Anyone travelling through another country can expect a certain number of communication and infrastructure difficulties. I’ve had my share, but here are the top three in chronological order.
Warning: this post is long.
1. Postal Woes
When my aunt found out that I was going to India, she loaded me up with some clothes to give away to a relative of hers. The relative lives in Gujarat, roughly 900 miles from where I landed in S. India. Given that I didn’t want to carry around the weight around for months, and wasn’t planning on visiting her relatives, I thought I’d ship the clothes from Chennai. Since its the largest city in S. India, I figured, no prob, should be a snap to ship to Gujarat. With that foolhardy assumption began my postal woes.
Smita and I both needed to ship some things to different parts of India, so we went looking for boxes together. The first of many interesting service gaps was the discovery that the man who sells boxes does not also sell tape. Luckily, we find the tape at another store nearby, seal our boxes, and head to the post office to ship. Much to our chagrin, we learn that you can’t ship sealed boxes. Why? Postal officials need to be able to open your parcels and verify their contents before they’ll ship. Ok, we’ll open the boxes here and show them. Doing so only revealed another bit of essential information: the post office won’t ship boxes?. Why? And why didn’t they tell us that in the first place? Hell if I know. What will they ship? Bags. Only bags. Since the PO is closing, I decide I’ll go bag hunting the next day. Thus began my mission impossible.
Since the requirement was that postal officials had to be able to open my bag to verify contents, I figured I should get a bag with a zipper on it. Nothing fancy, right? Something like a rice bag or even a burlap sack with a zipper. Hailing a rickshaw, I tell him I want to go to a bag shop. Only problem is that nobody has such a sack. Maybe they export them all to the U.S. full of rice. Five bag shops later, we finally are able to locate a cloth bag that is sealable, but only with drawstrings. I guess that would be passable.
“How much is the bag?”
I blink. He apparently took that to mean that I didn’t like the price, and started bidding it down.
“150rupees140rupees135…130…120 rupees” at which I finally said Ok. Probably still overpriced, but I figured that since this was the only bag guy who had a sealable bag, I would have been willing to pay five times that for the thing.
Ok. I dump the clothes into the bag and head off to the post office.
“I want to ship this to Gujarat,” I say with a triumphant grin.
She paws the baby blue bag with sloppy flowers on it through the bottom of her bifocals.
“We cannot ship this.” Her head tilt and nose scrunch suggest a certain disgust.
“It could open.”
“Yah, I know. They told me that they might have to open it. That’s why I bought this bag.”
“What can I ship this in?”
“I couldn’t find another bag that could be opened.”
Now she got irritated.
“Another bag, sir.”
“Where do I find that kind of bag?”
Impatiently, “Tailor” with this sort of duhhh glare.
“You go stitch a bag.”
Initially, I thought that this was some sort of insult– like saying, “go shove it” but she was serious. So I hail a rickshaw and ask him if he knows where to find a tailor shop. Of course he does, but we still stop and ask 2 other shopkeepers where to find a tailor. Of course everyone’s answer is to point their hands leftward and into the clouds. Magically, we finally get to a tailor.
“Can you stitch a bag?”
“A bag. I need to ship some clothes and the post office tells me I need to put them in a bag.”
He was totally confused and got his boss who spoke better English.
“Can you stitch a bag?” I ask him.
“No. Only clothing.”
“No, but a bag would be easy. Just a sack. Could you make one?”
“No. Only women’s clothing.”
Not sure why he added that, nor why that precludes him from making my simple bag but I say, “Who can make my bag?”
Of course, he raises is hand skyward and to the right, as he grunts.
“No, tell him. Tell my driver.”
Several rounds of Tamil are exchanged, after which we cautiously make our way down a narrow back road to another tailor shop.
“Can you make a bag?”
He doesn’t know English. Get’s the guy who does.
“Can you make a bag?”
“Post. Post. I want to post this in a bag.”
“Ship. Post. Post Office. Bag.”
Its not really registering. Luckily another customer speaks English and jumps in.
“Tell me. What you want to do?”
“I want to ship these clothes.”
“Yes. You cannot ship like this.”
“Yes, I know. They tell me I need a tailor to make a bag.”
He tells the guy.
