Good Energy

The guys at Good Energy have been really supportive and excited about the expedition, so much so that they have made a contribution which allows me to keep the blog regularly updated during the expedition, so they and everyone else can follow the journey. Good Energy supplies 100% renewable electricity sourced from wind, water, sun and sustainable biomass. CO2 from coal-fired electricity generation is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Switch your electricity supply to Good Energy using this link and not only will you be supporting the pioneering community of independent green generators, but for every sign up they get they’ll make another donation to help get the bus around the world. It helps you cut your personal CO2 emissions, helps them grow a great business, and helps me get round the world.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Iranian State Sponsored Bus

The fundamental idea behind Biofuels is that, unlike fossil fuels, the carbon they release when they are used is carbon that was already in the atmosphere. Nothing new is being added. Fossil fuels on the other hand require digging carbon atoms out of the ground in the form of crude oil and burning them releasing carbon into the atmosphere.

All well and good in theory but there 3 major problems that biofuels have to overcome to really work on an environmental level.

Firstly growing massive amounts of oil producing crops to meet the planets fuel needs is practically impossible, and unsustainable agricultural practices in places like Malaysia and the Amazon mean that rainforests are being felled to grow palm and soya for oil. Obviously this is completely counterproductive from a CO2 point of view and environmentally worthless, but it is cheap, and does tick the boxes governments have set out for “green” fuel producers. This crappy legislation is responsible for biofuels with a higher carbon footprint than diesel, which by the way, I can’t help referring to as “the good stuff” much to my own annoyance.

Secondly growing biofuels means there is less space left to grow food crops. Biofuel crops account for a tiny portion of the land that could be used to grow food, however food prices are dependent on the balance between how much food is produced and how much food is consumed. If there is a tiny bit more food available, then food is cheap, but if there is a tiny bit less, then food becomes dramatically more expensive. Agrofuels have been credited with sending food production below this tipping point and sending crop prices sky high.

Then there is a third problem which is that producing biofuels takes energy, and requires a small but not negligible quantity of chemicals which are mainly produced as by products of the petrochemical industry.

The first two problems can be solved in a number of ways. The key thing is proper legislation that rewards sustainably grown fuels with a traceable feedstock. Oil producers say this is too complicated because of the way fuel is blended before being sold. Crap. You can buy sustainable electricity that is “blended” in the National Grid so why not fuel from a big blending tank. The Renewable Fuels Agency in the UK is working on improving the UK legislation.

You can also use waste oils, of which there aren’t a huge amount, certainly when compared with the fuel need, but the right legislation (like that in the UK) has encouraged a very efficient network of recycling of waste oil by individuals and companies. Certainly there is no excuse for waste oil going to waste. And new ideas on sources of waste are being developed and pushed as commercial projects in the quest to meet demand. Uptown Oils one of my sponsors are working with sewer grease which has to be scraped out of the drains to free up pipes. In China they are already using the same technology to recover grease from restaurants on a massive scale.

There are so called second generation crops, which are showing promising signs of providing solutions. Jatropha is a desert flower whose seed produces oil and it grows in arid conditions where food crops can’t be grown. MFC in Mali are doing research work to see how yields can be improved with crop rotation, resting the land and cross breeding varieties.

There is also a lot of work going on with vertical Algae growing. Algae produce huge amounts of oil, per hectare of land (or moreover water) compared with traditional oil crops. It can be fed with sewerage, or it can even be grown at sea. The difficult bit is extracting the oil from the Algae, but again new techniques are being pioneered as we speak.

The third problem which doesn’t get talked about much, rests on the fact that planet Earth has a fossil fuelled infrastructure. Ethanol is an important ingredient in making biodiesel. There are bioethanols available, but not widely, and the transport footprint becomes a factor for producers that want to use it, let alone the cost.

In London Uptown Oils wanted to power their processors with generators running on the biodiesel they produce from restaurant waste oil, but they would need special permits as it’s classed as “waste incineration”. Aside from the mad bureaucracy, sustainable energy can be used to produce biofuels, if it’s cheap and available.

