Monthly Archives: July 2008

Waiting and counter waiting

The Reliance guy came yesterday to sign me up. Despite the interesting call center, they seemed to understand that I wanted a broadband connection and lived in Bangalore. He was supposed to be here before 10AM. Naturally, I did not expect him to show up, but even so I lied to him and told him that I had to go out at 10. At 11:30, he called, said that he was on the way and would be here before 1.

I was hungry and I’ve been subsisting on ready-made food during the days; ramen noodles, spaghetti and packets and microwavable Indian dishes (I like the Paulo and Hyderabad style rice packets). My body was starting to rebel and demand real food; something that did not come with microwave instructions. I wanted something substantial. The only chance I would have to go out to lunch was before 2PM. I was really eager for this guy to come, do his thing and allow me to go.

At 1PM, with no sign of the Reliance guy, I finally grew fed up with people in India never being there at anything approximating what they said. I grew fed up with revolving my schedule around people who don’t seem to consider it rude to make others wait in an open ended loop.

So I went to lunch.

As I walked over, I sent him an SMS to come the next day. Just as I was sitting down to order, he called.

Sir, I’m at the security gate.

I was livid. I decided on the spot that I would not run back to the house for this man who has no problems wasting my time.

You said that you would be here at 1 and you never showed up. I had to step out. Shall
we do this tomorrow?

I can wait Sir.

How long?

Half an hour would be no problem Sir.

So I made the guy wait while I ate lunch. Dani later asked me if I actually enjoyed my lunch, or I was more stressed about getting back. It was the latter. I would like to say that I felt liberated in making him wait, but mostly it made me feel like a jerk. You just don’t do that to people. Making them wait while you eat lunch feels particularly churlish.

I have to figure out a way to not let a morning appointment block my whole day and to not worry when I make that guy wait either.

The Call Center

I’ve been having trouble with my ISP, BSNL. Due to a billing snafu, they cut me off on Friday and I only got my internet turned back on today. Now I could imagine Deutche Telekom doing something this stupid because they have shown me many reasons to. (For the record, I never had any complaints about Nynex when I lived in New York) What makes BSNL special is not just that they manage to screw up bills or mangle timing for turning things back on (both BSNL and T-Online are good about turning things off; it is the on switch that vexes them). At least T-Online works when it is “on”. With BSNL, actually being able to use the net is hit or miss at any given time. I usually have to click “reload” three or four times to get any page to load.

So I got fed up with BSNL and started shopping for a new ISP. Reliance seems to be popular with my neighbors and they tell me that it is more reliable than BSNL, so I’m going to give them a try. I called their call center to tell them that I want to switch to them. I was impressed by the call center woman I got.

Sir, I need to check what service availability is in your area. What city do you live in?

Bangalore

What state is that in?

This question floored me. Bangalore is one of India’s major cities. This is like telling someone that you are in New York City and having them ask you what state. Actually, I’d understand that better. If I was in New York and talking to someone in a call center, it would probably be in Bangalore and they could be forgiven for not knowing what state New York City is in.

I had an irresistible urge to say “Punjab”.

Karnataka

It was not in my best interest to allow the woman to get too confused.

Sir what is your PIN?

What in the blazes is a PIN? Is this some government issued ID number? Some special local code?

Ma’am, what is a PIN?

Your PIN Sir?

Ma’am, I don’t know what a PIN is, but I can give you my postal code

I need to know your PIN Sir.

That conversation went nowhere. She told me that they would be contacting me within a week. And for the record, a PIN is what they call a postal code in India.

Back – Kind of…

I’ve been offline for the past five days due to a screwup at BSNL, my ISP. They have been interesting. The bombings kept everyone at home all weekend it seems. The newspaper even showed a photo of a “deserted” MG road that still had too many people for Daniela’s taste. It was however a fraction of the usual hordes. The kids can now find Gudjarat on the map. Newspapers talk incessantly of terrorists; what is wrong with the government’s attempts to root them out, how which groups work, the lucky and unlucky stories. There is even a wikipedia article on the Bangalore attacks, as well as the ones in Gujarat on Saturday.

I’m actually starting to get sick of terrorism. Honestly, I’m more interested in what they are doing about the electricity and diesel shortages in Karnataka. This part of India gets a big part of its power from hydroelectric dams. Until this week, the monsoon rains had more or less failed to make it over the mountains, meaning the reservoirs are low and power production is reduced. There are scheduled blackouts lasting several hours a day. This being India, people are prepared for public infrastructure to fail. Everyone and their pet monkey has a diesel powered backup generator. Palm meadows has kept our blackouts to a minimal duration, though even they seem to run out of fuel on longer outages (and always just 5 minutes longer than my inverter can hold out for). This sudden surge in home generated electricity also means a 50% spike in diesel usage; something that the gas companies have not been able to supply.

