Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Winter in Kolkata: A Time for Flowers

We have been really enjoying the winter weather in Kolkata this year, with temperatures from the low 50s to the mid 70 degrees Fahrenheit. It is also the season for flowers, especially dahlias, roses, chrysanthemums and marigolds.

The gardeners at the consulate grow amazing pan-plate sized dahlias in many colors. The two photos above are of their beautiful work.

It is also the time for the annual flower show at the Agri Horticultural Garden, founded by William Carey in 1820. Again, amazing flowers especially the dahlias

and the roses.

Since the garden is picturesque, I asked our daughter to pose underneath an archway so that I could take a picture.

But before I could hit the button, there was a rush

and a flurry of photographers that jumped in front of me to take her photo. This is a common experience with expat babies in the city, lots of photos taken and lots of pinched cheeks. We won't be surprised if she shows up on an ad for someones small tea shop one of these days. Since we take so many photos of people in the city, it seems to balance out when people in the city like to take pictures of us.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Two Year Anniversary of Diplolife

It is hard to believe that two years ago we started our Diplolife with the words: And We Begin Diplolife. Much has changed since then and more to come!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Saraswati Puja Time!: A Celebration of Education

This past week Saraswati Puja was celebrated, typically held "on the fifth day after no moon night in the Hindu month of Magh." The goddess Saraswati is the goddess of wisdom and learning in Hinduism, and a very popular puja in Kolkata. She is often depicted with a sitar and seated on a lotus with a swan by her side (her preferred method of transport). Her four arms represent the four aspects of human learning: mind, intellect, alertness, and ego.

On the day of the puja, students take the items they use in school, (notebooks, pencils, etc.) for a ritual before the deity. Preschoolers are often taught to write on this day. A friend of ours took her two and a half year old to the puja with the mandatory small black board and chalk. He sat with the priest in front of the idol and wrote the Bengali alphabet. This was the ritual to begin his education, as he begins preschool.

Many children in Kolkata go to school in bicycle rickshaws or auto rickshaws as in the photo above. There is a great book called Going to School in India which depicts all the different ways kids get to school in India, from camel carts to a wooden cable swing over a river. Talk about a better, "when I went to school I walked two miles, uphill, both ways" story.

The book also shows different school projects and activities from across the country, which makes it interesting to compare with topics in American schools. There is also the related DVD, Going to School in India.

But back to the puja. In comparison to Durga Puja, this puja is celebrated in homes and neighborhoods, while Durga Puja is more of a neighborhood-based public celebration. Since it is a more personal puja - an expression of hope for the education of a child - there is more active participation in the rituals. With more idols and practice, there is more demand for the Hindu priests, who have very tight and demanding schedules.

A more intimate celebration of the deity in a home.

This pandal had a DJ.

This one had a beautiful head wrap made out of plants to rival Aretha's inauguration hat.

Children still enjoying their puja. They had written quotes from famous people on peace and respecting the environment.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Fast Track to a Teaching Certification for Trailing Partners

A popular career change for trailing spouses and partners in the foreign service is teaching, since many posts have at least one affiliated or recommended American-curriculum, English-speaking school to fill the needs of foreign service children. The barriers to this career change have typically been the cost and time for obtaining a graduate school degree and/or a teaching certification.

There are online programs that can be completed from anywhere in the world; and the FAST Train program at George Mason University is specifically designed for trailing partners.

I found another possible alternative in the NY Times, which may be a good choice for those that expect to do tours in Washington D.C., as well as abroad:
"...Career Switchers program, the Virginia-based program that requires applicants to pass an Educational Testing Service exam in the subject matter they want to teach, take an online course and attend a series of meetings to learn classroom teaching skills.

The program, which has helped more than 500 people earn licenses, costs $3,150 and takes about 18 months to complete.

Virginia has one of the most streamlined programs for career changers and is among the 47 states that accept alternative teacher training. Over all, about 600 such programs contribute about 20 percent of the country’s new teachers each year, according to the Education Department.

Like the Career Switchers program in Virginia, the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence offers an online program that costs $975 and has so far issued 1,900 certifications. They are accepted by nine states, including Florida, Missouri and Pennsylvania. The board says people 50 and older account for one-fifth of its participants."
More from the NY Times at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/15/your-money/15TEACH.html?em

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Great Quote from Nehru

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.”

