As I said, this institute is taking place at a resort--the MGM Resort, to be precise--which I have taken to calling Fantasy Island . It is a huge, sprawling resort, and I've never experienced anything like it. There are at least three different playgrounds, though no children play on them, a swimming pool, a vast and beautiful beach, though littered with thousands of bits of plastic debris, and hundreds of little attached luxury huts and rooms. The rooms are a good size, relatively clean, with private bathrooms, television, and air conditioning. There is a restaurant, room and laundry service, an Ayurvedic spa, and a conference building where we meet for our (never-ending) tutorials on nanoscience. It is a totally self contained unit--there is nothing within walking distance except a small arts colony where tourists can go haggle over etchings of Ganesha and embroidered textiles. Otherwise, you get everything you need from the resort.
I think it's a close approximation of a luxury resort, in other words. That said, signs of the surrounding developing world creep in via cracks and crevices. Though I have a perfectly lovely room, friends here have been attacked by errant frogs, rats, mosquitoes, and various other creatures in theirs. Two people may have malaria already. There is an old man who wheels around the resort on a flat cart, holding a real-live monkey dressed up in a pretty dress. It is rare to get a hot shower. It is rare to get a tepid shower. It took six calls to the front desk to get a battery for the clock in my room (my watch died on the airplane). I got a massage and though it only cost $15, my purse left the spa a good $60 lighter than that, given that it was raided while I was in the sauna (note to self: go to spa with only as much money as you need). At least my passport was spared. There are water damage marks on the walls and ceilings, if you look close enough, and fields nearby still show signs of the tsunami that swept through here a few years back.
This doesn't mention the most important element, the people in service here, who are incredibly obsequious and compliant but who also are very aware of the raw deal and who would like a better one.
I read this over and see it seems as if I'm complaining and overthinking everything. I'm not, not in the least. I mean, I'm in India . I went to a spa, for chrissakes. I have internet access. I have a ready supply of money if I need it. I've been loving the food, the cultural performances, meeting all of these incredible new people. In fact, life is incredibly easy here on Fantasy Island . There is plentiful and safe bottled water, the food has been fantastic (though spicy enough to melt your face off). A phone call gets you anything you need. These are the vast privileges of being a westerner, in a resort, in India .
Still, there are a number of Americans here who are really struggling with the small stuff. They are freaked out by the dive-bombing flies and the "strange" food and the incredibly long Indian music concerts we've been attending at night. They are "angsty" as one of them put it. They are checking to see if they can change their return flights.
But, for me, the whole experience is a little ridiculous, a little unreal. I find myself laughing out loud at inappropriate moments, at the incongruity of it all. I'm not sure what I want. No doubt about it--I like being so comfortable, so safe. But also I wonder why come all the way to India if we are not going to see it, not going to at least understand what it's like outside the compound walls? I feel like I'm trapped in a reality tv show, where the producers have engineered a sanitized experience, but made things just different enough to trigger some people, making things interesting for the viewers at home. We are completely protected, except from ourselves. Not that a day trip into the impoverished masses will change that in anyway. I get that. It's all tourism, anyway you cut it, wherever you go.
I think we'll start to get out of the compound tomorrow, making day trips to the city, the temples, the universities. We'll get off the island! Until then, I'm trapped in this air-conditioned conference room, listening to talks I can't even begin to understand, and occasionally swatting at flies that land on my keyboard. I don't mean to suggest I'm not completely enjoying and immersing myself in this experience, for what it is. It's fantastic in so many ways. But it's also fantastic in a lot of ways, fantasy. I'm just wondering at the weirdness of this strange form of tourism.