Friday, I flew from Delhi to Chennai and then needed to take a
long-distance bus to my parents' town. A friend in Chennai had bought
the bus ticket for me; he told me where I needed to get on. But he
got it wrong. I needed to get on at T. Nagar, but he thought it was
Koyambedu (the normal place where long distance buses to the boondocks
depart). Unfortunately, there was a bus by the same company to
exactly the same destination, departing at exactly the same time from
Koyambedu and my seat -- 27 -- was open. I got on and settled in for
the overnight journey.

An hour-and-later, the bus stopped to pick up another passenger and he
had my seat. "This is not your bus," I was told by the driver, and I
had to get off.

So there I was, at 10.30pm 1.5 hours from Chennai, standing by the
side of a highway with my bags. It was like a bad Tamil movie.

I called the bus company (I got my mobile phone unlocked when I left
Oklahoma, and bought a sim card on arrival in India, so at least I
could do that). "Your bus has already taken the Chennai bypass," said
the fellow on the other end, "it won't come where you are standing.
You voided the ticket when you didn't show up"

"Isn't there anything else you can do for me?"

"No, try to stop a passing vehicle. Nothing I can do."

The reluctance to help was not much of a surprise, but I had been
hoping that the circumstances -- stranded on a highway late at night
-- would prompt some pity. Customer service is still a bit of an alien
concept in India. The biggest cultural hurdle at all the offshore
call centers sprouting up here is teaching the recruits how to deal
with customers, since they've rarely encountered what would be
considered minimally acceptable service.

A Kind Stranger who was waiting to get on a bus tapped me on the
shoulder. "The only buses that stop here are those that have
passengers with reservations getting on. This is Friday and you won't
find an open seat on any bus. They'll all get filled up by Tambaram.
Let me talk to the guy"

A long 15-minute conversation followed with the Kind Stranger
suggesting all kinds of options -- he seemed to know every highway out
of Chennai and which buses took which routes -- and the bus company
guy shooting them down one-by-one. Finally, he hit on one that would
work. There was a bus that had just left, it would essentially take
the route of my bus and it had several open seats.

"Call the bus driver on his mobile and tell him to reserve one of the
seats for this fellow here," he suggested, "Don't fill up all the open
seats." This didn't get shot down.

"Thank you very much," I said to the Kind Stranger. But it felt
completely inadequate to what he had done.

An hour later, the bus stopped and picked me up.

Everyone I told the story to this morning had one of their own to
narrate. Apparently you haven't lived life to the fullest unless you
have been stranded on the road side late at night.

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