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Oh Syria

I just saw the website, and it was an epiphany, it brought back memories of the beautiful fascinating place. So many snippets of the people and the journey. This was 2010 when there was no Arab spring and everything was going well.

The run across the no man’s land (luckily in the day) to the Syrian checkpoint after the bus left me at  the Turkish Checkpoint. The bus took my everything except passport and money, as I got delayed paying the fine for overstaying in Turkey(literally about 10 hrs as i miscalculated how much time it took to get across the border)

The Indian laborer who bought me delicious Date drink at Aleppo fruit stall. He lived a bit away from Aleppo and had come over for some work and i was the first Indian he’d seen in a while. I wonder what is he doing now?

The best (best) falafel rolls I’ve ever had (in my life) at a street vendor in Allepo, it probably cost the equivalent of 10 Rupees.

The fascination of walking in the Aleppo and Damascus souqs selling wares since before Jesus Christ was born. One of the things i remember buying was the hand made olive oil soaps. Some of my friends mentioned that soap making essentially originated from Syria. Oh those Ethiopian coffee beans.

The confusion and anger of being called a Libyan at a Damascus Market

The talking parrot at the crowded cafe just behind the Ummayad mosque of Damascus and the having a dinner over looking the mosque.

The small and almost non decrepit tomb of Sultan Salahdin, one of the great emperors of the region and known  for taking back Jerusalem from Crusaders

The Russian ships off Lattakia beaches, where we went swimming, That base is probably why Russia is in the war.

The beautiful girl I spent talking to on the bus from Aleppo to Lattakia about how complicated life is for women in Syria, and about the tests of virginity once she gets married.

The open and easygoing culture of Lattakia, not many women in syria smoked and drinking in public was a strict no-no, but in lattakia there were lots of cafes and groups of young men and women hanging out smoking sheeshas and drinking beer. It was refreshing after the dryness (weather and otherwise).

Getting dropped off at a deserted highway crossing on the way to Krak des Chavaliers, the fairy tale castle. Walking and hitchhiking to the top of the castle on a hot dry day(with my heavy backpack), because i did not want spend the equivalent of 100 Rupees on the shared taxi that took me to the top. But that climb was fascinating, because it took me through the town that looked like any other town in india. And it looks like this now .

The magical sunset from the top of the castle on the hill sitting alone, overlooking the magnificent Palmyra ruins from 2000 years ago. Those are all gone now. I don’t remember waking up at 4.30 AM in the morning to take pictures of a city ever.

The then best preserved Roman stadium/coliseum in the world in Bosra, now probably lost as well.

The horror, the horror.










To Spiti

The bus to Kaza goes on top of Rohtangla, towards keylong. The road to Rohtangla is the site for probably the highest traffic jam in the world.

The bus had stopped for about 15 minutes, so like most passengers, I got out of the bus, got on to rock on the adjoining hill and sat there waiting for traffic to clear. I was joined by a tall foreigner who wanted to know what was going on and when the bus would start. I had no idea, but we struck a conversation.


Matt was from San Luis Obispo, CA. A place I knew when I was in San Francisco, but not much more. He was a rafting guide and instructor and a civil engineering student and was traveling in India for a few month. He had come to India and headed up north as monsoons were soon approaching. Random chit chat, nothing memorable.

We had lunch together at the small shop in keylong, and then the bus turns eastwards and downwards towards Spiti. The road to Spiti passes through some of the most fascinating  and rough terrain i had seen in my life, long winding barren roads going down to the river, crossing it over a bend and climbing back up again to the top of the pass and going down again, must have happened many times, i would briefly wake up from the nap, read a book (I had that one book with me till the end of the trip, that I still remember it was Jung’s Man and his symbols).

What i remember next was the Bus had stopped in a large flat barren valley, the folks were out of the bus and wandering around, it turned out that the axle of the bus had fallen off and it could not go further. If you imagine the Lunar landscape, that was it, a few shrubs here and there, no trees, no water, nothing, That’s what we were looking at. The next bus would come a day later, and it was foolhardy to wait for it. The next village was apparently about 30 km away, some of the locals knew it, so I along with Matt followed them, trekking through nowhere.

Not sure how far we were from the village but we had walked about a few hours when a caravan of Army trucks appeared out of nowhere, we later learnt that they were heading to a location where one of their planes/helicopter had crashed a few years ago and located recently. Anyways the trucks on this ominous mission were welcomed, they offered to  drop us on a village en route. Saved by the Army. We did not realize it then, but appearance of the Army trucks probably saved our lives. I had no water and very little to eat, and would not have survived the cold (like -10 degrees) and windy desert night on our own.

