I had high hopes of posting every day of my stay here in India. Unfortunately the technology gods (for there must be some in this land of a million gods) conspired to rob me of Internet connectivity for the first few days of my stay. So instead of taking some time to put together my thoughts at the end of each day of the trip, I’ve instead just amassed a series of jotted notes on things that have struck me. I’ll try to reconstruct these into some kind of timeline after the fact now that my umbilical cord to the web has been restored. But before I settle down to do that, a quick rundown of my Internet troubles:
It all started in Delhi. We were staying at the impressive Shangri-La hotel. My dad had obtained a SIM card for his iPad without any trouble. The man at the concierge desk had copied his passport, sent off an hotel employee around the corner to the local shop, and had returned with a fully functional SIM which just worked. Price for 1gb data: R450, or around $9.
I go down in the morning with dad at my side to do the same for myself, but as there was a small line at the concierge desk, we decide to go to the local shop ourselves to get the SIM. A quick stroll later we arrive at the shops—a series of open-front mega-kiosks just off the sidewalk. One sells groceries, another appears to serve hot food, and the third is advertising all manner of cell phones and gadgets.
“Yes, right here sir, come in…” The proprietor is a gruff old man doing three things at once: activating another man’s phone, answering a young woman’s question, and dealing with me and my dad. I hand him a passport photo and a copy of my passport and visa, and he starts filling out some forbidding-looking forms.
How much for the data plan?
“R250 for 1gb…”
Fantastic! The hotel clearly takes its cut from stupid tourists. Not even 50 yards away, the prices are half as cheap. Hubristic pride fills my heart.
The old officious man is busily scribbling in my information. Finally, all finished, he writes on a separate piece of paper a series of numbers, one of which is R250, sums them up to R850, and hands us the piece of paper. Now, mind you, $17 for 1gb is still not beyond the pale, but when no more than 50 yards away at the hotel I can get the same service for much less money if only I wait a little, $17 is not acceptable.
“I’m sorry, no. Too high. Goodbye.” I go to leave.
The man gets pissy. This is the price, R100 is for some mandatory backup, some other amount is for the SIM itself. I start to walk away. He curses under his breath, tears up the contract and tries to give me back my photocopies and photo. Though I’m almost on the sidewalk, my dad, a veteran of the south Asian way of doing things, refuses to leave well-enough alone. He proceeds to attempt to show me how things are done.
“No, this is wrong,” he says in an angry and offended way. “You are charging us double of the price we get at the hotel. I got the same service yesterday for R450. We don’t need backup.”
“That is the price! Backup is mandatory! R850!”
I’m a novice at all of this, and arguing with petulant vendors still put me off this early in the trip, so I pull my dad away. It’s not worth it, the hotel is so close by, and the weather is so nice. Why waste your breath? My dad seems in good spirits, so he relents. We start heading back.
Seconds later, a man approaches us. “I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation back there. You see, that man is a reseller, he does not work for the telecom, so his prices are higher. If you like, I will take you directly to the official store. I have a tuktuk right here. It is only a few minutes away. R20.”
The first day of sightseeing in Delhi, I’d been riding around in the back of a car through the most bewildering traffic I’d ever experienced: ox carts, scooters, bicycles, the odd cow, and these three-wheeled scooter-engine-powered “auto-rickshaws” colloquially and onomatopoetically called tuktuks, form a truly formidable challenge for even Delhi’s most seasoned drivers. The tuktuks themselves seemed like a ton of fun to ride in. They zip in and out of the tightest spots and seem to get everywhere incredibly fast while creating headaches for all the other occupants of the road (except for the cows, which never seem to be phased by the chaos surrounding them).
So I look at my dad, he looks at me, we shrug our shoulders. “Ok, let’s go.”
The ride in the tuktuk in Delhi remains a highlight of the trip. The drivers are fearless, and the rules of the road seem to reward those with the most stones: in any confrontation, one of the parties (the one with the weaker will?) always seems to give way at the very last second. Riding in the back of one of these contraptions, holding on so as you don’t fly out the side as you dodge cars, potholes and the occasional animal, is really a treat. I recommend it.
Minutes later, we’re standing in front of the Airtel shop. We tell our tuktuk driver that we’ll figure out how to get back ourselves—he had offered to wait, and was offering to take us to other great shopping destinations after we were done with this SIM card business—and walk into the store.
Just for the data?
No, that’s for everything.
