Friday 31 October 2008

A night out in Mumbai, local-style

India 6: Mumbai "Beer Bars" and Extreme Culture Shock

As you may have already gathered, after a week in Ahmedabad we still hadn't been able to do the work we set out to do, so we were told to fly to Mumbai and do some installations there. Mumbai is a different world from Ahmedabad - a global metropolis - but that's for another post. This post is about a strange experience we had on the Friday night after we arrived. My Indian colleague Lakshmi and his friend Puru took us out "on the town" in Mumbai to show us how Indian guys enjoy themselves. The first stop was a place called "L.P. Restaurant Bar" in Andheri.

However when we got upstairs we found something that wasn't quite what we expected. We were ushered into a small room about the size of a pub function room. On a raised stage in the corner, an Indian band played and sang something that sounded like a blend of karaoke, Bhangra beats and europop. Disco lights flashed around the room. We were shown to our seats on upholstered benches which lined the walls of the room. In front of us was an oval glass table with ornate gold-painted metal carvings for legs, of Adonis and Aphrodite like figures. At various locations around the room stood about ten waiters dressed in beige Noel-Coward lounge suits. Every single one of them had a bushy black Saddam Hussein moustache. It looked like they were as much bouncers as waiters. In the centre of the room stood two or three beautiful Indian women dressed in delicate silk sarees with gold embroidery. The clothes were clearly chosen to make them look beautiful, and they were made up to match. Further back from the centre of the room, and less in the limelight stood less well dressed Indian women or equally well dressed but less attractive women. It was these women that served us two beers as well as some complimentary some cucumber pieces and peanuts. Indian men sit at tables around the outside of the room drinking beer or Red Bulls (the non-alcoholics' preferred choice). One customer smoked away on a cigarette, underneath a big "NO SMOKING" sign on the wall. The waiter brought him an ashtray.

Steve and I were completely baffled. We weren't quite sure where we were. It had the seedy feel of a strip club but at the same time nothing inappropriate was happening and but for the women it could easily have been pub karaoke night. The women just stood there. Not dancing, not even swaying to the music. Occasionally a man would flash some notes at one of the girls, she would wander over, take the notes and put them in a big metal box by the band. Every now and then one of the girls would be relieved, and another girl would come and stand in her place.

The more we sat, the more bemused we were. We felt a sense of anticipation. Surely one of the women would do something. But no, that was it. Our Indian colleagues seemed to be enjoying themselves though.

Eventually we left, wondering if we dreamt the whole thing. This was the most surreal experience I have encountered in recent memory.

Apparently this is what is known as a "beer bar" as opposed to a "dance bar". The women used to dance (still fully clothed) while the men mentally undressed them.
A law was recently passed to outlaw women dancing in bars for men's entertainment. So now the dance bar seen has apparently gone undergound. And the bars that want to stay legal, hire beautiful women to just stand there. Because that's still legal. So there you have it.. The Mumbai Beer Bar. An evening I will not forget!


Adalaj Wav Stepwell

India 5: Is it a temple? Is it a tomb? No, it's a stepwell

Just outside of Ahmedabad on our way to the Nature Park we visited a small plain looking temple, at the driver's suggestion. It was a square building made of white bricks, nicely decorated inside with bright coloured garlands and mirrored. As we were about to leave I noticed some steps down through an iron gate. What I saw then was absolutely breathtaking and I realised this is what we had come to see.

Descending five storeys down into the ground, but open to the sky, was a series of pillars and arches on a huge scale. It felt like something you might see in ancient Egypt or in an Indiana Jones film. I certainly had some slight nervousness as I descended down the steps and it got darker and darker. Carved figures and shrines decorated with candles and flower garlands marked the walls either side of me. Eventually I reached the bottom and saw a large square pool with railings over it. Presumably this is the level of the water table and worshippers wash their feet there. I looked back up the sky and five floors of stonework towered above. I felt very small.

