I woke up in Mumbai to a flat, mid-morning sun that slapped me around; I had dry mouth and it 10 AM. I wanted to sleep for at least four more hours. And, God where was the coffee?
I looked out of the hotel window onto the Arabian sea, but a haze obscured the ocean. It looked like the California coast, but with a fog of pollution blocking the water. According to the World Health Organization, Mumbai is the fifth most polluted mega-city in the world. Unregulated emissions from its vehicles, the new construction of tall buildings and skyscrapers, and the occasional burning of trees create a brew of stifling air.
The night before my flight had arrived at the airport at 9:40. I stood in the wrong line at Indian customs, then I found the right line. Next I was waived over to the line for Pakistani nationals (I’m not Pakistani). I was waived back to my original line and waited. After showing my passport I was photographed and fingerprinted several times like everyone entering India.
Finally, I was picked up by a pre-arranged driver. Too bad that the driver dropped me off at the wrong hotel a Westyn, across Mumbai from my real hotel. It was 11:30 PM; I was across the world from my family and everyone I knew. So I had the cocktail I really needed at the hotel bar. How bad could it be? I was at a Westyn with killer air conditioning and indoor fountains; I was the only patron at the bar with an enthusiastic bartender.
I called my Mumbai host, a former colleague, who was in Florida buying bras at Nordstrom’s. “I’m at the Westyn. The driver dropped me off at the wrong hotel. What should I do after I finish my Mumbai martini?” I asked her.
“Get an Uber. Oh, and get a Black Car or you’ll be riding across 20 million people in a rickshaw.” Good to know. I finished my drink and tapped on Uber, and Black Car. It was cool and weird that it lit up and worked in Mumbai just as it had in New York about 18 hours before.
On the ride to the correct hotel I stared at Mumbai on the highway, my entree to the Indian streetscape: motorized rickshaws, mini black and yellow taxis, couples and families of three on motorbikes (!). Then there were regular bikes, trucks and chauffeured luxury cars. Lots of technicolor saris and tons of billowing scarves. Shanty dwellings, shops, and clotheslines bordered the highway, lit up and alive with crowds. And what was that haze obscuring the lights and buildings? Wow, I am really here.
The hotel entrance had a full-on airport-style security setup, and my bag went through an x-ray machine, I walked through a metal detector. Then I was wanded and patted down by a veiled woman in a private women’s section.
I checked in, got up to my room, and was wired. And starving. So I ordered some Indian chapatis, or tortillas, and some undetermined vegetarian spreads. 3 AM. I got myself to bed. Mumbai’s streets were packed with honking vehicles.