Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Driving Delight

Over the last year or so, the most pleasant experience I've had living in India has been that of becoming a licensed driver, and more recently, a car owner. There are many aspects of daily life in India that, put mildly, are a challenge, but I've been delighted by the experience of being a driver with my own car.

I've already written about how driving has subtly but profoundly improved my day-to-day life. In short, I feel more independent, and free of the sometimes harsh often tedious transactions associated with riding rickshaws or public transportation. Now I sit in my nice clean new air conditioned Maruti Suzuki Wagon-R, which has transformed getting around from hassle to something like enjoyment. 

Since I've started driving, I have also discovered the secret world of delightful facilities and services that come with driving a car, and more specifically, being a car owner. I've come to believe that car ownership is one aspect of Indian life that matches the convenience, reliability, and modernity of the US, and in some aspects beats the US.

Buying my car itself was relatively hassle-free. It was just like it would be in the States, I showed up to a local dealership one day, saw what they had, bargained off of clearly written rates that checked out, and bought the car the next day. There was one hitch in the experience that the car I bought got sold before the salesman submitted the paperwork, and I had the T.I.I. sirens going off in my head, but it got rectified in a pretty satisfactory way. The on-the-road ("out-the-door") price included insurance and maintenance, and there were no hidden fees. Very straight-forward. Even dealing with the RTO for registration and license plates was more or less straightforward. The RTO (Indian DMV) sent me an SMS to show up for a license plate appointment, which was facilitated by the dealer that even helped me reschedule. At the RTO I didn't have to bribe anyone (though one guy tricked me out of Rs.100 by saying I had to pay a penalty for rescheduling), and my license plate came as advertised. I had to wait about 2 hours, but that was what I was told would happen so my expectations were properly set. They fit it professionally and I was on my way.

My car is great. I had my eye on Wagon-R for a while because it looks just like my long-time car at home, Suzi, which was also made by Suzuki. My Wagon-R is named Laila. Anji came up with the name and Aum approved it. Laila is a joy to drive, she is fully loaded with power features, and smells great thanks to my little "perfume" (air freshener). I can plug in my iPod and listen to rap on Indian roads, which I will probably never get tired of. But usually I have the radio off so I can concentrate. There's nothing like having a new car. And since Maruti Wagon-R's have great reputations, I have no worries about it maintenance wise.

Probably my favorite aspect of driving a car is going to the petrol (gas) station. This is one of the rare arenas where India beats the US in customer experience. In an Indian petrol station, it's full service. You pull in and an attendant directs you to a pump. There is almost never a line. Then the attendant asks you how much to fill, you pay him, as a matter of protocol he requests you to check the meter to make sure it's zeroed out, and then starts pumping. Meanwhile you're just chilling in your car and the attendant squeegees your windshield. The attendant is almost always friendly and *never* hassles you about change. In fact, you can reliably break large notes with them, pretty much the only place you can do so in Indian life.

I recently took the Gujarat Express Way from Ahmedabad to Nadiad, and another time to Baroda. The freeway was clean and besides super aggressive drivers that make moves that literally pay no regard to other drivers' lives, cutting people off and squeezing you behind trucks for no reason, it felt just like I was on I-80 going from Sacramento to Mountain View. Even better because there's very little traffic. The toll tax is clearly written on a sign and the booth attendants give you a scannable receipt that they beep through when you exit the freeway. There are lots of signs to direct you, even in Ahmedabad city the signs are super helpful and between them and asking strangers you can get anywhere pretty much stress-free. Roads in the city are also not bad; despite negative reputation of the state government I routinely see potholes one week disappear the next.

I ordered pleather seat covers for my car, since Ba insisted we have them and it seems every Gujarati blindly assumes that you must have seat covers or else it's barbaric. The guy I ordered from sent the installers to my house one evening. It was a team of four young dudes that showed up like X-Men. I expected a crusty old man on a bike that would take 4 hours to do the work, but these young bucks attacked my car like true pros and got the job done within 30 minutes. In India, seat covers form-fit and require unbolting and removing the seats to install. These kids worked like a true team and did a fantastic job. The seats looked great. Like with petrol stations, this was one of those rare times in Indian life where what you got from a customer experience standpoint was way beyond what you expected your money would buy. The customer was delighted.

I broke loose my rearview mirror driving the wrong way of a one-way street (I regret it, wasn't my choice, and won't do it again), and was a bit worried about how hard it would be to get it fixed. Where are the Maruti service centers? Will they hassle me or make me do something with my insurance? Will it take forever or be expensive? Turns out I was apprehensive for no reason. The service center was in Naranpura close to Ba's house, and even it had useful signs from the main road to guide me there. The dude at the service center quickly took a look at the mirror, drove the car behind, and within 5 minutes returned with the electric mechanism working perfectly. He had also put into place a part of the plastic case that had slightly dislodged, which I had forgotten to mention. He had me sign a slip and that was it. No charge! I told him this was great customer service, and I love being a Maruti owner.

The promise and potential of consumerism/customer experience in India functioning at a world-class level is on display in the arena of car ownership. Way on the other end of the spectrum is consumer banking, which is the shittiest thing ever. But that's for another post.

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