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India: Not So Easy for Digital Nomads

by Globetrooper Todd | 26 Responses
India: Not So Easy for Digital Nomads

Before coming to India, we were told we wouldn’t even last a fraction of the 4 months we had planned to stay. “Rubbish”, was my usual response. I knew I’d love India. I imagined loving the food, the colours, the festivals, the people, the fast growth, the low cost of living, everything. How could anyone not love those things?

Well, a little bit of reality is starting to set in. It’s not the poverty or the culture shock or even the incessant staring that’s wearing us down. It’s that there’s no market for medium-term accommodation. Yes, it’s that simple, but it’s a very big problem for digital nomads. Please, let me explain…

Were we just lucky in the past?

Almost 10 months ago, we arrived fresh in Montreal (Canada) and found a gorgeous apartment within 2-3 days of light searching on the web. It came with WiFi, a kitchen, and furnishings, all in the trendy area of La Plateau for a bargain basement price of $800/month. Woohoo!

Then in Peru, with a little more effort, and help from a friend, we found a nice apartment in the heart of Cusco, complete with WiFi, for $450/month. It was a few steps down from our Montreal apartment (the WiFi dropped out sporadically and the kitchen barely worked), but it was manageable (and cheap).

Next stop, Argentina. There were many options for medium-term stays, but the prices were much higher than Peru. Since we only planned to stay a month, we splurged on a luxurious little studio apartment for $1000+/month. Although the language barrier was tough, everything we needed was close-by and the WiFi was well-oiled and very fast.

Thinking back to Australia

I can’t help but compare new cities to my hometown of Sydney, Australia. One thing that struck me in Montreal was how easy it was to rent an apartment for shorter periods. In Australia, landlords want long terms (12-18 months), big deposits (4 weeks of rent), and all sorts of documentation. But in Montreal, it was as easy as, “here are the keys, can you please sign here, thank you.”

I thought about this again in Peru and then Argentina, “Surely it isn’t this easy to rent a furnished apartment in Australia at what seem to be long-term rates for only a month at a time.”

Take 1: Goa

Lauren and I hopped off the Great Circular Indian Railway Challenge at Madgoan station in the tiny Indian state of Goa. It’s the most famous Indian state for tourists, due to it’s white-sand beaches, laid-back lifestyle, and great weather.

“Perfect”, we thought. We can rent a bungalow on the beach and kill lots of birds with a single stone. Lauren can train on the beach for her Gobi 2011 expedition, I can work on our new Globetrooper projects, and we can both clear our minds with a few swims in the luke-warm sea, each and every day. It sure sounded like digital-nomad Elysium to me.

If only life were so perfect. Put simply, Internet access for visitors to Goa sux. There’s an 8-month backlog on wired connections, and the GSM providers, who keep promising 3G every other week, can barely maintain their current slow offerings. With regular drop-outs and connection speeds of less than 100Kbps, work over the web is painful. We saw no other choice than to move cities. In fact, we were so worried about the state of Internet access in India that Bangalore, India’s IT capital, seemed the only sensible place to go.

Take 2: Bangalore

We arrived at our hotel (where we planned to stay for 2 days while we found an apartment), and I immediately asked for the WiFi password as if I was suffering from opiate withdrawals. I typed it into the iPhone and went straight to the Speedtest.net application. Once the application found a nearby server, I clicked ‘Begin Test’. Wow! Straight up to 2.5 Mbps the needle went. “Yeehaaa, that’s what I’m talking about! Bangalore, you rock!”

“Glad we cut our losses in Goa”, I said to Lauren. But little did I know, even more frustration was to come.

Uh Oh, Bangalore is just like Sydney…

1 bedroom Apartment, kitchen, hall, INR 25,000/month + 10 months deposit

That’s your typical add for an apartment in Bangalore. No furnishings, no WiFi, and the big one, 10 months deposit! This price equals about $600, which isn’t too bad, but the quality is about the same as our $450 apartment in Peru. However, in Peru, we could rent the apartment on a month-to-month basis, it was fully furnished, and the WiFi was unlimited and free. At a minimum of 10 months, well, we’re screwed.

