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Letter from India: Airport Surprise!

February 2007
Letter from India: Airport Surprise!

Why weren't people pushing and shoving to get past us? Used to be when passengers disembarked at any international airport in India there was a mad dash to the immigration counter. One waited in line forever, dragging hand baggage along the dirty floor. And of course, at the end there always was a nose-thumbing, dollar-greedy government employee.

Indian airports have long been dismal portals to the country. In addition to being ill-equipped, they are astonishingly drab for such a colorful country. There is dirt firmly wedged in every foul smelling corner. The lone escalator is often malfunctioning, the elevators dingy. There are few concession stands, with little or no reading material to offer. Duty free shops are dusty and ridiculously over-priced. The "toilets"—let us not even go there.

But that was then. This visit was a pleasant surprise. I discovered why no one was rushing to passport control. The queue snaked swiftly through demarcated lanes and everyone was promptly directed to an available officer. There were thirty counters, twenty of which were manned at three a.m., the time we arrived from Frankfurt. Our attending officer was courteous, quick. She even offered feedback forms at her desk. It took us under three minutes to clear immigration! Had it not been for "chayya chayya" playing on her little radio, it could well have been a scene at Hartsfield-Jackson International.

At customs, numerous officials in spotless white uniforms smiled at us. I was sure they had "chai pani" (bribe) intentions. We placed our luggage through a giant X-ray machine and showed our dog's vaccination records (she was traveling with us). We made it through without any currency exchange! Contrary to our expectations, arriving in Mumbai with two little children, a Golden Retriever, and six oversized suitcases was entirely painless.

This experience was a far cry from the fuss at the Indian embassy in Washington D.C. the week before. In an attempt to get a business visa, my husband butted heads with cantankerous personnel. Exasperated, he hired a random New York-based passport service to do the needful. One would think the Indian embassy would have simplified the visa process and upgraded customer care to foster investment in the country.

Compare the FRRO (Foreign Regional Registration Office) in Mumbai. Back in November our newborn daughter needed an exit visa—we were prepared for an arduous day at the police station. I even took along some sandwiches and candy bars. The lady at the reception politely inquired our business and directed us to a comfortable, air-conditioned waiting room. (The artwork on the walls was beautiful!) A few minutes later she said I could take the baby home while my husband provided the details. All he had to do was fill out a straightforward form on one of their computers and voila! It was done. No red tape, no arguments, no grease for palms.

Yes, one can get ahead without pushing and shoving. It is time now to stop complaining about India.

By Reetika Nijhawan Khanna

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