From the flight, I entered a crowded terminal building at 2:30 am. At least 3 unrelated queues seemed to be cutting through each other in a system that apparently no first-time visitor was supposed to understand anyway. I looked behind me at an Indian couple and asked if they had any clue whether this was the right queue from our flight. “No idea! Welcome to Mumbai!” was their laughing answer!

The zigzag queue was moving rather fast, only slowed down by the staff queue cutting through it in a somewhat chaotic way. “You can fill in the forms later. Just get screened first” a lady with a mouthcover shouted. From the swine flu declaration form that I had been given to fill in on the flight, I guessed that this was somehow related to a pandemic control effort.

Suddenly, the queue ended in front of some 20 counters. There was no system whatsoever, just a first-comes-first-served rush to the counters. As I saw one that was free, I went to that one, but the person behind it was asleep. Fortunately, the adjacent counter became free the next moment.

“Proceed to immigration control” he said, taking my declaration form without even looking at it.

At the end of a new, fast-moving queue, ending at some 40 new counters, stood an airport official shouting out a number for each passenger passing. “19” he shouted when it my turn, meaning go to counter 19. Apparently, his job was to keep an overview of the queues at each counter, and decide which queue each passenger should go to.

Another quick look at the passport, and then another passport control immediately after. This time only one entrance point for all, hence a much longer queue.

Finally I was in the arrivals hall. The first thing that met me, was a duty-free shop with agressive salespeople trying to hook in anyone who as much as looked at the shelves. 3 minutes and one Johnnie Walker later, I was trying to find out on which band luggage from flight 543 from Dubai could be found. Some signs would’ve been useful, but I managed nevertheless.

“What’s in that bag” the gentleman at some new luggage screening point wanted to know. “A wedding gift” I said, and was about to specify the contents of the 2 boxes, but he just waved me through.

The friendly old couple seated next to me on the plane has strongly advised me not under any circumstance to take any of the taxis trying to pick up passengers outside the airport. The safer alternative was the Prepaid Taxis with offices inside the airport building, where one would pay upfront to get to a specific destination, with a designated driver, pre-empting the most common forms of taxi fraud.

190 Rupees to the Sahara Star Hotel, and of course they didn’t take cards. There was only one ATM in the area, at the end of the hall, just past some checkpoint where a security guard was trying to look busy. “Excuse me sir” he said after I had walked past him. “Just getting cash in the ATM” I said without slowing down. “OK” I heard from behind me.

To the delight of the exchange bureaus, fighting to hook in travellers passing by, that only ATM in the whole area was out of order.  By pure luck, I had been too tempted by the sight of an ice cream place in the departures hall in Dubai, and therefore withdrawn a few more Dirhams just before boarding the plane. The rather timid amount of cash that I had on me turned out to be more than enough to cover the taxi.

Eventually, I found myself in a taxi on the way to the hotel. Interrupted only by a couple of stops where the driver assured me “just a moment sir”, before disappearing for a few minutes, I finally arrived at the hotel, only a few blocks away from the airport.

From the outside, the Sahara Star looks like a sports stadium still under construction. From the inside, it’s borderline tacky. A cylindrical building built around an inner court with a night club, aquarium and an artificial lagoon with a handful of restaurants it sure offers enough diversions for business travellers who want to stay close to the airport and not leave the hotel.

The hotel staff were extremely friendly though, and overwhelmingly service-minded. While checking in, I pulled out 2 simple phrases in the local language, Marathi. Pretty much the only ones I knew. That was so popular among the hotel staff, though, that it took me a while to get the hotel room for myself after checking in. The guy who brought my luggage to the room even wanted to call some of his colleagues to the room just for them to hear a gora speak Marathi. I almost felt bad about refusing, but I was simply dead tired!

OK. More from the trip will follow soon! 🙂