Thursday, April 29, 2010

Scrub On, Scrub Off, Scrub On, Scrub Off: Seasoning the Karai

Miyagi: First, wash all car. Then wax. Wax on...
Daniel: Hey, why do I have to...?
Miyagi: Ah ah! Remember deal! No questions!
Daniel: Yeah, but...
Miyagi: Hai!
[makes circular gestures with each hand]
Miyagi: Wax on, right hand. Wax off, left hand. Wax on, wax off. Breathe in through nose, out the mouth. Wax on, wax off. Don't forget to breathe, very important.
[walks away, still making circular motions with hands]
Miyagi: Wax on, wax off. Wax on, wax off.

Those were the words that went through my head when I saw and then cleaned my first karai, a wok-like pot used in Indian cooking. I could have chosen a brand new, teflon-coated steel one, or an aluminum one, but I went straight for the older-style iron karai.

After a recommendation to get an iron karai at the Gariahat Fish Market, I found a kitchen supply vendor that had stacks and stack of aluminum karai. When I inquired about iron ones, he came around to the front of the stall and pulled out a pot from under a wooden bench draped with a cloth. My karai appeared completely covered with rust. But at $3.00, I thought it would be worth the effort.

I took it home and then scrubbed and scrubbed - or rather wax on, wax off - until most of the rust was off with a mix of oil and salt, then water, dish soap and steel wool. It took several attempts to get to the silver-colored iron.

After the cleaning, I coated it with oil and baked it in the oven for one hour to set the first layer of seasoning. It was then ready to start using. I then felt worthy enough to start cooking Indian and Bengali food in front of Krishna.

Movie quote from The Karate Kid

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What Do These Famous People Have in Common?

Senator John Kerry

Actress Kathleen Turner

Actor Oliver Platt: West Wing, Benny & Joon, Indecent Proposal, Flatliners

Musician Stewart Copeland from the Police

Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner

Actor William Hurt

President JFK, recommended by EF'M: The Life of an FSO Spouse

They were children of Foreign Service parents.

From a discussion on the Yahoo group FSParent.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Turn Your Blog into a Book

I usually ignore the messages in the right-hand column of the Blogger dashboard, but today one caught my eye:

Turn your blog into a book!
Blog2Print from SharedBook turns your blog into a soft cover or hard cover book. You pick the cover, add an optional dedication, then preview and you're done. Prices start at $14.95.

Looks like it only works with Blogger blogs. A 20-page softcover book is $14.95, hardcover $24.95. Extra pages are 35 cents each. I previewed a book from this blog with 47 posts and the cost was $24.95 for the softcover book. They also offer a PDF version for $7.95.

May be interesting for those who are blogging to keep a record of their experiences. Other options include:

Blur: Blog Books - Blogger, LiveJournal, TypePad, and WordPress

Do it Yourself with Tips on How to Print it Yourself at Home - Blogger

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Where in the World is Kerala?

I was just going to post, when I received an email from my mother-in-law about her recent visit with us in India. Her words are so descriptive, that I thought others might also enjoy reading it:

Where in the world is Kerala? It is India's southern most state and stretches along the West coast on the Arabian Sea. Our early morning flight on Spice Jet airlines via Mumbai (Bombay) was diverted further north due to the unexpected closing of Mumbai's International Airport for a "dignitary." By the time we refueled and headed back to Mumbai, we still managed to make our connecting flight to Cochin in Kerala.

From the air, Kerala looked like a blue turquoise and jade green jewel, thanks to its 44 rivers and 28 major lakes.

We landed about 5 pm, where our driver was waiting to take us to Kumarakom. It was early evening on Good Friday. The largely Christian population was walking, busing and motorbiking to the many neighborhood temples, shrines and churches that were around every corner. The VERY narrow, bumpy, mostly paved roads were lined with coconut palms, food, drink and trinket stalls, free range cows, goats and chickens, and a few larger red-tile roofed homes. It had a Mediterranean look. Sicily even spotted a bull with painted blue horns. Beyond this, the driver told us, are farms with coconut palm trees, cashew and banana trees, and groves of herbs.

