“Prepaid sim card?”
“No, you have to go to city center. Easier there.”
“No, you have to go to official SIM card office; just down the road; workable distance.”
After my third try at a different office I realize that it won’t be an easy job to get an Indian sim card as a foreigner here.
I am already walking for a couple of hours though the agonizing midday heat of Chennai. My hotel only ten minutes from the beach lies in a poorer area of the city. Homeless people sit on the sidewalk. When I pass by, they point their hand to their mouth, asking for food. In a backyard I see a food market. Goats and chicken are hanging from the stalls in the sun, flies buzzing around them. I see women in traditional Indian dresses coming out of the market, balancing bowls with vegetables on their heads.
When I come out of the last Vodafone office – disillusioned after having been sent yet another place – a thin elderly man in a Muslim dress walks up to me. “Hello, Sir. Can I help you, Sir?” His accent is barely understandable. After a few minutes of the usual ‘where you from, what do you do’ small talk, I tell him about my sim card problem.
“No problem, Sir, no problem.” He spontaneously calls over a friend to bring him his ID. I reluctantly give him my phone and the two walk into the Vodafone shop. Uncomfortable I wait outside, suspiciously spying through the glass door. The guard sitting in a plastic chair beside the door looks at me bewildered. After a while the thin old man comes out without a sneaky smile on his face, but a small red Vodafone package in this hand. “Come-come”, he waves me away from the office, back to the street. Suddenly we note that the guard is walking behind us. “Hey!”, he calls out the old man in Tamil the local language and makes a gesture that he expects something from us. But the old one only defensively waves his hand and drags me onwards. “Did he honestly want a bribe?!”, I ask disbelievingly. “Ah!” he grunts.
We go to a street shop nearby for a cup of Masala Chai, the very sweet spice-tea which you can buy at every corner for 10 Rupees. He seems to know the shop owner and a couple of the guests as well. While we wait until the sim card gets activated, he teaches me some Tamil and in return, I show him a couple of words in French. He pays for the tea (after my futile protest).
His friend comes over again with his Tuck-Tuck and the two tell me to sit inside to show me the city. I start to get suspicious again. After all, I don’t want to end up backyard in a sum, where the two can rub me all quiet. However, they only drive me to a tourist shop, where they wait outside while I have to go in. The shop sells rather expensive handmade statues of the Hindu gods made from metal, bronze or camel bone (ivory has always been illegal in India as elephants are holy in Hinduism). The shop owner is a Muslim from Kashmir who is “only here for work” and seems to be somewhat better off. I tell him about my two friends waiting outside. “Yes-yes, they are helping us.” He tells me the shop has hundreds of such ‘helpers’. “A favor for a favor”, he says. I ask him how much I should give them for the sim cards. “It is up to you. How much you think they deserve …”, he smiles.
I leave the shop without buying anything. After some phone calls we manage to finally get my card to work. The two drive me back to my hotel. A few streets before we arrive, I tell them to already drop me off (now being able to check Google maps). Finally, the moment I was been dreading the whole time – the payment. I estimate the price for the card to be about five Euros. My heart almost skips a beat when they want me to pay 80 Euros. I’m getting nervous now. Still sitting in the Tuck-Tuck (me on the side with the grille; the sneaky old one in the entrance) we start to argue. I am willing to pay 20. As the argument gets more heated he goes down first to 70, then to 60. I again and again demand a proof of the payment, cursing myself for not having insisted on the receipt back at the Sim card shop. After 10 minutes I want to leave the Tuck-Tuck and they let me out. At a close-by entrance of a bank I see a guard watching us. I give him the 20 Euros (1500 Rupees). Out of the corner of my eye, I see that his companion in the Tuck-Tuck already looks quite satisfied with that, which I take as a positive sign. However, the old one continues to argue frantically. Suddenly I see that he has tears in his eyes. By this I am completely taken aback, myself being scared out of my wits at the moment.
I give him 300 rupees more. At this, his friend finally calls him into the Tuck-Tuck and they drive off, leaving me behind with my heart racing. The guard at the back waves at me, but he only speaks Tamil. Hence, I return back to my hotel. As I walk the last five minutes I can’t help looking over my shoulder again and again, and watch who is in the Tuck-Tucks driving by.