a gathering place for the words, images and momentos of the world of adventures i've adventured, the stories i've wandered through. curriculum bella vita...a resume, of sorts, of the good life.

Monday, December 26, 2011

A Very Bekes Christmas

Avid readers of Hungarian Goulash might remember that “bekes” is Hugarian for “peaceful.” And thanks to friend-of-a-friend Laura, my first Indian Christmas was extra “bekes” this year.

Laura and I had only met once, years ago at Cooper Amy’s wedding. Sadly, she claims no Hungarian heritage. She quit an NGO consulting job not too long ago and decided some time in Asia is what she needed next. When I heard she planned to spend a few months traveling India, I was quick to put out the invite. India and this apartment, simply, are more fun when you’ve got someone to share it with.

For two months she hiked Nepal, circling Annapurna and climbing to Everest Base Camp. By the middle of December, though, she was getting cold in the mountains, so I recommended she arrive in time for a Zakir Hussain concert at the Chowmahallah Palce. A glorious evening of tabla in the nicest nighttime setting Hyderabad has to offer. And the drive back offered the mood-lit Charminar at night, a first for me.

Another first? The Andhra Pradesh State Health Museum. Tucked into a small building in the Public Gardens just up from the Andhra Pradesh State Museum, between L.B. Stadium and the Assembly. The three-chambered exhibit is an honest-to-goodness time capsule, transporting you straight to 1991. Nothing’s changed. The dust, the exhibits, the population figure: 790,000,000. The information is an amazing glance at health propoganda from a rural country emerging into modernity. Free and worth the visit, although they don’t allow anything other than sly pictures.

After a quick trip to Goa, Laura was back in time for Christmas. Complete with a quaint little tree in the living room, we opened packages and wined and dined with consulate friends.

And Boxing Day brought my first visit to Snow World, one of Hyderabad’s other best kitsch hotspots. For 300 rupees, you get to suit up and set into a giant freezer, a paradise at -5 degrees Celsius. The best part, of course, is the people-watching that comes with seeing local folks feel winter for the first time. Ever. And below Snow World? Some surprisingly good go-karts. With a track built into a cave, as that makes the most sense.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Controlling Off

Sometime in the grind of a visa mill, it's pretty easy to imagine myself as just a bureaucrat and forget that i've got a pretty sweet job. Not so wednesday, my first chance to be a control officer, coordinating a big-shot's visit.

I have a small note card, written many years ago during a bout of career planning angst in either Green Bay or Madison, that says: "DREAM JOB: right-hand man to the ambassador to India." it's debatable whether that imagine best matches with a staff assistant role or the far more important Deputy Chief of Mission, but what's not up for debate is that India's current Deputy Chief of Mission -- the number two guy at one of the most important embassies in the world -- is an outstanding diplomat and a fantastic leader. And a wonderfully easy-going guy to work with.

Duties du jour? Coordinating the schedule on short notice, wearing a suit, looking good in a suit, expediting airport arrival, balancing conversation and blackberry time during drive-time, explaining fish-shaped buildings next to the airport flyover, facilitating meetings, touring manufacturing plants...and answering visa questions.

The coolest part? First time i've ever seen everything go according to plan for an entire day in India. And it was my plan.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The More Fortunate Enclave

Fun consulate-sponsored AIDS awareness concert at the Public Gardens friday night. wish more people could have enjoyed it, but the set-up was great. cool stuff to listen to.

Double fun birthday party saturday. A pushing-the-boundaries-at-11:30-pm dance party, a reminder that we have such a great consulate crew. really really lucky.

and a big dose of dog-sitting, laugh-sharing, driving-teaching, turkey-eating, movie-watching and other verbs a plenty with new friends. really really nice.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Nagarjunakonda Roadtrip

The list of things I miss about America is long. It's topped by Chipotle, of course, but somewhere not to far down the list you'll find "good ole-fashioned roadtrips."

Not too many "tourist destinations" within driving distance in this chunk of India. Guidebooks usually call Andhra Pradesh, in a variety of diplomatic phrases, something along the lines of a "subtle charmer." I've broken out on wheels just once, a bus trip to Laknavaramu with the Adventure Club. (Treks out to Bhongir only count as a mini-excursion, i've decided.) Atop my to-do list of regional destinations, higher than even noted Wall Drugs of the Deccan like Medak, Nizamabad, and Bidar, was Nagarjunakonda.

I got antsy sitting in Hyderabad since coming back from Nepal, so I convinced coworker Sarah* and new friends Aliza* and Mandy* to load up with Raghu and I and two burned CDs. We set out on the three-hour (150km) drive to Nagarjunakonda, a relatively pleasant drive down a relatively decent road.

The earthen dam itself is pretty impressive, and the reservoir'll the best looking body of water i've seen in months. I was allllllmost tempted to jump in. The valley was an international hub of buddhism back in the 200-300 AD range. The site was excavated in the 1930s, but was threatened when construction began on the dam in the 1960s. the ingenious solution? dig up the ruins and plop them on a hilltop, set to become an island in the new reservoir. The result is a pleasant island park, gardens and paths linking museums and reconstructed ancient buddhist structures. The one-hour ferry and entrance fee combine to about $5 a head, not an unreasonable price for a pretty pleasant out of doors experience. Worth the three-hour trip, if you've got time to kill in the Hyderabad metropolitan region. Two-and-a-half stars out of five.

