HillHacks : Hacking and making in the Himalayas
All India Bike Ride — Part 2
Previously on the All India Trip
Started from Chennai; too hot too hot; sleep on the roadside shade; crash near Hyderabad; ride to Agra: 1,118kms/day; the Taj Mahal; Yamuna highway; reach Gurgaon; roam Delhi like in a government office; find tyre, fix it; plan to Bir; stay in Chandigarh; detour to Shimla; cool place — literally and figuratively; amazing river clouds of Mandi; finally I reach Bir…
If you haven’t read the previous part, I strongly recommend doing so to get a better idea of what had happened.
I first heard about hillhacks from YuviPanda; when I was whining to him about how disappointing the visa rejection for HackerSchool was. He reminded me I could checkout hillhacks and it’d be fun. I remember him mentioning it even the previous year too. So I checked out what they did and it seemed amazing. It had coding, art, teaching and a lot more. I’ve always been a multidisciplinary person and it was my chance to participate and make things. So I submitted a talk, asked all my friends if anyone was interested and planned a huge trip around it.
hillhacks is held in the lap of the stunning Dhauladhar Himalayas every summer. People from different places, walks of…hillhacks.in
I reached the hillhacks camping site on May 18th, 2017 by 8 am. When I reached, the first thing I noticed was all the tents that’s been setup on a recently cut crop field. It looked so cool, so many tiny blue houses. I planned to camp with these folks and thus I took a tent all the way. I opened my tent when a fellow camper offered help. It was a Quechua Arpenaz 2 and we set it up in a corner. I think my neighbour was an Irish lady and she’s a really sweet one. After stuffing all my luggage inside, the tent hardly had any space for me 😂 The sun showed up and it started heating up inside, so I took my laptop in a day-bag and got out.
That was the first day of the main conference and it was jam packed. The day started with an eye opening talk “India’s Weapons of Math Destruction” by Srinivas and Kiran. The talk was mostly on how insecure our digital identity system is, how the government is reluctant to accept the security flaws, and how there’s a p̶o̶t̶e̶n̶t̶i̶a̶l real threat of exposing the private data of millions of Indians. I cared least about these things and still it was really really scary. Especially because it wasn’t coming from some random internet conspiracy theorist. This guy had worked with the Karnataka government to solve the problem of universal citizenship identity, a decade before Aadhar came into picture. He’s been through all the struggles and he knows exactly where the pitfalls are. If you’re interested, you should totally follow Kiran.
After that talk, a bunch of folks started to a School nearby to teach the kids some useful fun stuff. It was too tempting, but I had to stay back to confirm my talk. The Digital India talk continued into conversations later in the evening when a bunch of us went out for dinner. The current real situation seemed more and more desperate. I guess ignorance is bliss after all. After hearing all those, a part me felt hopeless for this country, but then a part of me felt lucky people are fighting on this. At least now I’m aware and I’ve started to care a bit more than I used to. And I really wish the digital situation improves.
The other catchy thing was the hula hoops and the Slack line. Kristen (Tink) seemed to be an expert in Hula hoops and she was helping people on how to get started. “It’s all about hips, just loosen up and move along…” she said. Yeah right, if only I could loosen up 😄. I tried a few times and I was rigid as rock, no hope there. But I imagined slack-lining must be fun, because I walk on ledges all the time; spin plates, books and sometimes laptops on my finger. But it was a different challenge altogether. 10 seconds on the line was a huge achievement. Lochan was coaching us on how to keep the balance and how to stay on the rope. Turns out it’s not about staying in balance all the time, but about stabilizing yourself when you lose balance and keep doing it (wait, doesn’t that apply to life too?). You’d definitely need a good amount of calf strength to stabilize. And the best slackline (or general) advice he gave was…
“The moment you lose balance, you think you’re gonna fall and you give up. Try balancing till the last moment, till you actually fall down. You’ll realise you can stay on the line for much longer”
Bir, the town, is a beautiful place full of friendly people. The food is great (thukpas and momos), the sceneries are amazing and it’s far too away from the crowded cities. It’s very quiet and relaxing. You can take a walk on the streets for hours and hardly find any vehicle. It also has the highest paragliding site in Asia. In fact, Bir-Billing was the home of the Paragliding World Cup 2015. It was the perfect place to camp.