— Jawaharlal Nehru
(1889-1964); 1st Prime Minister Of India

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Entering the Last Phases of the Cultural Adaptation Cycle

This comic, again from State magazine, humorously depicts how many in the foreign service experience cultural adaptation between posts. The different phases of adaption are typically reviewed in A-100 and Spouse/Partner Training, but the focus is usually on the beginning phases and re-entry, since they tend to be the most dramatic.

We are entering the Pre-Return (and then leave again) Ups and Downs. Where did the time go? I haven't started all those cool projects I intended to do after we arrived in India. Can you believe we still haven't unpacked all those Ziplock bags full of items from our "junk" drawers in D.C.?

It's time to fit in all that was intended to do over the two years in the last several months. And then start the cycle all over again for our next post.

Chart from University of Calgary's Cross Cultural Living.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Washington Post: 'Hillary effect' cited for increase in female ambassadors to U.S.

"There are 25 female ambassadors posted in Washington -- the highest number ever, according to the State Department.

'This is breaking precedent,' said Selma 'Lucky' Roosevelt, a former U.S. chief of protocol.

Women remain a distinct minority -- there are 182 accredited ambassadors in Washington -- but their rise from a cadre of five in the late 1990s to five times that is opening up what had been an elite's men club for more than a century.

A key reason is the increase in the number of top U.S. diplomats who are women, what some call the "Hillary effect.'"

Read full article at the Washington Post.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Great Finds at the Gariahat Fish Market

The Gariahat Fish Market in Kolkata has the reputation for being the freshest fish market in town. During my last visit I brought my camera to capture the best season there, when both the fish and the vegetables are at their peak.

One of the entrances to the market in the Gariahat section of Kolkata.

We started out with crabs at Rs. 480 a kilo ($4.75 US a pound), that looked a lot like Maryland blue crabs except with much bigger claws. Krishna negotiated hard but when she found out that she could have gotten them from another vendor for about 50 cents cheaper later in the morning, she vowed never again to go this vendor.

One of the guys that will fillet your fish at purchase. Notice the boti, a much larger version than Aarti used in our kitchen.

We bought silver fish from this vendor. They are very small fish much like minnows that Krishna said was a common Bengali dish.

The ubiquitous fish market cat checking out our purchases.

The reason why there are so many cats in the foreign service. I was so close to bringing them home with me.

Krishna starts on the vegetables

Three varieties of eggplant are readily available. There is a debate over the origin of the eggplant some say China, some say India. Though, the humble cucumber's origin in India is not disputed.

We bought a slice of pumpkin from this guy for soup. Could he be more photogenic? Notice the way purchases are weighed.

It is hard to describe my reaction in words when I saw these: "What!!!! Squash flowers in Kolkata? How come I didn't know this? We got to buy these!!!" The are called red pumpkin flowers here, a little larger than the ones in the US but just as delicious. I had to immediately run home and make ricotta.

This photo captures the reason why I like to go to the market with Krishna. This vendor wanted Rs. 6 per lime (13 cents), but Krishna would not budge past Rs. 3 (7 cents). They argued for a while, then the vendor gave up. She could get them at another market for 3, so no need to pay more.

The reward, crispy fried silver fish over red pepper and green bean fried rice. Yum!

Friday, January 8, 2010

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission Listserv

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's listserv for product recalls is a great resource while overseas. Since our focus has been more on the Indian media since we arrived, the email alerts can keep you up to date with products purchased in the U.S. Lately there has been a lot of child product recalls, so it is handy for those with children. They have alerts in the following categories: child, sports & recreation, outdoors, household and specialty products.

Sign up at https://www.cpsc.gov/cpsclist.aspx

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Looking for Books on College Street

Last weekend we headed up to the College Street area of North Kolkata, to find some Bengali cookbooks and soak up the atmosphere. This academic area includes the Medical College (opened 1837), Calcutta University (1857), Sanskrit College (1824), Presidency College (1837) and Sadharan Brahmo Samaj (1897). Calcutta University was the first modern university in India.

I found two good books at Das Gupta's, open since 1886. The bookstores and stalls are not designed for browsing, you basically tell the salesperson what you are looking for and they will find it. The most popular book subjects in the stalls (at least the ones in English) seemed to be medicine, information technology and English literature.

We then stopped in at the Indian Coffee House on College Street for coffee and onion pakora. This coffee house is famously known for being the meeting place for academics and artists, including Rabindranath Tagore and Subhas Chandra Bose.

