Now we’ve all seen the pictures: cows on the road, rubbish, slums, the Ganges, temples, Holi. But nothing can prepare you for India. Flying there, however, may give you some idea.
Our flight from Bangkok to Kolkata was scheduled for 12:15am and so we arrived at the check-in counter just after 9:00pm. Usually a fairly straight forward process provided you have all your required documents, are on time, and not a terrorist – unless, of course, that flight is to India.
I waddled into the line under the weight of my pack, dressed in my India best – ie. covered from neck to toe – and felt the odd sensation that someone was watching me.
Did I say someone? I meant every single Indian person in the queue. Maybe 30 someones.
And I was expecting the staring, I had been warned about the staring, I was showing no flesh in the hopes to not attract more staring. But in India. Not in Thailand. These people had been on holiday, surely they had seen some white people by now…
The flight was finally called and we tried to stand in lines to board. Like that would ever happen. Indians and straight lines go together like crap and candy-floss – ie. not at all. Biting tongues and controlling elbows (barely) we made it on board and by God! If it wasn’t chaos already! Men were standing up and sitting down and standing up again. Bags, far too large for cabin baggage, were being shoved into spaces much too small. And then they were being pulled back out again, only to be re-shoved in to the next compartment, amidst complaints of how there is not enough space for their GIANT bags. A suggestion, if I may: don’t bring so many giant bags, and umbrellas… Perhaps? Geez.
I stood looking around in astonishment. Actually, I sat – you know: seat up, tray table stored away, hand luggage under the seat in front of me – because I’m a normal functioning human who knows how to behave on a plane, and organised myself in just a couple of minutes. People already had their seats back, were talking on their phones, and a couple of men just wouldn’t sit down. Some were sitting anywhere they pleased, then changing their minds and moving again.
An airhostess was trying to accommodate one man’s hand luggage as all the compartment was full. As she tried to fit it into a compartment three seats away from him he refused and demanded that it be right above his head. This issue took no less than 10 whole minutes to resolve. Angelo and I looked at each other in amazement.
Then there was the man next to me. During the demonstration, he decided to pull out his own lifevest from under the seat. He had to be told numerous times to turn his phone off and put his seat-back up, and then insisted on staring directly at me until the plane took off. After 15 minutes or so, of not-so-subtle staring he finally asked me where I was from (New Zealand), if Angelo was my husband (yes), and if we had a baby yet (no, no, no. Maybe, next year…). Christ! And we weren’t even in India yet.
As the plane touched down on Indian soil, the lights weren’t even on before the locals were up and moving about. Forget the “please remain seated with your cellphones off” they were already yelling into their phones and scrambling past each other to get their bags down. Watching amused from the comfort of our seats we waited until the pushing and shoving had passed us and filed calmly off the plane. We were greeted by some fairly hairy and incredibly unimpressed customs officers, who gave us the third degree on where we were going, why we were there, and how long we planned on staying in India.
As we arrived at a ridiculously early hour of the morning (1am) we opted on sleeping in the airport as opposed to trying to find a guesthouse in a dodgy part of an unknown city. As we unravelled sleeping bags and slid ourselves between uncomfortable seats the armed guards eyed us suspiciously and the locals with a strange mix of humour and pity. It turned out we were such a spectacle that a man rammed his luggage trolley – containing a brand new flat screen tv – straight into a pillar as he forgot to look where he was going.
Morning finally came, and we piled into a bright yellow ambassador taxi in search of shelter and food. Within five minutes of leaving the airport I had already witnessed poverty, a multitude of colourful saris, and a large handful of men pissing on the side of the road. We were followed by man powered rickshaws, our arms grabbed by homeless beggars, and our nostrils assaulted by the acrid smell of the streets.
To see and experience all this in a mere hour made me wonder what three months would be like here. Oh, mad, mad India. You weird and wonderful beast.