I went out in the evening with a bunch of folks for dinner and I missed the DJ workshop by Praveen, but I heard it was awesome. Abhay came up to me and thanked me for bringing him to hillhacks 😂 Yeah it was that good. Though a lot happened I couldn’t really connect with anyone and I felt very lonely and exhausted, so I went straight back to my tent. That was my first time sleeping in a tent. It felt really small, but I was too tired to notice and slept right away.
Major hit, Minor setback
I am still not sure why it happened — maybe my body took a toll for the long ride; or maybe I couldn’t connect and so I wasn’t really motivated; or maybe because I was too lazy, that I slept after breakfast… I missed the paragliding talk and also a few more talks. Oh god, it was a horrible feeling having slept the entire day and waking up 6 in the evening. I was famished, tired and had an annoying headache. But worse things were in the queue. After a quick dinner I wanted to take my mind off things and so I took my bike for a ride. It was dark but I was alone and it really helped, I felt better. Eventually I lost my way and I tried to google-map my way back. It lead to a road which kind of abruptly ended, with a dark empty house on the left. There were gravel after that. I thought, “come on I’m gonna do leh-ladakh, I can’t be scared gravel” and I treaded through. About 20 meter in, the gravel road ended, and there was a trekking path. It was narrow with thorny bushes on both side. We’re talking not-more-than-a-meter narrow; three people can’t walk side-by-side narrow. Yet somehow google map was telling me there was a way 🙄. But then it was a downhill and I thought, “I could do this, downhills are easy. What’s the worse that could happen?”. The place was like staircase made of randomly thrown rocks. I gotta say, it was a tough challenge.
There was this one big rock which blocked me for a few minutes. I’m a skinny fellow and my 140 kgs bike got stuck. I got out and while trying to lift the tire, the bike fell into the thorns. Then I had to get into the thorn bush and give my full energy to lift it back up, urgh. By the end of it, those thorns have left a bloody artwork on my right hand (pun). Thinking back about it, I guess I badly needed a win that day. But it was just scratches so far, nothing serious. About a few hundred meters in, there was small stream that was flowing on the left and the thorns continued on the right. Compared to the stream, the thorns were better if I were to fall. There were some gripping moments though, crossing a small water stream on a narrow wood the width of tyre. Had to do that kind of crossing a few times. It was really scary because the stream was getting deeper and deeper and I’m not circus master, I am not used to riding on the ledges. One tiny error and there’d be nowhere to place my leg and I’d fall; right into the heart of that narrow dark horrifying one hell of a stream. Even thinking back about it gives me chills. But then, you know what they say, the fear of falling is way worse than the pain of fall itself. However I was just moments away from realising the fault in that. Okay, so the entire stretch was like a kilometer and about 800m in, the trekking path became a well laid rock-road and widened up to 3x. I was so relieved and happy to see it, I really was. I guess I got comfortable in that moment and lost my edge. There was a small bridge and as I crossed it, I hit on a small stone which imbalanced me a bit. I kept my right leg down to balance, only to realise there’s nothing in the right. And since I tried, I was falling right, into a really deep stream. I had minuscule of a moment as I saw a steep fall with a huge boulder on the way leading to a wide stream. I had like a slo-mo “OH SHIT” moment there. Then I fell. I fell down, hit the rock on my hips and toppled into the stream. Milliseconds later, there was a thud — the bike fell on me. It all happened so fast I could hardly respond to anything. And there I was, lying at the bottom of a stream with a motorbike on top of me and gushes of water flowing into my face.
