Posted on September 22, 2011 by Colin

Cursed and Accomplished in Kolkata

 

Knobless

I’m locked out of my bedroom.

Actually, ‘locked’ isn’t the right word. Being locked out implies that there is a doorknob involved, and the lack of doorknob is the problem here.

I had the kickstand down on the door, and left the windows open to allow a nice breeze to circulate through my apartment, and as the morning storm rolled in, I heard a massive ‘WHAMP!’ all the way in the living room and discovered my current plight. Door shut, no way to open it from the outside for lack of the mechanism to do so.

Thankfully, so long as I’m able to get in there before I go to sleep tonight, I should be in good shape. All that’s locked out of reach are my toiletries and clothes. And the bed, though there’s a semi-comfortable couch in the living room that should suffice in a pinch. I guess if it came down to it, there’s also a small shopping mall a very short walk from my building, so I could go snag some contact lens solution and a toothbrush from there if I had to camp out and no one shows up to help me pry the door open.

Strangely, these are the thought processes I’m shuffling through even while living in one of the nicer apartment complexes in Kolkata. Way up on the 19th floor of a 24-floor building (one of the tallest in the city, too), I can see the whole expansive sprawl of this part of East Bengal, but I still deal with the same problems I’ve been experiencing at ground level every single day since I arrived in the country two weeks ago.

 

Mobile Hangups

It all started, as these kinds of stories tend to do, with my phone.

After being picked up at the airport by a friendly and helpful gal I met through Twitter named Nisha, we proceeded to high-tail it around town, dead-set on procuring an online plan for my mobile so that I could retain contact with the outside world while going through the motions of settling down and planting a few roots in a new city.

In most cities this involves picking up a SIM card from a convenience store, dialing a setup number and putting some credit on a prepaid account.

In India, you must have a photocopy of your passport, visa, proof of address (in my case, my driver’s license from the US), the address you’re currently living at in India (tough if you’ve just arrived), name and address of a local who vouches for you (ditto on the new-arrival-toughness), your father’s name (not making this up), letter of recommendation from a 3rd grade teacher (may be making this up) and a photo of you wearing an Indian cricket jersey (definitely making this up, but I don’t think I would even bat an eye at this point if someone told me this was required).

After a full day of running around to procure my end of the paperwork, and then another four hours for them to get me in the computer (after waiting two hours to get up to the customer service counter) at the Airtel store, my phone was happy and activated, and I had two whole gigabytes of 3G connectivity to use, along with about 250 rupees worth of credit.

Easy breezy.

The next day, the Internet on my phone went out, and I wasn’t able to make calls.

I had tethered my phone to my computer a few times to check email by then, so when the folks at the Airtel store told me (after I waited in line another two hours) that I’d used up my credit, I didn’t even bother to question them as to how that could have happened overnight after doing nothing more bandwidth-intensive than checking my email, and decide to pay for a plan with less speed but unlimited access.

The one I snagged cost the same as the two gigabyte plan, but included a little over one gigabyte instead, and came with unlimited super-slow connectivity after that small burst of high-speed was used up.

Sold!

They had to replace my SIM (which they decided was the culprit in draining my account so quickly) to make it work, but it seemed like things would be okay from that point on.

Later that day, I received a cryptic text message that informed me I’d used up my high-speed net plan, which was strange, because a few minutes before I had been told (also via SMS) that I was swiftly burning through my 250 rupee credit by using the net (which led me to believe the internet-alotment hadn’t gone through).

An hour later my phone was again a dead brick, unable to make calls, and I was again standing in line at Airtel, trying to figure out how to tell the people behind the counter (who had shockingly little knowledge about the services they were providing) that they had once again screwed me out of money, and that I would gladly give them more if they would just – please please please – allow me to use my damn phone.

The next day (after being told to wait 24 hours while they figured out the issue) I received a text that informed me my paperwork had not been filed (the paperwork I filled out when I first got my SIM), and that in order to use their services, I would need to turn in said paperwork. By government mandate.