It turns out this is a Stepwell, a form of holy site unique to this part of the world. As far as I could understand they exist because of some restrictions about building upwards.. so they went down instead.

I'd never seen anything like this and it was at least as impressive as any temple or tomb I've seen before.


Thursday 30 October 2008

Look at the strange cow-eating white men!

India 4: Strangers in a strange land

From the first night Steve and I went for a walk around Ahmedabad, we noticed that people were looking at us a little strangely. Not with any kind of negativity or judgement but more a sort of genuine fascination - the way you might find your eyes drawn to a person with bright green hair or an unfortunate birthmark. It took a little getting used to. After a couple of days it struck us - we were the only white people in town - even in the hotel. It seems the local people rarely see any non-Indians.

It turns out that Westerners rarely come to Gujarat, so in a way it was the ideal introduction to India. We realised just how rare it must be when we asked a rickshaw driver to take us to Le Meridien and he'd never heard of it or been there, even after we got there (Le Meridien is the most expensive hotel in town).

But it was also interesting to realise that we'd been there a couple of days without even realising we were in a minority. I found that quite weird at the time - my last experience of being in a minority was in Atlanta, Georgia, USA where everyone was black. I felt quite nervous and like I stood out, I was acutely aware of being different. Not so here. There's something about the people and their attitude that makes you feel very safe and at ease. It would take me a couple more weeks of being in India to really be able to put it into words.

On our first evening as we sat in a restaurant a little Indian girl of 10 or so years old and said in her best attempt at English. "Hello. What is your name?". Her mother stood behind her and looked on proudly. We introduced ourselves, asked her name, exchanged smiles and she went away happy. This sort of thing happened all the time.. Children would call out "Hello How Are You" in the street as we walked past. We even had a few shouts of "Welcome to India!" which was really touching. But this was nothing compared to what happened to us at Lothal.

It was our weekend off and we had a driver for the weekend. On the Saturday he'd taken us to some nearby sights - Akshardam Temple, Adalaj Step Well (which is a truly unique kind of below-ground temple or baoli which I had never seen before), Indroda Nature Park and Gujarat Science City. On the Sunday we headed further afield, south to the ruins at Lothal, and north to Modhera Sun Temple, both of which were well worth visiting.

Lothal is a remnant of the Indus Valley civilization which existed around 2600BC - comparable to ancient Egypt. There is not a great deal left, lots of floors and walls - kind of like visiting a Roman fort on Hadrian's Wall. What is impressive is that they had shipping and docks with a form of lock all that time ago - and the dock is still water bearing. Also the kiln-fired red bricks they made over 4000 years ago are still intact and look even better quality than those we use today! (Apparently the British thought so when colonizing the area and helped themselves to plenty - as did local farmers etc). Anyway I digress. Not long after we'd arrived at the site, a school bus pulled up. The kids spotted us and started hanging out of the windows cheering and waving. Lothal is out in the countryside and these kids must rarely see anyone outside their own village let alone from another country.

Not long after they were off the bus they ran to see us - they were far more interested in us than the ruins. They swarmed around us all wanted to shake our hands - at one point I had about 15 hands on my arm as they all tried to touch me! They all wanted to be photographed, taking great pleasure in being photographed - as do most of the children in India, they often ask to be photographed and giggle when you photograph them. A world away from the UK where photographing children is so heavily frowned upon. The school teacher with the group was just as excited as the kids, but spoke reasonably good English and talked to us about the children and his school. As a teacher he earns 2000 rupees a month (approx 23 GBP) but said that the children come from very poor farming families where there parents earn a fraction of that.

He had one of the group take our photograph with the schoolkids on an ancient-looking film camera, a picture for their classroom. He also asked for our autographs and asked if he could "interview" us. The interview consisted of one question, "What do you eat for lunch in India?" I'd actually had a lot of local foods and Gujarati Thali so I thought I'd say something more unusual to them - I said "burger and chips". He had literally no idea what this was, and asked me to write it down. It's nice to see that there are some parts of the world where fast food culture has not yet arrived! After a while, a few more handshakes and a few more photographs, he managed to tear the group away from us and get them back to their historical education.

