Hackergram journey part 1- The journey Begins

I will be writing the journey and musings in two parts, the Journey and the return . I was supposed to write about WIDSPune (Women in Data Science, Pune) an event held in Pune last month. While I do have lot of thoughts and observations on that topic, I would do that later as this I feel is important, not just for me but probably everybody who has been afraid to ask for help especially when you feel weak, either physically or emotionally. This might be of some help to some of the brothers and sisters who were at the Christchurch shooting. While I didn’t go through the experience as you did, not by a long shot, but I do hope that you do ask for help as I did and helps you emerge stronger than before. Before starting there are many people I have to thank for the experience and making things nice for me even though I wasn’t able to contribute as much as I wanted.

Thank you and Sorry

The people are in no short order are Arjun Venkatraman and Deepta Arjun for being the voice of reason. Gauri and his team of jungle camp warriors for looking after me. Karan, Sanjay, Vijay and Suryaveer of the Hackergram team who looked at various aspects of travel and such. I cannot thank you all enough. I also need to thank Civicus (Innovation for Change) for funding the travel of all the participants. I also need to say sorry to all the people as because of me all of them suffered and had to divert their energies a lot. Most of all Gauri who was with me the whole night. He is as tough as they come.

The E-mail

Below is an e-mail I received from my friend Arjun roughly one and a half months back.

Hello,

I’m excited to share that Hackergram has collaborated with Innovation for Change to organize a workshop in India this year. I’m writing to check your availability to attend the Hackergram Innovation Lab 2019 in Sattal, Uttarakhand, India. The theme of the workshop is “Safe Civic Spaces”. The aim of the event is to create a platform for learning and dialogue among participants (individuals, CSOs, communities) with a diverse background to increase collaboration and equip them with the innovative and creative force for expression, reflection, dialogue on safe civic spaces.

We are inviting one participant per organization, however if you feel there is more than one person from your organization who would like to attend, please feel free to get in touch with us. Also, please feel free to share this email with anyone else who might be interested! We will be inviting a total of 20 participants on the basis of first show of interest, an online survey and verbal conversation.

Costs of participation for attendees including food, travel and accommodation will be covered by I4C South Asia Hub for the dates of the event, 8th to 10th March 2019. Participants will assemble by the 7th March and leave on the morning of 11th March after the completion of the event.

The event would span the following main themes :-

a. Creating and Holding Spaces – This theme would cover both physical and virtual spaces, what it takes to create a space, what effort and resources are required to maintain a space and how those can be procured or generated.

b. The Changing Role of Information :- This theme would cover the different ways in which information, both personal as well as external, impacts individual as well as community safety. This includes access rights, skill challenges, liability, privacy and identity.

c. Diversity – A Spectrum of Colours :- This theme is about the range of different expressions that contribute to society and therefore influence how safe we feel and how safe we are. This would include diversity in gender, sexuality, orientation, religion, caste and community.

d. Securing The Future :- This theme is about concerns that impact our individual and shared futures. Safety and care for minors and dependent adults, rehabilitation of people who have gone through distress, sustainable living practices and livelihood creation would be some of the areas covered by this theme.

e. Fixing the present :- This theme revolves around behaviour, process and systemic change that is possible and required in the present to enable positive transformation both at an individual and social level.

Of the above, I thought I could contribute quite a bit in points b. and d. While I knew Arjun personally, I still put up a formal application so that if I get selected, it is only on merit and not just because I knew Arjun and Deepta. Another point which is and was much more pertinent is that this Government had turned the clock back on many of the achievements that many social groups, non-profits etc. had done to bring awareness and have a scientific outlook in society in general. While I/we do and choose to live in a techie bubble in a way, I felt it was a way in which I could contribute and add to the knowledge of other participants about free software and Debian and see if I could help them. The great thing about Debian is not just the technology but also the politics and philosophy behind it which attracts volunteers from all over the world but that is another topic for another day altogether 🙂


After my confirmation, on subsequent conversations, came to know that the plan was to fly all the participants to New Delhi Airport (T1) and from there travel down to Sattal by bus or something.