Here in Tehran, I have drawn a blank on finding waste oil. We found a broker that sold waste oil from chips factories to soup makers, for 80cents/litre. 1000 litres would cost $800, cheaper than fuel in the UK, but a lot more than my shoe string budget could afford, and a lot more expensive than filling the tank with Iranian Good Stuff (which would cost about ten quid!). Regardless it was the wrong sort of oil, too lardy and dirty. The next best option was to use fresh oil, and an Iranian environmental NGO persuaded a local cooking oil producer to provide 900litres of fresh but unprocessed oil. It has been extracted from soya beans, but not filtered, bleached or neutralised, so isn’t fit for cooking. The best thing about it is that I can now say that the expedition is (sort of) Iranian State Sponsored because the NGO that lobbied on my behalf is part funded by the government. I shan’t mention it to US Immigration.

I’m disappointed it’s not waste, but after a week of chasing my tail, I have to make a compromise. At least it’s not diesel, and this is after all a vegetable oil producing nation. I now have enough fuel to get to India where I hope to find some Jatropha.

After Dinner Jacket

It’s been raining so the traffic is bad and the people from the state run news organisations are late. They blame Ahmadi Najad for the traffic, but only after making sure the microphone is off. I ask them about how they function as journalists here. They have to get approval before they can go out and cover any story, and then when it’s done they have to have it approved again by a collection of government agencies. It’s a minefield, and a miracle anything gets published. A week later my interviews still haven’t gone out, on hold while it goes through the approval process.

The only way to function in this environment is to self censor. Avoid controversy, toe the line. It’s not that different in the UK. Read Flat Earth News by Nick Davies (I’ve finished reading it now so I will finally stop going on about it).

The easy question that always comes up is “How do I like Iran”, which seems to come from a genuine curiosity about how Iran is perceived by foreigners. But it’s always followed by the killer go-directly-to-jail, do-not-pass-Go question; “What do you think about the Iranian elections?” There is no right answer here, “You either go to jail in Iran, or you go to jail in England” jokes Sammy who is translating the question. But it’s only half a joke.

In that moment I come up with a great answer, diplomatic and thoughtful. Split second genius. So good I don’t need to take the time to mentally double check it before it I release it from my mouth: “In the UK no one voted for Gordon Brown, we had no election, yet he is our Prime Minister. In Italy Silvio Berlusconi controls the media and that allowed him to control what people thought was true, to manipulate his re-election. In the US Bush stole the presidency for 8 years. Democracy is difficult.”

What!?! Andy, You Fucking Idiot! You’ve either just said “Yeah you’ve got a corrupt election stealing president in Iran too” or a milder interpretation might be “Election stealing is fine, everyone does it, leave the man alone” to a population that are ready to lynch him. As the penny drops, I look at the reporter and ask “I’m going to prison aren’t I?”

But fortunately they throw me a lifeline. “No, before they put you in prison they will arrest me, so I will make sure neither of us gets into trouble.” Thank god for a system which forces journalists to self-censor.

Relatively Skimpy

When I was a student in the early 90s I worked in a piston factory in Bridgewater. Probably the bleakest moment in my life. One day a new secretary came to work at the factory. She had a blond perm, knee length skirts and an Escort XR3i. She set the foundry alight. Bridgewater had never seen such a stunner. And for the first week the forklift driver would bring us regular updates of what she was doing each time he’d pass her window. “She’s on the phone”, or “She’s typing something”.

I’d come down from London where perms and knees on show were old news, but being surrounded by the hysteria and starved of anything more stimulating, I too soon became infatuated. My puppy love never went further because it was soon made clear to me she was obviously spoken for. “Nice car. Must be her fella’s.” the forklift driver mused one lunch time.

Today I’m in the front seat of a taxi at a red light in Tehran, and crossing the road is a peroxide blond with 3 inch stilettos at the end of her shape hiding trousers, and although she’s wearing a headscarf, her hair isn’t tied up beneath it, and the long blond locks sway across her back as she sidles past, dragging my gaze with her. I catch the taxi driver is also mesmerised. He looks past me to the taxi driver in the adjacent cab and they exchange a comment about the girl. I don’t understand what they say but from the body language and the smiles I’d guess it wasn’t “She wants a good stoning”, but more likely “I wouldn’t mind a portion of that for dessert”

Either way, after just a few days my sensibilities are changing too. Where I might previously have admired the soft curve of a breast, the slenderness of a leg, or the pertness of a bottom, I am now just as drawn to the erotic swish of long feather-like eye lashes, fluttering around shimmering wide brown Persian eyes. Girls here have amazingly long eyelashes. Spectacularly long. In an interview with a journalist I can’t resist asking her if hers are real. They are!

