February 17, 2007

Arriving in Bangalore - Paperwork

The rest of the week has been me learning my way around the local office, getting my team up to speed on what we'll be doing, looking for a place to live, getting a phone, getting our stuff out of customs, eating and sleeping. I had one 5:30am video conference that I got up at 4:30am for. I suspect this will be a regular occurrence. One of the first things I realized was that none of the SIM cards I brought with me will work in India. So I started the process of getting a SIM card. "Process?" I hear you ask. "Can't you just buy a pre-paid SIM from any corner store?" No. You can't (at least not officially.) Apparently if terrorists get SIM cards they will destroy the fabric of society. So in order to get a card for your phone you need to provide identification, proof of residence, and not look like a terrorist. I only have identification. So I asked my people at Google if they couldn't get me one, and waited.

While I waited, I filled out the paperwork to register as a foreigner working in India. We suspicious foreign types have to register with the local police within 14 days of arrival. I feel like some kind of sex offender. Apparently there are something less than 2000 Americans registered in all of India, I find this hard to believe, since I can think of on the order of half a dozen Indians with American citizenship working here just for Google. (To be fair, the requirements for foreigners working in the USA are much more stringent and much less reasonable. I have no reason to complain.)

Anyway, I have to get passport sized photos to go with the application. In Mountain View that means going to the security desk where they snap a quick photo and print copies on the fancy photo printer they keep on the desk. Not so here. Here I am told to go to G K Vale and get pictures taken. "Where's that?" "The one on MG Road." "Um, where on MG road?" At this point the long suffering Reena just calls up the driver and tells him to take me there. I hear her say something like "He's very new and doesn't know anything so you'll have to show him where it is." I feel like a small child.

This place is amazing, apparently they've been in the photo business since 1910. It takes about an hour, but they use a real studio portrait set up and do a great job. No cookie cutter id card cameras here! I tell the FRO (Foreign Registration Office) agent (Ikan) that I've got the photos and ask what next. He says they'll come by when they need to get other documents from Google and I put that aside. This turns out to be a mistake...

In the mean time we've been dealing with Crown Relocation for finding a place to live, and getting my household goods through customs. On Tuesday I get an email from Crown and a phone message at work saying our goods are there. There are some customs formalities to go through, but Crown sends a nice person over with various forms I can sign that will let them go deal with it. I sign the forms and give them my passport (with some trepidation) and that is that - or so I think. The next day the Crown guy calls me up and cheerfully asks when I can come down to do the customs inspection. "I thought you were going to take care of that?" "Oh no Sir, you must be present." "Ok ok. When can we do this?" "Would 11am be suitable?" "Sure" "I will meet you at MSIL at the airport at 11am then Sir." "Ok." Fine whatever. I ask for a driver and we drive down to the airport.

First problem. The MSIL area is big, and I have no idea which of the multiple warehouses is the one I'm supposed to be at. Second problem, I have no idea what the guy I'm supposed to meet looks like. Third problem, I have no working phone to call him. This could easily turn into a fiasco. Each warehouse window I visit, the person looks at me like I'm deranged when I say "Crown Relocation? Household goods? Charles Haynes." They all just point me to the next warehouse along the road. Finally I reach the last one, which is the designated one for collecting customs duties as it turns out. They don't look at me like I'm deranged, but they want the paperwork. The paperwork that the guy I'm meeting has. My driver helpfully calls him. "I'm on my way. 15 minutes." We wait 15 minutes. Call again. "I'm very close. 5 minutes!" We wait ten minutes, just as I'm about to call again, a small guy with bad teeth shows up peering at me and looking at my passport. "Mr. Haynes!" I agree that's me. We go in to the customs area.

First they ask me if I have any computers or cameras in my bag. I admit that I have a camera and an iPod, which I'm asked to surrender in return for a reciept. We go back to the warehouse and I see a pallet with our boxes on it! Woo hoo, our stuff is here! One of the boxes has a big hole punched in the side. They want me to agree there's no damage, I silently point at the hole and look a question at them. We open that box, and fortunately it's mostly clothes and sheets and things. I agree nothing is damaged.

