Youth without Youth
The SAARC youth festival in Delhi was supposed to be a South Asian melting pot of ideas, languages and culture. The event itself was first proposed earlier on this year at the SAACR summit in Delhi and almost miraculously, they managed to arrange one within six months of the initial proposal. The team from Bangladesh was selected well before time and the itinerary was approved and sent to the delegates, it all seemed a little too good to be true. There were to be dinners, lunches and meetings with numerous other students and officials, sight seeing tours were arranged as well more than enough time to get to know ones fellow delegates. A week off university, an all expenses paid trip and the endless possibilities of mingling with the best and brightest of South Asia, but then again there is more than a slip betwixt cup and lip, and what a slip that was.
The SAARC Youth Festival promised a lot and in the end delivered very little if any, it was up to the delegates from the seven different nations to make best use of the mismanaged trip they were presented with.
From Bangladesh 10 university students and 5 teaches were selected to take part in the festival and they went through a rather long and vigorous process of selection. A process that brought about a spectacular group of young individuals from different backgrounds with different ambitions. There were seven students from public universities along with three from private institutions and to simply be selected was an honour for me. The excitement reached fever pitch in the days leading up to our departure, with 10 people calling and getting to know each other before we spent a week together.
The paper says it all
The trip started on December 2 and it proved to be an inauspicious start as our plane was delayed by over an hour, the flipside was that we were flown all the way to Delhi in Executive Class, the flight was memorable if not the food. After touching down in a chilly Delhi our real troubles began as we waited to be picked up from the airport. Eventually we did find our ride whose appearance did not inspire much confidence, but cheerily we were along with it. The itinerary sent by the Indian Government and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) had the teachers staying at the plush and swanky Hotel Ashoka, known as the first and finest five star hotel in Delhi, while the students were to stay at The Regency. But 20 minutes into the drive to our respective hotels we found ourselves in the uncomfortable surroundings of Karol Bagh, a filthy budget traveller's heaven. Without so much as a call or liaison officer to take care of us, we were bewilderingly dropped off at what can only be called the seediest hotel in that neighbourhood. For all intent and practical purposes we were dumped in a dump.
Our teachers were visibly angry as they were demoted from swanky to stinky in a matter of minutes but it getting close to 9:30, there was nothing left for us to but spend the night in what can at best be called the Adams family residence. The rooms were musty and cheap with ancient bathrooms. We were wondering if a mix up had been made, then our national persecution complex seeped into out thoughts as we pondered and debated why Bangladesh must always be treated like a fifth cousin twice removed. A gala SAARC concert was on the itinerary for the day and we thought at least we could drown our sorrows in some good music and maybe even meet some of the delegates from the other countries. That thought was put to rest as were swiftly told the concert was cancelled, finally frustrated we decided to drown our hopes in a good meal. Then we found out the unfortunate news that the hotel we were in was not large enough to provide us with a meal and we would have to walk down to the hotel where the delegation from Bhutan was staying to share a meal with them. The cold walk to their hotel did little for our spirits as we were still wondering why no one had come to meet and break us into our new environment. It seemed absurd that a delegation for such a prestigious event would be so badly misled, from the hotels to our general treatment. A good meal would have done us a lot of good and that is exactly what we got. We waited on the roof of a hotel equally pathetic as ours for the Bhutanese team to finish eating (the place was too small for all of us to eat at the same time) and then made our first introductions. Within 5 minutes of meeting the Bhutanese we realised that we were not the only ones facing problems, they had arrived a day before us and almost mirrored our words with their complaints. Their eloquent leader Pema Tshomo complained bitterly as they were seemingly flown to Delhi and forgotten about, no phone calls, no enquiries, no nothing. We were all strangers in a strange land, with even stranger hosts.
The meal was lovely (as anything would be compared to airline food) as we were served Dal Makhani, mixed vegetables, tomato chicken with rice and roti. Remember this meal, because little did we know we would be served it every day of our stay there. We got back to the hotel, and tried to make best use of the substandard conditions, dreaming that in the morning all our problems would be solved. The following day we were supposed to meet the students, teachers and vice chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, even before breakfast we realised that was not going to happen. The daylight brought our real surroundings to our eyes as were in a filthy, stray dog infested part of town, no place for any SAARC delegation let along Bangladesh. On our cold and dust walk to breakfast we first encountered the Sri Lankan delegation which greeted us warmly, but the warmth all but faded as they talked about the arrangements of the trip so far. By mid day no one had informed any of the delegations what was happening and we were all feeling quite out of place. It seemed as if we had actually been forgotten, we were kept in filthy unhygienic hotels while we were promised grandeur the itinerary we had all been given seemed as useless as the piles of formal clothes we had brought along.
It was only after lunch any one actually contacted us, the same unimpressive man who had picked us up from the airport now arrived in a dark grey suit, looking quite professional. He offered no apologies but instead said that the schedule had been changed, no meeting with university professors, students and VC's today. Instead we weren give a bus to take us to the heart of the city, for no real purpose at all. He refused to answer questions about where we were put up and how no one had contacted us, it was 'be happy with what we giving you' conversation. We took the buses into the city centre pondering what to do, and where the festival had gone. We were later shifted from out first seedy hotel into our second, right next door to the first. This was our apparent upgrade, this trip was going downhill fast. The second day passed with ease as Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Bangladesh bonded through our collective misery.
A cultural function was planned for the third day and for the first time were to actually meet the delegates from other countries. It was a thunderous flop as they first took us to the venue more than two hours before it even began. We arrived there to find only roughly 50 seats for the more than 150 invited. The tour was in shambles and at least this time we could vent our frustrations. There were reporters from the print and television media who eagerly took down our stories of disgust. So much so that the following day our mismanaged trip was the lead story on the front page of The Mid Day. My thanks goes out the reporter who wrote that story, we thought at least that should shame them, but it didn't. The cultural programme was enlivened by some Punjabi dance and by a beautiful dance recital from the Nepali delegation. And finally on the third day of the SAARC youth festival we met the other participants, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nepal. Sadly the Maldives could not attend. This was turning out to be a festival all right, but for the all the wrong reasons. The next few days brought more despair but coupled with the silver lining of SAARC friendship.
To be continued next week
(R) thedailystar.net 2007