The menu. In case it is blurry, each coffee was 8 rupees (17 cents) and the pakora was 10 (22 cents).

Some other sights around College Street:

Large empty water tank that looks like it used to serve as a pool with a diving platform.

A snack stall

Hauling empty mustard oil cans

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Differences Between the Hardship, Danger, Service-Needs Differential and Hard-to-Fill Designations

Since this topic has come up a couple of times in the comments of this blog, here is my attempt to explain the differences between these designations (subject to change, of course). Alison and I exchanged comments in The Entry Level/Untenured Bid List is Out, if you prefer that format.

The best source for up-to-date information on a post's differential and allowances is the Department of State's Office of Allowances in the Bureau of Administration. They are the keepers of these and the Foreign Per Diem Rates.

They publish the latest schedules on their website, divided into:
Post Cost of Living Allowance (COLA)
Post (Hardship) Differential
Living Quarters Allowance
Education Allowance
Danger Pay Allowance
Foreign Per Diem Rates

Their definitions for each of these is listed in their Summary of Allowances and Benefits.

You can also look at all of these by post with their Allowances by Location section. You can find this information through other sources during A-100, but it comes in very handy for biding on subsequent tours.

The first two of these four designations are pretty straight-forward (from the website):

"The Post Hardship Differential is meant to compensate employees for service at places in foreign areas where conditions of environment differ substantially from conditions of environment in the continental United States and warrant additional compensation as a recruitment and retention incentive. It is paid as a percentage of basic compensation in 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30 and 35% increments." To see which posts have a Hardship Differential just go to Post (Hardship) Differential and look down the list.

"The Danger Pay Allowance provides additional compensation for employees serving at designated danger pay posts. It is paid as a percentage of basic compensation in 15, 20, 25, 30 and 35% increments." To see which posts have a Danger Pay Allowance, just go to Danger Pay Allowance and look own the list.

Now the Service-Needs Differential and Hard-to-Fill designations are trickier. If you are in A-100 or an untenured officer, only the Hard-to-Fill designation applies, and only for your second tour bidding.

For example in our case, the Entry Level Position in Kolkata was designated as a Hard-to-Fill job at post. The benefit we received from this was an extra 5% differential during our second tour bid. The standard differential (hardship plus danger) for Kolkata was 25%, plus the extra 5%, gave us 30% differential for bidding purposes. And as I mentioned in The Entry Level/Untenured Bid List is Out this gave us a nice boost in the assignment order.

A Hard-to-Fill job at a post is defined as when less than two officers in grade and at cone bid on a specific job at that post. This typically refers to tenured officer bidding. State's Human Resources maintains a list of Hard-to-Fill jobs at posts. Your Career Development Officer is also a good source for this information, if you are in A-100 or an untenured officer.

Next up, Service-Needs Differential:

A post is designated as a Service-Needs Differential post when it is Historically-Difficult-to-Staff.

If you are a tenured officer and serving at a post qualifies you for a Service-Needs Differential, you currently get a 15% of your salary bonus for three years, if you extend your two year posting to three years. You have up to six months after your arrival at post to decide on taking the opportunity. If you curtail or leave post early, you have to return the 15%.

For untenured officers, since the first two tours are only two years each, you cannot volunteer to extend to get the Service-Needs Differential at a Historically-Difficult-to-Staff post. A Hard-to-Fill job may qualify for the Service-Needs Differential if it is in a Historically-Difficult-to-Staff post.

Here is the chain of events that leads a post to become designated as Service-Needs Differential:

1. Hard-to-Fill – when less than two officers in grade and at cone bid on a specific job at post

2. Most-Difficult-to-Staff – when more than half of the jobs available at a post where Hard-to-Fill

3. Historically-Difficult-to-Staff – when a post has been Most-Difficult-to-Staff for the 3 out of the last 4 years

That may of been too much information, but may be helpful at a later time. Please add to the above with comments!

Update: I added the tags "trailing partner" and "preparation to move" since the comments generated discussion on those topics.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The World as Seen from State

As I mentioned in a June post: Kolkata is State Magazine's Post of the Month, State puts out a great internal magazine for employees. One of the best features is the regular cartoon in the back that really speaks to the foreign service life.

See more at http://www.state.gov/m/dghr/statemag/. This is one of my favorites.