The first thing you notice when you land at Mumbai International Airport is the mad rush and utter chaos of people trying to get home or onward to their next flight. European flights, I can understand but I have never fathomed why flights that take off from Dubai have to land in Mumbai at an ungodly hour of 4am when the two cities are only couple of hours away. As soon as you exit the plane, you walk along a narrow pathway that takes you past the huddled masses behind plexiglass waiting for their departing flights.
The lack of air-conditioning is immediately apparent as you start sweating profusely thanks to the humidity. You exit the pathway to the low-ceiling-ed immigration enclosure where we were thankfully pointed toward the Family/PIO queue. The joy of having no people ahead of us was instantly mitigated by a dour immigration officer who clearly wasn’t pleased to see us back. In spite of being Indian citizens, he asked…no…demanded to see our H1-B paperwork because in his crazy world apparently Indian citizens never return to India for good. Despite seeing we had a wailing baby who was not happy about being herded around in a crowded humid airport at 4 in the morning, the immigration officer took his own sweet time stamping our passport and then shooing us off after he was done. I began dreading making this trip but the worst was not over.
Eager to get our bags and get out to meet our family after this near-24-hour travel, we entered the baggage claim area and we were instantly thrown into this pandemonium where everyone was jostling to get to their carousel. Trolleys were nowhere to be seen and it seemed that all flights from the Middle East had landed at the same time. It wasn’t that there were no airport staff to help out but in order to get their help, you had to grease their palms. My memories of hating all government staff immediately resurfaced but I had promised myself to not get into any tussles especially with a kid in tow. After asking around, we realized that we were supposed to step outside the airport to get the trolleys from the parking lot. If this was the state of security at the airports, you cannot help but wonder the lack thereof on our coasts that let Pakistani terrorists easily enter.
Our bags took ages to arrive as we silently gritted our teeth and tried to cajole the kid but he wouldn’t let up. After getting our bags, we entered the line with plenty of tributaries for the customs and baggage screening. After resorting to classic Bambiya scolding, we manage to snake forward. Usually I breeze through the customs but I forgot that we were flying via Dubai so the leechers that we call our custom officers were out in force. They instantly took us aside spotting the two iPads and a laptop in our carry-on baggage. Apparently, this is the sign of wealth and potential smuggling. I reverted to using Marathi and whipped out the kids’ iPad and showed them how battered and caked in drool it was; hardly something I was trying to smuggle in. After telling them, it was less than $20 and they could have it if they wanted, they seemed to realize this wasn’t someone they were gonna earn their post-midnight wealth off. We still saw other burqa-covered women and their husbands being harangued for their proclivity to hide gold behind their veils. And to think liberals get up all in arms at racial profiling in the U.S.
After walking past the last constable who collected our custom tickets, we finally were united with our family who we later learnt have been waiting since 1am. The kid finally quietened down and joyous reunion ensued.
This rant may sound like the typical NRI unloading on India upon landing but I wanted to get it out of the way before I narrated all the good stuff. Fortunately, that bad experience at the airport was the worst it would get. In fact, I don’t think I had any other bad experience in India this time at all. There is an Incredible India past the Mumbai airport gates and we enjoyed it for most part. But I was disappointed in the first impression that Mumbai Airport gives to new visitors even if they are Indian citizens; perhaps more so. If you’re traveling to India via Mumbai, expect what we experienced or even worse. If you don’t then at least you will be pleasantly surprised. Or if other cities are better, land there instead. For what it is worth, departing from Mumbai is distinctly better and you have none of the chaos; at least relatively. Also, strangely, domestic airports and staff is drastically better too; both in terms of experience and people; very punctual too (I flew Indigo to Orissa).
More on the good stuff later.