The procession of women in beautiful saris, candle carrying alter boys, and pockets of drummers was a stunning site. The air was sweet with incense. This scene went on for miles, village after village. Where were all these people coming from? Cochin's population is about 1,000,000. Their homes, farms, houseboats and fishing boats are camouflaged in the distinct, quaint areas that wind through the "backwaters" that empty into the Arabian Sea.

It was dusk and the sunset sky deepened the colors of the rusty-pink roadside. A few hair raising encounters from meeting the big red buses on these narrow winding roads kept us on our toes. By this time it was dark. No street lights here except for an occasional light bulb lighting an "open late" food and drink stall. Walkers and bikers were still filling the roads and only a few had flashlights. Our driver turned right off the main road and drove up to a small, dimly lit dock. It did have a small sign that I didn't notice until our return on Monday in the daylight---"For Coconut Lagoon Visitors Only".

The final leg of our weekend destination was another thrilling adventure none of us expected. It began as soon as the driver let us out and drove away. A man (boat driver) with a flashlight came from the boat and assisted the four of us. We stepped up on the boat deck then down three deep steps into the lighted wooden boat where we got comfortable. It was beautifully varnished with white cotton covered seats lining both sides. We left the empty dock. The sputtering motor did not drown out our excitement as we navigated the serene beauty that we all felt and couldn't wait to experience in the daylight.

What a contrast with our arrival to the dock at Coconut Lagoon---a red and yellow hibiscus lined lagoon, with a well-lit dock, back-dropped with coconut palms, and staff in white saris with gold edging, to greet and seat us. We were handed cool, aromatic washcloths to freshen our face and hands and served a refreshing drink of coconut water from the large green/yellow coconuts. By the time we made the short lagoon lined walk to our bungalow, we were feeling the clean, simple, quiet charm and uniqueness of the place.

Our dinner was a Keralan buffet in the covered outdoor restaurant. Spices, scents and aromas filled the humid air. The surprises for the day didn't end yet. Back at the bungalow, I opened the heavy wooded door to the bathroom and showered in the outdoor, stone-lined, "room," that even came with a small friendly green lizard laying on the rocks. We feel asleep to the sound of crickets, frogs and swishing palms, and, oh yeah, air conditioning fans.

Saturday was equally exciting, but relaxing. Alan and Sicily went to the seaside pool for a morning swim. After Natalie and I checked out the "shop" for gifts and goodies, she directed me to the Ayurvedic Center. It did not take much encouragement for me to sign up for the one hour and 45 minute full body, hot oil massage and steam bath. Natalie left me and she went to take drum lessons! I don't remember much of anything after that! Later, Sicily told me all about the pool and the Butterfly Garden that she visited with Daddy.

Our "backwater" boat tour was from 3-6 pm. The four of us climbed aboard the very large "kettuvallum." In the past they were used as rice haulers, now converted to houseboats for touring and even as homes for some residents. They have other boats called chundus...very long boats shaped like the large hood of a snake, which may have up to 100 rowers. One of the two boatmen asked if we wanted tea. We made quick stop at a small dock in a village. He reboarded and quite a while later, served us spicy tea in small cups with hot, peppery french fries!

Later that evening, Sicily and I had a night time pool swim, and then we all attended an exhilarating outdoor performance of a 2000 year old tribal dance and drummer. His brightly painted green face and colorful costume was indescribable. After a room service dinner and movie back at the bungalow, Sicily and I went to sleep. Alan and Natalie had a night out at Coconut Lagoon.

After Sunday Brunch, we explored the lagoon on foot. A few small bulls and cows were tethered here and there to palm trees eating the lush green grass and also keeping it neatly trimmed. Large white heron-like birds floated in and out sight. We found a very long rope swing hanging high from a coconut tree. Sicily had fun sitting in the seat, holding on tight and having the swing of a lifetime.

