First impressions of Mumbai

I’ve been invited to India to give a presentation at a conference tomorrow, so I flew in 36 hours early to see what I could learn from the place. Having arrived yesterday lunchtime (it’s now 7am the next morning), I thought I should make some notes because experiences may well end up overwritten by today’s events. So, here goes:

– Jet Airways – very comfortable flight from LHR, even managed to get some sleep (however, recommendation: never fly with half-finished dental work)

– Arrival at airport and exchanged 35 quid to 2700 rupees. It looked like a lot of money (and as things turned out, it is). Met by B.D., the conference organiser who took me to the taxi rank, past a row of ancient-looking black cars in various states of dilapidation. No, wait, that is the taxi rank. We get in and I look round for seat belt. Denied.

– The journey offers quite immediate presentation of the complexities and contradictions of India. At least I think it does, not having been here long enough. In the road sit some women, a girl picking nits from her mother’s hair. Pass the conference centre, very posh, and almost immediately a set of slum dwellings by the side of the road. Most of roadside is covered with stalls, shops, and people sit, squat or lie just about anywhere, many asleep in the noon sun.

– Hotel Highway Inn is unremarkable but comfortable, friendly staff. Set back from the road right in the middle of an area I would have baulked at staying in, if it hadn’t been pre-booked. Oh well, in for the experience I think, clutching my laptop just a little too tightly to my side. Room has shower, TV, and a whopping fan on the ceiling. And a noisy but serviceable aircon unit. There is no Internet access, when I enquire I’m sent to a small shop across the way, which does indeed have access for a single computer but no laptop connectivity. Even the phrase “laptop connectivity” is starting to sound a little alien. I buy a bottle of lemonade and return to the hotel, planning to head into town where I am sure there’ll be the usual Starbucks, Wifi, street painters, book shops… hang on, where exactly did I think I was again???

– I enquire at reception for a map, and I ask how to get to the Gateway to India – one of the first places that popped up on the tourist sites on the Blackberry (not totally unconnected then), and incidentally, where the last ships set sail for Britain as India was decolonialised, or whatever the word is. Incidentally, today is Gandhi day, for added poignancy and (so I am told) less traffic. I assume – wrongly of course – that the tourist areas will have such facilities as the average incomer (me) might expect. i.e. Wifi. The receptionist, in broken English, firmly steers me away from attempting to use the train system, and so instead I get in another taxi.

I should at this point stress that I know I was singularly unprepared for this trip, for a whole stack of reasons. The unpreparedness signalled itself in a number of forms, not least my usual catch-up-on-email-on-plane-ready-to-upload-when-I-arrive habit, which was why I was rather hooked on the idea of finding a Wifi signal. I’d already established I could get GPRS but there were some rather large file transfers waiting to take place and given wireless roaming, I didn’t want to get back to find a bill for more than the cost of the flight. Besides, it gave me something to focus on, so into town I headed.

The round trip journey was about 5 hours, spent in taxis, motorised rickshaws (Italian scooters on steroids) and walking. I was offered drugs twice, women once, and I had a man grab my ear as if that would make me more likely to want him to drill it with a piece of not-so-sterilised metal. I visited two tailors who made me feel very uncomfortable about the fact I didn’t – no, I really didn’t – need a suit right now. Down a dark, back alley full of cats and stinking of piss I found, or I was shown an airconditioned oasis of computers believe it or not with Wifi access, 10 rupees for 20 minutes which equates to not very much at all. I gave money to a sunken-cheeked man who really looked like he needed it, then denied it to another man who whipped up tears, not knowing who was telling the truth and who wasn’t. New development everywhere – to the extent that it all looks ramshackle, like a Frenchman’s house when he is half way through his renouvellements.

I agreed to meet with the same taxi driver 2 hours after I left him, ended up arriving back early and waiting an hour, only for him not to turn up and me wondering whether I’d been the idiot for agreeing, or was seen as the idiot for not communicating my request properly. There’s more, so much more, tidbits of experience that would bore anyone stupid if I tried to list them, fragments of understanding that leave me none the wiser but nonetheless feeling I had learned something.

Back at the hotel. I buy a local SIM so at least I can get some GPRS access, with an international calling card. Out for a meal, chat to diamond seller sitting opposite. We talk abut contradictions, call centres, success and failure, the new riches of India making it harder to be poor as the cost of living rises. The value of property in this area has doubled, he tells me, due to a new microtrain that is to pass straight down the main road. And then, I go back to the hotel and sleep, unencumbered by the noise of the aircon or fan, which just about drown out the street outside.

This morning, a shower, and I write this. Today I meet with B.D. and then I visit some of Mitul Mehta’s colleagues at TekPlus. First I need to find some food. Let the day begin.

First impressions of Mumbai

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