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.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Orientation Anxiety

When I wake up, takes me a second to remember where I am. I have to momentarily replay my story so far as my eyes and senses come into focus; I’m in my truck, driving around the world, and yesterday I got to Kamla Beach in Thailand, and couldn’t find a nice place to park at first, and then found this monastery.

It used to be a panic inducing moment. Momentarily totally lost in the world. Somehow the question ‘Where am I?’ is inherently linked to the question ‘What danger am I in?’ There’s a sense of vulnerability sleeping in a vehicle behind sheets of metal and glass, rather than behind bricks and mortar. Am I about to get washed away by a flood, is a coconut going to fall on my solar panels? If this spot is so safe, why isn’t anyone else camping here? It’s not a fear about being attacked or robbed, it's the dangers of natural phenomena that accompanied me out of my dawn slumber.

Everywhere along the Thai coastline we’ve seen signposts to Tsunami muster stations. Here, for instance, we are only 1.6km north of safety if a Tsunami warning is issued. The white and blue signs with a benign graphic of a wave crashing innocently over a stick man running up a slope are terrorising to me because if a Tsunami warning was launched I’d have no idea how I’d hear about it. Would there be sirens? Would it be announced in English on the radio? Or most likely would a massive traffic jam develop along the 1.6km between here and safety.

They remind me of the petrifying public information media from my childhood; radio warnings about what to do in the event of a nuclear strike, or those leaflets about Aids and Heroin. Valuable information for sure, but the calm matter-of-fact presentation serves to make it horrifying. Safety cards on planes and the carefully crafted wording of their safety demonstration are the worst. “Should we land on water...” and in the statistically impossible likelihood that the plane and our bodies aren't’t torn into fragments no bigger than a fist by the 100mph impact with a wall of water “... please remove your high heels”. I wasn’t afraid until they prompted me to really think about “the unlikely event in which we lose cabin pressure ...” and visualising how that drop down paper-cup oxygen mask will do nothing to stop my innards being sucked out of my body “... via the nearest available exit”.

The 4th anniversary of the Christmas Tsunami is only a few days away, and the reconstruction efforts have been successful enough that to my untrained eye, it’s hard to see that this area was affected. Standing by the sea I try to visualise how a 10m wave would look. A solid wall of breaking water, or an determined torrent of rising water. I can’t really imagine the destructive mechanisms it would wreak on buildings and trees, and what and who it would select to suck out to sea as it receded. It’s the sort of phenomena I just have no references for, a moment when the things you take for granted; walls, buildings, the ground, trees, the things we think of as solid, as anchors, can no longer be relied on.

Despite the tease of fear the Tsunami signs engender, I’m less worried about where I am these days. After 14 months of waking up in the bus and not once having been swept away by a flood, the panic that goes with remembering where I am and what I’m doing here has thankfully subsided. I’ve got used to those few seconds of unknowing. I’m actually trying to train myself to enjoy them and stave off remembering my placement in the world for as long as possible, free from the shackles of any references. I know I’m in the world, but knowing exactly where isn’t a pressing detail.

Instead, that panic has now morphed to associate itself with remembering my orientation. There’s always been some thought, and now with Christina some discussion, that goes into deciding which way round to park the bus so that there’s some airflow, and view from the bed window. But that means that the eventual decision is often harder to recall in the morning. And it’s made harder by the fact I sometimes sleep the other way round in the bed.

As I wake, before I open my eyes, I remember where I’m parked by calmly replaying the previous day’s events. But the thing that makes me spring my eyes open in sheer terror these days is the need to remember which way I’m facing. It takes a second to mentally orientate the bus in my memory of its surroundings while my heart rate rises. And then I need a moment to orientate myself in the bus, during which my breathing gets deeper. Finally, what takes the longest is to twist those two mental images round to line up so that I can picture which way my body is facing in relation to the world as I left it outside the bus. By this stage I’m ready for an inhaler-full of Vallium.. It’s only until I look out the window and see something that confirms my orientation analysis that I can relax. In practice it takes less than two seconds, but the fear stems from the fact it takes me so long to figure out which way is up.

If I was Jessica Sexless-Parker, or better still Dougie Howser MD, the self congratulatory lesson I would be tapping into my computer at the end of this episode would be; “I guess these days it’s more important for me to know which way I’m facing than where I’m stood.” Fade to black. Cue music and titles as the audience reflects on this profundity and how that’s true of their life too.

But I’m not. Instead the self-deprecatory lesson is this: I’m scared of a different type of death; senility.

Monday, 22 November 2010


I was asked if I was a hippy again yesterday and lately I’ve been proudly answering yes, but I still draw the line at tree-hugger.

