Saturday, July 18, 2015

US Diaries: Coming to America

It's been a couple of months, and last week I was in a focus group discussion to understand the pros, cons, and feedback of the whole moving to the US experience.
Some pretty useful stuff.
I'm going to share this with you - it's always good to have that one single cheat sheet, a to-do list to deal with the vast confusion of paperwork, bureaucracy, requirements, and paperwork.
Did I mention the paperwork?

This is for the specific scenario of moving from India to the US for a long-term, employment-based stay; I'm assuming you already have a job offer and an approved visa.

So, what do you need to live in the US?

  1. The passport, with visa. It's what gets you past the door, for starters. It's a good idea to get 2 scans done - one of the entire passport, and one of the 1st, last and visa pages. 
  2. Form I-94. It's going to be needed in a lot of places initially, to show you arrived legally. Just go to the DHS site, put your name, DoB and passport number, and take a print. Valid for a month, then you print again. You can't save a PDF for later. It takes a couple of days to appear in the system after arrival, though can be faster.
  3. SSN, or Social Security Number. This is your identity in the US; it also records / links with your credit rating (more on that later, it's also vitally important). You're going to need this in most official / government stuff. Fix an appointment at the local Social Security office, and show up with the paperwork needed. Do this as early as possible - in fact, as soon you get your I-94. 
  4. Bank Account. Some banks may let you open an account before you have an SSN, depending on visa class and where you work. Not many. You need the account to set up your check payments, get a credit card (which is needed most places for payments). That credit card? Also ties into your credit score, depending on usage; don't spend more than 30% of your limit, pay all bills, keep few cards and don't roll over / transfer credit.
  5. Housing. Once you have a checkbook and an SSN, you have the basic minimum needed to look for a place to rent. Since you don't have any credit history (Ha! there it is!) at this point, you'll probably need to pay a hefty security deposit; in the US, no history is assumed to be bad history. Craigslist is a good place to look around for apartments. Since your biggest constraint is transport - and everyone in US is used to driving - look for apartments that have a nearby (walkable) grocery market or frequent buses to one.
  6. Phone. Again, no credit history (remember?), so you probably don't qualify for most installment plans. Buy a phone outright, whatever you can afford. Get a data plan, because you'll need google maps a lot to get around. 
  7. Electricity / Utilities: Congratulations, you now have a house! Getting a utilities account usually means heading down to the local utilities office and signing up with your new address, so they can start billing you. The renter will also want you to provide proof of this within a few days. 
  8. Renter Insurance: seems to be a new thing, but some apartment complexes require the tenant to get renter insurance and may help you with it. Can be bought online or on the phone, if you have a credit card. 
  9. Internet / Cable: Again, can be done over the phone; find out who the local supplier is, call them, sign up, and they take your credit card number and send you a modem / router / set top box with instructions. Needs to be set up and activated online, or you can ask the local rep to do it for you if you have some money to burn. 
  10. Furniture: furnished apartments are rare and expensive. Cheaper to buy it yourself. Again, it's back to Craigslist, or IKEA. Buy the absolute minimum, and keep looking out for garage sales / clearances. 
  11. Medical Insurance: Your employer should be covering you and dependents. If anyone isn't covered, get covered ASAP; the US is the most expensive place in the world to fall sick and be hospitalized without insurance. There are insurance exchanges where you can get basic coverage for lower rates, but you'll need to research. Go over the employer benefits in detail, check for exactly what's covered and what isn't. When you need treatment, if possible, before any procedure, confirm that the procedure, the doctor, the staff, and the hospital is covered; for any extensive hospitalization, it's quite possible to hit a combination where one of these is not covered, and you get a massive bill. Medical, Vision, Dental, and Mental may be all separate. Also watch out for the 2nd month; the 1st month, your benefits are being set up, so they may not be deducted for the 1st month salary. The 2nd will charge you retroactively; have money kept aside!
  12. Taxes: Your employer will give you a bunch of documents; W2, W4, W9. Hang onto them. Taxes have to be filed before April 15, and you do it yourself; legal help can be costly. The first year, you can't file online, have to print and submit physical copies. Taxes will be around 30-40%, and both the state and the center tax you. Get an ITIN (income Tax Identification Number) or SSN for everyone you're claiming as a deduction when filing. 