More Tamil. The customer tells me, “You bring him the cloth.”
“He’s a tailor. Doesn’t he have cloth?”
“Yes, but you bring cloth.”
“Where can I find cloth?”
“But which one?”
“Tell my driver.”
Tamiltamiltamiltamil. We backtrack down the alley and miraculously get to a cloth shop at our first stop. No issues in picking up the cloth. I tell the rickshaw driver to go back to the tailor shop. On the way, he says, “No waiting sir. I go” meaning that he’s tired of being a party to my clumsy misadventure and wants to get paid and find an easier customer. Fine.
Back at the tailor shop, my cloth turns into a bag after a few quick measurements and 20 rupees. Its of course totally stitched shut, which is how they wanted it. Why its easier to unstitch a bag and reseal as opposed to unsealing a box and retaping I may never know. I walk down the long alley back to the main road to get another rickshaw back to the post office. Relieved to have finally overcome the madness, I return to the same clerk.
“Ok. I’m ready.”
I hand her a slip of paper with the address on it.
“You write,” she says as she tell me to write it on the cloth.
“Can I have a marker?”
“Pen. Can I have a pen?”
“You don’t have a pen at the post office?”
“No pen.” Somehow I was still surprised.
“Where can I find a pen?”
Why did I even ask? Everything is either in the sky toward the right or the left. But this time I wanted more specifics.
“Is it close?”
“Street opposite sir.”
“Can I walk there?”
“Opposite only sir.” She’s irritated again.
“How long does it take to walk there?”
“Just here only. Stationery store.”
That was about the best I was going to get out of her. I figured it must be like across the street or something. I ask the tea stand across the street. They send me left. Its close by, and I buy a 5 rupee marker, and return to the post office to find out EXACTLY what to do next. I wasn’t going to do it wrong this time.
“Ok, where do I write who I want to send this to?”
She points to a spot on the sack.
“How big do I make the letters?”
Good enough. I write the first letter and then ask, “Ok?”
In bold block letters, I complete the address and push the sack toward her.
“Where do I put my address?”
She point to the corner, and I fill out a Chennai address, again giving her the sack. She flips it over and seems very disappointed that I didn’t write the address information on both sides. Of course, she never told me to and I wasn’t about to break protocol. After filling out the same info on the other side, she asks, “Weight?”
“I don’t know. Don’t you have a scale?”
Tamiltamiltamiltamil she calls a male coworker who takes me into the back to a rusted balance scale where we use figure that the sack weights between 5600 and 5800 grams. Great. He’s done and takes off. I go back to the counter.
“5800 grams,” I tell the clerk, rounding up just to avoid any questions.
Tamiltamiltamil…where’s the dude who weighed it? She’s looking for him, but he went to get some tea. She tells me to wait. Fifteen minutes pass, and I spot him through the glass in the door to the room in the back. I tell her that the dude is back there. Tamiltamiltamil she calls him. Tamiltamil she asks how much it weighs.
“5800” he says. Tamiltamiltamil that’s not good enough. Tamiltamiltamil is exchanged. Finally she makes him him write 5800 on the sack– WITH MY MARKER– and then FINALLY ships the thing for about 280 Rs.
The total cost of that adventure was well over 1000 Rs and about 5 hours of time after all was said and done. Sooo difficult.
2. LAICO Lockdown
Usually when I planned to be working late, I would check out a laptop from the desktop publishing department and thereby not be restricted to the office. Unfortunately, there was a conference going on that was using all available laptops one evening so I didn’t have that luxury and had to stay at the office. I let Chitra aunty know, so that nobody freaked out that I was in the building after hours, and she said she’d let the guard know. Fantastic.
Around 11pm, I finish up the work I’m doing and shut down the computer. I was expecting the front door to be locked, and went down to the basement where there is another exit from the atrium out a side door.
The atrium door is locked. Since I had a key to Pavi’s office, I thought that I’d try that key out on the off chance that every key works in every lock. I put the key in and twist. No dice. I turn the key back.
Its stuck in the lock. I apply more pressure to turn it back. It barely budges. Just when I’m worried about breaking the key in the lock, it snaps free. I check to make sure the key is still intact. Yes. Bent? No. Phew!! So what do I do now? I go up the stairs and look for an unlocked door somewhere. No luck. So I pull out my cell phone to call Mary at the guest house and let her know my situation. Mary speaks English without an accent and can carry on a conversation. There should be no disconnect here.
