theindialog

December 11, 2009

Connectivity

Filed under: Evdo.coverage,Lessons,Technology — loggers @ 8:36 pm

All along this trip, technology has played an integral role in keeping us connected and more importantly, in updating the blog regularly. As mentioned earlier, the speed test comparison could not be carried because of dreadful customer service in order to get Mihir’s Photon working. Another incident that could be useful in making choices easier occurred with regards to cell-phone and tower connectivity, while in Tamil Nadu. To be clear, while roaming, connectivity can either be obtained through the home network or through agreements with other networks. E.g. Aircel can work either through its own network, or use the towers that have been setup by IDEA, assuming an agreement is in place to share their tower.

Vodafone consistently received EDGE/GPRS connectivity[1] throughout the state, through one of the two methods described above. Even at some of the remotest points in Rameswaram, close to land’s end and Sri Lanka’s border, connectivity was available. On the other hand, Loop Mobile’s data service has been dismal, with no service available anywhere. In addition to the absence of their own towers, the apparent agreements they have with Vodafone and Aircel count for nothing. After repeated complaints to the Loop technical team, there was still no rectification.

These two events seek to highlight the customer service and infrastructure deficiencies of TATA Photon and Loop Mobile respectively. Especially in the latter’s market, with MNP (Multiple Number Portability) coming early next year, serious improvements will need to be made to prevent an outflow of dissatisfied customers to other providers.


[1] Necessary for data transfers, i.e. email, internet, BlackBerry Messenger etc.

October 10, 2009

Railways, Technology and Ethics

Filed under: Lessons,Technology,Transport — loggers @ 8:38 pm

Disclaimer: None of the brands mentioned have actually paid us. This is free advertising for them.

Railway ticket booking has become a lot easier these days, thanks to the IRCTC and websites such as Yatra. As a result we’ve relied on the railways to travel the eastern part of the country. Rail travel is also safer relative to roadways as local goons and Maoists/Naxalites often target vehicles on highways, especially in northern Orissa, Jharkhand and Bihar. This strategy has allowed us to see a number of railway stations which we’ve found to be clean and well-equipped. However, major stations, such as Howrah, still suffer from heavy congestion (one of us remarked, “This resembles a refugee camp”) and security at all stations remains a major concern as they are extremely porous.

We took the Purshottam Express from Bhubaneswar to Jamshedpur. The train, which was supposed to leave Bhubaneswar at 11.30pm was delayed by an hour. Due to arrive at 6.30am, we only reached at 8am. The attendant, who had assured us that he would wake us up in time for Tatanagar station, seemed content in his sleep as we exited the train. Utterly disoriented, we searched for the exit. Meters before the exit, we were stopped by a drowsy railway official who wanted to see tickets of the journey we had just performed. We realized that after the 2am ticket check and due to the hasty exit in the morning, we had forgotten our tickets in the train.

When on the wrong side of the law, defense via reason is an ideal form of offense. We proceeded to explain to the uninterested official the circumstances under which we had exited the train. We also asked for his permission to show him the soft copy of our ticket on the mobile phone or the netbook but he refused citing the INR 300/person fine as the only acceptable settlement mechanism.

As is common in India, onlookers circumscribed us for their dose of early morning entertainment. Few of the gentlemen tried to negotiate on our behalf. We even suggested to the platform TC (Ticket Collector) that 2 of us would bond with him while the third would run to a nearby cyber café and print the ticket. He rejected this offer too and proposed that we pay INR 300 at least. For that sum, he would let us go. This was the loophole in his case. We demanded that we be taken to the station manager’s cabin for what would be a hearing of sorts.

Upon arrival at the cabin, we presented our case to the manager who deployed a third, apparently independent officer to examine our e-tickets. The netbook was pulled out. The Netconnect was plugged in. Now, only internet connectivity could save us from furthering the confrontation. Towers were on our side – the device worked. The officer looked at the ticket and recommended that we be set free.

Lesson: Requesting a transfer of proceedings to the station manager was a risk. Groupism (which would work against us) of railway officials was a strong possibility. Paying INR 300 and exiting the station was the easy option but we knew that our case was flawless. We decided to stick to the facts and emerged victorious on a high moral ground.

Many of our laws are archaic, and render such settlement impossible. Not too long ago, we succumbed to a similar temptation. An upright minority is the only hope for a nation where corruption is a social norm. Pontificating high horses are more comfortable than rocky rail rides.