The 60’s hippies that drove to India and that danced at Woodstock, were acting on a desire to escape the values and job-for-life destiny of their parent’s generation who, coming out of the austerity of the Second World War, were revelling in a period of prosperity and technology advances that were creating a consumptive society. Sparked by the Beat Generation’s rebellion against the norms of music and poetry, the hippies rejected the norms of lifestyle, and clumsily developed an alternative way, founded on turning to nature and community.

When I started planning this trip, just before the credit crisis, the UK had experienced a 10 year stint of unprecedented prosperity, and developed a credit fuelled appetite for consuming. So I like to think that my escape was an attempt to reject those values, but like the 60’s hippies I have to admit that it was funded by that same economic growth spurt which has given me the savings and freedom to temporarily escape my “career for life” destiny.

Like the hippies of the 60’s I am playing the system, earning my money with a laptop, the internet and corporate clients and spending with a hippy bus journey. It’s a mistake to think that the bus loads that drove to India were anti-capitalist. They were savvy globalising entrepreneurs, long before Thatcher or Reagan made it fashionable or acceptable to be so. Journeys were funded by trading, just like Marco Polo centuries before. Selling auto parts bought in Germany to the Turks, selling spare seats to passengers on the hippy trail, selling Afghan weed to Indian lads, and then stocking up on Indian fabrics and silver jewellery to sell on the beaches of the Adriatic during the return journey.

In some ways I feel that this is where I’m failing my hippy badge. For 12 years I took cars across the Sahara Desert to West Africa loaded with Europe’s junk; broken fridges, auto parts, bicycles, Walkmans, and mobile phones, all to be traded and sold to fund the journeys. This trip hasn’t had that element of trade-as-you-go and I miss it because it’s a sweet insight into what the countries you visit need and what they have to offer. And if you can pull it off it’s a sweet earner too.

The hippy movement made a kind of resurgence in the mid 90’s in the shape of “New Age Travellers”, living in old trucks, squatting on land, and largely migrating with agricultural work cycles; from hop picking in Kent to winkle picking in Scotland, and then down to Spain for the oranges. New Age Travellers sprang from the rave culture but it also grew out of a rejection of the Loadsamoney culture Thatcherism was creating, so along with copious drugs and music, was active protest about social issues, like the Battle for Twyford Down road building, the Poll Tax riots, and pretty much anything else the Tories did.

And both movements arguably left their mark on their societies before their demise. The hippies of the 60’s settled down to merge with their Baby Boomer generation instilling it with a hint of liberalism and social consciousness as their voice blended into society’s voice. The New Age Traveller movement was largely smashed by legislation and then co-opted under Blairism into the mainstream but left an appetite for great music but moreover angry protest in the UK which still keeps the police on its toes.

I’m not sure that the Biotruck will have much of a generational legacy, but the green movement, which like the hippy movement has an interest in bringing society closer to nature and away from consumption, better had. In the meantime I'm reclaiming the term Hippy.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

EcoSpeak and the fall of Capitalism

In the new language created by our increased environmental consciousness there are two phrases which are particularly warm and cosy. One is “Beyond Petroleum”. How reassuring that little green sun (or is it a sunflower) emblem is. Sadly, the only significant way in which BP have moved beyond petroleum since rebranding is that they have expanded their interests in Natural Gas, which is a slightly cleaner energy source than crude oil products, but still a fossil fuel, so still involves taking carbon atoms out of the ground after they’ve comfortably rested there for millennia and adding them to our atmosphere and oceans, where they can’t fail to have an impact on our climate. In fairness BP are no worse than the other big oil companies, but they are the only ones with a green logo and windmill on their filling stations which it turns out in some cases are not even hooked up and purely cosmetic!

The other insidious oxymoron designed to generate that warm everything-will-be-ok feeling is “Clean Coal”. A technology which turns coal into a collection of hydrocarbon gasses before burning it. It’s a cleaner, more efficient use of coal, but no measure of efficiency can escape the fact that this is the worst of the fossil fuels, the use of which is one of the best mechanism for taking carbon safely locked away underground and sticking it in the air to warm up in the sun.