“Mary, this is Rahul.”
“Hello Mr. Raghul sir.” Every Tamilian thinks my name is Raghul. I correct them and say “Ra-H-ul” and they always come back with a “Ra-GH-ul” Anyways…
“Mary, I’m locked inside the LAICO building.”
“Oh! Coming late sir?”
“No, Mary. I’m locked inside.”
“What time coming, sir?”
“Mary, you don’t understand. I can’t come back. The door to LAICO is locked. I am inside. I am locked inside.”
“Ohhh… ok! When coming, sir?”
This is when I discovered that though Mary speaks with unaccented English, and often feigns as though she understands what you’re saying, she only gets it about 30% of the time.
“Mary, Raghul no coming. Raghul trapped in LAICO. Raghul lock in LAICO. No key. Door lock. Raghul no key. Raghul lock. Raghul LAICO lock inside.”
“Ohhh! Okokokok! Ohh! Okok. How coming?”
“Mary, Raghul can’t come. You need to call the guard to unlock the door.”
“Ok!” Of course I have no confidence that she understood my situation and thus could help.
“Mary, I’ll call back in five minutes to see if you’ve called someone.”
“Ok sir. Calling.”
I start looking around for where I can sleep in this building. There are couches. There is water. The restrooms are unlocked. Toilet paper available. I could survive a night here and start scoping out the best place for me crash, not at all confident that I would be getting out of the building that night.
I go to a window on the side of the building and see a guard sitting in the parking lot, asleep in his chair. The windows have bars on the inside, and that particular window also doesn’t slide open very well. Still, I manage to crack it open.
He looks up.
“Guard sir! Over here!”
He looks around. Its dark. He can’t see a thing.
I call Mary back.
“Mary, did you call anyone.”
“Calling Chitra madam, sir. Guard coming. Guard unlock.”
“Mary, I can see the guard. He’s asleep in his chair. He doesn’t have a phone.”
“Other guard coming sir.”
“Are you sure Mary?”
“Yes, guard coming.”
Ok… I decide to try our sleepy guard again.
After about five more rounds of calling him, he finally figures out where I am and come to unlock the door. As he lets me out into the parking lot, I find that the parking lot gate is locked as well. Just as he’s unlocking that for me, another guard comes up and says in Tamil, “I think there’s someone locked in the building.”
When I get back to the guest house, the gate is open. Mary, Andrews, Tillahaar, Chelamma are standing outside.
“Oh… coming sir.” and then they break into laughter. The next morning when I walk into LAICO, people I don’t know can’t hold eye contact with me. They see me, then they look away and smile. I walk into desktop publishing and all the girls look at me and have a big smile on their faces. I walk up to Jeyalakshmi and she bursts out in laughter.
“You were locked inside.”
“Jeya, how did you know? Its only 8:30am.”
I ask Chitra aunty how everyone knows.
“You can’t keep secrets around here. Everyone finds out everything.”
Yes, but the only problem is getting the first person to figure out what’s going on. I tell them about my amusing encounter with Mary and the guard, but they’re definitely most tickled by the fact that I was locked in. Silly me.
3. Madurai Forever
There is a travel desk inside the hospital that people can use to make arrangements to get to and from the hospital for a small fee. I basically finished my work at Aravind and was planning on going to Chidambaram on my way back to Chennai.
“I’d like to take a bus to Chidambaram.”
“No bus to Chidambaram?”
“The train goes to Chidambaram?”
I wanted to say, “Why did you say ‘only train'” but instead I said,
“Where does the train go?”
“How far is that from Chidambaram?”
“No, how far is that from Chidambaram?”
“Distance, distance, what is the distance?
“Is that the closest I can get to Chidambaram?”
“How do I get from Velawhatever to Chidambaram?”
“Is there any way to get closer to Chidambaram?”
“Do busses go to Pondicherry?”
“What do you mean?”
I expected him to say “Only train” but he said,
“Bus not going.”
“But I took a bus from Pondicherry to here. Sharma travels. There must be a bus going back.”
