I neglected in my last blogs to mention the two receptions I have attended. The first took place on 1 October to celebrate the opening of the ‘COP-MOP’ (the governing body of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety) and the second took place on 8 October to celebrate the opening of the ‘COP’ (the governing body of the Convention on Biological Diversity).
COP-MOP Reception (1 October):
This was a big disappointment. I had been really looking forward to it as the one that took place in 2010 in Nagoya, Japan, was outstanding. The Nagoya celebration took place in a beautiful hotel and served up the most gigantic buffet I have ever seen in my entire life – honestly, I have never been in the presence of so much awesome food. Also, in Nagoya, people milled around as they ate and drank and the first disappointing thing about the Hyderabad reception was that it was a sit-down dinner and you were stuck with the people you were sitting with for the duration of the evening. I was with colleagues who I like so this was not so bad in and of itself. What was truly horrible was the so-called “entertainment” which consisted of 3 “musicians”: one flailed away directionlessly on an elaborate drum kit; another banged out about 3 and a half chords on keys; and the worst was the guy who mercilessly tortured an innocent sitar with such fervor that, minus the deafening noise pollution he produced from it, anyone would think he was the Indian reincarnation of Jimi Hendrix. Each “song” lasted about 25 minutes (think 1970s epic rock band ‘Yes’ gone catastrophically wrong) and ended with a sitar solo composed in the fiery depths of hell. We had to sit and listen to this awful rubbish for 2 hours before we were fed. The food was delicious but difficult to keep down as the “band” continued to “play” throughout dinner as well. On the upside, oceans of free-flowing alcohol served to anaesthetize the senses, including auditory, so as to prevent the bathrooms being converted into make-shift vomitoria. At 9:30 I fled and was appalled when the guy at the door informed me that the “musicians” on stage are 3 of the biggest pop stars in India (no, I do not know their names and I do not want to know).
COP Reception (8 October):
Now this was one fantastic reception for the ages. A complete turn-around from the week before. It took place on the rolling grounds outside of a stadium. The first thing that struck me was how colorful it was. The lighting along the paths, the fountains and the flapping tents that dotted the area was really quite lovely and, lo and behold, there was outstanding entertainment on the main stage. It was also not a formal sit-down dinner – you grabbed what you wanted from the buffet (which was excellent) and milled around at will. The highlight of the evening occurred when the emcee invited attendees to come up on the stage to receive a tutorial in belly dancing. Almost everyone was too shy as there were hundreds in the crowd and the main stage was being broadcast on national television! Nevertheless, a small group of us braved the lights and cameras and mounted the stage, mostly women but there were about 7 of us guys as well. The guys were asked to step to the front first. An Indian belly dancer then trotted on to the stage in front of us. I think the intention was for her to just demonstrate the technique but we all danced along with her making complete fools of ourselves to the uproarious delight of the crowd. After, it was the girls turn – they were, of course, far better than us and even made the front page of the Deccan Chronicle the next morning. Still, the guys were more hilarious (something out of Monty Python!) Shortly afterwards, they opened up the dance floor in front of the stage and the rest of the evening was spent doing some serious butt-shaking with people from literally every corner of the globe. We learned the Indian hand flutter whereby, when dancing, you rapidly gyrate your wrists with thumb and middle finger joined. It was a great night of partying and, had it not been a Monday, I would have stayed all night. The cherry on top was that my dear friend, Nicole, was with us. She is a former intern who is going on to do amazing things and it is so nice to see her here in Hyderabad.
- Speaking of oceans of free-flowing alcohol; before coming here, I had assumed that India was a pretty dry place. It is most definitely not. Indians are hardcore drinkers and I am guessing that this is another 65-year colonial hangover courtesy of the British Empire. There is a place, not 2 blocks from my hotel, called ‘BalajiWines’ (yes, all one word) that sells every variety of alcohol every day of the week from 11:00 am to 10:00 pm. These are unlike any liquor stores back home in that no one can actually go inside, select a bottle, go to the cash and pay for it. Instead, there is an outdoor counter, protected by thick iron bars, where you ‘place your order’. At all hours, there is a crushing mob of people in front of it (all men) and, unless you are willing to wait for 5 hours ‘in the queue’, the idea is to shove, punch, kick and bite your way to the front and manage to get your fist full of cash through the iron grate and shout your order at the top of your lungs. It is well worth the struggle, though, considering a 650ml bottle of Tuborg or Carlsberg costs all of INR 80 (= about CAD $1.50). Hard liquor, which I do not buy, is even more ridiculously cheap with a 750ml bottle of vodka going for INR 300 (= about CAD $5.50). The Indians have a love affair with whiskey though. Almost all of them purchase little hip flask bottles of the hooch that come in a variety of Indian brand names which, not surprisingly, I have never heard of. I had been wondering what the bulge was in the back pockets of so many men here in India. It is a bottle. This has led me to wonder if the chronic sideways head-nodding over here is less a cultural trademark than it is a sign of perpetual inebriation. It also might explain why things get done in India even more glacially than in the sleepiest of Caribbean islands. I also wonder why there are no women buying booze. Perhaps they are aware that pouring alcohol over misery is even less likely to solve anyone’s problems than spending 10 days dancing around in front of giant inflatable purple Ganesha elephant heads. The state also seems to be aware of this as there are frequent “dry days” during which it is strictly prohibited to sell a drop of alcohol anywhere in the entire country. The last one was on 2 October which marked Gandhi’s birthday (apparently that teetotaller is now 143 years old).