We then go through the manifest, box by box and they take things out and unwrap them. At first I'm mystified. Some of the things they don't even bother with, but others they unwrap with expressions reminiscent of bloodhounds on the scent. Eventually I figure it out. They're only looking for high tech stuff, in particular for camera and computer stuff. Of course I have a bunch of fancy high tech stuff. Uh oh. The list keeps getting longer. At one point one of the inspectors picks up a paper wrapped object and feels it. "Do you have any food or agricultural products?" "No. I don't think so." "No seeds or plants?" "Not that I remember. I'm pretty sure not." He unwraps it, and the smell hits us. "Oh yeah! My coffee!" We all laugh.

Eventually they have a list of all the booty they think I should pay duty on and we begin dickering about the value. 21" Dell LCD monitor. Went for about $1200 retail new when I bought it two years ago, but I got a discount down to $800 and it's two years old. I claim it's worth about $500 now and they agree. There's an iPod nano in there that was a recognition award from Google that I've never even unwrapped, now I'm going to have to pay cash money to bring it in.

They want me to pay Rs 35,000+ (or maybe Rs 21,000+ it's not totally clear) in duty. Now it looks to me like they're charging me the 35% rate and not giving me the TR (Transfer of Residence) break. I ask my guy about this. He asks if I've got the FRO paperwork. Oops. Not yet. (See "Turns out to be a mistake..." above.) We go back and forth on this and I'm not sure of the end result. I point out that I can't get the FRO done while he's holding my passport. He gives it back to me. He asks if I've got the money with me. Yeah right. Like I carry that much cash around with me, especially in India where the largest note most ATMs give out is a 100 rupee note, 500 if you're lucky (1000 if you know where to look) and where the daily ATM limit is often 10,000 rupees. Do I look like I'm carrying around 200 100 rupee notes in my pocket? (I'm not that well endowed, thanks anyway.)

I agree to bring the cash the next day at 11 and to call him when I leave the office. I call at 10:15 when I leave and we agree to meet at the warehouse at 11. I'm there at 10:45 (what can I say, traffic was unusually light on Airport Road, probably because it was Mahashivaratri. Even so I waited until 11:30 before asking my driver to call him (see "no phone" above.) "I'm on my way! 15 minutes!" We wait until noon and call again. "I'm almost there. 5 minutes!" I laugh and told the driver he did the same thing yesterday. The driver smiles and says "Time is different in my country." I can only agree. Eventually I hand over Rs 30,000 in cash and get my passport and we leave.

I get back to the office to find a SIM card that's charged to Google on my desk. Woo hoo! I have a phone! It is unbelievable just how difficult life is here without a mobile. Everyone has a mobile number. It seems even some of the poorest people will have a phone with free incoming calls. The trick is that when they need to make an outgoing call they'll call you and immediately hang up. You use caller-id (called CLIP here) to call them back. It's a pretty good system.

Finally today our boxes arrived at the guest house! We have our stuff. I asked the shipper how much it weighed, so I could see how close we had come to the 500lb limit. He said "200 kilos sir." Close!

Next up - looking for housing.

Arriving in Bangalore - The Bandh

After 4 days in Singapore, we left at around 8pm and arrived in Bangalore at 10pm. This time we knew the drill, picked up our luggage and quickly found our driver. The swarms of drivers waiting outside were reassuring not intimidating, and the pushy porters wanting to load our bags were just part of the scene. When the porter asked for US$10 for loading our bags I didn't get upset or confused - I just laughed. That's the price of a nice dinner for two. I instead offered him US$5 (which is pretty standard in the US - about $1/bag - and nearly quite generous in Bangalore.)

The driver was a pleasant friendly fellow named Sanjay, who it turns out has been my driver pretty much all week. He drove us to the guest house, we put our stuff away and went to bed.

Guest House

This guest house thing is pretty nice. Google has rented most of a place called the Maranatha Apartments in D'Souza layout. (If you know what Maranatha means, and who the D'Souzas are it's not really surprising...) The guest house consists of a three or four separate apartments each with a large common area and three or four bedrooms. For the first few days we basically had the place to ourselves. It felt very luxurious. Fridge stocked with juices, sodas, and milk. Lots of snacks, fresh fruit, cereal and bread. People come in and clean, take your laundry, fix meals.

