On the way to Dharamshala from Delhi, I caught sight of an untouched night sky, in half sleep, and woke up shocked. The rest of the journey lit up the sky slowly in lines and layers, and the stars disappeared one after the other, quietly and slowly, into the sun. On reaching Dharamshala, after walking aimlessly for a while trying to find a shortcut to The Country Lodge, we were guided by a very nice old man who took us into his office space, and showed us the way down from his balcony — a long maze of stairs and pathways some of which encroached into the fronts of people’s houses and ran on the sides of their walls, precarious and so inviting to my city feet. The cloudy sky replaced my umbrella, and grandparents of strangers on terraces took the place of shopkeepers in the city, ready with directions.
On Day 1, we watched lovely Tink teach the children from Rakkar to hula-hoop, among other circus tricks, after discussing a little bit of user interface design in the morning. I tried to get some honest end user feedback on the application we had been building in office. All my beta testers(usually tricked into believing they were only playing) so far had been the children my mother teaches at home, or the children who play with the cats at office, all generally fluent in English, who would complain about the game being a little boring or say that a certain picture was pretty. The children from Rakkar figured their way around the game but the English content was a barrier. They enjoyed playing in groups, as long as each of them got to operate the computer at some point as opposed to the children back at home, who liked having the computer to themselves. They all unanimously loved everything, and when I asked them if it would have been nicer to have the game in Hindi, almost all of them disagreed, which was interesting to think about. My laptop went over a fashion makeover, with the children wanting to cover it with every sticker around. We stuck together Nitin’s broken 3-D printed name in the afternoon, after making some light-sensitive electronic lamps for Diwali, all the while being shot by David, the paparazzi.Then it was time for open night, with some singing, some flute and the guitar. The fire dance was a big hit, with an appropriate choice of song – Fireflies by Owl City. I made some Tamil friends, which is always nice and makes me cheekier than I am, especially if one of them happen to be Krishnan. This was also when I met warm and cheeky Sva, whom I have learned to adore quite effortlessly.
Day 2 brought the TCV students to The Country Lodge, and the wonderfully eloquent in Tamil Tenzin Tsundue. I have only had brief encounters with the Tibetan culture before. My earliest memory runs back to a visit to some temple in South India or North India, I am not sure, where my grandmother struck a conversation with a group of Tibetan women, and they all generally agreed about water problems being prevalent everywhere. After that, barring the brief visit to Bylakuppe 2 years back, it is not something I have actively thought about. Tenzin’s talk brought back memories of history lessons, learning about colonialism, trying very hard to understand if the thirst for power was only felt by a few. He also mentioned that Tibet’s rich Lithium resources were being used in electronic goods made in China, and sold to the world keeping the prices of electronic goods significantly lower everywhere. It was the time for my Scratch workshop for the TCV students after a small blooper, when I lost the pictures of deer drawn by Poulami because I hadn’t copied them into my computer, and she, assuming that I would have copied them, formatted the all important flash drive containing the pictures. Arun came to the rescue and drew me some lovely deer frames after calling me “very demanding” when I bothered him about the deer being monochromatic. I wanted the children to create a small animation film based on a traditional tale from Meghalaya. Personally, I wanted to observe the amount of scaffolding that such a workshop would require and I was pleasantly surprised to see that it needed almost none. During the course of the 2.5 hour workshop, the children worked independently, in pairs, and enjoyed the whole process. They were particularly focussed and needed little or no help from me. I saw first-hand Pappert’s theory of making children learn algorithmic thinking while they were trying to create something that was important to them personally.
I tried making friends with a long-legged insect after the workshop, which was particularly interested in eating something on my nails, I wonder what. We tried distracting it and getting it off my finger, but it seemed quite engrossed with the supply of exotic food. It was alright, though slightly strange, till it decided to nip me nicely, at which point I shook it off rather violently. I must say here, that spiders are the nicest long-legged insects I have made friends with, till date; not one was interested in biting my finger nails, and they invariably wanted to jump off my fingers within 3 minutes. Shreyas reckoned that the general rule governing friendships between insects and programmers would be – “We keep the bugs with us, until they bite.” I don’t remember much of the rest of the day except for screen printing some shirts with Lucy and Andreas, and talking to people about the Outreach Program for Women, from GNOME which was something I had to do conversationally since the conference had only a few women participants. Hopefully OPW and Hill Hacks will get many more female participants over the next few rounds. (History project)
Day 3 – It snowed in the mountains. The children from Rakkar came back to visit and worked on their puppet show. A couple of them tried to sneak away my laptop from me, and after feigning ignorance for a while, I let them have it. I attended a bunch of flash talks and spoke about my work with Gcompris. Yuvi and me worked quickly on a syntax highlighting file for writers working with Dolch words with Krishnan present for moral support and the wisecracks. We all then watched a bunch of documentaries made by Mr. Lo before heading to the rooms for DemoScene. All of us bunched on rugs and cushions, we stayed up for a while watching the brilliant graphics generated with unsophisticated machines. The 3D printer was also a source of attraction, and I tried unsuccessfully to create a pair of earrings before being herded away for a session on MozDef.