But we spend the next 30 minutes painstakingly filling out the same type of form that the reseller had been sloppily scrawling on earlier. Name, address, address in India, father’s name, Indian sponsor’s name… All to be told that the card would be activated in 24-48 hours, and that we’d have to call such and such a number by the end of the day to verbally verify the information we had written into the form. Extra precautions since Mumbai? Perhaps.
Having finally made our way through the beaurocracy, we returned to the hotel. I was feeling fairly self-satisfied. Yes, the cost of the SIM was the same as at the hotel, and it took much longer to do all the paperwork ourselves, and it cost me an additional R40 in transportation costs. But I had gotten a taste of how things work in India and had gotten to ride around in a tuktuk. So all worked out well in the end. Or so I thought.
In the evening, we prepared for our overnight train ride to Jaisalmer. I called the number they had given me in the cab ride to the station and successfully answered all the security questions I had filled out hours earlier. The man on the phone said the card would be active in a few hours.
A few hours later, late at night now, I fired up my iPad on the train, ostensibly to write down my adventures up to this point in the story. “No Signal”. Fair enough, we were somewhere in the countryside between Jaipur and Jodhpur, so no surprise that there was no signal. I’d try again in the morning.
I got around to trying again by the time we had settled in to our hotel in Jaisalmer. Still nothing. Concerned, I used my dad’s functioning iPad to get Airtel’s customer service number. After navigating a byzantine voice menu system for a while, I managed to get through on a fairly appalling connection which rendered the customer service guy’s accent very difficult for me to understand. After some back-and-forth, we concluded the following:
1) Airtel hadn’t activated the data portion of my data-only plan.
2) To do so over the phone, they needed to get the phone number associated with my account. They couldn’t look up the account by my name.
3) The iPad was not showing the number. When slipping the SIM into a phone, the SIM wouldn’t work.
4) Without the number associated with the SIM, Airtel customer service could do nothing for me. Very sorry.
Next morning’s visit to the Jaisalmer representative of Airtel yielded the following additional information:
5) The SIM wasn’t working in my phone because it was bought in Delhi, we were now in Rajasthan, and the SIM was now needed to have roaming enabled, even though it was on the same company’s network. The Delhi people had not enabled roaming on the SIM, so it was impossible to activate it in Rajasthan. Very very sorry.
Dejected, I asked the hotel in Jaisalmer if they might be able to help me get a new SIM. They suggested the store I had visited earlier in the day. I just didn’t have the heart to go through the same song and dance again with different people at the same company that had so mucked up my initial purchase.
A day later, as we checked into the next hotel, now in Jodhpur (a much bigger and more modern town than Jaisalmer, one should note), I asked if they might be able to help me. This time, my request was seen through so very thoroughly and with that attention to detail and diligence which I’ve come to truly love in India (when I encounter it). The gentleman from the hotel went through all the same steps with Airtel on the phone that I had and concluded as I did that there was nothing to be done. However, he offered to help set me up with a new SIM at Vodafone. Within an hour, a representative of Vodafone was at the hotel filling out the form for me, and offering me a 1gb plan for R256, with no other fees attached. 4 hours later, security questions answered via telephone, my SIM was humming along nicely. The hotel IT manager even comped me wi-fi service at the hotel (which appears to not be free in India, and isn’t terribly cheap) while I got the card sorted out.
So finally, some 6 days into the trip I’m all sorted out. Final cost: ~R740 and some frustration. Still cheaper than had I gone through the reseller, but more than had I just let the hotel handle things from the get-go. Hopefully Airtel will refund me some money when I get back to Delhi, though I’m not holding my breath. And I did get an instructive story out of it all.
None of this is to cast undue aspersions on Airtel, or praise Vodafone without reservation. My father’s Delhi hotel-provided Airtel card has been working flawlessly. As a foolish unknowing foreigner, I neglected to mention in Delhi that I was leaving for Rajasthan that evening and that I needed them to turn on roaming. It’s a bit puzzling that the Airtel customer service people could only look me up by phone number, a phone number I had no way of getting. But I’m sure I could’ve conjured up the same scenario had I ended up going with Vodafone in Delhi.
The point is, I suppose, that India provides stark contrasts. From unscrupulous street hawkers to brain-dead bureaucracy to truly first-class customer service you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere in the West, India has it all. And in truth, with the exception of the grumpy reseller, everyone in this whole affair was always trying to be as pleasant and helpful as they could be. Again, good luck finding that in the US or Europe.