The varnished wooden boat was waiting to take us back to Cochin. We returned to the small dock, this time in the sunny daylight. I can see why Kerala is called "Gods Own Country" and Cochin is the "Queen of the Arabian Sea." After a month long visit, you might be able to soak in the festivals, five century old temples, forests, waterfalls, beaches, and shop in the best antique and art shops in Kerala. I would go back anytime...

Our last night was spent in a beautiful hotel in Cochin. Sicily was happy to visit and feed the many live chicks and bunnies corralled in a large fence in the hotel lobby for Easter. Our return flight to Mumbai was uneventful this time, so we took advantage of our five hour layover. We taxied to a huge mall where Sicily had fun playing in a large climbing playground. At a restaurant called Nandos, we ate grilled corn on the cob, grilled chicken, and peri-peri fries. Peri-peri is some type of pepper. Refueled, we were ready to head back home to Kolkata.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Mysterious Case of "This May Be the Last Time" and the Foreign Service Fifteen

Some of you may have heard of the foreign service fifteen (a.k.a. FS 15), and then there are some of us who are more familiar with it than we would like to be. It is the typical pounds gained when leaving D.C., on R&R in the U.S., and now I have discovered it can also occur when leaving an overseas post.

In my very biased opinion, people in the foreign service community are in general more fit than the general U.S. population. My first guess is that it has to do with all the sorting, packing, cleaning, unpacking, cleaning and sorting that needs to be done every two to three years. Another factor is when posted to a new place it may take a week or so to resume a normal diet and find where those yummy baked goods are sold.

Well the This-May-Be-the-Last-Time started for me last night, when even at two and a half months out I thought, "this may be the last time I eat this food from this particular place." The hardest case is when you are in the U.S. from am overseas post and you haven't had something in a while or have been craving it from afar. Unfortunately those items for me are never low fat, low sugar, or low calories.

I looking forward to enjoying mangoes, Bengali sweets, kati rolls (from at least three different places), kabobs, aloo posto, beckti, dry chili chicken...I have to stop here and get a snack.

Monday, April 19, 2010

What Do I Do With the Mail?

We were a local hire as residents of Washington D.C., so while Alan was in A-100 we stayed in our house. Being a local hire is a mixed blessing since you don't have to disrupt your life too much prior to moving to post, but you also don't get the full A-100 experience. You feel as though you are only half in the foreign service water during that time.

I now realize that another easy part to being a local hire is figuring out what happens to your mail. When we left D.C. for Kolkata, we forwarded our mail to our post's pouch address. It dawned on me last week, what happens to our mail when we leave post (which will have a month to travel round-trip if we are gone), then on home leave, then in Oakwood, then onto our next post? Whew!

Thankfully mail is becoming less and less important and the 80% we get is junk mail. Heck, the General Accounting Office just announced that the US Postal Service is not a viable business. But getting the mail still brings that warm, fuzzy feeling in my tummy, even if it is only credit card offers.

This is where I often digress into another topic...I have to add that the two things we did before we turned in our untenured officer bid list was decide on where we would live in the D.C. area and put Sicily on the waiting list for FSI daycare. We knew our next post would require a language, and with home leave requirements, we had a ballpark date for FSI.

The to-Oakwood-or-not-to-Oakwood decision was tough for us, since we are still D.C. residents. Tribal affiliations with living in NoVa, DC or Maryland are very strong in the area and living in NoVa just felt against our tribal rules. Well, add our new foreign service tribe and a toddler, and Oakwood seems like a good fit. So we decided to stay at Oakwood during our time in D.C. for training at FSI.

You can not reserve at an Oakwood until you have your PCS (Permanent Change of Station) orders from your HR tech. You then need to notify HR/EX PCS Lodging that you would like to stay at an Oakwood. They interact directly with Oakwood to make your reservation from your approved PCS orders.

