Ambling in Ahmedabad

Yes, I have returned to India. This time, I am one of several visiting Canadian scholars delivering a summer institute on global health and development at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar campus (IITGN) in Ahmedabad, Gujarat.  (Here’s a news item about the event.)

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I will write about my trip as my schedule allows, though it’s proving increasingly more difficult to find a few productive minutes in order to do so. If you’d like to read about my previous travels to India, just click on the “India” category at the top or bottom of this post, or select “India” from the category drop-down menu on the main page. Same goes for “travel” in general, or any other topic that I tend to drone on about.

As I write this, it is 11:pm Sunday night, or close to 2pm back in Ottawa. I am sorely jetlagged. I must be up at 6:AM again to squeeze in my workout, wolf down the high-carb breakfast that is the norm here, and begin another full day of teaching and consulting. All in temperatures reaching 46 degrees Celcius.

Our story begins with a marathon 29 hour journey from Ottawa, including a 15 hour direct flght from Newark to Mumbai. I’d actually paid extra for an upgrade to Premium Economy on United Airlines —which I highly recommend. But right away the airline pissed me off. While everyone around me was served their specially-ordered vegetarian meals (we’re going to India, remember?) the flight attendants forgot to return and serve me my regular, non-special meal.

This may sound like nitpicking. But when you’re trapped in the air for a whole day, at the mercy of others for all your sustenance, and you’re desperately hungry, not being fed -while others around you are quit well fed– is frankly infuriating. Pressing the call button resulted in no action.

Two hours later, when the flight attendants returned to pick up the plate, I was able to inform them of their oversight. They apologized and offered to bring me two free alcoholic beverages.

Interestingly, all they had left were special vegetarian meals (which suggests they ain’t so special). So they brought me one…. without cutlery.

So I pressed the call button again, and nothing happened. Another 30 minutes went by, and a flight attendant walked by. Only then was I able to request cutlery. It was now midnight. Everyone else had eaten three hours ago and were asleep. My hunger was making me curt and irate.

And I never got that second drink.

Now, this post is not just about complaining. (And if it were just about complaining, it’s my blog and I can write what I want. So deal with it.) Rather, another interesting thing happened on that flight…. there was wifi!

This was my first time in an airplane with internet access. Yes, it cost me $17, which was totally worth it for a 15 hour flight. The game now was whether my laptop would maitain its charge for those hours, because in 2015 it’s astounding that United runs an intercontinental flight with no facility for charging electronic devices.

Anyway, because I was online, I was able to Tweet United’s customer service in real time. And they were able to investigate the shoddy in-air service as it was occurring. I’m sure there’s going to be a black mark next to my name the next time I check into a United flight. But I didn’t do anything wrong.

Overall, though, I must say that the combination of Premium Economy, a single long-haul flight, and continuous wifi made the experience a rather pleasant one.

And yes, my laptop –my trusty Asus T100 transformer notebook– still had 39% battery life after 15 hours. Oh, and I’m pretty sure I’m the first person to successfully torrent a TV show while 30,000 feet above the Atlantic ocean. Don’t ask me how I did it.

But my travel woes did not end with my extreme hunger. Arriving at Mumbai, I had to transfer to a local flight to Ahmedabad. So, under direction from airport staff, I got a bus to the domestic airport in Mumabi, two enormous bags in tow.

Some of the stunning artwork in Mumbai international airport
Some of the stunning artwork in Mumbai international airport

Fighting Mumbai night traffic is worrisome at the best of times. Doing so while jetlagged, unslept for a day, dragging two suitcases, and worried about making a connecting flight makes it a dire experience indeed.

So I got to the domestic terminal three hours later, paid a porter to lug my bags to the door, and was told that my domestic flight actually leaves from the international airport from which I just left.

That’s right. Read that again.

Quickly, I hired another porter, stood in line to hire a pre-paid taxi (which is a frustrating experience in the searing heat, when you’re insanely tired, and locals keep budding in front of you in line), and got a car to return me to the international terminal.