- I said in my last blog that I would describe Indian breakfast at my hotel. It is buffet-style. To start, there are 2 bowls of “fresh fruit”. This is NOT to be eaten under any circumstances. First, unless foreigners want to commit themselves to sitting on the toilet, uninterrupted, for at least 48 hours, any fresh fruit must be personally peeled and thoroughly washed in bottled water (called “drinking water” over here). Second, it probably has curry in it. Then there is a bowl teeming with hard boiled eggs. I do not eat these as the shells are pre-shattered and coated in thick grime as if they had been sitting out on Kondapur Road all night. They are also probably injected with curry. After, there is a bowl of some variety of spicy chicken. This is usually delicious except when they serve ‘chicken sausage’ which is truly “lips and assholes” disgusting. Almost every morning there is a bowl of spicy mixed vegetables which I love and I have eaten mountains of the stuff since I have been here. There is usually a wildcard dish (sometimes ‘Veg’, sometimes ‘Non-Veg’ as they say on all the menus here) which is either delicious or batshit ugly (and might account for the dwindling population of stray dogs in the neighborhood). They always serve 2 kinds of bread; (1) Idly: which is a flat, flavorless, white, unleavened bread that I do not like; (2) Wada: a starchy donut-shaped bread that is awesome for dunking in my favorite part of Indian breakfast – a super-spicy soup called Sambar. This soup brings tears to the eyes but it lubricates the bowels and serves nicely as a party trick when you have a sip, light a match in front of your mouth and exhale in order to create a multi-colored fireball. For foreigners who cannot handle Indian breakfast, there is toast and jam, which I have never liked, or cereal which I like even less. On the whole, I am a big fan of Indian breakfast as much as my stomach lining is cursing me right now for writing these words.
- Indians wishing to ruthlessly rip off foreigners do not take kindly to the word “no”. The Tuk-Tuk drivers are the classic example. They congregate in droves outside of the main entrance to the conference centre and here is an exchange I had coming back from the office just now (yes, I’m working on Sunday – bah!):
Tuk-Tuk Driver [earnestly]: Tuk-Tuk, sir?!
Me: No, thank you, I’m walking. And don’t call me ‘sir’.
Tuk-Tuk Driver [his face a mask of startled disbelief]: No!?
Me: That’s right – NO. I’m walking.
Tuk-Tuk Driver: No?! I drive!
Me: Go right ahead but I’m walking.
Tuk-Tuk Driver: No! I drive! Anywhere!
Me: Go away.
Tuk-Tuk Driver [2 minutes later after driving up the street, doing a U-turn and approaching me again as if he was a different Tuk-Tuk driver]: Tuk-Tuk, sir?!
Me: I told you: God gave me 2 legs for walking, so NO!!!
Tuk-Tuk Driver: No?! I drive you for free!
Me: No you won’t. You’ll hold me hostage until I pay you 50 rupees and I want to walk – so, NO!!!
Tuk-Tuk Driver: No?!
Another quick observation on Tuk-Tuk drivers: they, too, are exclusively men. Judging by the amount of dents and scrapes on their vehicles, not to mention the residual film of brain splatter on the edges of the plastic windshields, once again the women are probably smart enough to have figured out that the average lifespan of a Tuk-Tuk driver is approximately 19 years-old.
Okay, these are 3 overly long bullet points and this blog entry is already longer than I had planned. I have actually done some touring in Hyderabad. The first was on Saturday 6 October (disappointing) and the second was yesterday, Saturday 13 October (awesome). I will report on them both in the next blog as well as try and get through the backlog of bullet points – briefly, I hope! Now, I have to get back to work for one more long week and then the real travel begins…