I arrived in Varna, Bulgaria after a long trip. This turned out to be a longer trip than I thought â€“ from LAX to NY; NY to Prague; Prague to Sofia; and then 6 hour drive from Sofia to Varna. Flights were all smooth, no delays or any other hitch. First flight was on Song Air and then on
TSA, the Czech airline. They are all part of SkyTeam and hence I got these flights.
On landing in Sofia, I could not help but start thinking that this place is very similar to India. This was a weird feeling because most people were white (did not see any Orientals, Africans, or Indians). This feeling became more concrete when customs people stopped me and took me on side â€“ this was in a green channel. They asked me what I have in my bags. I said clothes. I just have a carry on baggage with me so it was not that I am carrying lots of bags and hence I was really surprised because now a days even in India I am not stopped. In a separate room they asked me what you have in your bags â€“ I replied again clothes. He pointed to my small compute bag and what is in that. I said some papers and computer and camera. He said how much money you have I took out my wallet and showed him. He said no money in the bag â€“ and I said no. In fact I should have said yes because there are definitely some dollars there â€“ I keep a small emergency fund there. Then he said, be very careful with your bag and money in Sofia and let me go. I somehow got the feeling that he was looking for something like in old days in India they used to for getting some bribe from you.
I met Prof. Juliana Paneva at the airport and we immediately started on the trip to Varna. The roads are definitely not German freeways but are much better than in India. The infrastructure on the roads â€“ facilities â€“ are definitely close to India than to US or Germany. When I stopped for drinks at a gas station, I was surprised to see a drink called Mazaa (or something similar) because I think this is an Indian product. Maybe I am confusing it with something but I still feel that way. The drive was smooth. We stopped at a place called Happy Bar and Grill for snacks. A nice place. Juliana told me that this is a popular chain now. In fact everywhere I sw signs for CocaCola and other American products. It is amazing to think that this country was once under communism and now is so much influenced by capitalism.
It appears that higher education is very much in English here. Though Bulgarian is also used but many classes are in English. Maybe that is the case in Sciences, Technology, and related areas, but that is the impression I got while talking with Juliana. On streets and shops you see most signs in Bulgarians, but you also notice increasing use of English. German also appears at many places.
The Hotel Cherno More (Black Sea Hotel) seems to be run by Govt. It reminded me of Centaur in Bombay. A nice building but very poorly maintained. There are no Internet facilities and I could not even call USA using the phones in my room. Luckily a short walk away is a cybercafÃ© which also has pay phone facility so I could go there and get connected. We are becoming so much addicted to â€˜connectivityâ€™ that I felt something missing when I did not know about this cafÃ©. Well there was a good reason because I did need to take care of somethings, but otherwise also that seems to be the case now a days.
I have to prepare two talks â€“ one a key note at the conference here and the other just for doctoral students. I will talk about Visual Information Retrieval.