In 2012 I gave a talk at the International Interdisciplinary Science Conference (I-ISC, 2012) on Protein Folding and Diseases in Delhi. I have never been to India before, and the preparations for travel began with immunizations (Hepatitis A, Typhoid, prophylactic doxycyline for Malaria); my tetanus immunization was current, so did not need that one. Next was getting a visa. My wife and I were planning to both go, and we went through a recommended visa assistance company (Travisa). Instruction #1 on the visa information was to go and get a passport photo (which we did). Then went through a bunch of questions on the form (e.g., “are your parents Pakistani?”) that took all day, then got to the last item on the form which was – be sure your passport photo is taken without glasses (which I did not do). Back out to get another passport photo. This was a little strange to me because they also wanted a copy of current passport and driver’s license (to compare the new passport photo to); and both my driver’s license and current passport photo are taken with glasses. But, there is no point trying to figure this out. India appears to have entrenched British-derived bureaucracy, and you can’t reason with it. After sending the visa applications out, we were informed that my wife’s application was rejected due to incorrectly filled out information. This was bizarre, as we had filled them out side by side, and my application was identical to hers. In any case, since my wife had to leave for Japan, she needed her passport back immediately, and so she was unable to accompany me on the trip to India (the first feeling of dread for me regarding this trip).
The visa service’s recommendation was to not book a flight until the visa had been confirmed. By the time I got my visa, flight options were limited. The cheapest flight went from Tallahassee to Atlanta, Atlanta to Paris, Paris to Frankfurt, and Frankfurt to Delhi. I would leave Dec 5 (evening) and arrive Dec 7 (morning). To me, there is little difference whether a trip takes 4 planes and 30 hours or 2 planes and 20 hours, its all hell.
The first weirdness occurred in Frankfurt. Prior to takeoff the flight stewards came through the isle with some kind of perfume-smelling spray. Flights to Japan often start with a hot towel (typically lemony-smelling) to refresh with; so I figured this spray must be some kind of air freshener or something. Turns out it was insecticide. Not quite sure why they were spraying it on a flight going into India from Germany, but they did.
Upon landing in Delhi, my first thought was about how brown the air was. It was like Los Angeles, only a lot worse. The meeting was being organized by the Jamia Millia Islamia University, and two students from the University kindly picked me up and drove to the University. The drive from the airport to the university was my introduction to driving in Delhi. It is difficult to describe the full sensation of driving in Delhi. The first rule is – there are no rules. Markings for lanes mean nothing; in India they technically drive on the left-hand side, but this is also not rigorously upheld. The other thing is that there is every kind of mode of transportation using the roads – bicycles, motorcycles, cars, buses, horses, etc. Additionally, every vehicle is grossly overloaded and seatbelts and helmets have not yet made their way into India. A typical motorcycle will have a child up front holding the handlebars, behind him will be the dad (ostensibly driving), then behind him will be another child, then at the end will be the mom (for modesty, mom will be sitting side-saddle). Finally, everybody is driving within centimeters of everyone else, and honking their horn. Every car or taxi ride I took in India was a death-defying experience, and I spent most of the time with eyes shut and curled up to protect my vitals. The other thing is that there are animals (of many kinds, but mostly dogs with no collars) everywhere.
At the University I checked into my room in the dorm.
I did not realize it at the time, but “housekeeping” only changed the sheets and towels when a guest checked out. The shower was the bane of my existence. I learned it was solar powered, and I was there in the cold cloudy month of December. I would turn it on all the way hot and keep hoping it would warm up, only to realize it started slightly warm and only get colder as time went on. One morning, the water just stopped running half way through a shower.
After drinking water from the tap, I was informed that it was probably a very bad idea. My wife Sachiko had given me a water heater to boil water with. The only problem was that the plugs in India are a 1950’s British style, so I needed to find a converter. In any case, after getting a converter, my survival plan was to boil a cup of water before going to bed so that in the morning I had water to brush my teeth (and take my anti-malaria medication):
I am a little dense, and did not realize that the Jamia Millia Islamia University is an Islamic university. Anyway, I quickly found this out, as at 6:00 am and 7:00 am there was a loudspeaker outside with call to prayer at the local mosque.
The dorm had a kitchen and dining room, and I began to appreciate one of the great things about India – unbelievable good food! Every meal was amazingly good, and I looked forward to the next meal with much anticipation.
The meeting was very good, with a number of interesting talks. A former postdoc from my lab (Dr. Vikash Dubey; now Associate Professor at IIT Guwahati) drove to Delhi to attend the meeting and also offered to take me to see the Taj Mahal.
The trip to the Taj Mahal took about 2-3 hours by Taxi. Towards the end of the trip we went through a small town. I saw dogs, pigs, goats, cows, oxen, horses, donkeys, camels and monkeys wondering around the town. The variety of wildlife in India is quite a shock coming from the U.S.!
The Taj Mahal is an amazing building. It was built at a time in India when apparently one person had all the wealth. The cost to build it today must be in the tens of billions (billions with a “b”).
The last day there was a dinner outside that was an incredible barbeque with goat shishkabobs…
And there was a demonstration of Indian traditional dance as well…
Our hosts at Jamia Millia Islamia University were wonderful, and once I got past the culture shock I managed to have an enjoyable time. India is dealing with a lot of difficult issues associated with a huge population. Sanitation is a real issue, and a lot of things you take for granted in the U.S. (e.g., hot water, drinkable tap water, sedate driving, fresh towels and sheets daily, etc.) are not as prevalent in many parts of India. However, I have never visited a country where I enjoyed the food as much as in India, and it was well-worth the 30 hour flights, immunizations, and bureaucracy. One nasty last piece of bureaucracy upon leaving India was associated with trying to get into the airport. There are armed guards at the entrance and if you do not have a printed itinerary with your name on it, they will not let you in. Most Americans would respond by saying something like – “let me go in and get a print out of my itinerary from the airline check in counter, and bring it back and show you”. This won’t work, and you will have to go back to a hotel to print out your itinerary (with your name on it). I know someone who fired up their laptop outside the airport and showed their itinerary on-screen to the guard (which surprisingly worked). So, small things you aren’t aware of can make things unnecessarily difficult.
I would like to thank my hosts in India - Mr. Najeeb Jung, Prof Syed Mohammad Rashid, Prof. Faizan Ahmad, Prof Pankaj Sharan, Asimul Islam and M. I. Hassan. And also Dr. Suman Kundu, and Dr. Vikash Dubey, for making this such a memorable trip.