The next part of how we ended up in Kaza is a blur, I remember getting dropped off at a small village that had a couple of houses and a Stupa, there somebody fed us some momos and soup, we eventually got on another small truck towards Kaza. The driver was insane, and he  could very well be reckless, there was no road, and there were no other vehicles or people on the road. I was right on the edge of the truck, as  I was terribly motion sick, and was throwing up every 5 minutes, I had a crazy headache. It was terrible.

It was late about 10 PM in the night when we got off the truck and ambled towards the first guest house we saw in Kaza, They had a small room with two beds, Matt and I took it and crashed almost right away. It had been a very interesting day. I made a friend on the trip and found some shelter, in some unknown part of the world.

We used to live in this town called Dalhousie in the not so high Himalayas when I was a kid, and my father used to point us to this section of perpetually snow-capped mountains way in the distance, and used to call it Lahaul & Spiti.

Spiti means the middle land, between India and Tibet. This is where I was now, probably is the most desolate place I have seen in my life. This year it was more, because the road to Shimla had been cut off by the recent flooding that had destroyed the bridges (Apparently, Chinese had released a lot of water from their dams in retribution for Dalai Lama visiting Tabo(or was it Kalpa) earlier that year), So the handful tourists that may normally come from Shimla had not arrived also.

Kaza is a dusty little town, it was a district headquarters a few restaurants, and a few small hotels. But even this boring town had lots of things for things to do for us, we hung around in the restaurants having the hot tea and momos, our favorite was this one on the open roof with a single table, besides vertical mountain wall of about 1000 ft (it was very high). We stayed here for a few days, just roaming around, doing nothing particular or trying to anything. Most of the day was spend chatting or walking to the nearby Gompa, having tea and reading books.

From here we wanted to make the circuit to Shimla. Since the bridges and roads had been washed away, we would have to rely on walking and  getting help from locals. Part of our agenda was the famed Apricot whiskey that the natives of Kinnaur were reputed to make.

We would also meet some people who even in one meeting, I would remember for a long time, from whom I heard some incredible journeys and travel stories, and caught the itch to leave home and travel.






The Ladakh journey

I was talking to a friend, and mentioned that i lived in Ladakh for a bit, but realized I had no clue of when it was, so i started to sort out my memories of that trip, that without doubt was one of the high points of my life, literally and metaphorically. I just had to pen it down somewhere.

It was about 2006, I think, that I was getting bored of what looked like fairly mundane work, and not sure where i was going  in general decided to take a sabbatical. I explicitly remember when i the moment i made that decision. I was hanging out with some old non software buddies and found that I could not relate to them anymore, They were talking life and I could only speak software and tech stuff. It felt like i was losing touch with real life.

I had done it in the past taking off for few months off to Goa, but that was another wierd adventure, so i decided it was time to do it again. I had vague ideas of where to go, and i am pretty sure Ladakh was one of the options, so was goa,  but i had not decided.

It was around this time, that Vishy gave me his copy of Dharma Bums. I really liked the book and felt the same sort of urge to seek the truth in solitude. By the end of the book, i was pretty certain that I was going to Ladakh. I had been there before, but only briefly. Now i wanted to go longer. I booked a 2nd class train ticket to Delhi and that’s it.

A month or so later i was on the train to Delhi with the large Backpack that I’d just bought at Wildcraft(I still have it today, and travel with it in Indonesia), in the middle of the Indian summer, i was traveling through the Indian heartlands to Delhi, without the foggiest of ideas of what i am going to do once I get there.

I bummed around for a few days in Delhi, visiting the places i never got the chance to see, when I lived in Delhi, the book shops near Nai sadak, the chat shops in karol bag, the forts and the parks and mausoleums and all the things Delhi had to offer, i lapped it all. The evenings were spent in the cool air conditioned British library or a beer at Connought place.

I got tired of the heat in Delhi and decide to head north to Manali, I took a bus to Chandigarh, i wanted to hang out there for a bit, a lot of my friends recommended it because it had nice college crowd, but it was too hot and looked too well planned for my liking, so i decided to take the bus to Manali, it was the next morning, and i decided to wait at the station, and my first experience of sleeping the night at the bus station(the other one would come on a brevet, 8 or so years later)

I don’t remember much of the ride to Manali, but I remember taking a cheap hotel room next to the bus station in Manali, I was there for a week or so, taking day trips to some of the interesting places, like the hot springs, the strange temples, walking on the river side . smoking joints (I remember hanging  with a group of crazy Israelis, One of them was an amazing flute player). What days were those. Reminds me of the Goa days. Also crucially, at a local market I bought fake North Face tent.