Clean coal is often cited along with the phrase Carbon Capture and Storage (CC&S). CC&S involves putting carbon filters on the chimney stacks of coal fired power station, or using bacteria to absorb the carbon. The language makes it sound like the perfect solution; you catch the carbon and then store it. Why didn’t we think of this before? Problem solved. Except capturing CO2 gas into a solid filter is very difficult and makes the powerplants less efficient, so they have to burn more coal. And even then, the capture part is a doddle compared with the storage part. The filters are volumetrically hugely inefficient so the CO2 they do catch takes up lots of space. The bacteria that absorb the carbon quickly die and then decompose releasing their carbon atoms into the atmosphere in the form of methane and CO2, so the storage needs to lock their dead bacteria bodies and filters away forever. The gigatonnes of carbon atoms extracted from the ground in coal, petroleum and natural gas each year would need to be returned to the ground in a way that couldn’t find a route back to the surface. That would take a lot of unfeasibly large holes and a load of energy to dig them. Putting it back in the holes it came from is a lovely idea but not feasible for a host of reasons; you can’t put a solid back down a gas pipe for instance, it takes up more space afterwards than it did before, and you’d have to cover quarries with a concrete cap that would last 1000’s of years without cracking. Can you imagine the builders guarantee on that patio?

“Carbon Credits” is another cuddly positive sounding term. Companies emitting CO2 get taxed on the amount they produce in a bid to discourage them. It creates a “Carbon Market” the theory goes, where pollution can be traded like debt. The market forces (also know in Marxist circles as ‘the law of the jungle’) are left to sort out the problem. But as always the raw natural forces of the market are only as good as the rules which manipulate them. The “Cap and Trade” scheme of carbon credits introduced in the US was so unpopular with industry that it’s been watered down, some say, to the point where it has become a toothless disincentive.

Cap and Trade systems allow you to pay off some poor third world farmers to work harder in a way that emits less CO2 while you continue to churn out your existing levels of pollution. In the meantime the poor farmers will take your money and if they have any sense at all continue to do what they were doing before, because no one is policing these offset schemes, especially in countries rife with corruption.

So how about this term I’ve made up; “Extraction Tax”. Sadly it’s not very lovely and soft, it’s harsh with two x’s and lots of hard t’s that jar as they come out of your mouth. The problem of greenhouse gasses starts when carbon atoms are lifted out of the ground. That’s when they become a liability that someone is going to have to deal with (or ignore and vent along an exhaust pipe). It’s like pointing the blame at the person in the room that farts. In the end we all breathe it in, but it’s the farter who should apologise. I appreciate this is a crap analogy (excuse the equally crap pun) but I can’t seem to write a blog post without some toilet talk and this was the only way I could think to insert it here.

The Oil & Gas and mining companies would carry the burden of paying it based on the number of carbon atoms they pulled out of the ground. No one likes the Oil & Gas or mining companies so it would be hugely popular with the public, and compared with the unaccountability of the capped and traded 3rd world farmer it would be easier to manage because there are only a few oil majors and OPEC countries in the cartel. In practice they’d pass the tax on to energy consumers, you and me, who would pay a more realistic price for the energy we use, reflecting its environmental impact.

But how could you get the world to agree implement such a tax universally? Well of course you can’t. But perhaps you wouldn’t need to. It might be enough if you had just one country that turned to all the oil companies and OPEC and said if you want to sell any of your fossil fuel energy here we are going to tax you for all the carbon you’re pulling out of the ground around the world, even if it’s not mined or used in this country. Like a license to trade with a fee that’s based on the size of the business. Of course it would have to be a country with a massive consumption or the oil majors and OPEC would just boycott it. A global superpower, a world leader, a country headed by someone who cares about the environment, the planet’s policeman. Yes, that’s right, China.

In practice the Chinese (and the US) are desperately looking for energy from wherever they can find it, and the last thing they are about to do is start taxing their own imports of the stuff. But globally, no one could afford for China to shut down its industry if OPEC called their bluff, and ironically so dependent is the rest of the world on China that we would probably have more to lose by China shutting down than the Chinese would, so this threat could be used to leverage other countries to come onboard with the Extraction Tax. Then, Western politicians could finally implement a harsh, costly effective green tax they always dreamed of, and blame it’s unpopular consequences on those bloody Chinese.

I can’t for a minute honestly imagine this would happen, but it’s been a peculiar week on the geopolitical stage; A communist country accurately pointed out to the capitalist ‘Free (Market) World’ that its currency is worth nothing and it doesn’t know how to manage it, which is surely a moment as significant in world events as the fall of the Berlin wall. Up-Perestroika, and raise your Glasnost! Twenty one years later and it turns out Communism won after all. China now owns America, it’s got all their money, and it’s going to be using it to buy all the energy that none of us will be able to afford in the future. It’s also suffering from largely unreported flooding on a massive scale caused by freak weather patterns that have hit all over Asia from Pakistan to Thailand. So I’m going to enjoy that the fantasy for a while that its leaders will put two and two together and play a poker hand that will make us all pay for the true cost of our energy.