This began to feel like an intelligence test.
“The bus does go to Pondicherry, right?”
“Pondicherry or Chidambaram?”
Short term memory malfunction…reboot…
“Pondicherry. Madurai to Pondicherry.”
“Pondicherry going. Bus coming.”
Paradoxical answer. Like a zen koan of sorts. Not wishing to get too philosophical, I say,
“What is the distance from Pondicherry to Chidambaram?”
“That’s closer, isn’t it?”
So there WAS a way to get closer to Chidambaram? Why would he want me to go through the V-town?
“What time does the bus leave?”
“8 pm Periawar bus stand.”
“Can you book a seat for me on that bus?”
He takes my bus fare plus a small fee. Takes my name and age.
“You come at 11 o’clock.” Apparently somebody will drop off my ticket.
Deciding to give them some extra time, I come back at noon.
“You come back at 2 o’clock. Ticket not here.”
At 2:45 I return.
“Boy not come. Come at 4.”
I come back at five. The dude is not there. Some other guy is sitting there.
“Did someone drop off a ticket for me?”
“Pondicherry. Tonight. 8pm”
“Pondicherry bus full.”
“What? The other guy said he got a ticket for me.”
“Tomorrow space. 9:30 bus. You want?”
What choice do I have?
“Can you book a seat for tomorrow?”
He goes away, calls someone and comes back.
“Booked in seat 10?”
I guess that meant booked.
“When can I get the ticket?”
“You come tomorrow 10 o’clock.”
I come back at 11. That dude is not there but the first dude is there.
“Hi. I’m picking up a ticket.”
“I thought you went 8 o’clock yesterday.”
I wanted to say, “Yeah, and it was such a fun ride that I want to go again.” Instead, I said,
“No. I’m here. The bus was full. No ticket. Someone else booked me for tonight at 9:30. Is my ticket here?”
“You come at 2 o’clock.”
A little frustrated, I ask him how the ticket is getting here. He tells me that some boy will be bringing it. I ask to call the boy to bring it now. He says he can’t make outgoing calls from his cell phone. Fine. We’ll use mine. We call some shady dude named Gopi. They talk in Tamil first, and then he gives the phone to me.
“Hello. Can you send over my ticket?”
“Yes. 3 o’clock.”
“This guy just told me 2 o’clock. Can you send it earlier?”
“I can send my boy 3 o’clock.”
“Where are you? Can I come to you and pick up my ticket?”
“Near train station.”
“Ok, can I take a rickshaw to you?”
“I may not be near train station.”
Was this guy like a scalper of bus tickets or something? Really shifty.
“Ok, how can I come to you sooner?”
He hangs up.
I go back to talk to the desk guy, and try to explain how everyone keeps telling me to come back but doesn’t produce a ticket or solid information. He just wants me to come back at 3 o’clock. I keep trying to get him to tell me how I can get the ticket earlier than 3 but he just keeps telling me to come at 3.
“I’ll come here at 2:45p. We’ll call Gopi again and I’ll wait.”
“No. Coming here from 3-3:30p. You come after 3:30p”
I just got pushed back another 30 minutes. Was it because I was being difficult, or because he was?
“Yes, but I don’t want it to get delayed, and then have to spend another night in Madurai.”
“Your bus 8 o’clock. You come at 3:30”
“I thought my bus was at 9:30p”
“9:30” he says as if its the same at 8pm.
This guy didn’t seem to know anything. A tad frustrated, I leave, resolving to come back at 2:30 and have it out if my ticket isn’t there.
At 2:30p I show up. That guy is gone, but the guy from yesterday evening is at the desk. He sees me and pulls out a ticket.
“Thank you.” I start to walk away, and then go back.
“When did my ticket come?”
“9:30 bus. Periawar bus stand.”
“No, what time did my ticket get here?”
“What time in the morning?”
But this dude wasn’t even here at 11am.
The whole experience was some sort of twilight zone time warp, or candid camera show where the joke was on me. All I could do was smile and walk away, hoping I won a prize or something. Maybe a live chicken. That’s a popular prize in Tamil Nadu.
So according to the ticket, my bus is supposed to leave at 10:00pm tonight but I have to show up at 9:30p. We’ll see if I actually make it out of town tonight.