I screamed in agony for a solid 15 seconds. Then I took deep breaths for the next 30. Luckily the water level was just about a couple of feet. And then within seconds, I got to my senses, not just some sense, but into an adrenaline pumped hyper-sense mode. The first thing I noticed was that the music was still playing into my headphones, means that the phone’s working. I figured I could call people for help, but there was a possibility of no signal. I lifted myself with the bike on my shoulders and crawled out of the bike’s weight. I coughed and felt a piercing pain inside my right ribcage. I inspected myself and luckily there were no bone fracture; which means I could walk to find phone signal; worse case, shout for help. I think the bike hit the ground first before falling on me, because a 140kg fall from that height would’ve definitely broken some bones. A minute later I started following the stream to see where it leads. Even after such a downfall (pun), I didn’t wanna call for help. I wanted see if I could get myself out of that horrible situation. You know, sometimes I don’t even understand myself. Anyway, so I started looking for a non-steep way out of the stream, where I could potentially take my bike out and there were none. As I came back around to the top, I saw a family looking down at my bike and talking to themselves. I waved, “hey guys…” and they were like “we heard a noise… wait, where are you coming from? is that your bike? how did you fall? are you okay?” and kept checking if I was hurt. By that time I was feeling totally normal so I asked them if they could help me get my bike out. Coincidentally two strong men showed up in a jeep (the son and his friend). They checked the scene for a few minutes. There were thorny bushes on the right, so we had limited options. They figured it was too steep and bike was pretty heavy to be taken out just by themselves and it’d be hard to get help that late at night. So we had to leave it for the night. Lifestyle there was very different, people seemed to go to bed by 8ish. One of them asked me where I stayed and offered me lift. Since his house was right next to the stream, he ensured that my bike would be safe there. I didn’t have much choice anyhow. I found a bunch of hillhackers walking from dinner and I tagged along. They looked at my wet clothes and asked if I was all right. These kind of accidents usually scares people and I try not to create panic (and pity), so I lied I was fine.
I came back and told Konarak and others about that. Those guys ensured me that my bike’d be safe because the house owner is kind of a big deal and the bike needed manpower to take it out and if people were involved, he’d definitely get to know. Also it was late, so unlikely for anyone to know it was there. They said,
“Bir is a very cold place, but the people here are very warm.”
To most people’s ask, I’d go on to answer that it was the google-map’s fault, but I knew very well what I was getting myself into; I just wasn’t in the mood for a lecture on “safety” and “how not to be dumb”. I like taking risks and sometimes things do go wrong. I’ve learned to deal with it. Also every tough situation only makes me more resilient. I cleaned up the wound in my hip, recorded a monologue, changed to drier clothes and went straight to bed.
Even though I had abundant sleep the previous day and had a severe pain in my chest, I still slept like a baby. I woke up at 5 and walked back to the place I fell. I was looking down at my bike wondering how on earth could it have gotten there, especially standing straight like that. The guy from previous night, who lives right there, was figuring out how to take the bike out. After studying the scene for a bit he called a few more men for help. After a 15 minute struggle they pulled it out (I’ll upload the video later). Surprisingly when we tried the ignition, the bike just started, just like that. It was at that moment I was so happy I took a KTM to the hills. The bike is reliable AF. I couldn’t thank those local people enough and I slowly rode back to our campsite. I kept wondering for weeks on how I fell and this is my best guess…
The rock in the middle where I hit, actually saved me from a lot of pain. If it weren’t for that boulder, I would’ve fallen directly into the stream taking a lot more damage. Also the bike would’ve just fallen directly on me. Best case, I’d have to be flown back home. Worse, it could’ve been fatal. Guess I was lucky.
The school program
I knew I was hurt and a bit tired but I didn’t wanna be missing out on things, so I volunteered to help folks on the school program that day. I had a great time. Kids are fun, I love them. I think kids are the epitome of chaos and a reminder for us, the grownups, that control is just an illusion. Embrace their nature and you embrace reality. But these kids were in school and they were well behaved (too bad 😁). There were 4 parallel sessions: making solar lamps, cyphers, website creation and letter writing. Either because of FOMO or because I had a DSLR, I kept jumping between the sessions. I enjoyed it. Here are some happy pictures…
I wish I had planned it earlier, I could’ve given a session on something, anything. Kids are so innocent and kind and polite; the qualities a lot of adults could learn from them. Also there’s a great satisfaction that comes out of sharing your knowledge. But making learning fun is one of the most arduous, interesting and fulfilling challenge one could ever take on. No wonder balaji and Farhin relish pursuing it.
