My travel companions and I had been on flights for days, travelling from Mississippi to Mumbai. As we left Heathrow, heading east, we realized not only that we would arrive near midnight on New Year’s Eve, but that we could celebrate the new year in each time zone along the way.
When we arrived, there was the typical chaos of a foreign airport: unknown customs, money exchange, and baggage retrieval. The wait for our bags was quite extended, and people were restless to be away with their families; we could hear celebrations outside. The luggage hall was marble-tiled and quiet with exhaustion, but the muttering began as we waited. A young man lifted the flap on the conveyor to see if anything was happening, and shouts rose from inside. I had time to see open bags, and frantic searches by the baggage handlers before the flap was lowered, but the bags began to arrive immediately afterwards. Two of our group had locked their suitcases, and those locks had been broken and the contents overturned. We would discover later that all electronic items had been pilfered, but only from the locked cases. My unlocked bag was untouched.
We exited into a rush of taxi-wallahs, all clamoring for our business. We were to spend one night in an airport hotel, and the only man in the group, an older Sri Lankan returning to Asia for the first time in years, went back inside to find coins and call for the shuttle. That left four young women on the curb as the midnight hour struck, surrounded by men chattering in English, Hindi, and all manner of dialects. Our general lack of enthusiasm hardly dampened theirs, until the pink shuttle bus arrived from the Orchid Hotel, and they melted away.
The short ride from the airport to the hotel fulfilled all of our stereotypical expectations of India. The slums of Dharavi are right there. Even in darkness we could see a tremendous gap in the city fabric: handmade enclosures, common water taps, children sleeping in the open, watchmen guarding refuse piles, the clutter and density of human inhabitation within circumstances hardly imaginable to us. It was our New Year’s Eve, but not their Diwali celebration, so there were occasional fireworks, clusters of people sitting around fires, and children playing late in the darkness; all this activity contained on one side of a smooth new highway lined with billboards for cell phones and Bollywood movies. The infrastructure was built to get tourists from the city to the airport on new tarmac, and a wall to hide the teeming informal settlements from view was sure to follow.
We pulled up at the Orchid, and it was as if we had magically teleported right back to London. We entered the lobby’s multi-story atrium – a party was underway in the second-level disco, and there were beautiful Eurasian women in high heels and short skirts, accompanied by young men in bespoke suits, drinking champagne and laughing. The elevator was filled with these ephemeral creatures, so we left the girl who had overpacked two huge duffels, and humped our single cases up three flights of wool-carpeted stairs. At the rooms, we were confused by the eco-feature requiring the room card key to be inserted for lights and ventilation – it was 2001 by only a few minutes, but none of us had ever seen this system before. The amenities were fabulous – spa settings on the tub and showerheads, fluffy towels, and of course, Western toilets.
It would be a long time until we saw such luxury again, as we traversed the country. We became accustomed to the juxtaposition of abject poverty and profligate luxury, between the extensive natural resources and intensive degradation of the land. We stayed in private homes, racetrack clubs, restored boat houses, political guesthouses, ashrams, and in Pondicherry we were guests in the Governor’s Mansion. Every place told a story from a civilization more ancient than our own and a place long inhabited. Our preconceptions were gone by our second day in India, in this puzzling place where everyone had a cell phone and no one a landline, where infrastructure was elaborate except where it didn’t exist, where neighbors across state lines couldn’t communicate unless they did so in English. Adaptability is the most useful thing to pack.