* Denotes an awesome individual.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

It's Business (Executive) Time

Most of the time i forget about New India. The India that everyone's writing books about. Masters theses. Newspaper articles. Business case studies. Magazine pieces. College essays. But then every once in a while i go out to Hi Tech City/Gachibowli/Cyberabad/Madhapur, and i'm like "Wow." It's amazing. A whole new world out here.


And thanks to JDB for bringing business time into my world with a mixed cd.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thankful in India

For all my travels, i've only been out of Wisconsin twice for Thanksgiving. Last year, a Lexington thanksgiving with the rymers was hardly an unpleasant alternative to home. But my first Thanksgiving away from home, many years ago in far off Hungary, was tough. Three months into the academic year, Thanksgiving comes at a hard time. The adventure is no longer new, you're no longer enjoying the honeymoon of excitement. But you still haven't necessarily learned how to make the best of the chaos, the confusion, the contradictions of the adventure abroad. Even surrounded by fantastic friends in Nyiregyhaza six years ago, the best i could muster, when prodded to share a thankfullness at that Hungarian feast in 2005, was "I am thankful this not my permanent reality."

This year in Hyderabad, i hosted an epic Thanksgiving: 35 young Americans, along with a few token Indians and a Brit. they're all attached to an affordable private school for the year, not necessarily as teachers but as "educational business consultants," hoping to create programs and strategies to empower the entreprenuerial side of the family-owned-and-operated schools. (we threw in two Clinton Fellows and an air force attache for good measure.)

It has made an incredible difference in my happiness in India to have met and befriended the IDEX fellows the past three months. Starting with Frisbee Jess and her roommates to people i met for the first time Thursday. They're fun people who are here in India with an inspiring attitude. But it must be said that living in India is hard. It feels funny to say that in a marble-floored, four bedroom, eight sink home, but it's true. Ten percent of the fellows have already packed up and left, for whatever reasons, and others are debating the same.

I have a home and oven, the two biggest pre-requisites for merriment this time of year, so i invited the IDEXers to take over my kitchen for two whole days. (I am nothing, after all, if not willing to be used for my oven for the purposes of baked goods.) Nikki and her google-doc-assigned crew slaved over the stove. She had orchestrated a two-day schedule, down to the minute, to get everything finished and hot at the right time. The schedule, of course, had to take the daily power cuts into consideration. In beween preparations, we watched My Name is Khan, Old School, Last of the Mohicans, Love Actually, recorded football and Charlie Brown's Thanksgiving.

Right before kickoff of the feast, they asked me -- the graying elder statesman -- to say a little something something. i was flattered, as i usually am. In a grace of sorts, I shared my thoughts from many years ago in Hungary. The befuddled, bemused pessimism of my thankfulness in Hungary elicited as many nods as chuckles. But that's half the point of thankfulness. The Pilgrims were in a tough spot. A foreign land, a hard spot to eek out plentifulness and happiness, surrounded by Indians. But they asked for help, they tried different things until they found the strategies that worked for survival and understanding, they carved out a comfortable life for themselves. And that's exactly what we've all got to do, in a foreign land, whether we're 31 year old diplomats or 23 year old volunteers. It can be a hard process, but it makes you twice as thankful for the support you have on this continents and others and the extraordinary privilege you have to be able to travel the world as incredibly lucky individuals.

And - of course - doubly thankful that this isn't our permanent reality, either, just one part of the adventure of our choosing. Egeszsegedre to that.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Skill Level C+


The basketball squad's performance in the AmCham basketball tournament? Quite respectable:

3-1 in pool play!

Only two season-ending injuries!

And a tough semifinals loss to a team that could both dribble and shoot... Oops.

Monday, October 31, 2011

How to Teahouse Trek in Langtang, Nepal

Imagine backpacking without having to carry the weight of a tent or food, along with the simple pleasures of a mattress every night and the possibility of a hot shower every day. Add in a heaping dose of the greatest mountains on this planet and now you see why teahouse trekking in Nepal is such a hit.

“Teahouse trekking” could be called guesthouse trekking, you hike your way through an established network of cheap and easy hiker-friendly accommodations. You can count on ample teahouse facilities (guest houses, homestays and food options) in three distinct areas of Nepal: Annapurna, Everest Base Camp, Langtang. Some other areas, like Mustang, are close to having the complete package, but the risk of bad timing or a full-house means that almost all groups pack back-up tents/food just in case.

We picked Langtang for a few reasons. It’s the closest to Kathmandu, and we didn’t want to waste too much of our ten days on transportation. It’s also relatively untrampled. While the other areas see 50,000-60,000 hikers per year, Langtang sees only a tenth that many. Plus, Ann had just finished the full Annapurna circuit, she wanted to see a new part of the Himalayan range. The end of October was the perfect time of year to go. Excellent weather, afternoon clouds but no real rain. My yearly dose of fall wrapped into one week, pretty nice respite from Hyderabad. Many hikers, but not too many, most nights we were the only people in our guest house.