Five Star Experience

When I was a tour guide I was perpetually jumping on and off planes. I fantasised that I was a travelling business man, occasionally getting an upgrade to business class and even more occasionally staying in a nice hotel. I dreamed that my company, instead of being a tight fisted tour operator, was a multinational sending me for important meetings, to be had in half whispered voices over gin and tonics in hotel lobbies.

Just recently Vinesh of Fathopes Biodiesel invited us to stay at the five star G-Tower Hotel while we were in KL, and as the hotel director, Melissa, gave us a “room orientation” explaining all the hi-tech features that made this tailored to the business user, I started rekindling those fantasies of being business man away from home.

The hotel is “green” she tells me, the hot tap water is warmed by the air conditioners’ waste heat, the terrace decking is made of rice husks, and it has fibre optic internet cable, saving on copper. There are lots more slightly lacklustre but well intentioned green initiatives which are enough to catapult this into the position of the greenest hotel in KL.

Sustainability is a radically new concept in oil-rich Malaysia, and everywhere the truck goes it’s met with enthusiastic curiosity. We are invited to park in front of the lobby of the hotel, despite the vent from the compost toilet being fully engaged in blowing out an atrocious movement from a few days back. Their reverence doesn’t wane as we lollop in our flipflops through reception and the concierge asks us all about the oil conversion system without coughing as the idling exhaust engulfs him.

I’ve never felt more like a hippy, and because I’m so out of place, I enjoy the hospitality and attention all the more. In the room I play with the telly, test the shower, fiddle with the stereo, sniff the mint shampoo and accidentally call room service when I sit on the phone.

A toilet TV has been installed so business travellers don’t need to miss a second of CNBC, but by the time I discover it I don’t have the enthusiasm to try it out. The next day my feelings about the hotel have darkened to match the stained reclaimed hardwood interior.

It’s not home. My home is in the parking lot downstairs. The aircon has given me a cold, and all the soft towels, mini-bar peanuts and sky-rise infinity swimming pools can’t make up for the fact that I’d prefer to be in my truck parked up in the Perdana Lake Gardens of KL, surrounded by the Orchid and Butterfly parks.

Overnight my envy at the first class business traveller has evaporated. Their beleaguered lonely faces at breakfast say it all. No longer does fawning staff, delightfully wrapped salmon vol-au-vents, or fresh bathrobes come close to compensating them for the fact they aren’t at home either.

Small Town Boy.

While I take all the credit for this exciting expedition’s success or failure, the truth is that it has much more to do with the people I meet who either help me or don’t.

Once again been reminded of the good will this colourful bus generates and the importance of that for making this trip a success. It’s not the first time. In Dorset, Adrian gave up his weekends to crawl around the mud fitting parts for the engine conversion system. In Iran, Sammy took me in, acted as my cultural and language translator, and with Hamid scoured Tehran to find a solution to my oil crisis. In India, Prateek, my lawyer put up with my petulant fits, patiently helping me fight the forces of law and disorder, while Avi and the community of paraglider pilots in Kamshet adopted me and soothed my anger with their friendship.

In Delhi, Gurjit hosted me in his home while his mechanics pimped the bus back to life and made it liveable. That’s not to mention the people that have donated fuel, and time to help fix the bus, or the countless people that have waved and cheered the bus along the road, perhaps recognising it from the newspapers or just buoyed by its lively paintjob.

The day after we arrived in Malayasia with the bus battered from its shipping ordeal, we limped up to a garage. Big and well run I was sure this workshop could fix the bus’ problems; A growling wheel bearing, seized callipers, engine, gearbox and diff oil overdue for a change, a dead battery, and a host of electrical problems caused by a rat/mouse that continues to chew through new wires every evening. But I was also pretty sure that it would be an expensive garage bill. Gone are the days of cheap Indian roadside mechanics that can rebuild engines for a few dollars, but hopefully gone also with them are the days of repairs that last only as far as the next mechanic.

I was resigned to bite the bullet on the repair costs, but within minutes of arriving they had the story out of me; driving around the world, living in the bus, built it myself with the help of friends, run it on vegetable oil. Soon word had gone up the management chain of command to the boss who decreed that the work on the bus would be free of charge.

The next morning a couple of journalists woke us with the news that we were to have traditional Birds Nest Soup hosted by a local politician. We dressed and just before the big arrival, Jason the kindly owner of the workshop introduced himself and insisted on whisking us away for breakfast. It took a while to realise that as well as running the garage Jason also ran the Bird’s Nest restaurant, and the penny dropped that he was the local politician. The busy restaurant was full of journalists he’d invited for the press conference he’d arranged, and without even trying we’d kick started our Malaysian publicity campaign. On hearing about Christina and me recently getting together, he showered us with pink champagne to celebrate and offered me cigars and pledged a big meal that evening.

