These impressions are based on experiences, both personal and those of some other colleagues during this recent conference held from 11-15 August 1997 in Ceske Budejovice, the Czech Republic.
On a positive note, the Scientific Committee should be congratulated for the scientific content and quality of the majority of papers presented. The variety of topics on show, the ensuing discussions and the general interaction between colleagues from different geographical areas were all characteristic of a successful inter-national conference. The use of English as the official language was restrictive to some speakers, but such barriers were courageously faced and broken, with and without help from others. The “Tower of Babel” scenarios in international conferences are extremely useful for the dispersal of obscure, but interesting information which otherwise gets buried in local journals, government reports and other such documents.
The plenary sessions presented by the well known “reservoir pundits” generated very lively discussion from the audience. An agreement on any point was healthily contested as expected of any international conference. Professor Uhlmann’s remark following the discussion of his lecture on “Reservoirs as Ecosystems” that he first learnt about his topic from the Program printed in the Third Announcement was amusing. Apparently he was not alone and at least one other plenary speaker was hit by an identical surprise!
The conference was organized by a private company based in Praha. For many of us this was a new experience and the amateurish, effervescent, non-profit oriented enthusiasm often seen in conferences organized by academic institutions was clearly missing. The cheap plastic folder handed out during the registration which kept spilling its contents was a constant reminder. The conference desk was run by very charming hostesses who cheerfully did their best to help the participants. Unfortunately, they were as new to Ceske Budejovice as most of us! An exchange overheard was as follows:
Q: Could you please tell me where I can get some picture postcards?
Q: Where do I get stamps?
Q: Where is the post office?
All above services were available five minutes away, across the road!
Student volunteers and researchers from the academy were of great help on and off the scientific sessions. At conferences such as these, one is often advised to forgive an odd projector which eats slides! However, it was extremely irritating to be blamed for the poor quality of slides, when in reality the machine was a genuine “slide gobbler”, which continued claiming its unsuspecting victims in a preview cubicle!
The mid-conference excursions were interesting and over-priced. The participants enjoyed the “pork-loaded” cuisine, the adventure of dodging carp bones (one day only), the marvellous beer and the Czech hospitality. Breakfast, lunch and the banquet were well organized, but self-sponsored dinners often needed a bus ride to downtown eateries. Some participants bought 5k tickets from the bus driver, punched them in and were fined 200k. The added ignominy of being dropped off far away from the original destination and having to walk back was a miserable way to learn that a bus ticket costs 6k!
Apart from the adventures and misadventures of a scientifically sound and enjoyable conference, a cautionary tale, probably relevant to other conferences also needs to be told. For certain passport holders such as Indian, Sri Lankan and Filipino, entry into the Czech Republic is not easy. Getting a Czech visa is very difficult and a letter of invitation from the foreign police in Praha seems mandatory. I was told that I have to go to the nearest Embassy in Abu Dhabi armed with all documents and probably would have to pay a refundable deposit of U.S$ 1000 per passport. Although visas were issued after appealing to the Ambassador, entry at the airport was by no means certain. We had to undergo the ordeal of an interview by the police. A Filipino colleague was detained at the airport because the invitation letter sent by fax was not acceptable and one of the conference organizers had to travel all the way to Praha with the original. It would have been extremely nice if the conference organization had forewarned us about these procedures. When I sought help from the organizing company regarding the police invitation, I was asked to deal directly with the Czech foreign police! It is worthwhile to remember the Salatiga Conference in 1994 during which colleagues from Nepal were sent back from Jakarta to Singapore for their visas.
It is true that Conference Organizers cannot be held responsible for the bureaucracy concerning entry to their countries. It is however, their responsibility to inform all participants of the procedures and let them decide whether they are prepared to put up with the hassles. In the Gulf country where I reside, it is not easy to get visas, but for conference participants we organize visas, deposit these at the airport and have volunteers round the clock to bring delegates through Customs and Immigration. We also see them off the same way. If any conference intends to invite delegates from developing countries, especially Africa, Asia and South America, it should make all possible efforts to make their entry into its country possible and trouble free. Most often, the delegates from poor developing nations are budget travellers on shoestrings and unexpected trauma at alien airports could be very painful.
I apologize for focusing on the sociological aspects in this fallout report. I am confident that the Proceedings of this conference will show its limnological excellence and certainly does not need any kudos from me.
Professor Reginald Victor
Department of Biology
Sultan Qaboos University
Sultanate of Oman