September 20, 2010 Leave a comment
December 15th, 2006 (State College) – Leaving Home — I am heading out today for India. It is Christmas season and the tree serves as a constant reminder that we will soon be enjoying home, hearth, family, and bowl games. The semester is essentially over, and we are settling in for a long awaited and needed break.
One last thing before I can rest for the holiday season — I need to travel to Kolkata (a.k.a. Calcutta) in India to deliver two talks; one paper presentation and one Keynote. The Indian government is paying all my expenses and to be given a such an important Keynote role as a untenured professor is a honor. That, and one of my close friends Sushil asked me to do it — so I am pleased accept the invitation.
India has always been a location I wanted to go. I read a good deal of Ghandi while I was in graduate school (my lead quotation on the first page of my dissertation was his), and my mentor and advisor Atul Prakash and many friends and co-workers are from there. My internal thoughts of the place are conflicted; I anticipate a country of enormous energy and ambition, a traditionalist family oriented society, and a populace struggling with poverty. I suspect these are all true, an this trip will in some way help me to sort this out.
I left State College with Megan, Sinclair, and Emerson in the car. My job requires a lot of time away from home, and far too much isolation when I am home. These trips get harder and harder. I watch the van with the three loves of my life turn the corner toward the horizon and disappear down the road. I am already homesick.
(Philadelphia) I checked my bags all the way to Kolkata from State College, but when I arrive at the ticket counter in Philly, I discover there is no booking for me. Turns out that they misspelled my name and lost the booking. The good news is that they did find it and changed the name (from MacDaniel) — of course, they have to track down my luggage and correct the name there. I hope they pull it off, otherwise I am going to be wearing traditional Indian gear to my keynote (I guess there would be some symmetry to that). I am on the plane now and ate my muscle relaxer, and I am feeling the sandman coming to get … zzzzzzz.
December 16, 2006 (London Heathrow, UK) – A good breakfast — Given that I only got about 4 hours of rest last night, I am feeling pretty good. The 11.5 hour flight ahead of me is less enticing. Time to kill time.
It seems very odd, but this is my first trip to the UK. Travel here just has not ever come up–not sure why. I suspect that people do not like to schedule anything in the UK because London is too expensive and everywhere is too hard to get to.
Had a great breakfast in what amounts to a British diner. A fritata, toast and the best potatoes I have had in a long time. (A note: I suspect this travelogue will be fixated on food–I travel on my stomach, and this will reflect that thinking.) The cost was 10.5 pounds, which could either be enough for a cup of coffee or a boat payment in the United States. Note to myself: look into exchange rates.
Security is worse in the UK than in the United States, but less surly. The one thing I detect about the English is that they take everything in stride. I suspect if I set the bench I am sitting on fire, somebody would just waltz over and put it out, say “good day”, and go on about their business. I guess that level of acceptance about things one cannot change is more mature than I am prepared to be.
Heathrow has all the charm of the old Detroit airport (at least international terminal 4, of which I am currently imprisoned). Good food, lots of opportunity to buy all kinds of things I don’t need, and lots of glitzy store facades, all housed in the kind of eastern block architecture only an accountant could love. Still, there is an energy here that I feed off of. One observation—this is closer to New York than it is to Paris in terms of people, facilities, and atmosphere. I would not have guessed that.
Heading toward the plane … one last leg and I am there …
OK, I was wrong. Terminal 4 is beautiful. Once I got away from the gate area I was in before, I saw the main mall with really high-end stores, bars, etc. It is more like a mall than an Airport–makes sense, because this is the hub connecting Europe, North America and Asia. I have never seen a departure list like that here — from Tokyo to South Africa, San Francisco, South America, and Russia. The only one I did not see was Australia, but I bet it comes from here as well. The people watching is fun … amazing how easy it is to pick out the Americans–or the European’s trying look American, but just not quite getting it right; I think they see a few too many Gap ads.
The plane is delayed. Sitting amongst the Indians who are going home for the holidays. By the looks of it, a collection of fabiously successful people. This stands to reason as one has to work hard to escape the gravity of India to a western life. They look very happy. Back to waiting, and to reading.
