out to Paul’s CDO (Career Development Officer) but she was very noncommittal. This is a relatively new development. CDOs used to help tandem couples do research on bid list positions before the second person accepted an offer and that was very helpful. In our case, that would have allowed us to check whether there are New Delhi positions on the September A-100 bid list and make our decision whether to accept or defer based on that information. Unfortunately, at some point someone complained that tandem couples were getting preferential treatment because others are not allowed to look at bid lists before they accept and about a year ago the practice of CDOs helping tandems in that respect was stopped. While I can see where the complainer was coming from, this change is having a serious effect on tandem couples and their families. If I had to guess, I’d say it will probably result in more split tandem couples and that’s not good.

But if I accept, we will have to separate no matter what because I have to go to the US for training and Paul has to stay in India and hold down Consular Fort New Delhi. We are probably going to have to separate the kids too. Her Cuteness is probably going to have to stay behind with Daddy because she’s in school. And I will have to take Chutney with me to the US because at 18 months he’s too young to be without Mommy for long periods of time. I will probably have to have my Mom come to the US (again) and watch him during the day, while I am in training. Have I told you how incredibly awesome my Mom is? One in a million!!! We wouldn’t be where we are today without her help. We owe you Mom, big time!!!

And even if everything goes swimmingly with A-100 and I get posted to Delhi immediately, our bidding cycles would be off by about 7 months. In order to synch them, we are considering Paul doing an one-year unaccompanied tour in Pakistan (preferably in Lahore because it’s on the border with India), while I stay on and finish my two years in Delhi. This way we could see each other more often than if we are each on different continents. Plus Urdu and Hindi are very close, so Paul could use his language some too. If someone had broached an idea like that to us two years ago, we’d have said “No way!” but now even the then inconceivable is starting to look conceivable. Isn’t it interesting what a difference a couple of years make.

So as you can see, we have a lot to think about but hopefully, we’ll make the right decision. Stay tuned…

In other news our driver quit this week, which was good in a way because if he hadn’t quit, we would have had to fire him. There was just too much drama there but that’s done and now we have to find a new one. We also had minor flooding in our downstairs bathroom but we caught it before it did any serious damage. A washer in the toilet tank broke and the tank was overflowing but we turned off the water at the main and called maintenance. By the time they came our housekeeper and I were able to mop up the inch or so of water that had pooled in the bathroom and was heading in the direction of the living room and kitchen. Maintenance fixed the problem quickly and now everything’s OK.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

On The Register

(warning: this post is a little technical and may be a little dry for you if you are not interested in the Foreign Service)

Yes, a little more than a year after I took the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT), I made it to The Register! For those of you outside the Foreign Service or new to this blog, The Register is the list to which you get added at the end of the process of becoming a Foreign Service Officer (FSO). It’s the list from which the State Department hires new diplomats. There are actually five registers – one for each of the five tracks of the Foreign Service (Political, Public Diplomacy, Economic, Management and Consular). Since I chose the Management track, I am on the Management Register. The process of becoming a US diplomat takes so long because there are multiple steps to it. You get to The Register after successfully passing the FSOT, the Personal Narrative stage, the Oral Assessment (OA), medical and security clearances as well as a suitability review.

Of course, that’s not all. Just because I am on The Register, doesn’t mean that I will get hired. The candidates, who make it this far, are arranged in descending order based on their score from the OA plus any bonus points they may claim for knowing a language or being a veteran. I am not a veteran and my OA score was on the low end – 5.3 (minimum passing score for the OA is 5.25), which put me at the very bottom of the list (49th of 49 as of 7/19) but that was before I got my language bonus points.

You may recall that I studied Hindi with my husband at FSI for seven months and passed my final exam with 2+Speaking/2Reading (more info about what the score means and the scale is available at the Interagency Language Roundtable website.) I had to get FSI to convert that score to a pass/fail so Board of Examiners, the people responsible for evaluation and selection of FSOs, could use it. Then initially, I got only .17 bonus points, which bumped my score up to 5.47 and my register position to 15 out of 44 (as of yesterday). I decided to claim Hindi as Critical Needs Language (CNL) and informed HR to that effect. This increased my language bonus points to .40 and landed me in position 5 of 43 on the Management Register (as of today). Of course, claiming CNL has strings attached: it obligates me to serve in a Hindi-speaking country twice in my career – once as an entry-level FSO (first two tours) and then again as a mid-level officer. That’s more than OK with me because I would ideally like to be posted in Delhi after A-100 (the initial training class for FSOs) to keep the family together. Plus, now that I’ve spent some time in India, I know that I’d love to come back, and so would Paul.