  13. Public Transport: Google Maps on your phone is your best friend, will tell you exactly when and where to catch what to get to wherever you want. Find out if where you live has some kind of common pre-loaded swipe card (eg. Clipper) for buses / trains, much more convenient than fumbling with change. Consider a bicycle if the weather's decent. 
  14. Driving License: An Indian license may or may not be allowed after the first few weeks, depending on the mood of the cop who pulled you over; usually, not after the 1st month of arrival. You can apply for a US license with your I-94, Passport, and $40; you have to get your eyes checked, give biometrics, and do a written test, all in one shot at the Dept of Motor Vehicles, but the lines are long and appointments take a long time to get. Very likely you'll also have to do a driving test, which is by appointment only; that can take weeks. Use that time to learn; passing the written gives you a permit that lets you practice IF there's someone with a valid license with you in the car. Time to call up all your friends with licenses! You also need to be insured (with car insurance) before the driving test. A DL is also a standard ID, used in applying for cards / loans / buying liquor and some medicines; even if you're not driving, get an ID card at the DMV (same process and documentation but no tests needed). 
  15. Car Rental: you can rent (most expensive) on a monthly / weekly / hourly basis. You can lease for a 1 or 2 year period (cheaper, but you're locked in for the duration). Both of these are possible without a credit history, but they also require extremely expensive insurance, since anyone leasing / renting to you wants to be fully covered. Buying a car lets you get away with a minimal insurance payment, when...
  16. Buying a car: Remember, you have zero credit history (you getting an idea of how critical this is?), which also means no dealer is going to give you the time of the day or bank, a loan. You can get financing, though; look up credit unions and get a pre-certification. It's a bit more expensive than bank loans, but a lot more possible. 
  17. 401K and HSA accounts: This is still your money, tax-free, but you will not be able to access it except under specific circumstances. Find out what these are, and take full advantage of employer matching to 401K contributions even if you have to eat grass for a week. It's free money!
  18. Shopping: Never buy full price retail. Everything comes on sale sooner or later, and the discounts are worth it. Don't wait for special day sales either like Black Friday, the slow-moving (meaning low-quality) stock has the biggest discounts. Search for discount codes online before buying. Eating out is expensive, cooking at home remarkably cheap; when you're out exploring the city, carry your lunch. 
  19. Kids and Schools: Preschools and daycares (under 5 yrs) are private and expensive, and usually unaffordable on a single salary. They also come with a long waitlist period, so pick some options and get on the waitlist as early as possible. Public schools zone according to where you live, so if you have kids in that age range, look for schools when choosing a place to live. 
  20. EAD: Employment Authorization. i.e. a Work Permit. Not for you, but some visa categories allow the spouse or dependent to work; costs about $300-400, takes a few months, but is usually a good idea. If nothing else, stops the dependents from getting bored or going berserk with the credit card. 
  21. Missing home? Look for the famous neighborhood Indian Store. It's like an explosion of FMCG; almost anything and everything you could want that's South Asian will be here in some form. 
And as an add-on, some stuff to think about before you leave from India:
  1. Medicines: enough for the 1st 2 months until your paperwork is in place and benefits kick in; no need to carry a mini pharmacy in your bag like you've been told. 
  2. NRE/NRO account: You can't operate a local bank account in India as an NRI, need to convert to NRE. This will let you keep paying recurring payments like PPFs and LICs, or accept refunds / payments / etc. 
  3. IDP (International Driving Permit): Not needed unless your Driving License is not in English.
  4. Leave behind a bunch of signed blank cheques for an operational account with funds in a safe place, accessed by a trusted person; may need to make some emergency payments if there's any problems with the NRE account setup. 
So that's it - I've covered only a few basics, any suggestions / advice welcome. All the best!

Monday, December 08, 2014

Retail Therapy

It's been a while, and not because I haven't been travelling; I've been travelling a little too much. On the other side of the planet now, new continent, new life, and simply put, no posts because too much has happened - is happening - to put into a post.
So, let me put it into many posts. Many, many posts.

In no discernible order.

Tonight, it's all about Shopping In America.

