I've spent most of this trip convincing Whitney that India isn't too bad. She says, "But you were so sick last time" and "Didn't you feel like everyone was trying to rip you off." I respond by saying, "Yes, but it's still really cool." To me, visiting India can sometimes feel like how people describe their time in Teach for America... "Amazing, but I'd never do it again." Or maybe it's like the backpacking equivalent of pledging a frat. You endure sometimes hellish conditions, putting God knows what in your mouth, all the while with a smell of fecal matter lingering in the background. But in the end, you're glad you did it.
Well, that's what I tell myself anyway. The first 24 hours in Mumbai were not a great start. We left Bangkok after a magnificent dinner with friends and landed in Mumbai at 1a. Thinking myself the savvy traveler and currency trader, I didn't convert our Thai baht into rupees but rather into USD where the rate was much better (liquidity sucks on the rupee, but you'd think they'd be eager for anyone trying to buy the plummeting currency). I then assumed I could use an ATM, but lo and behold, there appeared to be no ATMs, just a lone currency exchange. Bitter but in need of local FX, I made the exchange at a bad rate and paid a hefty commission. 10 seconds later, and against the word of all airport employees, we found an ATM around the corner. It appears the entire airport staff is in cahoots to direct business to this exchange. India - 1 Mac and Whitney - 0.
The fun was only getting started. Next, we went to the prepaid taxi line and got a ticket to our hotel. We opted for the AC taxi since we were hot and tired. Two random men show up and say that our taxi is at the end of the line. We walk halfway across the airport to find our driver asleep in his cab. Fair enough, it's late. These two guys then proceed to ask for a tip (porters fee he says). I inform him that a porter generally carries your bag, which he did not, thereby excluding him from any tip to which he may be entitled. He curses under his breath and I slam the door.
Next, our driver vacates the vehicle to ostensibly pay one of the innumerable tolls, then gets back in and immediately reclines his seat all the way into Whitney's lap. She turns to me and says, "Is he drunk?" and I respond "Probably not, this is just India." I thought I was the chill experienced traveler. I was wrong.
Over the next 35 minutes, Whitney and I endured a terrifying journey marked by weaving into oncoming traffic and nearly hitting live stock. At a few points, we considered just getting out, but it was 2a on a deserted road in North Mumbai. We basically just needed the "Please rob me signs."
Eventually we arrived at our hotel, minus a side mirror and a few years of my life. And then- yes, you guessed it- he had the gall to ask for a tip. I told him he should pay us for the near-death experience and then slammed the door.
The fun re-commenced the next day when we went to buy a SIM card. I remembered from 5 years ago that it was annoying. But this was hilarious. An enterprising bell boy at the hotel was our guide in the journey. First, he had to claim we were his close friends and staying with him (he whispered under his breath to me "you haven't been to Pakistan right?"). Then, I had to sign four documents with a passport photo that EXACTLY matched my passport signature. My John Hancock is inconsistent at the best of times, and replicating my 19-year old self's signature took a few tries. Eventually the mobile phone dealer gave up the fight. They handed us our phone and said "Remember, Rahesh is your best friend." He indeed was because 6 hours later, after another bell boy had to pretend to be Jefferson Steele to the operator, we were in business. 11 dollars for unlimited 3G internet for a month. Take that ATT. Needless to say, Rahesh got the good tip he deserved.
We rounded out the first 24 hours with a stop at the palatial Taj Hotel for afternoon tea and a tasty seafood dinner. Things are looking up.