It was an unbelievable experience I will never forget. You hear people talk of people in remote parts of the world getting excited when they see white people but I'd never seen it for myself first hand. I gave a few of the kids some English 10p and 20p coins I had left in my wallet - something from the West - it made their day! The whole experience left us feeling warm and fuzzy for the rest of the day!

We went to a restaurant in Ahmedabad for lunch, and a group of college age girls asked us where we were from and what we were doing here. We explained we were from England and were working here. They said they were studying for MBAs - which explained their good English. Generally we observed that the more educated people in India spoke English (hoteliers, teachers, students etc) but the more menial workers (drivers, shopkeepers etc) rarely spoke any.

Throughout the rest of our time in Gujarat, and to a lesser extent in Mumbai and Goa, people would come up to us and ask where we are from. We'd say England, and they'd walk away smiling. I found it a bit odd at first that people would ask our country then that would be the end of the conversation. But an incident at the airport gave me an insight into this. Steve spotted a very dark skinned man who stood out from the Indians, and asked him where he was from. The man said Nigeria, and Steve smiled and the conversation ended. I just realised I'd seen the same conversation in reverse - it's simply that we are so out-of-the-ordinary to the local people, that they are just compelled to find out where we are from!

Another bizarre celebrity-type moment happened to me at Shanku Water Park, where a group of boys dragged me into the "wet disco" (basically an outdoor room with loud music and water jets spraying from the floor. They proceeded to dance around me cheering and jumping around like I was a rock star and making "rap fingers" gestures. At the other side of the room, a group of girls danced in their own little huddle, wearing long sleeved pyjama-style swimsuits. It was a very very weird experience!


Tuesday 21 October 2008

How to get a drink in Ahmedabad

India 3: "Dry County"

The first time we went out for a meal in Ahmedabad, Steve and I were in for a surprise. Steve tried to order a beer and we were told that alcohol is illegal in the state of Gujarat! Gujarat was the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi in 1869, and he believed that alcohol was a major social evil and a cause of many of the world's problems. In deference to that, the state of Gujarat made it illegal to possess or consume any form of alcohol.

Fortunately we found out that as a foreigner in Gujarat, it is possible to obtain alcohol. Here's a handy how-to guide, from our experience:
  1. Take your passport to your hotel front desk, between 11am and 6pm (no earlier and no later)
  2. They produce a document that proves you are resident at that hotel, along with dates and a reference to your passport number.
  3. They also provide a photocopy of your passport and Indian visa.
  4. Locate a licensed "liquor shop". These are few and far between, probably only 2 or 3 in the whole city. We found one at Cama Hotel, just 5 minutes walk up the road from our hotel.
  5. Enter the liquor shop, which will most likely look more like a library reading room than an off-licence, with a few solitary spirit bottles on the shelves and a stack of beer crates.
  6. Decide what alcohol you want to consume in the next 7 days. You are allowed one bottle of spirits, 3 bottles of wine or 10 large bottles of beer.
  7. Fill out some paperwork for the state government with your contact details, purpose in India, and sign to confirm that you will not sell or redistribute the alcohol.
  8. Take the paperwork to the government licensing official's desk at the other side of the room. He will most likely make a bit of a fuss and charge you double the official rate, before stamping your paperwork and issuing you with a Visitor's Permit "to possess and use foreign liquor for personal consumption"
  9. Sign the permit and have it stamped. You will have to bring it back and renew it every 7 days.
  10. Take it back to the liquor sellor who will then issue your box of beer or alcohol of choice and stamp your permit and passport to ensure you do not get more than your weekly allowance.
  11. Carry your box of Fosters home to your hotel.
  12. Feel rather self-conscious as you realise you are blatantly carrying something down the street in plain sight which is a banned substance the general population can't get hold of.
  13. Breate a sigh of relief as you get it back to your hotel room.
  14. Do not take the alcohol to dinner at your hotel. You will be reminded that consumption of alcohol in public, even with a permit, is illegal.
  15. Resort to joining your colleague for a hotel room to drink the beer as you watch American films or Indian pop hits.
  16. Eagerly take your first sip, and then sigh with disappointment as you realise Indian beer tastes disgusting.
  17. Recall something you once heard about how beer in India has glycerol added as a preservative. As one blogger put it, "A couple of tastings was enough to confirm our initial suspicions that any chemical used as an active ingredient in soap or as an anti-freeze in car radiators has no business in beer. Not only does the glycerol cause huge bubbles to form in the beer, it gives you a headache the next morning out of all proportion to the amount of beer you consumed the previous night."
  18. Place your thumb over the bottle and invert it upside down in a glass of water.
  19. Watch as a huge quantity of glycerol pours out of the beer into the water (because glycerol is heavier than water). Hold it for about 2 minutes until the bulk has gone.
  20. Right the beer and pour.
  21. Drink it, find that it tastes a little better, but wonder if it was worth the effort!
  22. Repeat every seven days
The good news is we are now in Mumbai, where alcohol is legal. We made good use of it tonight with a few imported beers and a nice bottle of Sangiovese with our meal (which was a mixed grill!!)

