Israel Istanbul and an International conference

Posted: July 26, 2015 in Conference, Travel
Tags: , , , , , ,

It has been nearly two months since I came back from a 9-day tour to Israel and Istanbul. It all started when the Nanoplasmonics group at BITS Pilani Hyderabad (that’s what we like to call ourselves :P) got to know about the International Conference on Surface Plasmon Photonics (SPP7)  that was to be held in Jerusalem from 31st May to 5th June 2015. In mid-Septemeber 2014, Prof. Kannan Ramaswamy set us the target of sending an abstract to the conference. The deadline was December 21st, 2014. Though we started sluggishly on the problem, we were constantly motivated by Kannan sir and we had an interesting scientific story with us just in time to send it to the conference. The notifications for selection to the conference was to be announced on February 10th. The D-day came and went. No intimation. One complete week had passed by and yet there was no notification from the organizers. And then on February 17th, 2015, I remember it distinctly… I had entered the mess for dinner.. On one hand I had the plate and was loading food onto it with the other… The mobile rang.. It was Kannan sir’s call…. As soon as I picked it up.. These were the exact words he told me “Sruthi, get ready to go to Israel”… Though I was waiting to hear this for the past two months, these words left me speechless… My first international conference.. We were selected for the poster session. The conference, held once in two years is a congregation of  the biggest people in the field of photonics and plasmonics. The very people whom we had looked up as celebrities in the scientific world would be attending the conference and giving talks.

Between February and April, time flew. Tests came and went, registrations were done, flight tickets booked, accommodation arranged, poster prepared and visas obtained (we did have trouble with that, thanks to Mohana ma’am’s continuous follow up with the embassy, we could get it just in time). As soon as the compres were out of our way and as the departure date came closer, excitement was building up exponentially.

We were a total of 5 students, Kannan sir and Kannan sir’s family who were travelling to Israel. A big party indeed. The group was split into two. The Delhi group (Kannan sir, his family, Shahela and Anirudh) and the Mumbai group ( Manav, Apoorva and myself). We were to take the Turkish airlines from the respective cities and meet in Istanbul. The onward fight from Istanbul to Tel-Aviv was a common one for all of us. We departed at 6 am from the Chatrapati Shivaji international airport, Mumbai. The total duration of the flight was 6 hrs. I swore to Apoorva and Manav that as soon as I got into the flight, I would fall asleep. The aircraft was new, the seats (economy class) were quite comfortable. The highlight was the in-flight entertainment. The LED touch screens were new and quite receptive to touch (unlike most aircrafts where one has to bang the screen with the finger to get a response). As a result, I spent my entire time watching movies. There was no cloud cover at certain times of the flight. On one such occasion, we could spot the snow-clad Hindu-Kush mountains. The food was surprisingly good !!!

During the descent to Istanbul, we saw white patches on the Marmara sea, which we later came to know were due to jelly fishes in the waters. As soon as we arrived in Istanbul and alighted from the aircraft, we heard an announcement saying that the aircraft from Delhi had just landed.  We completed the transit formalities and were looking around, when we spotted the Delhi group. Together, all of us proceeded towards our designated gate for the flight to Tel-Aviv. We had just over an hour with us and so we, students decided to take a short tour of the airport and the duty-free shops. Kannan sir also accompanied us and we all shared a Turkish ice cream. We came back to the gates only to learn that our flight was delayed by half an hour. After visa and passport verification by the immigration authorities, we boarded the flight to Israel.

The rest of the flight passed uneventfully except when the lunch was served. We didn’t get vegetarian food!!! However, the air-hostess was kind enough to give Manav, Apoorva and myself an extra bun (Anirudh had preordered vegetarian food… huh!!! ). Finally, we landed at the Ben Gurion International airport, Tel Aviv. After clearing immigration formalities (Shahela faced some minor trouble) and collecting our baggage, we made our way to the exit where we changed some of the USD that we were carrying to Israeli Shekels. A 13 seater sheroot which Mohana ma’am had arranged was waiting for us and we made our way to Rehovot (the suburb in Tel Aviv, where Weizmann Institute of Science is located). We had booked two apartments that were within walkable distance to each other (one for Kannan sir and his family and the other for 5 students). The house was a nice and cozy place with wi-fi, fully equipped kitchen and all other amenities that we required. After freshening up, we decided to take a stroll down the street of Rehovot. However, the day being Friday, the shops were closed due to Shabbat (observed by the Jews). We returned back home and had dinner (Thepla with aloo mutter, mutter paneer, schezwan chutney and jeera rice).
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The next morning, we were all up and ready by 9 am and went to Kannan sir’s apartment. We were to wait there for Prof. Zeev Luz (Kannan sir’s Post Doc. advisor ). He was taking us on a tour of Weizmann. We had heard a lot about him from Kannan sir and were very eager to meet him. True to what Kannan sir had told us, he was one of the most enthusiastic and energetic persons I have met. He was eighty years old and yet there he was walking faster than us and showing us around Weizmann. He had also arranged some refreshments for us consisting of fresh and dry fruits and Israeli bakery products. He showed us very interesting demonstrations using soap bubbles regarding the surface of minimum energy.