Midnight turning to the 17th – been flying from London for about 9 hours now. British Airlines has a personal TV for every seat, and you can dial in a live-update map of where you are. We crossed over northern Europe, over Poland, just south-west of Moscow, then south over parts over Afghanistan and Pakistan. Saw an eerie sight near the border of Pakistan–ten or so huge flickering lights (we were over 35,000 feet). After watching them for a while I finally figured out that they must have been huge city-block sized fires because of the space they were covering. I have no idea what they were.
December 17, 2006 (Kolkata, India) – Indescribable. I got in last night around 2am after a significant amount of time in customs, I was received by my two personal escorts. We got into their beat up range rover sans seat belts and set out into the heart of the city. It is difficult to describe the following 20 minute drive to my hotel. Kolkata is simply the worst kind of squalor I have ever encountered. Every building is collapsing in one manner or another and their is trash, dogs, and filth everywhere. The ever-present acrid third world stench permeates here–but it is somehow different. There is of course the smell of a million cooking fires fueled by god only knows what, but there is something else. Decay, I suppose. Decay and rivers of human waste.
By the time we are head to the hotel it is 4am. There are no major roads to speak of, so we end up going down a wideish road toward the old central city. I notice long slender lumps, sometimes in 2s or 3s, and sometimes more, lined up along the miles of buildings we pass. Originally I thought they might be trash or broken down kiosks. It is then when I realize it is people. Not tens, not hundreds, but thousands of people lie in the street every night here. Based on the size of the covered lumps, there is a disproportionate number of children among them. This is without question the worst place I have ever been.
What must a good day for these people be like? What would they look forward to? I cannot imagine what a bleak, grinding life it must be. I feel like flinging money out the window to try to help, but it is vanity to think it would do more than just make me feel better. I think every American should get this little slice of life once in a while. Puts a lot of things in perspective–how could anyone care about American Idol, Cola Wars, or the BCS system in light of this?
I guess the best visual comparison I can make is the city in the movie Black Hawk Down, shaky buildings with a storefront in the bottom and what I can only guess is housing up top. Every building has one of those tin pull-down garage doors you see in the really bad neighborhoods in the states. After about 10 miles the buildings went from predominantly two-story buildings to much larger ones–six or seven stories and sometimes more. We have to pass through a checkpoint to get into this larger part of the city. There is about 5 seconds of tension while the 3 armed men (obviously Indian army) stop us and ask us our business. They argue briefly and then spot me in the back spot, say some words in Bengali of which I sure meant “Gringo”, and they let us through.
We go up a particularly dirty alley and stop at the junction of two streets and an open area. One of the drivers pulls up to a particularly large trash mound and proclaims we are here. Sure enough I look up and see a sign that says “Kinsey Hotel”. Note here that have become somewhat of a hotel snob. If it is not Hilton or better I get a little out of sorts. This hotel is not even close, as it has this weird modern looking facade basically glued to a rapidly deteriating building. I feel of pang of anxiety as I will be ostensibly living for the next week in the middle of all this misery. This lasts all of ten seconds before I start thinking of the thousands of shadowed cold lumps on the sidewalks we passed on the way here and I am ashamed of myself.
Now we have a problem. There does not appear to be anyone at the hotel and it is clearly locked with a huge chain from the inside (I wonder what happens if a fire breaks out). Two policeman milling about and some others join the fray as they pound the door, call people on cell phones, etc. The driver is rather insistent I stay in the car and since I am several nautical miles away from being in my element, I aquiess. This goes on for about 10 more minutes before a sleepy looking security guard comes in and opens the door.
I check in (he needs to hold onto my passport until morning, which makes me nervous, but against my better judgment, I let him). Accompanied by two bell-hops, I go up to my room. The insides of the hotel are barely acceptable. Largely clean in the sense that there is no visible trash on the floor, some marble. I suspect it used to be or is the process of becoming for Calcutta a niceish hotel, but has fallen into significant disrepair. I think the surrounding chaos cannot do anything but just seep into a place such as this.
