A Better Day

Alright! Things are happening. In the morning on my way to work I get an SMS from Karilyn, our personal Mumbai expat guide, who tells me that all I need to do to get gas in my apartment is have the building’s doorman flag one of those gas delivery guys on the bicycle down. (Thanks!)

Of course, this was after I had already gone, for a third time, to the gas distribution office, where they promised gas is on the way. My driver even insisted to have a word with them himself. So when I got that SMS, I tried to get his confirmation – it took a little while, but eventually he enthusiastically exclaimed: “Yes Yes, Sir, bicycle much cheaper, watchman smart man, 10 rupees tip! Bicycle no salary, 2 rupees commission!”

Ok, so that makes a lot of sense. Screw that office and their customer number!

Then, at work, I get a call from the long lost furniture guy. The furniture is ready for delivery in the evening. As it happens, when I got home, not only did I have new big shiny (ok, I exaggerate) gas cylinders, but I also had some yummy food in the fridge. So I thought, I should go with the swing of things and call the TV guy, who had never showed up to install digital cable. Amazingly enough, he said, his guys will be over in ten minutes.

Alright, so it wasn’t 10 minutes but more like an hour and a half, but they showed up – incidentally pretty much as the same time as the furniture guy. So the house was full and the confusion complete, when the TV guys asked where’s the computer? I didn’t quite get what they needed a computer for, but it turns out that the cable guys were under the impression I want internet cable access. Well, apparently some sort of typical misunderstanding, but I couldn’t argue with that and just said: “Sure, who cares about digital TV, just give me your broadband cable internet access – how fast is it?” – “64 kilobytes, Sir” – “You have something a little faster?” – “Yes, 128 kilobytes, Sir” – “How about 256?” – “Yes, we have, too, Sir” – “Alright, if that’s the fastest, I want that.”

So while the two cable guys started playing around with my router settings, etc., the furniture guy, his sister, and their cab driver were spreading out the furniture on the terrace, four chairs and two little tables, with gorgeous wood carvings and golden inlays. At least I think it’s gorgeous, because our terrace was a bit dark already. But then I noticed that one table was smaller with the other table, so I asked what happened here, how come this is smaller? I couldn’t really get a straight answer or explanation, aside from an unsuccessful attempt at convincing me that that was what we had wanted, so I said, ok, you can either come back with a table a bigger size, or you’ll have to give me a discount.

In reality, I found this more amusing than anything else, but I am kind of starting to like this whole bargaining business. Anyways, so the response was that they can make another table with the same size, but it would be a different design. Smart move on their part, because even though there was zero logic to that, I didn’t really want to risk getting a plywood table top in exchange, so I said, ok, I’ll keep it, but I am not paying 10,500 rupees (which was the originally agreed on total). Ok, so the game begins, but these guys are pretty good and I knew I’d lose, especially after I then started with a half arsed counter offer of 10,000 rupees.

Of course, they looked very shocked, and just said: “500 rupees less? No, Sir, impossible!” – “Ok, how much?” – “200” – “300” – “No, Sir, impossible, 200” – “250”, at which point everybody was pretty much laughing. “No, Sir, impossible, 200.” Alright, so I give them 10,500, because I didn’t have exact change and I ask, so do you have 200 rupees change? Well, of course they didn’t, so the whole bargaining procedure was completely useless, and that really made me laugh. Alright then, what the hell! So they took the money, everybody is smiling and then, as they are walking out, he asks, “Oh, and taxi money!” Well, that was a nice try, because I know we had argued about free delivery weeks ago, and they had eventually agreed, and so I just said, no way, that was included, and so they didn’t argue with that and off they went.

Meanwhile, the cable guys had real problems with my router, so eventually they gave up and connected my computer directly. Fine, I’ll figure it out myself. So we started a little test drive – and it turns out that 256 kilobytes broadband connection actually manages a blazing fast speed of 90 kilobytes per second. Well, that’s pretty shitty, but for now it’s better than nothing. Plus, they are coming back for the digital TV setup tomorrow afternoon.

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.

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!