Group photo with Prof. Zeev Luz

We spent some time talking to Prof. Zeev Luz and explained our project to him. After taking a selfie with Prof. Zeev, we departed from Weizmann and walked back to Kannan sir’s apartment. Prof. Zeev recommended that we pack the fruits and eatables that he had bought for us and take it with us. Kannan sir was carrying this bag with him but left it at the spot where we clicked the selfie. We realized this only when we got back to Kannan sir’s home. So, Kannan sir, Manav and I went back to Weizmann and requested the security guards to let us in. However, we didn’t have the access card to the Perlman building where the bag was. Luckily, a person came out of the back gate and Kannan sir could enter the building and retrieve the bag!!! We made our way back to Kannan sir’s home and Mohana ma’am gave us a loaf of the Israeli Shabbat bread. After reaching our home, all of us took a short nap for a while and were then chatting and having a relaxed time. For dinner,we decided to go out. We had pasta at a local bar and restaurant and an ice cream each at an Italian gelato.

The next day, we were up early and ready at 7:15 am.  The plan was to go to Masada Fort and Dead Sea. We set off for Masada through the West bank. Yes you read it right, the Palestine occupied territory. Our driver for this journey knew Hindi and played Mohammed Rafi songs!!! We reached Masada around 11 am and took the cable car up to the fort. Apoorva had a minor altitude sickness problem but she recovered quickly. The area is arid and dry and we kept taking water in small amounts to keep ourselves hydrated. We spent about an hour or so at the fort and came back down by 1 pm. We made some purchases at the souvenir shops , mostly related to dead sea minerals based beauty and wellness products. After the purchases, we had lunch at the cafeteria. The first falafel experience. It tasted good. However, the ones which we were to have a later times during the trip were even better than this one.

Masada fortView of dead sea from Masada

We left Masada fort and headed towards dead sea. The dead sea is at an elevation of -430 m, thus making it Earth’s lowest elevation on land.The dead sea is primarily fed by the Jordan river. I was really looking forward to this experience. The high salt content of the water makes the water denser than normal sea water. As a result, floating is easy and takes no effort. However, one needs to get used to the salt content as it is prickly and can cause severe irritation if one has wounds ( I had a wounded leg because I fell down while taking a tour of Masada fort). It was an amazing feeling to be floating on my back without any effort. After about half and hour, we left the waters and changed. We left around 4pm and reached Jerusalem by 5:30 pm. We had booked 2 apartments here as well. Our apartment was again very well furnished and modern. We quickly freshened up and got ready.

We had to attend the conference welcome banquet cum registration at the Ramada convention centre. This place was a walkable distance (1km) from our apartment. The welcome banquet was lavish and arranged by the pool side. We were all initially nervous and kept to ourselves. I felt overwhelmed when I saw that I was in the midst of people like Halas, Nordlander, Stockman, Zheludev and other prominent people in the scientific community. Urged by Anirudh and Kannan sir, I decided that it was imperative to strike a conversation with someone. The easiest was to strike up a conversation with fellow Indians. They were PhD students from TIFR. Shortly after that, Halas was momentarily free. I decided to snatch the opportunity and struck a conversation with her. Despite the fact that we were undergraduates, we had a really interesting conversation with her and invited her to come to our poster. With that, we grew a little more confident. However, it was already 9 pm. We decided to call it a day and returned back to our respective apartments. The conference started the next day at the Ramada convention centre and the plenary was quite interesting. There were two parallel sessions and hence we would split ourselves between the two halls according to our interests. The lunch provided was very lavish. Despite being a vegetarian, I had no problems. I helped myself to a variety of salads, soup (lentil, chick peas etc) , rice, sautéed potatoes and desserts. As an undergraduate, I found that there were quite a lot of talks which I could not follow. By the end of the day, I was demotivated to an extent and was wondering what I was doing in such a big place. There was a poster session at the end of the first day. I made acquaintances with a few graduate students and some professors from other places including Prof. Nordlander and invited them for our poster session on Thursday (2nd June, 2015). We returned back exhausted and retired for the day. The first talk of all the sessions were invited papers.

During the tea break of the second day, we found Prof. Atwater talking to someone. We waited for about an hour, skipping some talks to catch him and talk to him. However, he rushed inside the hall and we could not catch him. During our wait, we were all pepped up by Kannan sir’s motivational talk. It had not been a very pleasant experience so far. I got bored quite often when I couldn’t understand what was going on. I felt that the work presented by the students was far superior than our work and the standard of the conference was in general quite high compared to what we expected. It was sir’s motivation that kept us going not just on this day, but throughout the conference as well as before and after the conference. During the tea break after lunch, we once again spotted Prof.Atwater. This time we ensured that we spoke to him and he had some very encouraging words for all of us. This conversation with him lifted our spirits.

After the last session of the day got over, we joined Kannan sir and went to have a look at their apartment. Their apartment was next to the market area. Mohana ma’am gave us suggestions on places to eat and buy souvenirs. We headed straight to a falafel shop. The falafel was really good and way better than our first falafel experience. We also purchased some souvenirs as we were not sure as to how much time we would have during the city tour. We were exhausted and headed back to our apartment to catch a good sleep.