The room has a dorm refrigerator with water bottles (clearly refilled with tap water from some previous use–DO NOT DRINK THESE), a tea maker, a oldish Phillips TV and two hard as dentist’s chair beds. The bathroom has a sink, a toilet, and a shower head sticking out of the wall. There is a bucket on top of the drain in the middle of the floor. There is a ceiling mounted hot water heater you see in Europe, which at peak performance gives about 30 seconds of room temperature water. I can see getting clean is going to fun. I fall into bed and stare at the ceiling for a couple of hours before sleep finally catches up with me.
The organizer at the Indian Statistical Institute where I will be speaking called at 8:30am to ask when I needed a car. I told him 11:30 and fell back to sleep. I am to see a new driver today.
My new driver came early today (11am), and without showering (more on that particular challenge later) I went into the city. It is Sunday here, and everything is closed. Money changers in particular. So, with no money I can spend I set out to try to understand this place. The sunlight and seeing the many, many people in the city lightens my spirits.
My new driver does not speak English really at all, but can distinguish places and services by single words and gestures somewhat. We have worked out some kind of pseudo-lingua to communicate, and it seems to so far work reasonably well–of course, the words and gesticulations used to communicate something complex like bottled water escape me. After a failed attempt to communicate that latter idea, I am quite certain he determines I am retarded.
I noticed something subtle (or maybe not so subtle). About three quarters of the advertisements show shiny, happy, white faces. Even the Indian looking folks in advertisements are overtly trying to look Western, and mostly American. They are trying hard to get that bored too cool to exist super-model thing going with mixed and sometimes humorous results. Now juxtapose this with the people on the street. Almost everyone ranges from ultra traditional to moderately traditional. The shirts, clothes, etc. are omnipresent sandals are everywhere. The young rich and the angry teen boys, however, look distinctly American, again with mixed results. To see a brooding 125lb posing teen trying his best to look gangsta with a bandana, LA dodgers hat and mini-mouse t-shirt is priceless. Of course, I am acutely aware that as 6’2″ 200lb white guy walking around with a huge backpack, north-face jacket, dockers, and camera, I must look about as cool as Elmer Fudd to these people.
Given that I skipped much of the food on the plane the previous day, I was definitely getting hungry. Given further that I had no local money, the only solution I could identify was to go to the best hotel in town and hope they took American Express. I went to the Taj Hotel, which as one of my Indian graduate students told me was the best in town. I was not disappointed. It is a palace on the river that would match up with the best hotels in New York. I thought momentarily about getting my driver to take me back to my hotel and checking in the Taj, but decided it would embarrass my hosts. The Indian Institute for Statistics is amongst the best in the world. However, it is still a publicly supported educational institution in the third world and on a very tight budget. My plane ticket cost about as much as many employees would make in a year. The hotel was not unclean and unsafe and I am sure it was acceptable for India, so I decided to stay put.
I asked the concierge at the Taj about the restaurants. The traditional Indian restaurant would not open for another hour, but the coffee shop was open. I did not fly half way around the world to eat at a coffee shop, so I decided to look for shopping. I got directions to the best mall in Calcutta, and me and my driver set off again. It was now around noon on Sunday and everybody was out and about. Families, kids, groups of men playing cards on the sidewalk. I had always understood India to be a very family oriented society, and I finally saw what that meant. Families traveled as laughing, arguing, ambling masses. Kids were everywhere and parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, moms, dads, were in tow. I really makes you think about the many students who come to the states and don’t see their family for sometimes years–it must be unbearable. Feeling particularly lonely on a sunny day, I muse that Americans are poorer for the lack of that kind of family. I can’t stop thinking about Megan, Emerson, and Sinclair.
We get to the Forum (an Indian kind of mall) and again I set out by myself while the driver parks. Now here is the story about parking in India. There appear to be these guys who monitor stretches of streets and regulate parking. Basically, you park while this monitor fellow waves his hands wildly in an attempt to aid the process. Of course, this is unnecessary, as every driver here could parallel park an 18 wheeler in a phone booth while drunk and blind-folded. Anyway, you are supposed to give this person 5 Rupee for the honor (about 11 cents). I am not sure if this is something that the government regulates or these are just some the many “helpers” you get here.
