Traveling by plane gives you the first clue as to the differences between India and the West, which are day and night. In this case the flight began at 11 AM, arriving in Delhi at the silly hour of 1AM. This isn't to complain, since the money-saving alternative was to sit and do nothing in Abu Dhabi for 9 hours. Attractive as that was, I took a direct flight instead, since I didn't want to begin the trip looking like I'd been through the end. The plane fare, by the way, came to about £100 more than the entire two weeks in India.
Flights to India are family flights. Like no other country in the world, Indian families stay in touch, and many overseas Indians spend every single one of their holidays at home with their relatives. If you're not used to babies, the economy section of the plane is a good introduction, and you'll never notice them again in your entire life.
But the main thing of note is that because people are going to see their families, they go with suitcases full of gifts. And because they're spending time, they have loads of clothes as well. Everyone has more carry-on luggage than they can carry, and the holds above the seats have more than they can hold. A word to the wise: make a mad dash for the plane when they call the flight, and put your luggage up right away. Otherwise you'll have to cram it in as best you can.
I had a pleasant trip, and sat next to a British couple who were also visiting India for the first time. Shades of déja vu, the man was an IT consultant who had been in the business for about the same amount of time as me. We both reminisced about the good old days of the DOS prompt as we talked about the trip ahead. In the back of the plane I met a very genial marketing student, who was in graduate school in the UK. He had lined up a break to coincide with the Diwali festival, which he would spend at home in Delhi. It turned out that there was a family tradition starting with his grandfather, that everyone in the family got their education in the UK. Though he found the UK interesting, there was no question that he'd much rather live in India.
The plane touched down about a half-hour late. Once off the plane, we went to Passport Control, an area filled with fake wood and very brightly lit with fluorescent lights. Even though I was wide awake and it was a reasonable hour in London, the surroundings gave me the feeling that I'd been up for 3 days without sleep. There were several enormous lines. There were also two oddly-placed signs, one that said "Indian Citizens" and another that said "Foreigners". No one could figure out whether they were in force, or whether we'd find out the hard way when we finally got to the front.
I spent the time chatting, and filling out an immigration form with the exact same information as when I'd applied for a visa. This was a comparatively benign way to pass the time. A few of the passengers had obviously read too much in the "Health Risks" section of their Lonely Planet guide. They took advantage of the time to start spraying themselves with mosquito repellant as they stood on line. The Indians watching them rolled their eyes, as did most of the rest of us.
Once we cleared immigration, my bag got an X-ray. Finally, we went to the conveyor belt, which hadn't started working yet. One by one, once every ten minutes or so, a bag plopped out. Mine was among the first, and I should be grateful – it was only 3AM. I found my lift right away, who had been waiting there for two and a half hours.
Going out of the airport hall, the first thing that hits you is the air. There's a smell of burning diesel, burning wood, and like sea water, thousands of small elements and compounds that would be impossible to duplicate in a laboratory. The second item is the the number of people present at the airport at this stupid hour. I wondered what everyone was doing there since they didn't all seem to be waiting for flights. The chaos was apparently a nightly issue, and some enterprising person had set up a coffee stand right in the middle of it.
We had a one-hour drive, and I amused myself by looking at everything out the window. Admitted that the drive from the airport isn't the best introduction to a city, I still got what I could get out of it, especially since I would only be spending one day in Delhi. The road was full of trucks, almost all of them built by a huge industrial conglomerate by the name of Tata. The backs were painted with the words "Horn Please", and many had people riding on top or cramming out the sides. We passed by a few interesting old buildings, but unfortunately, my companions' English was limited to a few short phrases such as "Please remember to tip the driver," so unfortunately I wouldn't find out too much about them.
One curious thing was that many of the buildings along the way had Christmas lights strung all over them, and at that point I had no way of knowing whether that was normal or not. It turned out that these were for Diwali, which I would come to know better and better over the next week.