Meet the New India, Same as the Old India

Friday, 5 November 2010

Almost 40 years ago, travelling across Asia Maureen and I flew from Calcutta to Thailand and we still remember the culture shock of arriving in Bangkok. Compared to India it was amazingly well lit, air-conditioned, orderly, efficient and clean.

Varanasi Cow
▲  street cow in Varanasi

Fast forward from 1972 to 2010, once again we’re flying from Calcutta to Thailand, although Calcutta has been renamed Kolkata and we’re flying in to Chiang Mai not Bangkok. But otherwise it’s just déjà vu all over again. After India Thailand is amazingly well lit, air-conditioned, orderly, efficient and clean.

Varanasi International Airport

Unlike Calcutta the toilets at Varanasi International Airport were quite clean, even if the signs were a little loose.

Clean –  our small plane doesn’t have a toilet, so our last activity before leaving the Calcutta international terminal is to use the toilet. I’ve seen worse in Indian train stations and bus stations, but for an international airport it’s a disgrace. Grubby wall tiles, a filthy floor, cracked panels, a pervasive smell and a cleaner busy shifting the dirt from one side of the room to the other. When we arrive in Chiang Mai, 2 hours 50 minutes later, the toilets are again the first port of call. They’re modern, clean, tidy … in fact they could be in any modern, clean, tidy airport in the West. Or in China.

Frisking Booth

▲ Indian airports often have ‘frisking booths’ (male and female varieties) so you can be patted down in comfort and privacy.

Efficient – it takes 1-1/2 hours to get through Calcutta airport on departure. It takes 15 minutes to get through Chiang Mai airport on arrival. Airports in India have X-ray machines in security, just like at airports in the West. But in addition to someone to make sure the bags go in, someone to study the X-rays and someone to make sure the bags come out there’s somebody to attach a tag to your bag. Then there’s somebody else to wield a rubber stamp on the tag to confirm that the bag has indeed gone through the X-ray machine. Then there’s somebody else to check the stamp on the tag to confirm that your bag has not only gone through the x-ray machine it’s also been rubber stamped to confirm that it’s gone through the X-ray machine. Just think how much faster security could be and how much cleaner the toilets could be if the rubber stampers were reassigned to toilet cleaning?

On our travels east India wasn’t the only place in need of an efficiency shake up. Arriving in Cairo I peeked through the hatch to see why our bags were taking so interminably long to appear on the conveyor belt. Answer: Egypt may have a huge population and huge unemployment, but Cairo airport could only find one person to unload all the bags for our aircraft. So it took 15 minutes to get the bags to the baggage hall but where four or five people could have unloaded them all in 5 minutes the one slow-moving worker took 25 minutes. Arrival to collecting my bag – 40 minutes.

It was no different when we arrived at our hotels in Cairo and in Luxor – bewildered shock that guest could arrive at the front desk. Filling in forms from scratch – why not have the forms ready and waiting for arriving guests? An interminable wait while electronic keys are coded – they’ve got the modern technology, but in Egypt it just slows things down rather than speeds things up.