From Kathmandu, it’s an 8-hour bone-jarring bus ride to Syabrubesi. You catch the relatively unorganized bus at Machha Pokhari, just off the “ring road,” and within four minutes you’re climbing up the forested mountainside. The trip is uncomfortable, but dirt-cheap, less than $5 for a ticket. After lunch, and a few harrowing mountain passes, get out at Dunche to buy your $20 hiking permit if you haven’t done that in Kathmandu. (Lesson Learning: Failure to do so, will result in a lost day of disheartening backtracking.) Some trails depart from Dunche, or stay on the extra hour until Syabrubesi, a peaceful little one-road town. Soon, the new Chinese-funded road will make the voyage quite a bit less adventurous. Settled into any one of the many guest houses before beginning the hiking push in the morning. We liked the friendly Potala Guest House.

Before we hit the trail, a word on guides. I’d recommend hiring a guide and porter, either in Kathmandu or in Syabrubesi. We didn’t, as Ann felt like a pro after finishing a three-week trek and I figured a guidebook and a bit of Hindi were good enough to get the job done. A guide would have saved us a few hassles along the way and a porter would have made the hike a little more fun on the body. Plus, it’s a great way to better see and support the human side of these amazing mountains. As for a book, we hiked with Lonely Planet’s Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya. Great maps and insight. I bought a 1:120,000 Langtang National Park hiking map published by NepaMaps in Syabrubesi for under $10.

Day One: Syabrubesi (1500m) to Lama Hotel (2480m)

Due to a permit snafu, we had to take a triangular two-day detour through Thulo Barkhu, Dhunce, Brabel and Thulo Syaphru, but there’s no reason not to take the straightest route from Syabrubesi to Lama Hotel. The trail follows the main river up the valley, and you’ll start getting great alpine views in no-time-flat. Hot Springs and Bamboo are both great lunch spots. Lama Hotel itself isn’t anything to write home about, but you’ll be tired after a long day of fantastic hiking, especially the final push, the long climb up to the highest point of the day, Upper Rimche.

Day Two: Lama Hotel (2480m) to Langtang (3430m)

Half-way through the second full day of hiking, the valley opens up from the forested V-shape of a river valley to the awesome alpine tundra of a class U-shaped glacial valley. By the time you reach the small village of Langtang, it’s the Nepal you were expecting: yaks nibbling grasses and grains under the shadows of the world’s greatest peaks. Their milk makes for the world’s cutest little cheese factory just a short walk from any of the dozen or so guesthouses. The Pilgrime Guesthouse was the newest, nicest facility we stayed in all week.

Day Three: Langtang (3430m) to Kyanjin Gompa (3860m)

Altitude starts to play a factor at and above Langtang. Even with a reasonable acclimation schedule, it seemed that 10-20% of trekkers struggled above Langtang, even if the porters were still cruising past in jeans and flip-flops. We met quite a few parties of 4-5 people where one of the hikers decided to stay back at Langtang while everyone else pushed on to Kyanjiin Gompa. The third day’s hike itself isn’t as tough as the previous two days, and the glaciers and boulderfields make for great distraction. The cheese factory in Kyanhin Gompa isn’t quite as flavorful, but the cluster of guesthouses has a chipper feel of international celebration to it. The Mountain View guesthouse was more than adequate.

Day Four: Day Hike to Kyanjin Re (4600m)

Get an early start on the crawl up to one of the most spectacular places I’ve stood on this planet. We huffed and puffed up the “gully path to the right,” and returned via the more direct route. After a two hour climb, amazing 360 degree views, high above the little village far below. An epic capstone to an incredible hike into the heart of the Himalaya. Do consider spending a second or third night in Kyanjin Gompa and making an even braver day trip to the top of Tsergo Ri (4984m) or up the valley to Langshisha Kharka (4100m).

Days Five and Six: Descent to Syabrubesi

Two days is a reasonable time to schedule for your descent, although some folks tried to do it in one fell swoop. We were pretty beat on our longest downhill day, Langtang to Bamboo, or about two-thirds of the total descent. Whichever way you do it, the final beer in Syabrubesi tastes perfect! On your return, inquire about booking a ticket on one of the buses waiting on the main road for an early morning departure, although expect the locals to try and bamboozle you into paying more for a seat in a private jeep (about $60 for two people). After the hike, though, you’re likely to think the upgrade is worthwhile.

Friday, October 28, 2011

A Nepali Case Study: The Differences Between India and China

China and India are big. That’s their similarity. The two hugest (by far) populations in the world, racing toward development at hyperspeed not seen anywhere else on the planet. (In large part, though, that’s just because they both have a lot of catching up to do.) And it just so happens that these two goliaths share a jagged, contested border.

But in so many ways – their priorities, how the organize their people, how they strategize for the future – they’re pretty darn distinctly different countries, cultures and societies.

Just one example: the differences in the way India and China are providing development aid to the little kingdom sandwiched between the two giants, Nepal.

After our eight-hour, 120-kilometer journey winding north from Kathmandu, we arrived at Syapru Besi, as far as the road reaches towards the Nepali-Chinese border. You can see the mountains of Tibet, though, not far in the distance, marking the start of China.

The last three hours of the drive had been excrutiatingly slow, as every year the monsoon rains wash out giant cuts in the road, forcing a slow rebuild from boulders down the gravel, a rather bone-rattling work-in-progress. But as we rounded the last corner, a high arching bridge, still under construction but already a work of art, spanned the glacial melt river before leading the road into Syapru Besi. Why make the investment of a fancy new bridge at the end of a road that gets washed out every year, I wondered.