Blogger's note: A couple of people have commented that my blog posts are quite long - I guess they are hard to read on a computer screen. So I am going to try a different approach and write a few shorter topic-based posts like this rather than using the daily journal approach. Feedback welcome as always.


Saturday 18 October 2008

First Impressions of India

India 2: Welcome to Ahmedabad

Le Meridien in Ahmedabad is a little odd. It is simultaneously amazing and disappointing. It is beautifully decorated with marble pillars, polished brass railings, glass chandeliers, and bowls of water with floating flower petals adding colour to the lobby. At first glance it looks like no expense has been spared. But once you get past the surface layer the reality seeps through, that this is just a facsimile of an expensive Western hotel, where something got lost in translation.

The bedrooms are large, with 2 beds, a desk, a comfy armchair and a large (42”) flat panel TV. A small table sits in front of the window with two fruit vaguely resembling an apple, and a knife. The first thing I noticed on walking into the room though was a damp smell, like laundry that hasn’t dried properly, which has not gone away over time. I think it’s something to do with the air-conditioning system. I started to unpack and found that there was only one small drawer, barely large enough for a couple of T-shirts. Maybe they don’t use drawers in India. The room itself is just a little bit dark and dingy. Looking out of the room I could see the river with a bridge over it, and between the hotel and the river I could see a cluster of run-down shacks that appeared to be some sort of slum settlement. I was struck by the contrast between the plush hotel and the poverty below, and felt a small pang of guilt.

After settling in we went for a swim. The indoor swimming pool (why they made it an indoor pool when it’s 35 degrees outside in October I have no idea!) is a magnificent affair, a long room with light marble floor and walls, and white Greco-Roman columns lining the poolside. At the end of the pool is a white stone carving of a mermaid sitting and holding a seashell from which streams of water trickle into the pool below. Between the columns are art deco painted murals of half dressed cherubic figures, much like you would see in an art gallery. A spiral wrought iron staircase takes you down from the changing room to the poolside. Five minutes into the swim, I discovered just how impractical this excessive design is – marble and water do not mix! The result is a slippery and treacherous floor which is pretty much impossible to cross in bare feet. I found this to my cost as I got out of the pool and slipped over and landed with a thud by the poolside. I stubbed my toe in the process. A very concerned pool attendant fussed over me and helped me to my feet.

