Desperately seeking e-mail

Finding Internet access in India is feasible, but not for the fainthearted.


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Lisa Dreier
December 1, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

Ten years ago, I stood in a dusty telegraph office in the high-altitude Bolivian city of La Paz. A man with mahogany skin and a llama-wool vest handed me a yellowed form where I was to write my message, one letter in each box. I was traveling on a rock-bottom budget and telegraphs were expensive: something like a dollar a word. But I had promised my parents that I'd let them know, at the very least, what country I was in -- and I had just crossed the border from Peru. So I gripped a pockmarked pencil and scrawled the bare minimum of words to convey my message: "Lisa -- fine -- Bolivia."

Even then, things were changing fast. By the time I reached Tierra del Fuego, I was starting to find fax machines -- amazing contraptions that could instantly transfer a cramped, one-page letter from the Straits of Magellan to my parents' living room. And then, a few years later, I discovered e-mail.

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It didn't take me long to fall under the spell of this new medium: It was fast, easy and totally addictive. Working in an e-mail-crazed California workplace, I checked mine every 15 minutes. I e-mailed people more often than I spoke to them. At one point, I realized I was in closer touch with my friend in the Amazon than with my friends across town. I was never home, I was swamped at work, but you could always reach me on e-mail. By the time I left for a seven-month journey through Asia last January, I couldn't imagine living without it.

There was one major problem: I was going to India. Deep into India -- traveling through scrubby desert and remote villages, sputtering across rivers in ailing motorboats, dodging cows in the alleyways of 800-year-old forts. Nevertheless, I was determined to find e-mail along the way. In India's mind-boggling clamor of life and death and color, I would seek out both ancient mysteries and modern-day Internet access. This, at least, was the idea.

In the months before my departure, I began to ask around: Was it possible to send e-mail from India? I planned to do a lot of writing on my journey; would I be crazy to bring a laptop?

Seasoned travelers reacted in horror to the whole idea. In India, they said, telephone jacks were nonexistent, the phone lines were configured wrong, the Internet was banned by the government, electricity was erratic and ungrounded and, in any case, my laptop would surely be stolen. A few weeks before my departure, a writer friend told me she had taken a laptop to India the year before -- with disastrous results. Accessing the Internet had proved impossible. Plugging her laptop into the wall had caused a small electrical fire in her ashram. Finally, she abandoned the cursed thing at a friend's house in Bombay and continued her journey with a lighter step.

Considerably chastened, I lowered my hopes but hung on to a stubborn belief in the miraculous. It was, after all, a question of e-mail.

And so I stepped off a plane in Delhi as a member of a strange species -- a budget traveler with a laptop. I had never attempted third-world travel with such an expensive piece of hardware before, and it took some getting used to. First, traveling with a computer knocked me into the pack-rat category. The lightest laptop I could find -- the slim and hardy HP Omnibook 800CT -- was about the size and weight of a small picture book about India. But try adding the required paraphernalia -- a padded case, external floppy drive and diskettes, extra battery and charger and an array of adapters, cords and surge protectors. Suddenly, a third of my luggage was dedicated to the computer.

I wedged most of this into a beat-up, generously sized day pack. From a distance, I looked like an overzealous student. But a careful observer -- say, an experienced thief -- would have noticed that I was curiously protective of the dusty old bag. Security became more of an issue. I kept the laptop out of sight at all times, and rarely told anyone -- even fellow travelers -- what lay inside. When checking out hotel rooms, I'd look for an electrical outlet and sturdy locks on the doors. The view from the window and softness of the bed were secondary. It often seemed that the computer, like an overbearing travel companion, was calling the shots more often than I was.

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By cobbling together a series of plugs, adapters and surge protectors, I discovered that I could tap in to the local electrical current. But I'd been warned that this could be a recipe for disaster -- one developing-country electrical event, and my computer would be transformed into a sea of melted plastic and fried data. So whenever possible I used battery power, charging up the spare only when I was in the room to put out any fires that might result.

