The location is Leh, the main city in India’s northernmost frontier of Ladakh, the semi-autonomous region within the conflict-ridden Jammu and Kashmir state. Situated high up in the Himalayas at 3,500 m (11,500 ft), the region enjoys isolation from the tumult of India. But what comes with that isolation are power shortages, mountain roads that you can drive 25 kph on (when they’re not shut down with snow) and telecommunication challenges so intense they can quickly gray your hair.
I start my workday trying to go to Chillout, my usual Internet spot. An appropriately named shop because “chill” is exactly what you have to be to get anything done around here. The proprietor of the shop, Tenzin, is sitting out front. I see the sliding metal screen door raised from a distance. Good sign. It means he’s open, which he’s often not because of either a power shortage or Internet shortage. “No power” he tells me, and he’s not going to run the generator because he doesn’t get enough customers in the morning to warrant running the generator and hooking up the satellite Internet, which is more expensive than the standard Internet connection which will be down because of the power shortage.
I continue walking down the street to the next choice location that also has satellite. Metal screen door is down. Closed. They don’t have their generator going likely for the same reason—not enough business in the morning, so they didn’t bother opening up.
My hunt continues. I backtrack 50 m to Get Connected in the bowels of the market. With lime green walls and wood panelling it looks like a retro TV set. Open, but lights are off. A couple of people are seated on their laptops using their battery power. My battery will only last two hours, so I leave, go to the store to buy a few things then walk back. Power’s back on. I “get connected,” take a seat at the table at the back and plug into the broadband wifi.
I’m surfing for about half an hour when I get an error. Down. I look next to me. A guy stares back. Same deal. It’s down he tells me; they’re getting a new connection. I see the owner in the corner typing away at his network computer. He then jumps from computer to computer tapping in IP codes and reconnecting the waiting surfers to the grid. He ends with me and gives me the codes… which don’t work. I get an error (invalid subnet mask). I figure it’s looking for a fourth number so I tell him to type in an extra zero at the end. Success! It worked and once again, I’m back online, albeit at a much slower pace.
I feel like I’ve walked all day through the desert and my thirst has been quenched with a few drops of water. Despite crawling along at the pace of a circa 1993 modem I have Internet. With Internet out here being down 40 percent of the time, sometimes entire days at a time, sometimes for minutes, I’m just grateful to have something… anything. As long as I’m crawling I’m moving. I don’t care.
I work away for a while until the broadband takes a hike. It’s approaching North American business hours and I have three interviews set up that I have to do. Looking like I’m not going to be able to Skype I pack up and go to the STD phone (no, not that kind of STD… it actually stands for Subscriber Trunk Dialling), what should be a solid connection, right?
I make my first call. “You’re cutting out,” my caller says and tells me to call him back in 45 minutes. I make a couple more calls. Same deal, more of the same. Phone and Internet down… now this is a problem.
Broadband is back. I figure even this low “high speed” would be about as bad quality as the STD option so I make the call I’d promised to make. First using Skype to call my friend to test. The call dropped three times. Good thing he’s a good friend. Once the broadband cut out completely. Twice I got cut off because the connection was just too slow. It came back on—OK I’ve got to make this quick I tell him “because I don’t know how long it will last.”
We rush through a nine-minute-long conversation, making plans to meet in South India in December. OK, now on to an important business call, an interview I’ve been working on setting up for four days. Ten minutes go by, things are about as smooth as things can be in a slow-high speed scenario. He just phases out a couple of times, then boom, dropped. Broadband is out. He was really busy and was taking his time to talk to me so I was pissed. Trying to salvage whatever I could from this half interview I run over to the STD phone in the cafe. The phone is occupied. I pack up my gear in a hurry and bolt out, looking for the next place to make a call.
I walk across the street to a money changer-cum-Internet café-cum-guy who will lend you his cell phone for a fee (note: in Indian English the word “cum” is commonly used with the standard Oxford dictionary definition: “Combined with, also used as (used to describe things with a dual nature or function)” not the way it’s regularly used in North America). The owner passes me his cell and I make my call. Voicemail three times. It appears that all my attempts are foiled this day so I leave a message to do the rest of the interview by email. I go back. Broadband is back and I type up my email and off I go.
Travelling in India has its challenges—to put it mildly. Travellers get used to the challenges and grow from them (and maybe grow a few gray hairs at the same time), but sometimes India travellers absolutely lose it. While hanging out in Internet cafes in Leh I’ve heard people yell at their computer after it goes down and kills the email they’ve been working on, get verbally abusive with the owners and just overall bitch and complain. Though my living depends on accessing the Internet for research-based writing, I like to write reflective pieces when I get the chance . And with Ladakh being the reflective place it is, having copious amounts of time to journal is not a bad thing. Sure beats staring at a blank screen half the day.
image: furious businessman throws a punch into the computer via Shutterstock