Saturday, June 29, 2013

The one where I meet Secretary of State John Kerry and we become best friends

So perhaps you have heard by now, one Mr. John F. Kerry, Secretary of State of the United States of America was in India.  If you haven't heard, you can read about it here, here, and here.

It was a short visit, as many of these often are, but Secretary Kerry took a short break from diplomacy to do a meet and greet with Embassy staff and families.

Last year, when then-Secretary Clinton came, the meet and greet was at 2:00 pm.  This time it was at 8:00 am.  Which means you need to be there and in the room by 7:30 am.  That's pretty early.  So early, in fact, I knew not to even bother to ask Mr. ATK.  But I personally never pass up the chance to meet a Secretary of State, much less one I voted for once upon a time.

After being stuck behind some kids, and well out of handshake range, I might add, at last year's meet and greet with Secretary Clinton, I was determined to get a prime location and a photographed handshake.  So as soon as security gave the all clear I was first in the room and scoped out some primo real estate--right in front of the stage.  I was sure to get a handshake from this spot, I thought.  Heck I could have reached out and shook his hand while he was on the stage.  That's how close I was.

Before the Secretary entered, kids and summer hires (college students working at the embassy over the summer) were pre-grouped because he was going to take a photo with each group.  I considered standing behind the kids, like I did last year, but since I had such prime real estate I thought I would stay put.  After all, I was guaranteed a great handshake photo by one of the many photographers that were around.

Remember this one? Classic ATK.

So anyways, Secretary Kerry enters--after a couple of warnings to "not push" but "calmly shake his hand and move out of the way so the next person can step up and shake his hand." Yes, even a room full of diplomats needs to be told not to push.

Basically, the Secretary greeted us, thanked us for our hard work, and proceeded to become the host of a State Department version of "Kids Say the Darnedest Things."  He asked all the kids to come on the stage with him and he talked some about how his parents were in the Foreign Service and he lived in post-WWII Berlin for a time. Then he started asking the kiddos questions, including:

Kerry (to a kid in the front row): Where are you from, young man?

Kid (one Mr. Zander Burnes): America!

So adorable and it elicited quite the laugh from the crowd! A picture of the interaction made the New York Times' India Ink blog.

Another one that was cute was:

Kerry (to a different kid): How many countries have you lived in?

Kid: Five! Including America!

He addressed the crowd some more, and was very affable and funny.  He thanked everyone for their service and he said something that has really stuck with me.  He said, "We work for peace."  I don't know. I really liked that.  We do work for peace and I am proud to be a part of that.

Anyways, after all that, Secretary Kerry got down to do his photos with the kids and summer hires.  It was handshake time and I was ready!

I think the plan the event organizers came up with was for the Secretary to take pictures with each group and then come down to the front and shake hands and greet folks as he made his way to the door to leave.

But that's not how John F. Kerry rolls. He flipped the script, y'all.  Some say he went rogue.  I prefer to recognize it for what it is--he's a wildcard!

After taking pictures, Secretary Kerry meandered through the crowd shaking hands, taking photos with people, and chatting.  Of course, he was now way behind me.  Everyone who had been in the back was suddenly in the new front row. I think this threw the photographers off as well, because they were down by me.  So they rushed to follow him and take pictures, but he didn't just walk straight through--he was moseying around shaking hands with as many people as he could.

So in the end I did get my handshake, but no picture of it.   Still it was a great experience and I did get a few pictures with Secretary which I will now share with you all.

This is the best picture I have.  It's the one where Ambassador Powell and Secretary Kerry photobombed my picture with my friends.  It's okay though I didn't mind. :)

The arrow is pointing at me. See how mine is the back of the head in front of all others? Primo location.

There I am again with the back of the Secretary's head.
There's part of my face with part of someone else's face and the Secretary and Ambassador.
*Author's note: Secretary Kerry and I did not actually become best friends. :(

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Ground control to Major Tom

I assume you have all seen the YouTube video of Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut, singing Space Oddity. If you were one of the five people who didn't, here it is:

I like how he changed the lyrics so, you know, Major Tom doesn't die at the end of the song.


So why am I writing about a YouTube video that was popular like 2 months ago? Well, because today I had the pleasure of meeting NASA Administrator Charles Bolden who stopped by the marine house on post for a meet and greet (Administrator Bolden is a retired Marine Crops General as well as a former astronaut.  He was on the mission that put the Hubble telescope into orbit.  Pretty cool, right?)

Anyways, he talked a bit about current NASA initiatives like preventing asteroids from hitting the Earth (which I am all for, given the effect an asteroid hitting Earth likely had on the dinosaurs) and the Curiosity rover's upcoming attempt to scale Mount Sharp on Mars to study the history of the planet and, you know, look for signs of life.  Not like, little dudes running around (though I'm sure they would be thrilled if they found some of those), but just any signs of things like potassium, nitrogen, stuff like that.