A bit upset but not yet defeated, I went out and rounded up the necessary photocopies and documents once again, waited in line, and turned them all in to the rep-in-red behind the Airtel store’s customer service counter.

My phone wasn’t working, but they once again got rid of me by saying it would take four hours to get the documents submitted and approved (at which point they will be closed), but everything should be groovy afterward. I put more money on the account so that I could check my email that night and left.

Fooled again.

Not only did the service not come back on, but I once again received a text that I had no money in my account and that I needed to file paperwork.

Now, nearly two weeks after the first inadequate customer service salvo was fired, my phone remains an inoperable brick, and the fear of going through the whole nightmarish scenario again with a different mobile company has kept me from going out and getting more paperwork filed so that I can try the whole thing over again.

 

Baseless

The phone wasn’t the only goal I started working toward as soon as I arrived in India. My other key pursuit was finding a home base – a flat to call my own – so that I could launch explorative sorties into the city from the relative safety and comfort of a space with doors, locks and a reliable landline internet connection.

Nisha was a huge help with this, and you would think she had played local agent for ignorant travelers coming to her city many times before, the way she scoured the net and the local classifieds for something that fit within the framework of the place I wanted to find.

She made a bunch of connections the first day, and we toured a few places on the second day, but it was on the third day that we found a spot that hit the right combo of price, aesthetics, location and amenities. We called up the owner (thankfully it was being rented by the owner and not a rental agent, who would take a month’s rent as their fee) and agreed to meet up with him a few days later when he would be in town.

In the meantime, Nisha also connected me with some people who ran a guesthouse, which is where I planned to stay for about five days while waiting for the owner of the flat to arrive, and for the paperwork to be filed.

The owner of the guesthouse and her brother, George, (who was living in the other room of the guesthouse) turned out to be lovely people, and George ended up being quite helpful as well, showing me around, introducing me to all his favorite foods, and doing what he could to get me to the front of Airtel’s lines by pushing and shoving when necessary (even if it didn’t always work very well).

A few days before I was set to meet with the owner of the flat, I needed to deposit a decent amount of money into his account to pay for the security deposit and one month’s rent so that he could file the necessary paperwork and give me the keys to the apartment while in town, before heading back home to Bangalore.

The end result was hilarious for everyone else at the bank I went to in order to make the transfer, but miserable for me.

Because it would have taken several more days than I had to wire money to the flat-owner’s bank directly from mine, and because the bank wasn’t able to take a payment from my debit or credit cards to funnel the money into his account, I had to go to the only ATM machine in the bank, right up at the front door, and take the money out from there before filling out some paperwork and handing it to the bank manager to deposit.

Unfortunately, Indian ATMs have limits as to how much a US debit card can take out at a time, so I stood in front of that ATM machine, putting in my card, typing in my PIN number, saying I want to withdraw money, telling it from which account, punching in the right amount (10,000 rupees at a time was the max, I found out after a little trial and error), waiting for it to process, taking the money, taking my card, waiting for the home screen to pop back up and repeating the process.

Over and over and over and over.

After about 20 minutes in front of that devil machine, with about 1/3 of the total amount I needed piling up in my hands, I was cut off. My card could not be processed because I had reached my daily limit. Worse still, that limit didn’t just apply to that particular ATM, or even that bank, but for the whole of India.

It took a bit of negotiation and a whole lot of translation through George, but eventually we were able to convey the problem to the bank staff, and they told me I could do a cash advance through my credit card for the rest of the amount.

Jumping at the idea of something that would allow me to avoid ATMs for a while, I told them okay, and a half-hour (and mountains of paperwork) later, I was presented with a small haystack of cash, which was just as quickly deposited it in the account of the flat owner; someone I hadn’t met, who may or may not have existed for all I knew.

Thankfully, the owner was real, and ended up being a hell of a nice guy, but my problems continue even now, as I try desperately to get my gas hooked up, my leaking window fixed, and my internet connected, along with a myriad of other small issues around the apartment.