Five hours had now passed. I made to the Air India check-in line and had to wait another 45 minutes for them to check me into my domestic flight from the international terminal. Sigh.

Interestingly, I saw in the line a bunch of people who were also in the initial bus that I had taken to the domestic terminal. So clearly I wasn’t the only one being taken on a literal ride.

One bright spot to this leg of the journey is that the check-in woman took pity on me and did not charge me for my second bag. Instead, she gave me a fake upgrade to business class so that I would be allowed more baggage.

I say “fake” because it allowed me to go through the special security line for first class passengers, but my seat was still in economy class.

Yes, I felt like an impostor.

After 29 hours of nonstop travel
After 29 hours of nonstop travel

Okay, stories of my travel woes are done.

After 29 hours of continuous travel, I arrived at 3:AM in Ahmedabad, which is a very conservative, somewhat right-wing mostly fundamentalist Hindu city. My brother-in-law, who is also one of the professors involved in the summer institute, picked me up and took me to my fancy digs.

Yes, my droogies, for one month I am the sole resident of a posh (by Indian standards) three bedroom apartment in a gated community.

My sweet 3-bedroom apartment
My sweet 3-bedroom apartment

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I barely had time to unpack, shower and change before joining the other professors for breakfast and a drive to the university, IITGN.

The audience for the opening address at IITGN
The audience for the opening address at IITGN

It was the opening day of the event. I was asked to say a few words at the beginning. Ever given a talk, unprepared with no notes or slides, before a foreign audience after over a day of continuous travel and no sleep? I didn’t think so. It’s a special experience. I enjoyed every moment of it. (My remarks were recorded.  You can watch them here.)

So here are my first two observations of IITGN and the summer institute. The first is that the attending students really are a diverse and impressive bunch. There are about forty of them, and they range from first year undergrads to assistant professors. I should note that attendees have come from all over India, and that their expenses are covered by generous corporate sponsorship. Some have graduate training in public health and epidemiology, while others come from clinical or purely scientific background, while others still are strictly humanities or social sciences people.

The second observation is that our keynote speaker today was simply fabulous. In fact, I think he should teach every class at the institute for the next month!

One of Professor Mavalankar's slides
One of Professor Mavalankar’s slides

Professor Dileep Mavalankar is a no-nonsense public health epidemiologist who tells it like it is. Some key take-away messages from his gripping presentation:

  • you don’t need to have fancy statistics to tell a good epidemiological story
  • maps are useful, and Indians don’t seem to like maps… that’s everyone from the taxi driver to the national statistics keepers.
  • India has very poor tombstone data. For some reason, this country does not prioritize the ascertaining of causes of death.
  • India has a blindspot where it comes to data from private health care. What we know about public health data comes from government centres. Yet a hefty proportion of citizenry receives its care from private doctors who do not report their data.
  • the WHO, in his opinion, is not an ally when it comes to assuring data quality in India
  • the interdisciplinary approach is critical when it comes to addressing healt disparity in India

All good stuff, and all delivered with that special curmudgeonly charm that bleeds unfettered honesty.

I retired halfway through the day, after another carb-fueled lunch. The food here is tremendous. I adore diversified Indian vegetarian fare, and that’s what we get. However, it’s a little heavy on the carbs for me. Not sure how long my insulin levels will be under control. Combined with my jetlag and undersleep, the carbs were enough to send me to my bed at 2pm.

…But not before taking a moment to observe all the adorable stray dogs here. As I had to bid a tear-filled temporary farewell to my own four-legged friend in Ottawa, I do seem to notice the canine cuteness a little more than usual. Sniff.

One of the many cute --and well fed-- street puppies in Ahmedabad
One of the many cute –and well fed– street puppies in Ahmedabad

Well, it’s midnight now. Time to pop some Melatonin and try to sync with the local time.

See you suckas later!

Professorial garb for 46 degree heat. I can also pass as a museum tour guide or transit official.
Professorial garb for 46 degree heat. I can also pass as a museum tour guide or transit official.