Post noon I hurried back to the campsite to give a talk on Tracking and hacking your life (abstract). This is something I’ve been doing for 4 years now and I’m planning to open-source it soon. Long story, deserves a post on it’s own, later. Other than the talks, most of my time in hillhacks was spent socialising and getting to know people from different aspects.
I found that Praveen was staying in a Zostel nearby. I went to checkout the place and ended up spending some quality time with him. I had borrowed Rajesh’s DSLR for the trip and all I knew was the auto-mode. Praveen was explaining me about how and when to use the manual modes and such. Also, sitting in the lawn with hot chocolate with a moody climate and hilly views is it’s own kind of beauty.
Later there was a talk on Hardware Hacking, which I was too curious about because I have been thinking about Hacking my motorbike console. You see, my bike came with an amazing TFT display and a bluetooth adapter. The default functionality is that it you can connect your phone and attend/reject calls and control music (read more). What if I could get maps in the console, that would super cool, right? I was so excited but later as I spoke to him, I was so disappointed because turns out hardware hacking is nowhere as easy as software. Even with the documentation of how the hardware was designed I might still hit a dead end. Well, so much for my high hopes… *sigh* A german friend suggested me to get wearables; he was saying I could now design and order dress with specific in-dress wire lining for my needs. And so I can play with clothing just like a breadboard.
There was another very interesting talk about Generative Art and understanding computational creativity. We’ve all seen or heard of computers drawing and it’s become impossible to differentiate from a human work. This guy Arjit (github) was using Java and Processing to create art. The talk was about the baby steps, like, you ask for a line, then you ask for a dot circling around that line, then another dot circle around that a circle. The magic was when you run it, it was so soothing to see computer slowly draw up a random beautiful pattern. As you increase the particles in the system, the artwork becomes more and more complex. It had computation and art in it, my two favourite things.
The gala show
Later that day, as an ending to the main conference, we had a Gala. It had variety of events from hula-hooping to shared Rubik’s Cube to Dancing… For my part, I tried rapping as I’ve been trying it for a while. As I started, I missed a beat, got self-conscious and anxious. I stopped abruptly, apologised and ran out of there… 🤣 Oh God, I failed so bad and it was horrible. I didn’t know I had stage fear until then. I was so embarrassed, a feeling I haven’t felt since school days. Everyone was very encouraging and supportive though. But even now the image of me tanking on the stage is so vivid and awkward 🤦.
We had a few interesting sessions. It started with hair colouring. I badly wanted to get my hair coloured blue but they only had green and red dyes. So I decided to wait it out. There was another interesting session on lock picking. Ever since the Skyrim days, I’ve always wanted to learn lock picking. Though there’s a ton of youtube videos explaining the same, it’s a lot easier when someone teaches you. We had a lot of practice locks and after hours and hours of trying, few of us cracked it. Next thing, we learned the Go game. Go was the last game to be mastered by computers with Google’s AlphaGo. Turns out Go was very easy on beginners, the rules are much simpler than chess to start with but the possibilities are exponentially high, “After the first two moves of a Chess game, there are 400 possible next moves. In Go, there are close to 130,000”. If you’re interested, I’m always up for a small-scale Go game… 😇 I’ll probably buy a board and keep it in the office cafeteria, right next to chess and carrom.
Later in the evening, this German friend introduced us to a card game called “5 card Mao”. Oh man, let me tell you, it’s the best card game I’ve ever known. We sat down to play and we were hooked on it it. From 9 pm to 4 am, we played all night. The way the game treats newcomers, making one go through the journey from “waadhafffak!!!” to “aaah sweet…”, is such fun and gratifying. Apart from the game concept being the most dynamic, it requires a lot of attention, reasoning skills and it incentivises continuity. This guy said when people start playing, they only stop when nobody can make sense of the game anymore. And because of it’s dynamic nature, this could be played at any setting with any type of audience and it’s assured to be fun. I’ve been so pumped up ever since to experience this game with different friends of mine. You can google it up, but I suggest blindly playing with someone who knows the game, for once, to enjoy the realisation-experience I was talking about. And the best part is, it could be played with the standard 52 card deck.