If you noticed a little fluctuation in the number of people on the Management Register, you are not crazy. That’s because offers for the September A-100 class were extended a few days ago and people are accepting as we speak. Sometimes people have more than one candidacy and when they accept, their other candidacies are removed, which shrinks the register. A few people chose to defer for a variety of reasons as well and that also shrinks the registers a little. I was actually surprised that the Management Register had only about 40 people. Last I heard, all the registers were overflowing and had close to 200 people each, so that’s encouraging, I guess.

5 of 43 is not a bad position to be in. It will probably change because people are constantly added to and fall out of the registers. You can only be on the register for 18 months before you time out and have to start all over, if you still want to be an FSO that is. So, what are my chances to get hired? Reasonably good, I guess but there are no guarantees because I think  just missed the September class cut-off and that’s the last class of this fiscal year. Unfortunately, things are very much up in the air after that and HR was not willing to speculate because of budget cuts and the upcoming elections, so I’ll just have to wait and see.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Going Local (Part 3)

I have been meaning to blog about this for a while now but life keeps happening and I get distracted. So let me do this before something else distracts me.

You can’t import left-hand drive vehicles in India any more, so if you want to have a car here, you either have to find a right-hand drive to import or buy one locally. We opted to buy one here and bought an Indian car. It’s a 2010 Tata Safari complete with several Delhi dings, for good measure. We bought it from a leaving diplomat, who advertised it in India Ink, the weekly newsletter issued by the Embassy Community Liaison Office. The seller had bought the car new when he got to India two years earlier.

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We didn’t absolutely have to have a car and went back and forth for a while before pulling the trigger on the purchase because it’s a large expense and we don’t like those. Plus, we knew we’d be living on the compound, so Paul would walk to work and we wouldn’t need to use it every day but after using cabs for a month, several things became painfully obvious to me. First, Delhi is not a stroller-friendly city, so even if something is close, walking is not always viable because sometimes there are no sidewalks, the curbs are often very high and there are rarely ramps. That and traffic is crazy, so you take your life (and your kids’) into your hands every time you cross a busy street. Second, there’s no way to secure your child in a taxi. They often have no seatbelts in the back seat and you can’t put your car seat in them. Third, not all taxi drivers are helpful. Sometimes, I’d have the toddler, the stroller, a diaper bag, my purse and groceries and the driver wouldn’t even help take the stuff out of the trunk. So, as adventurous as I’d like to think I am, I got tired of that and we bought a car.

To be honest, the Tata Safari wasn’t our first choice. Initially, we wanted to buy a Japanese car because they are reliable, spacious and very popular here. We had our eyes on Toyota Innova, which is like the Toyota Sienna in the US (read a minivan – yes, we have gone to the dark side of minivan ownership (gasp!)). Unfortunately, those run $20,000+ relatively new and we didn’t want to spend that much on a car that we were going to own for two years. So we decided to relax our criteria a bit and see what pops up.

This beauty caught our attention because it was just two years old and substantially less expensive. The seller was asking for $12,000 but we were able to negotiate down to $10,000. It’s a seven-seater, which was attractive to us because we knew we’d have visitors, though the last two seats face each other as opposed to forward and don’t seem to have seat belts (strange?). We weren’t crazy about the color because who buys a black car in hot Delhi but the price seemed right and we didn’t have to get a loan to buy it, which was a biggie for us.  It has leather seats and a DVD player with two screens in the back seat, which the kids love.

We did a little research before buying it and are aware that it won’t hold it’s value as well as some Japanese, European or US cars but we decided we can live with that for two years and at that price. So far it’s been good to us with a couple of minor exceptions: the A/C has a hard time cooling the car after sitting in the hot Delhi sun for a while (on 110 F+ days), and one of the DVD screens has been acting up but other than that we are reasonably happy with our purchase. Now, if only I could say that about our driver… but that’s a whole different story…

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Big Girl Haircut

Today, I did something that I probably should have done a while ago but didn’t have the heart to. I took Her Cuteness to a hair salon and got her hair chopped off. So she went from this

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to this

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She’s never had short hair. I cut her hair once when she was about 6 months old and have trimmed it occasionally since but it has never never been this short, so this was a biggie for us. I’ve casually been talking about cutting it because I knew it would make both of our lives easier but neither of us was ready to do it. We both loved her beautiful, thick, wavy hair but ultimately we both got tired of the constant detangling and the daily bickering over the morning hair ritual.