Surely there’s another option? Yes, serviced apartments. It felt like I had struck gold: complimentary breakfast, daily newspaper, free WiFi, gym, etc. Oh, and they’re targeted to long-term visitors. “Great!” I emailed about 20 of them at once to ask for their monthly rates. At this stage, we’d spent 5 days (in Goa and now Bangalore) looking for an apartment. I was ready to accept any price, even all the way up to $1000/month. The work was urgently piling up and we had lots to get done.

Visions of Berlin, Amsterdam, even Paris

When the quotes for serviced apartments in Bangalore came back at anywhere between US$1500 and US$2000, Lauren and I were about to call it quits. We had visions of living in Paris for that price. There was one outlier at about $700/month, which is where I’m writing this blog from now, but there’s barely a window, the WiFi is slow and if I plug the laptop into the power, the mousepad doesn’t work (the same happened on the trains). Hardly the place to spend 4 months working on new exciting projects. So I gave in, “Okay, let’s pay $1500 and just get stuck into work.”

One of the serviced apartment agents dropped around to drive us around the city to see a few of our options. I was still cringing at the idea of spending the most we ever have in one of the cheapest and poorest countries on Earth. But surprise, surprise, the apartments were awful and the WiFi was as slow as our GSM connection in Goa. “Ahhhh! India, you’re really pushing my buttons now”, said Lauren on her Facebook profile in protest.

So, has India broken us?

Today we let off some steam off by circling the city and watching a movie at the cinema. I have to say, India has some of the best cinemas anywhere (but that’s another story for another day).

While circling the city, we found a month-to-month shared apartment room for 25,000 a month, which still seems very expensive and not ideal for the digital nomad lifestyle (because it’s shared), but it’s our best option at this stage. Lauren has also called on friends around the world to put us in contact with locals, so that may pan out. But otherwise, I can’t help but conclude that India is not a great place for digital nomads. Quite simply, there aren’t enough good medium-term accommodation options, Internet access is hit and miss, and when the planets actually do align, the prices are very expensive and the quality is quite low.

India hasn’t quite broken us, but we’re not counting our chickens either. We have found some renewed vigor, but without a real option for medium-term accommodation, our eventual fate may be another plane to somewhere more digital nomad friendly. Thailand perhaps?

Posted in India, Travel Hacking | March 12th, 2011

26 Responses to India: Not So Easy for Digital Nomads

  1. Oh no, what a shame! I feel your pain as it’s so frustrating and stressful when you need to get some work done but have to spend ages looking for a place to stay.

    This is really bad news for us. We spent 3 months in India a few years ago and loved it, but we weren’t working then. We really want to go back but it does sound like it’ll be difficult.

    We do know a digital nomad couple who are spending a few months in a guesthouse in Varkala, Kerala. It’s not ideal as it’s shared but the internet is supposed to be good and it’s by the beach. Also, Almost Fearless is renting a villa in Goa right now – you could ask her how she is getting on with internet etc.

    If you are going to go down the shared accommodation route I would personally get out of Bangalore. I much prefer smaller places in India and they’ll be cheaper too.

    Good luck!

    • I think you’re right Erin, smaller places are best. We were just so surprised at the lack of decent Internet in Goa that we headed to the most obvious place.

      We caught up with Almost Fearless in Goa; Lauren and I actually spent a couple of weeks with her husband on the GCIRC. They’re doing well there, but were having probs with Internet when we left. It was sometimes difficult to just send an email, which is completely unworkable, especially since we’re building a new web application (not just posting on a blog).

      That’s a good idea about staying in a guesthouse longer term. We stayed in one on Palolem beach in Goa. It had WiFi, but was INR 2500 per night, which really adds up (even accounting for discounts they may do for longer stays). I’ll certainly look into that though. Thanks for the tips.

  2. Wow, I’m sorry to hear this. That must be so frustrating. Best of luck finding something that works for you.

  3. Best of luck guys! India does your head in sometimes… Mind you, do does my dodgy old computer ;-)

    • Hey Katie, great to hear from you. Hope the it’s getting warmer in Toronto. We’ve finally found a place and we’re all happy again :) We’ll be here for 3 months, so let us know if you’ll be in the area. I’m sure Voytek would love to re-visit India, hehe.

  4. Interesting! I would never have thought it would be so expensive in India??

    Love the Indian movie theatres! It’s an event! ;-)

    • Hey Cam, I’m sure if we didn’t need an Internet connection (which is possible if you can put up with the speeds of GSM), then it would be much cheaper. In fact, outside of Mumbai, Pune and Bangalore, you could probably find rent for $100-200 per month.

