Saturday, December 20, 2008

Photos - Night One, India

We arrived at Mumbai airport at 2.45am Tuesday 9 December. What a shock! Forget about terrorists attacking the place, to me it looked like they had already done so. This was my first experience of culture shock, for which I thought I was well prepared, having seen some not so nice living conditions in Japan back in 1995. Doh. I am such a naive, sheltered, over-fed Westerner. I am not very well travelled having only been out of Australia twice in my life. In 1992 I travelled to the USA and experienced the conditions of LAX, and in 1995 Narita airport in Japan (which was brand new back then). Mumbai airport was such a dive ... no ceilings, electrical cables hanging out of the roof and walls, one luggage conveyor belt for all the flights arriving at the same time as us, a conveyor belt that kept making loud sick noises, coming to a halt, then being chugged back into life by a team of people who really didn't look like they knew what they were doing, yet obviously did because they kept that baby running.

So we get our luggage.I had been forwarned by my surro-brothers and sisters, what to expect, what to do and what to not do. With mental notes in mind, I yelled at the first poor bugger who came my way offering the services of his trolley. While I think the trollet's are airport property, it does appear that they can be sequestered by anyone, thus making them appear official and helpful. But I had been warned: Don't let anyone touch your luggage or you will pay for it. i am not adverse to paying a few rups for a trolley service, but being in culture shock, just having arrived, sleep-deprived, and with my head still reeling, I wasn't about to start the financial bartering that is part of the Indian economy so soon.

So, we big fat over-fed whitie Westerners (and there were only two of us in the airport at that time ... me and Bob - [ed] who is not particularly well fed - , the third dreadlocked whitie wasn't fat) adrift in a sea of dark faces, in a culture so different to our own, were left wondering if we were going to get our luggage, if not, who would dive through the hole in the wall to collect our possesssions, aand if, the one lone security office brandishing an antiquated rifle would protect us if terrorists chose that moment to burst forth with a spray of bullets. Fortunately the luggae belt chugged to life and amidst a bunch of small dark people vying for a few ruppee so they could feed themselves and their families, we managed to collect our own bags and flee to immigration.

I don't know how we got to immigration. We were lemmings in a sea of people, following the ebb and tide of the flow. Bags and passports in hand we managed to find ourselves in a queue of around 300 people, a stinking long line ... of people, luggage, children, tiredness, crankiness, over-it-allness. Oh shit, we said, here is the three-hour immigration check we had been warned about. "Suck it up Am," my husband told me. "A smile and a nod goes a long way in a country where you are the minority". My husband has lived in many third-world countries throughout the course of his career as an oil and gas engineer. He has faced immigration in Indonesia, Pakistan, Kuwait, and other less-organised countries. He was having fun. "Oh Am, this so reminds me of the time when ..." ... "Oh Am, when I was in ... it was just like this". So while my dear husband was reliving his youthful past and his adventures as a young engineer set on making a shit-load of money and conquering the world, I was feeling dirty, white, too tall, too tired, too cranky and very much at the end of my white-middle-class-westerner tether.

Can you believe with 300 odd people in front of us, we actually cleared immigration within 10-15 minutes. That's the thing about India, it is overcrowded, there are way too many people living in too small a space, too many taxis, rickshaws, beggars, and people who offer to "help you", yet it works. We made our way to the front of the queue to be faced with the most effective, dictatorial Indian man we experienced on our whole journey. There were 40 plus immigration counters, all operating. A numbered yellow line painted the entire length of the counters indicated where one was to stand. Mr Indian Dictator barked out numbers to the people at the front of the queue, and if they did not hear him, or move on his command, he grabbed them by the arm and shoved them into their designated space. He cleared that queue faster than a Pakistani Jihad terrorist clears a train station. I recall thinking we were hearded sheep or lemmings facing a jump over the proverbial cliff, When our time came, there was no way that dude was going to touch any pasrt of my person. I was prepared, and ready to run to my appointed station.

We got to our counters and there was a flurry of activity around the people at the next counter. the immi officers were gesticulating loudlyy and laughing amongst themselves, and to anyone in earshot. I didn't understand what was going on, all I knew is that I desired only to get through indian immigration and arrive at our safe, warm, Best Western bed with a minimum of fuss. It seems the fuss was about a couple of Indian nationals who had lost their passports and travel documents while out of the country. The customs officers held up a sheet of information at least a metre long and declared in broken English, "Have you ever seen such a big travel document?" Well, no. Yes, it's odd, ha-ha, we ejoy your amusement, but shut-the-fuck-up and let us through. Once the levity has subsided, we cleared immigration and were on our way to Mumbai as official Australian tourists, on our way to the promised land of clean sheets and a place to rest our weary heads.

