It’s funny how one memory can spark a multitude of others. I was looking back at a previous Tale and also at my writings from a ten day trip to India back in 1996 (long before it was regarded as a BRIC!) when the cranial sluice gates opened. So I thought I would share some of the memories that came from that.
Bombay Airport was hilarious. It was after 1am when my flight touched down, warm, humid, and well…crowded! When you travel a lot you tend to do so in automatic much of the time. You know your passport will be checked multiple times, your hand luggage scanned and sometimes inspected, and that sometimes there will be gate changes (and in one case a flight crew that failed to show up!) and surly officials. So my first memory as I came through that process was of noise, and of hundreds of taxi drivers clamouring for your business.
Then I was whisked to one side by a Sikh in a security uniform and a big stick, who directed me to a taxi booth. He politely but firmly explained this as being a measure to ensure that foreign visitors were transported to their hotels by reputable taxi firms and that may have been true, but there was also a suspicion that he may have been on commission. And while I found all this rather fun, the Swedish guy I had left the plane with was ashen faced, and clearly well out of his comfort zone. We were beckoned to our respective taxis, with one man claiming temporary ownership of our luggage in order to earn a tip, and another arguing furiously with a third who seemed to think that I was his fare too! So I let them slug it out while the poor Swedish guy was ushered towards another cab, looking like he thought he might be being taken hostage.
The slugging carried on as I took my place in the rear of the Ambassador cab, a little hunched with my head resting against the roof and my legs stretched across both footwells, and eventually the third man lost his battle and my driver calmly took the wheel and asked for my destination. “The Connaught Hotel please” I replied, and horn beeping, we meandered through the hordes of people and other traffic into the comparative silence of the exit road.
What followed next is an image that has never left me, for two reasons: the image itself; and the fact that you cannot always entirely trust your first impressions. The exit road was lined with poorly crafted shelters and tents, and silhouetted in front of a fire was a lady sat in rags, with her white teeth and eyes standing out against the darkness. It reminded me vividly of a similar image from Michael Buerk’s BBC report from Qorum in Ethiopia as the famine of the mid-1980’s struck so hard. And there it seemed to appear again right before my eyes.
Poverty is a dreadful scourge, and as we drove on to my hotel I could not help feeling shocked at what I had seen. Fast-forwarding to my return to the Airport in daylight a few days later, those same shelters and tents had transformed into shops and market stalls, where traders eeked out a living. There is no doubting the poverty that remained, but it was somehow reassuring to see that those same shelters had a commercial purpose as well as being where their owners ate, drank, and slept. As we left the airport behind that night the driver asked if I minded if he picked up a friend on the way to my hotel. Accepting that the Swedish man might have considered this a murderous kidnap plot I said that would be fine, but confess to a moment of relief when, after about ten minutes in the pitch dark in front of what looked like a disused factory, the friend appeared all smiley faced to enable us to continue our journey.
I arrived at the doors of the Connaught Hotel to find a doorman in full traditional dress, complete with Alibaba shoes and handlebar moustache, beckoning me in his direction. After leaving yet another tip for yet another chap who wanted to carry my luggage, and a tip for the taxi driver, the doorman ushered me towards reception, and duly received a tip too. The check in procedure was short and sweet, and I was soon in my room. Having seemingly scattered tips around like confetti since I left the plane, I thought I’d better check on my rupees situation, and found that I had given away in tips the grand British Pounds Sterling equivalent of 12 pence. That will have made me popular!
I had a short walk around the hotel and went for a drink in one of the bars adjacent to which there was an Indian wedding in full swing, and to my astonishment I was invited in to join the party. Well it would have been churlish not to. The food was a fabulous mix of fresh fruit and vegetables, and a whole menu of the most fantastically colourful, traditional hot and cold dishes, and while the party went on until morning I took my leave after an hour or so. That such opulence and wealth should live side by side with extremes of poverty was a shock to the system, but one that I became accustomed to, though never hardened to, as I travelled around the country.