It’s been a while since I’ve blogged about my travels. Perhaps it’s time to start again?
I’ve just completed a whirlwind tour of England’s north, a bit of Switzerland, and Venice, Italy. With a 24-hour turnaround, I’m now back in India, where I am once more participating in the summer institute of the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar campus, in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. You may recall (but probably won’t) that I was one of the instructors in 2015, as well.
My trip here began with the necessary lengthy flights, including fighting for space with a very large dude in the middle seat, who insisted on spilling over into my space. The look on my face says it all:
This was followed by a lovely leg from London to Ahmedabad on Indian Airlines. I managed to score an aisle bulkhead seat with plenty of legroom for my stubby little legs:
All was joyful, minus the penchant for Indian men to fart incessantly. The fellow next to me, who was otherwise quite pleasant, was a bountiful geological source of natural gas. I blame the steady diet of dal and rice. One interesting observation is the extent to which the Indian Airlines staff tolerate children… much more so than Western staff would have. Toddlers under 2 years of age freely wander the plane visiting with the staff. At one point, a flight attendant snatched a child, put it on her lap, and sat there with it for some time. No parent came to investigate or apologize. It all felt totally natural.
The flight was further complicated by the fact that my table tray refused to be extracted. This meant that I could not be fed, which, I believe, is some sort of airline violation. It’s at least an Indian cultural violation. The bhai must be fed!
It took four airline crew members 15 minutes and a can of WD-40 to muscle my tray out, and I got to be the passengers’ main attraction for that time, a role with which I am fully comfortable. A video of their success is here.
The entire time, I hinted that they should just upgrade me to first class, since they had already floated the idea of moving me to another seat (which was not possible, since economy class was full). No joy:
Foolishly, I had told my hosts in India that my flight would arrive at 4:30pm. I’d been traveling so much, and converting so many time zones, that I failed to convert the time, having taken the note on my Google calendar (which is still set to Ottawa time) at face value. In other words, the time was wrong. I would actually arrive almost half a day later, at 2:AM. This was important because a student and a driver had already been assigned to pick me up, and there would be chaos if I were to mysteriously not arrive.
After emailing absolutely everyone I know who is associated with the program, I had boarded the flight and trusted my pick-up to fate. The plane landed an hour early. (Who does that?) I managed to be the first person off the flight. (When does that happen?) I further was the first person through the immigration line. (That never happens!) Then, my bag was the first one down the carousel and I was the first one out the airport!
Of course then I had to wait another hour for my driver(s) to arrive, if indeed they would arrive. So what followed was a tense wait, during which I put together contingency plans. Could I identify and book a hotel at this late hour? There was no wifi, and my phone would not connect to a local service, so options were limited.
I should note that in Indian airports, once you leave the airport, you cannot come back in. Security will stop you. So leaving the airport at 2:AM without a ride and destination identified would be a delicate decision. The airport offers safety, air-conditioning, ATM machines, and services. Outside the airport, you’re on your own.
I saw several drivers waiting outside with placards. Could one of these be mine? One placard had, “Welcome Mr. Radonardo”. Okay, my name –Ray Deonandan– had been misspelled in worse ways. Surely, this could be me, no? But then I reasoned that if anyone would get my name right, it would be Indians.
Then I saw two sheepish young men frantically checking their phones. They held a placard…. backwards. I gestured to them frantically to turn the placard around, to no avail. So after some waiting, I decided to leave the safety and comfort of the airport to look at their placard. Sure enough, it was for me. They had been trying to find my photograph on their phones.
I was quickly driven to my accommodations on the brand new campus of IITGN. Now, you must understand that Indian university campuses are extraordinary facilities. They are sprawling micro-cities, often with complex housing solutions for students and faculty alike. They are renowned for their facilities for visiting scholars, in particular. IITGN is no exception. I am sharing a 3-bedroom condominium with a Vice-Dean from the University of Saskatechewan, which is just fine. The condo is enormous and comfortable.
The campus is gorgeous and labyrinthine, and is still under construction. As with all Indian construction projects, the workers are families of low-caste individuals who also live in their own temporary shantytown on campus. The children run around aimlessly while their parents work the site. It is an educational opportunity, mostly lost. However, there are initiatives on campus to provide free primary education to these kids, who otherwise face dire futures.
Every space on Earth is an eco-system, including every square centimetre of our very bodies. Indian university campuses are thriving, macrobiotic ecologies. On this campus, there are endless species of nesting water birds, various lizards –including monitor lizards who hunt the birds, wild dogs who hunt the lizards, and various deer-like or elk-creatures whose names I do not know. How they thrive in this oppressive 33 degree heat, I do not know.
In many ways, this campus’s ecology is a microcosm of the new India. Modernity, nature, pollution, knowledge, poverty, wealth, and even nuclear power coexist uneasily:
Yesterday, I discovered the campus gym. This is astounding. I’ve been coming to India for 20 years now, and slowly I’ve noticed the emergence of fitness culture. In the past, I would go to a hotel gym, and people would gather to watch me lift weights. It was such an alien, American idea to much of the country. With the now commonality of muscled Bollywood actors, exercise is more widely accepted. But to find a well equipped gym was still surprising:
I braved a workout in the extreme heat, and was not surprised to find that all the machines were in a state of severe disrepair. Yes, there is a gym. But no one seems to want to use it after someone broke it.
I should add that though I was alone in the gym, enduring the heat while I exerted myself, outside a handful of children were learning karate. So if they could handle it, what excuse could I make?
As noted, the campus is an unintentional labyrinth. Yes, I got lost on the way back to my room. For a moment, I was worried I would collapse in the heat, having just worked out. But by some miracle, I made it back to airconditioned salvation. Here’s a brief video tour of a piece of the campus, showing off its 1970s Logan’s Run sensibilities:
Another of the joys of teaching here is the food provided in the mess hall. As a vegetarian society, each meal consists of rice and/or an Indian bread (usually chapati), some kind of dal, delicious homemade yogurt, and a vegetable curry. I can see how some people find it repetitive. But I’m just loving it.
At dinner last night, I was joined by four students from Texas A&M University. They are all undergraduates studying petroleum engineering (of course), and have chosen to do their 4th year undergraduate research projects under Indian mentors. Interestingly, all four were ethnically non-white (two Indian-descent, one Chinese, one Vietnamese). They say their cohort includes a Latin American and a fellow from Cameroon. I found this peculiar since Texas is filled with white folks, no? They explained that the people most excited about seeing the world are those who are already from other parts of the world. Their white American classmates are not similarly motivated.
I found this to be both sad and alarming, but not altogether surprising.
Other observations they made included that the Indian professors had higher expectations of them than their American professors did. These expectations had little to do with actual content knowledge, but more about independence, maturity, and self-management.
I am here ostensibly to teach Indian graduate students and junior faculty. But I know that there is much that we can learn from Indian academics, as well.