I flew into New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport on Friday afternoon but it was almost dinner time before I made my way to Joey’s Hostel in the somewhat down-at-the-heels Lakshmi Nagar neighbourhood. Before asking my name or if I had a reservation, the guy working the front desk said: “We’re ordering in Chinese food; wanna join us?” I like this hostel already, I thought.
With no nagging desire to tackle a strange and chaotic city in the darkness, I didn’t need much coaxing to stay in and get to know the hostel staff and some fellow backpackers. My first foray into the Delhi craziness could wait until the morning of Saturday #71.
I was up bright and early on Saturday and over a basic but free hostel breakfast I mapped out a plan for the day. I had three things to purchase: a transit pass, a SIM card and data plan, and bluetooth keyboard in English. (I have an iPad and a small Turkish keyboard but I’m not sure how many more times it will survive being thrown against a wall.)
On the advice of the hostel staff, my first stop was a nearby AirTel store. It was bright and airy with plenty of English signage and could easily have passed for a Rogers or Bell store in Canada. I was greeted at the door by a college-age employee and handed an iPad on which I watched a slick video that explained all of their unbundled options. At the end of the video I ticked off a few boxes to create my own “pick and pay” wireless plan. The system calculated the price and instructed me to see a team member to complete the process. Is this ever slick, I thought.
“Sorry, I can’t sell you that one,” was the reply. “Only India nationals. But let me ask the manager what we can do for you.”
They apparently operate as a team at AirTel as no fewer than six people huddled at the back of the store to discuss what could be done for me.
Ten minutes passed before another employee was dispatched to break the news: “Sir, you are eligible for just one of our pre-paid plans.”
This was what I thought I had ordered in the first place so I read over the details and accepted the offer by checking a box on the iPad.
It obviously takes a real specialist to fill out the application form as yet another employee was summoned from the back. I answered all of his questions completely and truthfully. (Okay, so I just guessed at my birth weight.) After about 15 minutes of meticulous form-filling he stapled my passport photo to the upper right corner and asked to see proof of my local address. I told him that I was using the hostel’s address, with their permission, but obviously I didn’t have matching ID.
I could tell this was going to be a problem when the manager was summoned and he had to phone the district manager. Another team meeting was convened in a back office. It may have been catered; I don’t know. Five minutes passed. Ten. Fifteen.
After about 20 minutes the team finally emerged from the closed door meeting and the most junior of employees – he appeared to be about 13 – was sent over to give me the news. “Sorry, we absolutely require two pieces of ID with your local address. Don’t you have a credit card statement, utility bill, anything?”
I didn’t bother to reply and headed towards the door.
A third meeting was hastily convened.
Miraculously there was a solution, and with me leaning against the front door, it was presented within about 30 seconds.
“The folks at head office won’t require proof of a local address if you purchase a personal portable hotspot. With a hotspot you can access the Net from up to 10 devices and the data plans are just the same as SIM cards.”
Aside from the one time charge of about $25, this didn’t sound too bad. “Sign me up,” I said.
It’s a good thing I brought my entire collection of passport photos as six were deemed to be unsuitable (no explanation given) and over the course of the next 90 minutes they (we?) destroyed another three.
When asked to sign one of the photos, I did. Not correctly, mind you. Nobody told me the signature had to cover both the application form AND the attached photo. The manager checked my work, deemed it unsuitable, then tore up the form that employee #5 had just spent 15 minutes completing.
We repeated this process a second time, if you can believe it.
And a third.
It wasn’t until the fourth attempt that I managed to sign my name in a style that satisfied the manager. It was crucial that the signature start and end on the form but mostly cover the photo.
After ninety minutes I left the store feeling a little beaten up but hopeful that come Wednesday (two business days later) my application and penmanship would be approved by head office and I would be able to call a toll free number to activate a pre-paid SIM using my passport number and another 12 digit number as a password. There was no mention of jumping naked through flaming hula hoops but that may come later for all I know.
As I walked back to the hostel I spotted a crowd jostling to buy dirt cheap bottles of “Tastes of Jamaica Rum” (distilled and bottled in The Punjab). Who doesn’t like $5 bottles of rum? I snapped a photo of the sign, put my iPhone in my right front jeans pocket and waded into the raucous crowd.
That was the last time I would see that iPhone.
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to track the phone with the ‘Find My Phone’ app as the thief immediately powered it off, but at least it will be erased, locked, and a dick pic (not mine) will be displayed for all to see when someone attempts to restart it.
I returned to AirTel and used one of their demo devices to get the names and addresses of three authorized Apple resellers. An hour later I was standing at the top of the escalator at Rajiv Chowk Metro Station, scanning the street for an Apple sign that should be within sight.