After the game, the sky was still black and about 7 of us decided to go stargazing. It was 4 in the morning and we were walking from our campsite to the paragliding landing site. As we entered the streets, a few dogs started barking at us. Couple of people got tensed, while the rest of us were shooing them away in confidence. More dogs kept coming from the dark alleys and started joining the rest; within minutes, we were surrounded by around 25 dogs growling and barking at us. We sticked together and they cornered us right away. We couldn’t move in any direction. Shaken by that development we were clenching our fists in horror — we were shitting out pants. It was the first time in my life I was being held hostage by animals. Not gonna be macho about it, I was really scared for a moment there. These dogs kept moving in on us with some anger in their eyes. My heart kept racing up, just like everyone else’s and since I had a thick blanket, I was in the front using it as a shield. Suddenly a friendly dog came running out of nowhere, jumped in and started barking back at the rest of the pack. This one was full white, like an angel and furry enough to be petted (later 😁). This ally made us doggo-phobic and we slowly strode across the town like a water droplet on an oily surface. Thanks to that silvery savour, we safely got out of the streets. Dogs are just awesome no? (the irony). It sticked around with us till the end and we were playing with it. I’m totally getting a dog someday… Anyway by the time we got out of town, the sky started turning blue and we missed the stars. But it was beautiful seeing the mountain ranges slowly come to life, one after the other; the fog uncovering them slowly like a blanket being pulled by a Ghost 😅 . And the sun light hitting the snow top, making them glow like a golden jewel in the sky. We were walking on an empty road with a lot of curves, and meadows on the left as far as our eyes could see, and the mountain ranges on the right. It felt deep.
After immersing ourselves in the moment (and taking some selfies) we started walking back towards our campsite. There were no dogs by then and streets were so empty and quiet. We saw a middle aged man opening his “dress shop” and requested him for some chai (tea). He was kind enough to prepare it himself. We enjoyed that hot chai in the cold early morning with a great view from his terrace. And no I’m not exaggerating any of it: the dogs, the view, the hot chai; not even a bit. Everyone felt the same as I did; except may be they enjoyed the tea more.
I woke up late in the noon and met this mechanical guy who had built a bike from scratch on his own. He helped me remove my tail light, because it was touching the back tire due to the accident. Since a few of us were planning on a trek, me and Deepak went to Baijnath to buy energy bars. It was evening and I was riding, just 4 days after my accident. The road felt so smooth and curvy; the sky had a beautiful linear gradient on it from blue to orange; that orange light reflected on my road as well… It was such a beautiful 15 minute ride, we were just in Awe. Once I reached town, I was caught by a police officer for not wearing a helmet 😆. It felt funny because I rode all the way from Chennai to Bir and the police catches me here, the one time when I forgot my helmet 😑. I didn’t know Hindi, I couldn’t even answer his questions; luckily Deepak helped me out with an excuse that I’ve been hurt and we’re heading to a hospital. Later we did go to hospital and got my chest pain checked up. The entire place was empty and the doctor was chilling in his room with some physiology book. Anyway turned out the pain was no big deal.
It was pretty dark by the time we came back. Since we missed the stargazing the previous night, I wanted to checkout the sky. So we rode to the same spot, parked the bike, walked into the meadow for while, laid down on the grass, rolled one and enjoyed it, gazing at the stars… It was bliss. To add up, there were horses grazing right next to us. I tried to pet them but they kept dodging me. Then we came back to town and ate thukpa on the porch of some house, talking about random philosophies. The town felt so laid-back and so did I.
Later that night, random conversations and we were discussing about a German hackerspace few of them kicked off. It had been a long time and Schneider (github) wanted to check out what was happening there. I am not clear on the technical side of it since I’m not a networking techie myself but he found the IP of one of the machines in the hackerspace. I guess he must’ve been involved in setting it up, he logged into it and started streaming the webcam feed. We saw two guys sitting and working with their laptops. Then he turned on the mic and started saying “Moin” (hello in german). But there was some problem with the audio and after some debugging, we were conversing with them on what’s going on there and stuff.
