The Laptop

So now I have a mobile phone (SMS somehow stopped working), a car and a driver (at $800 a month), and am slowly becoming functional. I am still missing a bank account, my own apartment (for the first month, I am staying in that posh hotel), my own car, a home computer, a regular bar,…

The bank account was surprisingly easy to setup. The passport picture would have been the most difficult part, so I am glad I had stocked up on those. It’ll take a while to get an actual account number, debit card, ATM PIN, customer number, phone banking PIN, online banking PIN (yes, these are all separate, different, and distinct), but not more than two weeks or so. Hopefully, it will then be cheaper to wire some money once a month, as opposed to getting charged 3.5% every time I use an ATM.

The car and the driver also work out nicely. The driver isn’t driving all that manical anymore since the other day, when he tried to pass a big red bus, only to find that bus making a wrong turn and putting a big red dent into the left back door. The bus driver didn’t even get out of his bus, and the driver just looked at the door for a few seconds, visibly saddened, and then moved on. At $800 a month, I figure I’ll be better off buying my own cheap car and selling it when we are done here. So I am driving from showroom to showroom, of which there are not too many, and none of which seem to have any cars whatsoever to show, let alone to test drive. Besides, untill I have registered with the FRRO and have an Indian bank account, I wouldn’t even be able to order a car anyways. The service in the showrooms always comes with a glass of water, maybe even a coffee, and sales people ranging from very eager to make a deal to utterly desinterested in talking with me unless I can show some proper documentation – i.e. the FRRO document, or a phone bill, which would be of equal legal standing, I am told.

The apartment hunt is moving along as well. Most apartments within my budget are dark, small, with horrible furniture, on a loud street. But for some reason they all have two bathrooms. Eventually, I see a very nice apartment with usable furniture and even a terrace. The monsoon has started, the temperatures have dropped, and this apartment is on a relatively quiet side street, so I guess that terrace might actually be really useful.

Unfortunately, sending Ksenia some pictures of the apartment (and blogging), is proving a bit costly. My posh little hotel charges $10 for thirty minutes in their business centre. Dining there also comes at NYC prices, so I am thinking maybe I should rent a laptop untill Ksenia arrives with hers, because my room does have an ethernet connection. Well, that’s another story. I found a laptop rental place online, and miraculously even find the adress somewhere in the depths of Irla, another part of the suburbs (forget about making a deal online), but as I get there, they want to see some purchase order from my company. Since this would be for private use, I refuse, and offer a cash deposit instead. After a lot of back and forth, they agree, except of course, I would like that cash deposit to come from my credit card, since I don’t have an Indian bank account yet, nor do I even have 50,000Rs ($1200) in cash. Sure, no problem he says, except, he doesn’t have a credit card swiper, which doesn’t really surprise me, since we are in an industrial building in the back of a back road, with carpentry and tiles shops and god knows what else in the same building. The office suites are randomly numbered 31, 73, 52, etc. and contain equallly random businesses and as I walk along the floors, and it took a good while to even find this laptop rental place to begin with

So, I say, ah well, I guess I am out of luck then. I am also late already for an appointment to see an apartment. But not so easy, the guy was not about to let me go just yet. Instead, he makes a number of phone calls, talks frantically with the proprietor, and lets his servant hand me another coffee. When I tell him, I need to go, I am late, he insists that I wait a minute. 15 minutes later he says, ok, we’ll come to your hotel with the laptop later tonight, no problem. Ok, no problem.

So later that day I am back in the hotel, and he asks whether I can come to his office in half an hour. Curious about what he might have in store, I get back there. He, laptop in hand, two guys with him, are already waiting for me and are jumping into my car, so off we go around and around various sidestreets. The traffic, as usual, is of course unbelievable madness. Eventually, we stop at a little Indian incarnation of NY deli, Radio Shack, and Canal Street backpack and umbrella store all rolled in one; a store of about 5 by 5 feet. Lots of commotion, but apparently, the owner is willing, ready and able to swipe my card for the deposit. Well, untill he sees my card and apologizes profusely, because his little credit card swiping machine only handles Visa/MC cards issued by an Indian bank. The disappointment all around is heartbreaking. Can’t we just call my company again, it’s just a formality, that purchase order, the laptop guy says. Some more phone calls, and this time some tea. Finally, someone has the brilliant idea to ask me whether I have American Express. I can only assume they’ve seen some American Express commercials where some stranded traveller was magically rescued by his AMEX Gold Card. Well, I do and since I’ve always been wondering about that commercial myself, I actually call them. But I guess the magic of my AMEX card isn’t all that powerful, because I am told that I would have to go to their office (which is two hours away downtown), and in any event they would charge me a fortune for their rescue services.

So that was that. No company stamp, no Indian bank, no laptop rental. I guess I will be feeding that business center like a slot machine for the time being.