It wasn’t until I saw the sign in front of one of the small storefronts in the village that I figured it out. And the language on the trucks hauling rock. And the work crew in the truck. China. China was paying for the bridge. And the goal was more than just development aid in a less-developed neighbor. China was working on extending the road all the way into Tibet, a new, expensive, sturdier, higher capacity road closer to the river in the very near future. The bridge is just the first step of the Chinese investment, a rather practical, strategic, tangible investment at that.

While in Syapru Besi, we saw evidence of India’s investments in its northern neighbor, too, but they looked much differently. We met two 30-something gentlemen in our guesthouse dining room one evening. Both had said they had studied in India. One was the lucky recipient of one of the many scholarships that the Indian embassy hands out to Nepali students every year. A commitment to the human contact and partnership between the two countries. (Even the new Nepali prime minister, a Maoist cum parliamentarian, earned his PhD in India. To much fanfare in the Nepali and Indian press, he made his inaugural trip to Delhi as prime minister during our time in the country.) And on the road, another sign of India’s development aid. An ambulance, hard to tell if it was a hand-me-down or not, emblazed with the label of Indo-Nepali friendship.

It will be interesting to see which wins hearts and minds better, infrastructure or people power. Nepal will be one of laboratories. The other will be the trajectories of the countries themselves.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Teaching Eighth Grade

So what is it that a bunch of 8th graders, sitting in Wisconsin, wonder about India when they read a chapter in their world geography textbook? Thanks to my friend and former roommate Jerome, now i know:

1) We read that animals like monkeys and cows are seen as holy in India and can pretty much roam the streets as they please; is this true and have you seen this happen? (Hannah, Sam)

2) How is it possible that India has a booming economy yet many many poor people? (Isaac, Preston)

3) Are arranged marriages still a big thing in India? Why does this happen?

4) How is the food in India? What is your favorite food to eat? (Michaela, Brady, Justice, Madyson, Isaac, Jake, Connor, Ryan, Morgan, Brittney)

5) Is India really that different from the USA (MacKenzie)

6) What is the most beautiful landscape in India (Nicole)

7) What was the biggest thing you had to get used to in India? (Abby, Amber)

8) What is education like in India? Year round school? Do they take SAT/ACT tests like we do? How long is a school day for kids? (Alex, Harley, Sara)

9) What is your living space like? (Jordan)

10) Why are certain animals so important to Hinduism? (Aaron)

11) Would you rather stay living in India or move back to Wisconsin?

12) Are you able to watch Packer games in India? (Alex)

13) Do people hunt for animals in India (Austin)

14) What are the dots on people's heads all about?

15) Does India have any major traditional dances?

16) Why is the country called India?

17) Are you having a good time in India? (Jordan)

18) What is the traffic like in India? (Jordan, Natey)

19) Are people nice to you in India? (Valerie)

20) Do Indians have a weird accent? (Laura)

21) What is the weather like in India? (Tara, Robert, Hannah)

22) Can you watch American TV shows there?

23) Does India have American stores? ie McDonalds, etc (Zach, Drake)

24) Is there a Bollywood sign like the Hollywood sign in the USA? (Hannah)

25) What is the most popular TV show in India? (Taylor)

26) Are you treated differently because you are American?

27) If cows are holy in India, does that mean people don't eat burgers there? (Kirsten)

28) Tell us about your job in India (Skylar, Cameryn)

29) Will the shantytowns and slum areas in India get better? (Abby)

30) Have you been to the Taj Mahal? (Lily, Kristin, Taylor, Christian)

31) What can you do for fun in India? (Casie)

32) Can you tell us about some interesting Indian traditions? (Taylor)

33) Who are some current famous Indians? (Emily)

34) What are the clothing styles like in India? (Bella, Carson, Sam)

35) Have you seen a cricket game in person in India? Do a lot of people play cricket there?(Landon, Elizabeth)

36) How does a major city in the USA compare to a major city in India? (Derek)

37) What sports do people like in India? (Kaylee, Michael)

38) Do you follow Hindu traditions while you are staying there? (Justice)

39) Have you visited Bollywood? (Parker)

40) What have you learned about in India? (Andrew)

So some consulate friends and I took the time to offer our opinions in video form, brining the sights and sounds (if not smells) of modern india to a little classroom in Green Bay.

video

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Pinged and Ponged

Who would have thought Indians take ping pong seriously? So seriously that they must stomp their foot when they serve. (And that's pretty serious.)



AmCham Sports Tournament 2011. All the big companies with offices in town: Microsoft, Deloitte, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Accenture, Qualcomm, Earnst and Young, shattabi shattabi shattabi. Unfortunately, the consulate entrants were 0h-fer-8 on the days and I was not able to replicate strong 8th grade Sabish J.H. ping pong championship. Lost in straight sets. Decisively. Whoops.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Coal and Cameras

As the strike hits the month-mark, the difficulties are trickling down. The coal miners and transporters aren't working, so the state doesn't have enough coal for energy generation. The 6-8 am blackout has been tripled. 9-11 am and 12-2 pm are out, too. The consulate has full generator back-up, of course, but my apartment doesn't. One lightbulb per room. The on/off process is the most shockingly punctual thing i've ever seen in India, you could set your watch by it. Alcohol excise taxmen are thinking of joining the strike, too, which would be doubly frustrating...

