Saturday, August 19, 2017

imprisoned in India

So far, this has been a bit different from what I had expected.  I'm in Hyderabad to attend the Congress of the International Union of Crystallography, an epic bash that happens once every three years and brings thousands of crystallographers together.  I left Zurich last night after an ominous evening when gale-force winds nearly blasted our backyard furniture into oblivion.  At the airport, it was as if nothing had happened.  No delays and no cancelations.

After a stop in Muscat, I arrived in Hyderabad in the midst of monsoon.  It seemed as if we had landed in a field.  From the airplane, I saw no evidence of civilization and certainly no traces of the town itself.  My doubts were dispelled quickly.  The airport was well laid out and nearly void of people.  Immigration took less than a minute.  I made it from the gate to the curb in about five minutes, so fast that I missed the change wallahs and stood by the taxi rank without a single rupee to my name.

It's curious that I should have thought about money at this point.  Exiting an Indian airport, in other words setting foot on Indian soil for the first time, I expected to be overwhelmed, hit in the face with noise, litter and chaos.  I found none.  Instead, the muggy heat, spacious ground level car park and slightly sloppy driving vaguely reminded me of Marseille.  And where were the begging cripples?  This didn't look like India at all – except that prices were in rupees, which I didn't have.

"No worries", said a fellow with a managerial air.  "We'll charge an estimated maximum to your credit card.  The driver will run the meter and, at your hotel, return whatever you didn't owe."  Does this ring your alarm bells?  It should.  This sounds like the perfect recipe to milk clueless tourists.  My fears were allayed somewhat when the manager and the driver discussed the fare and the driver insisted on a lower amount to be paid up-front.  In the end, the actual fare fell short by a bit, but there was never any talk of returning the difference.  There was my tip taken care off.

If the airport didn't match my ideas of India, the drive to the hotel didn't either.  Apart from a set of axle-breaking speed bumps at a tool booth, the infrastructure seemed in good shape.  No potholes, and the bridges looked fine.  For the first part of the drive, the verges were positively beautiful, with neatly trimmed grass, trees in yellow bloom and what vaguely looked like crane flowers but white.

There were three lanes to the highway but hardly any traffic.  There were no cows and no rickshaws.  Later, in more urban surroundings, yellow three-wheeled micro-taxis, mopeds and a lonely cyclist added elements of adventure, but life on the motorway was rather staid.  Here and there, cars stood in the emergency lane, their drivers hurrying back and forth in what might have been dodgy business.  Here and there again, small groups of women seemed to be just hanging out but were in all likelihood engaged in crucial but invisible maintenance work.  It didn't matter.  There was enough space for everyone.

The most notable features of the countryside were rocks.  In places, the road seemed to be machined into the topology of the land, with a wall of rock like in a quarry left behind on either side.  This was reflected by solitary formations near and far that wouldn't be out of place in Utah, huge boulders precariously balanced one on top of the other.  Here, they weren't of sandstone but of grey granite.  Many developments, among them the hotel I'm staying in, incorporated these piles as centerpieces.

The hotel, to get back to the point of this post, and the adjacent conference center sit on a piece of land all to themselves.  Around is an impenetrable fence.  The access road passes through a gate with a security check.  There is no footpath and no easy way out.  Going for dinner requires a taxi, which seems a bit of a faff.  If not carceral, the hotel is at least a gilded cage of dubious value.  Richard Marx wafts up to my room from a dozen outdoor speakers.  From my window I can see grass, a terrace and a pool, but not India.  After eight hours in the country, it is as if I weren't here.

It gets worse.  Times Now TV has just exposed that the #CowardChineseArmy has pelted stones at Indian braves in what's claimed to be a major altercation at the shared border.  The Indians have pushed back valiantly, but there's no guarantee the two countries won't go to war tomorrow.  What am I doing here?