I have just returned from the Global Tobacco Network Forum in Bangalore. It wasn't life-changing but it was (momentarily) life-threatening and it was certainly great fun. Here are some snapshots:
Owing to the Conservative conference in Birmingham I missed the three-day field trip that included two nights in an "unspoilt jungle resort hotel". When he returns in a couple of weeks Chris Snowdon may have more to say about this excursion but I understand that it was quite an adventure and not entirely trouble-free. Meanwhile I can reveal exclusively that Chris did see a tiger even though he declined to join the rest of the group when they went off in search of one at 5.00am.
The forum itself took place over two days following a welcome reception on Wednesday evening. There were over 200 delegates from all over the world and it was a pretty impressive event, only the second of its kind. The first was in Brazil in 2008.
I was one of many guest speakers who were invited to take part in a series of panel discussions. There were 24 panel events in all and I had to give a short presentation in three of them. Apart from Chris Snowdon, who also gave a entertaining keynote address based on his book Velvet Glove Iron Fist, other panellists from the UK included Mark Littlewood (Institute of Economic Affairs), Chris Ogden (Tobacco Manufacturers Association), Katherine Graham (Tobacco Retailers Alliance), Patrick Basham (Democracy Institute) and Mick Hume (journalist and founding editor of Spiked). This little group plus Mark's partner Angela became my family for the duration until, one by one, people left to fly home or on to Goa (Chris) or Sydney (Mark/Angela).
In the evenings we were wined and dined in the main event hotel, the very modern and very green Royal Gardenia, or its sister hotel, the more traditional Windsor Hotel. During the main event we were also entertained with live music, Bollywood-style dancing and, appropriately, a smoke machine, but I was glad when eventually we were able to enjoy one or two quieter evenings.
I wrote about our arrival at the Gardenia - rose petals fluttering down upon our heads at six in the morning - and from that moment the service never wavered. I don't know how many people the hotel employs but whatever the time of day someone always seemed to be available to open a door, take an order or fix a laptop. The service could not have been better, but I suppose that's what you get for £450 a night.
The food was pretty good too. If you tired of curry (I didn't but I will happily give it a miss for the next week or two) you could choose from four restaurants, one of them Japanese.
I really liked the outdoor bar (below where we spent what seemed like many hours eating and drinking, enjoying the warm breeze (during the day) or the torrential rain (in the evening) in total comfort. There was also a "welcome" cocktail bar that offered free drinks from 6.00pm. As you can imagine quite a few people - led by the Brits - gravitated there before dinner.
The forum itself finished on Friday evening and while many delegates left early the next morning to catch flights to various parts of the world, a hard core - including me - dug in for the weekend.
Suddenly, having been cocooned in our upmarket hotels by the rest of the city, we were free to explore Bangalore, a city teeming with cars, buses, scooters, motorbikes and the omnipotent motorised rickshaw. Oh, and I also spent Saturday afternoon at the India-Australia Test match. More about that in part two.
PS. I haven't written about the forum in detail because of an agreed code of conduct. I can however reveal that not everyone in India was delighted to see us. Prior to the event a petition was set up by the Institute of Public Health, Bangalore. Estimated population of India: 1.15 billion. Signatures on petition: 65. Oops.