Welcome to India: Another Airport Adventure
Updated: Mar 17, 2019
The drill sergeant barked the first set of commands and the squadron was slow to react. The orders were repeated sharply and every member of the unit fell in. At least, that is what it felt like when I boarded the Air India flight in Bangkok and the aging, past her ‘best before date’, flight attendant spoke those first words. A passenger foolish enough to ask for a blanket was rebuked with a harsh “all gone”. The flight was largely uneventful, arriving at Indira Ghandi International Airport, New Delhi, a few hours before dawn.
Deplaning, my first thought was that we had made a wrong turn. The airport reminded me of Havana, Cuba. Aging concrete and sagging drywall exposed the iron re-bar and electrical wiring of the infrastructure. It looked like a construction site without any workers. The decrepit airport had one money exchange, one tourist information kiosk and several pre-paid taxi booths. It felt like a scene from an old spy movie where the agent, posing as a tourist, lands in some Iron Curtain country.
A disinterested customs officer glanced casually at my passport photo and began to leaf through the pages filled with entry and exit stamps. He finally managed to locate the page that contained the large Indian full-page visa and stared at it with a vacant look as though it were the first time he had seen one. Eventually he looked at me and stamped my entry without a word.
The currency exchange had an electronic sign with rates for US Dollars and Euros. Behind the glass there were two computers and a man sitting in front of each. One man, I quickly discovered, was not working and it turned out that both computers were broken. I managed to change Euros at the posted rate although the calculation and manual recording of the transaction in triplicate took quite some time.
Across the room I spotted a sign directing me to the buses between terminals and wandered across the dirty cracked tile floor to investigate. A man sporting a bright red turban sat behind the information desk. He informed me in very proper British English the bus was free and the first bus to the domestic airport departed at 6:00am. I thanked him and had barely turned around when a man walked up to me and asked where I was going.
“To the domestic airport,” I responded.
“What time is your flight?” he asked.
“Just after 8am,” I answered.
“You must take a taxi,” he told me. “I have a taxi and the buses did not start until 8am,” he explained. I looked him square in the eye and asked
“Why do you lie?” There was little he could say so he walked away quietly. Ten minutes later, another tried the same ploy but left unsuccessful.
Two buses sat outside the exit from the terminal. Just before 6am, Indian men started to jostle baggage trolleys close to the door of the second bus. I thought it odd they were swarming the second bus, so I squeezed in to check if it was indeed the bus I wanted.
“Excuse me … excuse me,” I hollered over the men until the disinterested driver finally looked my way. “Jagson Airlines?” I asked. He gave the typical Indian circular nod that can mean yes, no or maybe and stepped back to open the bus for boarding. With that simple motion, all hell broke loose. The men, already aggressively jockeying for position, went crazy with everyone fighting desperately to get aboard. They must have been shopping somewhere as each had several bales of clothing and large suitcases that they were jamming through the windowless bus. Some even climbed through openings and the scene resembled a swarming.
Those who managed to fight their way onto the bus left their trolleys against the entry so the next wave clambered over them to fight for entry. My position did not change the slightest as they pushed from all sides, shouting frantically while advancing packages and suitcases. In an instant, there were three then four rows of trolleys to climb over and the level of intensity increased with every row.
This is what I call a “Mexican lineup” and I started to laugh. I was unsure if anybody spoke English and I didn’t care either as I declared they were behaving worse than school children adding “but I seem to be the biggest kid, so get out of the way while I come to take my seat.” Nobody even glanced at the origin of the sound and they hardly seemed to notice as I propelled myself through the crowd and onto the bus with a big smile on my face and more than a few displaced in my wake.
The men continued to push and shout until the driver started the bus. After several loud blasts of his horn, the bus in front moved laboriously out of the way. We crept away from the dilapidated international terminal en route to the domestic terminal. This turned out to be somewhat of an expedition as the packed bus crept around the entire perimeter of the airfield just inside the security fence. Eventually, we reached the terminal. In a classic show of logic, the bus did not enter the terminal at the first access point, nor the second. Rather, we exited the airport grounds completely and drove a few hundred meters along the public road to the official entrance to the facility. When it finally arrived at terminal 1B, I had circumnavigated the terminal not to mention most of the airport.
“Welcome to India,” said the driver with a smile as I exited the bus.