Problems with the phone lines, however, proved insurmountable. On my first day in India, I got down on my knees and crawled under the bed in my mid-range hotel room, following a knotted phone cord that simply disappeared into a hole in the wall. So much for phone jacks and modems. I was going to have to find public Internet access.

E-mail? The Internet? Nobody in my hotel had heard of it. But the five-star listings in my guidebook yielded more luck. The Hotel Imperial, one of Delhi's finest, told me I could access the Internet through the lone computer and modem in its Business Center. I put on a skirt, grabbed my address book and tried to look nonchalant as I walked through the gleaming marble entrance past liveried doormen. Mr. Jain, the Business Center manager, bowed and greeted me in a lilting voice. I asked him, almost breathlessly, if he had Internet access. "Ah yes," he said, sitting down in his three-piece suit and peering solemnly at the computer screen. With a dignified, almost ceremonial air, he dialed in over a modem that required more than 10 tries to connect, entered a special password and series of codes and then: oh joy.

I was connected. It was expensive in local terms, but I didn't care. I told Mr. Jain about my travel plans and asked him whether I could find Internet access in the state of Rajasthan -- or anywhere outside Delhi. He shook his head gravely. I turned back to the computer and typed out a message to my friends, family and editors warning them that I didn't know when, if ever, I'd be online again.

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I traveled next to Jaisalmer, where an ancient sandstone fort towers over a
vast expanse of desert near the Pakistani border. Inside the fort, cows
sauntered along cobblestone walkways while women in brightly colored saris
swept their doorsteps with twig brooms. Musicians wandered the alleyways,
their drums and voices echoing among the golden walls of the havelis.
Outside the fort, the desert was scattered with remote tribal settlements
that could be reached only by camel or jeep. Throughout the region
electricity was limited, telephones were rare and there were more camels
than cars.

I didn't even think about finding Internet access there. But after a
jarring all-night bus ride through the desert, I reached Jaipur -- the
capital of Rajasthan and a major business center. I was sure I'd find a way
to send e-mail; I was counting on it to file my first story.

I called all the five-star hotels, with no luck. This was a bad sign. The
staff at my budget "palace" wracked their brains, then recommended a place
called the Computer Club. When I got there, three local computer science
students told me their modem was broken. They didn't know of any other
access site in the city.

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I shuffled back out to my auto-rickshaw, looking crestfallen. "Broken," I
told Ali, the rickshaw driver, as I heaved into the back seat with a sigh.
"I don't know where to go next." Ali smiled and reached into his pocket. I had underestimated him. Most rickshaw drivers don't read, let alone type, so I hadn't thought to ask him where I could find Internet access.

"Here!" he said triumphantly, pulling out a business card that said
"Rajasthan Online." I stared at it, my surprise turning to glee. "Let's
go!"

We set off through the lung-searing haze of Jaipur's main streets, dodging
oncoming trucks and swerving around desperate beggars. Crossing the city,
we entered a residential section. Cement-block homes identified this as a
middle-class neighborhood, although it was bisected by garbage-strewn dirt
roads. We pulled up in front of a house that had a large sign on its front
gate: Net Commerze (India) Pvt. Ltd.

I got out of the rickshaw and looked around. Women in saris were walking
down the dirt road, balancing pots of dried cow dung on their heads.
Children played and screeched around us. This was where I was going to
find the Internet? I shouldered past some wandering cows to make my way
through the gate and rang the bell.

An old woman opened the door, told us to wait and slammed it shut again.
There was a long pause. Then a young man, impeccably dressed in a business
suit, appeared to usher us in. I could only guess that he had been
changing hurriedly while we waited out front. His name was Manoj Gajawat,
and he was friendly, fluent in English and highly computer literate. In
addition to providing Jaipur's only public Internet access, he had launched
a Web page for tourist and business information about Rajasthan.