Must Have Passport Pictures

The other thing I decided to do was get an Indian prepaid SIM card. The hotel has those, very conveniently. Except they need a passport picture, otherwise no SMS card. Plus copies of my passport. I guess an SIM card could easily be used for subversive acts. Luckily, I still have a whole bunch of passport pictures, because I needed four or five to register with the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO). I had to spend lunchtime getting driven around in the hunt for a place that makes such pictures. We found one (well, the driver did, I wouldn’t have recognized the little shack as a place for Kodak moments), took off our shoes, as it is the custom in many small stores, and walked off with 10 passport pictures with a gorgeous red background and a bit of redeye to match.

Not that I am actually already registered at the FRRO yet. There’s a lot of work that goes into that, mainly paperwork. And rumor has it that foreigners are well advised to go with an agent, so as to not having to deal with disgruntled government employees themselves. Fair enough. So my appointment is scheduled for next week. As usual, my father’s name was a required piece of information for registration with the FRRO. So when I bought my SIM card and again was aksed to fill out my father’s name, I didn’t really flinch anymore. They didn’t care too much at all about my mother’s or my wife’s name – unlike Ksenia, who as my wife will be asked for her father’s name, or her husband’s name as an alternative, or maybe as a backup.

That SIM card was then handed to me right away. Not that I could make or receive any phone calls with it. Of course, it needs to get loaded with some Rupees, but needless to say, you can’t do that in the hotel. For that, I go to some little place along the road and there I am, a proud owner of an Indian mobile phone number!

A Commute From Hell

So it took a quick 20mins to get from work back to my posh hotel yesterday, but today it took a good 2.5 hours to get to work. In the morning, the usually desperate attempt to explain to either anyone from the hotel’s car pool management army and/or the cab driver where I want to get to. This morning, everybody seemed to be in clear agreement: Yes, Sir, no problem. So I guess I can read the Times of India and relax. Unfortunately, when I look out of the window, we are in a huge traffic jam at the end of the Western Express Highway, going into the opposite direction of where we need to go (i.e. south instead of north). 40mins later we finally get off the so-called highway and I am trying to explain to my driver that he needs to turn around and get back onto the highway going north. It turns out that the driver doesn’t understand a single word of what I am saying and my body language also appears to mystify him completely. Well, the sentiment is mutual, so eventually I just make him stop somewhere in the middle of traffic.

Stop he actually understood, but he wasn’t one to give up easily. As I try to hire a different cab going into the opposite direction, he catches up with me and literally begs me to get back in with him. He is a very very old man with a very bad cough. Luckily, I find a translator, so, surrounded by a whole collection of spectators, I try again to point out where I want to go. She translates and after many gestures, laughs and smiles, she confirms: Don’t worry, Sir, he got it now.

Happily, we are back on the highway. The Western Express Highway is literally a race track that is in pretty bad shape, has no markings whatsoever, is filled with two-, three-, four- and more-wheelers passing left right and in zig zag. There’s the odd traffic light then and again (it seems these are one of the few traffic lights anyone actually pays attention to in this town), and here and there you get pedestrians on the side of it, and of course, a number of seriously suicidal ones who will either sprint, or, equally frequently, who will extremely slowly, entirely unfazed by anything at all, walk to cross the highway. It is serious madness.

Even better, 20mins or so later, I realize that I am not recognizing the landscape. There’s a few hills in the distance, but they are on the left of the road, when they should be on the right. Then again, I might be wrong and not remember correctly, but I get the sneaking feeling that we are totally wrong and I make the driver pull over, right next to a long line of auto rickshaw drivers on their second breakfast break (on the highway). Ooops, it turns out we are on the Eastern Express Highway, not the Western. Well, that’s just entirely wrong. I think I need a cigarette.

So, I guess we’ll need to cut through the suburbs of Powai to get over to the west side. We pass an impressive roadbridge construction site where an army of women carry cement from one corner of the site to the other. They carry big buckets of that stuff on their heads, wearing incredibly shoddy clothes and flip flips, in the middle of dust and dirt and traffic at 36 degrees celsius. All of the construction workers are wearing flip-flops, actually. Forget about hard hats, gloves, or anything like that. It’s quite unreal.

Eventually I get to work and decide that I better get a car plus driver on a daily basis, at least untill I have bought my own car, which I am planning to do. By the evening, I got that sorted out, and get driven back to my hotel in a fridge of a car. The driver sort of understands me and I sort of understand him, but he insists on having the AC turned to subzero temperatures. He also drives like a complete maniac, but I guess that’s the way it goes.

Leningrad – Moscow – Delhi – Mumbai

Well, I made it. All the way from NYC to Nice, Paris, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Delhi, and Mumbai. We carried three suitcases and three carry-ons each, which turned out to get a little pricey. From the US to France, they charged us only $90 each for the extra two suitcases, but from Nice to St. Petersburg it was the criminal amount of 12Euros per kilo above 20kg each. So that turned out to be 1300Euros. Ooops. Of course that price tag came with a puffed up attitude on the part of the Air France employees and three different ones of them telling us off for bringing three carry-ons. Nevermind they were all small ones (the carry-ons that is), and there was plenty of space on the planes. They all had to give us a good lecture. But the food on Air France is excellent, so there: you win some you lose some.