Anyways, it was a really interesting conversation.  It's fascinating to hear people who have been to space describe what it's like to be there.  Sunita Williams, an Indian-American astronaut who is incredibly popular here in India, talked a lot about how you can't see borders in space and how easily you can see it's one world.  Administrator Bolden talked about how you see 16 sunrises 16 sunsets in one day and how incredible the burst of light is at sunrise and how dark the darkness is after sunset.  First of all, I didn't know they orbit the Earth every 90 minutes, so the 16 sunrises and sunsets was news to me.  When I was relaying this to Mr. ATK he asked, "How do they sleep?"  We decided they must have bedrooms without windows.

The other thing he said which I found very...moving, I guess, was how from space you can't see people or buildings or anything.  It's similar to what Sunita Williams said I suppose.  He said you don't see the Earth as a little ball, because they don't get far enough away from it, but you can see pretty much the whole thing.  He said when you look at Earth from space there's no sign that humans necessarily live there.  He said you can see linear patterns from far away so roads kind of show indicating some form of intelligent life obviously lives on Earth.  He also talked about how at night you can see the lights from cities, which creates quite the contrast between places like Europe, which is very well lit, and Africa, which is not.  I've seen the pictures of the world at night and you can see that stark distinction between Africa and Europe, or North Korea and South Korea. I think the pictures alone are powerful, but I can't imagine what it would be like to actually look at it firsthand.

See? Isn't this picture of the Iberian peninsula awesome?

It was all very interesting and made me think about how much I liked space as a kid.  I think space is pretty popular with kids in general (surely, I am not the only one who remembers the Punky Brewster episode where she wants to be an astronaut).  Then, of course, you get to high school and college and realize you need to do all sorts of crazy math and advanced science in order to be an astronaut and you switch to something less hard.  Or in my case, less math-y.  Still I can't help but hear all these cool stories and think, "Man I wish I had put more effort into math and science."

Eh, I guess I'll just have to read about all the cool space stuff and hope someone else saves us from any errant asteroids.  I'm not too worried, these NASA boys seem to have this stuff on lock.

Waiting while Administrator Bolden autographs a picture for me. Yeesh, I have terrible posture.

My autographed picture!
 Also, in the Q&A I asked the administrator what he thought about Newt Gingrich's "colonize the moon" announcement during the Republican primary.  He said, "Everyone laughed at him. But I didn't."  Of course, he then went on to explain that if we are going to have humans live somewhere else in the solar system, it's really Mars we should be talking about, not the moon.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Meditations on Miller High Life (It's the Champagne of Beers, you know)

Greetings Readers!

So it has been almost two months with no post. I know, I know. You've been going through ATK withdrawal.  Mea culpa. It has been a busy couple of months since my last post.  Where to start?

March (before the Thailand trip)

I volunteered to chair the food and beverage committee for the Embassy's annual 4th of July party.  As the title suggests, I head the committee that arranges both the food and the beverages for this shindig.  Now, if there is one thing I enjoy, it's planning a party menu.  I suspect it runs in the family--MamaTK's Packer parties are a thing of Wisconsin legend.  Of course, I don't have a Costco at my disposal here.  And I'm not sure that beer brats and giant cupcakes would be appreciated at this type of party anyway.  Still, it has been interesting working with my team to set up a tasting menu--there have been lots of arguments about whether anything on a skewer is too dangerous and how many types of chicken you can serve when you can't serve beef or pork. Official tastings are next week.  Perhaps I'll let you know how it goes.

Now, while I think I having pretty made food-deciding skills, my drink choosing skills are not so hot.  Really, the problem is beer.  I need to order beer and I really do not need a wide selection of beer. The only guideline I have is that the beer be American (duh!).  I offered up beer choices to other folks on the committee and nobody was really passionate about any particular beer. As a Wisconsinite, I have a loyalty to Wisconsin beers.  Unfortunately, Spotted Cow is not available in India so I am considering buying some Miller product.  I decided to consult noted beer enthusiast Mr. ATK on my decision.  I was heartened when he himself suggested, "Why don't you order Miller?"  So then I was like, "That's what I was thinking.  But what kind of Miller should I order?  High Life?"  This caused him to break into uncontrollable laughter.  Apparently he thinks Miller High Life would not be appropriate for an American Embassy function, even though I non-ironically reminded him that it is "the champagne of beers." He also poo-poo'ed Genuine Draft.  I didn't even bother suggested MD64.  I suggested Blue Moon, too, but he said it's not made in America plus it's Belgian style beer.  He did give Miller Lite his stamp of approval, though.  We'll see what I end up choosing.  Maybe it will be Sam Adams.  You never know. Wildcard, bitches!
What's so funny? It's not like it's Milwaukee's Best or anything.

moving on to...


Most notably, in April I started watching season one of The Wire.  It is now June 1st and we are wrapping up season 3.  As I mentioned before on Facebook, I am now one of those white people who like The Wire. (#85 on the list of "Stuff White People Like")  I am also now one of those people who gets upset that a random review of The Great Gatsby on Al-Jazeera spoiled the fact that Stringer Bell dies.*  Why you gotta do that Al-Jazeera? Why?

