Friday, August 21, 2009

Customer service

I'm nearing the end of a five-hour layover in Bangkok Airport, en route to Osaka, Japan. Living in India, you don't really notice how rarely people in customer service positions (like wait staff and sales people) smile at you. It's not until someone does it that you think "Wow, that was really friendly," before realizing that back home, it's expected, and anyone who doesn't smile is perceived as unfriendly.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Fighting the man (UPDATED)

I had an unusually difficult time flagging down an auto rickshaw this morning; there seemed to be very few of them passing by, and those that did were all full. I spent fifteen minutes flapping my arms on the side of the road to no avail, and I finally just gave up and took a taxi. When I got to work, I discovered that most of the Delhi auto unions have declared a two-day strike.

The reason for the strike? The unions are protesting a recent government crackdown on drivers operating without licenses and/or pollution permits. To hear the union representatives tell it, auto drivers are afflicted with a strange condition that causes them to chronically "forget" to bring their driver's licenses with them, and so when the mean ol' Delhi Traffic Police slap them with a fine, they have no alternative but to rip off their innocent passengers in order to pay the penalty. You see, it's all the government's fault--the drivers are just looking out for the welfare of the common man.

In all seriousness, there are legitimate reasons to sympathize with the auto drivers: their government-mandated meters only charge based on distance, so the drivers aren't compensated for time stuck in traffic (which in Delhi can be considerable). I have also heard that the meter rate of 4.5 rupees per kilometer is simply too low, which is possible--I don't know enough about gas prices and the fuel efficiency of rickshaws to say one way or the other.

However, I am utterly without sympathy for drivers who complain about being fined for not having a license. With India leading the world in road deaths, it is unconscionable for auto drivers to skirt regulations and drive without being properly licensed--it puts everyone else on the road at risk. In any event, I don't think the strike will be very successful in putting pressure on the government: everyone I know holds rickshaw drivers in such low regard that they're firmly on the side of the city in this matter.

--Update August 18, 2009--
There were even fewer autos on the road today--any drivers who chose not to strike yesterday were run down, dragged from their vehicles, and beaten up by the striking drivers. One of my coworkers actually managed to take an auto to work; the driver told her that he couldn't afford to strike because he had too many family members to feed, but that he was willing to risk driving her because he didn't think anyone would dare attack him while there was a Westerner in the back seat. He charged her double though. I was told by a driver that the strike would end tomorrow; hopefully that's true. I did see a few autos starting to trickle back onto the roads this evening.--End Update--

On an unrelated note, a statement I made in an earlier post might have given some people certain ideas about my relationship status. I don't want this blog to get sidetracked by personal issues, so the post in question should be taken as just a simple story about a conversation I had with a shopkeeper. Any assurances in the story were made to the shopkeeper, and not the reader.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

A typical shopping experience

Palika Bazaar is advertised as an "Air-Conditioned Underground Mall," but the term "bazaar" is much more accurate--once you step inside, you're immediately lost in the maze of narrow, crowded passageways that is the defining characteristic of every market I've visited in India. I was told that Palika Bazaar was a good place to find DVDs, so I went there in search of an old Indian movie for Brian's collection.

Palika Bazaar is a good place to find lots of other stuff, too, so I had to endure the standard chorus of stall owners shouting "Yes, yes! Come here sir, this is for you, my friend!" for a while before finding my first DVD stall. It didn't look promising--mostly modern Bollywood stuff, and I wasn't too confident in my ability to pronounce the movie title (Subarnarekha). The stall owner's eyes lit up, as usual, upon seeing a Westerner deliberately approach his booth, but when I told him the name of the movie, he said "No, no, this old movie, I no have." I thanked him, and asked him if he knew of anyone who might have it. "Booth 95," he said. Of course, the fact that he didn't have the 45-year-old art film I wanted didn't stop him from trying to sell me what he did have.
"You like modern movies? Bollywood movies? American movies?" he asked as I prepared to leave. No, no, I'm fine, thank you.
I was taken aback by his forthrightness and exaggerated pronunciation, so I couldn't help but laugh as I assured him that no, I'm really not interested.

I was eventually able to find Stall 95, although like most things in India, knowing its address didn't really go very far in helping me to find it--no matter which way I walked, the stall numbers always seemed to be increasing, and I was already well into the 150s. Unfortunately, Stall 95, even when I did find it, didn't have the movie either. I was ready to give up at this point, because Stall 95 was the most well-stocked movie stall I had seen at the bazaar, so I figured if they didn't have it, probably no one would.

However, as I was walking toward the one of the many exits, I happened to pass by one last DVD hawker, so I figured I would give him a try. He said he didn't have the movie at his stall, but if I had a few minutes, he would send someone to get it. What that actually meant was that he would send one of his buddies to every movie shop in the bazaar looking for the movie, and then resell the DVD to me at double the price if he found it. That was fine with me, because his guy could do a better job searching for the movie than I ever could, so I was willing to pay the higher price. While we waited, he of course tried to interest me in some of his other wares.

"You like movies? Bollywood movies, American movies?" I told him no, just the one I'm looking for.
"Porn?" No thanks, no porn.

He switched to the technology sector: "Flash drive? I have 250GB, very good price." When I assured him that a 250 gigabyte flash drive is technologically impossible at this point, he told me that "In India, anything is possible!" before giving me a scaled-down pantomime rendition of his version of British colonialism and the fight for Indian independence as an example of the can-do attitude of the Indian people. I use "fight" in a fairly literal sense because his version seemed to rely a lot more heavily on machine guns than on say, Gandhi.

Since his flash drive discussion didn't seem to be making progress, he switched topics again.
"You like girls? Indian girls?" I wasn't sure where he was going with that line of questioning, and since I didn't want to be sold a prostitute along with the DVD, I told him no, I didn't.
"Why not? Of all the men I meet, you are first who does not like Indian girls." I realized I may have given him the wrong impression, so I was relieved when he asked if I was married, so I could assure him I had a girlfriend back home in the States. This seemed to pique his interest, and he asked "In America, sex is...more open, yes?" From the hopeful gleam in his eye, I suspected he was envisioning statuesque Aryan beauties clad in thong bikinis strutting the streets of Los Angeles, just waiting to be swept off their feet by a certain canny young Indian and ravished in the back seat of his Mercedes. I told him it was, but only a little, hoping I could dissuade him from whatever fantastic version of America existed in his head. He didn't seem convinced.

He never did find the DVD, but he said he'd call me if he was able to locate it. I've already experienced the willingness of some Indians to go to great lengths to satisfy Western customers, so I won't be too surprised if he actually does.