The headscarf is worn in so many different ways that it’s hard to see it as a tool to subjugate women, any more than any other garment of clothing does. The 16 year old daughter of a friend tells me she hates being forced to wear the headscarf, but even if she didn’t feel it was socially compulsory she would still wear it.

For a while now, the fashion police (there is no such thing by the way) have been very relaxed, maybe sensing the mood is against them in the wake of the election protests. However there is no rule book telling women what is and isn’t acceptable, and there aren’t patrols on the street checking if hair is visible or not, although some policemen bring their personal beliefs to work with them and might take it upon themselves to castigate errant women for their own moral good. But principally it’s a self enforced consensus of dress, the limits of which are being pushed and repelled by those at either end of the bell curve.

I worked in a club in the West End of London, and on a Friday and Saturday night the dress consensus for women is just as rigorously self-enforced, and pushed by a few bold individuals. It’s undeniable that the right clothes are empowering but each society dictates what is “right”.

The headscarf started out as symbol of solidarity with the Revolution after the Shah forbade it, but in conversations with women about it, I get the sense it’s now more of a red herring. I moot the idea that like bra-burning feminist of the 70’s, Iranian women might remove their scarves as part of protests against the government, but the responses tell me that’s some way off. Either Iranians aren’t ready for it yet, or the dogma of the scarf is now more ingrained in the culture, than associated with the Revolution, so removing it wouldn’t make sense as a symbol of protest against the president or the supreme leader.

No doubt globalisation and cultural exchange will eventually remove Iran’s scarf even if the protestors don’t. Another unique national trait wiped from the earth as we move towards utopian homogeneity. Perhaps it will be consigned to themed Iranian tourist restaurants of the future.

I’ve never been particular perceptive of social rules; even when I was in Bridgewater, the forklift driver asked the secretary out on a date after the first week and she said yes. Crafty bastard. After a week here I’m still struggling to get to grips with which mores are religious, social or political, but I get the sense that this confusion and cross over is part of Iranian national identity.

Children of the Revolution

I’m so angry at how stupid I’ve been. Iran? dangerous? misogynist? fundamentalist? xenophobic? Of course it isn’t, none of these things, and how stupid am I for having thought, even for a moment, for a second, that any country could be suicidal for a British passport holder, or spell instant rape for a single woman.

On our first day a breakdown in communication means we get an impromptu tour of the university campus, the very same campus where 3 days early massive demonstrations started. There’s a hint of political descent from our host, Sammy, but I hide my excitement at being in the centre of today’s history and the paranoia about the security apparatus that might be listening directs me to quickly change the subject.

Less than 48 hours later we have a better measure of the place. We’ve lost our appetite for paranoia about secret police, and in terms of fundamentalism, well this barely passes as an Islamic country. In practice, Tehran is less religious than Istanbul.

Sammy is 28, born 3 years after the Revolution which led to a jump in population inspired by a call for soldiers from the Supreme Leader. Sammy is slap in the middle of that spike. At primary school his parents had to fight to get him a place, again at secondary school, and at university, and now he has graduated there aren’t enough jobs to go round for the Iranian baby-boomers.

And their resentment is aimed squarely at the government, and not just for the lack of jobs, affordable housing. Mostly they are angry because they are educated enough to see that they have just been cheated out of an election where they rejected the hardline party’s politics which injects religious interference into their lives. Cheated, as they see it, not just by the president clinging corruptly onto power, but subsequently also by the Supreme Leader.

The Supreme Leader is the father figure of the revolution, the benign head of the religious ideology people turned to in the early 70s. His constitutional power is superimposed over an electoral system and parliament which is otherwise comparable to that of the US.

After this election everyone expected the Supreme Leader to say that even though it had been fair, because the people were unhappy it would be re-run. He didn’t, and the focus of discontent shifted from Ahamdi Najad on to him.