Thursday and Monday off, clearly should have left the half-alive city. But stuck around to get ready for Nepal trip in two weeks. Hurrah! Inspired by sister, bought a schnazzy camera. You should be well-equipped when you live in the most gosh darn photogenic country in the world, no? Leaning photography will be a work in progress, but should be fun.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Wisconsin Abroad

I've got a little case of Wisconsin fever. Fairly enough, as this weekend might just count as the greatest sports weekend in the history of wisconsin sports.


What's it like to be a die-hard Wisconsin sports fan stranded 10.5 hours around the world? Woke up from a nap at 12:30 am to watch the Brewers stomp the Diamondbacks 4-1 in the first game of the Divisional Series. Started a second nap at 3:30 am so i could wake up at 5:30 for the start of Wisconsin's destruction of Nebraska, 48-17. Would have been so good to be in either Madison or Milwaukee...or both! Relied on ustvnow.com on both fronts, it streamed pretty darn well. Didn't get to watch the Packers game or the second brewers win, but it felt good to go 4-0!! It's hard to be humble when you're from wisconsin!

Friday, September 30, 2011

Bandh-oberfest

For months, i had no opinion on Telangana. Sure i scoffed at random acts of violence on innocent statutes, but as long as the separatist strike didn't affect me, i didn't have much of an opinion.

But then came this weekend. Oktoberbest. The very best of the beer-based culture that I miss. Two days of Kingfisher-fueled revelry, even if that leaves a little to be desired. But then Telangana cancelled Oktoberfest. That's when i developed an opinion...

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Carnival, Hyderabad Style

They needed kids to have fun, so they put me in charge. You can take the boy out of the summer camp, but you can't take the summer camp out of the boy.

Borrowing from successes in CO, NC and WASH, i concocted a carnival for little American citizens, while their parents were enjoying the more business-time half of the American Citizen Services townhall.


Five of my new best friends, the group of 35 recent grads in town for 9 months as educational consultants attached to local affordable public schools, volunteered to help the consulate staff: And one of the local clerk's daughters painted up a darn good wet sponge toss board.

The plan flawlessly executed: two hours of fun with kids. And no deaths. Although the kis did steal an awful lot of my money from the blackjack table...

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Likeable Laura

Returned from Delhi to a great surprise...Laura sleeping on the couch!

Bright and early Saturday, we set out for Bhongir Fort, my second day-trip to the monolith and fort an hour east of HYD. It was great to hike, walking doesn’t happen much here and I miss it. The ladies loved the drive, the history and the views!

Some local boys at the top recommended a Narasimha temple a few miles east of the fort. Raghu agreed it was worth the drive. Temples and pilgrimages are the biggest form of local tourism in India, but the Wisconsin Dells-like tourist trap of Hindu gods and goddesses was a bit surprising. Inside the temple, though, we were given the VIP treatment...they don’t see many firengis that far out. Laura tried to take the darshan with her left hand. The highlight for Ann, though, was certainly the troop of roadside monkeys.

Sunday I helped the ladies plan the next legs of their trip: HYD to Kerala. Then to Delhi and the Golden Triangle (Delhi/Agra/Jaipur) before setting off for Kathmandu the last day of September. Ann and Laura will hike – likely a circumnavigation of the Annapurna Circuit. As laura leaves, I’ll head to Kathandu to join Annie for ten days of trekking at the end of October. Hurrah!

And afterwards, a trip to Lumbini Park. A quick summer monsoon always drown our plans to get to the Buddha, but we made it at dusk. And then a first: the laser show!! I spent the first 15 minutes quite skeptical...THEN THEY TURNED ON THE LASERS!! It was so good!! I was amazed!! This has become a must-do on my visitor to-do list!! It’s so surprisingly good for one dollar!!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Entry Level

A fun two days in Delhi, meeting entry level folks from around South and Central Asia. a lot of "war stories," or at least people trying to claim their city is the hardest of them all. our argument was NOT helped when people learned that we have a Hard Rock Cafe in town. the real award, though, goes to our colleagues who made it in from Kabul, less than three days after they had been attacked at the embassy. their presentation really hit home. fun to talk to both A-100 classmates and wisconsin colleagues, and great to see that whole other side of diplomacy we don't see in HYD: parties with elephants, befriending int'l diplomats at sufi-sung receptions, listening to successful SCA specialists.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Every Apartment is better with A.C.

A day late, but with smiles galore, Annie made it safe and sound to Hyderabad. My friends continue to impress -- i've had as many visitors so far as the rest of the consulate combined, i feel like. She's here for two months of wandering, once Laura gets here, from south all the way north to Nepal. The plan is to join her for a week of trekking come the end of October.

This trip marks the 6th continent Ann's been to, so she hardly needed any advice on India. Still, i think the roads, especially, caught her off-guard at first. Luckily we've packed her first weekend full of fun:

Watching the NFL Season Opener, a day later, courtesy of Elvin's Slingbox set-up. Sure, we missed the decisive final five minutes of the game, but we had already assumed a packer victory, so no harm!