  5. Very interesting read. I am a frequent traveller to India and agree internet connection can be a ‘pain in the proverbial’ for most parts of India. I had internet access during my stay in Gurgaon Delhi where wireless was available but for some unknown reason they kept switching off the modem. In the end it was all figured out!!!
    My travels around Kolkata was little more entertaining having no internet connection at all during my stay at the YWCA and Berkmire Hostel. Many times I would hang my hand out of the room window in sheer desperation trying to get a wireless connection on my mobile. The only time I ever had success is when I stayed at friends homes in between power cutoffs!! India definitely gives a person more patience & resilience!!

    • Hey Nicole. Sounds very similar to our experience. Though it seems to be getting better. 3G has even launched in some cities, so give it a couple of years and I think it will become a digital nomad’s paradise. For now though, it’s a little tough.

  6. Haha ! Sorry i laugh Todd, but i feel your pain. I was in india this past christmas and spent 2 months in bangalore where my family lives and trust me ‘I GET IT’ . My facebook updates weren’t very different from Lauren’s…. a tad bit more aggressive infact. I missed the freedom of clicking with my iphone and 3G’ing my travels over to the world.

    We have been planning of moving to bangalore for about a year or so now, but chicken out after every visit. The rentals are exorbitant. Its worse when you wanna buy. Wi-fi usually is never included or existant in buildings. I mean YOU have to set it up with the carriers – so if you find a place i would suggest calling Airtel (the cellphone carrier) and setting up your apartment to go wireless. Otherwise yes, you are pretty much screwed.

    I hope my friend was of some help. If this was a few months earlier, you could have used one of my parents apartments which are now on rent ( yes 12months lease it is :))

    anyways, have fun, watch movies, eat great food and get to the city before it gets to you !

    Cheers !

    • Hey Tara, thanks so much for your help and the references. In the end we found a shared 2 bed apartment in Richmond Town. It’s in a good locale, has decent Internet, is pretty cheap (25k/month) and is cleaned daily. So we’re now happy again and have big smiles! Plus, there’s a gym just up the road, so we’re back into our usual routine of working, keeping fit, eating well ,etc. Normally I prefer to exercise outside and I stay clear of gyms, but the air quality here isn’t the best. Nonetheless, all is good, so certainly drop by if you visit in the next 3 months.

  7. Oh, I totally feel you pain!! I moved to Mumbai a bit over 3.5 years ago, and I write and manage About.com’s India travel website. As you’d understand, this requires me to have constant and reliable internet access. Well, the service was so bad, I completely lost the plot one day and stormed into the company’s head office and demanded an explanation. Internet service would be out for days at a time, frequently, and with no explanation. Not only that, when it was time to pay the bill every month, instead of sending an invoice, they’d send a person to personally collect the payment… and cut the internet service off like clockwork until the payment was received. Of course, being India, the person who was supposed to collect the payment never turned up like clockwork though!! I would LOVE to be able to travel around India, and live and work from different locations, but like you’ve discovered unreliable internet and inability to rent inexpensive short-medium term accommodation puts a stop to that. The daily frustrations can really wear you down too.

    • Great to hear from you Sharell. At first I thought it must be a great appointment to write for about.com in India, but then your story sounded very familiar :) That said, Internet has been okay here, it was just the lack of accommodation options. But we worked out a deal with a hotel/restaurant chain that also owns an apartment. Give me another couple of days and I’ll be pulling my hair out about something else though.

      If you happen to visit Bangalore, we’d love to catch up. Or if we visit Mumbai, we’ll let you know.

  8. PS. If you want cheap accommodations, don’t come to Mumbai. Prices here make Bangalore look like the bargain city of India. ;-)

  9. Hey, I work virtually in India. I live here as am an Indian. Best bet for internet, you should get Tata Photon Plus or Reliance Data Cards. The speeds are good, you can even skype with them but they usually need address proof and stuff. So maybe you won’t get those.

    Umm apart from that 3G was introduced just a few weeks back but.. yea many of the service providers have ridiculous rates! Airtel seems to well priced but havent tried out the service yet. Anyway I can put you in touch with some Bangalore tweeps who can help if you like.