The demonstration criticising the supreme leader was a first ever, and is a short step to a re-revolution. Everyone agrees that the protests will continue and escalate until the president is replaced, but no one thinks the police or the army will ever quell the protests let alone fire on the demonstrators, and maybe that’s true, but it’s precisely what the students of Tiananmen Square thought too.

Sammy says he doesn’t want a revolution. No one does because the last revolution was such a letdown. But he does want an end to the religious ideology dictating government policy. That sounds like it’s going to need revolution to me.

The 16 year old daughter of another host is disgusted that I am trying to arrange a photo call with President Ahmadi Najad. “Mr Ahmadi Najad,” she corrects me, “He’s not my president.”

Later Hamid takes me aside. “It’s important to the young people that foreigners don’t give credibility to this election”, and my attempt to get is seen as such. I reluctantly give up on the idea.

There’s no need for another revolution. The Supreme Leader is old and not long for this world but the protests will continue until nature takes its course or events intercede.

In The Independent, that Frankie has brought from the UK, there is a short article about the NCRI, a group of exiled Iranians clearly with an axe to grind. They sound like an Astroturf Organisation – purporting to have grass roots but actually totally manufactured to push an agenda. They claim (from the insightful vantage point of Brussels - wtf?), that the Revolutionary Guard has launched a new department to track down individuals involved in the protests. Sammy laughs when I read this to him. “They aren’t that organised.” None of the protestors are scared of “the security apparatus.”

Later I hear of students arrested and held for several weeks undergoing mild torture, after the first round of protests, I see a prison in town where I’m told people disappear, but most worryingly about the Basij, a pro-government militia that aren’t as restrained as the “people-loving” police or army, who might direct violent retaliation at protestors.

But descent with the government is so widespread and so close to the surface, there’s maybe some safety in numbers. A neighbour sparks up a conversation with me while I am working on the bus in the street. Within minutes he is vocally telling me what a prick Ahmadi Najad is, and how he was at the protest and isn’t scared of the inept police.

I explain to my hosts how my media push an agenda that the Middle East is populated by irrational, hate filled, religious zealots intent on murdering western infidels, in order to justify us relieving them from their oil revenue. There’s a long silence after my tirade. Perhaps they are in shock, perhaps disillusionment, or perhaps they’re freaked out by this ranting Brit.

The Independent piece is another story in the western media, which as I’ve discovered effectively manipulate my fears, persuading me that Iran is mad, bad and dangerous. Orwellian thought control. I really thought I was smart enough to see through it. Thankfully the undeniable truth is clear to me now: A safe, and overwhelmingly welcoming city.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Something Ventured, Nothing Gained.

I’ve just spent the evening driving around Van, from one industrial estate to the next in search of a catering factory which might have used oil. I found 5 but the closest I came to any oil was 150 litres of lard frozen solid in the cold winter air.

At a corn chip factory I was proudly shown the manhole cover down which they pour 80 litres a week. “Direct to the lake” explains the manager. I explain that doing that in London would result in a fine. “It’s no problem in Turkey” Later over a tea, I try in vain to persuade them they could use that oil to run their staff bus. I’m met with that patronising smile I give people when I think they are idiots, but am afraid to say so in case they might also be violent.

I show them some Turkish press cuttings and suddenly the atmosphere changes. The manager asks if he can have his photo taken with me. The factory boss insists on personally inspecting the bus. Reverential bows are bestowed on me. I wonder exactly what it says in the press cuttings. Presumably not “Croydon Cheapskate Avoids Paying for Fuel” which is what I’d assumed. It seems I am described as a saintly planet saving hero.

“I think what you do is fantastic” says the manager, almost kneeling before me “because I too like...” there's a long pause as he searches for the right word and I'm expecting something profound “Trees!” he announces triumphantly.

“Is there anything we can do to help? Do you need money?” I ask for a covered shelter to park the bus to fend off the worst of the night frost, but they don’t have one. Later I think I should have tried to get 100TL (50Euros) out of him, as a fine for polluting the lake. But perhaps the goodwill I leave behind will be more effective in stopping the weekly visits to the manhole cover.

