THIS IS A FIRST-HAND ACCOUNT OF MY FIRST DAY IN INDIA, A DAY I HAD LONG BEEN LOOKING FORWARD TO -- a day I had been dreading for a long time. After spending my first 18 hours here in the west coast city of Bombay/Mumbai, I have to concede that both major stereotypes about India are true. That is, it is heavenly, otherworldly, exotic -- the dream destination of the curious traveller. On the other hand, I haven't been to another place (excepting Vietnam) which is more taxing on the visitor. India is Heaven. India is Hell. Let us move on!
Last night (May 1 2005) I got the flight from Kuala Lumpur to India, and left the semi-developed world of SE Asia behind me. I was a little nervous because almost everyone on my Malaysia Airlines flight was Indian, and some of them were looking at me kind of funny. I have to admit, I have been to Nepal before and am also well acquainted with Egypt and the Middle East. I have been around the block. Nonetheless, there is something about India which makes it especially forbidding for the first-time visitor. Maybe it is all those traveller tales. As we headed out on to the runway at Kuala Lumpur's gorgeous mid-jungle airport, I began to feel like I had made a mistake.
One humorous point which took my mind off my impending doom -- usually at this stage on other flights the air hostesses come around and reconfirm which passengers have requested vegetarian meals. Normally there are just a couple of vegetarians scattered around the air craft. On this flight, however, it seemed like half the cabin was vegetarian! I had to laugh -- my vegetarian friends back home would have been in Heaven!
Anyway, we took off, and the Indian man (Ibrahim) sitting next to me started talking to me. I asked him where he lived and was greatly surprised when he said: "Nagoya, Japan". (I live not too far away in Tokyo). I couldn't believe it but I found out he would actually be returning to Japan the following weekend, on exactly the same flight that I would be on! Perhaps we could even sit together. At that revelation I started feeling more confident, and Ibrahim promised because he said he could help me get through the airport and find a hotel and whatnot. So, I started to relax, we had some good in-flight food (chicken tikka), and watched a good Bollywood movie. I drank a little. The hours went by, and I grew more and more excited as we descended over the plains of India, and I saw the tropical city of Bombay laid out before me in the humid night. It was a vision of Paradise.
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BOMBAY AIRPORT LOOKED OLD AND DIRTY BUT CHARMING IN A RETRO, RAYON, FADED TROPICALISM WAY. There were plenty of angry police in green fatigues, and Indians pushing and shoving to get to the head of whatever queue was happening at the time. While I was waiting for my bags to come off my Nagoya friend Ibrahim disappeared on me, and I couldn't find him again! Perhaps he could sick of waiting for me, it seems that patience is not a strong Indian virtue. So, the upshot was, I was on my own after all! Stuck in a strange airport surrounded by palm trees in the middle of the night. And that's when all the con artists moved in to take advantage of me!
Fellow traveller W Steffens has written of his introduction to Bombay Airport: "Arriving at 11.35 am was a breeze - out of the airport in 10 minutes with hand luggage only. All immigration booths were staffed and working efficiently, nobody tried to get some of my money, and I didn't even see anyone standing around doing nothing. Actually the airport was rather clean in comparison to domestic airports elsewhere in India. Okay, it's not new and could need some renovation, but that's India and not Dubai. Departure (4.15. am) also went perfectly alright - no crowds in front of the entrances, luggage screen very quick, check-in even quicker, immigration and security very efficient. The departure part was cleaner than the arrival (or was that relief from Mumbai city ?), there are plenty of chairs with head rests, some really comfortable. The duty free is clearly not the world's best, but most things you'd look for actually are there (hm, just one brand of Single Malt...). The Clipper Lounge was okay, not more, but neither less."
I wish I could say that nobody at Bombay Airport was after my money -- but unfortunately, some of them were! It went like this: after I was abandoned in the middle of the night at Bombay Airport, I went to the accommodation counter outside as my LONELY PLANET guidebook recommended. I said I wanted to stay at a cheap hotel so they booked something that sounded fairly decent (Imperial Hotel or something like that), and then I got a ride with a driver to the hotel. I was very surprised to find the hotel was only about two blocks away from the airport, in the middle of the slums. It cost US$45 per night and for that I got a dirty room with a TV that didn't work, cold shower and an air-conditioner that smelt like it was full of legionnaires disease. I spent a very uncomfortable night sleeping under a dirty blanket, shivering because the airconditioner was too cold. I kept thinking to myself: "What am I doing here?" It was my introduction to India!
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LET THIS BE A WARNING TO THOSE WANTING TO STAY AT A HOTEL NEAR BOMBAY AIRPORT -- the airport is built right in the center of one of Asia'a largest slums. If slumming it in the slums is your style, go ahead and stay there -- but I would prefer somewhere with a little more atmosphere.