06 January 2013
When I checked in at the Delta desk in Minneapolis airport yesterday morning, the woman at the counter pointed out that I’ve made a foolish mistake. I neglected to remember that, though Nepal allows you to purchase a tourist visa in the airport, India requires to to apply for one weeks in advance. In order to make the most of my 10 hour layover in Mumbai, I had reserved a room at a nearby hotel so I could shower & sleep. Alas, leaving the airport would require at least a Transit Visa. Instead of getting some sleep, I find myself with 10 hours to kill in the International Terminal of Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport (BOM).
I’ve heard horror stories of visa-less travelers being forced to spend hours sitting in stark waiting rooms until their connecting flight is ready to depart, but my experience transiting through the then-new airport in Delhi in 2010 was quite nice. The terminal there is spacious and relatively quiet despite the bustle and has large open spaces whose ceilings soar some four stories above the main floor. If memory serves, they even have a hotel attached to the terminal. Mumbai’s airport is older, so I steeled myself for the worst but held out a little hope that it would be at least moderately comfortable.
The International Terminal at BOM is like an upscale American strip mall built in the 1990s, with two primary differences : terrible air quality and squatting toilets. Its basically a single long, curved hallway 6 meters wide with 5 meter ceilings. Shops and cafes line both sides of the hall, and each end opens up into a sort of loop of shops & gates. A periodic stream of travelers gushes into the middle of the terminal at regular intervals, freshly arrived off incoming flights. Though the process of getting into the terminal from my arrival gate was both confused and confusing, the officials and security agents were, as a whole, friendly and willing to help when I greeted them with a smile and looked them in the eye.
I’ve ensconced myself in a vinyl armchair in the sitting area of “The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf” cafe opposite the security checkpoint. A latte here costs as much as they do at Starbucks and tastes like the lattes you get at strip malls in the US. I’ve got my eye on midnight lunch of Dhosa & Idli from “Idli.com”, right next to the much more popular “Pizza Hut Delivers” and KFC. I wonder if the KFC chickens are factory farmed here in India. They must be, no?
There’s a refreshing flow of travelers here. Most of them are in good spirits. Occasionally people stop and strike up a conversation. So far I’ve spoken with a guy from Sri Lanka, a guy from Sacramento, a middle-aged couple from the UK, and a young German guy wondering whether I had gotten wifi here (answer: you can get free wifi if you are able to send an SMS from your phone to the wifi operator — useful for domestic travelers, but stupid in an international air hub).