So we have a water shortage. Doe to the water shortage, we have an electricity shortage. Due to the electricity shortage, we have a diesel shortage. Most gas stations (called “bunks” here) have shortages. Those that have diesel develop long lines reminiscent of the 1973 oil embargo. My driver spent half a day last week finding fuel for our car.

I never dreamed that the amount of rainfall could affect my ability to get fuel.

Call me cynical, but I think that it is safe to say that more people have died in July due to food poisoning (that would not have otherwise happened if the power had not gone down for an extended time, making refrigeration unreliable) than terrorism. Tens of thousands die every year in India from bites of the common krait and russel’s viper. Terrorism kills a number in the low hundreds. People won’t go to MG road for fear of further attacks, but they’ll walk barefoot in the dark – risking snakebite – and the non vegetarian will risk e.coli tainted meat in an environment where refrigeration has become unreliable. People everywhere it seems worry most about what the newspapers are worrying about and energy shortages are last week’s news.

Ah and it finally started raining in earnest this week! FINALLY!!!

An interesting day

We had an interesting day today in Bangalore. Terrorists, likely one of two militant Muslim groups (the SIMI or a Kashmiri group calling itself the LeT), set off a series bombs in downtown Bangalore. It is still early and not everyone agrees even on the most basic facts. Some reports say that there were seven blasts and others say nine. They were all low powered bombs it seems. Two people were killed and a score or so wounded.

Five million others went home early.

Naturally this caused some excitement in our household. About an hour after the bombs went off, news reached Daniela, who promptly called me and let me know. I then started calling around to the parents of our kids’ classmates to see what was going on with the school. Would they be sent home early, or might they be held at the school. These were relevant questions as the real action with terrorist attacks in India is often not the bomb blasts, but the follow up rioting as Hindu hotheads go out into the streets and take their anger out on any Muslims – or indeed anyone – they find. Trying to reach anyone was virtually impossible as the networks were jammed with traffic …or so I thought at the time.. Eventually one of the parents told me that the busses were sent home an hour early, so I already went to the bus stop to wait for the kids. They were only about twenty minutes early. They had staggered the actual release of the busses from the school and the police had an extreme lockdown on bus and truck traffic.

The kids seemed both frightened and exited; probably more the latter. The news of the blasts and the teachers’ caution during the ride home (there is a teacher on each bus) imparted the seriousness of the situation. It did not impart a great grasp of the facts. The things I learned from Charlotte include:

  • The bus ride took so long because the road had been destroyed.
  • All the trees were burnt black and had lost their leaves.
  • No birds were singing.
  • To listen to Charlotte, Vartur looked more like the western front during the First World War than… well… Vartur. Never fear, the closest blast was at least 10km (6 miles) away from any of us and the kid’s school is even further from the center of town. It is really out in the countryside.

    Our driver’s usual route home takes him through a neighborhood that was bombed. He took an alternate route to avoid that neighborhood and downtown in general in case there was any rioting. It turns out that the mobile phone networks were being jammed by the government to “prevent the spread of rumors”; which to me sounds like a euphemism for “prevent the formation of mobs that might run amok all weekend and kill another hundred”. This seems to have had the desired effect so far. Interestingly, while we were waiting for our kids at the bus stop, one of my neighbors had an interesting observation. Traditionally, Indians have rioted after terrorist attacks; but this has abated in the past couple of years as, sadly, Indians have become used to them.

    I’m sure that jamming the phone networks still doesn’t hurt.

    Holger’s flight back to Germany is tonight. The taxi picked him up at ten. Tonight is likely the safest day of the year to fly. The terrorists have already done their thing and security is extra tight; as it always is after the attack. He should have interesting stories about the airport.

    Seriously, what did these people hope to achieve by killing a poor woman at a bus stop? I’d have expected terrorists – at least the “professional” kind – to go after one of the tech companies to try and scare off foreign firms.

    The RTO – Part II

    (continued from part I)

    After the mafia style meeting in the back seat of the inspector’s car, his assistant took me up to the see big man; the RTO. Again, we walked straight into his office. The RTO was a middle aged policeman with a receding hairline and a large bhindi. He started looking over my copies, cross checking them with the originals. Then I had my written test. The RTO officer pointed at the no passing sign that I had memorized two minutes before.

    What’s this?

    No Overtaking

    What’s this (he pointed to a no parking sign)

    No Parking

    He seemed satisfied with my obviously vast knowledge of Indian road sign trivia. He was obviously omniscient as a few years ago it took the LandKreis (county) office a three hour exam before deciding I knew enough German road sign trivia.

    So far, so good…

    He may not have cared about whether or not I actually knew how to drive, but he had his own issues. Again we went through the license endorsement discussion as he examined both of my licenses. Then came the best part. I needed a letter from SAP Labs stating that I am employed by them. WTF? Since when does my employment status have anything to do with my ability to operate a motor vehicle? (Especially since the FRO office was obviously okay with my living in India) I pointed to my visa and explained that I had an X (dependent family member) visa. My affiliation was with SAP in Germany and it was my wife who was at SAP labs. No problem… I would need a photocopy of her contract, company ID card and a letter from her stating that I was her husband.

