January 6th, 2009

India - cellphones

Next up: cellphones. They are ubiquitous. Not just the phones themselves, but the advertisements, and the stores selling prepaid cards for them. Every little store will have giant ads on the front for Vodaphone, Idea, and AirTel. Many places have all three giant signs on their store. Then sometimes you'll go past entire blocks painted with repeating ads for one of those three cellphone companies.

On the second day after I arrived in Delhi, I managed to get a SIM card. This was fairly straightforward: I only needed a photocopy of my passport and two passport-sized photos (the store took them for me), and the address where I live (in India). Just in case you didn't know, I don't live in India. So, I had planned to get AirTel, but the owner of the little hole-in-the-wall shop advised me that I'd be better off with iDEA, because AirTel attempts to verify your address a week after you purchase a SIM. Since I'm not staying at any hotel for more than a couple days, that might be a problem. I guess IDEA doesn't do that. Dunno. In any case, I got a SIM card for Rs 99, and paid Rs 500 for Rs 350 worth of "talk time".

I was advised that I could get a Rs 20 / day unlimited data plan if I called customer service, and I left. Later that night I attempted to call customer service. Unfortunately, this was an automated menu system, with prompts only in Hindi.

Now mind you, the packet the SIM card came with is bilingual: English and Hindi. The page telling me what number to dial to reach customer service was in English. Every representative I ended up talking to spoke English to some degree or other. But the menu system was only in Hindi. One of the people I'm traveling with speaks a bit of Hindi, so I wasn't even totally helpless. But even so, we had a lot of trouble figuring out the proper menu choices. So the first representative we spoke to said that it was the wrong department (I think it was the postpaid customer support), and when we enquired how to access the correct people, since the Hindi was somewhat of an issue, he said "oh you just press 1 for English in the menu" and hung up. Which was false. Eventually, I managed 1-1-9 to get to a human who didn't hang up. Success! And it turned out I just had to SMS "ACTNET20" to 12345. What he didn't tell me was that it would take a day and a half to go through. Wasted about Rs150 on non-unlimited data before that actually went through. Oh well.

India - airlines

Thirdly: airports and airlines. I've now travelled on four different airlines in this journey so far. From Boston to Delhi, we took British Airways. It was nice, as expected, although the knee room left something to be desired.

Next up was Delhi to Udaipur on Jet Airways. We had a five-hour delay in the Delhi airport due to fog, And the Delhi airport is somewhat of a disaster. It's small, and crowded. Fortunately, we spent the time in what they called a "Restaurant" but was actually more like an airline lounge for a cost of Rs 250 per person for unlimited snacks, drinks, and comfortable uncrowded seating. Totally worth it.

One interesting difference in security procedures is that you are not allowed to leave the airport. There's actually two layers of not-allowed-to-leaveness. First, only ticketed passengers can enter the check-in area. And you can't leave. Second, only checked in passengers can enter the gate area. And you can't leave.

The next flight was on Indian Airlines, which seems to be the intra-India portion of Air India. We got stuck in the airport in Udaipur for six hours, again due to fog in Delhi. The Udaipur airport was rather interesting. It's a giant building (3 tall stories), absolutely brand new. The first story is departures and arrivals. The second story seems to be unused departure lounges (departures were all leaving from the first story). The third story is a viewing lounge: you can pay Rs 25 to watch the runway from the viewing lounge. Why? I don't know.

Indian Airlines took good care of us during the delay: they gave everyone on the flight complimentary breakfast, and then took everyone out to eat complementary lunch at a restaurant nearby to the airport, since the airport has too little traffic to actually have a real restaurant itself. But wow, is their equipment ghetto. The bus they used to take us to the restaurant had a faded barely visible warning on the back of the seats: "WARNING: CHECK FOR BOMB UNDER SEAT. IF FOUND CONTACT AUTHORITIES IMMEDIATELY." It makes me rather curious what this bus's previous life had been. The airplane was little better. It was a prop plane with an interior cabin that looked like it hadn't been touched since the 80s.

We're now on to South India, having just arrived at the Delhi airport again to depart for Cochin. And again we're delayed due to fog. This trip is on JetLite, which I assume is the low-cost carrier devision of Jet Airlines.