I was standing outside the men's restroom in the Mumbai International airport waiting for Roo. It was about 10 pm. The airport was brand new, state of the art--more like a piece of art than a standard, functional building. The ceiling looked like lace and the light fixtures were massive metal lotus flowers in various states of bloom. The building was a statement to those entering from the rest of the world that Mumbai was on top, if not yet, then soon. The area where I stood was quiet, and to avoid the blatant stare of the one male airport employee also in the hallway, I studied the new, clean, very loudly patterned carpet until a rush of activity occurred at the end of the hallway. I watched as a middle eastern man and what I assume to be his harem--at least six or seven women of varying ages draped head-to-toe in black flowing gowns and veils herding a small pack of children--clamber onto an airport transport buggy. They bargained and coordinated as to who should sit where, anxiously, urgently, excitedly. Once the seats were sorted amongst the family and their luggage, they cruised away, the women's black veils fluttering in the gentle airport wind like glitter on a parade float. It was a scene at once familiar and yet very, very foreign. I realized I had no idea what to expect from this place.
Upon leaving the airport, we were greeted by our driver, a man from the hotel whose name I couldn't pronounce and had a hard time remembering. He led us into the parking garage where I could immediately sense that they did things differently in India. It was a buzz with passing scooters and beeping horns and other drivers who did not want to wait for someone to pull out, or for someone to let them out. In terms of parking garages, this one had a markedly more treacherous feel to me. We climbed into the hotel Range Rover and the driver pulled right out without checking to see if the car approaching was going to allow it.
We drove out into the night and Mumbai presented itself to us. We were driving on a large, freeway-like road with big barriers on each side. Suddenly a small herd of guys were climbing over the barriers and strolling out onto the freeway. And within a few minutes as we drove deeper into the city, it seemed like everyone in Mumbai was out and about. Even the six-year-old in her pajamas, riding her bike in the median next to the busy highway. People were everywhere. Herds of them. Groups, masses, gangs. Women in brightly colored fabric wrapped beautifully around their bodies; men in the ubiquitous Indian male uniform of a buttoned-down shirt, sleeves rolled loosely with slacks; children, too. The chaos of it all, late at night, was what struck me first. It was like a party, a festival--but one of ordinariness, of everyday living--and everyone was out to celebrate.
We pulled into our gated hotel where security guards sniffed the car and were led through a metal detector. Recent terrorist activity made this necessary. And once we entered the hotel, it was like going from one wonderland into another of an altogether different kind. The lobby was expansive, with marble and art and high glass windows. Our room was elegant and modern, overlooking the Indian Ocean. Disoriented as our bodies were, we giddily fell into bed.