50km later I have no new fuel to show for my efforts and the corn chips I was plied with are repeating on me. The restaurants and baklava places that use oil just chuck it down the sink when they are done. There is no private or city run collection service, as far as I can tell. What a waste.

I’ve spoken to a paraglider pilot in Iran who tells me Tehran is full of fast food restaurants. By now I’ve learnt that there are plenty of reasons why the path between oil being available and me getting it is a long and winding one, usually with unexpected impasses. At least Iran would be a cheap place to fail with their cheaper-than-water diesel prices, but that’s not the attitude now is it!

Van Man

If you run a body shop in Van, you’ve got a job for life. There’s no end of vehicles with smashed up fronts or rears driving around and parked up. I saw one this morning that had just had an accident and a few feet away the cow that had destroyed the front of his car was already being butchered by an irate villager.

I spot a Mercedes 309 bus parked by the side of the road in town. Its the first midsized Merc van I’ve seen since Greece, and from 30 feet I clock it’s 16inch rims. I’m still looking for a rim and have travelled all this way with a spare tyre but no rim.

I chat with the owner, the bus looks more like a 508, and I think it was made in Turkey. The instrument panel is regal. He’s rightly proud of his bus which has outlived the generation of Mercs that it started its life with in the mid 80s, all of whom have now been replaced by ford transits.

It’s got dual control pedals and a stool he sits on when teaching bus drivers. The rest of the time it’s a school bus. In the UK buses usually end up as school buses when they are old and knackered, so delinquent kids don’t get to damage anything nice and new. Here in Turkey kids are transported to school in the pride of the nations fleet of Dolmus vans.

He points me in the direction of a garage on an industrial estate where they had an old Merc which they were scrapping and with it a load of old rims they are using as anvils. I find the place but it’s too late, they’ve already ditched all the parts. No one needed them here.

The world over there is a hierarchy in workshops. There is the owner, who negotiates the prices but doesn’t get his hands dirty, then there is the guy that does the work, and at his beck and call he has the workshop junior. When you’re under a truck precariously holding a part in position it’s important to have an apprentice you can shout to to pass you the tool you need.

Haci (Hagi), the owner, has 2 wives, 15 kids, a set of immaculate ford overall, and seems to own a whole street of workshops. Our conversation is like a mime artist competition. His action for wives leads me to think they both have very pert breasts. He insists I eat in the canteen with all the mechanics, welders, and spray painters around a long table. Picture Pimp My Ride Turkey style, “Yo we gonna hook Andy up with a 1984 classic Merc rim for his spare wheel, then we gonna pimp his fuel filter with some cheap after market tat...”

Juniors are usually covered from head to toe in black oil, as they are the ones sent in to do the dirtiest jobs and haven’t yet developed the skills required to keep clean while working. Their little hands, which could just as usefully be holding a pen at school, are very handy for reaching into an engine bay to recover a dropped socket, and as parts are peeled off the vehicle in question they are the ones sent off to the stores to get replacement bit, and usually shouted at when they return with something similar but not quite right.

The junior in this garage, Umit, talks a lot to me, in between making tea and passing tools to his elder brother under the destroyed front end of a Transit, un worried by the fact I can’t really understand what he’s saying. But at one point he waves his fingers like a piano player and in the barrage of words I pick out “address” and “faysbuk”.

In Iran, now only 100km away, they are brimming with Merc parts, Haci tells me. I put off the oil change, rim hunt and replacing the alternator bearings until then.

Camping Sauvage

I’m trying not to be freaked out, but I am. Throughout all of my trips in Africa I’ve always rough camped and apart from one incident it’s never been a problem. Usually I find a spot off the road and if possible out of sight and have a comfy night’s sleep without a second thought. Often I’m asked about dangers in Africa and I have no patience for those that think Africa is full of thieves and muggers ready to slit your throat for a trivial reason. Like anywhere it’s not crime free, but if you take sensible precautions you won’t need to encounter them. It’s a lack of understanding that breeds the fear.