Not to be. On leaving the airport, our first experience of Mumbai was humidity and a serious attack on our nasal passages. The smell! Ugh. My first thought was, "Now I know what my surro bros and sisters eman bey the smaell of Mumbai". Despite the fact that I have a medical condition tht prevents me from detecting smeall from my left nostril, the stench of Mumbai came through loud and clear. Burnt plastic ... and and acrid combination of street fires and general pollutants from the Indian way of rubbish disposal. If it exists, burn the crap out of it. No wonder Mumbai si so polluted. In Australia we have been banned from burning any household waste, whether that be household or garden fodder, for around 20 years. Not so in Mumbai. Just bur the fuck out of the rubbish and screw the air quality.

Holding my mouth and nose (and wishing for a surgical mask) we made out way towards the taxi/pickup line. We were so freaking lucky to be able to identify our names on a small sign held by our hotel driver from around 200 signs thrust in our faces. I have since learned about the horrific an scary problems faced by our new friends from the USA, when attempting to get out of the airport, but that is their story to tell.

We follow our driver, who is less than pleasant, and on the verge of being rude, to his car, a two-wheel drive set up as a four-wheel drive landrover (I have no idea, that's Bob's take on the car).

Bags in boot, we get into the car and I am delighted that he has insence burning, which, despite being incredibly strong, takes the filthy smell of burning Mumbai life from my nostrils. So we grab our seatbelts, and lo and behold, no seat belt holder. While you get seatbelt straps in India, for the following ten days, we never once found a privte car, nor taxi, with the buckl;es to attach the belts to. Such is Mumbai.

I am so glad we arrived in darkness. While safe from the smeall of Mumbai in our over-insenced car, the trip to ur hotel was just mind-blowing. I knew we would see slums, and people living on the streets, and packs of stray dogs roaming the streets, having a bit of a bark and a rough and tumble with each other in the cloak of darkness. What I didn't realise is that this horrific poverty is visible from any agnle one turns their head. ther is just no escaping the abject poverty on the streets of Mumbai. So while I am thinking I can just look at the nicer things in mumbai, and ignore the less savoury aspects of living in a polluted poverty-stricken city which attempts to house 21 million people - the entire population of Australia - in the spaceof my home city of Perth, there is no escaping the reality of life experinced by the majority of Mumbaikers.

I am now staring to wonder what we have gotten ourselvsinto. Has our surrogate been plucked from the tin-roofed slkums lining the drive from the airport? Or worse, is she selected from the families living under a tarpaulin at the base of a traffic light? What they hell are we doing spending so much money to have children, when we could well be exploiting Indian women and making a mockery of all the white-middle-class western ideals that we were brought up with. I close my heart and my eyes to the sights and sounds of Mumbai, feeling liek an intruder, a voyeur, a rich, fat, white Westie pig with way too much money, and far more desp[erationto have children, and just hope for a clean room in which I can sleep away the past 24 hours.

And this is what we got: The following pics are of The Emerald, a Best Western Hotel, rated three stars. I'd give it 1.5 tops. Bob was more than happy to be able to sleep in a bed with sheets, and pillows, albeit dirty sheets and pillows. I objected rather loudly to the fact that the hotel stunk, there was dirt on the walls, sand on the sheets, and goodness knows what else we would find later. At $135 AUD night, we had a mini-bar that was hot and did not function, even when we plugged it in. While Bob tired to prise open a hot Fosters beer with his lighter, I lay myself down to sleep - on top of the sheets - cuddling the pillow I had brought fromhome, afraid to stay awake, yet more afraid to wake up to my new third-world life. I have to tell you - the pics I took look much better than the reality. I said to Bob - "Hey, at least they gave us some welcome flowers". But no, on inspecting the card, the flowers were sent by the lovely SI docs ... the one bright light in an otherwise dismal room. So here is our room: unfortunately we do not have smell-a-vision.


Mike and Mike said...

It is amazing what experiencing abject poverty can do to one's perceptions. Especially on the scale of Mumbai. We completely understand where you are coming from. Although cliche, you do go home with a much greater appreciation of where you live and what you have.

Now...your hotel. Yikes! But what is the outdoor shot? Did you have a private courtyard or something?

Mike A.

Rhonda and Gerry W said...

Oh come on Am, it is THAT bad??? You make it sound horrendous! Sorry, I have to disagree I absolutely adore Mumbai and all its idiosyncrasies.

Amani said...

The outside shot is the reception area. Hotel guests were not allowed in there as it was the "special function area" for paying people holding whatever it was they were holding there. It kinda looks very pretty lit up at night. During the day ... about as classy as a stage at a street market fete.

Amani said...

Rhonda, There were many things I liked, but I am writing purely my first impressions, which are true for me. There was a lot I liked, but I will come to that in later posts. I just can't see how any Westerner can not see the dirt, filth, poverty and hopelessness, unless they have tunnel vision.

Bob said...

All I can say is keep reading. The total 10 day story is one of great love.

Amani said...

My husband - for all his faults - rocks!!!! Note to self. Be nicer to Bob. He is a true gem.