This was not supposed to happen. Everyone said that English is widely spoken in India.
But the man on the other side of the plexiglass at the Varanasi International Airport taxi counter, clearly did not comprehend what I was saying. Either that, or he had no idea where the hostel was.
Great. I have zero Hindi. And I had not thought to download the local maps.
Nonetheless, through gesticulations and pointing at the hostel address in my phone (useful), as well as even more properly enunciated English (not as useful as you think), I managed to get myself sorted-ish. At least the difficulty proved that the counter was real, not a scam!
I grew ambitious. I enquired after a telco counter, where I could get a traveller’s data SIM card.
The man shook his head firmly. There was no such kiosk in the airport. In this international airport? Nope. But, but, but… if there’s one thing I do remember from my Facebook news feed, it’s that even rural farmers have data access in India! How? Why??
My SIM card bafflement began.
But it was true. There was no telco kiosk in Varanasi International Airport. And worse, my data roaming was not working either. I guess we’re going old school.
Oh well, the hostel would be able to advise.
Don’t worry, it’s easy!
“There are so many telco offices in Varanasi,” the hostel guy assured in perfect English. “Not to mention the kiosk agents in the side streets. There’s one right by here.”
Righto. That’s sounding much more like it.
Relieved by the hostel wifi, and having downloaded the local maps, I felt more optimistic. This was quite a bit closer to my expectations.
Or no. Still not quite like it.
I was back at the hostel desk at the end of the next day. Having failed to acquire a SIM card, I had decided to wander to the ghats, hoping to come across other kiosks in the old city. (I did not. But I ended up having a pretty surreal day, being guided through the old city by a local Shiva devotee).
“What is a local SIM card, exactly?”
Hostel guy looked up from his screen. “Which place did you go to?” “The kiosk, right by here. And the Vodafone shop at the junction.”
“Ah, maybe it’s too small. There’s a different one for foreigners. You should have gone to the proper offices in the main street. They’ll have the right kinds.”
“It’s late now, they will be closed. You can try tomorrow,” he advised, going back to his work.
The SIM card adventures begin
Can someone tell me how to get a SIM card in Varanasi, as a foreigner?
I was not going blind tomorrow. I was going to make my next attempt, armed with intel. So I decided to ask around on my social media, while I still had hostel wifi. Unfortunately, recent travellers to India that I knew of, had gone wifi-only. So they did not know.
Hence, the enquiry in an India travel Facebook group. It was met by bafflement. You can’t get a SIM card? But it’s easy! It’s at the airport, they will do it for you.
Yes, but you see, I didn’t arrive in Delhi or Bangalore. I arrived in Varanasi.
Oh. I don’t know about Varanasi.
An admin tagged one of his friends, asking if he was in Varanasi. Upon receiving a confirmation, he commanded him to help me out at once.
A few DMs later, we agreed to meet the next morning at a tea shop near Assi Ghat.
And my data roaming finally kicked in! I would rather not use it, as it was expensive. But at least it was there, for emergencies.
Local famous lassi by Ramnagar Fort
This was a much longer motorbike ride than I expected. I could have sworn that we passed by the city area where Raja said we would get my SIM card, when we met up the next day.
That morning I took the opportunity to get to the meeting point by walking all the way from Dashaswamedh Ghat to Assi Ghat, instead of going the city route. It was a hot walk in August, but the lesser-known ghats were peaceful and quiet, with only the occasional pilgrim taking a ritual bath in the Ganges. And the linens – so much linen! – laid on the steps or hung out to dry, having been questionably laundered in the waters of the river, downstream of the cremation ghats.
But they were beautiful, the ghats. Towers of palaces built by nobles and sultans long gone, still stand sturdy and beautiful.
The road grew wider, and the traffic faster. Riding pillion, I became greatly conscious of my lack of a helmet. And… here we are crossing a massive bridge over the Ganges.
I recalled the map of the city. We were going to Ramnagar Fort. Whoops. Cue flashback.
Oh yes, I have gone around the old part of Varanasi yesterday. I had lassi at the Blue Lassi shop. It’s famous, right?
Raja had scoffed. There is local famous lassi, it is at Ramnagar Fort. You like to go?
End flashback. Perhaps I should have clarified, after the SIM card.
We zipped past yet another cow, ambling placidly along the highway as the cars and rickshaws and wagons zoomed and clattered past.
I had forgotten that in some places where communication is subtle, hospitality demands the host take the slightest interest as a request.
Oh well, I’m up for a spontaneous tour! Yay for Ramnagar Fort!
Red and pink walls, faded with age, trimmed with green accents. The signature scalloped arches of the marksmens’ balconies, and cannons on display out front. We didn’t go in, but just the entrance was a nice photo-op.
(And yes, the local famous lassi deserves to be famous.)
Oops, I did it again.