My ignorance is making me flinch at the sound of a distant rustling plastic bag in the breeze. I’ve parked up on the shores of lake Van in a lay-by with a half finished concrete box house graffitied “Hotel Khomeni”. Eastern Turkey is militarised, and although in no way an inconvenience it’s impossible to ignore and it creates an undeserved tension. Throughout Turkey people have been friendly and protective so why would camping here invite trouble? Logically there is no reason, but it’s not often I’m totally on my own, with no help for miles around and the only other time I can remember rough camping like this, I was woken at 3am by a horny Moroccan tapping at the window of the car miming sex with his finger sliding in and out of his other fist.

The situation rapidly got worse. He opened my door, the only one I’d forgotten to lock, and after a wrestling match in which I have broken a bone in his arm with the door. I managed close it, lock it and get the car started and make a sharp exit back up onto the road. I’m on edge because I’m ignoring the lessons of that night. I can’t lock the door from the inside and when the engine is cold it takes a few minutes to start.

That night there was a good reason to stop and park in a place without company, there’d been a really strong storm that was bringing trees down into the road, so I’d decided to pull over and sleep. Tonight the sun has set on Lake Van. It’s only 6pm, but I’m too tired to drive on and I think it will be a beautiful but potholed drive which needs light and concentration to avoid damaging the bus. I won’t have either until morning.

A short walk 100m from the bus to see how visible it is in the oncoming lights of passing vehicles and I’m reassured that it’s discrete enough, but also for the first time on this trip I catch the night sky. It’s the first time I’ve seen it so full of stars and clear. After a few seconds to acclimatise my eyes it’s as good as any desert starscape I can remember. And the lake has another treat, the gentle sound of the breaking choppy waves accompany the Milky Way. My worries about PKK kidnappers and randy homosexuals evaporate, and are replaced with more realistic concerns about the bus starting in the morning, and how much fuel I have. That should be plenty to keep me awake.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Hot and Cold

“Gazi Antep has the best mechanics in Turkey. People drive from Van to see a mechanic here.” I’m told. Though presumably if your car can make the 700km drive from Van, then it’s not that desperate for a good mechanic.

On the edge of town I’m shown an industrial estate full of lorry mechanics. The bus looks dwarfed among the 44 tonners, reversing and gliding through narrow gaps with effortless grace.
Tradesmen huddle together outside Europe, which makes them easy to find. If you want a guy to repair your fridge go to the end of town with all the fridge-repairers. If you need a tube connector head to the plumbing neighbourhood.

My temperature gauge hasn’t worked since before I got the bus. I know it’s a problem with the backboard of the dashboard dial. I take it to the first mechanic and try to explain. He tests the sensor in the engine and then points to the dashboard dial; “Problem”. He sends me to a garage a few metres away where they specialise in repairing tachographs and dashboard instruments. Again I try to explain but they check the engine sensor and point to the dashboard dial; “Problem”.

The bus has drawn quite a crowd and the danger with excitable mechanics is that they break something else while fixing your problem. One quiet mechanic does a much better job than 4 fighting over who can undo the tough nut. Any mechanical work needs zen-like calm, and clarity of thought above screwdrivers and wrenches.

It takes 10 minutes to isolate the problem is a blown resistor. It takes an hour to find a replacement resistor. Three of us go through boxes of circuit boards testing resistors and debating what the resistance should be. It clearly says 220Ω on the one that is broken but this seems to pass everyone by except me, and I can’t make myself understood, no matter how hard I point at the faded lettering.

Eventually we find one, unsolder it from the instrument it used to be on, fit it and it all works perfectly, except the needle has been in the off position so long it sticks there. So my start up procedure is now: Ignition, pump accelerator, press start button (repeat until engine starts), sharp tap on the temperature gauge and we’re off.

On the drive back into town the bus warms to 80C before the thermostat opens bang on cue, and it’s unflinching in its German steadfastness at the optimum temperature. Seeing a machine working as designed has a calming effect on me, like having my earlobes massaged.

It even lights up in the dark now, I can’t wait to know the oil pressure at night, presumably the same as it is by day, but like the fridge door light you can never be sure. It’s going to be so cool, not having an anxiety attack at the top of each hill, thinking the engine is about to melt.

In fact melting is the last problem I’m going to face over the next week. I’ve been looking at the temperature map on the BBC website and between here and Tehran it’s going to drop down to 0C. The problem far from melting, is waxing, (or freezing). The oil may well set solid in the tank, then like a ship run aground on a spring tide I will have to wait for the summer before I can go anywhere.