I'm standing in a Walmart on Black Friday. There were a dozen police cars parked outside, cops standing by to take down riots before they happen - more likely because of Ferguson, not 50% off, but they're there. Inside, the checkout line stretches all the way back to the back of the store, and that's quite a bit for a Walmart. Every 4th person is struggling to balance a giant, no-brand TV; that's been the flavor of the season, with Samsung especially going on a berserker marketing blitz that literally saw 2 Samsung ads for every one of any other company. Everyone's here in groups; 1 line holder, and 2-3 others zipping around bringing stuff back for the cart. It's a level of crazy consumerism, but it's nowhere near the crazy I was promised happens. Everyone's kind of... sober.
It's a scam, you know. The marketers know people expect deals, and save for them. They know the public's going to be in the stores on that Black Friday, money in hand, ready to buy, and boy, do they serve them up deals. Just not the deals they were looking for.
The good stuff isn't going to go at half off, or even a third. The cheap shit, the clearance sections, the overstocks and the to-be replaced is what's on the block; A year down the road it's gonna fail, and it's back in line for the season's next big thing. I generally hang onto TVs for 5 years, and I'm an anachronism. And a marketer's nightmare.
It's cold enough outside for fog breath, and the parking lot is full. A sea of cars, pickups, and station wagons, often with an excitable gaggle of people trying to tie a giant tv / mattress / unidentified box to the roof with ropes.
The Walgreen's down the road is deserted.

One of the things that kind of creeps up on you is how the retail space is full of old people. Really old people, like 60+. Why are they here? Why aren't the young people working? Is it a lower-wage thing they have to take because they can't do the more physically demanding jobs that pay more?

Retail is bizarre. There's so much stuff - rows and rows of minute variations of the same product, stacked up to warehouse ceiling heights. Back home if I wanted cornflakes, I'd have to choose between 5 boxes in the medical store across the road, one of which was too oversweetened and one had an obviously past-expiry-date look. Here, I drive 5 miles to browse through a thousand choices.

A Costco or Walmart on weekends is freakishly like being back home... all the Indians are out and ready to stock up.

Ikea. This probably can fill an entire post on its own. It's an experience unlike anything I've seen before. You get in, and you walk, walk, walk through worlds of ideal rooms and stacks and stacks of identically minimalist, slightly uncomfortable furniture, until exhausted, you finally reach the sign that says 'exit, lower level'. But that's the end. Exit is actually the same distance away on the lower level through all the things you can put on/in that furniture. It's like escaping from the Death Star by the time it's over.
They had some fantastic food, though.
The used section is a must-see before you go; Some actual good deals there, if you're not very... picky.
Then comes the assembly. It's the most fun I've had in months. Giant Lego. The stuff is extraordinarily designed - everything to fit together just so, and in no other configurations; no leftover screws, tabs, etc, and if there are, you did something wrong.

Everyone's got a loyalty program. Half of which are credit cards.

But, there's always a pattern, a system that can be cracked - and things get much easier once you do 2 things.
1. Know exactly what you're going to buy. Browsing is a black hole, it'll suck you in and spit you out impoverished and overburdened. Make the list, check it twice, proceed to step 2.
2. Know exactly where to get it. Everyone's got a focus area, either in what they sell or in how they sell it. Go to the wrong place, and you'll still find what you're looking for - it's impossible not to find things to buy - but it'll either be in the economy pack fit for a family of a dozen, or genetically modified, or hand-laundered by house elves in phoenix tears or something.

This applies to online as well.

Ok, time to sleep. More later. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Pondicherry, 2013

The last year has been a particularly dry spell as far as travelling goes - Life's changed pretty significantly, and probably will be for a long time yet.
But hey, just because you can't travel like before doesn't mean you don't travel at all. Right?

