High-Tech India

My driver was an hour late this morning. He was very sorry, I was half an hour late to a meeting, but I think the reason was because he got us a new car. Well, it’s not a new car, it’s a different car. The same little Maruti (I think), about the size of a Mini Morris but not quite as sexy. At least the left backdoor is now working again. The A/C is just as crap as before; it’s either below freezing or just as hot an humid as outside. I am rather annoyed that I have to pay $800 a month for this, just to get around and to work at all. That’s when you start missing the $70 NYC subway monthly. Of course, this town doesn’t have a subway. 16 million people, but only two suburbian train lines, and a big bus network, that’s it. Everybody suggests to stay away from the trains and busses, way too crowded, way too unreliable, always late, and a little dangerous. Not to mention the fact that neither have any windows or any doors that would close, so if there’s a nice monsoon shower, you are bound to get soaking wet. I have no idea what they will do in this town if and when in a few years half the population has its own car and they are all going to try to get to work in it. There’s just no way anyone will have a commute of less than an hour or two, not to mention the pollution, which is already incredible. But a subway or a mono-rail in the largest and most important city in India? Not happening.

On the way to work we passed a huge crowd of people blocking the entire traffic on a two-lane street, because they had to take a very close look at the motorbike that was just being pulled out from under a big truck. No idea what happened to the guy on the bike (or maybe it was a guy and a woman, her sitting sideways behind him, as they usually do here), but, basically, anyone cruising around on a bike in this town has to be seriously suicidal. Not only are there regular speedbumps everywhere, but there’s potholes everywhere, huge crowds of people left and right and crossing the streets without any notice whatsoever, plus the autorikshaws are always going zig zag, plenty of rich boys in SUVs driving like complete assholes, and of course busses and trucks literally do not stop for anything. Still, helmets are optional, and there’s quite a few bikes with dad and mom and two kids scrambling not to fall off and onto the road. It is quite amazing.

Later today news came out that there was a terrorist attack in London. A couple of days ago, some militant muslims tried to bomb a Hindu temple in northern India, basically to take it back from the hindus, who a decade ago or so had destroyed a mosque that was located at the same place and replaced it with a hindu temple. That time, 2000 people died in the resulting riots. Of course, way back, the place had been hindu to start with, so when the muslims originally came into the area, they replaced the hindu temple with a mosque. And so I guess it’ll go back and forth for the next 1500 years. What’s strange is that some parts of the opposition party BJP called for a strike to protest the terrorist attack. The logic somehow escapes me, and I am trying to imagine the Democrats call for a strike after 9/11. Anyways, the BJP is apparently basically running under the banner of Hinduism and Nationalism, and they are always happy to use religion as a way to get votes, in quite the same appaling way as the Republicans. Not sure what platform the other main party is running on, but since they’ve ruled the country for almost the entire time since independence, with abrief exception, it’s probably safe to assume that they are corrupt buerocrats to the bone.

Corruption is by the way pretty much a given. Students openly say that they got placed at prestigious colleges because they had some family friends. Doctors may refuse treatment unless there’s some upfront cash (and, yes, people die). There’s big signs in the airport telling travellers to report any airport staff who attempt to get a bribe. Not to mention the real estate market, which is full of illegal constructions, demolitions, etc., all courtesy of greased palms.

Closer to home, I am being told that the reason SMS isn’t working on any of our two pre-paid SIM cards is that you have to actually call the mobile phone company to activate your SMS services. Except that the phone number you need to call is always busy, so a nice voice tells you to call later. Today I have actually received the post-paid, i.e. subscriber SIM card. No SMS either though. Now, in the case of a subscriber SIM card, one can actually call to activate SMS. Except, it takes a minimum of seven days untill that activation actually happens. Needless to say, voicemail does not come standard with mobile phone service, pre-paid or post-paid, and noone seems to have it. So much for high-tech India.

On a different front, it now looks like we will move to our apartment next Monday or Tuesday. So the last thing we’d still need around here would be a car. We are still waiting to be able to get some money wired over here, it’s taken three weeks to get that Indian bank account fully setup, meaning: the netbanking password is still in the mail. The easiest thing of course would have been to pay with a credit card, but that’s not an option. The car dealers don’t seem to have credit card machines, or if they do, they insist that the customer pays the 2% extra that VISA/MC/AMEX gets out of every deal. So at this rate, we might have a car in three weeks or so.

Luckily, the weather is actually not so bad. It’s very muggy and quite warm, but not too hot. It was quite a bit worse when I was here in April, and the smells in some of the crowded residential areas were dizzying. Anything from the wildest spices and incenses (often to be found on the little dashboards of cabs and autorikshaws), not to mention the thousands of street food vendors, and of course plenty of piss and shit and molding buildings and god knows what infested puddles of old water. Now I kind of miss them, although I do think of Central Park sometimes. Or maybe I’ve just gotten used to it already. I guess I’ll have to go back to Crawford Market, and this time I should shoot some pictures.

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.