Saturday, December 13, 2008

Going Postal in India

“We were in the most high-tech city in India, and we couldn’t find a wireless connection.”

Everything in India is a headache. Our two days in Bangalore have been consistent hassle. No, hassle is too light of a word. It’s been a hair-graying, wrinkle-forming, blood-pressure-raising debacle.

It began when we de-boarded the train in Bangalore City. My parents wanted to hire a porter to carry their heavy suitcases down and then up two flights of stairs. “How much do you charge?” my dad asks a porter in Hindi. He grabs the bag and starts walking away with it. Dad and I both physically intervene. “No, how much?” Dad asks again in Hindi. He continues walking away with it. “No! Stop! How much?” we ask. “60 rupees,” he finally says in perfect Hindi. Highway robbery. Or, in this case, platform robbery. We needle our baggage away from his grubby hands and I carry it myself. I’m not dealing with porters anymore.

Outside, we’re surrounded by a thick crowd of touts competing to overcharge us for a ride from the train station to M.G. Road, Bangalore’s urban core. They start quoting us between 200 to 350 rupees for a ride; they pull out laminated “price sheets” to substantiate their claims. My friend finds a taxi driver who says he’ll take us for 50 rupees. We start loading our baggage into his car. Then he changes his tune. “150 rupees,” he says suddenly. “No, you said 50,” I reply. “50 won’t pay for the fuel,” he says. “But you told us 50 a couple minutes ago,” I say. “No. 150,” he says.

I stand my ground. “What price did you tell her?,” I ask, gesturing to one of my friends. He ignores my question and starts talking about fuel cost, distance – anything but the answer to my question. “What price did you tell her? Tell me what price you told her.” I keep repeating my question. He looks away from me; starts talking to my dad. I physically stand in front of my dad so that he’s forced to look at me. “What price did you tell her?”

“I can’t speak English,” he says to me in English. “You’re a dirty liar,” I replied. A crowd of at least 20 taxi drivers, all men in ugly brown uniforms, had gathered around to watch the scene. “Let’s go,” I said to my family. The taxi driver followed us, talking nonstop in English, trying to convince us to ride with him. “I thought you couldn’t speak English, liar!” I yelled behind me as I walked away. The crowd laughed.

We purchased two rickshaw rides from a government-sponsored pre-paid counter, for 50 rupees each, but the rickshaw drivers tried to rip us off for a 10 rupee per bag “luggage fee” (there is no such thing).

We reached M.G. Road, found a restaurant playing AC/DC at top volume, and parked half of our crew there with the luggage while the other half started searching for cheap hotels. A long hour passed. Then another. All the hotels were far beyond our price range.

Finally we met some Nepalese men, who advised us on the cheapest hotel in the area. It was too dirty for my parents taste, but fine by my low standards.

“I’ll check in and stay here with my friends,” I told the hotel receptionist.

The receptionist looked at my passport, signed me in, and took a deposit. I returned to the restaurant; I gathered my luggage and my friends.

An hour later, I was in the hotel lobby once again – but this time, the atmosphere had changed.

“You can’t stay here,” the receptionist told us on arrival. “You’re American. Only Indians and Nepalese can stay here.”

“But you saw my U.S. passport,” I protested, “and you let me sign in.”

“No, you cannot stay,” he replied, ignoring my logical point.

“But I showed you my passport. You said I could stay. You let me sign in,” I protested. “I walked all the way to my storage area, got my baggage, and walked all the way back here.”

“Only Indians,” he said. “Nepalese is okay. Not foreigners.”

“Then you should have said that when I showed you my passport.” I was angry at this point. “I could have checked other hotels. Now it’s evening, and I’m not walking around this seedy neighborhood at night. Not with all my luggage on my back and no place to stay.”

“You can’t stay here,” he said.

“I’m not leaving,” I replied.

I was feeling bull-headed. I would not trudge along these shady streets at night searching for a room I couldn’t afford. It became a matter of principle.

I staged a sit-in. My friends and I anchored ourselves to the dingy couch in the dimly-lit hotel lobby. We talked. We read the newspaper. We ate donuts. We refused to leave the hotel lobby’s couch. We would sit there all night, if necessary.

After about 2 hours passed, the hotel staff relented. “Okay, you can stay,” the receptionist said. “Give me your passports and another deposit.”

Our hotel room’s windows couldn’t close, so mosquitoes swarmed our beds all night. The people outnumbered the beds, forcing some of us to sleep on the floor. Still, we considered our stay in that room a victory. We had out-stubborned the hotel reception desk. It’s like being more Catholic than the Pope.

The next day, I went to the Air India office to get a paper ticket for a flight we’d purchased from travel agent

In November my friend and I had purchased an “electronic” ticket, but one week later, left me a voicemail saying our carrier, Air India, required paper tickets. Orbitz said they had mailed our paper ticket to my address in Atlanta.

No good, I told Orbitz. I’m in India. I need that ticket to leave India.