An early morning flight, most of which is spent strolling up and down the aisle with K in her sling to put her to sleep, brings us to Chennai airport at 9:30.
  • Travel Tip: Babies: If travelling with a baby, a sling is critical - no issues with space, check-in, metal detectors, leaves both hands free, and doesn't screw your back. Feed baby during takeoff and landing to keep inner-ear airways clear (no popping, discomfort) but if she's asleep, let her sleep. Our doc also recommended Atarax as a pre-flight dose, but we didn't see any difference (1 flight with and one without). Also carry a carry-cot - it's excellent for stowing the baby in at restaurants to stop her from plopping off the chairs or crawling around. If she's teething, carry soup sticks. 
Some people have all the fun on holidays... at our expense

At the airport, we wait for the taxi to take us to Pondicherry. We decided to be smart, researched, and booked in advance from Auroville Transports (No, I'm not giving a link) - who didn't show up, despite a confirmation on email. After several extremely irate calls (each and every single one of which ended with the assurance that the cab was 5 minutes away) the bugger showed up an hour and a half late. So if you're booking, avoid them - they're much cheaper than regular cabs, but you get what you pay for. Or call them 2 hours early.
  • Travel Tip: Cabs are the best option, going straight from airport to wherever you're staying in Pondi, and you can catch them from the airport itself - costs around Rs. 3700 (in 2013) for a mid/small AC car. Or you can book in advance. 
The Eastern Coast Road is more picturesque but also prone to more traffic, while the bypass is faster. Excellent road - around 3 hours later, we roll up to an elegant colonial-style hotel called Le Dupleix, which used to be the official residence of the (much) former Governer of the French Colonies in India, Joseph Francoise Dupleix.

Le Dupleix

The hotel is excellent - old furniture, French styling with nice large verandahs, wood-paneled rooms with a deep-chilling AC, brass four-posters and colonial-era collapsible crib, free wifi and very pleasant, competent, and friendly staff. Yes, I highly recommend it.

Le Four-Poster

Le Art of Conversation

Le view

Le door

Le pleasant touches

What is French styling? Lots of whitewash, wrought-iron, stone-flagged and tree-shaded central courtyards, plants, elaborate gateposts with bouganvillaea draped elaborately over them, and wood. And mirrors. Lots and lots of big mirrors. The French definitely did looove to see themselves.

Pondi's basically in 2 parts - the French Quarter, which has relatively cleaner roads, boutique shops, hotels, restaurants, all French-style architecture villas and some tourist attractions... and the rest - the Tamil 'quarter' - is regular India, with traffic, noise, shops and crowds. The two are worlds apart, divided by a broad road and canal... but don't expect to be in France by staying here, it's still very much India with a little continental twist.

Really, really hot.

It's hot as Hades to begin with, and there's a lot of construction / renovation / repair going on, so much scaffolding, building material and rubble lies around, and the crowd is very clearly not European. It is, however, quiet, quite clean - almost pristine - and the preference for greys / whites / yellows makes for some very picturesque and photogenic cityscapes. It's a bit like Government Goa, actually - mostly Panjim / Miramar - with France replacing Portugal in the details.

Sooooo cleeeeeean... like canvas... must... spit... paan... 

Abbey Rue

Ridiculously photogenic yellow building

Random Temples

  • Travel Tip: Autos are everywhere and can take you anywhere inside Pondicherry for Rs. 50, flat rate, no negotiation, no meter - but you can walk from one end of the city to the other in under 30 minutes easily. For trips outside, negotiate a rate (coming and going), and they'll wait for you and bring you back. Auroville is 700, beaches around half that. 
During the day - we were in the off-season, the summer - it's a killing heat. Not a leaf stirs, and humidity drowns you. The town feels drugged by the heat, somnolent - the best you can do is sleep, or at least carry enough to read. Old white fans gently rumble away in the verandahs, somehow with a lot more character and soporific effects than the invisibly, inaudible ACs.

Carry a good book. Or five. 

  • Travel Tip: Off-Season Pondi: Good rates, plenty of room to negotiate, plenty of vacancies, no crowds, but expect to find several places shut for the summer, especially restaurants and boutiques, and the ones that are open may have the best chef on holiday. 
Once the evening comes on, we head out for a walk along the Pondicherry Promenade. 
A couple of things jump out immediately. There's a very large expat population here - not just French, but all miscellaneous Europeans - that live and work here, and roam gently (and wobbling a bit) around on cycles dressed in loose, flappy, pastel shades, generally looking extremely peaceful. The Tamils on the other hand, come across as much more energetic and excitable, and almost universally in white. The tourists, of course, are like tourists anywhere - extremely colorful, but just a little bit wrong for the weather.
The promenade is decent - it's basically a pleasant walk along the sea, with lots of locals and tourists alike out to chill / chat / check each other out, with the usual balloon-sellers, chanawallas, etc roaming around. No sand on this beach - it's a rocky shoreline with a traffic-free road, that's it. You can walk it in 15 minutes. Reminded me a bit of Bandstand, or the Panjim riverside. A couple of statues, a memorial, some government buildings. One end is the old jetty, sticking out into the ocean; if you've seen Life of Pi, you'll recognize it, though precious few other glimpses of Ang Lee's Pondicherry are visible... you have to really time your shots.

