My weekend project – rooftop cabana

I started working on a cabana on our roof patio during our winter break last year.  We have worked on improving the space quite a bit since then.  We brought up our potted plants in the spring.  Some survived, some thrived and some died.  Just before school ended we bought some used patio furniture from a family that was leaving Chennai.  A few months ago I bought the materials to build the posts and support structure to hold the roof in place.  I now need to have the roof re-thatched.  I did it once and now might look to see how much it costs to have a professional do the job.


Rooftop cabana
The posts and beams I purchased by the pound from a wood dealer. They were salvaged from a home that was demolished.
Cabana and patio furniture.
I left one side of the roofing open because of the dominant wind direction. Now that the posts are more secure it can be thatched.
Water buffalo skull
I found this skull at a campsite while rafting between India and Nepal. There were a lot of leopard tracks on the beach, both before we arrived and the next morning…
Cabana shade.
It is amazing how much cooler it is in the shade.
Mutton and chicken
I just bought these signs from the neighborhood butcher. I’ll attach the metal to plywood and hang them over the grill.
We had to re-pot this plant. If it outgrows this pot we’ll not be able to move it!
Mitten loves hanging out on the roof.



A Diwali celebration

About a month ago we had our break for Diwali – the festival of light.  The school had fall break then, but just before we had a Diwali party at one of the administrator’s homes.  Brooke was in visiting from Bangladesh during her fall break so we dressed in our local outfits and enjoyed good food and friends…

A sampling of our medical costs as expats in India

One of the benefits that I documented in my extensive spreadsheet when we were considering moving to India was the price and quality of the medical care.

Last weekend the whole family went to the dentist for our six-month cleaning.  It cost under $25 each for Pepper, Jordan and I, and under $12 for Jacob.  It was under 90 USD for all four of us to have our teeth cleaned.  I’m submitting the receipts to our insurance company right now.   I suspect that in the US we would have paid about $90 for each of us while in the US.

This is significant.  If we can save money from out of pocket for our medical bills — especially now that we have four of us — we’re better off.  Unfortunately, our insurance provider (Global Benefits Group or GBG) denies coverage for pre-existing conditions for one year for adopted children.  That’s been against the law in the US for many years.But in about six months, when Jacob is eligible,  I’m sure we’ll be spending a bit of money on determining if we can do anything to help Jacob with his symptoms from cerebral palsy.

Pepper has had and been ignoring pain in her shoulder and back for many months.  a week and a half ago she finally got in to see a doctor.  Four and a half hours later, with blood work, x-ray and multiple MRIs conducted, she had created a medical bill of just under $500.  In the US, that $500 might pay for half of one of the MRIs she had done.   We submitted the bill for that work to our insurance carrier and they paid all of it.  Every cent.  The prescriptions she purchased cost a total of $12.44.  It really almost isn’t worth the 20 minutes that it takes me to file a claim!

I have been pretty disillusioned with medial insurance for a long time now.  I don’t know how much my employer pays for our insurance, but I suspect that I would rather have that money in my pocket rather than paid to an insurance company even with as much as we seem to be using insurance right now.  I think it is probably better off that I not know how much they pay.  I know that for 12 years while working for the city that I came nowhere near 1/10th of the benefit out of the fees paid by the city for the insurance.  The insurance company was being paid at least two thousand dollars a month for coverage for the three of us.  The policy in Mongolia was so restrictive that nothing we had done in those two years was covered.

Would I rather be uninsured?  Honestly, probably not.  At least, not with the insurance that we have now, it does seem to cover much of the things we need covered.

Working a dream job (relatively speaking)

I know a woman who has lots of experience in her field.  She was able to name her salary and then on top of that her employer pays for her transportation costs.  She works just on weekdays and doesn’t have to bring any work home.  She is largely able to work whatever hours she wants as long as the work gets done.  She gets an annual bonus of about 8% of her yearly salary.  For much of the summer she even works reduced hours while still paid the same.

That salary that she named is only $130 a month.  We pay an additional $16.50 for her monthly bus pass.  She insists on calling me “master” and her job is to clean our house and cook a few times a week.  This is one of the alluring but surreal attractions to living in a place like India.