Church of Holy Sepulchre

The next day of the conference (1st June 2015) was only till lunch. The post lunch session was replaced with a Jerusalem old city tour followed by the conference banquet. Post lunch, we were divided into 6 batches of around 40 people each. We went first to the Mount of Olives. It got its name from the olive groves that used to grow here once upon a time.This is now a Jewish cemetery. We got a view of the entire Jerusalem city from here. We then proceeded to the Jerusalem old city. The bus dropped us at the entrance close to the western walls. We were then given a guided tour of the four quarters in the city: The Jewish quarters, The Christian quarters, The Muslim Quarters and the Armenian quarters. We saw the Jewish wailing wall and continued to the Christian quarters hrough the Jaffa gate. We walked along the Via Dolorosa (consisting of 14 stations) which is the path that Jesus took during his crucifixion. It ended at the Church of Holy Sepulchre. It is widely regarded as the holiest place for Christians. After the city tour concluded, we were dropped off at the venue for the conference banquet. After the welcome drinks and snacks, we were ushered to the dinner hall by a band of local percussionists. The banquet was a five-course meal. Each of the courses was very well presented and garnished. I enjoyed the local cuisine thoroughly ( I cannot say the same about Manav, Anirudh and Apoorva though!!! ). We were then taught a few beats by the percussionists. They had arranged for sufficient drums so that we could all play in unison. This was followed by some yummy desserts. After the banquet, we were dropped off at Ramada hotel and we walked back to our apartment.

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IMG_20150603_170413084_HDRConference Banquet

The next day (2nd June 2015) was the most important day. The day we were supposed to present our poster. We had put up our poster the previous morning. At 5:30 pm, as the last session was coming to an end, we went and stood by our posters. We had a good number of people coming over and asking us about our work. The prominent ones being Prof. Halas, Prof.Nordlander, Prof. Kuznetsov, Prof. Lalanne. I was really exhausted explaining the poster over and over again. Finally, we wrapped it up by 9 pm. To celebrate the successful presentation, we went out for dinner to the Jerusalem market and had falafels again!!! It was almost 11 pm by the time we returned back to our apartments.

Poster session

The last day of the conference had two plenary talks and the valedictory ceremony. The prizes for the best posters were given. Though we did not win, we were still happy with the way our work was received by the people there. After the conference, we went out to the main Jerusalem market and had our lunch (falafels yet again and for one last time!!). We came back to our apartments and rested for a while and packed. Finally at 8 pm, it was time to bid good bye to Jerusalem. We took a sheroot to the Ben Gurion airport. We waited at the airport for close to 10 hrs. Our flight was scheduled to depart at 7:20 am local time.

Our next stop was Istanbul. We had a layover of 9 hours between our flight from Tel Aviv and the onward journey to Mumbai.  Turkish airline offers a free tour of Istanbul if the layover is more than 6 hours. Since we knew this at the time of booking, we scheduled our flights accordingly.  The tour started at 12 noon. As soon as we left airport and were on the streets of Istanbul, the vivid amalgamation of the Asian and European culture was staring at us (Istanbul is located at the brink of Asia and Eupore). We were first taken for a lunch. A five-course meal again with a lot of my favourites (salad dressed in vinegar, lentil soup etc.). We then visited the Sultan Ahmet mosque, saw Hagia Sophia from the outside, The Hippodrome and the Topkapi Palace. From the Topkapi palce, we could see the Bosphorus striat between the Black sea and the Marmara sea and also the bridge that connects Asia and Europe land mass. It was a truly amazing view and one that will remain with me forever.

We were dropped off at the Istanbul airport at 6 pm. Turkish sweets, popularly known as Turkish delights are famous in Istanbul. We bought them at the shops in the airport.

In front of Hagia Sofia

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The Delhi team (Kannan sir, Anirudh and Shahela) and the Mumbai team (Apoorva, Manav and myself) parted ways to take our onward flights to Delhi and Mumbai respectively (Kannan sir’s family had left on the 3rd of June). Thus, a wonderful trip came to an end.

This trip taught me a lot of things both on a personal as well as professional front. Having friends like Apoorva, Manav, Anirudh and Shahela was the best thing that could have happened. We shared a lot of memories both before as well as during the trip. I am sure we will all cherish these memories forever. Anirudh’s enthusiasm, Shahela’s occassional but timely sarcasm, Apoorva’s photography and sweet nature and Manav’s calmness and reliable support at all times ensured that this trip was a smooth and enjoyable one for all of us.

This trip lacked one very important person. A person who should have been there with us- Harikrishnan. Our senior who has guided, helped and motivated us along the way. He was the one who mentioned about SPP 7 to Kannan sir. It was very unfortunate that he could not come to Israel with us.

My parents have been a constant source of motivation. They have always gone out of their way to enable me achieve my dreams and this trip is definitely one such instance.

And finally, to Kannan sir, this trip has been possible only because of his guidance and constant motivation. Any number of words that I might use will fall short in expressing my sincere gratitude to him. I have been one of the luckiest people to have a teacher like him guiding me.

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