I get into the mall and it looks like any low mid-tier mall in the states, but is the best in Bengal. Lots of glitz, neon, loud Brittany Spears-esque music, etc. There are a couple of traditional clothes-shops and I select one. I had decided before I left I was going to get some of the traditional Indian clothing for Megan and I to wear to relevant events we are invited to–traditional weddings of Indian friends, etc. I go into a largish store and a personal shopper takes me everywhere and helps me make the purchases: a beautiful Indian getup for Megan and one for me (I wish I could remember the names of these things, but I spaced–note to myself, lookup the names before giving to Megan). I buy what the store folks assure me are the very best hand-made Indian clothes (Megan 3 piece, me 2 piece) appropriate for the finest gatherings–grand total, $100 US. A really good deal I think. The women helping me were incredibly nice and friend. They were also a little tickled my earnestness, cluelessness, and probably more likely being the first male to buy clothes in their store this century.
We return to the the Taj and I go directly to the Indian restaurant. To be sure, Indian food is my favorite. I order a paneer appetizer and a paneer cream dal with a special kind of Bengali naan bread. The food is absolutely incredible. Every part of the meal is cooked to perfection and the service is impeccable. The restaurant itself looks like an Indian museum. I get to talking to the waiter who clearly appreciates my complements and knowledge of Indian food. We talk about the city and my desire to see more of the country. He then says, wait a minute, and leaves. He comes back saying, “I love paneer too, and this is what I make for my lunch” and lays a new plate in front of me. It is a kind of paneer/bean dal mix with very hot spices, and is close to culinary heaven as it gets. I finish with a double cappachino and all is right with the world again.
It is around 2pm. My driver and I head to the Victoria monument. The monument is an enormous white marble building with many monuments to various British people. It is a huge destination for both Westerners and the locals, and by the time we arrive there is at least ten thousand people milling about the grounds. The fact that the locals still feel a sense of pride about the English presence here is a little confusing given the history.
The grounds are huge and again is teaming with family and friends. Vendors sell every kinds of imaginable snack, some of which look quite tasty. On orders of my doctor in State College, I stay away from these delights. Again leaving my driver behind I walk around the huge grounds and alongside the main promenade between the monument and a huge military base, and a huge field where there appears to be no less than twenty games of cricket going on simultaneously. The people pretend not to stare at me because I think it may be impolite (I tower over most), but it is easy to tell. I make eye contact with more than a few and the men are quick to nod and smile. The women immediately look away or at the ground–I hope I am not being rude.
The army base is quite big and from the looks of it, very well kept up. I thought the designer of the sign on the front of the army HQ somehow missed its western colloquial meaning when he penned, “The Indian Army-The Iron Fist”. At least I hope so.
A thing you have to get used to here is the sheer number of people. There is simply more people in every corner of the city than one can count-no event or place no matter how small escapes the throng. It is omnipresent, oppressive, and quite often a little frightening. I understand now why some of my Indian students get a little weird out by the space in the US. On EOF the chief byproducts of the crowds is the lack for appreciation for personal space. This can be quite unnerving, with people pressing up against you in every line, elevators, etc. It is already wearing thin, and I imagine it will only get worse.
Another element that makes it a little more challenging are the helpers and vendors. There is as vast guild of people whose apparent job is to give you help you don’t need and then ask for money. People are always trying to help my with my 10lb pack, find directions, whatever. The vendors are the same: they push some muddy looking substance they call “coffee” or other unidentifiable thing in your face and try to make the sale. They can be quite aggressive, but my days in New York City serve me well, where I simple ignore their existence. I had one guy follow me for at least two blocks in order to try to get me to go into a shop before he gave up.
It is now 3:30 and realizing I have had about 12 hours of good sleep in the last three days, I decide to head back to the hotel. I get back, read for about 10 minutes and fall asleep.
I slept for about 3 hours, hard. Feeling a little more refreshed, I wash up and start doing some other work for my expert witness engagements. I do this for a couple of hours, write a little, and head out in search of something to eat.