I am thankful when each evening I pull back the sheets which have been tucked in as tight as a hotel’s.  We have her cook about twice a week and coming home to a meal that is ready to eat as soon as we walk in the door is just incredible.  Sure we can pull that off if we order pizza, but home-cooked south Indian food from scratch is much more satisfying. (And much less expensive!)  She handles our laundry from wash to ironing.  We may have to search for our clothes in Jordan’s room, or put our neatly folded clothes that are set on our beds into our closets, but that’s a small hassle when traded for the rest of the laundry chore.  She washes and puts away dishes.  We just need to keep up with them a little on the weekends.  She does floors and bathrooms.  The other day I scooted the stove and fridge out and she scoured the area clean.  If we set out fruit or vegetables on a cutting board in the morning then when we get home they are chopped and set in the fridge.  She’s even helping to keep the ice trays in the freezer full.

Sometimes it is easy to think that we’re spending over $1700 a year that we could be saving by doing our own laundry, cleaning and a little more cooking.  But I bet that once a week we’d order take out or pizza or go out to a restaurant and spend about $700 a year to have an evening where we can spend a little more time as a family and less time cooking and cleaning.  Then we spend about $5 a day for the rest of the chores.  How much would you pay to not do just  laundry or clean the house?  How much would you pay a kid to do chores like taking the trash out, cleaning the litter box, or washing the dishes?

I think that she’s happy working for us.  We’re already looking at when we should increase her pay, because we’ve had a few cleaners and would really like to keep this one!

Five years of travel together

I realized that five years ago I was in China visiting Pepper.  We spent part of her fall break traveling China and seeing Beijing, the Great Wall, the Terracotta Warriors (look at how small Jordan is!),  the Shaolin Temple and Longmen Grottoes as well as her home of Shanghai.  I got to hang out with and get to know Jordan.

Later that year they visited Alaska.  I went back to China along with Kevin and we checked out the Ice Festival in Harbin.  Then the spring of 2010, we did a trip to Africa with principle time in Zimbabwe and stops in Botswana and Zambia.

Walking with lions in Zimbabwe.

After they moved to Alaska we kept up our travels.  Our honeymoon was spent trompsing the ancient Mayan civilizations through modern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras.

The next year the family went to parts of Europe with Kevin and Trina.  We hit Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Prague and then Italy.

Figuring out our plan in Rome.
Figuring out our plan in Rome.

Later that year was when we moved to Mongolia.  We got to see quite a bit of the country — though wished we could have seen more.  We spent time in Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka for our winter breaks from the cold.  We passed through Beijing and Seoul a number of times.

We rode the Trans-Siberian railroad from Ulaanbaatar to Moscow and spent a bit of time seeing things in Russia.

Pepper ready to travel!

We’re in India now and have started to see some bits of the country.  We headed off to Bangladesh for our fall break and have plans for the rest of our upcoming breaks to spend within India seeing more of the amazing and diverse country.

Along the way, Jordan has been with us for many of these trips.  For some, Kevin and Trina have been there.  Also, Brooke and Mike VanElzakker and Jay and Shannon… friends and family that I’m sure we will travel with again.

Five years gone, and many more ahead of us!

Rafting the Ganges River

Discovering India

I’m not just a high school PE teacher.  I also serve as the coordinator for the school’s Discover India program.  This is the school’s week-without-walls experience where all high school students (there are also middle school trips but I’m not charged with them) go on one of over a dozen week-long experiences throughout India.  Last year we had trips that rode on and slept in camel-pulled carts, rafting and kayaking trips on the Ganges river, diving experiences off the Andaman Islands, biking the Himalayan foothills… In short, a great collection of trips that celebrate the diversity of the country.

I went on “The Utimate Atali Experience” which I picked because it had climbing, ropes course, and rafting.  Three teachers and 18 students flew to Dehli and then on to Dehradun.  Then we took a two hour bus ride to Rishikesh and on to the hotel we’d stay in.  It turns out that we stayed in one of Condé Nast Traveler magazine’s 50 Best New Hotels In The World 2013.  When we arrived at the hotel they had hot tea made from a local flower.  We all had a bit of a hike up to our rooms from the “lobby” but the facility was incredible.