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In true Indian style, Manoj and Ali stared unabashedly at the computer
screen, reading all my e-mail along with me. As I traveled in India, I soon
got used to this. There were very, very few things I could do without an
audience.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
-

Few travelers stop in Vadodara, the second-largest city in the state of
Gujarat. It's a local industrial and commercial center, with little to attract tourists or international businessmen. I arrived there after
traveling along the Narmada River with activists who are fighting a massive
dam-building scheme. The old town, where I stayed, was filled with crowds
and exhaust, temples and vegetable sellers, and a few dilapidated hotels.
After a lengthy search, I found a hotel that was not falling to pieces and
showered off two weeks of village dust. I downed a huge platter of
delicious Gujarati food. Then I turned to the other "essential" -- finding
e-mail access. But where to start looking?

Vadodara has one five-star hotel, and that hotel has one employee who knows
that in the smoky warren of the old town, there is a cybercafe. Once
again, this was the city's only public Internet access, charging $3 per
hour. I could walk there, dodging beggars and traffic and street-side
hawkers, from my hotel.

The single Net-connected computer was in high demand. I had to
wait, often with three to five others, for my turn. During business hours,
the local server was swamped. Only after 6 p.m. did we have a
reasonable chance of connecting to cyberspace. Even then, it took 15 to 20
tries before the busy signals gave way to the hoped-for series of crackles
and beeps that signaled connection. Following that, you could expect to be
disconnected every 10 to 15 minutes, at which point the entire process
would start all over again.

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I was delighted. This was still better than nothing. I was finding that
the Internet was, indeed, penetrating India. I waited my turn, talking to
the students, housewives and businessmen who were waiting with me. Many of
them were getting their first glimpse of the Internet through introductory
classes offered by the cybercafe.

The young man who managed the place spoke no English or Hindi -- just
Gujarati, the regional language. Our entire interaction revolved around a
few key phrases:
"Possible to use Internet?"
"Disconnected!"
"Again disconnected."
"Excuse me? Big problem. Many times disconnected."
"OK, finish -- how much?"

All of this was laborious, but for me it was utterly worthwhile. As I
traveled in Asia, e-mail allowed me to earn income as a freelance writer and
consultant. It enabled me to keep in touch with my friends, family,
sublessee and travel agent back home. I could e-mail people in the United States
asking for contacts in the next city or background information for my
stories and have a reply the next morning. I could stay in touch with
fellow travelers as they moved around the continent. In a few cases, I
could communicate with new Indian friends and contacts. It would have been
unbearably costly and logistically insane to do these things by any other
medium. As I traveled deep into new corners of the world, e-mail kept the
rest of my planet spinning.

Two hours away from Vadodara by train, I reached the larger city of
Ahmadabad. In keeping with its standing as capital of Gujarat, India's
wealthiest state, I found two connections there. One was in an upscale
hotel -- the Holiday Inn -- but its modem was often busy. I followed
another lead across the mud flats, to a software development business
located near Mahatma Gandhi's ashram. The owner told me he no longer
offered public Internet access, but invited me in anyway. I took off my
shoes at the door, accepted a cup of chai and settled in. On the wall was
a flyer advertising classes entitled "Learn to Surf Internet like a
Professional."

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On my last night in Ahmadabad, I splurged on a room at the Holiday Inn.
After seven weeks of grueling budget travel in India, I figured I deserved
it. For $98 a night, I got hot showers, CNN, bedtime chocolates -- and
wonder of wonders, a phone jack. For the first time I could make my own
Internet connection, which would enable me to access AOL. Thus far in
India I'd been making do with Hotmail, but I was eager to tap into my other
mailbox. I plugged in my laptop and dialed Kathmandu -- the nearest AOL
access number.