Now two things happen to give me a break. First, I discover the rooftop restaurant in my hotel is nice. It is very well kept up for Indian standards, and the food is out of this world. The second was that I ran into an acquaintance from the Brooklyn PolyTech, and we have dinner. It was really welcome because I had spent about 3 days without really talking to anyone and was becoming terribly lonely. We had a nice dinner and discussed our experiences in the city. He is Indian, and had been here 25 years ago as a student on a “party weekend”. Hard to imagine such a thing in a place like this.
We discussed a number of topics including why this place is in such a terrible state. He concluded a couple of factors were really driving the poverty and clear lack of involvement of the government. First, this state is communist, but only in name as far as I can tell; commerce drives this place and it seems that every single person in the city opens up shop, whether in a nice story or on a dirty blanket in the street. Mostly, the government uses the communist front as a way to take whatever they want from the people. Second, as told to me by me friend, the aid agencies are completely corrupt. They take a lot for themselves and give little to the poor, but exploit them for their own gains. Ghandi once said that he would rather have a bad Indian government rather than a good British one. Well, I guess he got what he asked for.
Exhausted, heading for bed.
December 18, 2006 (Kolkata, India) – Got up feeling not very refreshed. The 10.5 time zones difference is hard and my body has not quite adjusted. This little oddity I was not aware of: some parts of the world have half-hour time zones, rather than full ones. Kolkata is just such a place, thus the weird 10.5 hour difference. I sleep from about 10pm the night before until 1am, then lie awake until 5am and then sleep again until 7:00am. I take a shower, which is difficult but better than I was expecting. The trick is to let the little water heater on the ceiling run for about 10 minutes to get full and hot, and then make the shower (which is more a less a small stream of water from a sprinkler above my head) fast. They supply the cheapest soap and shampoo I have ever seen in my life. Amazingly, I get clean and dressed.
My driver is due a 9am, but does not appear until 11am. I am feeling more than a little disoriented, but we press on. My first task is to find some money. I talk to the driver and find that I need to go to an American Express office to cash one of my travels checks. So, we head into a different part of the city. This new part is a little nicer. A few stores actually have windows, there are a few banks, etc. I go into the bank and am told that the American Express Bank does not indeed take American Express checks. This is absolutely not the case I know, but apparently the local manager has done the calculus that this transaction is financially not worth it to him, and will simply deny it. Welcome to India, the motto is, “we make the rules as well feel at any given movement, but they are set in stone”.
At this point, I have had about enough poor service and complain rather vehemently. I calm down quickly when the security guards with fairly large rifles show up. I ask if there is something else I can do, and he tells me that I can use my American Express Card to advance some money. I suspect the exchange rate is horrific and I will see some huge “processing fee” when I get home, but I need the money. This guys has me over a barrel and will use that to his advantage as best he can.
The culture here is rather strange. People are very friendly and honest and very respectful. Except, it seems, when it comes to money. There is a kind of armed combat dimension to commerce here; every one will try to screw you as hard as they can for a Rupee (the currency). This is particularly true if you are a westerner. Of course, people will work very hard to screw you out of 5 Rupees, which is something like 11 cents US, so I cannot get that worked up about it. This is similar to the Middle east, China, and parts of Manhattan, so I don’t take it too personally.
Armed with a wad of colorful money, I next ask the driver to take me back to the Forum. I saw a place that had a cappachino machine the day before and by god I was going to enjoy that particular piece of western culture. I am a complete coffee junkie, so the lack of consistent access to it for two days has me in a real state. We go and I quickly down a double cap. The coffee goes does easy and quick and as it hits my bloodstream and I feel myself again.
I do some shopping and get some gifts for home. I then set out to find my driver again who is waiting in the street parking arrangement. I pay the 7 rupees (apparently inflation struck between yesterday and today) and we set of for some tourism. We head to a building called the “Writers Building”, which is famous for some reason that I cannot determine or extract from my driver. It is in a large section of old English buildings. The place is surrounded by guards and barriers, etc. I suspect that it is a government building of some sort, so we do not stop.
We head to a Hindu temple in the middle of the city. It is in a highly congested part of Kolkata, and the poverty begins to really become apparent. There are vast stretches of tens of blocks of ram-shackle shacks made of random parts of wood, tin, and plastic. Everything is filthy and the people are clearly on the very verge of starvation. I have never seen this kind of suffering before and it is an assault on my system. The state of their health is appalling as they have no teeth, open sores, missing limbs, and enumerable visible maladies that I cannot bring myself to recount.
