Saturday, September 24, 2011

Baghdad Call Center

A while back, I offered as one of my storylines, the tale of quickly obtaining a cellphone with no paperwork involved.

Let me recount a little...

My first experience in crossing national boundaries happened at the age of 2 when my folks took me, via plane, to visit some "Uncles" in Toronto.  Although I do not remember this trip with any clarity, I have so often heard my father recount how we were traveling in coach class when I made the foulest load in my diaper, it serves as a starting point for a life of travel.  It also serves as an example, to all my friends who are new parents, about how your child's bowel movements might serve as reminders of momentous occasions.  

Considering this, I can rightfully claim 32 years of international travel experience.  In all that time, never a lost luggage, rarely a missed flight.  Therefore, when I missed my international connection at JFK due to American Airline's mistake, I was shocked.  Later, upon arriving in Vienna the next day to find no suitcases, I was dismayed.  I remind the reader I was traveling across the pond with four suitcases, two carry-on, two checked.  The two checked luggage which went missing contained my entire wardrobe, at a replacement cost to exceed thousands of Euros.

The loss of my luggage started frantic days of calling American Airlines, Austrian Airlines, and Lufthansa offices here, in Frankfurt, as well as at JFK airport.  The silver lining is that I realized, with my meager credit of $10 on Skype, I was able to call US toll-free numbers (800, 888) for free.  It also served a valuable learning lesson in the procedure to be followed when luggage chooses to make an unplanned visit elsewhere.

In the end, although I did not continue my original flight trajectory from Baltimore to JFK, JFK to Dublin, Dublin to Vienna, my luggage chose to visit Dublin.  As I've never been there myself, I can only hope they had a pint of Guiness for me.

If you find yourself in my position, understand this.  It is the responsibility of the airline which provided the last leg of your trip to locate lost luggage.  So, even though I originally flew American Airlines, they could not help.  As I ended up being rebooked on Lufthansa, they were the responsible party.  However, Lufthansa does not have an on-site administrative office here in Vienna and have gone into partnership with Austrian Airlines to handle any lost luggage claims.  Therefore, upon arriving in Vienna, I immediately filed my lost luggage claim with Austrian Airlines.

Two lessons learned, one= deal with final carrier in case of lost luggage, two= file your claim immediately!  Though it might be tempting after a long flight to go to your hotel, rest, and "deal with it in the morning", this would be unwise!  In the case of lost luggage, file a claim immmediately!

Several days later, I called the Austrian Airlines office handling my claim, to be told, thank God, my luggage had been found.  It was slightly beaten and battered due to an altercation in an Irish pub but was being helped onto the next flight to Vienna.... oh, and at what number can we call you to set up delivery once the luggage arrives????

This was a problem as the only numbers I'd previously provided were Rachel's cell (still in the US with Rachel and thus useless) and the number of the "management" of Pilgram Apartments.
However, I had visited a couple of cellphone (called "Handy" in German) storefronts.  I told the Austrian Airlines rep I would call her back with my number.  I then proceeded to the nearest Handy store I could find, called Baghdad Call Center.
Upon entering, I realized this was no AT&T.  The store consisted of a bank of computer terminals on one side, an internet cafe type set up for surfing the web.  On the other side, a large glass case with tons of cellphones lying, a bit disorderly, in rows.   And, there was no packaging for these phones!

Luckily, the guy spoke English.  He asked where I was from, "Canada" I lied.  He then told me he had many relatives in Canada, could I guess where he was from.... "India", warm, "Nepal", cold... "near India" he says.  "Afghanistan", I query.
Finally, he informs me he's from Pakistan.  We shoot the breeze about the mosques in Islamabad, and the ideal weather/soil conditions for crop growth.... NOT!

He asks what I'm looking for in terms of cell phone features.  I only need calls and potentially texts.  He takes out a Samsung phone, listing its many accoutrements.  How much?  The phone is 50 Euros plus 15 Euros for the SIM Card and my first month's minutes.  Of course, there were no price tags anywhere, he probably sized me up for what I'd be willing to pay.  Since it was an emergency, I needed this number quickly to secure a delivery time for my luggage so I took the first offer.  I asked, "Do you need documentation or anything, like a passport, etc?"  NO!

After picking out a phone number, he set up the phone and, in under half an hour, I was out on the street with a useable cell phone.  As I walked home, triumphant in accomplishing this task necessary for my luggage's delivery, I couldn't help but feel like I inadvertently became a cog in the international black market of cellphones.

This idea was reinforced when, back in my apartment, I noticed the cellphone's "box" had been previously opened, with one of those official sticker labels stating the customer should not buy this product if the seal had been previously broken.  I'd rather not think about to which nefarious organization my money contributed.

Instead, let's focus on the safe arrival of my, still slightly tipsy, luggages the following day!

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