It wasn't entirely easy. The maximum modem speed of these lines was 9,600
bps -- almost six times slower than what I could get back home -- and I
kept getting disconnected. It took over an hour to download all my e-mail.
The true folly of this was only revealed to me the next morning, however,
when I was presented with a $300 phone bill.

It was back to public Internet access for me. In the beautiful desert
oasis called Udaipur, I tracked down the town's sole Internet connection
just 24 hours after it was established. Squashed into the corner of the
Comfort Travel office, I was their first foreign customer. I showed the
owner, Siddhartha, everything I knew about Hotmail and search engines. He,
in turn, opened the office for me late in the evenings, when we'd have the
best chance of connecting to the server in Ahmadabad.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
-

Before I left India, I returned to Delhi. "Oh madam, you are back!" said
an enthusiastic Mr. Jain in the Hotel Imperial. But he had bad news. "I
am so sorry, but we have had a flood through the ceiling and the equipment
is damaged," he lamented, gesturing at a chaotic scene in the Business
Center. Now what?

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I wandered up to the center of Connaught Place and started asking around.
Before long, I had found it: ground zero of Delhi's coming cybercafe
explosion. Hand-lettered signs directed me along a twisted path through
trash-strewn alleys, behind office buildings and past bicycle repair shops,
squeezing between market stalls and evading the hard stares of scruffy men.
"E-mail -- Internet This Way," they said. The signs led to a laundry, where
the staff led me through a garage, a gate, a patio and two doorways, then
down into an airless office space. Nearly 30 computers were neatly lined
up on the tables; about five were working. The software was outdated.
Sweaty backpackers moved in and out, protesting angrily that these prices
were higher than Nepal. But there you had it: Delhi's first cybercafe,
where the unwashed masses could walk in and use a computer for one-third
the price of the Hotel Imperial. A few blocks away, a business office had
also started offering access during normal business hours.

Despite tenuous phone connections, swamped servers and scarce hardware,
middle-class India appears to be on the verge of an Internet boom. A few
hundred miles north, in the Thamel district of Kathmandu, Nepal, I caught a
glimpse of what that might look like in the future. There -- amid
ear-splitting stereo wars that blast Eric Clapton and Tracy Chapman into
the streets, between restaurants selling burritos and brownies and apple
pie, above the throngs of foreigners dressed in tie dye and hiking boots --
you find cybercafes. Dozens of them -- complete with fast modems and
gleaming monitors, rock music, soft drinks and hip young employees. The
typical budget traveler, in addition to having a backpack and a Lonely
Planet guide, now also has a Hotmail account. There are more than 25
cybercafes packed into this labyrinthine traveler's ghetto. And the
strangest thing? Last year they say there were only two.

It is due to the vagaries of international development aid and the demands
of a booming tourist trade that Nepal has both an average annual income of
$220 and a world-class telephone system. India -- with its vast land area,
decrepit phone lines and growing software industry -- may take a different
path. The Internet phenomenon has swept around the globe with extraordinary
speed, but it slows to a crawl when confronted with India. This is a
nation with its own rhythm; its own powers of gravity and patterns of logic.

And -- in some ways most powerfully -- India has its own sense of time. I
think about my friend Siddhartha, named after the original Buddha, who
brought the first Internet access to the ancient city of Udaipur. His tiny
office was in the plaza of the 400-year-old City Palace -- the spectacular
residence of past maharajahs. One night we left his office at 9 p.m., after
an evening of Internet tutorials. The two of us were the only people
looking up at the carved marble façades of the palace, lit gold against a
starry sky. Our footsteps echoed in the quiet space, against the
cobblestones. Siddhartha said goodbye and headed down the hill on his
motorbike. I paused under the palace's great arched entryway and looked
back. A few pigeons flapped through the shadows of the stately, elegant
buildings.

Searching for ways to reach cyberspace had become a journey in itself.

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Lisa Dreier

Lisa Dreier is a freelance writer and nonprofit consultant in Northern California.

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