At a stop light I see a woman sprawled in the dirt. Not begging, just sitting at a random place in the dirt like a discarded piece of trash. The only thing on barely covering her is a filthy piece of blacked cloth, and she is covered is sores and cuts and bruises. It is then that I notice that she has no eyes, only dirt-encrusted holes where they should be, surely removed for some unnamed trespass. Her head is cocked in a strange way, slightly skyward. What unimaginable life she has experienced I cannot imagine or wish to. She has surely suffered beyond anything I could ever comprehend. We sit at this light for perhaps two minutes and she does not move. I cannot take my eyes off her. She appears to have moved on to some other place mentally, and if there is any mercy in the universe it is much better than this. As the car pulls away, I can only wonder how much longer she will live.
When they proceed across the major suspension bridge across the Ganges (which is a marvel of modern engineering) into another part of the city. He turns and shows me what he proclaims as the “first Calcutta”. We are an an elevated position, so we can see what looks to be at least a mile in every direction of the same kind of shanty town I saw before, only at an incredible scale, mixed with some heavy industry. We stop for a moment and look into the town.
I little boy about Sinclair’s (my 4 year old son) age runs up to the car and sticks his head into the car and starts begging. He has the same grin and perpetual bad haircut bed-head my son has and the thin frame. He is wearing fruit of the loom underwear and nothing else, blacked to the point to be unrecognizable. I smile back and desperately want to jump out of the car, give him all my money and play. Of course, as you cannot give beggars any money here; they are highly organized and the money you give to an individual has almost no chance of getting to the people you give it to. There is a Mafia element to this. My driver starts calling out something repeatedly in Bengali (the local language), and with enormous pain, I look away. Not giving this boy money is a sin I will live with forever, and one for which I am sure there is no forgiveness or redemption.
We cross more of the town and reach what looks to be a market, with the destination temple. When the driver pulls over to park I find that the weight of the suffering I have seen leaves incapable of getting out and walking into yet another bleak neighborhood. I ask him to take me back to the hotel. My day out touring lasted just over 2 hours.
After returning to the hotel I take some papers I brought to work on to the restaurant on top of the hotel and work on them while I eat yet another incredible meal. It is a pleasure to take my mind of the earlier parts of the day, and I get an enormous amount of work done. I go back to the room around 3pm and sleep until 5pm. It now occurs to me that I have to give my first talk in the morning, and the second (keynote) on the following day. I work on the presentations for about 4 hours and head to dinner again at the same restaurant at the top of hotel.
It is a cool night and I drink a Kingfisher beer and look out over the city. I note that I no longer smell the city, and consider this to be a kind of metaphor for Kolkata. It is an assault on all your senses that is gradually dulled from the repeated shocks. I feel a tad guilty about hiding out in the hotel for better part of the day.
Heading to bed.
December 19, 2006 (Kolkata, India) – Another sleepless night. I am finally getting around to reading Freakonomics, and it somehow feels fitting. I get about 5 hours of broken sleep and finally get out of bed around 7am. I take another shower (getting the hang of that now) and get dressed for the conference. The driver shows up and we head out to the conference.
The conference is held at the Indian Statistical Institute, one of the very best places in the world for the study of you guessed it, statistics. It is a little like the MIT Lincoln Labs or Berkeley/Laurence Livermore Labs of Indian mathematics. It is a teaching institution with 100 faculty and 200 students, e.g., a research institution with a little teaching. The campus is on the other side of the Kolkata, and getting there is an adventure.
Driving in Kolkata is an experience. There is absolutely no rules. As far as I can tell, people are supposed to drive on the left side of the street. Typically, the larger streets have enough room for about 3 cars abreast (the dominant car here is a 40 year old ambassitor*, which looks like some of the really small, pudgy Edsels from the 50s). The game is that you kind of cut from right to left and dart around other cars while constantly hitting your horn when you want somebody move out of your way. Surprisingly, they do move. The effect is that everyone darts back and forth in between cars and buses as they go down the block in a complex ballet of random action. The closest thing I can think of is bees in a hive, only less organized.