DSC_6960 DSC_6961 DSC_6964 DSC_7097 DSC_7098 DSC_7430

Of course, we were not there just to hang out at a hotel.  We worked with Aquaterra to provide us with the adventure components of the trip.  We had a couple of days of rafting on the Ganges River.  One of the days they let us hop out of the boats and float in the water through some low class rapids.  we had to hold on to the rope around the edge of the raft and while I was rolling from my back to my  front in the water and slipping my fingers from the rope I felt and watched as my titanium wedding band popped off of my finger, floated in air like a slow motion scene from a movie, and disappeared into the murky, frothy waters of the Ganges River.

Pepper was amused when she found out.



We also spent time on a hike and an afternoon helping repaint a local school.

This Sunday, Jordan and I depart for our trip for this year.  We’ll spend three full days rafting the Mahakali River expedition style.  The Mahakali is a river that borders India and Nepal.  Our travel just to the put-in is a flight to New Delhi, an overnight train, then a six hour bus ride into the mountains.

I can’t wait to get on our way for the trip.  Aside from Jordan there are another dozen great students and a coworker that I look forward to getting to know better, discovering India, and finding a little more out about ourselves.

My five funniest bathroom experiences with my adopted son

I am sure that even if I read every page of all of the adoption advice books ever written, that these situations would not be covered.   In just five months I have had some crazy experiences in bathrooms with my 9 year old son.  His English is progressing quickly.  My Chinese language acquisition has stopped entirely.  Certainly the communication gap has made a lot of these things that I cal already look back on and laugh at…

First, in my bid for Adoptive Father of the Year award, I locked him in a bar bathroom in Beijing.  Wait, let me explain.  It was the tasting room at Slowboat Brewery.    We had been to the tasting room a few days before for their great beer selection and wonderful burgers.  We met the wife of one of the owners and their toddler was waddling around the place so it was family friendly.  But on the night of the lock-in, it was a busy Friday evening.  Jacob announced a need to go to the bathroom so he went into their single-toilet unisex bathroom.  Moments later, a patron opened the door to see our scrawny kid plunked down on the rim.  I hopped up from my seat and apologized to the guy and showed Jacob that I was locking the door and closed it behind me.  A few minutes later I realized I had made a mistake.  We spent the next 15 minutes having people that spoke Mandarin try to explain to him how to unlock the door, staff searching for the key, bartenders calling the owners, and pictures drawn and slipped under the door.  No luck.  He didn’t understand or couldn’t hear, no key existed, and the pictures must not have been enough.  So I pulled a card out of my wallet and jimmied the door open in a few seconds.  (Yeah, I should have started with that.)  the door opened and he smiled at me.  Then when he walked out, the entire bar cheered and clapped.  So naturally, he broke down in tears.  Check please.

Another instance was over the summer.  He and I went into the restroom and of the two urinals, he ran up to the adult height one, leaving me the low one.  Moments later I’m wiping a splash of his own urine from his eye.

Of course, collecting the stool sample is probably one of the funniest too.

For a while, if I asked Jacob to flush the toilet after he used it he would grab the toilet brush and get to work.  This is probably because he’s not used to western toilets with standing water.  Flushing a toilet as he is accustomed would have involved in a bucket of water being dumped on top of the squat toilet.  Also, he may have been trained to scrub toilets for all we know!


Finally, over the summer we visited with an adoptive medicine specialist doctor.  At one point during the conversation about his health she told me that I should explain to him how to clean under his foreskin.  That is the kind of thing that I am sure that Google translate would have botched.  So when an opportunity arose while he was showering I tried explaining using a lot of pointing, hand gestures and our limited vocabulary.

I’d love to know what he was thinking as I was pantomiming “cleaning under your foreskin.”  I’m pretty sure that we’ll have to discuss this more later.

Three times that saving a dumb piece of paper made my travel less painful

The toll booth slip

A few weeks ago we had an incident.  We were shopping for a couple of cases of beer for a party we were hosting.  Alcohol is strictly controlled in this state of India and our driver had figured out that a place a little south of us had slightly cheaper prices for a case of beer – about $3 for the box of 12 big bottles.  It is just past the toll gate south of us.  So we went just past it and bought some but as we passed back through the toll gate, a police officer flagged us over.  He saw the two cases of beer plainly displayed in the back seat and told us that we were breaking the law.