An evening a Liquids. Which is always "special." Too many people, too many of them men, and too terrible of music.

Environmental Rally at new friend Jess's school in Secunderabad. The cutest little parade ever, complete with signs and chants in English, Hindi and Telugu.

Ganesha street dancing in Aditya's neighborhood. Four endless hours of constant drumming, monosexual dancing, and the slowest elephant progression ever.

Enjoying a little bit of Bollywood, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara.

It's great to have her here. In short, she's me except in girl form. Everything I've done, she's done. Coopers. NABS. Madison. ALPs. Apostle Islands. Fort Collins. Now India!! (Only Rachel has more friends in common on Facebook, which is fitting as she's the gal that taught it to me.) Between the two of them, i told them a fall or two ago, they know me better than anyone else on this planet. it's gonna be great to share India with her for two weeks, then Nepal, too.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Math

Doing the math, as prep work for Annie's visit.

1. Rachel. 162.
2. Ann. 148.
3. Chuck. 135.
4. Andrew. 130.
5. Molly. 121.
6. Gloria. 118.
7. Greg. 108.

PS. Not bowling.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Rethinking China


Hong Kong to Guangzhou is a comfortable 2-hour train ride. But it’s not a normal train ride. It’s a bit like a train ride I took six years ago to Ukraine:

1. The heave-ho tension of feeling under-prepared to enter a foreign country. Stepping out of your comfort zone.

2. The flash of excitement – like crossing over into the former Soviet Union – of being some place where you’ve never thought you’d be...and for a long time felt like you couldn’t be and shouldn’t be.

But with a clickity-clack no different than all the other clickity-clacks on the two hour ride, we crossed over from the special autonomous zone of Hong Kong into communist China, whatever that tired label actually means these days. I’m a bit outdated on the political science behind Chinese communism, and I’m not quite sure what it will become or how it will affect the United States, but only two things really stood out during three days in China:

In China, Communism means a planned economy. It’s clear – I’d argue joyously – that there’s a little bit more thought going into China’s rapid modernization than India’s. The roads are wide and clear. Traffic is crowded but reasonable. The public transportation is well-linked. Right-angles exist. Parks, too. China is clearly a generation ahead of India in terms of infrastructure. (Even as India is an equal generation ahead of China in globalism and English language. I’d completely taken for granted that 75% of Indian visa applications apply in English while 95% of Guangzhou’s pool, it is said, apply in Chinese.) The economy is visibly booming. Young people in clubs radiate cash and excitement both. I walked away with a distinct feeling that it’s an exciting time to be Chinese.

And in China, Communism means control of information. Observation’s common, among Americans and locals alike. I didn’t notice anything abnormal during my visit, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t an eye. The more everyday implication, though, is an absurd control of the internet. I tried to log onto Facebook? Nope. Blogspot? Nada. Twitter? No, thanks. Yahoo? No dice. Youtube? Wampwampwamp.

In short, I enjoyed China, the culture and the food far more than I ever imagined I would. For a dozen years, I’d held an unchallenged and fairly simpleton belief that I like India and don’t like China. Perhaps I was too moralistic in appreciating certain values over others. I might have been convinced during a second late-night snack, welcomed to sit at a table of ten young Chinese and share some sort of gobbley-gook local porridge, that China too is a land I could enjoy. Well, either that, or I was smitten by the sight of tank tops and skirts for the first time in nine months...

Friday, September 2, 2011

Hong Kong: Yes Please.


Hong Kong! Hong Kong! Hong Kong!

What a glorious, world-class city!! I’d never given it any thought before, but the city is spectacular!! The sea and the mountains side-by-side, one of my favorites. A glitzy but cultured downtown tucked right up against impressive peaks and lush jungle. A densely packed populance, but 70% of the small territory is wild and rugged. You can even backpack and camp in Hong Kong proper!!

Great to wander and chat with Barrett for a few days, and fantastic to stay with Stephanie, a world-class hostess. So fun to see the adventures and lives of A-100 classmates around the world in a 100 different jobs and places.

Culinary highlights: build-your-own-burger and Blue Smoke barbeque.

Nightlife highlights: requesting Rasputin at Big Al’s (and getting it!) and a coverband on Lan Kwai Fong Street.

Adventure highlight: hiking from Central to the Peak, a two-hour summit. It’s a thousand-foot elevation gain on beautiful, mostly-deserted trails.

Sporting highlight: enjoying Stephanie’s Armed Forces Network cable access to watch the Badgers pound UNLV in the season opener! Looks like Bucky and Big Red newcomer Russell Wilson are in for a great season!

Cultural Analysis highlight: tallying the amount of men, both local and foreign, walking along the Avenue of the Stars boardwalk with and without satchels. The final tally after a sample size of eighty? Fifty with, only thirty without.

Socio-Economic Analysis highlight: probing friendly Filipinas – with questions, mind you – and missing the train to China due to an early-morning breakfast and subsequent monsoon. Oops...

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Long Gone Hong Kong

Today's Ganesha day! Tomorrow's Eid! Monday's Labor Day!

So J. Jewett's off to China!


Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Two Percent Club

I don't write a lot about my job here, as this is a personal blog. And the job du jour is just one of many pretty fantastic adventures that 1. I enjoy rereading 2. feel obligated to share with my parents in lieu of consistent emailing 3. hope others can find the stories fun, funny, useful, meaningful or some combination of any adjectives pleasant. So i'd rather share stories than mindless babble about being a bureaucrat.

And there's another reason: A personal blog doesn't mesh well with a very public job. In much of what i do and say abroad, i'm representing the United States of America. These words, this forum certainly isn't that, though. This is my space to share with friends and family. And It's fine if others stumble onto it, that's half the fun, of course. But this living journal is for me, the curly-haired kid from Wisconsin, not the guy who got the Telugu-version of his business card scanned into the second-largest Telugu-language newspaper this week.

And sometimes when i'm sitting at the visa window, often rushed and cranky, plowing through a hundred interviews a day, i forgot that i am in an important, noteworthy position. It's easy to forget, counting to one hundred, how important each number is. Especially to the human on the other side of the number. But the business card itself is kind of a big deal.

Any misstep can put you in The Two Percent Club...

I started training in February 2010 with a hundred amazing classmates. After 5 weeks, we spread out across the world, complete with some darn good-lookin' belt buckles. Since then, we've got on to hundreds of thousands of visa adjudications in dozens of languages, success in the drug war in Columbia and Tajikistan and even a 151st marriage somewhere in steamy South America.

Of the one hundred of us, though, two of us have already been jettisoned from post, send packing to a new exotic adventure a few years ahead of originally schedule. In little over a year, two percent made a minor misstep -- an unapproved travel or an offhand comment -- that became an international incident of enough note for prudence to dictate that a fresh start was in the best interest of diplomatic decorum and American interests.

Luckily I am the most sensitive and discreet individual that many of my friends know...

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Messenger, Not the Message

Sometimes being a ghora in India is such a damn novelty that they have a hard time continuing about their business without stopping to take a picture or listening to what you're saying...

Case in point?

A day-long media blitz promoting advanced studies in the US and giving Indian students good information about the process. The public affairs people paired me with the US-India Education Foundation country coordinator, a Syracuse grad who sent her son to study in the US, too. We spoke with four newspapers, two english, two telugu. She did most of the speaking, as she's the professional advisor. I chimed in on the visa perspective: do your own personal research, don't rely on agents to do everything for you, prove that you're a credible student, separate yourself from the students who are more interested in working than getting a good education, don't rely on fake documents, etc. We ended the day with a televised session with a (small but cute) live audience.

The first article to come out?


"American Official...A Speaker of Pure Telugu"

The article starts off by bemoaning how Telugu-vallu go off to America and forget all their Telugu or come back with a poor accent, but here's an American who learned Telugu for 6 months by reading our newspaper (they were a bit boastful) and he speaks perfect Telugu.

This article may or may not win a Pulitzer Prize for truthfulness...

And how much of the article is dedicated to the student issues we were trying to present? Uh, none. But we're hopefully it might be included in a special section at a later date. Whoops.

Oh, and yeah. That IS my business card scanned into the newspaper of the second-most-widely-read telugu newspaper...

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Monsoony Weekend

Afternoon monsoon rainshower, hardest I’ve seen yet. Power just went out. Laptop battery still going. But in desperate need of a continuous-power supply source for the wireless router.


Roads are a mess driving (read: riding) into work for a Saturday shift of webchatting and revocation memos. Debris everywhere, including a lot of frighteningly large stones in the middle of the road. Giant back-ups as traffic is condensed because of huge puddles. Not a lot of well-thought out draining solutions here.

Good weather to catch up on blog posts.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Itfarring (or "The New Face of the Consulate")

Joined the public affairs folks on a beautiful iftar (a fast-breaking dinner during the holy month of Ramadan) in a Muslim school near the Old CIty. The school welcomed us with open arms, and we put on some fun programs/games in English and Urdu. Muj talked in Urdu about being a Muslim in America while a few other of us talked with the kids in English about America. It's amazing to talk with a group for whom the idea of America is such a blank slate. The only state they could name? New York. The only American actors they could name? James Bond and Jackie Chan. Close...

After a sunset prayer, we broke (their) fast. First dates, then fruit, then haleem, then biryani. Over dinner, i had a great time mixing English and Hindi with a table of 10th standard girls and learning about their lives. I talked to four girls about their fathers, 2 had passed away, 2 were autorickshaw drivers. None of their mothers worked. The monthly tuition is $5. For many of these families, that's a huge investment, it made me happy to see them making that commitment to young girls who were dreaming of being computer engineers, teachers and doctors. Heartwarming.

Funniest bit? Afterwards, the staff posted pictures of the goodwill outreach on the facebook page. The consulate doesn't label officers in action, partly for our benefit. five minutes after the picture went up, though, a certain Mr. Abdul was quick to identify me...as "fast becoming the face of the consulate!"

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Diagnosis

After two weeks of hosting a dermatologist, here's where we stand: She gave a fancy word to my exceptionally large wenis and suggested i take a picture of the moles on my back. She did not volunteer for the task.


More importantly, she asked, "So what are the steps you're going to take to make your job/stay more pleasant?" My answer wasn't very insightful. "Shoot, that's the kind of question i usually ask rather than answer."


