Saturday, August 29, 2009

Tour of Kumartuli with Calcutta Walks

We had a wonderful tour with Calcutta Walks again this morning. We started out at the Hooghly River watching the wrestlers on the river bank and seeing people doing their morning rituals. The mighty Howrah bridge in the background is where millions of cars and people cross everyday. At 6:30 on a Saturday it was full of pedestrians, families in carts, men pushing carts with goods, cars, trucks and buses.

We then strolled through the flower market. This picture is of marigold sellers. We learned that the marigold holds a special place in Hinduism, since flowers represent a blessing from a god and the marigold is believed to be 10 flowers in one.

Here was a cow that was just moving along in the pedestrian flow, like she has done many times before.

We went to visit a crematorium (just the outside!) and this was one of the many stores catering to the grieving. It is a photo studio were one can have a picture of the deceased made.

A lot of the laborers in Kolkata come from a Bihar, one of the poorest states in India that is also close to Kolkata. This photo is of a food vendor that specializes in the food from Bihar. There are grilled chick pea balls stuffed with spices on the grill. I loved his set-up. It looks like he took the clay from the river and made himself a very modern-looking shop.

Kumartuli is a section of North Kolkata that is home to the many artisans that made idols, mostly for the very popular Durga Puja festival, which we attended last October. The idols are made from a foundation of straw, covered and sculpted with clay from the river, painted and then dressed with clothes and ornaments. Most of the idols we saw were ready for painting and dressing since Durga Puja is less than a month away.

This photo is of an artist's studio floor.

Ifte told us of the history of Durga Puja, how the celebration really became a major one during the nationalism movement, since leaders saw it and other popular festivals throughout India as a way to demonstrate national pride and rally people together. Today over 200,000 people come to Kolkata to join the 13 million locals in the celebration. Take a look at some of our posts from last October to get a feel for the finished idols: At the Height of the Puja Season, A Pandal of Generosity, More Puja Photos, Durga Drums and Closing the Puja Season.

On our walk we ran into this building being demolished, Kolkata style.

No better way to end the walk that we incredible Bengali sweets. If I hadn't eaten a bagel for breakfast I would have consumed so much more.

Thanks, Ifte. If you are in Kolkata look them up or check out the new walking tours of India portal they are leading at

Related Post: Saturday Morning with Calcutta Walks

Friday, August 28, 2009

Bagels for the Bid List

With so much energy spent the bid list, researching, talking, refining, reordering, I took on a project to distract myself for a few hours: making bagels.

We have yet to find a bagel in Kolkata. There are good bakeries - great chocolate cakes - but the closest bagel has been a package of frozen Lender's from the New Delhi commissary that cost about $8, after factoring in the shipping charges. So the challenge was to make bagels from scratch.

After reading a recipe from King Arthur Flour with the name "A Dozen Simple Bagels" and reading the bagel section in The Bread Baker's Apprentice,I got the courage to try.

The starter

The lumpy bagels after forming them by punching a hole in the middle of a dough ball with your finger and twirling it around.

The smoother ones using a circle cutter

The hot bagel bath

The baked lumpy bagels

The baked smoother ones

Now, back to the bid list. There have been several positions added, deleted and modified. Keeps you on your toes.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Entry Level/Untenured Officer Bid List Is Out

Well, it has been out for four days now, or to be more exact, 113 hours and 49 minutes from when Alan heard the email arrive in the middle of the night. The instructions arrived on August 19th, so we knew the bid list would be out in a few days. Last Friday morning at 4:30AM, Alan tapped on my shoulder and said "the bid list just arrived." It felt like being woken for Christmas morning, and I promptly rolled back over to sleep. After another tap, "it's here," I finally jumped up to take a look.

The bidding experience for our next assignment is very different than the first in A-100. There are over 450 jobs on the list with many more factors to consider. The most constraining factor is timing. You have to have a certain number of bids that fit the available time between when you leave post and when the next job starts, with that available time used for home leave, language training and functional training. If you have gaps of open time or not enough time to do all the required home leave and training, then a job is not valid for your list. So you may not be eligible for many of those dream jobs on the list.

Also, the people currently posted to high hardship and danger posts get first dibs at jobs. Luckily, Kolkata is a 25% hardship and a 5% historically-difficult-to-staff post, so we will be assigned in the first of two rounds. Those at posts with less hardship will have a much more limited list to choose from.

The last four days have been full of strategy, research and refining lists. We were able to quickly narrow the list down based on: language training, working at an embassy (versus a consulate) and a possible rotation out of consular for a broader understanding of the foreign service. This brought the list down to about 90 jobs. We then evaluated which of those jobs had the correct timing, and then did research on those locations by looking at the posts' intranet websites, Post Info to Go on the OBC website (intranet only) and Tales from a Small Planet's Real Post Reports.

Before we got the list, we had been discussing our next post choices for a while, throwing out scenarios to understand what would be a good fit. But now that we have the actual list in hand, our choices will be nowhere near what we had discussed before. There are a lot of great jobs on the list and it looks like we will have at least 20 that we will be happy with. The hard part is the waiting. We have until September 8th to turn in our choices and do not know the date when we will learn our actual assignment. The excitement and anxiety is on the rise again and this will happen every two to three years!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Happy Independence Day India!

We are a little late with our post, but the sentiment was celebrated on Saturday, India's Independence Day. Sicily waved the colors and handed out cookies she made, during the monsoon rain to the guards hard at work on our compound.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Getting the Big Girl Bed Made in Kolkata

Two weeks ago, the time had come to transition Sicily from a crib to a toddler bed. Unfortunately we forgot to bring one in our shipment. I believe it was the hope that she would be in her crib for the whole tour that caused the forgetfulness. Also, the side rails that you can purchase to fit on a regular twin were too large for the pouch, so we set off to look for one in Kolkata.

After looking at a variety of furniture stores in town, we couldn't find a sturdy toddler bed with side rails. There are plenty of bunk beds available, or large, low beds. We then went to a few used/antique stores and found an Indian-sized single bed that worked with some modifications. It was outside of a shop, leaning against a wall with several months of dirt on it, but after some brushing off it showed lots of potential.

The shop had a carpenter that worked with us on the spot to understand how we wanted to modify the bed. After three days, I returned and saw the bed with the new rails made out of spindles from an old chair. It was then stained and polished, and two guys carried it to our apartment through the city streets.

With the bed finished it was time to find a mattress. Since the bed was now thinner than an Indian-sized standard bed for the rails, we had to get a mattress made, which is a common thing to do here. There is a section of town where you can go to get mattresses made (photo above).

After selecting a store, we picked out the thickness of the foundation which is made of fiber from hardened coconut shells, then the thickness of the poly-fiber topper (photo below) and then the fabric that would cover the mattress. It was then cut to size, the fabric was sewn and it was assembled in less than two hours.

Total cost of bed and mattress, with delivery: $91. Now lets see what else we can get made in Kolkata.