Go to the Air India office, Orbitz told me, and fill out a lost ticket form. Sounds simple, right?

It took 5 phone calls to various Air India extensions before I could decipher that they have an office in Bangalore. It took two calls to the Bangalore office before I could get any semblance of its address.

Bear in mind that I don’t have a cell phone or a landline – each time I make a phone call, I need to search for a cybercafe with Skype (an internet-based phone system, which only some cybercafes have). My calls to India cost 34 cents a minute.

At any rate, I visited the Air India office on my first morning in Bangalore, optimistically hoping they could re-issue us tickets. Instead, five Indian women crowded around a copy of our e-ticket printout, not knowing what to do, each suggesting something different. One thing they agreed: they could not re-issue us tickets. I would need to call Orbitz, and ask Orbitz to call the Bangalore office to confirm that I indeed had paid Orbitz for the ticket. Only after hearing from Orbitz directly, they said, could they re-issue a ticket.

I left the Air India office and searched for a cybercafe in order to phone Orbitz. I finally found one, but a sign in front said it was closed for the entire month of December. So I took a taxi to a busy street near my hotel, where I scouted out five or six cybercafes. None of them had Skype.

Finally, I started ducking into alleys with my friend’s laptop, trying to find an unlocked wireless signal. Fortuantely, I was in Bangalore, the only place in India where this would be possible. I found a weak wireless signal, and signed on.

The signal was so weak that every call to Orbitz – and I made at least 4 or 5 calls -- was dropped midway through. Each time this happened, I’d call back and start from scratch, waiting on hold and explaining the situation to a new agent.

I wondered if I was placing an international call to the U.S. while talking to Orbitz agents at a call center in Bangalore. It could be that the people with whom I’m on a long-distance call are actually next door.

After more than an hour of repeated calls, I’d made minimal headway. Two of the Orbitz agents had gone as far as to place me on hold while they called the Air India Bangalore office. My calls were dropped while on hold.

(A ludicrous policy prevents Orbitz agents from giving me their phone extension or their name – a rule that ensures that anytime a call is dropped, we start over from square one.)

Two friends and I took a rickshaw through rush-hour traffic back to the Air India office, hoping that one of the Orbitz agents had called it. No such luck. And now Air India was changing its story. Orbitz would have to call the Air India branch in Chicago to confirm our pre-paid ticket, and Chicago would have to call Bangalore.

“But our bus tickets out of Bangalore are for tomorrow,” I said.

Then Orbitz should call Chicago, Bangalore said, and Chicago must call Chennai, and you need to collect your paper tickets in Chennai.

Jesus. All because Air India isn’t modern enough to issue electronic tickets, and our paper ones are sitting in an Atlanta P.O. Box.

We took another overpriced rickshaw to M.G. Street and started searching for a wireless spot from which we could phone Orbitz, again, with this new instruction.

Of course, we couldn’t find a wireless connection strong enough to make a phone call. We tried paying for wireless at coffeeshops. At bookstores. Behind the beauty parlor. In front of Ruby Tuesday’s. In a stairwell near a guy selling photocopied books. We tried everywhere. We asked cybercafes if we could pay to plug into their lines. They all said no.

We were in the most high-tech city in India, and we couldn’t find a wireless connection.

And that’s what’s so funny about India. Bangalore is undoubtedly a modern city. It has designer shops and coffeehouses. Its women wear jeans instead of saris. Its men drink espresso instead of tea. The intersections have traffic lights. We didn’t see a single cow or monkey on the streets (though dead rats may always be a fixture of Indian sidewalks).

We had a beer at a bar on Thursday night, and we felt like we could have easily been in Denver, Chicago or any major U.S. city. Nirvana and Limp Bizkit music videos played on a flat-screen, the stairs were carved from frosted glass, the red plush booths were illuminated with matching mood lighting. Boys and girls in their twenties mingled at mixed-gender tables, drinking alcohol and eating appetizers. Two twentysomething women in tight tanktops lit cigarettes.

But the mess of motorcycles on the streets, the constant honking of horns, the way the smog burns your eyes, the mosquitoes chewing you alive – you’re always keenly aware that you’re in an Indian city. And as our experience shows, no hotel or taxi service or airline in an Indian city has its act together (at least, none that we've encountered in our many months here). At best, they’re disorganized and incompetent. At worst, they outright lie.

Much is made of India’s rise to power, especially as a technology giant. Certainly, there’s an inkling of truth to this. Being in India is like going to the business school of the streets – you learn to deal with insolent, irrational and stubborn people; to act assertively to get what you want; you learn to be suspicious of everyone; to furiously guard your self-interest in order to not be scammed for every last penny. In those regards, Indians have an advantage. They’re better-practiced.

But their strengths double as their weaknesses. And when it comes to good old-fashioned “who would you rather hire” – well, I don’t think India, in the long run, really has as strong of a chance as some people in the West believe.