I had a look of the distance between Delhi and Sattal via web and it seemed to be in-between 4-5 hour journey via various websites . I had traveled just couple of years ago Delhi – Chandigarh (Panjab University) when I was consulting Hamara and we had done the whole thing in two, two and half hour journey even after taking 2-3 breaks . We had started around 1300 hrs. and were in Panjab University by around 1600 hrs. So as the distance seemed similar I guessed the travel would be of similar length and the road will be good which proved to be part of my downfall. I had also been under the influence of Swadesh Darshan, a Government of India initiative which promised that all roads to places of tourism would be great. I had experience of roads in Pune and Southern India which have all been great, short and even my foray from Delhi to Dharamshala had been good that too in a Delhi DTC bus few years back, number of times, although that journey is long.

Dates

The first hiccup happened when the dates were clashing with Debutsav Delhi . I had put up couple of proposals for Debutsav Delhi and they were accepted. As the dates of the trip were overlapping, I decided to withdraw from Debutsav Delhi so others could have a chance to share their experience about Debian. Due to some issues on hackergram side, it was decided to change the dates but I didn’t reapply for Debutsav as I didn’t want to travel much and had lot of pending work at my end. Finally the dates were fixed for 26th March to 30th March at Sattal where we would meet and figure out things. As travel dates came closer, the hackergram group made an e-mail group so we could discuss and share ideas and know each other before and after the meetup. So I started trying to figure out people as to who they are and where their interest lie in order to forge bonds and find common interests before the meetup. It does make things easier.

Journey from Pune to Delhi

The journey from Pune to Delhi was uneventful except for the fact Ola is not realiable as can be seen from tweets I had with Ola support . I started way early as I wanted to see some of the new things that Pune Airport had done, they had supposedly added a new apron area, couple of new retail outlets as well as a Bhel puri stall . While I didn’t see any extension to the apron either on the landside or airside, nor was the bhel Puri stall guy selling bhel puris but masala chai, although the chai was good. I was lucky to get an Auto and landed at Pune Airport at around 0100 hrs. As luck would have it, I spotted Spotty B. a friend who is a long time into finance and stock markets. While his real name is something else, he likes to be known as Spotty B. Luckily, on that date there were no queues otherwise I have had troubles at Pune Airport especially while traveling with Indigo, some examples of other people tweeting about issues. Either luckily or because of the increased ticket prices due to the 737 Max grounding and Jet Airways issues, there wasn’t much crowd which was surprising to me. While my friend was also traveling from Pune – Delhi to attend a financial convention and a workshop, he was going via Air Asia. Still we got to talk till 0400 about economy, scams, financial markets where they were headed, some specific talks, companies etc. when we decided to break-up as we wanted to do the whole security gig, I had to do baggage drop etc. and the flight was at 0500 hrs. I printed my boarding pass , did the baggage drop, ran through security and was in boarding gate with still 45 minutes to go. Anyways, time went slowly as I didn’t know couple of people who were to join from Pune for the hackergram meetup.

The plane ride

We started about 5 minutes later (taxing on runway) and I met Tania and Renita on the plane as they came late who are running a non-profit which looks into women safety issues. While Pune at one time was pretty safe for women, it has grown a lot and while it is still safe, it was good to know that there are women who are trying to make spaces safe for women. What goes without saying is that any place which is safe for women are also safe for men, kids, elderly as well so it is much more of an inclusive thing rather than being exclusive. Anyways, the plane was an Airbus A320 single aisle plane. I remember as I asked if we were full and she replied yes, 180 which is A320 limit. We touched down right down on time even though we hovered a bit above Delhi Airport and yet still we touched down on time. As I had to take my baggage from baggage pickup belt, I went quickly and tried to figure out where the Indigo baggage was going to be unloaded. I also refreshed and came out on Delhi T1 . What had confused me was on that on the last e-mail we were told that some participants were coming on T1 and some coming on T1-C , it is only later, when traveling back when I understood they both mean the same thing and would be demolished later to have a single T1 terminal which would be a larger terminal than the one now.

Travel to Sattal by Xylo

Everyone arrived by around 10 a.m. and we were able to move out of the Airport. The hackergram team had booked a Xylo and a Traveller van. While in their plans shared with us, they had mentioned the travel as 8 hours, I had assumed they were buffing it up as we usually do whenever we travel with a group of people. I wanted to be on the Xylo as I wanted to see the nature and obviously the center of the gravity is lower on the Xylo than the Traveller and you are more closer to earth and see more from the Xylo than probably the traveller. Also it had less people and I wanted to be more with nature. We anyways had 3 days to bond with each other. Unforunately, this turned out to be a bad decision. I had no clue the road from New Delhi to Sattal was an offroaders delight. To add to the list of the things, the driver we had was constantly bugging us about how bad the travel company was from which he had come Cleartrip. If I had known that the road would be so bad, I would have made other arrangements for myself. While we did stop at couple of places, riding for 9-10 hours in a Xylo which either had no suspension or just the road was so bad, I had to conrol my water intake. By the time we reached Sattal, I was in no shape to travel any further.