August 18, 2009

Train-ing

Filed under: Delhi,F&B,Lessons,Rajasthan,Transport — loggers @ 12:50 am

We booked our tickets on-line (Yatra) for a rail journey from Delhi to Kota. Our train, the Rajdhani Express was scheduled to depart at 4.30pm. We reached the station at 3.45pm and at 4.10pm we realized that we were at the wrong station – Nizamuddin instead of New Delhi. Now, it was impossible for us to transfer to the right station in time to catch the Rajdhani. Thus, we decided to cancel our booking, but found out that tickets booked on-line could only be cancelled on-line. A kind railway police official told us to speak to the TC (Ticket Collector), who would accommodate us if there were vacancies in the August Kranti Rajdhani which was to leave Nizamuddin station at 4.55pm.

We got a chance to speak to the TC 20 minutes before departure. He suggested that we get new tickets from the issuing authority at the station. Naman sprinted across the station to negotiate with the agents at the ticketing booth who refused to issue new tickets as the reservation lists had already been released. After pleading profusely for a few minutes, the officials decided to relent. Naman could afford only 2 tickets and did not have the time to run to the ATM for more cash. After purchasing the tickets he ran back to the platform to board the train.

We were in an AC 3-tier coach and were pleasantly surprised by the cleanliness of the compartment and the quality of service and food. Minutes after boarding we were served a snack tray and were given a bottle of water and a hand towel. When the TC arrived, we explained to him the circumstances under which we boarded the train and requested to pay for the 3rd ticket on the spot (TCs reserve the right to issue a ticket onboard). He refused and asked one of us to get off at the next station (Mathura) or pay a fine of INR 3000 upon arrival in Kota. Mathura came and went, we stayed put.

Tomato soup and breadsticks were served before the well-stocked vegetarian dinner trays and strawberry ice-creams arrived. Post-dinner, one of us was summoned by the TC. The negotiation was short and precise. The TC claimed to have helped us big time and proposed that he be treated “pyaar se” (with love). He demanded a sum equal to the price of the ticket plus a surcharge. The terms of the verbal contract also included a non-disclosure clause since the TC’s service was “special”. We reached Kota at 9.35pm (10 minutes before the scheduled time of arrival).

Moral: Read the particulars on your ticket. Services in the Indian Railways have improved significantly but macro issues such as corruption among officials remain.

Side-note: We have now officially used every available form of transport (road, rail, air and water).

August 17, 2009

Bus Rides in Punjab

Filed under: Lessons,Punjab,Transport — loggers @ 11:00 pm

In travelling between Chandigarh, Ludhiana and Amritsar, we made extensive use of inter-city buses, a mode of transport that we had seldom used in India prior to this trip. The bus terminals were well kept, and stocked with cafes, snack shops and bookstores. Bus entry points were numbered and organized according to destination, and makeshift ticket counters were maintained outside each bus.

The first bus we took (Chandigarh to Ludhiana) was air conditioned. The ticket vendor gave us three thin strips of paper with our seat numbers written on them. However, in the bus, we found that our seats were occupied so we just assumed random seats and settled in. Soon enough, our seats were challenged by their rightful patrons, and a massive re-shuffling of seats ensued. We found out that some seats were allocated by ticket issuers to multiple people, and some people were not allocated a seat at all. Everyone whose ticket had no seat number on it was forced to stand.

The rest of our buses were non-a/c, and more similar to the HRTC bus we took from Manali to Chandigarh. The bus made several unofficial stops, where hawkers would jump on to try and sell Fanda (fake Fanta) and other drinks/snacks. The Punjabi movie playing on the bus TV kept riders occupied. Not the most comfortable journey, but economical and educational nonetheless.

Making friends on the Chandigarh--Ludhiana bus

Making friends on the Chandigarh--Ludhiana bus

Entertainment in the Ludhiana--Amritsar bus

Entertainment in the Ludhiana--Amritsar bus

August 16, 2009

The Rajbhog Culture

Filed under: Conversation,Delhi,F&B,Lessons,Tidbits — loggers @ 7:25 pm

A conversation with the cook at our temporary residence in Delhi turned into a philosophical quest. He went on to articulate his existential view with the help of Rajbhog, an enlarged and enriched version of a rasgulla stuffed with dry fruits. It is a blend of milk, sugar, saffron, cardamom, rose water and pistachio. The word ‘Raj Bhog’ literally means ‘royal meal’.

