Don's diary: watch that cow

May 10, 2002

Friday
An early start for Chennai, via Newcastle, Heathrow and Dubai. I am spending a week in southern India on behalf of the Sterling Group, an informal aggregate of 23 UK engineering departments formed some years ago to raise awareness in southeast Asia of the excellence of the teaching and research that takes place in member institutions.

Annual tours are arranged to Malaysia and Singapore, comprising a prestige lecture in each location, backed up by supporting lectures to sixth-form colleges and meetings with government ministers and other influential organisations and individuals. About a dozen universities send representatives on the tour.

As committee member, I have been asked, along with Peter Goodhew, group chairman from the University of Liverpool, to reconnoitre possibilities for an extension of the group's activities into southern India.

Looking forward to relaxing in the hotel at Dubai during my seven-hour stopover but I end up marooned in departures, having been given the wrong directions by airport officials. Spend an uncomfortable night thinking of Peter snoozing peacefully in the hotel.

Saturday
Meeting Peter at the departure gate, I find he too was given wrong instructions and spent an uncomfortable night in the terminal building thinking of me snoozing peacefully in the hotel.

Sunday
Recover by visiting the Mamallapuram temples about an hour's drive south of Chennai. The four spectacular temples, many hundreds of years old, were sculpted from masses of solid rock and must have taken years, if not centuries, to construct. One slip of the chisel and a whole new outcrop would have had to be found.

Monday, Tuesday
A hectic round of visits to universities, colleges and industry arranged by the British deputy high commissioner. We are accompanied by Kishore Kumar from the high commission, an excellent guide and a mine of information. The traffic is spectacularly awful. The driver of our Austin Ambassador, an automotive icon of India, weaves and hoots his way through a torrent of cars, trucks, buses, motorbikes, auto-rickshaws, scooters, pushbikes and animals. The more sporting among them add extra spice to their journeys by travelling against the flow. An evening journey from the suburbs back to our hotel becomes two hours of gridlocked cacophony. Turning on sidelights seems to be viewed as a symbol of weakness, as do streetlights. Cows wander as they please, oblivious to the pandemonium around them.

Wednesday, Thursday, Friday
Our Airbus to Bangalore appears to have been the first one ever made. I hope that its engines are in better condition than the interior. The runway at Bangalore feels in much the same state as Chennai's roads. Bangalore is the IT capital of southern India and a city still heavily influenced by military establishments and customs. This must be why its traffic all heads in the same direction.

Our meetings in Bangalore have been arranged by the British Trade Office, which proves every bit as helpful and efficient as the office in Chennai.

During our week, we have managed 22 meetings, and all the astonishing richness of India has emerged. Everywhere we have been received with courtesy and enthusiasm and interest in our proposed lecture tour is high. We feel encouraged.

Friday night
Head for home. A seven-hour stopover at Chennai leaves us feeling like connoisseurs of the departure lounge.

Saturday
Our late arrival at Dubai makes catching connections a challenge. Hurtling through the terminal building I am stopped at a security check by an official convinced that I am harbouring a knife. He remains unconvinced even after a fruitless search of my bags until I point out that the image on his computer screen is for someone else's luggage, whereupon I am dismissed with a wave of the arm. Just make the flight to Heathrow and finally arrive in Newcastle late afternoon. The drive home is down a pleasantly cow-free A1.

Richard Scott is reader in engineering, University of Durham.

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