When Mark and I are apart, we don’t often check in with each other. I have gone six weeks on consulting trips overseas without speaking with him. We exchange the occasional email, usually for decisions that need to be made, such as “Would you live on a cool houseboat?” “Only if it is tied to the city sewer system and we can get DSL.” We’re both busy, and email access is usually difficult for one of us (me).

On the night of January 27, Mark dropped me off at the offices of Sharma Travels in Pondicherry so that I could catch the overnight sleeper bus to Bangalore. I was to attend Asia Source, an eight-day Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) workshop just outside of Bangalore, and he was going to remain in Pondicherry, working with Manoj and others at Auroville on the tsunami information portal.

Before I continue with this story, I need to give you some background on our cell phone nightmare.

Mark purchased a used four-band GSM phone just before we left San Francisco so that we could use the phone both in India and when we returned to San Francisco – he lost his cell phone two weeks before our trip. In Chennai, Smita used her account with AirTel to get us a post paid SIM card (post paid supposedly being cheaper than prepaid). For various reasons, mostly having to do with the fact that Smita is a young, single woman living alone in Chennai, and had not brought her documentation (even though she already has an account with AirTel) to the AirTel office at the time she and Mark conducted this transaction, we do not get our service activated for two days. Many phone calls to the AirTel office later, the display on our cell phone dies five minutes before the service is activated. (Karmic retribution for Mark having called the AirTel service person a “skinny woman” instead of a “thin lady”.) So, we can receive and make phone calls (if we dial the number correctly), but cannot capture phone numbers, set the phone to vibrate mode, check messages, etc. – in short, we are basically “blind”.

On our first trip to Auroville, we discover that we can not get any reception using our AirTel service. We are told that cell reception is exceptionally poor in Auroville (all those trees!), and that only two services work: BSNL and AirCell. What we do not know, and find out later in Pondicherry is that AirTel has not activated our roaming service. Many email exchanges with Smita later, we are told to activate roaming using our phone. Well, since we have no display, we have no way of selecting channels, etc. This phone is dead to us. So, in Bangalore, we got a hand-me-down cell phone from Dinesh’s sister, whose family keeps the handset companies in business by upgrading to the latest model every two months, and gave up our phone to their trusty fix-it person. Long story short, when we return to Pondicherry, we abandon our AirTel SIM (there is very little service in Pondicherry, but an accounts person manages to get through to us to tell us that we are reaching our credit limit of Rs. 1,000, and could we please pay down our bill immediately), Mark switches to AirCell, which supposedly has better coverage in Tamil Nadu, after having waited in a BSNL line for over an hour to find out that because BSNL is a Government entity, and cell phones have been used in the past for terrorist activities, he could not get an account without proof of local residency.

We return to the story on Friday, the 28th, with Mark in Pondicherry (having purchased an AirCell SIM card, and gotten a new phone number) and me in Bangalore…

Visthar, where Asia Source is taking place, has similar cell phone coverage as Auroville, which for most people, is none. There is an STD phone booth on site, which is usually locked, but if you know where and when to find Bahudhurbhai, he will open it for you and collect the money after you’ve made your call. Mark sends us an email message giving us his new phone number, but those who tried calling (Dinesh and Pavi) kept getting messages that the phone number does not exist.

The next day, Saturday, with Manoj having left for Kerala to help out his parents over the weekend, Mark makes a day trip to Chennai, to pick up some things we’ve left behind at Param’s house, and to meet Smita’s parents before they go back to Delhi. He has lunch with Smita and her parents, does some quick shopping, and leaves to meet Snigda for dinner at Auroville. On Monday, we get an email message from Mark saying that he’s sick and can’t make it to “work” in Auroville, and was going back to bed immediately after sending the message. I don’t think much of it until I see Dinesh, who has come to the Asia Source workshop to give a Skillshare session on Pantoto, the open source knowledge management system that he and his company, Servelots, has created for NGOs. It turns out that he and Pavi have been trying to contact Mark, but no one has heard from him.

We hunt down Bahudhurbhai, and make a few phone calls to Pavi and Manoj. Mark has not shown up at the office, and it seems that according to the upstairs neighbor, who was contacted by Smita’s landlady (who was asked to check on Mark by Smita, Dinesh, and Pavi), no one was home at Smita’s corporate apartment in Pondicherry, where Mark was assumed to be staying. By then, it is evening, and because I usually assume that things are OK until I find out that they are not, I decide that it would be pointless for me to leave that evening and wander the streets of Pondicherry the next day when we had friends there that were looking out for him.

The next day, Tuesday, I go on one of two outings planned for the Asia Source participants to a school using computer-aided learning in a village off the Bangalore-Mysore Road. At the lunch stop, I spend most of my time at an STD booth calling first Manoj, then Dinesh, then Pavi. It turns out that no one has seen Mark since Saturday evening, when he had dinner with Snigda. Manoj got the address of Smita’s apartment, and was going to go look for him. So was Pavi. That afternoon, instead of going back to Visthar, I got off the bus in Bangalore and made my way to Dinesh’s, where I had telephone access, and from where I could catch an overnight bus to Pondicherry if necessary. That evening, Pavi reported that Mark had been located, and that they were having him come to the hospital at Aravind. She would have him call when he got there.

It turned out that Mark had been really, really sick. So sick that on Sunday, he found himself going in and out of consciousness on the bathroom floor. On Monday, he dragged himself to an Internet cafe to send the message that he was sick. By Tuesday, he was well enough to make his way to Aravind. And by the time I spoke with him, he felt about 90% recovered. I suggested that he come to Bangalore, where the weather would be less oppressive, and where he could get away from the daily routine and rest a bit.

Mark believes that his illness was a reaction to Larium, the malarial suppressants that we have been taking on this trip, and a medication that we have taken over the years with no side effects. At the time I spoke with him, I did not have the presence of mind to ask him to get tested for malaria, but after hanging up the phone, it occurred to me that his symptoms sounded very much like those of malaria. I assumed that he would get some sort of diagnosis at Aravind (even though it is an eye hospital), and possibly get tested. It turned out that he staged an escape from his locked hospital room the next morning, so he’ll have to get tested some time soon.

Dinesh asked me after Mark had been located on Tuesday if I had been worried. The answer was, not really. On the one hand, I never worry about Mark. (If I did, I’d probably be dead by now.) On the other hand, that business about the neighbor having checked for him and not having seen signs that he had spent the night at Smita’s… well, that gave me pause. His rented motorbike should have been parked by the house… unless he returned it when he went to Chennai, and did not rent a new one… In the end, I decided that he was probably at Smita’s, sleeping off his sickness, and that there wasn’t a need to worry too much. He’s strong, capable, and usually has good instincts. He’s also very lucky. As am I.


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