I then went to check out the sauna and steam room, both of which are fully functional but have complicated control panels with dials and switches to set the temperature, time etc – in effect you have to “order up” your steam room or sauna session, waiting for it to be ready and hoping you chose the right settings. The jacuzzi is huge, with mirrors all around, and looks like something an LA movie star might look at home in with a glass of champagne and a girl on each arm. The jets are insanely strong, like an industrial power hose, so much so that it hurts to sit against them. While I was waiting for the steam room, a man who had been cleaning nearby came up to me and pointed out some marks on the floor and said something I couldn’t understand. I looked down and it turned out I’d cut my toe when I slipped over and left dots of blood across the marble floor! It barely hurt at all, but in no time the man had ushered me into the gym where I sat on a towel on a weights bench while he and a colleague carefully applied Dettol, cotton wool and a Band-Aid to my toe.

Then the pool attendant came back, looking even more worried than before, apologizing profusely for my accident. I said it was nothing, no problem, and that I would wear shoes next time as I hadn’t realised the floor was slippery. After that I thought nothing more of it, but as I was getting changed in the changing room, the pool attendant came back with the hotel Front Office Manager who offered even more sincere apologies and asked me if there was anything he could do for me; he seemed desperate to want to do something to make up for what happened. I couldn’t believe they were making such a fuss. Again I assured him it was no problem. He gave me his business card and said that if I needed anything at all I should just contact him. Back home you might think that all this fuss was a fear of being sued – but here it is different, there seems to be a genuine desire to make the guest or customer’s experience as perfect as it can possibly be and the staff were genuinely shocked and upset that they could have allowed such a thing to marr my experience.

Putting the poolside adventure behind me, as the heat of the day subsided a little (having dropped from around 37 degrees to a mere 25 degrees) we headed out to explore Ahmedabad. The air was hot and dusty, with a little humidity, though not as sticky as somewhere like Bangkok. Like other parts of Asia, it seems that pavements here are not really intended for walking on, and are typically filled with parked bikes and motorbikes, piles of building materials, small trader’s stalls selling fruit, pastries, trainers or T-shirts. I was pleasantly surprised to see that while the streets were untidy, there was not a lot of litter or unhygienic waste at the roadside. We circumnavigated the various obstacles, stepping out into the road every now and then to do so, and wandered in the direction of what appeared to be the centre. The roads were packed as ever with motorbikes, cars and tuk-tuks (as I’ve called these miniature three-wheeled taxis since I first saw them in Thailand – “auto rickshaw” seems to be what they are called here). In fact probably only a third of the vehicles on the road are cars. Every now and then a bike would pass by with a six foot by six foot load of boxes or bags on the rear, all tied together with string, or a similarly perilous load. Miraculously the load would stay attached despite the cyclist weaving in and out of the traffic.

Next we had to work out how to cross the road. It turns out the technique is very different than in Europe, where we might wait for a gap in the traffic then wait, or cross at a marked crossing point on the road. We did see one marked crossing, but it was completely ignored. It seems the best technique for crossing the road here is to walk confidently out into the road at a steady, predictable pace, and trust that the motorbikes and tuk-tuks will weave around you. Occasionally you have to pause or speed up a little to ensure a vehicle has room to pass, but it seems to work remarkably well – maybe because the traffic is generally going quite slowly so that vehicles can avoid each other. It’s bizarre, I’ve never felt so safe stepping out into a busy road.

We carried on wandering, past tattered mobile phone shop kiosks, clothes shops, shoe traders and assorted street-sellers, and started to look for a restaurant for our evening meal. We could find no restaurants to speak of, nor any bars. We wondered if we were in the retail district. (We weren’t). Eventually we noticed one or two places, an expensive looking restaurant with no menu, and a Havmor ice-cream parlour. We settled on a very simple looking restaurant with diner-style seating in booths and an open front onto the street, called Star.
We were welcomed in and ushered to our table by a friendly man with a grey moustache. He wore a Thunderbirds hat and looked like he might have once been part of the Raj. He poured water into metal cups for us (which we decided not to drink, asking for mineral water instead), and gave us the menus. The menu was bi-lingual, in Hindi script and English too – although the dishes had no descriptions, so we went for dishes containing words we recognized from curry house menus back home such as “Paneer”, “Saag” and “Tikka”. Then we had our first surprise – There were no meat dishes on the menu! It turns out 90% of Indians are vegetarian, so it is very rare to see any meat on the menus – you have to specially seek out so-called “non-vegetarian” restaurants.