They were not techies and they had no clue on how that was happening. Also they didn’t have a monitor; so too bad, no video feed for them. It was a funny conversation.
The next day I went to Kangra KTM service center to fix my number plate and side indicators directly to bike’s rear (It used to be in the tail I removed). Those guys were really friendly and didn’t even charge me. Since I was all the way there, I wanted to checkout Dharamshala and see what all my friends were hyping about. The city had one narrow road and there was long traffic. Luckily I was in a motorbike and I kept overtaking. The city in general had narrow roads and was too touristy for me. I headed up to McLeod Ganj, which was a fun ride since it had a lot of steep rise. May be it was the summer vacation, there was no snow, no water in the falls and yet too crowded. At least I could check it off my list. I bought a nice fedora and took a random unconstructed path to get a taste of off-road. Then I came back and started packing for the trek we were planning.
Day 14 — 17
We went on a trek and a lot of things happened. Covered in part 2.5
In the morning there were a session on book binding. I didn’t participate but it was fun watching. Bir is very famous for Paragliding and everyone who tried said it was very enjoyable. After lunch, we booked a paragliding ride and they took us in a jeep to the top of a nearby mountain. Unfortunately as we reached the top, the weather got worse and our ride was cancelled 😞. Later that evening Tink gave a session on hacking happiness, it was insightful. And then was another session on A/B testing by Abhimanyu which was surprisingly very interesting.
The Forest Fire 🌲🔥
Later that night, we were just hanging out in the terrace and we saw the horizon light up red. As it grew bigger, we were getting a bit worried and asked the locals; they said it’s fire over a small hill and we could do nothing about it. But we were curious and so 3 of us drove in my bike in search of the forest fire. We got to a point where we had to trek inside to the fire. I wasn’t even wearing any footwear but I took a plunge and started trekking in, following these two folks. Luckily there were not much thorns. We knew the possibility of fainting due to lack of oxygen is high near fire. So we decided to shout out if any of us felt dizzy and also to stay away from the smoke.
That was my first time in a wildfire, it was intense. I really din’t know how it started, intentional flaming? dry leave friction? no clue. But I could see that the fire was spreading in circles. Huh, I was expecting it’d be more of an inferno, but no, one could just jump across the fire line, weird. Himachal is full of green and it takes a lot for greens to catch fire, but the ground was full of dry leaves and thus the circular fire. We went as deep as we could and we started hearing loud thunder, showing symptoms of rain. We knew the rain will extinguish the fire faster than any of us could, so we felt relaxed. We sat near the fire for a bit while one of us lit a cigarette from the fire 😎 ha ha, he would be telling that story for ages to come. As the rain started, we knew the entire place would be full of smoke and that means dangers. So we ran out of there as quickly as possible, took my bike and came back to safety.
The next day, people started leaving. It had been a great couple of weeks at hillhacks and like every good thing, it had to come to an end. I made a lot of good friends and it was really sad seeing them leave. It was a touching moment, after all those amazing times. I convinced myself that maybe I’d meet most of them in Hackbeach.
Later that day, I accidentally made a cut in my ankle from a sharp edge (why does this keep happening to me?). Tink helped me dress it up. It was pretty deep and so I decided to pack up, stay the night there and start towards Leh the next day.
…Continued in part 4
“So what exactly is hillhacks?” Even today I struggle to explain when someone asks me that question; because hillhacks is a lot of things. And it’s different to different people. Praveen made a video about it. To me, I think it’s about camping in the lap of Himalayas; it’s about meeting and connecting with amazing people; it’s about awareness and discussions; it’s about sharing our expertise and experiences; it’s about helping each other and everyone else around us; it’s about building things, lots of things; it’s about learning to be socially responsible; it’s about life changing conversations and experiences…
And lastly, it’s about reminding ourselves that sometimes we need to sit back, relax and have some fun.