Sunday, January 30, 2011

Getting Here Was the Easy Part

My first experience with the inconveniences of India came as I tried to set up a wireless connection from my room.  The hotel has a “business center,” a term I put in quotes because it amounts to a tiny un-air-conditioned room with one computer and a trash can.  The way the room is set up, the computer desk and chair are aligned along the short of axis of the room, which is short indeed.  A large person could not use this computer because the chair hits the wall behind it almost as soon as it clears the desk.  And that’s without sliding out the keyboard tray, which makes even someone as small as me feel slightly claustrophobic.

Not that I care about any of that.  My real issue is privacy. My sole purpose for using the internet at this point is Skype (, the only way I have to communicate with Kevin and my family.  For those not familiar with it, Skype is a fabulous service that allows free calls (even video calls) between Skype users.  Before leaving the U.S. I had Kevin, my brother and my parents set up on Skype.  They’d be able to see me and we’d be able to chat for as long as we wanted without worrying about cost.  The walls of the business center are thin all around, though, so both the front lobby and the people outside the hotel can hear every word I utter.  That and the business center is shared, so there is no guarantee that I will have access to it or that I will be able to be there for any lengthy period of time before someone else who wants to use it shows up. 

To connect from the room, you need to buy a “quick access card,” which again is in quotes because it’s “quick access” in name only.  You buy the card, which comes with a serial number and a password that you see only after scratching off the coating over it.  Every time I use it I feel like I’m playing the lotto.  When you find the internet access website you realize that you have to enter both these fields into the page, along with your cell phone number and a new password will be sent to your phone.  You then enter this password into the access page and get to re-enter the original serial number and password and THEN you have internet access… for an hour.

I’d had the foresight to have my Verizon phone set up for international roaming before I left the U.S., but the rates are awful.  Sending and receiving texts is about the only reasonable option ($.20 to send and $.05 to receive).  I figured this would be for emergency use only, and in the first days of my stay at that.  I’d brought an additional phone a friend lent me that I could set up to use in India.  Or so I thought.

On Day 1 I went out to try to get a SIM card for my phone and found it very difficult to communicate with anyone about where to do it.  There were plenty of places that seemed to advertise phone services but few of those actually LOOKED like places you’d be able to set up a phone through.  I instead focused on other endeavors.

On Day 2 I decided to ask around and before I left the hotel, mentioned to the doorman that I was looking for a place to buy a SIM card.  He took off his little doorman hat and was out the door with me.  I thought he was going to direct me to the right place and leave it at that but instead he went from place to place trying to figure out for me what I needed.  We hit three places and in the third a very disinterested woman relayed that I needed to have a copy of my passport and a photo to submit to them so they could give me a SIM card.  So off we were trying to find a place to get both.  Thank God he was leading because the guy who would eventually take my photo had to be fished out of a completely different store and dragged upstairs to the studio, a fine little set up with two soft boxes and a selection of backgrounds.

Once I was on the chair, both men urged me to smile for the picture.  The flash went off and when they reviewed the picture (I found it very funny that the doorman was involved in the picture review process, which even I wasn’t privy to) they both grimaced and then urged me to smile without showing teeth.  They clearly did not like my braces.  A second picture was taken and the photographer pulled up Photoshop 7.0 and cleaned off his Epson photo lab.  When he pulled up the two pictures of me, he gestured for me to select one.  Without even looking at me, the doorman jumped up and urged him to use the toothless smile picture.  It was only as an afterthought that he turned to me on the photographer’s urging to get my feedback.  Toothless smile it was.
I have to say here that though the rest of the excursion was a complete bust, I did get a very nice photo of me.

When we left the place, we headed to find a photocopier to make my passport copy.  That place was easy to find.  The word “Xerox” was prominently displayed outside and the room we walked into had nothing but a tiny desk and exactly one copy machine.  The doorman handed my passport to the attendant who quickly made a copy of my information and VISA pages, handed them to the doorman, and then requested 2 Rupees.  My smallest note was 100 Rupees.  The guy shook his head and said “No change.”  The doorman turned to me, shook his head and said “No change.”  I told him this was the smallest bill I had.  So he shrugged, and led me out the door, photocopies in hand, without paying.

We went back to cell phone place but this time there was a very disagreeable man at the counter next to the disinterested woman and he was insistent that I needed Indian ID to be able to get a cell phone.  The doorman, disagreeable man and disinterested woman went back and forth and the woman, whose English was better than anyone else’s there, communicated to me every few minutes the status of the conversation.

