We had had a few lovely relaxing days in Bangkok and were now ready to face our final destination, India.
Our flight was at 12.45pm from Bangkok to Singapore then on to Mumbai. It had all been planned back in the UK and we seemed to have plenty of time built in. As it was an international flight we had to be at the airport 3 hours early. As it was the traffic was ok and we were even earlier. As we walked through the front door alarm bells went off. The departure board is right in front of you and our flight had been delayed by two hours. That meant five hours at the airport.
We went to the check in desk and asked if there was likely to be any further delays as we had a connecting flight. 'No no' she said 'Everything is fine the flight will leave at 2pm'. She gave us a voucher for food for the delay. I jokingly said 'Is that our business class upgrade ticket' She smiled. We checked in and went to find somewhere to relax.
I hate airports. I don't really relax. Good job really because after an hour I went and had a look at the departure board. Our flight had now been delayed until 4pm. No way would we make the connection with that.
We hot footed to the transfer desk and explained the problem to the Cathay Pacific girl. She didn't say a lot but made a few phone calls. After about twenty minutes she told us she had managed to get us on to a Thai Airways flight leaving at 2pm. Phew.
There was a lot of to and fro but in the end we had a boarding pass and off we went to the gate with a few minutes to spare. When they called for boarding Jill said 'They just said Thai Silk passengers. Our pass has that on it'. I said 'I think they call all their flights that'.
We approached the desk and were ushered quickly on board and in to business class. Result. Champagne, big seats and the best meal we've had in ages. Shame it was only a two hour flight.
We landed in Singapore at terminal one and went to the Qantas transfer desk. 'That flight is being done by Jet Airways in terminal three' she said. 'You need to take the shuttle train'. Our flight was in an hour and now we were going on an airport mystery tour.
We found terminal three and the Jet Airways desk. I've never heard of them and I don't trust an airline that has such a stupid name. How right I was. We handed over our passports as we had done on every leg of this trip and for the first time got the response 'Can I see your ticket'. 'We don't have a paper ticket just an eticket' I explained. 'Computer says no' was basically the reply.
Forty minutes to the flight and she is saying we are on the manifest but she needs a reference number to issue the boarding pass. 'Oh well' I said. 'Our luggage is on the flight so best you get a reference and quick'. Lots more phone calls and frantic keyboard tapping. Eventually she sorted it with 15 minutes to go. We ran to the gate to enjoy five hours in cattle class to Mumbai. What a come down. Still at least we were on our way. Of course I had no way of knowing if our luggage had ever got on the Thai Air flight. It could still be in Bangkok.
We arrived in Mumbai exhausted. As we walked into the arrivals it was 'Wah wah wah culture shock alert' It was a bit like a ghetto. We found a money change desk and changed our last Thai Baht. We asked for an ATM. 'Only one and it's broken' was the response. That was the first lie on Indian soil.
Yes that one was broken but the one upstairs was working. We soon had money and went to get a cab. Fortunately at Mumbai it's all fixed prices so that makes life easier. We took our chit and went to find the cab. A man met us and we carried our rucksacks on our back for about 400 metres to the cab. Here a chap put them in the car. We got in and gave the ticket to the driver. Next the guy outside taps me and says 'Something for the bag man' 'What, I've just carried my bag across the car park and all he's done is put it in the car and you expect me to pay him'. It was apparent the cab wasn't moving until I did. Robbing gits. Not a good start. We had had a similar standoff in South America.
It was a 35km drive to the hotel and our cabbie seemed cheery enough. As usual he had no clue where the hotel was and just got to the area and started asking people. Eventually he got us 400 meters away at the wrong end of a one way street. He carried Jill's bag and I carried mine. Cheeky w*** then asked for a tip. Doubly, not a good start. To add to it the area looked rough. The hotel was small as was the room. Nothing like the luxury we had left in Bangkok although not far off the price. Mumbai is notoriously over priced for hotels. It was a low moment.
