Asuncion is the capital of Paraguay in Latin America. President Lugo, who is now in power, strongly favours Free Software (FS) and wants to promote FS in the country. But there is no strong FS community in the country to help him -- a strange situation; in most places we have strong communities but the authorities are dificult to convince. In the situation, it was decided to organise an International Conference on Free Software during April 23-24. Nicolas Caballero of the Technical Unit for the Modernisation of Administration was in charge of organising the conference. Some of the leading developers and activists, like David Sugar, Marco Ciurcina from Italy, Charles Escobar from Ecuador, José Perez from Bolivia and Diego Saravia from Argentina, were invited. Because my friend Juan Carlos Gentile played an important role behind the scenes, and he has been thinking that Latin America should have tie ups with India, I got invited to the conference.
Being an invitee, they were supposed to send me my ticket to Asuncion. There was no sign of the ticket for a long time, and then my friend Juan asked me to go to Delhi and collect my visa, with the assurance that the ticket would reach me soon. So I reached Delhi on 18th night and my son picked me up. That night I was told that there was a mistake, I should go to the Consulate only on Tuesday because when they said Monday, what they had in mind was their Monday. Because of the nine and a half hour difference in time, that would be Tuesday in Delhi. I went to the Consulate on Tuesday and they were virtually waiting for me. Though I was now armed with the passport and ready to leave, the ticket still did not arrive. So my friend Juan suggested that I try for a ticket from India. That was when I too learnt about the problem the organisers also were facing -- the rush for travelling to Europe when flights resumed after being held up for several days due to the volcanic eruption in Iceland. But I was still able to find a seat via Mumbai-Dubai-Sao Paulo. But I decided to wait till the organisers confirmed that they would reimburse.
But meanwhile they were able to get hold of a ticket, also via Dubai-Sao Paulo and I received it on 21st evening. The ticket was for early morning of April 23, reaching Asuncion late night the same day because of the large time difference. The flight from Delhi was at 04:15 hr and the scheduled arrival in Asuncion was at 23:05 hr, which means a total travel duration of almost 28 hr 20 minutes! This was going to be the longest (distance-wise) journey I have ever in my life time!
I decided to carry as little luggage as possible and to confine it to cabin baggage. My son and my friend Sundar were of the opinion that I should carry plenty of clothes, but I stubbornly stuck to my plan and carried only one luggage (that could be checked in if needed) and a laptop bag that contained only a couple of books in addition to my laptop and accessories. My son, Akshay, and our friend Balachandran dropped me at the airport. When I checked in, I was not sure how the luggage would go, but the man at the counter of Emirates allowed me to carry both the bags with me in the cabin. So that saved the time required to wait for my luggage and reduced the tension about possible loss of luggage.
We had reached the Delhi airport around 01:30 hr on 23rd and the flight took off on time. Then there was a tough wait at Dubai airport for about four hours. I found a seat and started reading a book. It was tough to read the book on the one hand and keep awake on the other. But I somehow managed it because I had slept euring the day time and throughout the flight (except when the served the food). The flight from Dubai to Sao Paulo was the toughest part, lasting some 16 hours. I allowed myself to fall asleep whenever possible, but I needed to keep moving my feet so that they did not swell due to the long periods of being seated. I could not bring myself to watch the television programmes being dished out either. It was a truly challenging period, but finally we landed at Sao Paulo.
The wait at Sao Paulo was shorter, about three hours, and that period passed off relatively quickly. The flight from Sao Paulo to Asuncion was operated by TAM, an airlines from Paraguay. While both the flights from Delhi to Dubai and Dubai to Sao Paulo were operated by Emirates, and used huge Boeing 777-200 aircraft, the one to Asuncion was a smaller aircraft, possibly 747. And there were very few passengers. there was just one more passenger in the row in which I was sitting near the window. The flight was short, about two hours, and we soon landed.
As I came out of the aircraft and entered the airport building, I saw a person waiting with my name printed in large characters. I approached him and nodded to indicate that I was the person. Then things happened very quickly. I was taken through a special route (I thought it was the diplomatic channel) and seated in a luxurious lounge. A lady came there and collected my passport and customs declaration forms. Before I could use the toilet and sit down properly, she was back saying that everything was okay and I could leave. The gentleman who received me found a guy who was waiting for me with a car and I was soon moving towards the hotel where I am still put up and where the conference was held. This was an astonishing experience for me! I was being treated almost like a state guest!
The way passengers were treated in Dubai airport, I thought, left much to be desired. The officials there almost treated the passengers like cattle, though their language was always decent. Their body language showed what they thought, and occasionally they were rude to non-white passengers. I would have thought that their natural allies should be countries like India. Things were much better in Sao Paulo and some officials were really helpful. In the hotel, the counter clerk showed surprise when I told him that I was from India. I must be one of the very few Indians who have come to this hotel, and maybe even this country!
(About the conference itself, I should be soon writing in space blog, with photographs. See http://spacetvm.blogspot.com/)