Monday, March 21, 2011

The Art of Red Tape

(Written in Arambol, March 19th)

Well, I’ve left the tranquillity of Mandrem behind me and sought out the bright lights of Arambol, further north along the coast.  This entailed walking along the beach for, oh, half an hour or so this morning, backpack strapped on and shoulder bag slung over top, as it seemed the easiest way to get there.  The only other way was to backtrack down the beach a bit and hike up the hill to get to the road, hail a taxi and get to Arambol from inland.  This seemed unnecessarily complicated and not actually that much less work, so I decided to hike along the beach.

I regretted it slightly about halfway there, as the day was already hot and muggy at 9 a.m.  But just as I was getting fed up enough with blinking the sweat out of my eyes to lay down on the sand and scream, I was there.  At least from Asvem to Mandrem to Arambol, it’s pretty much just one continuous stretch of sand, with varying degrees of touristed-ness along the way, and I think you could hike up all the way from Anjuna or even further.  (That’s something like 25 kilometres away by road, though, so trudging all that way through the sand with a backpack might not be your best choice.)

I opted this time for a room in a guesthouse on the “main street” of town, instead of a hut on the beach; for 250 rupees a night, I have a large room, a queen-size bed (albeit with very hard mattress), a private bathroom with hot shower, and my own terrace that looks toward the beach.  I can get a fascinating glimpse from here into the “secret” life of Arambol, as I look down over the rooftops; tucked in behind the tourist shops and restaurants strung out along the one street, there is a whole network of alleyways and hidden shacks and washing lines that none of the foreigners ever see.  So it’s a real town, after all, not just an artificial creation for tourists!

The guy who showed me my room was remarkably laid back about the whole endeavour; he unlocked the door, advised me I could use my own padlock if I wanted, and left me to it.  He doesn’t know my name, didn’t get any money from me, and hasn’t seemed to be around much since; I could probably just walk out of here without paying on Tuesday morning and no one would be the wiser.  (I wouldn’t do that, though; quite aside from being a basically honest person, it would feel entirely too miserly to sneak out on a bill of not much more than $15 for three nights.)

What a change from elsewhere in India — if this is what I can expect in Arambol, I think I’ll like the casual vibe of the place.  Usually, at a minimum, you have to fill out a form listing all your particulars (name, age, birthdate, nationality, passport number, visa number, date of entry into India, your previous stop, your next stop, your expected date of departure from India), and often you have to surrender your passport so they can laboriously make copies of all the relevant pages.  There`s often a register to sign as well, after the fingerprint check and retinal scan.  (Okay, I`m lying about the last bit.)

But then, Indians do seem to love their bureaucracy — it`s not just hotels.  I think they’re better at creating bureaucracy for its own sake than any other country I’ve ever seen.  You’ll have read my post about getting my Indian visa (or, if you haven’t, you should go back and do so immediately), which would have given you a flavour of the concept.  That experience has proved to be a good portent of things to come. 

Bureaucratic winners so far are the post office and the bank.  Both places had armies of people hard at work — or, at least, taking up space in the respective offices — but only one person who seemed to be able to do anything helpful.  (I’m still not sure what everyone else was there for, except that I suppose in a country of 1.2 billion people you’ve got to find something for them all to do ... even if it’s just taking up a seat at a desk.)

I went into the post office in Kochi to mail some stuff home, which ought to be a straightforward task, one would think.  But it took the better part of two hours to get my parcel sent on its way:  first I stood and waited in line, before realizing that my polite Canadianness was never going to get me to the front of the queue; then I pushed my way to the window of the next available cashier and told her what I needed to do.  She took my parcel, very gravely; weighed it; measured it; opened it up to inspect the contents; motioned me over to another counter to seal the package. 

That done, I went back and presented the finished parcel.  “How much to send this to Canada?” I asked.  She looked at me, consideringly, and took the parcel in one hand and hefted it.  Then she, still gravely, handed it back and directed me over to another counter, where someone else would be able to help me.  Once I got to see him, we went through the same process again (why the first woman had bothered to do all that, I don’t know).  He handed me some forms to fill out, which I eventually did to his satisfaction after a couple of false starts (he was very picky), and argued with me about the necessity of having an Indian return address on my package (I gave up, finally, and put my hotel’s address on there; with luck my package won’t go there instead).

Eventually I was done.  I got out of there after being accosted by a gang of schoolchildren; one of them dared another to go shake my hand and introduce himself; once he’d done it, the rest of them shrieked with laughter and had to do the same.

The bank was equally fun.  Most of the time in India I’ve been taking out money from ATMs, as they’ve been in most towns.  But there was not in Anjuna (except an ATM that would only allow cash advances from credit cards), so I had to break into my stash of emergency travellers’ cheques. 

I headed off to the bank and found another peculiar little set-up, with at least half a dozen employees behind the counter and one man in a cage-type enclosure at the end, who seemed to be passing out the cash.  Great, I thought, he’s the guy I need to talk to; I saunter over there (barging my way through in a very un-Canadian manner).  He knew just enough English to tell me to speak to someone at the counter, which I managed to do after a bit of effort to flag someone’s attention. 

She listened as gravely as the post office lady to my request, but indicated that I would have to speak to the one particular man who could help.  Since he seemed to be the only person who could help anyone (whether they wanted to open a new account, make a withdrawal, cash a cheque or change money), I was waiting a while.

Finally I was able to take a seat at his desk.   I explained again what I was after; he handed me a stack of forms to fill out.  Once I’d done that, he took a long and careful look at the travellers’ cheques I proffered, and went away to make a phone call about them (there was one phone at the far side of the bank, a rotary-dial model that looked about fifty years old).  After a lengthy conversation, he returned, apparently satisfied that everything was in order. 

Next, he asked to see my passport; that in hand, he went to talk to the first woman I’d spoken to, and sent her off to make a photocopy.  Where exactly she had to go, I’m not sure, but she went out the front door of the building and didn’t return for another half an hour (she couldn’t have done this while I was waiting to see the boss man?)

Passport returned, I then waited while the boss man conferred with an underling and totted up some figures on a calculator.  Finally, I was handed back yet another form (filled out by hand, with carbon copies in triplicate) and a brass token, and sent back to the man in the cage to receive my cash. 

I handed him the paperwork (and the token when he requested it, although I’m still not sure what that was supposed to be for), and waited again while he had a long discussion with the other two men involved in this transaction.  Then the underling took the forms back and proceeded to enter the data laboriously on the one computer in sight.  Some time later, he passed the forms back through the slot into the cage (keeping one copy for himself) and the second man in the cage painstakingly counted out my cash.

I checked my watch as I was leaving:  I’d been in the bank for about three hours.  Compare that with my bank at home, which completed my transaction to buy the damn travellers’ cheques in the first place in about 15 minutes!

Ah, India.  Ontario government bureaucracy is going to seem like nothing when I go back to work; we’re a veritable model of efficiency, it seems.  

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