Why could I not have shut up? I thought, teeth clamped together, body rigid, as Raja picked up speed on the busy highway.
In the wrong direction.
While sitting in the lassi shop, he had asked what else I meant to see in Varanasi. And, like a muppet, instead of saying ‘SIM card shop’, I mentioned that I might like to see Bharat Kala Bavan, the art gallery inside Banaras Hindu University.
And so, instead of heading towards a SIM card shop, we were dicing with death on the highway.
Without asking, I already knew what he was doing. This was the shortcut to the university. (Mental note: never ever ride pillion on a motorbike driven by an undergrad. Don’t you remember what kind of driver you were at that age??)
“Maybe we could take the way that goes with the traffic,” I ventured to suggest. But the whipping wind carried my voice away.
He slowed to a stop, gauged the oncoming traffic, and crossed their path, continuing right over the side of the highway and down the slope, going offroad, and then onto dirt roads. “Are you afraid?” he asked, glancing back. Easy for him to say, he had a helmet!
Unwilling to say yes, I simply asked for him to slow down. He did, slightly.
Tea under the trees in Banaras Hindu University
An art museum later, Raja showed me the nearby uni tea hangout place. It was pleasant, sheltered among tall, lush trees. Squirrels with stripes down their backs scampered and bounced up and down the tree trunks. There wasn’t much greenery in the rest of Varanasi, but the university was nice and leafy.
I asked him about the nearby faculties. None of them were his philosophy faculty. Science on one side, engineering on the other, with journalism and mass communication in the middle.
I could not help but recall the quality of journalism in my country these days, more hyperbole and conjecture rather than informative. I wondered if the dean was hoping that sheer proximity might infuse journalism students with a sense of accurate facts, and a sense of what is useful.
It was not easy to sustain conversation, as Raja’s spoken English was middling – and of course, I had no Hindi! I then asked about the SIM card. But Raja informed me that he had to get to another appointment. He handed me over to his friend, and said his friend would sort out my SIM card situation.
His friend spoke even less English.
Sigh. Let’s go then.
The baffling case of the Indian SIM card
Raja’s friend took me to a bigger Vodafone shop. Hearing him speak to the officious-looking clerk in Hindi, I gathered that he was explaining that I am Malaysian, and needed a SIM card. I flashed my passport.
The clerk asked Raja’s friend for Indian ID. Then they both turned to look at me expectantly, waiting for me to produce it.
I fleetingly contemplated the bizarre situation of having to explain the inability of a foreigner to hold some other country’s identity documents. In the end, I went with a simple, “As I am not Indian, I do not have Indian ID.”
Was there really no way for a traveller to get a SIM card in India? Was I asking for something that did not exist? I can’t be the first visitor who has ever asked for one. What about the business visitors? Wasn’t Varanasi a common stop for foreign travellers? Or do hippies not bother with getting local SIM cards?
The two conferred once more among themselves. Papers were shuffled, and calls made. It could not be done.
It was the same again at the Airtel office. It was not ‘big enough’ to sell foreigner SIMs.
The pseudo-legal workaround
Absolutely baffled himself, Raja’s friend hopped back on his bike and drove us into the side streets leading to a sprawling residential district. He finally stopped at a telco kiosk by the road, and explained to the shop guy what the problem was.
They conferred for some time. Finally he turned to me and told me that he was going to use his own ID to register a SIM card for me. I was not to get in trouble with the SIM card, since his ID would be traced to it.
I agreed and paid. The shop guy did his thing, entering codes and listening to instructions (all in Hindi, with no English language option), and we waited for the data signal to flick on.
It did not.
“Well, sometimes it takes few days. Come back here if still not working after one week,” said the shop guy hopefully.
“One week? But I am leaving Varanasi in two days!” Raja’s friend looked crestfallen and embarrassed.
It was not his fault, though. So I said, to make him feel better, “Well, maybe it really would flick on after a few hours. It’s ok.”
The final decision.
The SIM card was still not working after a day. I asked hostel guy to help me with the Hindi instructions.
“You should go back to the shop that sold you this,” he said. “He should fix it for you or give you your money back.” Right. I had no idea how to get back there.
I contemplated trying to find an even bigger Vodafone store. By this time, the Indian SIM card had turned into my white whale. I must harpoon it!
But on Facebook, a distant friend of mine staged an intervention. “Just do without,” he said.
You’re going to miss out being there, and for what?” Gahhhh!! But but but… “Let it go.”
He was right. He usually is. Anyway, for emergencies, there’s always the data roaming.
Raja sent a message asking whether the SIM card was working. I was in Lucknow by then. I told him it was still not working, but maybe – in a few days. It was not important.
But next time, I will enter India via Delhi International Airport.
Much more by this very excellent writer on his very excellent blog, Teja on the Horizon.