Chapter One: A Mass of Humanity
I was excited about visiting India, no doubt about it. Prior to departure, nothing could dampen my enthusiasm, not even the ridiculous drama that ensued at the Indian Embassies in London and Berlin two weeks before. The dreaded vaccine regimen was a blip on the radar, and the warnings about recent outbreaks of dengue in New Delhi seemed overblown. The visa hassles and vaccinations and disease scares are all par for the course when it comes to "third world" travel and anyway, I thought, India is classified as developing. I wasn't planning a trip to Liberia. Rationalizations serve an inexperienced traveler well, and this American girl who chose to spend a gap year in Germany, something most Europeans chuckle about, was ready to take on the subcontinent.
We touched down in Mumbai at 5am local time. Between in-flight Bollywood movies, I read up on Mumbai in the Lonely Planet, my daily life guide for the next three months. The first sentence read: "Equal parts of mayhem and order . . . an inebriating mix . . . this mass of humanity is a frantic melange of India's extremes." Excellent. I remember being thrilled to start the journey in the busiest, craziest, most overwhelming place India had to offer. But to read about and to watch documentaries on, these are wholly different from experiencing. St. Augustine said, "The world is a book. Not to travel would be to read just one page." How true that is.
The Chhatrapati Shivaji airport wasn't air-conditioned, and as we walked off the plane and toward immigration, the air felt like hot mist. As we got closer, the noise level increased substantially and we soon found ourselves in a disorderly queue of mostly young Indian men. They were standing literally up against each other, pushing gently forward, as if this was a sure way to expedite the waiting process. A few were even trying to sneak ahead in the queue, person by person. Amusing, but usually ineffective.
Three quarters of the way through, we realized we were in the wrong queue. We needed to fill out a "swine flu evaluation" first, and then submit it to the "swine flu inspectors," a trifecta of fat Indian men at the head of a longer and rowdier queue than the one we had just left. This was the first of many encounters with Indian bureaucracy, so absolutely ridiculous that everyone involved in the process ends up laughing instead of complaining.
We checked all the proper boxes on the card to ensure that our inspectors would not find us guilty of carrying swine flu into the country. They gave us a good look up and down, sizing up our health in a glance, and put two or three or four stamps on the card which we then threw into a big box. After immigration, we officially entered the subcontinent via a massive lot of Mumbai taxis. The cars sat neatly in rows, empty. Their rambunctious drivers were crowded around a small box-like building resembling a ticket booth in the center of the lot. The scene looked like an unruly auction. On one side was a massive line of customers, on the other, a mass of haphazardly-clad Indian taxi drivers holding up white receipts, some in the air, some pressed to the glass window. They were yelling at the two or three stoic attendants inside the booth, pounding on the windows, pleading, laughing, and arguing with them and with each other. "Mass haggling," I remember commenting. They were negotiating pre-paid fares and preferred destinations in their very Indian way.
We eventually ordered a pre-paid taxi to the central train station where we planned to drop our luggage for the day and wander the Mumbai streets while looking for an interesting hotel. From Germany it sounded like a great idea, allowing for maximum flexibility and a chance to really feel the pulse of the city. Now, under the oppressive heat of the early morning, the certainty of increasing temperatures, the creeping jet lag, and the chaos of the taxi stand only five or so feet outside the airport, I was beginning to yearn for air conditioning and a soft bed. Actually, our plan now seemed a bit crazy.
Our taxi driver strapped the luggage to the top of the car with a rope that looked incapable of holding a tiny motorboat anchor. I was quite worried but he seemed sure. We drove altogether too fast in a taxi that looked and felt like a museum piece from the 1950's. Five minutes into the trip he mumbled something about needing petrol. No problem, except that the Indian Oil station he chose had a mile long queue and was located next to an incredibly pungent sewage dump. He pulled in and there we sat, windows down for fear of suffocating in the heat of our unconditioned antique.
The cabbie didn't seem to notice, so I put my head down and tried to cover my nose with my little silk scarf. Every time I looked up to gauge progress, blue-skinned Vishnu glared at me from the dashboard where he was sitting in a neon pink nest of shiny hay. And unlike the compassionate faces of the Christian saints and depictions of Christ, he was smirking.
I don't know how long we sat at Indian Oil, but once underway we passed along streets full of farmers, vendors, and transporters, all dealing with the fresh foods to be sold at the morning market. White cows wandered around piles of vegetables and carts of fruit, and all kinds of goods were loaded onto flatbed carts pulled by one or two people, or squeezed into the trunks of cars and cabs. All hopes of eating salad in India were dashed that morning, and I vowed only to eat food that had been boiled for ages.
Had my first few hours in Mumbai been a bit less dramatic, I may not have developed the food anxiety that was at times comedic, but mostly a nuisance. If we would have gone straight to a proper hotel instead of wandering around a boiling hot metropolis with its attendant smells, dirt, and stunning poverty, I may have adjusted more quickly and easily to India. But it wasn't to be. We were dropped off at the Central Train station after our ordeal of a cab ride, and there begins another story and another adventure.