Jill and I decided right at the start to say what we thought and work things through together. We decided to sleep and review in the morning. We slept really well. In the morning we went outside and everything looked better. The area was ok. In fact we are right behind the Taj hotel, the most famous hotel in Mumbai and scene of the Mumbai massacre. It's also right by the 'Gateway to India' monument. We moved rooms in the hotel and decided to stay put. In fact Monday was the anniversary of the attacks by Pakistani militants. That explained quickly why there were armed soldiers everywhere. How relaxing. Even Starbucks had an airport security scanner on the door.
We went on a foot exploration of the area. Like most cities it is full of cars and is noisy and dirty. On the whole I hate cities but this wasn't as bad as I had expected. A few beggars. People asleep on the street etc but no different to South America or Indonesia. We had a good walk and enjoyed looking at the old colonial buildings.
In the heat and dust we were soon parched. We went off for a beer at one of the nearby cafes. Agghhhhh. It was a dry day. Throughout India local councils arbitrarily announce dry days and no alcohol is served. Sometimes they exempt foreigners but not today. I was going off India rapidly. Sitting in bed watching a movie with a glass of Fanta is frankly s***.
Sunday we got up with a more positive attitude. Another fab nights sleep and the world was a better place. It is slightly disconcerting that the bell boys sleep on the landing floor right outside your room door. No real privacy.
After some caffeine we decided to go to the train station and check it out. Booking trains in India is a funny business. India rail is the world's largest employer with 1.5 million staff. There are 1.6 billion people living here. That makes it the second most populous nation after China. Estimates are by 2050 it will be number one. The trains move 10's of millions every day.
Booking is complex and simple all at the same time. Go on line, find the train, book a seat. Simple. Nope. Bookings open 3 months before departure. Cancellation costs very little. So people book multiple seats on multiple trains on multiple dates. This means when you try to book a few days or weeks ahead it's all booked up. There are three ticket states Confirmed, Reserved against cancellation and Wait list. You can travel with the first two but not the third. Our first booking got wait listed. Don't panic Mr Mainwaring.
What happens is a few days before the date people firm up their arrangements and start cancelling tickets wholesale. We went from Wait list to Confirmed overnight. Relief.
The main station is huge and looks like St Pancras. We stood in the main hall looking at a sea of people trying to work out where we would have to go at 5.45am on Monday.
We clearly looked bemused and were approached by a middle aged lady in a sari. 'I'm not trying to sell you anything' she announced. 'I'm from the station tourist office and you look like you need help'. She was right.
Her name was Sandy and she had been born in Birmingham. She explained her mother had 'kicked the bucket' (her words) and she had ended up back in India. 'It looks a little chaotic' I said. 'Of course it is' she said. 'They're f****** Indians what do you expect. They can't organise f****** anything'. We had a long chat and a laugh and she explained it all. Her daughter is in Hampstead and married to a very nice man. Small world.
After a good look around we headed back for a cold beer. Not a dry day today.
After lunch we went to a museum, formerly the Prince of Wales museum. I don't do racism but I do like equality. Why is it in England we bend over backwards to be fair? The biggest complainers about racism are generally immigrants. In South America and again here we went to a museum. Again the same outcome. Price for Indians 30 rupees. Price for foreigners 300 rupees. And they think we are racist. When they changed the museum name it's said Prince Charles took back loads of exhibits. Good for him.
Cricket is a religion here. The second test was being played in Mumbai. We sat in a restaurant suffering cheering during England's tail end collapse. Oh how I've enjoyed pulling their legs now we've whipped their arse at their national game. In fairness they've taken it well.
We went out that evening to visit Chappaty beach an area of the city. Mumbai is on the west coast and faces the Arabian sea. Lonely Planet says it's a nice place to watch the sun go down but don't even think about a dip as the sea is toxic. We got an overpriced cab up there and had a walk along the beach. We've become used to people looking at us on our travels but it's different here. Whole groups just stare at you. If you smile, the occasional person will smile but often they just keep staring. Kids tend to be less inhibited than adults.
