13 January 2012
I am here! Arrived at Mumbai airport at 2am, a mere 30 hours after my journey began at 2:30am in Auckland. The flight was long, with stopovers in Brisbane and Singapore, but not exactly a hardship (I managed to blag my way into the Air NZ lounge during the Brisbane stop, despite traveling with a rival carrier and having no right to be there, and in Singapore had time for a shiatsu massage to iron out some of the cattle-class kinks in my back). But after months of dreaming, planning and negotiating the tortuous visa application process, I have finally made it to India.
Just to reinforce that life now operates on Indian time, the bus from the plane crawled to the terminal at slightly less than walking speed, taking a full 20 minutes to move about 1000 metres (we were passed by a tractor! Actually, in hindsight I’m not sure what the tractor was doing on the runway in the first place…). To amuse themselves the ground staff waited til we were all crammed around the designated luggage belt before arbitrarily changing the belt number, causing a stampede of luggage trolleys and sharp-elbowed passengers guarding their patch. I’m sure it was funny the first time…
Luggage eventually secured and, after the horror stories I had heard about huge crowds and pushy taxi touts, it was almost disconcertingly simple to to change a few USD into INR and pick up a pre-paid taxi voucher. The promised crowds outside the terminal were almost disappointingly tame, and even locating my taxi driver (number 7988) was easier than I’d expected, though when I saw the state of the cab (which looked suspiciously like a little black and yellow Trabant) I wondered if I’d made a mistake choosing the bargain non-aircon option (only 450 rupees!).
The driver emerged from under the open bonnet, I squashed in the back with my bags (the car boot was jammed, naturally), and off we puttered. And what a ride! I soon discovered that I was sharing the back seat with a small cloud of mosquitoes, but with my deet buried in my pack all I could do was pull my scarf around me and hope for the best. I was a little disconcerted when the driver pulled into a tiny petrol station and popped the bonnet again – to my relief, it turns out that’s just where the gas tank lives. Off again, and my Indian newbie bingo card was filling rapidly – stray dogs, stray people, someone camping on the motorway (complete with campfire), ancient havelis hemmed in by tenements, gleaming new office buildings hard against the motorway overpass that we were picking our way underneath, ragpickers squatting by the roadside sorting through piles of rags, roadside shrines and even a token sacred cow, all emerging eerily from the hazy gloom. The driver continued to inspire confidence by asking me for directions – turns out he couldn’t read, and the map I had didn’t seem to be helping much either. We settled for the train station nearest the hotel, and eventually he stopped to ask a local.
We finally pulled up outside the Hotel Residency at 4am, by which time all I could think about was a shower and bed – but India had other ideas. The advance notice of my arrival time had been overlooked, and there were no beds to be had. A young English couple were scrolling through confirmation emails from the hotel’s reservation desk in an effort to prove that they too had a confirmed bed, with similarly futile results. Eventually the concierge conceded that rooms might be available at 8am, so we picked our way past the mattress on the lobby floor and the pipes hanging down from a hole in the ceiling, and settled down on sofas in the lounge to try to get some sleep until then.
Everything looks better in the morning. We were woken by the delightful sound of phlegmy hoicking from the next room, as the occupant of the mattress made his morning ablutions, and a staff member came in to make sure we were up and awake before the rest of the guests came down for breakfast. Nothing like a bunch of scruffy backpackers to lower the tone. It turned out that the hotel (which came highly recommended) is undergoing renovations, and the hole in the ceiling was a temporary glitch – when we emerged into the lobby it was swarming with contractors looking busily at the hole and the protruding pipes.
But things were looking up when I was shown to the penthouse suite (it was on the roof, at least) which was at the top of its own set of narrow stairs (well, I say stairs, maybe more of a fire escape…).
It even had a view… Well, kinda….
The only thing it didn’t have was wifi…but it turns out that the hotel has a new wing next door which is freshly renovated and does have wifi, so I reluctantly said goodbye to the view and moved next door, where I appear to have the whole shiny new building to myself. Life is good!
A shower, a nana nap, and I was feeling just about human again – time to venture out into Mumbai for a few essentials: a sim card from a hole in the wall shop around the back of the hotel (thanks to the terrorist activity here, this requires a passport photo and a copy of your passport, as well as proof of your hotel booking, verified by the hotel – they sent a porter with me to make sure it all went smoothly), and a few bits and pieces from the gorgeous FabIndia emporium. And now, it’s most definitely gin o’clock, so I’m off to meet up with the English couple from earlier this morning, and check out Mumbai by night. Wish me luck!