We ordered a couple of Paneer (cheese)-based curries (not that they call them curries in India – that is an English word), some rice and some “butter chapattis” as well as two lassis (yogurt drinks). I remembered having lassi once in Little India in Singapore and finding it very good to counteract the hot food there. The waiter asked if we wanted “Special” lassi. Feeling adventurous we said yes. A few minutes later he turned up with what looked like two ice-cream sundaes! In fact it was still a yogurt drink but with nuts and some sort of sweet bean sprinkled on top and sweet red fruit sauce down the insides of the glass. We thought it would be a bit sweet especially as he’d brought it before our main meal, but in fact it was delicious and not overly sweet at all.

Then the curries (I don’t know what else to call them collectively!) arrived in two small dishes, and a basket of chapattis that looked like they were swimming in butter! The waiter spooned some of the curries and rice onto the round metal trays in front of us - these are used in the region instead of plates. We tucked in and the flavours were delicious, incredibly aromatic with a blend of tomatoes, chilli and various unfamiliar herbs and spices in combination to make a really unique flavour. The chapattis were just the thing too, and I began trying to eat in the Indian way, scooping up rice and curry with ripped off pieces of chapatti. It’s messy but comes quite easily. The challenge is that you have to do it only with your right hand. In India the left hand is used in place of toilet roll so must never be used at the meal table. This can make ripping chapattis a little challenging, but not impossible.

Once we’d polished off our food our mouths were burning just a little bit. We ordered another two lassis (not “special”) to counteract the spiciness, which did exactly that. The bill came with two small dishes of what looked like bird seed and salt respectively, but I suppose are the equivalent of after-dinner mints (it turned out to be something a bit like sunflower seeds and some form of ground spicy mint). The total price for the two of us was 257 rupees, around £3.50 – and we were absolutely stuffed, despite the fact we’d essentially only eaten bread and vegetables, and the quantities had seemed a lot less than back home. We figured maybe it was the ghee in the curries that filled us up.

Leaving the restaurant, we then decided it was time to try out the auto-rickshaw back to the hotel so flagged one down. We asked the driver to take us to Le Meridien, figuring since it was the biggest most upmarket hotel in town he was bound to know it, but he didn’t seem to understand us. We tried showing him the map, but he held it upside down – we realised he couldn’t read. A local man joined in the conversation and explained to the driver where we wanted to go, reading aloud the name of the nearest bridge, Nehru Bridge, which the driver recognized. We asked the driver how much it would cost, and he said that we should make him an offer. We knew that this was a bit sneaky, but had no sense of the appropriate price, so proposed what we considered a low price, 100 rupee (£1.25), which he agreed to just a bit too quickly. Later we found out this was about 5 times too much! The man who’d helped with the directions ended up sharing the tiny cab with us as he was travelling nearby, and when we spotted the hotel getting further away behind us he helped explain to the driver what our gesticulations meant!

We arrived back at the hotel well fed and having got a good flavour of Ahmedabad. Back in my room I flicked through the 90 or so channels on my TV and saw a bewildering array of Gujarati community television, Indian soap operas, Indian pop music videos and something that looked like a Bollywood version of Pop Idol. Almost all of the channels were in one Indian language or other, and only 5 or 6 channels were in English, but I found it quite fascinating to watch some of the Indian channels. After a little while it was time for bed and a good night’s sleep ready for our first day of work the next day. I thought back over the day and considered my first impressions of Ahmedabad. It seemed like a bustling city, hot and dusty and scruffy, but at the same time very it felt very friendly and safe, and the food was great!

