First moments on Indian soil. Total shock!
17. 2. 2013
It is 5:00 AM local time, and we land at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai. We are getting off the plane, and I inhale the specific smell for the first time. I have no idea whether to call it a nice smell or stink since it's an intense mixture of everything. It is a combination of all sorts of exotic fragrances and aromas blended with hot and humid Indian air. At this moment I didn't know yet, that this everyday Indian scent will penetrate deep into my subconscious.
We continue through the labyrinth of the airport corridors on the worn out heavy red carpets. The walls around us are adorned with huge curtains that may have been spectacular twenty years ago, but now they look somewhat kitschy. From the air conditioning vents, along with the cold, damp air flows very aromatic perfume. The air conditioning, however, is barely managing to cool down the hot air in the corridors, and very quickly I start noticing the inexorable stuffy Indian climate.
Our initial enthusiasm grows even more when we first come into contact with the genuine Indian bureaucracy in the vestibule full of immigration officials.
To authorize us to pass, we need to fill out a detailed questionnaire with personal data. However, I was not ready for the question "The address of my stay in India/Mumbai." At that time, we did not have any accommodation booked in advance, and the address of the Salvation Army Hostel, where we were planning to stay, apparently I hadn't written down. What now? I had my Lonely Planet paper guide somewhere deep in the backpack spinning on the carousel in the baggage claim hall, my mobile Internet was not working, and the fact that I wanted to complete the form with an honest and truthful purpose would not help me either. I start scrolling through the Lonely Planet pdf file on my Kindle - which I have fortunately on me.
In my experience, traveling in India will teach you that even if you have to fill out heaps of forms everywhere, no one verifies the correctness of the information provided. If you struggle with the address of stay, while filling out the Arrival Card, fill in any address of any hotel in the city. This is how we did on our second visit to India.
After 15 minutes of neurotic searching, I find on my Kindle the address of our supposed accommodation in Mumbai. We fill out the form and proceed to the immigration official. He throws my passport vigorously at me, while at Magda he smiles seductively.
During the immigration procedure, one of the many mosquitoes bites me in my forehead, right between eyes. Well, the swelling is growing and getting red, and now I look at least like an authentic Indian with a red dot on the forehead. We pick the backpacks from the belt and after a few meters we fill out other forms (at this point, no idea what for) surrounded by a group of police officers.
Finally, we are out. What we need now are Indian Rupees. Everything looks promising because there is one blinking ATM in the arrivals hall. I insert the card, I wait, but the ATM doesn't respond at all. I insert the card again, wait, and repeat the whole process without getting any rupees. Perhaps it's out of order, says Magda while trying out her card. We didn't manage to withdraw anything, so we exit the arrival hall.
Most ATM in India work on a slightly different principle than in the Czech Republic. Insert the card into the machine and remove it immediately. The machine automatically reads all the information and the transaction continues without the card present in the slot (unlike the Czech ATM, where the card remains inserted inside the slot during the entire transaction).
We exit the arrivals hall and walk towards a paved sort of patio, where we are promptly harassed by annoying and persistent taxi drivers and touts. To their surprise, we suggest that we transfer to Colaba by local transport.
In theory, everything looks so simple, however, first at all, we need to get our rupees. We begin to sweat. We strip off several layers, and I put on my sandals. The surroundings of the airport building seem to me like concrete chaos, There are no indicators, it's still dark before the dawn, and I can't orient myself. Since we don't see anymore ATMs, we decide to try our luck in the arrival hall again.
To my surprise, the patrolling soldiers at the entrance do not let us in! We are requested to present a valid flight reservation with a departure from Bombay. We don't have it of course.
Keep in mind, once you exit the arrivals hall, you will be denied access back inside. Soldiers do not care if you need to withdraw money, change money, call a taxi, stay overnight or you just go out to smoke. We feel like there is no way back (but with a little improvisation you can get around). Read more about how we spent a night in the Airport in Goa.
