Emirates 502 touched down in Mumbai just before 3 am. We ran out to the car park to meet Ravi's brother, Raj, with extra luggage that couldn't be checked onto our next domestic flight to Surat. He'd driven 4 hours out here to pick it up for us and was turning around to drive 4 hours back. I already felt special and we hadn't even officially arrived.
It was brief. We near immediately headed to the check-in counter to make our next flight. After checking in and going through security, we were ushered back outside to a bus that drove out into the middle of the tarmac. We must have been more than a mile from the actual airport.
A small red propeller plane was waiting for us with the airstair extended. It was lit by nothing more than some tripod lamps and the headlights of the bus. There were only 10 passengers.
It always feels fancy to walk up aircraft stairs with the wind blowing through your hair. Even though we'd been married for a year and a half, this was my time to be a bride. I had a fresh manicure, fresh lash extensions, and I felt like a million bucks.
It was a quick 40 minute flight. It was inexpensive and the seats didn't recline-- very basic flight, but Indian Airways hospitality is lovely. After we took off, we received small bottles of water and fresh, crisp vegetable sandwiches. Take notes, Spirit Airlines.
The sun was bright and hot when we landed. I was moments from meeting Ravi's family. The air was sticky. The temperature was easily in the low nineties and I could feel my face starting to flush. Nervousness and excitement washed over me quickly before the wet blanket of humidity weighed me down.
Surat Airport is the size of a restaurant. There are only two terminals and you can throw a ball from one end to the other. I caught a glimpse of myself in a window and immediately raced to the bathroom. I touched up my makeup and tried to brush the travel kinks out of my hair,
I could hear Ravi outside the washroom getting impatient. It had been five years since he saw his parents. I was admittedly terrified. What if they don't like me? What if they think I'm too fat? I was stressed out.
The sliding doors opened and we were met with a barrage of flower bouquets and sweets. I had only seen photos and video chats of these people and they were sweeping me up in the most welcoming hugs. Ravi's parents, brother, cousins, aunts, uncles, everyone was there. At least 15 people met us.
My mother in law was in tears. She grabbed me by the hands and led the pack to a caravan of vehicles parked nearby. Ravi's cousin, Rohan, drove us out of the parking lot. On the other side of the highway entrance was a group of young men with long pink banners that read "Amber and Ravi: Your Arrival is a Circle of Strength and Love" and "Welcome Mr. & Mrs. Kirk Johnson".
It was such a fantastic surprise. The level of thoughtfulness was beyond comprehension. I am so blessed to be part of such a gracious and creative family.
We pulled into the Gateway Taj Hotel Athwalines Hotel. A team of security opened our doors and unpacked the trunks. Hotel staff was at the door to greet us with aarti, special fabrics, and chai. The hotel was decorated for Diwali- flowers in rangoli patterns were all over the floors. Candles were floating in the fountains. It was stunning.
Our room looked over the Tapti river. It was larger and more westernized than I'm used to for an Indian hotel. I fought the urge to sleep, as per the rule of jet-lag: wait until the sun falls. I picked a grey suit with a bright red dupatta (shawl) for a formal meeting with his whole family.
Soon, we were back in the car. We pulled into an apartment complex in a quiet neighborhood-- well, it was quiet until we got there.
As the car slowed to a stop, the lively beat of two dhol drums shook up the atmosphere. Everyone we'd met earlier, plus thirty people, were awaiting us. As I walked through the crowd, people hugged me. Rose petals fell around me. A dance party erupted. You could see neighbors leaning out of their windows to see the commotion. It was unlike anything I'd ever experienced in my life. Click here to see the video! It was a sensational welcome.
In the interest of time, Ravi's mother grabbed us by the hands and brought us upstairs. Hundreds of balloons decorated her door and walls. The horde followed. In the car, Ravi had said "you'll either feel like celebrities or zoo animals in this country." I did feel like a celebrity.
In India, the reception of a guest is treated as a holy event. When a special guest arrives, aarti is performed to welcome them into the home. 'Aa' means complete and 'rati' means love. This ritual extends the complete love of god to the guest. In this ritual, small lamps are lit with clarified butter on a tray and waved in circular fashions around the guest. This purifies them. Red vermilion is used to anoint the guest, blessing them. Often, flower garlands are given to show respect and honor.
I have a threshold for being social. I took a personality test once that showed I'm introverted in my personal life and extroverted in my public life, but it takes an immense amount of energy to get from one to the other.
I summoned every ounce of energy I had that day. Many of the people I'd met didn't speak English, and I obviously don't speak Hindi or Gujarati, but energy goes a long way. Smiles are the same in every language.
The way to show respect to elders in India is to bow to touch their feet. This was a really intimidating concept to my uber-American mind. I had spent months mentally practicing this. I got into a rhythm of following my husband. He would bend down, then I would bend down. I'm so glad to have him in my life to bring me comfort in these new experiences.
I met 35 or 40 new people this day. I met new nieces and cousins and neighbors and grandparents and friends. It was a long day, but a necessary one. All the stories I'd heard now had faces to go along with them.