Well I’ve written a lot in these first two posts, amazingly I’ve only covered the first 48 hours of the trip! In the next post I’ll talk about the remainder of the week – starting work, doing a bit of sightseeing and generally began to acclimatise to living and working in India.


Wednesday 15 October 2008

Losing my business class virginity (with a backpack!)

India 1: Journey to Ahmedabad

Less than a week ago, I was told that I’d be doing something a little different for the next two weeks. Rather than sitting at my desk in Hampshire writing code, I’d be flying to India with a colleague to help our Indian colleagues with an installation of our software for a major Indian telco as part of an outsourcing deal. It had been a possibility for two or three months but in the end it was confirmed on the Thursday and we flew out late on Monday – after a hectic Friday in the office booking overpriced last-minute flights and trying to find a hotel that met our criteria of being (a) close to the centre, (b) having a swimming pool and (c) being available. At the time we were only able to secure the first three nights in Le Meridien (which satisfied the first two and was the only hotel with any availability at all that wasn’t a long way out from the centre). All the hotels had been booked up in advance for Diwali, the Indian festival of light, as well as a major Indian Premier League cricket match in the city. We hoped that we’d be able to extend our stay or find an alternative once we were there in person.

The good news is that we were given permission to fly business class, something that is quite rare in my company, and something which I have never done before. So it was that I found myself sitting in the Flagship Lounge at Heathrow Airport enjoying the use of the fully stocked bar and the buffet of good old English sandwiches alongside Indian delicacies while sitting in big comfy armchairs and watching the news on a big flatscreen TV. It was nice to be out of the hustle and bustle of the Departure Lounge in a little oasis of calm. We even spotted a celebrity, Caron Pickering, who as it turned out would be travelling on the flight with us to Mumbai. After a relaxing couple of hours the lady from the reception desk announced that the 2125 Jet Airways flight 119 was ready for boarding. We wandered through and boarded the plane straight away.
First impressions of the business class section were excellent – each passenger gets a whole cubicle to themselves, with a seat which adjusts in three directions, all the way to the horizontal, making a completely flat bed in conjunction with the footrest. This is the most striking difference from economy class – this is what you pay your money for! The other differences were lots of little touches which all add together to make a very pleasant experience.

I made a list of what you get over economy (as well as the chair that converts into a bed):

  • Personal welcome (by name) from the very attentive stewardesses
  • Ordering your food from a menu
  • Your table is made with a tablecloth, napkin, salt & pepper cellars, butter dish, silver cutlery and elegant crockery
  • Your food comes hot on the plate, no peel off foil trays – looks and tastes like it’s been cooked in a restaurant kitchen (not sure of the reality!)
  • A choice of breads from a bread basket with your meal.
  • A designer convenience pouch by Bulgari including moisturisers, toothbrush & toothpaste (rather than a plastic pouch of aircraft own brand accessories)
  • High quality can-style headphones (although still airline-branded – apparently you get Bose headphones in First Class!). They still come with those airline-only two-part plugs to discourage people lifting them!
  • Your own set of airline pyjamas (or “sleep suit” as they called it) and hanger to hang your clothes on once changed. The stewardess even offered to take my clothes after I’d changed (I declined, finding this a little odd!)
  • Fold out flat screen television with around 50 movies and a similar number of programs available on demand – although most of them were Bollywood films – so the choice was pretty much the same as in economy.
  • Stewardess makes your bed up for you
  • Nachos & salsa brought to you while you watch the in-flight movies.
  • Top drawer wine or champagne which you choose from a wine list – and a 20 year old Graham’s Port after your meal.
  • Selection of newspapers and magazines brought to you on a trolley
  • Luxury mirror with dressing room type lighting, designer cosmetics and fresh flannels in the bathroom, and a bidet feature on the toilet.
  • 4 levels of brightness on the adjustable reading light.
  • Lots of pockets to store things, including a long thin one marked “literature only”