I’m waiting an extra couple of days in Gazi Antep because one of my sponsors here should have a fresh batch of biodiesel ready tomorrow evening, and I want to fill the tank with bio, which should resist waxing. As a last resort I may mix in 5% of petrol. Fossil fuels! I know, but I can’t run the risk of having 1000 litres of oil turn to lard. I need a full tank, because I think in Iran it will be hard to find oil, and Pakistan will be a paranoid sprint with no time for pleasantries. Heating 1 tonne of grease is impractical because it will be coldest at night when the engine isn’t running. I've been meditating on the latent energy of oil waxing, and if there is some law of physics I can bend to my advantage. This is by far the most challenging part of the journey so far for the bus, and as for me, I hate the cold.

The promise of “Tehran 17°C, Sunny” waits over the mountains and like a delusional Fitzcarraldo I venture forth towards my dream.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

The Trouble With Money

In Gazi Antep I’ve met up with Mehmet, who since I contacted him from Istanbul has been putting me in touch with people left right and centre that have been able to supply me with oil. At last we meet and he’s younger than I expected, and has all the energy and connections you’d expect of a young entrepreneur. He walks quickly and talks even quicker on his phone.

He’s lived in London for a while and has some great memories of working and studying there. Later today he’s going to take me to their oil stocking warehouse. They have a biodiesel production plant but because of the taxation, it’s not economically viable to produce fuel officially.

I’ve also met up with Manfred (, a retired Austrian currency trader dropped out from a great height and now lives in a bus and travels very slowly in whatever direction the moment takes him.

We first met about 5 years in Senegal and then by accident and by design we’ve met again and again in London, Mali and now Gazi Antep. He reminds me of Dennis Hopped in Apocalypse Now, and I love how incongruous his professional camera and his Rolex are against the backdrop of his ratty bus and the look of a man who hasn’t washed in a week.

We talk about how the Credit Crisis doesn’t seem to be affecting Gazi Antep which has a prosperous feel despite it being the first town where I’ve seen beggars on the streets.

I once worked for a famous investment banker, Jim Rogers, who specialised in profiting/profiteering from emerging markets. He drove around the world and employed me to be his “Africa Hand”. I quit after 3 months and the whole experience is now consigned to a surreal set of memories under the heading “Africa on £2000/day”. Along the way he would look at local economies and invest in ones he thought were on the verge of breaking through into fully signed up open capitalist markets and consequently a short spurt of exponential growth.

The only place he really invested in while I was with him in West Africa was Ivory Coast, and I took some churlish satisfaction when a few months later it proved to be a flawed investment as the fragile stability broke down and wiped out any prospect of their stock market growing.

Jim’s approach is that the ingrained objective of every individual and organisation to maximise their own profit, when allowed to flourish in a true unhindered market capitalism, and is the answer to every problem, from development to international trade, but I think Africa was a good lesson for the Jim, in that when people have nothing, it’s very hard to take the long term view and that creates a different set of behaviours than you’d expect from the “rational” investor.

With some distance, I can now say it was certainly a good experience for me despite the personal differences. I’m very attuned to the state of development of the economy in countries I visit and how that impacts on the day to day experience of people’s lives. Manfred is a massive fan of Jim’s and we always end up talking about him when we meet up.

My view is that capitalism when unfettered ultimately results in anarchy, where the market allows you to buy security or brute force. We saw this in action in DRC during the elections. If you have money you can pay the police to exact whatever you decide is fair. Russia is another classic example of market capitalism meeting anarchy. On that basis you need some rules, but where and how you regulate results in the one type of failing or another in this economic-survival-of-the-fittest ideology.

But worse, the fact that growth is intrinsic to capitalism makes it unsustainable. There are finite resources on the planet, the only reason they are worth more each year, is because we are using them up and there are more people fighting for access to them.

The market value of a company, currency or commodity is not based on its perceived value, but on how people think other market players will perceive its value. So it’s not connected to the reality of a how well a business is run and managed, and in fact businesses have to play the game, sacrificing good projects to manipulate how their finances are perceived so they can raise funds on the market and function.

