The last time I was in Mumbai airport, it was a dingy place, dark, run down with horrible paint, betel-nut juice stained corners and porters crowding around, willing to "help" you get through customs without paying any duties for only $100.
This time was very different. We walk into the terminal from the plane and it's strangely clean, well lighted and air conditioned. The ceramic tiled floors are gleaming and look freshly polished, the ceilings are higher and make the area feel very airy and relaxing. And the lines for immigration are actually very sensible, instead of the free for all that existed before. I get through immigration and while waiting for my luggage try to find a cart. The operating word is "try". Not a cart in sight.
To get the carts, we had to walk to the other end of the terminal, grab a cart and go back to the luggage belt. And all the while, there were airport workers catching my eye asking me "do you need help?".
Close. You came (this) >< close, Mumbai!
Ok, then I get my cart and total up my purchases (gifts + stuff my sisters wanted), and it totals to just over a thousand. Great. So, I convert that to rupees (almost 50,000) and head for the red channel, since the duty-free allowance is only 25,000 rupees. I get to the counter and stop in front of the office who's frantically waving me on to the green line. I tell him I can't because I have stuff to declare. He looks shocked and takes my customs declaration.
"Oh, 50,000 - the duty free allowance is 25,000 and you will have to pay a customs duty of 35.06% on the balance."
"What are you carrying?"
"Here are the receipts officer."
"Ok, let me look."
He looks, calls a colleague (probably a trainee) over and gets her to fill out the receipt.
His colleague brings over what looks like a thick register and pulls out two honest-to-goodness carbon papers. I'd forgotten they'd even existed. Remember typewriters? And carbon copies (CC's to those of the email generation)? Well, once upon a time, you had to physically insert a sheet of carbon paper between two sheets of paper if you wanted more than one copy.
Now at this point they're both very glum, and I think I know why. I had discovered a few trips ago, that you definitely do not want to head in through the green channel if you have anything remotely resembling an advanced technology. Even if it is way within the duty free allowance. That gives the office on duty an excuse to 'confiscate it if the traveller looks like an easy mark' or 'hold the item in question and you can pick it up when you are flying back' or take you aside behind a pillar and demand a 'gift' for overlooking your transgression. This is unfortunately seen as a 'normal' way for customs officers to behave by the rest of India.
So, the officer is going through my receipts, while his colleague is making out my bill.
"Wii? What's that?" the receipt gazing officer asks me.
"It's a game console"
"And what's this? Magic Sing?"
"That's a Karaoke Machine". (aside: that's what my sister wanted).
"And BP cuff? what's that?"
"That's a blood pressure cuff. My sister is a nurse and asked me to get one for her."
"Are you a medical professional?"
"No, I work in IT"
"Hmm. Hmmm. Professional equipment is not allowed."
Ooh, Ooh, I know this game. It's called toss in a blanket statement and the traveller that flinches loses and has to pay a 'fine'.
"Really? I got it for my sister and I'm declaring it."
"Professional equipment is not allowed in, but I'll let you go this time."
Yes! I win!
I pay up and proceed to wait for the shuttle to the domestic terminal.
Mumbai's domestic security was a breeze. The only addition was that they insist on patting everybody down and all your carryon items have to have a tag which a nice cop stamps after they come out of the x-ray machine. I get through security and discover a wonderland. This is not the staid holding cell of last year. Oh no. Instead of rows of bucket seats looking at a wall or the gate, there are plush seats. Instead of a surly tea-walla selling paper cups of instant tea, there's a coffee shop. Instead of a pile of newspapers on the floor next to the surly tea-walla, there is a real bookshop.
Of course, being the bookslut that I am, I make a beeline for the bookshop. And on the display right near the door is this. Yes. Cosmo, the Indian edition. Wow. When did that happen?
I wander around inside a little and discover that the magazines I once knew have changed beyond belief. The lead in Femina has the results of a sex survey.
The rest of the bookshop is stocked with current and a little past their prime books, arranged haphazardly. Indian bookstores can be incredibly frustrating and incredibly liberating at the same time. Malcolm Gladwell next to Seth Godin? Why not? Romance next to juvenille fiction? Of course! Both those genres are bought by the same people (women with kids), who have presumably responded negatively to the sex survey.
On the plus side, they had the latest Artemis Fowl, so I was a happy camper.
After the flight's called and we are ferried to the aircraft. For those of you who have never travelled to India, this is how it works. Your flight gets called, and you head over to the 'counter' indicated. I use the term 'counter' loosely, since in most cases it's just a desk with a sign over it. There, you get your boarding pass inspected, the tags on your carryon luggage checked for the security stamp and you walk through the only door onto the tarmac where buses wait. You find out which bus is the one that will take you to your flight and board it. When the bus fills up, the driver takes you to the aircraft parked on the tarmac, where you exit and board the aircraft using roll on stairs. So far a very 1970s experience.
The fun comes when you realise that all around you on the tarmac there are airplanes being boarded (around 30-40 of them).
Yes, Mumbai (and I suspect the other large airports in India) have managed to create a functioning passenger loading system without the use of gates. It's amazing to watch and I have no pictures because 1. I didn't remember where I'd packed my camera and 2. there were dire warnings and prohibitions against taking pictures everywhere. I may have tried to sneak a few in, shooting from the hip, since most people (at least in India) think no flash = no picture.
Of course, the process falls only slightly apart when it's raining. Then, it's the passengers that get slightly wet, or completely drenched (even with the ground staff shepherding you using large umbrellas from the bus to the foot of the stairs), depending on the intensity of the rains.
I got on the plane (Jet Airways) and sat down, and right away a purser came by with a bottle of lemonade. A tiny bottle (100 ml). And right after we take off, we get served a hot meal. Yes! this is what air travel still is like in the rest of the world. A 45 minute flight from Mumbai to Goa and we get a hot breakfast. Masala Dosa (again, a tiny one), a bowl of idli-sambar, a roll with butter and jam and fruit salad. Again, no picture because of, you know.
I'd forgotten how amazing this was. The flight attendants barely had time to distribute the food, and come back again picking up the mostly empty plates before the captain announced our descent.
I got up to use the restroom and heard someone calling my name. I didn't recognize him - he was in my class in engineering college. We hadn't seen each other since we graduated. Apparently, I was recognized because I still have all my hair.