    I do need to demonstrate that my wife is gainfully employed. I do not need to demonstrate that I actually know how to drive. That is something to keep in mind while on the road here.

    Oh and since I’m a foreigner, instead of 3000 rupees, it will be 6000. What happened to 1200? I guess somewhere in that I’m paying (A) for being a foreigner, (B) for the obviously preferential treatment that I got and (C) because somebody is paying down a new mototcycle.

    The RTO – Part I

    I’ve been Sunday driving without a license for a few weeks now. I’ve decided to change my ways, come clean and not be a scofflaw anymore… in contrast to at least some Indian parliamentarians. So yesterday, I went over to a driving school off of Old Madras Road to see what the process for getting a license would be like. I took my passport, FRO permit and all of my passport photos because I was certain that any driving school would want to make sure I was a legal resident here and Indians seem to want copious numbers of “snaps” for everything.

    My driver made a phone call to a friend of his who lived near the driving school and had contacts there. This would make things go smoother and knowing somebody that knows somebody that knows somebody’s cousin-uncle always does here. So Wrenzo’s friend, another SAP driver himself, took me upstairs to the lady who ran the driving school. They spoke a lot in Kannada, she looked over my passport, FRO docs and examined my driver’s licenses (American and German). Once she ascertained that I would not need driving lessons, she told me that it would cost 1200 rupees instead of 3000. I had expected problems there and I had not expected that half a million miles of driving experience would make a difference. I was pleasantly proved wrong. Oh and the driving inspector was on duty, so I can go over and take care of handling that “test” paperwork.

    So we went over to where they were doing the tests. This was surreal in its own right. There was a hundred people milling about, along with several cars with driving school logos. It turned out that Wrenzo’s friend knew the inspector, as we walked straight through the crowd to the inspector, who stopped to look at my documents, told us exactly what we needed to get photocopied… oh and he would meet us over at the parking lot for the regional transport officer (RTO) in ten minutes.

    It pays to know someone who knows someone it seems.

    There were six shops ear the RTO office advertising Xerox – always color Xerox. Five naturally had broken machines and there was a crushing crowd at the sixth. We wanted to make three copies of everything as you never really know how many copies you’ll need. The power failed while making the third copy. I’m starting to accept power failures as an unremarkable part of life here; along with unruly traffic, cows in the street and tea that has the maximum possible concentration of sugar dissolved into it.

    Then we met the inspector again. I sat in the back of his car as he filled out the portions of the application that the inspector should fill out. Then I filled out the parts that I was supposed to fill out. There was some consternation over my American (New Jersey) license as it does not explicitly say “auto” or “class B” anywhere on the back. It only says “Auto Driver’s License” on the front. Sorry guys, but the US is not party to the 1968 Vienna Road Rules Convention and the licenses there don’t have to follow that format. Eventually my German license satisfied them as it has a “class B” entry. The inspector then handed me a sheet with the Indian road signs (which are pretty much the same as the ones in Europe with a couple of differences; how no overtaking (passing) and one-way are designated) and said “study this”. I quickly memorized the two signs that were new to me.

    I must say that sitting in the back of the inspector’s car doing this gave everything the feel of a mafia meeting and I expected suitcases of cash to start changing hands. It was kind of fun.

    (to be continued in part II)

    Hindi and Kannada; such quiet languages

    Kannada and Hindi are harsh sounding languages to the uninitiated. To add to this, Hindi and Kannada speakers gesture wildly and shout whenever they speak together; no matter the subject. Not being able to speak either language, I can merely observe the volume and the body language. Whenever our driver pulls up to someone on the side of the road to ask for directions, it is easy to let my imagination run wild:

    You there by the side of the road. You are a piglet!

    Sir! I am a Muslim! Call me anything you like, BUT DO NOT CALL ME A PIGLET!

    The shouting and gestures have now reached a fever pitch.

    YOU ARE A MURDEROUS PIGLET!

    YOU BE CAREFUL! I’M A BUTCHER BY PROFESSION; MY HAND SLITS THE THROAT OF THE COW!

    HA! I AM CHRISTIAN! YOU MAY BUTCHER THE COW, BUT I EAT IT. AND I EAT IT IN THE POOJA ROOM! WHO IS STRONGER? THE ONE WHO MERELY KILLS THE COW? OR THE ONE WHO EATS IT?

    NOW YOU’VE DONE IT! OUR FAMILIES SHALL FEUD FOR THE NEXT SEVEN GENERATIONS!

    Then the smile and wave to each other. Wrenzo turns to me and says:

    He says we should take the next left. It is across from the police station.