I had a fit of nerves in the very back of the British Airways 747 jet as it rumbled down the runway. The wings flex a lot, making the gigantic rolls-royce engines jangle about like cherries on a stalk–but that wasn’t what I was nervous about. I realized that I never went through any sort of passport control before leaving London. Was I supposed to have my passport stamped before I left? If so, how did I get through unchecked? What if I’m never allowed into England again. What if I get to Mumbai and they don’t let me in because I never ‘left’ England. Will they send me back to get the stamp? I wasn’t sure; but it was too late to do anything about it.
The 747 had 160 empty seats so I had a whole row to stretch out. Probably more room than the snobs up in the nose. There were amazing views of Iran’s snowy mountains. In the distance, I could see the valley of the Tigris and the Euphrates. The sun hung low in the sky for a long time, turned crimson red, then set. For a long time, just the peaks of the mountains got sunlight and cast the whole range peach.
Landing in Mumbai was surreal, especially after recently reading Katherine Boo’s book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which highlights the lives of four residents of the Annawadi Slum. The plane flew low over the slums, a disorganized, yet impressive construction toppling over a hill, which is either natural topography or trash, it was too dark to tell. The plane then taxied along the ridge of the airport. From the perch of my seat, I could see over the airport walls into the dark twisted alleys of the slum, I saw silhouettes of people cast in front of the dim lights in their huts.
I said ‘hello’ to the Indian immigration officer. He grunted. He reviewed my visa, checked my passport, gave me a quick, but firm look, then stamped my passport. I said thanks. He grunted.
I went to the ATM near the exit of the airport to take some cash out. It asked me how many rupees I wanted. I realized I had no idea what the exchange rate was. I cancelled the transaction and left the airport.
The arrivals greeting point at the International terminal is fit for public humiliation. You walk outside into a square, blocked off my a metal gate where people can hold signs. At 1am, the center was empty, but the outside was packed with men, and a few woman, who were shouting offering rides. I was forewarned by a large bolded sign inside that said ‘do not talk to non-official taxi agencies.’ One young man, probably in his early 30s jumped the fence, with me directly in his sights. He could tell I was nervous; I felt like my knees were about to buckle so I’m sure it showed. I also had a backpack. He came up next to me, following me as I peered around and through the crowd for my pre-arranged ride, and nagging me to take his offer for a life. The police, controlling the arena, started to whistle at him. But when I glanced at them, they were giggling at the whole situation. I respect the hustle, even though it was slightly hectic, upfront, and intimidating.
Auto-rickshaws are everywhere. Thats my style. I can’t wait to get a ride in one.
They are in the process of completing a new terminal. Driving around the airport access road felt like being inside a cave. Metal bars–the framework for concrete was hanging about like cobwebs. The atmosphere is wrapped in a fog as well, adding to the effect. It was dark; occasional orange lights popped through.
It’s 2:06am. I’m in my room at an airport hotel. I would have been absolutely blown away by the contrast between wealth and poverty if I hadn’t been forewarned by Boo’s book. I arrived here, but not until they magnetically scanned the car I was in and checked my baggage. I went through an airport-style security check then was escorted to my room. My bags were separated from me, which I didn’t feel good about at all, but they were delivered to my room. Nerves are alive within me, but I think nerves can be a good source of energy. Not sure it helps to be spending the first night in a hotel when I know it’s not anywhere close to the real city outside the walls. I’m excited.
All for now, I think it’s time to sleep. I need to try to get on the right time zone. It’s about an hour ride into the city tomorrow then I’ll take it from there.