The beach had sand then by the waters edge a ten metre band of rubbish then the water. Still people were in the water.
The sunset was pleasant enough albeit that it goes down between two high rise blocks. I'm sure the architect thought it was clever.
We went back to the hotel, stepped through the sleeping bell boys and went to bed.
Next morning we decided we needed to try out the trains ahead of our long trip. Outside of Mumbai is a place called Malahaxi or Dhobbi Ghatt. It is basically a huge outdoor laundry. All the hotels and local laundries send their stuff here to be washed. We went to the local train station and I joined the queue for tickets.
'A return to Malahaxi' I said to the stern looking lady behind the glass. 'Do you want second class?' she said. Trust me I wasn't being sarcastic when I said 'Is there another sort?' She scowled and threw two tickets at me. Apparently there is also first class but we were in second. Our return ticket cost about two pounds. I approached a nice chap in uniform with an AK47 over his arm and asked for the platform for Malahaxi. 'Ah you want Dhobbi Ghatt' he said with a big smile which I suspect he loses when he's pointing the AK at you.
We were soon in a second class compartment on an Indian train. It actually wasn't too bad. Well not until the second station when half of India got on. Personal space, forget it.
Thirty minutes and we were in Dhobbi Ghatt. Lonely Planet says view it from the railway bridge so we did. It's basically about 150 concrete troughs in a small area. Several thousand people mostly men live and work there. The washing is delivered by lorries then scrubbed in the troughs. It's a surreal sight. We walked down to the entrance and were soon invited in by 'guides'. We declined. I'm glad we did. As we left a tour group were being briefed by their guide' Don't go inside' she said. 'They will demand more money to get you out again'. The Indians will make money any way they can. I think I now know why but I'll explain that in my next blog. We didn't stay long before returning to Mumbai. We felt very proud to have used the local trains. Not as scary as we had thought.
That evening we went to a local eatery we had found. The food was fab and dirt cheap. When we left we fancied a bottle of wine but nowhere seemed to sell it except the restaurant. We went to a little lean to shop and asked. The young lad called me towards him, looked furtively around and said 'You must go up that alley over there; a man will sell you wine'. I looked across the road at a seedy alley and thought is my life worth a bottle of red? Easy, of course it is.
We crossed the road and walked warily up a dark alleyway. There were signs saying 'No drinking in the alley'. We turned the corner and there was a hatch in a wall. At the hatch was a man taking money with a branch of Threshers behind him. I approached. 'A bottle of red wine' I said like I was buying a kilo of Charlie. I handed over the money and was soon in possession of the much loved nectar. We sneaked away back to the hotel, our treasure in a bag. The hotel is run by two Muslim chaps so we weren't sure if they would welcome two drunks. Religion is fine but don't let it get in the way of business eh. We walked in; they said 'Goodnight' and we had a glass of red with a late movie. We didn't have it on loud as we didn't want to keep the bell boys awake. How British are we?
Next morning after a Starbucks we took a short harbour cruise. Seventy rupees each for a half hour trip out on the sea to view the 'Gateway' on the water. I say seventy rupees. Once on board we went to go on the top deck. 'Extra ten rupees upstairs' said the smiling lad. They don't miss a trick here. I wondered how much he would charge me for a life jacket if it sunk. Yeah I know, a life jacket, don't be silly.
We had an early night as we had to be up at 4.45am to catch the train. We opened the door to our room, stepped over the now waking bell boys and went to reception. The owner was asleep on the sofa. We asked for a taxi and were ushered outside to a sleeping taxi driver. Off to the station we went.
We were still a little unsure what to expect. It was not as chaotic as the other day. Clearly people come to the station the day before and sleep on the concourse overnight. Sandy had been correct about the platform. The drink kiosks were open and we soon had tea and coffee. Both very milky as they don't do black but welcome none the less. After refreshment we found the carriage and got on board, and settled down for our first big train journey in India.