We do not understand their reasons, but at the moment we still have a long way to become experienced travelers. That's why we stop the uncompromising discussions with the soldiers and go out to look for ATM elsewhere. We begin to feel helpless. After refusing entry to the arrivals hall, we try to explore a section of the adjacent building. We walk through the semi-dark dirty corridors in the desolate state, partially lit by flashing bulbs. After 1-hour stay in India, we absolutely don't know what to expect, eventually, if it is safe here. So instead we are coming out of the desolated building back to the entrance to the arrivals hall.
Everything around us is suddenly so strange, exotic, new. We're standing here as scared little kids, with backpacks on their backs and the fat hardcopy of India Lonely Planet in hand.
So we're back where we started half an hour ago. Moreover, already sweaty. After a few minutes of searching, we find another ATM. We run towards it with a sense of relief. I insert the card, and the ATM automatically announces after I've entered the pin and the amount - out of service. What?! Well, that's the Indian classics.
Moreover, I can't be sure now that the machine hasn't charged me the amount entered. I feel confused and angry. I just want the basic stuff, and nothing here works the way it should!
Finally, we find an exchange office located near the ATM. Exchange rates are miserable, they charge a transaction fee, but here you go. There's nothing else we can do about that. The officer requests my passport to be able to convert my dollars. Then he picks up his phone and calls. The clerk sits behind the plastic glass, I look at him, and thousands of thoughts are passing through my head right now. Do I trust him? Is this all right? Let alone the money, but what would I do without my passport? I feel relaxed as soon as I hold my passport firmly in my hands and 2400 rupees next to it. With such money, I now feel like a king. We made it!
Now what's left is to find a way to a few miles away Colaba. We decide to travel locally. Digital maps that I had previously downloaded into my phone are missing all the details, and I don't know what direction to go. In the guide, everything is so beautifully and clearly described, but the reality is entirely different. We need to find a rickshaw stand. I ask some people who are passing by, but they are not able to have a continuous conversation in English. And I thought that English is one of the official languages of India. Intrusive rickshaw and taxi drivers are constantly harassing us.
The look at us must be comical, two pale figures with a frightened expression. One holding a thick paper version of the travel guide around India and before answering the question where to go, the rickshaw driver must wait 2 minutes before he (I) finds it in the guide. So, in such a situation, it's tough to bargain the price down. Taxi offers us a ride from the airport to the city center for 450 rupees and rickshaw for 250 rupees. However, the rickshaw drivers intentionally don't mention the fact, the fact that they are not allowed in the center. Bargaining does not make me any problems after my previous experience in Turkey, and I stay chill. We make our way away from the airport, and we find another taxi stand. After an inexorable bargaining and ironic mockery coming from the drivers, one young boy takes us. Though one of his eyes goes in the opposite direction, he is the cheapest. He leads us to his rickshaw. We hop in. Our first rickshaw ride ever! Well, the posture reminds me a little of sitting on the toilet. The guy drives like crazy the road dust blows in my face, as well as the car fumes and all sorts of smells. But I'm happy! Finally, we've moved from one place to another. Now, I only hope that after explaining 15 times where were we headed, the rickshaw driver is heading in the right direction - to the Parle Villa Train Station. He's continually mumbling something, but I do not understand a word. I just keep repeating the name of the train station as stupid all over again.
As we sit relatively relaxed in the rickshaw now, our attention slides towards the surrounding environment, the streets, and the life in them. I was preparing myself for exotics, but not for this. We move swiftly on the dusty asphalt road, full of weathered holes that we jump over with surprising agility. After a while, the road slowly disappears, and with the same agility, we are now moving on the yellow field dusty road. All around us we see hundreds of people, animals, whole families sleeping in rags under the bridges, incredible poverty, heaps of rubbish, bunches of tangled wires on power lines, the infinite line of small dirty houses built next to each other without any logic. Especially the noise! Everybody honks, the engines thunder, while we bounce on the backseat of this uncomfortable vehicle. Despite all these mixed feelings, I'm delighted, and I burst out laughing at Magda saying - "What a punk!" - She's also overwhelmed, just nodding for approval.
To be continued ...