She loves her new do, and so do I. They blow-dried it in the salon, which is not something I am about to do on a daily basis, so it won’t look like that every day but still much more manageable. I figure, it’s hair, it will grow back but by the time it does, she’ll be able to take care of it herself.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Kingdom of Dreams

We were looking for something fun and cool to do last weekend, when we remembered reading about an entertainment park called Kingdom of Dreams. We had to check it out. It’s relatively new – it opened in 2010 and is located just outside Delhi in the state of Haryana. It’s a Bollywood meets Disney kinda of experience complete with shopping, food and entertainment. It costs about $15 per person (over four feet tall, so Chutney was free), which makes it too expensive for many Indians but only about $2 is the entrance fee. The rest is consumable.

The entrance to the park looks like this:

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Inside there are a couple areas where they have shows, which look like this:

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We decided to pass on the shows for our first visit and chose to visit Culture Gully, an indoor, air conditioned area similar to Disney’s Epcot where different states/cities of India are presented with their typical foods, arts and crafts.  The entrance to Culture Gully was dreamy:

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Once inside, you see a street lined on both sides with pavilions of the different parts of India: IMG_3031

Here are my favorites:

Rajasthan

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Chennai’s (Tamil Nadu)

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Kerala

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We ate at a gorgeously decorated Lucknow restaurant, in honor of our our Hindi teachers in the US, most of whom are from Lucknow. Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed inside the restaurant, so we took a few outside:

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The food was delicious and plenty but they wouldn’t pack our leftovers to take home, which was strange. Our consumable money (from our entry fee) covered our dinner and we had a couple of $ left to spend on souvenirs. The stores were full of neat arts, crafts, books and music, so there was a lot to choose from. Overall, our visit was wonderful  – a real feast for our eyes, minds and bellies. We were impressed by how well everything was done. The whole place was beautiful, neat and clean and the air conditioning was a bonus. We seemed to be the only foreigners there at the time but that’s OK. We will probably be back to check out the shows. Our experience ended on a high note with Nia playing the drum with an Indian dude at the exit.

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Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Monsoon is here!

The rainy season started in Delhi a couple of days ago and it brought noticeably cooler weather. The temperatures are about 20 degrees lower and it is actually nice to be outside, even though it’s quite humid. It rained a lot the first night and hasn’t really rained much since but still, people are enjoying the change. Like this kid we saw a couple of days ago:

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Yes, that’s right, he is buck nekkid and he is sliding on his but on the slick wet granite pavement! Why? Because he can.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy 4th of July!

It’s Independence Day in the US today and everyone is celebrating. People across the country are getting together with friends and family, grilling and watching fireworks. We heard about the storms in Midwest and Mid-Atlantic. We know a lot of people have been without power. If you are among them, we’re thinking of you and hoping you get it back soon, so you can enjoy the holiday.

Even though we are all the way in India, we also celebrated. The US Embassy held a 4th of July party last Saturday at the baseball field of the Embassy Enclave. There was live music and dancing, inflatable bounce houses for the kids, lots American food and drinks. There were also a rope pulling, pie- and watermelon-eating contests. I am a huge watermelon fan, so I had to participate in the latter. I had been eating industrial amounts of watermelon every summer in preparation, so naturally, I won.  The first prize was a large bottle of white wine, which Paul and I enjoyed last night. 

Paul was off today for the holiday and wanted to do something special. Nia had wanted to go to the movies for a while and we had promised her we’d take her. She wanted to see Brave, the new Pixar movie. Our housekeeper’s daughter, Julianna came to play with Nia today, so we decided to take them both to see Brave. We went to a large mall not too far from where live. This was our first time going to the movies in India and we weren’t sure what to expect but we had a good time. The theater was very nice - very much like US theaters, except they don’t allow cameras or laptops in the theater (kinda strange), so I had to check my camera’s battery before going in the theater and retrieve it later. We all enjoyed the movie. It was a little scary and sad at times but very good nonetheless.

A couple of interesting India tidbits: 

  • In India they have intermissions during movies – they stop the film in the middle and have a 10-15 min break. That’s mostly because Indian movies tend to be long (usually 3+ hours) but they do that even for shorter movies. It’s probably good for food/drink sales.
  • The Indian school year was supposed to start yesterday but the government pushed it back by a week because the monsoon season is late this year. The schools apparently are not air conditioned and it’s too hot (100+ F/40+ C). The rains make the weather a little cooler and that’s when the new school year starts but because the rains are not here yet, Julianna got an extra week of vacation. The American Embassy School, where Nia goes, doesn’t start until August 7 (and has air conditioning), so her vacation is not affected by the rains, or lack thereof.

But I digress… Anyway, I leave you with a couple pictures from our 4th. Hope yours was great too!

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