The drivers themselves are Olympic darters, moving effortlessly and quickly in teeming traffic, leaving as much as a 10th of an inch between us and the next car. They move with such speed and precision, that you are certain you are going to be in an accident every 10 seconds, but they always seem to miss by inches. I am thinking I should get a couple of these guys and enter them in NASCAR, they would kick everyone’s ass.
A brief note about the name “Kolkata”. It seems that the government of India is changing the names of the cities and other things back to Indian names from British ones to preserve Indian Heritage. Calcutta was changed to Kolkata, Bombay was changed to Mumbai, … The people here are rather ambivalent about the whole thing, and I suspect it is one of those vote getting issues with little or no tangible effect on anything other than to confuse foreigners (like flag burning). There are so many other pressing issues this seems like misdirection to me. Of course, I am not Indian so I cannot truly appreciate the realities of the issue.
I get to the conference cite and meet the local dignitaries. I finally see Sushil (they person that asked me to come) and get a warm greeting. The campus is beautiful and we work our way to the auditorium and sit down. I meet a number of colleagues, mostly from India and Europe. There is the standard but heartfelt opening address and we head to high tea.
The tea they serve at high tea is a mixture of warm milk, something that tastes like chocolate, and tea. The effect, as one would expect, is something like chocolate milk with a tea-bag dipped in it. It seems to be the national drink, because I have seen thousands of booths with them on it. I grow to like it, and look forward to the many conference breaks in which they serve it.
The day passes without much interest, another conference, another bunch of talks. Some good, some bad. I am presenting a paper as the last one in the opening session. I give a talk on the growing loss of privacy on the Internet and how to use the Internet as a spread spectrum device achieve private communication. I give it my best P.T. Barnum (step up, step up, and see the amazing bullshitting American do mathematical gymnastics on the high wire) and it seems to go over pretty well. We break for lunch and then back to papers and talks.
One thing arises about the hotel. Apparently there was some mixup with it, Sushil indicated that we were to be put me in a 5-star hotel, but in actuality we got a 1 star hotel (he seems to be very embarrassed, but I assure him things are fine). Also, there was a strike called for the next two days, which could make getting around the city hard and possibly dangerous. The conference organizers graciously offered to move be to the guest house at the institute, and I jump at the chance. I am to stay one more night and check out the next morning, and move to the guest house for one last night in Kolkata.
Around 5:30pm the conference adjourns for the day and I head back to the hotel. I have met a guy from MITRE in DC and we decide to go to dinner around 7ish. We head out to a Bengali restaurant suggested by another colleague. We had a couple of beers at the hotel bar first (a very nice trendy place with lots of bad music from the 1970’s U.S. top 20. We find that we are working on some related projects and have a genuinely good time. The food is great, but very different from the other food I have had since arriving.
India is big place with a number of states, all of them with different cultures and food styles. Actually, India did not really exist as such until the British made is a whole colony. Hence, like the United States, the country if mish-mash of styles. There are light and dark skinned Indians, Mongolians, and a host of other races and religions heaped in. However, unlike most diverse countries with similar cross sections, India has little to no friction between races. Religion is a different matter, but people here think the issue is a little overblown in the western press, and again the government uses it to misdirect away from more pressing matters like poverty.
I have been without email or phone contact for 4 days now, and I am sure Megan is starting to worry. I make one more last ditch effort to use my cell phone and it works! Unfortunately, she and the boys are not home and I have to leave a message. I call her cell and manage to get a single word out (hello) before her cell phone dies from lack of power (her inability to keep her cell phone charged is one of those little mystifying and aggravating wonders of married life). It is late and I am tired, so I call and leave another message on the house phone to the effect I am going to bed and please call me in the morning.
I fall asleep for perhaps 3 hours and awaken to dogs fighting to the deal on the street below. It is gruesome sounding battle which leaves me sleepless until about 5am.
December 20, 2006 (Kolkata, India) – I awaken a 6:30 to the sound of my cell phone ringing. I hear Megan’s voice and suddenly I feel much, much better. I chatter for a few minutes with her and the boys (who tell me they love me but are more interested when I am coming home and what I am bringing them). I instantly feel better. I get up and do some more work on the cases, then move get ready for my ride.
