Dusting Off Another Franchise Trade Mission Adventure, This Time in Three Airports
Two of five workers at the Mumbai airport dusting the light fixture.
Remember the old “How many (fill in the blank) does it take to screw in a light bulb?” joke? I don’t know the answer to that one, but at the Mumbai airport it takes five workers to dust a light fixture.
There are scores of elaborate light fixtures dangling from the high ceilings at the newly remodeled airport in Mumbai, India. While we were waiting at the gate for our flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka, a crew began setting up a ladder truck under one of the more ornate palm frond lights. One man supervised, one man asked passengers seated nearby to relocate, one man drove the ladder truck and one man escorted the woman, who performed the actual dusting, up the ladder.
“I watched them dust that one,” a fellow gawker said, pointing to a light across the aisle. “It took 15 minutes.”
We did move when instructed, but not far enough. A few minutes later we were showered with dust, which we unwittingly inhaled. Ever since I watched a farmer prepare a rabbit for a restaurant customer, I’ve refused to eat rabbit, but my ban apparently doesn’t apply to dust bunnies. My lungs bothered me more than breathing the smog that rolled in on our last day in Delhi.
We encountered three very different airports on the franchise trade mission. The first one in Delhi was modern, but not as nice as Mumbai. What struck me in Delhi’s airport was how long it took to walk from drop-off point to gate and then another long walk to the plane itself (I’d tell you exactly how far it was, but my Fitbit died the second day I was there and I got tired of counting steps in my head). It’s not an easy place for people with handicaps to get around. There were wheelchairs, but not carts shuttling people, at least that I saw.
Security is even tighter than at U.S. airports, however, here there are separate lines for men and women. It’s actually kind of nice, because the men vastly outnumber the women travelers, so our lines are much shorter. Women are waved into a tent to be wanded by a female attendant.
At the Mumbai airport I got stuck behind a group of older Middle Eastern women who had never been to an airport. The first woman in line had put her boarding pass in her carryon, which had already gone through the X-ray machine and a long discussion pursued with all the women joining in. Once it was resolved, she refused to go through the passenger scanner without her relative. I was allowed to go to the front of the line, but once I was on the other side, I had to wait for my bag, which was stuck behind all their bags while they argued. I tried several times to the alert the screeners to my plight, but they were having too much fun with the chaos to help.
Even with the delay, Mala Venkat, the senior trade specialist who led the mission, and I got to the gate early. “Where are you from?” a man dressed in a T-shirt and shorts called out to me from the row behind. When I said, "Minnesota," he answered, “I thought I heard a Midwestern accent.” (For the record, I don’t have one.)
Like most Americans abroad, he became instantly chatty when finding someone with a familiar native tongue. I never did get his name, but I did get his story. His office manager runs his small accounting firm back in Wisconsin for several months a year, which allows him to teach high school math in South Africa. He’d lost a few clients over his long absences, he said, but most clients liked that he was doing something to better the world. He was on his way to Kathmandu to climb Mt. Everest, and had planned to stop in Mumbai to see friends on the way, but couldn’t get a multi-entry visa. He was stuck in the airport until his flight, which of course was delayed. Conversing with another American, and a Midwesterner at that, helps ease the isolation foreigners sometimes feel when they go from being a majority at home to a minority abroad.
The center of the airport was a mixture of luxury brands and cheap trinket shops. And of course, it’s impossible not to see it as a metaphor for the country itself. Wealth next to poverty.
Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka and the city franchisors should go to first, was the most unusual airport of all. After we collected our baggage, we passed through multiple aisles of stalls with appliances for sale: washers, tall skinny refrigerators, crockpots, you name it.
“Do people really buy washing machines at the airport?” I asked Mala. We turned the corner and saw a couple with their suitcases on one airport cart and a refrigerator on another.
My return flight was at 2 a.m., and I was expecting to be alone at the airport. I was wrong. Hordes of people were all vying to get into the single-file line from multiple entry points. Like the traffic, everyone tries to merge at the same time and no one is shy about joining the front of the line. To make it even more uncomfortable for a person who has learned to wait her turn, the temperature was in the high 80s.
We went through a total of three security checkpoints and every line was a struggle not to lose your place. I left the hotel at 10:30 p.m. and it took almost the entire three-and-a-half hours to arrive at my seat on the plane for the first 10-hour leg of my trip. I had planned to sleep on the plane, but I was too wired. Same for the nine-hour flight from Amsterdam to Minneapolis.
Like the chatty Wisconsinite I met in Mumbai, the first friendly face I spotted at the Minneapolis-St Paul airport got a barrage of pent-up conversation. My poor husband probably wished the souvenir I brought back for him wasn’t Ceylon tea or cinnamon sticks from Sri Lanka, but the airplane-issued earplugs.