It turns out that getting a phone in India is not easy by design.  As a security measure, access to cell phones requires Indian identification (either the person’s or a sponsor’s).  I explained that I was here to study at the KYM and would be here for a month, making a cell phone a handy thing to have, especially since my current internet access was dependent on it.  Remembering from my handy "Culture Shock! India" book that Indians tend to only answer the exact question that is asked, I also mentioned that any venue they could suggest I pursue to get a phone would be useful.  The three consulted each on this and the woman finally told me that I should get proof that I was staying here from the hotel. 

So back to the hotel it was.  At this point I was exhausted.  We’d criss-crossed the nearby streets multiple times trying to resolve this issue and I was losing hope that I would get my cell phone at the end of all this.  At the hotel, the doorman had a discussion with the front desk guy and the front desk guy gave me a receipt for the 5000 Rupee deposit I’d made for the hotel.  Then it was back to the cell phone place, where the disagreeable man essentially said that it wasn’t good enough.  Somewhere in there the doorman offered to put his own name down for me but I’m not sure what happened with that because we didn’t end up doing it.  In some ways I’m glad because he was already going out of his way to help me and I was uncomfortable with him having to vouch for me when he didn’t know me past our greetings at the hotel entrance, which, it was not lost on me, was not being manned this entire time.

We went back to the hotel, where the front desk guy suggested I get some kind of proof from the KYM that I am studying there and have THEM vouch for me to get a cell phone.  I sighed, thanked the two of them, then headed to the business center to contact Kevin to let him know the bad news.  As I went to walk in, I realized there was someone there already.  She was picking up her stuff and ready to leave so I backed off enough to make space.  It was a lady I’d seen before who, by her voice, sounded American.  We greeted each other and I went inside.  Seconds later there’s a knock at the door and the doorman opens and asks me to come with him to the front desk.  The front desk guy looked very animated and he relayed that the lady who had just walked out was also studying at the KYM, that she had a cell phone, and would perhaps be a good resource for me.  Then they gave me her room number. 

India’s formality is clearly selective.

I went back to my room, called the lady’s number and introduced myself.  She laughed, as did I, at how odd this whole situation was, then told me to come down to her room so we could chat.

We spent the next two hours talking and laughing about yoga, India and food.  I told her about my teachers and she talked about hers.  It turned out we had Mark Whitwell in common and that she was a student of Srivatsa Ramaswami’s, whose books I’d discovered via Mark’s recommendation, and remain the best I’ve come across on the topic of yoga.

We finally got to the topic of the phone and she mentioned that the Mumbai attacks had changed a lot of things in India, among them the ease with which someone could get a cell phone.  She has a personal driver who gets the SIM card for her and after that it’s easy enough to buy minutes.  She suggested the whole KYM letter thing would be a bust and that getting someone local to buy a SIM card would be the most effective way to get a phone.  A great suggestion but I don’t know anyone.

So after a long chat and setting up dinner plans for the next day, I left her room certain that I would not resolve the SIM card issue today and willing to brave the charges of international roaming to see if I could at least get an internet connection that way. 

THAT, at least, was successful, if expensive. But it was worth it because it allowed me to show Kevin my room via webcam and to communicate a lot more openly. 

At this point I am on my second “quick access card” and I’ve been turning on my phone only long enough to get the text message with the necessary texted passcode that punctuates the horribly inconvenient process of using the internet here.  

The day was not lost, of course.  At the end of this process I’ve made two new friends: the doorman, who I feel I owe dinner to for his troubles, which were not insignificant, and Linda, the yogi, who I will be having dinner with, and who has given me plenty of tips on how to make it in India.

“Nothing can prepare you for what you’ll find here,” Linda told me.  So far, my experience has proved her right.  Despite the lengthy and painful process of getting a VISA when I am a U.S. citizen who was not U.S. born and who does not use the same name now that is written on my birth certificate, there’s no doubt in my mind that getting here was the easy part.


  1. Well you went for adventure and adventure is what you get!! Looking forward to more posts..thanks for thinking of us all while you are away! <3 Mikala, Wes & London

  2. oh babe, what an adventure!! i can't wait to read what the next day has in store for you. MUCH LOVE!!!

  3. Wow...I'm exhausted after reading that! What an adventure indeed!

  4. I see you're quickly learning about many of the ironies and illogical ways of functioning in India! Release all your expectations about efficiency, reliability, and customer service and you'll never be disappointed. :) I found people wanted to be helpful but were often hesitant to just say "I don't know". The airports usually have places set up to get SIM cards but do require all the copies of passport, etc.
    I'm so excited for you! I'm sure this experience at KYM is going to be amazing. Looking forward to reading more posts. Much love, Sharon