At this point I’ve borrowed a total of three USB internet dongles and two phones, and none have worked as advertised, and all have prevented me from adding any credit beyond what was on them when they were given to me (actually, that’s not entirely accurate: the one I’m using now was finally topped-up with the help of a friend of a friend’s IT buddy, forty minutes of effort, and a roll of ‘help me’ cash, though I still have to take it down to the lobby to use it, as it doesn’t pick up a signal in my apartment).

 

Structural Gelenemies

As I tell this story, I realize that it sounds quite depressing and whiny, and there have been times since I arrived that I definitely felt less than my normal chipper self.

I have no problem taking on difficult situations, and I actually take great pride in my ability to face the unknown and, through a decent amount of adversity, eventually come out on top, a little beaten up and exhausted, but also a little wiser and no worse for the wear.

The difference here is that in India, there are no real tangible foes to fight. In general, the people are incredibly helpful and friendly. Though there is a huge amount of poverty and disease, those afflicted with both are more likely to help a comparatively wealthy and healthy foreigner than to ask for assistance themselves.

Instead, the foe is the social structure itself.

This is a country weighed down by paperwork and rules and an unbelievable amount of cultural baggage that lead people to avoid stepping out of line and taking initiative. And you can’t really blame them, because the consequences of not following that structure and requiring that everything be photocopied and submitted in triplicate with the correct signatures of various police chiefs and foreign dignitaries is that you are cast out of the sustainable social sector and cast back into the lowly gutters from whence ye’ came.

What’s equally fascinating and horrifying to me is that the people in the system know that it doesn’t work, but because there are so many people whose actions are guided by it, there’s no real way to change the system and nothing available to replace it with.

There’s so much potential here, and so many possibilities. Some of the people that I’ve met, like Nisha and George, are just waiting for the opportunity to say ‘No, this makes more sense, so let’s not do things the way we’ve always done them,’ without having to worry about losing their jobs and livelihoods for doing so.

It’s because of people like them that, despite feeling almost completely helpless trying to fight this gelatinous bureaucratic foe (that softly sucks you in when you try to fight it, rather than hardening, which would allow you to eventually break it), I’m able to keep on trudging along through the traffic and the crowds and the mountains of paperwork that’s required to complete simple, everyday tasks in Kolkata and feel good knowing that I’m here.

 

Momentous Momentum

Even though my phone doesn’t work and I have few options when it comes to contacting the outside world, I have finally managed to move into my apartment, which is an accomplishment, and my first real victory since arriving two weeks ago.

When I move to a new country, I generally have my phone situation handled within a few hours, and my housing situation handled within a few days, so those little victories add up very quickly, and I’m able to keep my personal momentum going strong from the get-go.

Here, though, it’s becoming more and more clear that those victories will be spaced out, which will require a different attitude from my end, and a different set of expectations.

George asked me at one point why I didn’t go into the Airtel store and start yelling and shoving people until someone paid attention to me. This is, he said, the only way that one can get attention in a country that’s so full of people and bureaucracy. On top of that, if my gas isn’t set up and appliances are broken at my apartment, why am I not making heads roll instead of quietly waiting for someone to act upon my requests?

The only explanation I could give him was that, coming from a very different part of the world, my expectations are always going to be different from what’s possible or likely in the countries I’m moving to. If I strolled into Kolkata and started demanding a lifestyle like the one I could easily enjoy in the US, not only would I be making completely unreasonable requests (many key aspects of the American lifestyle simply haven’t made it over here yet), but I would also be missing out on the acquired perspective that is the main reason I travel.

I think India is going to be a hell of an experience, and one that will really make me question what’s important to me, what I can live without, and how I spend my time. It’s also becoming quite clear that I’ll need to rewire my mental reward system, as it seems like trials and tribulations will be much more common than victories, which is what usually keeps me moving at full speed despite the effort and energy it takes to achieve them.

But before I can go out into the city and take in the experiences that will help me do all of this, I’ll need to get my bedroom door open; my clothes are still in my bag, which is in my bedroom, and I won’t get very far without my shoes.

 

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