Ang Lee ne di Ung li.

This is not Goa, or Paris, and this is not Chennai either, but it is a bit like Chennai's Alibagh equivalent. The weekend beach getaway. Every metro city has one, I guess... a seaside and a hillstation, each. Goa and Matheran. Digha and Darjeeling. Etc.
  • Travel Tip: Babies: A lot of meditation places / ashrams in Pondicherry are off-limits to children under three years. 
The bulk of our entertainment time is basically restaurant-hopping; The Governor's Lounge (loved the courtyard breakfasts); Baker Street (brilliant quiche and giant sandwiches); Carte Blanche (absolutely amazing ambiance and fish); Mama Shanthe's (too hot, power cut, mosquitoes); Villa Shanti (very elegant, sophisticated, minimalist whitewashed world but excellent food); Auroville Cafeteria (substantial quantity and decent quality); missed out several we wanted, discovered others... 

Baker Street Breakfast

More cool, minimalist whiteness at Villa Shanti

The Governor's Lounge

All in all, I'd say the Carte Blanche stood out over the rest, with its tree lights, leaf-strewn verandah, dim, soft lounge-y music, warm lighting, bookshelf and display pieces in the portico, helpful and intelligent servers who gave the right recommendations and then left you alone to enjoy yourself. Definitely worth a visit.

Carte Blanche

Beaches: It's no Goa. It's not Kovalam either. It's not even Juhu or Aksa, actually. East coast beaches means no sunsets, only sunrises; We saw Auro beach, which had some fishing boats but not much else;  no shacks, no restaurants, nothing. Peaceful, but fairly narrow, and given the seclusion and quietness, a bit crowded. Surprising.

Auroville - It's an interesting place, but remember, it's a proper functioning place on its own, not a tourist destination. It's good if you read up about the concept and philosophy behind it, and maybe some of the history, before you visit; lots of long walks in the sun, and much of it will be a bit incomprehensible if you walk in with no idea of what it's about. To really experience the place, of course, you have to live there for a while. For the casual visitor, it may come across as a bit standoffish.
I can't help but get a slight sense of shades of The Beach from here - a kind of idealism, an earnest, flower-child vibe. Should be interesting to see how it copes up with the world in future.

  • Travel Tip: Auroville: For the casual visitor, especially if you like shopping around for artsy, natural stuff, the visit to Auroville's visitor center boutiques and shop will be well worth the cost of the visit; they have a far better range, prices, and variety than most of the Auroville or similar shops in the main market. If you are planning to shop, don't until you've finished this visit. 
Demon heads on fancy gateposts. Old villas gently crumbling away. Shiny clean streets, street names with the French 'Rue' appended to continental and subcontinental names alike. Dozing dogs. Lots of statues. An air of general politeness.

A Bilingual Stop

The Continent meets the Sub-Continent

Cops in Kepis

An inefficient scarecrow

Crumbling memories

  • Travel Tip: Power: There are power cuts, frequent and often, long ones; be prepared. Odomos, hand fan, etc. Keep phones charged and room chilled when you have power, for soon you may not. Carry a torch. 
Overall - it's a nice place to chill, but you tend to get bored after a while unless you're actually there only to recover and do literally nothing.

Chirpy-chirpy chill.

And some of the random stuff...

A poster proclaiming 'Chicken Punch'. Nothing else. Some new martial-art move? 

The most important thing that legitimizes any event - birth, marriage, achievement - is the vinyl poster. It's everywhere, for everything. 

If you're not on vinyl, you're just in denial. 

The founder was a big ER fan, it seems.

And finally, for all those who came to Chennai wanting tea, nimbu-pani, beer, or water...



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