Luckily, we did this as soon as we got the orders and were able to get into the Oakwood of our choice. From the chatter on livelines, Oackwood filled up very quickly for the summer transfers, so we are happy that we got in.

Along with the request for our reservation, came instructions including the fact that Oakwood is not equipped to hold mail earlier than two days prior to arrival, so we should put a hold on our mail.

So back to, what do I do with the mail? The US Postal Service will only hold mail for up to 30 days, so if you consider stopping the mail that is being sent to post at least two weeks in advance since it takes at least two weeks to arrive, then at a different location for home leave, then on to Oakwood, we will surpass the 30 day hold.

Enter the Employee Service Center and their Mail Forwarding Services at the Department of State. They will hold or forward mail. You can hold, forward or update your address with the Employee Service Center in person at their office, by email, and through their web page on the Department of State intranet.

This in combination with changing our address (and a possible hold) with the US Postal Service, I can plan on several fun-filled hours of sorting, opening and shredding credit card offers when we arrive at Oakwood. 

Image from

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Volcanic Eruption Under the Eyjafjallajökull Glacier

A friend of mine in Iceland posted this image on Facebook. What an incredible photo of a very tumultuous event both in Iceland and for air travelers across the Atlantic.

Image from Civil Protection in Iceland via Stone

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Cooking with Stella: Movie About Diplomats in New Delhi

Just as I was about to start my Bengali cooking lesson with Krishna this morning, I saw a new post on livelines about the D.C. Filmfest and a movie of interest, Cooking with Stella.

Cooking with Stella is "a lighthearted, satirical, social comedy about an unsuspecting couple in the Canadian Diplomatic Service posted to New Delhi who inherit a household of Indian servants headed by the wily, charming... and totally inspiring cook - Stella."

I had to watch the trailer, and it looks hilarious. Will miss it at the D.C. Filmfest, April 21st and 22nd, but have to hunt it down once we get back.

Synopsis: "Stella Elizabeth Matthews has been a cook in the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi for 30 years. She is brilliant as a cook, and brilliant at creatively padding her salary - with a few pilfered items, some minor overcharging, and a special phone-order duty free business.

A newly posted Canadian diplomatic couple Michael and Maya arrive with their baby and, after an initial jolt when she learns that Michael will be staying home as "diplomatic housewife" while Maya goes off to work, everything goes swimmingly for Stella. Michael was a chef in Ottawa and he is longing to learn authentic Indian cooking. Stella agrees to be his "cooking guru".

But Stella's cozy domestic set-up implodes when Tannu, an honest nanny, joins the household, and threatens to expose Stella's deceptions. Eventually Stella wins Tannu's full cooperation (and then some!). This unlikely partnership embarks on a much grander, riskier scam, which seems to bring disaster.

An unexpected kind of justice is found, but not until the guru-student relationship between Stella and Michael has been sorely tested. Michael has learned many important lessons from his teacher ...including glorious traditional South Indian cooking. And Stella? Well... let's just say dreams sometimes come true in unexpected ways."

See the trailer and more at the Cooking with Stella movie website.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Building the DVD Collection

One thing that has definitely grown besides Coco's weight since we have been in India is our DVD collection.

We had about six total before we left D.C., and now we have umm...more than a hundred. Over half of them are Sicily's collection, so having a toddler is one of the main reasons for the increase, but another is the cost of DVDs in India. New movie releases can be found here for about $4 to $5. The cheaper ones are VCDs and you need a DVD player that will play Indian region DVDs, but at $4 we went a little wild.

It also seems to be another part of the foreign service lifestyle, as many homes have expansive DVD collections for those posts with limited entertainment options.

Another source of cheap DVDs, that is available if you don't live in India but have access to a mailing address in the U.S. is They have a daily special that offers a DVD at a deep discount and a selection of used DVDs.

I have my eye on the complete Bosom Buddies series, but I will wait until it comes own in price.