So there you go, that’s what the extra £3300 (yes you read that right) buys you on Jet Airways! How was the experience? Thoroughly pleasant – the only thing that bothered me was the dryness of the air which is true no matter where you sit – and the moisturisers helped. Was it worth the money? No, I don’t think so, not at £3,800. Maybe, if I was doing a long multi-part flight to Australia and it was just a few hundred pounds extra, and I could afford it, it would be worth it in order to be able to have some really solid sleep, and the convenience and comfort of the business class lounges at your departure and stop over airports. Those, and the fast-track through security and the priority tickets on your baggage, are the real selling points, I feel, the rest are just nice-to-haves.

We arrived in Mumbai at about 8.30am (4am according to our body clocks) and the business class experience ended abruptly as we wandered through very hot corridors to get our connection. We went through security (at the main desk rather than the “Unaccompanied Children & Ladies” desk next to it). As we checked in at the desk some electricians were installing ceiling lights overhead while standing on a rickety wooden platform that would have given British Health & Safety officials nightmares.
We walked outside into a wall of heat and were ushered to a run-down and cramped bus and transferred to the Domestic Terminal, which was very modern and much more impressive. We changed some pounds into rupees (74 to the pound) then headed through to the business class lounge, where we were treated to a breakfast of hot chilli chicken & vegetable rice – the first of many spicy meals to come. We read the Times of India, the Mumbai Mirror and the Hindustan Times while we waited. I read an interesting article about how Marashtra (an Indian state) is looking at legalizing live-in relationships. I went to the toilets and experienced my first taste of what I can only describe as Indian “over-attentive hospitality” as a toilet attendant jumped in to put his hand under the tap sensor for me when I failed to find the sweet spot immediately, and handed me hand towels to me before I could turn and reach for them myself.

We travelled on a small propeller plane up to Ahmedabad. The flight took less than two hours and gave us views of sun-baked farmland, dried-up river beds, and towns that were a mix of shanty towns and high rise white blocks of flats.

We were met at the airport by a smartly dressed driver from Le Meridien, who took us in his very clean but slightly run-down car (where the seatbelts didn’t work) to the hotel.
The ride through the town was a real eye opener. Motorbikes holding whole families and green and yellow auto rickshaws buzzed around the streets like over-excited insects. Dented cars, over-populated buses and men with painted carts jostled for space, honking their horns to make sure they were noticed and all the while avoiding cows, goats and wild dogs that would wander into the road every now and then. Somehow, the two lanes marked on the road managed to become five as the traffic bunched up as junctions. I’d seen traffic chaos something like this before in Yogyakarta and Bangkok (albeit without the cows!), but the thing that made this different, the thing that really struck me about this Indian traffic, is how organised & well disciplined it is. Nobody bumps into anyone else. Very rarely is there any sudden braking. You don’t hear horns beeped out of road rage as people cut each other up – just short pips as drivers announce their presence to one another.

We pulled up at Le Meridien gate and the gatekeeper ran a mirror around the underneath of the car to check for bombs (not surprising given recent terrorist attacks at Western hotels around India). The doorman, a portly looking gentleman in colonial army-style uniform, a sizable red turban and a particularly long moustache, held the door open for us.
The receptionists were equally welcome, taking our details then checked about extending our reservations for us. Meanwhile a porter came over with a tray of freshly squeezed orange juice, lifting the paper coasters off the top of the glasses with tongs as he served the glasses to us. The receptionist told us that our Indian colleague had already extended our hotel booking for us, and then the two receptionists personally showed us up to the rooms while other staff carried our bags.
At last, at 2.30pm on Tuesday (10am body clock time), we’d arrived. Fortunately we weren’t due at work until the next day, so it was time to unpack, settle in, go for a swim, then go outside and see what India had to offer!

Come back soon for my next instalment where I will write about my first impressions of Ahmedabad, the hotel and the delicious Gujarati food that can be enjoyed here. I hope to post some photos too.