Of course going from St. Petersburg to Delhi was another $11 per kilo above 20kg, but luckily we left a lot of stuff with Ksenia’s best friend in St. Petersburg, so my bill was only $300 and I guess we’ll see how much Ksenia’s bill will be when she gets here in two weeks.

Russian and Indian airports seem to be in competition on who can be the most ludicrously inefficient and annoying (then again, on the way into St. Petersburg, one Russian customs guy helped us quite a bit, when one of our suitcases didn’t arrive and he didn’t make us go through customs again when we finally picked it up the next day). NYC airport gets the first prize for having a complete bitch of a security woman not even flinching a millisecond and simply continuing her blank fuck you all stare as she drops my passport and waits for me to pick it up while my hands are full. Anyways, for some reason, you pass five or six security stations in both St. Petersburg and Moscow. Not that anyone really seems to look at anything and it’s not like anybody at all couldn’t just walk around from the street straight to the aircrafts in St. Petersburg without much hassle. But for some reason, in St. Petersburg, the boarding cards get ripped off the tickets on the stairways to the aircraft, in wind and rain, by a single Aeroflot employee with a broken umbrella.

Aeroflot food was predictably crap compared to Air France, but the aircraft had an unbelievably high ceiling and the seats weren’t numbered at all. Or so I thought untill I found them above the trays on the back of the seats. Except those seat numbers indicated the seat whose back they were on, not the seat from which you could actually see the number. Luckily I was not the only one who was confused; half the people on the plane, most of them Russian, had no clue, so there was a lot of moving about to get into the right seats going on before everyone was happily settled. It was all very amusing.

The security procedures repeated in Moscow. In fact, I had thought the three hour layover would be plenty of time to have some food and a beer for bedtime, but they were barely enough to make it to the next plane. Different terminal, incredible security checks, ludicrous customs/passport controls, and of course three different lines to pay my $300 for excess baggage. Needless to say, noone knew, let alone gave the slightest fuck whether I’d get charged again in Delhi or even whether my baggage would actually go all the way to Delhi.

Yes, the story repeated itself in Delhi, except at higher temparatures, with more humidity and in the middle of the night. Some more papers to fill out, very important passport checks, the usual drill for the potential terrorists, smugglers, and tax evaders that we all are, and of course I had to schlepp my entire luggage around yet again. For some reason, in Delhi it seemed like one had to get out of the airport all the way to the hot and humid street just to get back into a different door in the exact same building to make the connecting flight. On the street, an army of cab drivers tried to convince me that my flight in fact leaves from an entirely different airport. Maybe I should have taken my cigarette break elsewhere, but it was 3:30am or so and I didn’t really mind, but was rather impressed that they seem to know all flight numbers and times by heart, so they actually backed off when I could give them my exact connection to their satisfaction.

The last leg was rather uneventful, if you don’t count my seat neighbor, who was belching, farting, and scratching his balls with gusto. After landing semi-safely in Delhi, the whole passenger cabin was clapping their hands, but no such entertainment now. To make up for that, the luggage arrived on the wrong conveyor belts, but they did arrive. The air wasn’t quite as bad as it had been in April, since it had rained a bit that night. My hotel pickup driver found me right away, carried me off to the Grand Hyatt (nice pad! yes, slums right next door!), quick shower and off to work. Well, not so easy, nobody in the army of drivers and hotel car pool managers seemed to understand where the hell my office was. So this was the first of what I expect will be endless encounters whereby I am waving a map and giving street names, but it never seems to matter, as not too many people understand my German accent I suppose, know how to read a map, or give a damn about street names in this town. Well, somehow, eventually, my cab driver and I get there. Luckily, I recognized the last stretch from April, so it turned out to be easy. The first day at work can begin.

Premature Puking

Well, I guess this is good preparation, maybe even a good omen. I am in Novosokolniki at Ksenia’s cousins’ and I am heading out for Mumbai, India in a few days. Ksenia will follow two weeks later. I’ve been assigned to work in Mumbai for a year, so we said good bye to NYC (Long Island City that is) and on our way to Mumbai we made stopovers at my parents in Italy and at Ksenia’s mother in St. Petersburg. So, in preparation for all sorts of stomach flues that we are fully expecting to get in India, I had some of Ksenia’s cousin’s sour cream for breakfast. Maybe it was the 8 hour train ride to Novosokolniki from St. Petersburg, maybe it was the vodka that I should have drunken but didn’t, in any event my head is over the toilet bowl and I am puking to my heart’s content.

It will be a fun ride back on the night train and probably a great flight to Mumbai via Moscow and Delhi. Novosokolniki has a fantastically blue painted big Lenin statue on its main square and, at least here, one is tempted to believe it when people say (which they do) that since Perestroika everything is in ruins. Who knows? What I am noticing the most in my few days in Russia, both here and in St. Petersburg, that people are actually seriously proud of being alcoholics. A 10:00am can of beer and an afternoon bottle of vodka seems to be nothing to write home about.

People are extremely friendly around here and St. Petersburg looks beautiful, especially with the sun not going down untill 11:30pm or so. Still, I am pretty anxious to get on that Aeroflot to India, especially now that my stomach has received a blessing of sorts.