Buying a SIM Card
Always bring your passport when shopping for a SIM card in a foreign country. In most places this will be enough, but not so in India. Ever since terrorist attacks coordinated by unregistered SIMs, the government has really cracked down on purchases. For visitors this means providing details of accommodation and confirmation that you are indeed a guest. My Airbnb hosts weren't home when I arrived in Delhi so that was out. I figured I could get one later, but that was before I knew how hard it was to get around the city - even when you know your exact destination. Luckily I saw an opportunity an Agra - the son of the owner of the guesthouse who had been not so subtly trying to hit on me. *
So I asked and, of course, he knew a guy who could take care of it. Not one of the carrier boutiques, but a somewhat dodgy electronics store buried in the main bazar. The proprietor, a portly middle-aged man whom all he customers called "Uncle," informed me that he had a SIM card that was already activated.
Side note: if you Google "buying a SIM card in India," you'll find that after procuring the actual card, getting it activated can be just as much of a pain in the ass. For the lucky few, activation will occur within mere hours of purchasing; for others it can take days. A post on one travel forum warned against third party vendors, like Uncle's shop, because you never knew if the SIM card came off of a dead body. I wasn't sure if that was a joke or not, but I was desperate. So I said yes.
Uncle didn't have the right size SIM card cutter (Apple obnoxiously introduced the nanosim with the release of the iPhone 5), so one of his poor minions spent a good twenty minutes cutting it down to size with an exacto knife.
In the meantime, I took in my surroundings. Passersby were staring at the owner's son and me (I can't decide whether I get more or less attention if I'm with a local versus by myself), just as they had when we rode in on his motorbike. The guy had the disposition and personality such that I'm sure he relished the attention.
Finally the SIM card was ready. I inserted it into the phone, half-expecting it not to work. But it did, thankfully, and I haven't had any contact from the local authorities so I guess it's legitimate.
Uncle urged me to destroy it once I leave India, as it's (allegedly) activated under his name and he worries that otherwise it may fall into the wrong hands. Instead, I think I'll keep it as a souvenir.
The Limits of Google Translate
On my last day in Jaipur, I was sitting in the cool darkness of Birla Mandir temple when my driver asked where I wanted to go next.
"You know, I really need to go to a pharmacy," I said, gesturing at my bug bite-ridden arms.
"Okay," he replied, saying that he knew a place near a main hospital where there were many such shops.
We hopped in the tuk tuk and a few minutes later he pulled over in front of a row of stalls, much like the food vendors you might see at an outdoor music festival only these were all pharmacies. There weren't many other customers around, so as I approached I could sense all the salespeople trying to establish eye contact and beckon me over.
I made my way towards one at random, only to find that none of the employees really spoke English. I asked for insect repellent. Confusion ensued. (I had this same problem in Istanbul when I was trying to find a product to clean my ear piercings with).
The most senior person on staff looked me in the eye and shook his head, as if to say, "No, I'm not going to deal with you foreigner."
So I went to the next stall over, and tried a different tactic. Pulling out my phone, I opened Google Translate, selected Hindi and typed in "insect repellent." The phone made its way around to all the staff, who each scrutinized the text without seeming to understand. Maybe the Hindi function is still in beta.
Finally, after a lot of gesticulating, I got my point across and walked away with some mosquito-repelling cream. Not the bug spray I was hoping for, but under the circumstances I'll take what I can get.
*On my first night there he offered me a couple beers, which I gladly accepted, although it quickly became evident that he intended to use the alcohol as a pretext to make a move on me. Nothing happened (he grossly underestimated my tolerance; a byproduct of attending an American university is the ability to down beer like it's water), but still I figured he owed me for his untoward advances.