“Where you from, my friend?” came a voice from behind me.
I’ve been around enough to know those are often the first words of someone who intends to relieve you of your cash, legally or otherwise. In this case they came from a tall, slim Indian man of about 30. He was nicely dressed in a crisp blue and yellow shirt and tight, faded jeans. He removed his mirrored aviators and flashed a 100 watt smile. He had my attention.
“Canada,” I said, “But I don’t need any, thanks.”
“I’m not selling anything, my friend. I just like to practise my English with someone who is so obviously very well educated and well traveled, too.”
“Well, hello, my friend,” I said as I reached into my pocket. “Let’s take a selfie together.”
I don’t know what his intent was but he disappeared into the crowd in a flash. He didn’t even stick around to see that I lacked a phone or camera. Selfies are to scammers what kryptonite is to Superman.
Actually I do have a pretty good idea what Ray Ban Man was up to. I had heard stories about the many unofficial Tourist Information Offices in Delhi. One guy from my hostel was fresh off the train from the airport when he was lured into one of these shops with the offer of a free map. When they learned that he didn’t have a hostel reservation for the night, he was told that due to Diwali, all hostels and cheap hotels in the city were fully booked. He was even shown “proof” on various well known booking sites. When he asked to phone one of the larger hostels, the girl behind the counter dialled the number and handed him the phone. Sure enough, the hostel staff said they were fully booked and to the best of their knowledge there wasn’t a bed left in the entire city.
Of course the phone call was intercepted by an accomplice in the back room and the web sites he was shown were clever fakes. All of this was simply a ruse to sell him a bus ticket to Agra where it was suggested he could celebrate Diwali at the Taj Mahal and then return to Delhi a few days later when prices would be much lower and beds aplenty. He almost fell for it until he realized the price quoted for the bus to Agra — in Rupees — was about $500 when it should have been $20 or less.
So, having ditched scammer #1 (spoiler alert: there are more), I started searching for the Apple Premium Reseller that appeared in Google Maps. I didn’t have the exact address but I knew roughly where it was. Within a few minutes I spotted an Apple logo just down the street. It was a single room, painted white, with nothing more than a simple counter and several iPhone posters.
“You found us! I’m so glad you made it over from the other store,” said the very professional looking woman at the counter.
She went on to explain that their “other store” had suffered a flood the night before and would be closed for two days while a new floor is installed. In the meantime staff are on the sidewalk directing customers to this service depot.
I was told they have some phones in stock at the service depot but should I wish to purchase anything else they will have it brought over from the store. In fact, a young guy in a red Apple t-shirt was standing by with a motorcycle, ready to get anything that I might desire. This struck me as odd but plausible. Floods happen and operating from a service depot for two days is better than closing down altogether, I reasoned.
“How much for the 6S with 128 GB?” I asked.
“8,500 rupees,” she replied.
That’s a bit steep I thought and I told her so.
“No, that’s a verrrrrrry good price, my friend.”
I had to think about the price for a few seconds. Had she really said 8500 rupees and not 85,000 rupees? That’s $170 for a phone that sells the world over for closer to $1200. And she also said “my friend.” Apple employees don’t say that; scammers do.
She must have sensed my suspicion as she rattled off a list of reasons why I absolutely had to buy this phone NOW!
“Apple has authorized us to clear out all stock at this price because they will be reimbursed by the flood insurance company.” “The phones are sealed in plastic and locked in a safe every night, never wet, nothing wrong whatsoever.” “We’re still selling the 5 and 6 models but they weren’t on display so the insurance won’t cover them and ironically they’re now much more expensive than the 6S.”
When those lines didn’t have me reaching for my wallet she launched into super-scam mode.
“We sold 49 phones this morning and only have a few of the 120Gb models left.”
With that the motorcycle courier came in and told the woman to set aside three phones for the doctor down the street. “He’ll be in to pay for them in 10 minutes.”
The woman turned to me and made one last ditch attempt to close.
“The insurance company’s loss is your gain. Do you want one before the doctor comes in or not?”
“Na, I have great respect for doctors,” I said. “Let the doc have it.” And with that I walked out the door.
Just down the street I noticed a familiar sign hanging outside a busy cafe. It was a round green sign with a Hindu goddess in the centre. Actually it might have been a mermaid, but it looked like a Hindu goddess so I went in. Half the customers were working away on MacBooks. I asked one of these girls if there was an Apple Premium Reseller nearby.
Thirty minutes later I was back on a very crowded subway with a brand new iPhone 6s clenched firmly in my hand. Tomorrow I will find someone to sew a very, very deep pocket into my jeans.