I gleefully check out of the hotel and we start our 45 minute journey to the institute. Note that to my estimate, it is probably only about 6-7 miles to the institute. Of course, the traffic and confusion is such that you spend much of your time sitting and jockeying for position. This morning, it is a good ride.
Again the conference begins and I sit through the morning talks, tea, and lunch. Right after lunch I give my Keynote talk about how broken passwords really are, and it is received very well. I am glad to have it over, so I can relax. As soon as it is over, the organizers ask if I would like to go to site-seeing with a small group. I say yes and we head out.
Our first stop is to be a Hindu temple. It is on the other side of Kolkata, and at 3:30 in the afternoon it takes 1.5 hours to cover the possibly 10 miles. It is a smoggy ride as almost every car is about 40 years old an belching smoke. There are some new cars, but they are in the vast minority. Also, Kolkata has the most extensive bus system I have ever seen. Every byway is literally jammed with them. Them, and taxis.
We arrive at the temple in a nice neighborhood. This is the nice part of town that has so far eluded us. There are a number of attractive high-rise apartments and western looking stores. The temple itself is a huge marble structure with a number of the Hindu gods. It a quite beautiful. They do not allow Cameras, so I cannot take any pictures inside. A pity, because it is very beautiful.
Moving on to shopping again, and I finally purchase myself something nice, an Indian carving under glass for hanging on the wall. Total cost, 100 Rupee ($2). We meander around and I get a present for the boys and finally head back to the institute. We have missed a concert at the conference (it was a instrumental sitar-like thing, and I am disappointed to have missed it). I eat dinner at the banquet and make hasty retreat to the room at the institute. I fight sleep for a while by reading, but to no avail. Exhausted, I am asleep by 9:30.
December 20, 2006 (Kolkata, India) – I had an off and on sleepless night, but fall into a deep sleep around 4am. I hear a tapping (they want to know if I would like to have my room cleaned), and I wonder back to the bed and check my watch. To my amazement, it is 10:30 in the morning. After writing for a couple of hours and taking a shower, I rejoin the conference. It seems that some of the final speakers were canceled and this was the end of the conference. I eat lunch, talk with some Indian graduate students, and return to my room to write some more. I spend the afternoon working on more casework at the guest house.
The program chair asked his graduate student to take me to dinner and we head out across town yet again. The pollution here is the worst I have ever seen, we can barely seen through the smoke at times, particularly during rush hour when hundreds of thousands of old smoke puffing cars are belching out tons of blue clouds into the air. This night is seems worst since I have been here and by the time we reach the restaurant my eyes are burning uncontrollably. The student and I have a nice dinner and I return the the guest house. I am picked up at 12:30am and they take me to Airport where I check-in without event.
It is at this moment 3:30 in the morning and we are waiting for the airplane to take me home. I guess this as good a place to end this log as any. I wish I could close with something conclusive, profound, or full of hope, but this place defies such an easy out. The people here are the most generous, kind, and thoughtful folks I have encountered internationally. At the same time, there is such crushing suffering and poverty that it leaves one in a daze. Though I wish it were otherwise, I am sure the mental photographs I have gathered in this place will be with me for all time.
This is a government that has completely failed its people. The overt corruption and cruelty of life here is beyond comprehension. Could we help, I don’t think so. Money alone does not fix these kinds of problems. Nor can the US or anyone else really have an impact. Until the government and the people begin to address this poverty themselves, it will never change. It do not possess the wisdom or insight to know what the real problems are. Corruption, the Caste system, over-population, apathy, racism, I just don’t know. I alot of all of these, I would suspect.
Helping the poor is a good thing, but any external effort would be a drop in the ocean to the hundreds of millions of people here on the edge of starvation, and closing in on a billion in poverty. I guess we all have to do what we can and hope that the new economy does indeed raise all boats. Until then, I guess we will have to just search for answer. All I know is I don’t have any.
Finally, an interesting question. Do I want to come back? Sitting here now the answer is yes, I suppose. It will take time and distance for me to properly recover from the trip. Right now however, all I want to do is to go home.