And if the roads didn't drive her buggy with motion-sickness the first half of her stay here, I'm sure the epic traffic jams of late make even Cleveland look real good. Getting in and out of Chowmahallah Palace, my first day time visit, was an epic, unworldly, frustrating three-hour adventure of near-death proportions.


Counted amidst the jam? Cars. Trucks. Buses. Motorcycles. Autorickshaws. Push cars. Cycle rickshaws. Bicycles. Pedestrians. Horses. Buffalo carts. And a Camel.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

One Photo?

What its like going out in public when you're a ghora in India:






Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Cities of Joys

The coolest thing about Jen? She took my recommendation "read City of Joy" and make it even better. she bought an old copy of the Dominique La Pierre classic and turned it into not only her Indian novel of choice, but also her journal of the Indian experience. every day she alternates between reading and writing. hot damn.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

How to Houseboat the Backwaters of Kerala

You could argue all day long about how there's nothing "authentic" about houseboats and "God's Own Country," Kerala, but that hardly matters. It's a great way to savor an amazing piece of the Indian experience. Imagine floating carefreely through a system of backwater canals mapping out an infinite number of paths through beautiful rice paddy countryside. Yup, that's exactly how JDB and I spent our friendship honeymoon.

As beautiful as the scenery is, though, the chance to peek into village life along the canals is even more fascinating. 75% of the passage is lined with houses, you're free to observe traditional living with a smile and a wave. Every house has a small boat and a small ghat of steps down to water level, it's the center of life of the community. People bath in the river. People brush their teeth in the river. People wash their pots in the river. People herd their ducks in the river. People ride the watertaxis and water-school buses. It's beautiful to watch. (Although in truth you do need to bring a book if you go for more than one night.)

Getting There:

Rent a car from the Kochi airport or Kochi city center. Expect to pay about 1200-1500 rupees for the 1.5 hour ride.

Getting a Houseboat:

One possibility is booking a houseboat online, there are a variety of websites offering a wide range of boats/trips. Another option is to arrange a houseboat through your Kochi hotel. We turned down 5500 boat offered by hotel because we wanted to see the options and we thought it would be easy to do in the low season.

We hired a car to take us to Alleppey, and the driver offered a connection on the ride. We ended up on his friend's boat, 6500 rupees for a well-equipped one-bedroom AC houseboat. Tougher than expected to bargain at the site, because the boats were not at a centralized location due to upcoming snake boat races. Price includes staff of three, all meals, bottled water, etc. Expect to pay 100 rupees per bottle of piss beer unless you plan ahead and bring your own.

Bring bug spray and suntan lotion. Paths along the river are muddy, bring sturdy sandals that can get dirty. Bring books, paper and pen. In fact, bring extra pens, as kids like them.

Highlights:

Delicious Keralan food, prepared fresh three times a day, plus snacks. Jen enjoyed the veg entrees, I liked the fish.

Hiking along the riverbank after docking for the evening, a 30 minute stroll north of St. Thomas church. Making friends with precocious children, who were in the market for one pen.

Stopping for a lunch break in provincial Champakulam, giving ourselves a VIP tour of the local hospital, St. Josephs Mission Hospital.

Postcards from picturesque post offices.

Finishing a book about Custer.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Derma Camp 2011

JDB and I don’t actually know each other all that well. In fact, we’ve only met twice.

But we’re pretty intertwined. We both worked at Camp Chief Ouray. Unfortunately our stays didn’t overlap, but I did work with her cousin and her brother. We both studied in Madison, albeit for only a brief period at the same time. She lived with one of my old ALPs coworkers and a law school classmate. And we’ve both hiked with the same friends, just never at the same time.

Thanks to the prodding of a meddling cousin and an overactive imagination, I was kinda hoping she was coming to India for a CCO fairytale, but alas a boyfriend back home nipped that plan in the bud pretty early on. (Darn O.P.G.F.s...) Instead, she had honest-to-goodness decided to come to India for the skin diseases. Enjoying her two-weeks of annual leave from dermatology residency to visit HIV clinics, leprosy colonies and health camps in slums.

Her early morning arrival was delayed an entire day due to problems in DC, but Raghu and I were able to whisk her through the deserted nighttime streets under the cover of darkness, so her first experiences in India were the far more gentle apartment surroundings. But from the first day, she dove into India, crossing streets like a champion and lining up a variety of observations. The stories she’d tell every night over dinner were pretty amazing.

Having a two-week houseguest was great. She jumped into high culture (diplomatic dinner parties full of bureaucrats) and low culture (Planet of the Apes) alike. She was the perfect excuse to discover new favorites around town: 1857 and Waterfront. We walked through the Bollywood Ohri’s, but didn’t stay for the buffet.

After all, we were off to Kerala!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Planning for China

It’s nerve-wracking being a visa applicant!! Where are the clear directions?! Why do different websites say different things?! What documents do I need to submit?! What documents do I REALLY need to submit?! Who can I turn to for advice?!

Akh, I see now why people complain so much about visas.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Ouch

All-Tme-Ever Cultural Low-Light Day

Spending an afternoon bumming around an Indian mall.

Then spending the evening bumming around a different Indian mall because the first showing of Cowboys and Aliens was sold out.

Then actually spending two hours sitting through Cowboys and Aliens.

Ouch.