    I am @priyankawriting – if you wanna connect over twitter…

    • Hi Priyanka, great to hear from you.

      We currently have Reliance, but they’re awful. They say there’s 3G, but we only picked it up in Mumbai, and only within 100 metres of their shop. In Goa we wanted to recharge the data on the Reliance SIM, and we went to a Reliance World shop, and they said they couldn’t do it. I also called them about 8 times trying to recharge the data.

      We also have a Vodafone dongle and SIM, but can’t pick up 3G anywhere we’ve been. It’s probably more reliable than our Reliance connection, but generally just slow everywhere we go. Sounds like Tata and Airtel may be better. Someone else on our trip had Airtel, and although we didn’t get 3G, it was quite reliable, except in Jammu and Assam.

      But we know have a home connection through Airtel in our apartment and it’s sooooooo much better than using a SIM. If you’re ever down here in Bangalore, let us know; we’d love to catch up for a coffee.

      • Customer service is a problem in telecom industry here! I am facing major issues with Tata Photon currently the speed is great though, wanted to file a consumer appeal against them but the lawyer advised me against it as it won’t do any good.

        BTW vodaphone and Airtel have customer service channels on twitter. They seem pretty good. Will let you know if I am in Bangalore anytime :) and I am based in Mumbai in case you’ll are traveling around here sometime.

  10. have you thought about sites like
    http://www.mindmyhouse.com/
    http://www.trustedhousesitters.com/
    there are a few of these websites.

    Because they are peoples homes they usually have broadband installed, some require looking after a dog or cat but some just want people in the house to mind it while it is vacant, in return free accommodation.

  11. If you have an Ipad use BSNL3G SIM or BSNL 3G Dondle; although their customer service is unbelievely pathetic, the connection is as quick as any 3G service in the world. You would like to check on these links: http://www.bsnl.co.in/service/3G/3G_files/ipad_dataplans.htm use this wifi router and connect any dondle to have wifi access pretty much anywhere in India http://www.olivetelecom.in/olive-nexus-vr9-wireless-router/ http://www.tatadocomo.com/3g-wifi-hub.aspx http://www.vodafone.in/3gworld/pages/3g_serivces.aspx?slide=11&cid=hyd
    http://www.bsnl.co.in/service/3G/3G_files/3g.htm

  12. I used to travel frequently my other branch offices like in Banglore, Chennai, Hyderabad and i carry reliance net connect and i have never faced any problem with it. So i would suggest reliance net connect.

  13. Agree with Priyanka*. while i definitely agree that getting around is difficult in India as a digital nomad (being one myself), it kinda adds to the challenge!

    *back to Priyanka’s suggestion. a USB data card is definitely the best way to get around here, even as a great backup while you have WiFi / Ethernet availability around.

    incidentally i lived in Palolem, Goa for the last 2 months and had a fall back system where WiFi was option 1, cyber cafes (tons of them lines across the market area/beach) option 2 and the USB data card as option 3. you always need fallbacks / backups here.

    as a digital nomad, adaptability is always a challenge and that to me is fun, however frustrating. in countries like India, us entrepreneurs have to learn to triumph and not just succeed!

  14. It can be surprisingly tough to get medium term accommodation in some surprising places. We spent a week looking in Bali and couldn’t find anything to our liking despite the thousands of foreigners who live there. All we wanted was a room or small apartment but everyone we talked to kept trying to sell us on renting a whole villa with multiple bedrooms, a swimming pool and servants quarters. I’m sure its not true but multiple locals swore that there were no apartments anywhere in bali and it was a villa or nothing.

    In the end it was nothing as we just went elsewhere :|

  15. Photon plus is much better….wireless USB powered high speed internet

  16. HI ,
    I think many of the fears about internet in India is far fetched.I am working in Bangalore for past 11 years and my home is 600 KM south of Bangalore. I had DSL connection some 6-7 years at my home in native village and also in home in at Bangalore.getting an internet connection in any city is not a big issues . Or if you are in remote places ,you could easily buy a dongle .

  17. I was in Palolem in November 2011 for 2 weeks, and had a nice 2Mbps (3G) Reliance Internet wireless connection for Rs.1300/month that I brought with me from Pondicherry (roaming is free). I stayed in a nice house with a kitchen for Rs.500/day.

    If you cannot find a good bargain, and if you are technically dumb, it’s your problem.

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