As with all marketing, India's slogan ignores the effort required to attain the promised goods. My adventure to get a visa is a frustrating tale that was a reminder of why people stay in their own countries. I was an American employed by an Australian company, on a business trip to Beijing trying to get a business visa to India. And the Indian embassy had outsourced their visa processing to a Chinese company. Needless to say, no travel agent could help me.
But I am stubborn and didn't end up in my current tangle of visas on accident. So I checked out of my Beijing hotel on Saturday morning and headed to the airport, Indian tourist visa in hand. After a four hour delay and rebooked flights in Hong Kong I landed in Mumbai (airport code BOM for Bombay, but also fitting for other reasons we will get into shortly).
The first thing I noticed was the smell. It is a tropical port on the Arabian Sea, and the moisture has made the airport a bit musty. Thankfully they are building a brand new terminal next door. The next thing I noticed was the people. It was 5am India time and the place was packed with people coming and going. On the ride to the hotel the streets were full of vegetable sellers and their wares lay about on the streets. The market would open at 7 and close at 10 before it really got hot. Most people work 6 day weeks, with the 2nd and 4th Saturday off. The market sellers seem to work every day.
HOT TIP: Looking for a flat screen tv on the cheap? You could head to Bangkok, which is what many people on my plane had done, I was amazed at the number of TV boxes stacked by the luggage carousel.
One sad casualty of my last minute trip to Mumbai was my planned snow boarding trip to Japan. So what do you do when: you have a snowboard, DHL will charge you $770 to ship it to Australia and you are heading to an equatorial country? Why, get lucky enough to have it lost en-route of course! Cathay Pacific is now doing for free what DHL wanted to charge more than the board was worth. And if that isn't finding the silver lining in a smog bound delay and a botched luggage transfer, I don't know what is.
Like China, there are lots of people around. Unlike China, they are not always industriously doing stuff when foreigners are around. In baggage claim there was an odd shortage of carts. I asked where they were and they shrugged me off saying they were outside and they would come in soon. I asked again and got a terse "as you were informed, they are outside". So much for customer service! I looked around and saw about 10 official looking staff idling about. I finally walked past all these people and fetched my own cart, I may have left the secure area in the process, it wasn't entirely clear.
When told my luggage was lost, I did encounter the blessing of good customer service from Cathay Pacific staff. They guided me through the three required forms, including my multiple botched attempts at the customs form (no dear, don't put down what it is ACTUALLY worth). And they agreed to ship my HK stranded bag to Australia ahead of me.
My fears that the hotel car had abandoned me during my luggage delay were allayed on exit. My name was on a card hanging over a railing in front of two young girls in Sarees. I was puzzled, but glad to see my name and in my 5am sleep addled brain, I thought, "maybe they do send girls to pick up hotel patrons in this country". I was thankfully brought back to reality by a friendly man in formal attire guiding me to a waiting car. He told me they will wait 2.5 hours after landing time because it often takes that long to clear the airport. This country is growing like a weed, think about what they could do with all that productive time if they reduced that to just 1 hour!
I bonded with my driver, as he had been suffering through my flight delays on this side and had been at the airport since 1am. I understood only 50% of what he said to me; I'm wondering why Indian accented English is still one of the hardest ones to understand. What I did understand was that upon arrival at my hotel, the guards checked the trunk and scanned the undercarriage for bombs. My luggage was screened to enter the hotel. China's security is far more subtle, thus easier to miss, but no less frightening.
Later on my drive around the city, my driver pointed out all the nice hotels that had been bombed. This made me ponder if this is related to why they ask you in so many times on the Visa application if you have any connection to Pakistan. It is one thing to read about these things and quite another to see it right in front of you.
But hey, I'm here and odds are in my favor that today there will be no bombing, so I got my day started since sleep seemed absurd as the sun peeked out from the horizon and the mini cricket field below came to life. I did what any self respecting American yoga student does in India, I did a sun salutation on the patio and felt the warmth of the tropical sun seep into my bones and the breeze blow away my memories of the freezing northern winter.
I shopped and I gaped and I revelled in the foreignness of Mumbai. I haggled and made a "friend", Raj. I laughed as a boy squashed his face up against his car window in the Mumbai traffic. And I turned my gaze as the beggar children approached. New York makes you cold so you can ignore the sad adult faces on the streets, but India makes your heart bleed when the children beg and you feel helpless and heartless as you ignore them.
I can only hope that this round of imperialism in the guise of commercial development helps more of them, in the long run, climb out of the slums. "They are filming the second Slumdog Millionaire here", my driver says, as we pass the sheet metal roofs and ragged underclass. The first one was a fabulous story about the triumph of love and the human spirit. I hope the second one stays true to that spirit and shines more light on this incredible place.
|Loved the bright colors!|
|This was my first time going through metal detectors at a hotel - but not my last.|
|The real Ice Man. I could have used some at that point.|
|Is it Iranian, is it Chinese? Who can tell, but I know they serve Coke!|
|Looks can be deceiving, this man is not a prince.|
|Why don't they sell these in Australian parks?!|
|I managed not to get ill on my trip to India - perhaps because I did not savor food delivered like this. |
But it was tempting!!!
|The Arabian Sea!|
|It is time to Boogie!|
|Yes, that is a cow wandering in traffic. I imagine he wishes he was in a green field, holy or not, it didn't seem like a great place to be standing.|
|Different Four Square.|
|Boy selling me something I didn't need in the midst of traffic. Nicer than a New York squeegee guy.|
|These gentlemen did not want me to be here. I'm used to encountering smiles in foreign places, but in this part of the slum, I was clearly not welcome. I really wanted some of that bread, but that was not happening.|
|Experian donated computers to this school. I got to spend the afternoon meeting some of the kids.|
|A version of Scrabble. I don't think my presence helped them focus.|
|A perfect example of product localization.|
|I loved the way the trucks were decorated. Like circus vehicles! I only got this photo at a gas station because on the road I was too busy hoping they wouldn't hit me to take a picture.|
|A school poster. I'm glad Uncle Sam is not always demanding money or guns.|