For many IGF 2012 participants, the fun started well before arriving in Baku.
There was the last minute change in hotels due to apparently unforeseen renovations. I have been told this was local host diplomatic language for "oops, we overbooked the hotel".
Only a fortnight or so before IGF, there were major changes to British Airways' entire schedule to Baku, causing people flying from Heathrow to either arrive in Baku extra early or miss the pre-events day.
There was also, of course, the multiplying invitation letters from the local host. However, invitation letters from two different Azerbaijani government departments and the confirmation letter from IGF was apparently not enough for some of the on-arrival visa officials, who demanded that one participant also present an invitation letter from the United Nations.
A taste of the local culture on flights to Baku
It took ten minutes per passenger to check in from Paris on Azerbaijan Airlines. Apparently this was due to the local office being closed on a Sunday. In reality, it was a way to get IGF attendees used to queuing.
On one flight, an Azerbaijani woman told Milton Mueller, "I want your seat". When he looked at her, incredulous, she repeated, "I want your seat". He said no. She asked again, apparently not having heard that Milton can explode when provoked, but Milton stuck to his guns and wouldn't budge.
On the same flight, another Azerbaijani woman poked a sleeping Bill Smith from Paypal, declaring "You swap". Bill, lacking Milton's fortitude, swapped seats.
On another flight to Baku, a fight at the back of the plane was averted by airline stewards. One very drunk local was singing too loudly and long for another local and angry words ensued. This was Emma Frost's (ISOC) introduction to Azerbaijani culture. On landing, the drunk man preferred sitting with the IGF attendees waiting for their visas rather than passing through Customs, and had to be coaxed through by airport staff.
A hint to Azerbaijan Airlines: you might want to edit out the part of your passenger safety video that actually shows a person bobbing up and down in the water with the plane floating/sinking in the background. It frightens small children and IGF attendees. Also, Jason Munyan from UNCTAD would like to know exactly how it is that passengers spontaneously gain massive amounts of weight when opening the emergency exits, as demonstrated in the exit row safety card.
First introduction to Baku fun buses
- Please note the man in fur hat in top right corner of photo. More about him below.
On my bus, we dropped a local wearing a Russian-style fur hat off at a bus stop on the way. Which was nice of the driver. We almost lost all our luggage under the cars behind us when the back door of the minibus flung open as we went uphill. Apparently I was the only one who noticed, and it took a while for the others to understand why I was insanely shouting "Stop! Stop! Stop" while lunging over the back seat to grab the handle of the bag closest to the open door. At one point, while the meet and greet staff were helping an attendee into her hotel, the driver took the opportunity to go AWOL for a bit. The IGF volunteers launch a mini manhunt to retrieved him.
It seems that on average, buses took three hours to go between the airport and last hotel, with many pitstops on the way to ask locals for the way to various hotels. IGF attendees on the bus asking how much longer the journey would be got used to the refrain "Ten minutes, not much further, we're almost there".
The upside of long and circuitous bus routes? We got to see more than Baku than we usually see of countries we attend conferences in.
"There will be a bus at 7:00 am this morning"
A hint to future IGF organizers: when deciding to provide bus services for IGF pre-event days in future, please make sure notification comes earlier than 2 am, only five hours before the bus is going to leave. A printed notice posted under delegates' doors in the wee hours of the morning guarantees your bus drivers will get the morning off.
And this was all before IGF officially began. More later on the food (or lack thereof), the headphones, the fragile walls, and a really packed IGF program.