The Trek

After dismounting from the Xylo, my legs were thoroughly shot, cramped after being in the Xylo for so many hours. While the hackergram had shared it before that they will be a short trek, I had counted on a 3-4 hour short ride and not an 8-9 hours bumpy ride with legs shot. Also because I hadn’t had much of water I was both thirsty and hungry. I met Arjun and the team from junglecamp and I knew I could go no further. I asked Arjun and he shared it would be a 20 minute short trek. While I was embarrased, I did reach out to Arjun and asked him to get me one of the more trained personnel as I wasn’t sure I woule be able to do it better.

I have to say that Suryaveer had advised me to stay in a hotel for the night and do the trek tomorrow but as I was unaware about the place, my logic was it was better to stay with the group rather than a hotel which I didn’t know was how far and how I will make the journey back. Also my mobile was not working for some unknown reason (was able to receive calls but not make calls) which also put a hitch on things. So while Arjun stayed behind as the team in the Traveller were still on the way, we decided to go down .

It probably became quickly apparent both to the people who were with me as well as the people from Jungle Camp that I was running on plain fumes. Somehow, I was able to get down to the camp with two people helping me. I was literally using trees as a support structure and somehow made my way down to the jungle camp. By the time I made it to the camp, I was beyond tired. I was also sticky from all the sweat and this is where perhaps I made my second wrong decision. I opend my jacket to let the wind in to take out the sweat. Soon I was freezing and again put on the jacket although it was still wet from my sweat. While I did drink slowly, I was starving and somehow raised myself to have dinner. The dinner was delicious although I didn’t know my nightmare was about to start.

The Night and the Nightmare

Somehow I made it to the tent that was alloted to me after the dinner. While the dinner was delicious, I wasn’t a good picture. I hoped that I would have a long sleep which usually clears up things. But this was not to be. Sometime later, I felt an urgent need to go to the toilet. I somehow had convinced Gauri to share the tent with me, maybe intution I don’t know. So with Gauri and another gentleman of the Jungle Camp, I went to the toilet and retched, vomited and shat at the whole time. What I didn’t know that I was losing my salt and water. Gauri tried his best. I even called mum at home at some unearthly hour and told her what had happened while at the same time I didn’t want to worry her much hence didn’t go into many details.

Anyways, it would have just troubled her and there was nothing she could have done from so far. I had to go to the toilet many times to relive myself and had become pretty weak. Gauri tried all kinds of medicines to see if I could get some relief. I realized how important it would have been if I had taken my med kit instead of just couple of medicines for such an eventuality. I knew of a sleeping pill which would help me sleep but I didn’t remember its name at that time. Also brand names of medicines in Pune and brand names of the same medicine up north will be different. Also sleeping pills are not given over-the-counter but need a prescription which I hadn’t bought. What was needed was to know the formulation which I didn’t know. And in any case, a part of me was also seeing the irony and drama in all this. Somehow I survived the night. In order to be comfortable, I asked Gauri to help me change clothes where he came to know that all the things I was wearing were sticky and wet which in his opinion only added to the problems. While I was embarassed in being nude to change clothes, I was in survival mode. I couldn’t sleep and it could have been for any number of reasons, fear possibly one of them. Simple, irrational fear that if I sleep I may never wake and I didn’t want any incident to mar the work that Arjun was doing. Also my stomach was full of gas and because I was so weak I couldn’t walk it off.

The Morning

Somehow, the morning came around and with it came a whole set of new problems. Probably Gauri had realized that I had lost all my salt by that time. I was given hot water to drink and while that helped, it didn’t help a lot. They tried to help me eat something but anything I would try to eat would feel like leather. It had just no taste. I even joked at the irony with couple of the participants of the irony that here we are, at perhaps one of the most beautiful locations on Earth and how sick I am, the black humor, irony was inescapable for me. Gauri showed me two blue birds which for a moment I thought were plastic bags but turned out to be blue birds. How I wish I could have captured them in a photograph to share it with you all. I do have some pictures of the Jungle Camp, the copyright of all those images lie either with Jungle Camp or/and its participants.

