Our family travels with two computers so that we can pay bills, keep this blog going, check email, skype back home and most importantly, allow the kids to keep up with their studies. We’d been lucky for most of our travels, although our second, older computer died while we were in Mancora, Peru, succumbing to a deadly Trojan virus that brought it to its knees. (From what I saw in that northern Peruvian party town, our Trojan was probably not the only virus being passed around). Once back in the U.S. for Christmas, we replaced it with a new, smaller mini laptop and set off for Africa. All went well until we arrived in Cairo and the new minicomputer started going berserk: colorful patterns and bars flashed across the screen to form a pyrotechnic display of depixelation where the familiar Windows logo should have been. Great. How will the kids do their homework? How on earth are we going to fix this in Cairo, Egypt?
Options flashed through my head. Throw it away and get by on one computer – not possible. Buy a new computer - nope. Try to fix it – O.K., where? I went to the customer service section of the web site for the company, a well-known brand that rhymes with “hell.” I started a chat session early in the morning with Krishna in India who thought that the motherboard was the problem. She said that if I were in the US she could ship me a new one within 15 days. When I mentioned that I was in Cairo, she said that my warranty was not valid outside the U.S. and there was nothing she could do for me. After an hour and a half chat, trying to find any loophole in their policy, I gave up. I now had a malfunctioning motherboard and a useless warranty. Before the end of the chat session, I got the phone number of the Middle Eastern representative, which happened to be located in Cairo.
Cairo is the most populous city in Africa and virtually no one speaks or writes English and all I had was a phone number. I was desperate and was now thinking in magnitudes of hundreds of dollars in order to get it fixed. I asked Mahmoud at the front desk of the African House Hostel to make the call for me to the service center. Fortunately, he located Tarek, an English-speaking technician who told me to bring in the laptop and he would see what he could do.
Mahmoud wrote down the address for me and said that all I had to do was go to the Behouth metro station, jump in a cab and show them the address that he had written down for me in Arabic. In theory, this sounds like a great plan, but the skeptical side of me viewed this like finding a needle in a haystack. I got to the Behouth station and found a taxi driver who seemed to know the address and we drove off. After 15 minutes and many stops to ask other taxi drivers, it was clear that he had no idea where this authorized service center was. After another 10 minutes and a few more stops for directions, we stopped at a corner. The taxi driver pointed down a street and held out his hand for payment. I paid him and started walking.
There is no doubt that finding your way in countries that don’t use roman script (i.e., Arabic speaking countries, China, Japan, Russia) is a bigger challenge than in Europe, South America and most of Africa. I walked for 4 blocks looking at Arabic scribbles and just as the street was coming to an end I finally saw the boxy blue logo of my computer manufacturer. I went inside and asked for Tarek, who took the ailing machine and looked it over. After fiddling with it for 10 minutes, he said, “I will replace the motherboard. You can come back for it tomorrow.” This was great news, but I also had to ask, “How much will it cost?” Tarek waved his hand and said, “It is under warranty, it is free.” I told him about the type of warranty that I had but Tarek again waved his hand and said, “No problem, we’ll just transfer the warranty to Egypt. See you tomorrow.”
I did get the repaired laptop from Tarek the next day, but at that moment I thought about how in six hours my situation had turned around 180 degrees. I had gone from having a fried motherboard and an invalid warranty, to locating the only English-speaking technician in the Middle-east who happened to have the right part who would replace it for free! How do you say “Needle in a haystack" in Arabic?