Day 4 – brought more flash talks and a lovely presentation by Monam La, a monk who has worked to create several Tibetan fonts and is working on a Tibetan dictionary. The Tibetan keyboard for Linux systems needs work, so if any of you are interested, give a shout on the hillhacks mailing list. Arun’s talk on improving digital literacy in rural India was also very inspiring. At night, all of us sat bunched up near the fire, talking about trivialties, while I was enjoying the smell of woodsmoke on my clothes. I learned to spot Gemini, after finding Orion and The Big Dipper quite easily, a split second before Sva, Kunaarak and Yuvi decided to slump on me at once, to warm me up. Heh.
It was time to pack up on the 27th. The large maroon tent sewn together by Rajesh’s father had to come down. Tink mentioned how it took much lesser time to pull down the tent as compared to putting it up, which was true of all things we agreed. We found at least 8 caterpillar pupae on the seams of the tent. There were 3 casualties which had been unwittingly stamped on or crushed under the weight of the tent. We collected all of them and placed them horizontally under a tile that quite appropriately said “HOTEL”. I wanted to try out this exercise (Link to Madeeha’s video) but after everything had been packed up and sent in an auto to Rakkar, Sva said that maybe it wouldn’t be possible to do that, and that I should just get used to the idea of them being eaten by a crow. When I asked Priya if horizontal pupae can metamorphose, considering that their is much lesser area from where they can push out their wings, she said that it was likely. She also said that caterpillar pupae is hard to eat, so maybe all hope is not lost. Maybe someone at The Country Lodge is in fact carrying out the video exercise right now.
This was also the day when I had my first outing. I had been nursing a mysteriously swollen ankle from the first day of the conference which finally didn’t feel so swollen so I decided to go to McLeod’s and purchase some trinkets. I ruined Santosh’s bargaining exercise for him, unfortunately, which he didn’t think was as funny as I did. We walked around the most crowded places in Dharamshala, and visited two small cafes for coffee and cake and some vegetarian Japanese food. Alex, Yogesh and I then took a taxi for Ghumakkad while Santosh impulsively decided to go up to Treund with Lucy, Andreas and gang whom we met on the way and said our goodbyes to. The house in Ghumakkad is beautiful. I sat down with a copy of The Little Prince, and read my favourite parts. Ayush led about four of us through a trail in the mountains to the most beautiful spot that I had seen. The Ghumakkad stream, whose gurgling is a perpetual sound no matter where you go in the village seemed to belong just to me, as it must have seemed to the rest of us. The mixture of the outing, the night, the thought of leaving and a mix of all my other thoughts left me a little dazed and quiet for the next couple of days. The mountains can affect you in strange ways, make you tender and more aware of your thoughts. I must say that Ayush was quite nonchalant about the dark and the fact that we were all unused to the paths of Ghumakkad, and for most parts of the way we walked without a torch. Me and Yuvi then walked with Arun to Priya, Sounjanya and Arun’s beautiful house. We saw a flash of The Big Bat’s cousin that lives in the area, and walked quietly for the rest of the way to Rakkar.
I woke up on the 28th and decided to trace my path back to Ghumakkad with Ms. Sheila and Mr. Murphy, the two dogs that live in their house. Quite expectedly, I started off in the wrong direction and wandered around for about an hour, lost and with two dogs who were thoroughly happy. When you notice the mountains on these walks, it feels like they want to embrace you, calling your attention always, even when you are trying hard to walk on the right trails hoping they lead to the right place. Their silhouette is hazy in the fog, but their outline always assures you that they are sure of their place in your day. I also noticed how quiet I had become, wanting to speak little and speak sensibly, and tread softly. I did not want to disturb the slumber of the mountains. I finally managed to trace my way back to some houses and asked for directions to the dogs’ house, and made my way back to bed, and fell asleep, warmed by the walk. When I next woke up, it was to the sight of the wonderfully lively Soujanya combing her lovely hair, and talking about the pet parakeets they raised in the house. They also mentioned something about mountain birds that often flew through the gap between the roof and the walls. We discussed the absence of sparrows in the cities, the gentleness you can find in old Bangalore, and growing chillies among other things in their garden. We also watched some some yellow-tailed birds that flew in a flock and an owl that dived down and disappeared. Reminded me of the time, my father and me made a small bird feeder during the summer, and we only had a bunch of bees come everyday to drink from the feeder. After tea, I went up to Norbulingka with Manish and lunched there at Queenies on momos and soup. We struck up a nice conversation with a woman from Mexico who was curious about why South Indians spoke to each other in English. We walked back to the house through another trail in the fields to drop off some fruits before returning to Ghumakkad. We located the post office to send some postcards to my grandmother and some friends, but it was closed, so I left them behind. Then, we rushed about hugging everyone hastily, before leaving for Delhi by a very cold bus.
It is 29th today, and I have been rather quiet and thoughtful, wondering if it would be normal to take the next bus back to Ghumakkad as opposed to going to Chennai to write new exams. Wondering about the concept of home, the woods, all the while talking about something funny that Benthor said, or something silly that someone did, trying very hard to not forget. Sitting on the railway station’s platform for 3 hours, listening to recordings from the conference, till the train to Bangalore arrives.
Thanks to the Hill Hacks team for sponsoring my travel. I was a little short on cash after paying for my expensive exams, and it was really nice of you to fund my travel money. 🙂