Sunday, August 31, 2008

Happy Independence Day Kyrgyz Republic

Most of the other officers had other plans for this holiday weekend, so we carried one for the team and went to another event this busy weekend, a celebration of the Kyrgyz Republic's national day. It was at the Oberoi, a very nice hotel with great food.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Kolkata: The City of Protests

Last Wednesday was the largest "bandh" we have experienced yet. As wikipedia describes it, a bandh is "a form of protest used by political activists in some countries in South Asia like India and Nepal. During a bandh, a major political party or a large chunk of a community declares a general strike, usually lasting one day.”

West Bengal, where Kolkata is located, has the most bandhs, about 40-50 per year. Many are held in our area, so we are often affected by them. Mostly they are peaceful demonstrations meant to generate attention by snarling up traffic.

What made last Wednesday's so special is that everyone in the entire city of Kolkata was banned from opening business and commuting, or they would have been harassed or threatened. This included trains, airplanes, cars, taxis, autorickshaws, buses, any mode of transportation. Many who commute daily, had to stay home for the day. The bandh was to protest rising inflation.

The next day I was in a meeting with a handful of university professors from around the city, and I asked them how they dealt with all of the unknown disruptions. They excitedly looked at me, since I now had a glimpse of their challenging circumstances and said, see this is why we can not plan in advance, not even a semester in advance. With these challenges and the many others students face in Kolkata, it is extremely commendable how Kolkata schools turn out so many well-educated students.

Image from BBC World News

Friday, August 29, 2008

Wrapping a Sari

We have been lucky to be invited to several events lately, mostly because we are at small post with less than a dozen officers. At larger posts the handed-down invitation comes much less often to junior officers.

This weekend, the Kolkata International Women's Club is hosting its yearly Monsoon Ball. It is raining very heavily right now, so the weather will be perfect. Since my dresses are in our undelivered HHE (household effects), I decided to try to wear a sari to the event.

Naively, I went to a shop on Tuesday, fours days ahead of the event, thinking that I had plenty of time and easily found two candidates. The fabrics in Kolkata are amazing, many silk and linen blends with intricate embroidery are typical.

Upon arriving home and asking our nanny her opinion, I was educated on sari preparation. I had to also find fabric for the choli lining (mid-drift top) and petticoat (skirt worn underneath); then find a tailor to make the choli, petticoat and fall of the sari. No ready-to-wear sarees!

Luckily, there was a tailor down the street that was able to take measurements and rush the job for a fee. If all goes well, the sari will be ready for the event.

The wrap is quite complicated with folds like a fan in the front. I'm giving myself an extra hour to get ready. All that I need now is to remember to hold in my stomach and walk without tripping over the fabric.

A great book on the cultural significance of the sari in India is The Sari by Mukulika Banerjee. It describes not only the meaning of different styles across India, but also the significance of the sari to women and their relationship to other people.

Update: Here I am right before the event.

Images from Utsav Sarees

Thursday, August 14, 2008

South Park Street Cemetery

Nestled away in a section of the famous Park Street is the oldest Christian cemetery in Kolkata, opened in 1767 and closed full in 1769. In 1978, a large preservation project restored the cemetery to a place for visitors from almost complete dilapidation.

The British are buried here, many in Kolkata for the East India Company. As the cemetery's well written brochure describes "With few lofty ceilings or airy verandahs, without ice, and without medical knowledge and no immunity to tropical diseases, they were all too often cut down in their youth."

We also heard that the earliest British were unwilling to adapt their conservative dress with many layers and petticoats, which also lead to the inability to handle the environment of Kolkata.

One of the more striking tombs is that of "Hindu" Stuart. Who wanted to be a Hindu - but since you can not convert to Hinduism, you are born into it - he settled for a tomb that looked like a Hindu temple.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Saturday Morning with Calcutta Walks

Kolkata is definitely a city of contrasts, which was reinforced on our early (7:00am!) walk today with Calcutta Walks, a really great collection of people that are trying to promote the appreciation of culture and history in Kolkata.
Most Kolkatans do not really get going until 10:00 to 11:00am, so it was the perfect time to explore the famous Park Street of Kolkata. Our guides told us there is no other street like it in India, there may be shopping districts but no other avenue dedicated to "hedonism." Supposedly Ricky Martin frequents Park Street when he is in town to check in on his charity organization.

One decadent part of Park Street is the confectionery shop Flurys, which is a must visit restaurant in all of the guide books. We got a behind the scenes tour, with a view of pastry in the making.

The city is changing rapidly to accommodate contemporary times, but you can still see glimpses of a grand past - once called the city of palaces - in the older buildings.
and a popular past, a pan (betel leaves) stall.
Related Post: Tour of Kumartuli with Calcutta Walks

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Without the Highchair

How we most often dine with Sicily in Kolkata, out for Italian food at Fire and Ice Pizzeria with one of our sponsors.

Sicily's highchair went into our HHE (household effects shipped on a ship) since it didn't fit into the boxes that must be used for UAB (air shipment). We purchased a Phil & Ted's MeToo! Travel Highchairto use until the permanent highchair arrived.

It worked well in our temporary apartment since there was a thinner top. In our apartment and at some restaurants our luck ran out and we cannot fit the hook-on since the table tops are too thick. We have our eye on a Totseat that looks to be more adaptable.

Sicily in the MeToo! at our temporary apartment with Chicken Tikka pizza from Pizza Hut. Best Pizza Hut pizza we have ever had.

Eating a meal in our new apartment on one of the dinning chairs.

Learning New Languages

We have had some issues with our Internet connection, our UAB (unaccompanied air baggage) arrived and we have been venturing out more lately, so it has been a while since our last post. An interesting topic that I have been thinking about lately is learning a new language for this post and/or our next desired post.

As a junior FSO, you can get up to two opportunities to learn a language: one full language course (unknown to you prior) and one top-off language course (you have the basics already). These courses are aligned with assigned posts.

One strategy that junior FSOs consider is learning a language outside of formal training, on their own, to be eligible for the second top-off course. There are a several options (outside of buying a book/software) available including:

1. Rosetta Stone software offered through FSI (other brands available on the FSI campus as well),
2. FSI language courses online (a non-profit organization for the promotion of languages),
3. taking classes offered through the country's consulate or embassy,
4. and hiring a tutor.

In Kolkata, Bengali is the most commonly used language, then English. Hindi is the third most popular language. There are very reasonable tutors to learn Bengali and other consulates offer language classes.

If you are an EFM, you are eligible for training through FSI, both when the FSO is at FSI for training and online.

An interesting online resource for considering learning a language is the How to Learn Any Language website. It has analysis of the language including its relative beauty, chic factor, usefulness and overall difficulty.