Rajbhog

Rajbhog

Legend has it that rulers in India would squeeze the saccharine juice out of the Rajbhog before consuming it. The liquid would then be distributed to the masses for consumption. This was symbolic in that the royalty kept the best for itself and distributed the residue to the commoners. According to the cook, many in India still perpetuate the Rajbhog culture by exploiting those who are economically lesser and then rewarding them with leftovers of sorts. All this at a time when even Rajbhogs are colored artificially.

Profound, we think.

Kashmiri Kesar (Saffron)

Filed under: F&B,J&K,Lessons,Nature — loggers @ 7:16 pm

The one thing that all our moms asked us to bring home from Kashmir was the local saffron. We were told that the best place to procure this would be on the road from Srinagar to Pehelgam. We spotted the shop, located on the farm itself, and learned that 1 gram of saffron was priced at INR300. Suspicious of being taken for a ride, we tried to bargain and walked away when the shop-owner refused to negotiate. Little did we know, that this was the fixed price for saffron in Kashmir and that we had missed our chance to pick up fresh kesar from the farm.

threads of Kashmiri saffron

strands of Kashmiri saffron

Travel Tip: How to Test the Authenticity of Saffron

1)      Take a strand of saffron and place in a glass of lukewarm water

2)      Observe. Real saffron should give the water a yellow tinge

3)      Remove the strand and place on a piece of paper

4)      Rub the strand against the sheet. (If it dissolves, it’s real; if not, you are looking at nylon thread)

August 14, 2009

An interesting evening

Filed under: Delhi,Lessons,Politics — loggers @ 3:06 am
Loggers meet LK Advani

Loggers meet LK Advani

August 6, 2009

Taken for a Ride — Leh to Manali

Filed under: Himachal,Lessons — loggers @ 12:49 am

Due to the existence of local taxi unions in both Leh and Manali (and many other towns in India), Manali taxi drivers are not permitted to solicit customers from Leh. The ones that do (also called ‘vaapsi cars’) must bribe certain ‘authorities’ and also offer customers a better price. For budgetary reasons, we chose to find such a taxi driver.

We were told of such a taxi by Vinod, a man we met at a restaurant in Leh. After serious negotiations, we booked the front and middle rows of a Mahindra Scorpio for INR 3300 total (much cheaper than the official rate of INR 6000), and even paid an INR 2000 advance. It turned out, though, that the person we dealt with was only a middle-man, who actually had booked us seats in the back row of the car (much more uncomfortable) instead of the middle row. We ended up having a very bumpy and painful journey, but somehow got to Manali in one piece.

At Manali, we learnt that Vinod had promised the taxi driver INR 4000 instead of INR 3300. We ended up in an unnecessary tussle at Manali. Throughout this mess, Vinod refused to entertain our calls, leaving us to fend for ourselves against an aggressive taxi driver.

We were taken for quite a ride, but it was worth it:

Where we screwed up:

  1. We made a reservation through a middleman (unknowingly) and paid a premium to fulfill his commission
  2. We paid INR 2000 as advance for a total payment of INR 3300, when the norm is to only pay 50% of the committed amount
  3. At the time of paying the advance, we did not take a written confirmation of the balance left to be paid, and of the seats we reserved in the car
  4. We did not confirm the total amount with the driver before boarding the car

What we learnt:

  1. Sitting in the back seat (third row) of a Mahindra Scorpio for a 17 hour journey across bumpy mountainous roads can be painful, especially when you are 6 feet and 2 inches tall
  2. Never take anything said during negotiations face value

What we recommend:

  1. When looking for ‘vaapsi’ taxis, check out bus stands – you are likely to find taxi drivers hanging around there
  2. Make sure you negotiate with the taxi driver directly, and not his ‘apparent’ friend or brother
  3. Take down any details negotiated in writing, with the name and phone number of the negotiator – more so if any cash payments have been made
  4. Confirm all details with the driver before departure
  5. Carry an inflatable neck-pillow for long car journeys- it will protect your head from slamming into the window

July 29, 2009

Travel Lesson #1

Filed under: F&B,J&K,Lessons,Tidbits — loggers @ 1:41 pm

We learnt that food in restaurants/dhabas is cooked with excessive amounts of oil (in Kashmir and perhaps other parts of India). Make sure you ask for less oil in your food.

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