A few hours south of us is Pondicherry – a small city within a very small “state” that pretty much just includes the city.  Alcohol tax and restrictions are much lighter so some bootlegging occurs.  The officer probably just wanted a bribe.  My driver pulled out the time-stamped toll booth receipt which showed we clearly hadn’t made the trip to Pondicherry.  I’m sure the officer knew any way.  He didn’t bother to open the boxes to see if the Tamil Nadu tax labels were on the bottles.  Instead he made up some statement about how we’re only allowed to transport two bottles at a time.  A short wait while he made, or pretended to make, a phone call and they waved us on.

The taxi receipt

Kevin made a trip to China while I was visiting Pepper there.  The second week of his visit, Pepper had to be at work so we were able to explore Shanghai a little.  We got around using taxis.  One of the places we went was the museum of propaganda where they have a massive collection of communist propaganda posters.  We spent time there and walked around a little.  We took a taxi looking for a place to eat I think.  At some point Kevin realized he didn’t have his GoPro.  We found some very helpful coffee shop employees that spoke English and with the receipt from our taxi ride we were able to call the company and identify the cab number.  The GoPro was slipped down in the recess for the seat belt, this had to be at least an hour after we had the ride.  We tipped the driver well and laughed at our good fortune.  Kevin later left that GoPro near a flower bed in Trondheim, Norway.  Dang those small cameras!

The ATM receipt

During a bit of wandering in Cuzco, Peru I used my ATM card.  Five hours later and lots of walking I decided I should stock up on soles because I was getting on a train to Machu Picchu at 5:30 in the morning and didn’t know how available an ATM would be in the town below that I would stay in.  My card was gone.  I didn’t know if I had left it in the machine or somehow dropped it in my walking.  I ended up having to do a bunch of things to track down the card — but quite critical in the process was that I had the receipt from a balance inquiry and withdrawal.  I was able to find the bank and get my card back by mid morning the next day.

That experience made when a machine sucked up a card while we were in Guatemala on our honeymoon much less worrisome (but no less stressful!)

So there you have it.  When you travel, it is probably a good idea to keep those stupid scraps of paper, admission tickets, receipts and other items for at least a day.  You never know when some information on it will keep you out of trouble with the law, bring your possessions back or  make it so you don’t have to cut your trip short because you can’t access your money!

Experiencing “security situations” overseas

Banners of support for Jaya are everywhere in Tamil Nadu.  My favorite pray for eternal life for her.

Today is Jordan’s birthday.  So we went to the mall and he had some friends meet him there for lunch.  Afterward when we were in the LEGO store, a parent of one of the kids told us that we should probably head home because the Chief Minister of the state, Jayalalithaa, had (essentially) just been convicted of corruption.  She said there might be protests and violence so it would be wise to head home.  We were headed home anyway.  On the drive home we saw some fairly large gatherings of citizens and some intersections had quite a few police present.  Businesses were closing up shop.  At one intersection we saw a group of men positioning an apparent effigy of the head of the political party that filed the charges.  They were moving it into the intersection and about to ignite it.  Police seemed to just stand by.  We made it home without incident.  The biggest inconvenience will probably be not being able to have pizza delivered for the group of boys sleeping over tonight.

A while back our cell phones buzzed with notices to stay home today and tomorrow from our school’s text message system.  Our generator has been running for the last 30 minutes because something has knocked the power out.  Though that happens often enough on any normal day.

A person sleeps by the side of the road under depictions of a politician.  There really isn’t graffiti in Chennai – just political ads painted everywhere.

A few years ago while we were in Mongolia we also were warned of a potentially violent situation after the unceremonious arrest of a former president of the country on corruption charges.  We received emails from the US embassy which were also forwarded by the school.  We disregarded the warning (we needed to get home anyway) and ventured to Sükhbaatar Square where just a few years earlier five people had been killed during rioting as part of political protests.  Nothing was happening at all.

We’re not cavalier about being around these situations.  But the chance to observe a significant local historical event has a significant pull for us.

It isn’t like western countries are immune to rioting.  We just seem to usually use excuses like our sports team winning some championship.

Anyway, we’re safe at home with plenty of food and water.  The power is back on.  Any violence is highly unlikely to reach our sleepy town or down our quiet street far from the serious bustle of the city.

Ryan McFarland's travel, thoughts, projects and more.