Markets don’t create worth, they just move it around. Unlike manufacturing which takes raw materials and processes them to create products that have a value beyond the sum of the materials and the work. That’s wealth creation. The market a closed system with rules which means one person’s gain is another’s loss. But over the last 30 years it’s become impossible to be a functioning member of society without buying in that market, (mortgages, pensions, savings accounts) and like a slow burning pyramid scheme, it’s growth is based on more and more people buying in, and when it goes tits up, it’s the last to arrive that loose the most.

The massive profits generated over the last 10 years by the city, are being paid for over the next 10 years by people stuck in negative equity, with savings in failed banks, and by taxes to fund the bail outs. And yet we are all supplicant to the idea that we must get the market back on its feet for us to return to that prosperity and happiness.

I was at the anti-capitalist march when the G20 rolled into London (one of my first blogs I think). Not just anti-capitalist, it seemed to be anti-everything, and I was really disaffected by the lack of positive ideas and alternatives, but a long distance cyclist I met in Ulu Deniz on his way to Africa introduced me to the idea of social enterprise (I think that was the term he used). The idea is that businesses can be set up with a primary aim other than to maximise profits, for instance to employ the most people possible. Traditionally this is the role of NGOs but perhaps there is a role for a middle ground between NGOs and commercial enterprise.

“Work” is effectively the exchange rate between time and money in your life. If you have a well paid job, then you get a good exchange rate for your time. If you have modest ambitions then you don’t need to change much of your time into money. If you’re born in the developing world you’re unlikely to ever be able to get a good exchange rate. When the market falls, people lose money but really it’s their time and their lives which are being used up.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Rocks and soft rock

The big advantage of not having a guide book is that you view a place without context or preconceptions. I don’t know anything about Cappadocia, the history, the geography. All I know is what I’ve seen while I’m here; a tourist town, letting it’s hair down at the end of a good long season.

It goes without saying that the moonlike geography is really unique and intriguing, and the valleys it creates are a joy to walk along. But i've heard many evangelise that this is the most beautiful place in the world, and while it is stunning I wouldn’t be as categorical as that. Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, the Bandiagara Escarpment all give Goreme a good run for their money with a more understated, and tranquil awe.

Of course having no guide book I can’t escape the feeling that I am missing out on something obvious that everyone else knows and that drives my restlessness to explore and discover.

In the evening I find the backpacker bar in town that my guidebook, if I had one, would no doubt recommend. There’s a Halloween party, it seems for expats and well heeled Turks. I meet a bevy of western expat women that live and work here, enchanted by the landscape and for many by the men folk too. Over the Turkish covers of soft rock ballads from the bar’s speakers, I hear tales of relationships and infidelity that parry the drama of a teenage common room, and remind me of the female “Love Tourism” in the Gambia, about which we made a film on our journey through there to Cape Town.

There, most of those relationships are doomed to failure because of the cultural differences, clash of expectations and contradicting motives. I see all those ingredients are here too except the women have a more bohemian spirit than the package tourists of Banjul. Maybe that’s enough to make it work?

There’s an air of prosperity at the fancy dress party and a Turkish hotelier tells me it’s been the best season since 9/11, and the crunch has meant they are getting better quality English speakers, as they downscale from more expensive destinations to Turkey. I’m surprised at how many America backpackers there are in town. "Now we have Obama, we can show our faces again" one jokes.

I talk for a while with a French woman, who along with her French partner runs a ranch and horseback tours. We talk about the relationship that a guide has with their passengers (“Pax”, the dehumanising term I used to use when I worked with American coach tours around Europe). On the one hand you are a friend to them, but this is just a veneer, because you are also working for them and they have expectations of the service you will provide. And a third rule of the relationship is to make a living out of them too of course. Working back to back on tours, presenting this veneer of friendship can drive you mad. I quit touring in the end because I found I couldn’t stop applying the veneer even in my personal life.

Throughout Turkey people are overwhelmingly friendly, but in the tourist centres, here and in Ulu Deniz, my rapport with them is subtly distanced by this tourism veneer, which frustrates me. If I had more time I could get beyond it, but I'm not overwhelmed enough to want to and there are plenty of towns in Turkey where this rapport comes instantly. The astounding natural beauty around me is tinged with just the smallest hint of insincerity.