The two flight legs to India passed without incident, unless you count the five babies on board the first leg. Marvellous how the smaller they are, the more they sound like miniature chainsaws. A relay chain of chain saws, in fact. I guess that's what movies are for.
My arrival in Mumbai was similar to that of Delhi on my last trip - dead of night, polluted air invading the plane before the doors even opened, lots of shadowy activity around the plane. But inside the airport it was like my memory was playing tricks on me. Leaving India via Mumbai four years ago, I had had to exchange a $50 note for the sake of a few extra rupees required for the taxi to the airport.
Considering whether to dump my rupees before heading off to the airport I asked the hotel concierge, 'Are there many shops at the airport?'
'Yes, yes, many shops.'
So I arrived at the airport with the intention of spending what was effectively a small fortune, only to discover 'many shops' encompassed precisely three. All fast food. I could have shouted all present a samosa and still had money left over...if there had been that many samosas.
Expecting to find the same tin pot arrangement this time I was shocked to find Italian brand names and pouting lips and displays of bottles and glitz everywhere I looked. Clearly someone had played a joke on me last time and sent me to the janitor's exit.
Having endured waiting for three flights now, there were enough layers of perfume samples on my arms to keep an archaeologist busy for a while. The only moment of danger I experienced was in the domestic terminal where I had to wait five hours after 1am for my connecting flight to Bangalore. Unlike most airports I've been through, all the shops were open and fully active at 3am, including two bookshops containing many new releases at a third of the price at home. I came close to performing a perilous rationalisation but miraculously dredged up a vision of me lugging my heavy backpack onto a crowded bus and saved myself. In the safety of a food court I strolled past Dominoes, KFC and a place called Idli.com, whose branding was reminiscent of Subway. An idli, for those of you not in the know, is a white rubbery pancake that looks like a cross between a raw crumpet and a flap of tripe. A dead ringer for the attendant's headgear, in fact. Perhaps on this trip I will be emboldened to actually eat one.
Procuring a taxi once off the plane was easy. It even had a meter. Almost too easy. Once in the back seat I started looking for the other half of the seat belt. I asked the driver.
I glanced at the little sign hanging from the front seat: Please fasten your seat belt. (your safety is our responsibility). I asked again, thinking he may not have understood me. He shakes his head at me. 'It's no problem.' I sighed. Ah, yes. I remember it well.
The white sky of Bangalore had come as a surprise. Last trip, all the southern places I had visited were bright blue sky and sharp sun, giving everything a surreal high-focus. It had been in the north, where winter is much colder and the eternal fog of endless frugal fires cannot be shifted, where the mute red sun floated in milk all day.
The journey into the city was a long straight three-laned road, although I soon learned that the two white lines were for show only (silly me - how long has it been?). Hemmed in all round, my driver wafted from one side of the road to the other picking gaps between belching buses resembling over-packed terrariums and packs of motorbikes. It was a relief to see almost all riders had helmets this time round, however, I more than once saw a female pillion passenger whose shawl end was flapping dangerously around the spokes of the back wheel. Just-can't-look material.
Inside the car I kept wedging the end of my seatbelt into the crack of the seat where it would hold for a while and give me the illusion of safety. A better strategy was having my two feet at the ready to lift and jam into the seat in front of me, but it seemed the driver had a very tight gauge on how well his brakes worked and an even greater faith that his horn would clear an extra few inches at the last possible moment.
The windows of the car were down and the air movement gave an impression of alleviating the pollution...but the growing burn in my throat meant that I wasn't fooled. I looked up at the ceiling of the car and noted its grey felt-like covering. I reached up to rub my finger along its fuzzy texture. Then I looked at my finger. Big mistake. It was then I noticed the black flares sweeping up from the tops of the windows. Logic said I shouldn't be surprised, but...
And so to my room. I had managed to book a swanky-looking place for not much money, and my taxi driver had managed to find it with a mixture of cunning and the judicious use of his mobile phone. I even went so far as to ask reception, 'Hot water?' and didn't even smile when the reply was, 'Yes, of course.' Perhaps there would be?
So now, ready to deal with my jet-lagged caffeine-propped-up stupor, I am finally able to lie stretched out in a horizontal position. I am on the second floor in a busy built-up street but have somehow managed to luck in with a crowing rooster seemingly right outside my window. Even through my jammed-in ear plugs I can hear his mates have not discovered Facebook or Twitter as a way of responding to his Stephen Fry-like obsessive tweeting. Ah, the noises of a Big City.