That had to end and I remember I was at the bus station early in the morning, I am not sure now, if i was looking to go to Leh directly or just to Keylong. Keylong is town at the cross roads, either you could go up north towards Ladakh (like most tourists) or go east towards Spiti.

But instead I got onto the bus to Kaza. Kaza is a small town in the Spiti valley.  I don’t even remember if I’d heard of Kaza before. But it’s one of those things you can never explain, why I got onto the bus to Kaza, and not to Leh. Somebody said Spiti, i was fascinated and got on. That’s how I operated those days. It was a great twist of fate. I am so glad I went off the beaten track. for the next month or so there were no crowds no craziness, just fascinating experiences and people that are hard to describe and talk about.


Introduction to neurobiology of sleep

I had to do a presentation for the Understanding the Brain Mooc on Coursera I’ve been taking in the past 6 weeks. It’s been a fascinating experience doing the course and the associated research on Sleep (which I’ve been interested for a while). Here it is.

If it looks roughshod then it is probably is. I have  had to read a ton of papers and articles on Sleep before I could start to work on the presentation, and I was running out of time for submission.

There is also complementary material to that presentation here, that forms the outline of the presentation.(If the presentation does not make sense, read the outline)

Some of the  papers I’ve referred to for the presentation are checked into the repository (Probably will take it down soon, unsure about the copyright issues).

Sleep and my attempts at hacking it

A few quick notes from a whole bunch of sleep related books I’ve been reading, and some of my sleep/wake experiments I’ve been running on my own. It may be relevant for most people but more so for programmers like me.

You don’t need 8 hrs of continuous sleep, most current research seems to suggest that for every 2 hrs of wake you need 1 hour of sleep. Sleepiness increases as the wakeful hours build up. This means that catching naps is quite effective in being alert. One of the biggest thing to look out for is a full sleep cycle, in which you pass from light sleep to deep sleep and then REM sleep. REM sleep is the last stage of each cycle and possibly the most important (studies have shown that ability to learn goes drops dramatically when deprived of REM sleep).  It is also the easiest to awake at the end of the sleep cycle (depth of sleep gets lower as you approach REM sleep), typically this period is about 90 minutes to 110 minutes long. You feel freshest waking up at the edge of your sleep cycles, and disoriented when woken in the middle of deep sleep. The trick is to sleep in a quite room and wake up naturally (as against using alarm).

Color of light during the day and evening before sleep is very important, lots of us use Flux which changes the color of your computer monitor to brownish/reddish during the evening. It helps because blue light from monitors/iPads/TV’s/fluorescent lamps etc. delay the onset of sleep. It’s important not only important to change the monitor color but also switch over to incandescent bulb during the evening for the same reason. On the other hand wakefulness in the day is enhanced by bright of light, so having bright (blue light or natural light) is great to maintain alertness during the day.

Most humans have a period of day called the ‘wake maintenance zone’, this is the time around dusk when despite sleep build up we resist sleep, supposedly this was the period in the day when humans were under highest threat from animals during our stint on the savannah. We’ve evolved to be more watchful and alert around this period. This about a couple of hours around 6-8 PM . I’ve personally found this period to be the most productive (via RescueTime stats). This is also the time we fritter away either drinking in pubs or stuck in traffic instead of hacking productively at work.

Figuring out your chronotype is extremely important and plan your day around it, instead of around set schedules of  work at 9AM and home at 6PM. This is because your body clock controls when you are alert/hungry/sleepy rather than the time of the day. But it is really hard to manage different social times with internal time, this is where entrainment comes into play. Light is a really powerful zeitgeber for entrainment. For later chronotypes like me (most programmers?) it is useful to get enough sunlight in the day, so that it’s easier to sleep early. A quick heuristic: 2 hrs of sunlight in the day pulls back your normal sleep time by about 1 hr. Couple hours of cycling to work seems to do the business for me.

Temperature of the body plays a important role in sleep and we sleep faster (or better?). Body temperature drops as we sleep and a drop in temperature induces sleep. So it is harder to sleep after a vigorous run or walk, or a hot shower, because both increase your body temperature. I’ve personally found cold water shower to induce sleep. Also during the REM stage of sleep your body loses its ability to regulate body temperature (along with most muscles) and will follow the ambient temperature and hence it is important to sleep in a place which is not too cold or warm.


Internal Time : An excellent book on Chronotypes by a sleep researcher.

Dreamland:  On sleep/dreams etc. good fast read.