Apart from new television watching habits, Mr. ATK and I also visited the holy city of Varanasi in April.  Word on the street is if you die in Varanasi and are cremated there you get to skip reincarnation and go right to heaven.  So as you can imagine there are lots of funeral pyres on the banks of the river.  I can't really describe it to you, so I'll post some pictures instead.  I will say that we stayed on the top floor of our guesthouse and every morning at dawn a marauding troupe of monkey would descend on our front porch, swing in our hammock chair, knock on our window threateningly, and even tried to open our door to come in.  Need I remind you, Mr. ATK is quite afraid of monkeys, ever since he was robbed at the monkey temple in Kathmandu.

Anyways, behold! Varanasi!
Me putting a candle in the river.  Probably not the best thing for the environment as the river is already filthy.  

Funeral pyres at dusk

River parade! (It was Ram's birthday while we were there)

Panoramic view of the ghats from the river

which brings us to...


Well, perhaps you've heard (or perhaps you haven't) but it has been like 113 degrees consistently for  weeks.  I suppose that is not international news, but it certainly makes life unpleasant.

At the end of May, a delegation of ICT executives led by the Deputy Assistant Secretary of South and Central Asian Affairs and a senior official from the Secretary's Office of Global Women's Issues came to India to explore the gender gap in ICT.  This visit was my first playing a pretty big role in the planning and coordination.  The delegation was in India for four days--two in Delhi and two in Bangalore (I obviously worked on the Delhi portion).  Overall, the trip was a success.  I learned a lot sitting in on conversations the delegation had with private sector, governmental, and NGO groups to discuss why fewer girls study science and engineering, why women are less likely to pursue tech careers, and why they are less likely to hold leadership positions in tech firms. Ann Mei Chang, who organized the delegation in Washington and whose idea this whole thing was wrote a great post about the visit for the State Department's "DipNote" Blog.  You can read the whole thing here.  (Also you can see me in the picture! Way in the back, but, still counts!)

One thing I did learn from the trip is for a delegation of 11 women, it is smart to factor in time for bathroom breaks. The more you know....

Of course it wouldn't be a month in the ATK household if we didn't travel somewhere.  In May we decided to beat the heat by heading up to the mountains.  So we took the UNESCO world heritage toy train ride up to Shimla--which used to be the summer capital of India during British rule. (Because, again, it is godawful hot here right now.)

Shimla was beautiful.  I was a little concerned before going because the weather predicted highs of 97 degrees.  While this was still 15 degrees lower than the days in Delhi, it still seemed a bit hot.  I'm not sure whether it ever did hit 97 in Shimla, but walking up on the mountain ridge around noon it didn't feel that hot.  Maybe I am just sensitized to super-heat.

For Shimla, one of the key attractions is the toy train.  It's actually a UNESCO world heritage site (if a train ride counts as a site.)  Unfortunately, when purchasing tickets, I was unaware that there was a first class train and a non-first class train.  We ended up on the non-first class train.  It's not particularly comfortable (and this is a five hour ride.)  Also, though the weather in the mountains is cooler, the ride starts at noon at the bottom of the mountain, where it is 113 degrees.  As a result, the first couple hours of the train ride were hot and sweaty and I was sitting in the sun the whole way.  I'm fairly sure the Indian folks across from us were taking pictures of us, which normally doesn't bother me, but it's kind of annoying when you are dripping with sweat and cranky.  I would have probably taken more pictures but I was not feeling it. 
The toy train passing over one of the many bridges. I didn't actually take this picture

Our train at Barog station on the way to Shimla
Shimla itself is a nice town.  Picturesque and up in the mountains.  The only problem? Monkeys.  Yes monkeys apparently live in alpine forests in India.  As mentioned, Mr. ATK does not like monkeys (what with his monkey-related PTSD and all).  In fact, one day we were followed by a creepy dude.  He was not begging exactly, just following us and babbling.  He followed us for ten to fifteen minutes as we walked around one day.  While I became increasingly agitated by his stalking, Mr. ATK was focused on not crossing any monkeys.  I kept pestering Mr. ATK, "That guy is following us!"  Only to be told, "Careful, that monkey is walking right toward us."  The guy did end up following us into a restaurant, and then Mr. ATK was like, "Hey that guy is following us!"  He (the stalker) may have been harmless and maybe just a bit touched in the head or something, but it is still disconcerting to be followed. Thankfully, he wasn't waiting for us when he got out of the restaurant.  And there were no monkey-related incidents.

Also, Shimla has a famous temple dedicated to the Hindu god Hanuman (aka the monkey god.)  We did not go visit that temple.

Mr. ATK in front of one of the many "Beware of Monkeys" signs

Public enemies 1 and 2

Panoramic of Shimla


June has just started so who knows what it will bring.   Hopefully I'll get around to letting you know sometime before August.

*The irony of me spoiling String's death by writing that is not lost on me. Thankyouverymuch.