Jungle Camp from afar

While I have no clue who took that particular photograph it does show what it was all about. There is another one of Deeptha who is inspecting the inside of a jungle tent.

Deepta showing inside of a tent

Important Note – A pretty wise person had shared with me this pearl of wisdom years ago that most Indians are fatalistic by nature. And this is true of popular imagination as well as can be seen from the Final Destination movies as well. While we had signed up a legal liability waiver, I also needed to free Arjun and the whole team via an emotional waiver. I called up home and shared in a somewhat loud noise that they had taken excellent care of me (the part being unsaid that if anything did happen to me, they should not be held liable.) I know the guilt I had faced when one of my cousin sisters with whom I was pretty close had taken the extreme step a decade and more ago. I also heard of friends and even enemies who died and was shocked to find a deep sadness even when a so-called enemy had passed away. If things had to go south, I just wanted me to responsible for it, not anybody else. With the talk with Arjun, it also had occured to me that there was a division in loyalties in-between me and the Meetup/Camp and I didn’t want him to let go of the important work he was doing.

Needless to say, it was evident till 10 – 11 a.m. that I was not going to get any better, at least not at that location. As shared before, I had a heart-to-heart talk both with Deeptha and Arjun and they shared it was better for both them and me that I go to the town as possibility of medical help was much easily available rather than there. I hadn’t known or realized as to how much we depend on the salt in our bodies for taste.

I had asked the organizers of the jungle camp to make Dal Rice which they did and it was too salty for me. They tried it twice and it was still too salty for me. They tried giving me salad and somehow I was only able to eat carrot and not the Cucumber or the Armenian Cucumber even though I love it more. A decision was made to move me to a hotel so I could get better and then fly off the next day. While I was torn between remaining there and taking chances of being better and contributing to the group efforts, I knew in my heart this was a better decision. I didn’t know if I had brushed my teeth or not. I asked if it would be ok to take a bath but was told it would be bad idea. Somehow for 2-3 hours Gauri slept somehow and then we took another route which was much easier than the one we attempted the night. This also involved a short boat ride which I would have thoroughly enjoyed if I was not so weak. Soon we were on the other bank and were waiting for Sanjay and Karan of the hackergram team to show up to take me to the hotel. My weakness was so much that I couldn’t tie my own show-laces and had to avail help of somebody from the Jungle Camp team to tie my shoe-laces.

The Hotel – Lake Heritage

This is possibly the best thing they did and could have done under the circumstances. While I have already thanked Sanjay, Karan and Arjun, I still need to thank them separately again for this wonderful medicine. While the Hotel didn’t have much in name of facilities, it had three very important features which helped in the recovery process. The room was clean, the bed nice and a view to die for. It was also very appropriate as I could reflect my own feelings on the lake and vice-versa. Here are some photos of the lake and its surroundings so you have an idea of how beautiful the place was.

Lake Heritage outside, the next day

This is where I was kept for 24 hours. While the locks didn’t function, half the lights didn’t function ( it is an off-season anyways) it still gave me the peace I needed.

View of Bhimtal lake from hotel balcony
Map of the place
Blurred map of the map at Hotel
View of Bhimtal lake at night
Another view of Bhimtal lake at night, with shops opened.
The same lake seen in the morning

Interestingly, I came to know that the building in the middle of the lake is an Acquarium and people still go there. If I had been better I would have explored the lake and all the nearby roads etc. The lake I felt was very much like me, silent on the above and bubbling much underneath.

I wish I had taken more and better photographs of the lake at night as the reality was much more beautiful than these photographs are able to show. It didn’t do justice to the beauty of the lake there.

Tamed ducks at Lake Bhimtal

While I didn’t want to, I simply had to venture out to look at these beautiful ducks which were kept by the boat people. I also wished I had a better camera to take the picture of the map of which I was only able to take one part. Maybe somebody could share the same with me.

I had given my word to the Hotel Branch Manager that I would share photo of the Hotel and I have done that. In addition, I had come to see there was a bus stop just in front of the hotel so I was able to see young couples, school children, wives, husbands, life happening by but all without the sounds that mar our cities. The irony even in this situation with my conversations with Sachin and Karan were, while they were curious about Pune, Mumbai etc. I was equally or more curious about Bhimtal and thereabouts. If luck will have it, I might come there again, taking some precautions which I will share in my next blog post.

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