The next day (Sunday) we wandered around the neighborhood a little. Had coffee at the local Cafe Coffee Day. The coffee was decent, but the "chocolate croissant" was ... interesting. More like a long choclate "snail" than a croissant. This was a fairly thick risen yeast dough rolled around some chocolate then baked and dipped in chocolate. Not exactly a "pain au chocolate" but still tasty with coffee. Walked up to MG road, bought some books including the excellent Eicher map that someone recommended in the comments after I complained about the lack of good maps. Eventually walked down MG road to Bangalore Central and took an auto-rickshaw back to the guest house.

The Bandh

Monday was interesting. The state of Karnataka, where Bangalore is, is involved in a water dispute, primarily with the state of Tamil Nadu. There's an argument about just how much water from the Cauvery River Karnataka has to release to Tamil Nadu. There's a water board specifically set up to decide these disputes, and they had decided that Karnataka had to release more water to Tamil Nadu than Karnataka thought they should have to. (The decision will have significant impact on farmers in both states, regardless of how it ends up.) In protest of the decision, various Karnataka organizations had called a dawn-to-dusk statewide "bandh."

As far as I can tell a bandh is a kind of general strike, usually organized by a political organization to make a political point. What I'm less clear about is how this bandh was supposed to advance the cause it was supposedly advocating. A general strike by the common people in protest to decisions by the government or other people in power that they disapprove of I understand as a protest technique. But this was a strike that was supported (or at least not disapproved of) by all the state political parties. Its effect would be primarily on the state that was the aggreived party, not on the people making the decisions. It seemed to me very much in the vein of "I'll show you, I'll shit my pants!"

Anyway, we were told to not come in to the office, and that everything would basically be closed from 6am to 6pm. So we hung out in the guest house, ate, read, and finally got bored. I decided it would be ok to walk the two blocks to the Google office, though Debbie was a little concerned. As we walked down the street it was a little eerie. There was basically no traffic. No autos, no private cars, no two wheelers, no bikes, and very few pedestrians. There was a police officer armed with a rifle at the one intersection we went through, and a strange quiet over the entire city. The office was open and we had internet connectivity, so we hung out there for the rest of the day. Later, we wandered over to Nandhini Paradise our local Andhara place and had spicy food and went home to bed.

February 16, 2007

Impressions of Singapore

I must say flying 14 hrs on Singapore Airlines Business Class is much nicer than flying 20 hrs on United Coach. What a huge difference! The food is better, the drinks are free, but most importantly you have wide enough seats and enough leg room to stretch out - and the seats recline nearly flat! You can actually sleep in some semblance of comfort.

Anyway, after our comfortable flight we had a very short stop in Hong Kong just enough time to wander around the airport a bit a whet our appetites for a longer visit sometime in the hopefully near future, then off to Singapore proper.

... and boy is Singapore proper.

Baggage claim is quick and painless. The customs and immigration lines are efficient and no-nonsense. There are scads of brochures and advertisements everywhere telling you about all the things you can do in Singapore. We contemplate taking transit, but with two large checked bags, even Debbie thinks a cab is a better idea.

This is the best cab I've ever taken. We walk up to the cab stand, we're directed to a parking space where a cab is just pulling in. The cabbie helps us load our luggage and we're off. No arguing about fares, we just tell him what hotel we want and off we go. The drive is smooth, traffic flows, people stay in their lanes and mostly obey the speed limit. We arrive at our hotel (The Shangri-La) only to discover that yet again we've been fooled by a small detail in the name, and are at the wrong hotel. We're at the Trader's Hotel by Shangri-La, not the Shangri-La. However this is quickly straightened out, the hotel puts us in another cab and we quickly arrive at the correct hotel. We check in and plan our next moves.

We want to visit hawker centers and eat hawker center food. Chicken Rice, Chilli Crab, Char Kwey Tiao, Laksa for sure and anything else that looks good. I want to check out some of the fabled electronics malls - Sim Lin Square for sure. Debbie wants bookstores, and to see if there's a Muji in Singapore. We both want to check out transit and go on the Night Safari.

Over the next few days we do all of these, and a few more things. Hawker centers are everything we hoped for. Electronics malls are cool but ultimately somewhat disappointing (mostly due to a weak dollar), Muji is a let down, but the Night Safari lives up to its advance billing. I'll put up details with pictures once I get a chance to process them...