So officially, this was it, I was in India – no going back. The arrivals hall was more of an arrivals room with various service booths crammed down the left-hand side. To my relief one was a Thomas Cook Bureau and had an unnaturally short queue. There was clearly nowhere to sleep.
I queued behind two Arabs that were there (I knew they must be Arabic because the money they were exchanging.) Then suddenly to my surprise – two more Arabs joined the queue in front of me. “Hmmm” I thought, “it must be much like getting a beer in a busy London Bar.” But I wasn’t going to lunge over the counter and wave my wad at the lady in the booth, if you’ll pardon the description, I thought it better to try and catch her eye (more my style). Also, I needed to keep an eye on my trolley and I wasn’t going to let go of it for a second.
It worked! I was served before my two assailants and smugly pushed over my Travellers Cheques.
“You want to change three hundred pounds?!” she said quizzically. It seemed a perfectly normal request to me.
“Yes” I said.
When she handed over the money I realised that perhaps three hundred pounds had been a little excessive. The main problem being that Indian money comes in very small denominations; the largest being one hundred Rupees, the equivalent of two pounds. (Which means 150 bills, minimum, for 300 GBP.)
To give it to me in Rs100 notes only would have been impractical as you don’t really use them as everyday cash. So, she gave me a wad of 50s, some loose notes, varying from Rs5 to Rs100 and a mega-wad of Rs100s held together with an almighty copper staple. I was going to need an attaché case, hand-cuffed to my wrist for security, to carry this lot.
Now, packing the night before had been somewhat hap-hazard; I had managed to squeeze it all in with little room for much else. So my first thought was “Where the fuck do I put this?” I had to think fast as people could be watching me. I stuffed it here and there and headed for the hotel booking service booth.
“How much do you want to pay?” said the man.
“I don’t know.” I said unhelpfully.
He produced a list of hotels and pointed at the most expensive one on Juhu Beach.
“You want to stay here?”
“You want to stay here?” the price was still about 30GBP a night (i.e. UK prices).
“I’ll get back to you.”
Okay, as uncool as it might have seemed up until now I decided that I had to get my guidebook out. Colaba seemed to be the place to stay – so I asked him – we agreed on a place called The Strand for Rs1040. About 20GBP a night. Expensive by Indian standards, but I needed a kip. He rang the hotel and confirmed that I would be coming.
Next to me, two English-speaking couples arrived and I took the opportunity to try and encourage them to come to the same place; and share a taxi. The bookings gentleman thought this was a good idea too and pointed a Scouser-Kiwi couple in my direction.
They were headed for a hotel called the Sea Shore for Rs400 a night which was located, apparently, opposite The Strand so we agreed to share a taxi. Not a mini-cab from the two guy in the booth next to us, who yelled at everyone passing through the hall “TAXI TAXI SIR!”, but pre-paid ride from a booth in the entrance lobby of the airport. We shared the cost of Rs320. ABout 2 pounds each.
The Scouser, Mark, was from Manchester (which means he was actually a Manc, not from Liverpool where Scousers are from – shows how much I knew about my fellow countrymen’s accents!) and his girlfriend Mia was from Auckland. At the time, for some reason, I assumed she was German. She didn’t say much and was awfully tall – about six foot. A fair assumption really.
We found the cab after much grunting with the people loitering outside the airport – min-cab drivers and beggars I assume.
Lucky for us the taxi driver didn’t speak a word of English and didn’t seem to know where the hotels were. He went and asked a friend. Returning he stowed our three monstrously sized rucksacks in the boot – with the aid of some webbing – and we got moving. Mark and Mia sat in the back, I rode up front in the passenger seat.
The cab, painted with yellow roof and black body, was across between a Morris 1000 and a Mini. Bench seats front and back, gear stick on the steering column, no handbrake (as far as I could tell), right hand drive and the clockwork meter was mounted on the left wing – visible through the windscreen. All kinda cute.
We set off, rattled along to a security checkpoint at the edge of the airport and out into the night. Then stopped 200 yards around the corner at a petrol station – where the driver put in, we assumed, just enough petrol for the journey. Either that or the tank was incredibly small. He didn’t pay either so it must have been on account.
Then on into the night.
I had no idea how far away we were, but the journey took nearly an hour. Trundling along at speed not exceeding 30mph. My first impression of Bombay was that poverty was rife. Not for about 30mins did we see a single house that wasn’t either made of tin and wood or in a severe state of delapidation.
There were roadblocks where stout-stick wielding officials surveyed each vehicle passing through. We almost got stopped once – but they saw us westerners and waved us through.
Now, I have seen bad driving but, in Bombay there’s no such thing as a bad driver. If the road has three lanes across – then you can fit five taxis in there – get the picture? Aside from the fact that the tracking on the steering wheel had gone – and we constantly found ourselves weaving the white lines – in order to steer a reasonably straight course, when it came to traffic lights – things became quite scary.
All I could work out was that drivers saw the rules about red-amber-green as being pretty flexible. So when you got to a junction it became a game of chicken. We chickened a few, we won a few.
In Britain you use the horn on your car to say two things: Excuse me and Wanker. In India the horn is used to say: Hey! Look-out! Wake up! Chicken! Coming through! Out of the way! Sort it out! My old man’s a dustman! To this end there seems to be little need not to constantly press the horn – so they do, constantly.
The only time we had to slow down at a major junction was when a herd of cows were crossing – which was an added bonus to the journey.
Having stopped at various places to ask directions we finally arrived at The Strand where Mark and Mia, on seeing the rooms decided to stay too. There was a catch however, they wanted to keep our passports as security. We cautiously handed them over; the place seemed legit enough.
The rooms had aircon, colour TV, shower, toilet, hot and cold running water, fan, phone and complimentary stationary. A bit of a result. Oh – and 24 hour room service too!
Having got settled for a good kip – there was a knock at the door. It was Mark and he invited me to their room to help them consume the duty-frees they had picked up at Manchester; namely, a litre of Bourbon. So we sat and chatted about travelling and the cab ride whilst MTV played on the TV. Mark made full use of room service to order coke to go with the Jim Beam and a plate of chips for Mia’s tired tummy.
Whilst drinking copious amounts of Bourbon and Coke I learnt that Mark had emigrated to New Zealand where he was living with Mia. They weren’t married but enjoyed being a couple. They were returning from a tour of the British Isles, visiting various places and seeing Mark’s parents in Manchester. Both were currently unemployed; Mia a jack of all trades, master of none, and Mark an Engineer, the manufacturing kind, which he had been doing in Auckland before they left.
I said it would be nice to meet up with them in Auckland when I got there but, they were of no fixed abode. Mark suggested I frequent a Bar called The Dogs Bollocks where they liked to hang out. “That’s a promise.” I said (though when I did get to Auckland I didn’t stay long enough to seek out said Bar).
Decidedly pissed I turned in for the night, thinking that I had seen the last of Mark and Mia. They were going to look for The Sea Shore in the morning.