Flux Sleep research Page

Entrainment of human clock

Sleep wake rythms and cognition

Wake Maintenance

A course on sleep

A Conservative Driver’s Rules on the Road

City commutes are getting harder by the day, the number of cars bikes and buses getting on the road is in an upswing, while the Road infrastructure has been in a steady decline. This is one of the reasons for the dramatic rise in number of Road accidents, incidents of road rage and general loss of joy of driving especially in the city

There are standard set of Rules of the road, stuff that we need to pass the driving tests but something we forget immediately afterwards. Stuff like

  1. Not breaking Red lights.
  2. Following speed limits
  3. Staying on the left side of the road. (People take those shortcuts)
  4. Not Using Full Beam.
  5. No Mobile phones while driving.

If we all followed these the next set of rules are pretty redundant, but most don’t. But there are some of us, who don’t need to drive fast to get to office a couple of minutes early or afford to have accidents on the road or lose their cool on the street or have girl friends to impress with wheelies. We just want to get from one place to the other Safely.

The rule Zero for me is You are responsible for your safety, You have to become more conservative to account for others’ aggression. It’s easy to blame others for  your accident but you still screwed. You are also responsible for covering for other people’s mistakes. This means that you need to be aware of what’s happening on the road, being mindful of what’s ahead of you and when can it can stop,  what’s behind of you and how big or fast is it coming, who’s driving erratically and where the potholes and bumps are.

  1. No Honking at all It has the negative effect on people, It’s noise pollution and It’s an admission that you have made a driving mistake. If you can’t see at a turn then slow down so that you don’t have to worry about somebody coming the other side. If you are on a narrow street with slow vehicles in front pass the vehicle when you get the chance there is no reason to be push him off the road because you are in a hurry. It is no good to honk when there is red light at the signal everybody is trying to get to the destination early, just wait for your turn to move. It is worst in the night and most of us do not realize what a menace it is.
  2. Always Overtake from the Right Use left only if there is enough space, where enough space means you still have space even if the other vehicle shifts a whole lane.  If you do not have the space to over take just stay in the back biding your time.
  3. Keep the distance  Once you realize that hitting another vehicle is ALWAYS your mistake and not the others, When excuse of the other guy braked suddenly is no longer available, you will maintain the distance. There are all sort of rules around how far should you be given the speed of the vehicles, In general the Western (3 second) rules of distance are not much good in India, my thumb rule is to keep double length of the vehicle distance from cars, Trucks, Buses. More for Taxis and Call center cabs. About a vehicle length from bikes and cycles in normal traffic suffices.
  4. Stay to left  much as possible Right side of the road is where the speeds are the highest. That’s also side of the road which attracts most aggressive and faster drivers.
  5. Avoid driving when you don’t have to Walking is safe, and public transport is pretty good. There’s a local saying, “The only place you are safe on the road is inside a Bus”

To follow these you need loads of Patience You will be stuck behind a slow-moving Biker talking on the Mobile Phone, waiting at the Red Signal with no traffic at all late in the night  and a form of chalta hai attitude aka ‘Be prepared for assholes’. Though it’s NOT OK for others to break rules, you can’t do much (Some times when I am irritated I give them feedback with the middle finger),  you will see people overtaking from left, cutting lanes, pushing you off the road, bumping into you from the back, and incessantly honking at you and it’d be easy to do the same, but resist that temptation. I repeatedly use  “This is water” to remind myself it’s probably OK.

Drafting in life

As a Cyclist, I have been aware of drafting for a long time and I’ve talked about it previously here

The idea of drafting is to reduce the effort needed to cycle by working in groups. Research has shown that cyclists can cut their effort by up to 40% if they are behind a leader in the group. In a drafting group, people shift into and out of lead all the time, there are etiquette and protocols on when to fall behind in the group and when to lead the group.

The headwinds of Life and the best way to make it draft them with your friends and family.

In Cycling, drafting needs a lot of trust in your mates and following the rules, if you don’t trust the people you are drafting, you end up not being in the slipstream and missing the “pull” and if you start to get too comfortable with a new group too early, a quick change in direction can bring you down to the asphalt level (as I have painfully found out on a recent Brevet).

The other thing you notice, is you hardly ever draft with people with different skill levels, most times I’ve noticed the guys that form a echelon are the ones with similar styles and rhythms, literally need to synchronize the pedal motion, those who can’t synchronize get dropped without other cyclists noticing it almost unapologetically.

I suspect both these things play out in life pretty similarly.

Thanks to all the people I have drafted( you know who you are)  for letting me draft them.