Jason owns a number of business employing 2000 people in a village with a population of 10,000. As we ate piles of crab and shrimps that evening, he passed me a fold of notes, “To help you enjoy Malaysia” he explained as I looked down too bemused by the significant wad of cash to show my gratitude.

The work on the bus continued for 4 days, any spare part I wanted was ordered, delivered and professionally fitted. The workshop guys bought us lunches and we traded T-shirts like World Cup players. As the newspapers carried our story, more interested in the round-the-world adventure than the environmental aspect, customers at the garage recognised us and they too bought us more lunches. We posed for countless camera-phone pictures while hiding any hint of indigestion.

I thought it was a fair assumption that in the same way as Star Fruit isn’t really made of stars, Bird’s Nest soup got its name from looking a bit like a nest. On the second day we got a tour of one of Jason’s aviaries where they farm the nests, and the factory where they are picked clean with tweezers. On the final day we noticed on the menu that a bowl of the soup sells for US$20. 1kg of nest is worth two thousand dollars. Under Jason’s hospitality we’d been casually munching it down like cornflakes.

Jason sat back after his last mouthful. “I love this village” he beamed contentedly, his mother looking on from behind the restaurant counter, his brother busily texting on his iPhone across the table. To someone passing through it would be hard to see the charm of Gelang Patah, a little industrial village on the edge of Malaysia, 15 minutes from the Singapore border. But it has a village feel with an uncannily close knit community. A friend of one mechanic heard I had a bike on the back of the bus and turned up unannounced to service it, while another took a screwdriver to my amplifier tuning the equaliser of the solar disco after hearing it distort.

In the UK I guard my privacy jealously. But the further I get from Europe the more inappropriate it seems to try to mind my own business. People walk in and out of the truck to have a look as if it’s a bus stop, catching me in my pants or picking my nose. I’m asked personal questions about my finances, relationships, even how I shit. But I’ve grown to understand the value of sharing yourself with the strangers around you, especially in small towns. It lets me join the community albeit briefly.

One thing that Jason and all the other people who have helped me have in common is that they love their homes, and have no yearning to travel, yet seem to have this admiration for those that do. This contradiction has been a mystery to me, but perhaps I’m getting closer to understanding it. While I’m ambitiously trying to understand how the whole world is put together, they are on a similar quest to learn the intimacies of their local world. Astutely knowing their way around their community, these amazing hosts are able and enthusiastic to show them off in its best light to strangers.

Another trait which confused me was the disinterest in the gifts I’ve left as a thank you. And here again I’m getting even closer to understanding. Their help hasn’t been offered in exchange for gifts, business contacts, or the publicity the truck can bring them, but it’s offered for the opportunity to be part something exciting that’s come to their town, and above all for the exchange of friendship with the new exciting people that have stopped at their door. I’m lucky to have met these amazing friends and have this network dotted around the world. The only regret is that I the friendships are short lived. Our paths are unlikely to cross again once I leave their worlds. The only solution I can think of is that sooner or later I will settle into a little world of my own. Seeing Jason’s contented smile as he announced his love of Gelang Patah made me feel that perhaps I could really enjoy that same feeling too, and when I do, it will be my turn to host intriguing strangers with birds’ nests of my own.

“Glad to be able to help you on your way” said Jason’s SMS text message as we pulled away.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

On the Bus - by Christina Ammon

Until last night, I’d never given much thought to shipping containers. And if it weren’t for Andy’s Biotruck I don’t think I ever would. But yesterday the Biotruck arrived at the port of Tanjun Pelibas, Malaysia after an extended and inadvertent tour of Southeast Asia. We’d been long been awaiting this day, especially Andy, who had no idea when he loaded it on the ship in Calcutta that a series of miscommunications would result in it being lost at sea for over two months.

We arrived at the shipping yard early, cleared security, and embarked on a series of proceedings that would keep us there until after midnight. Unloading the container from the ship, the bus from the container, and ushering the bus through customs was No Small Deal and gave me about 15 hours to soak up the ambiance of the port.

It was hard to get comfortable there. The container yard employed a pretty much all-male force, and I was troubled that it was That Time of the Month and there was no one around to empathize with my cramps, much less bum a feminine product off of. It was really hot there and–except for the oily unloading dock–there was really no place to sit, or anything to eat, or read, or do. I’m happy to concede that the problem might be mine—that maybe I just don’t have sufficient curiosity to appreciate a container yard. But it reminded me of a sensation I had on some of my in elementary school field trips to sewage plants or recycle centers: I was learning something for sure, but only sluggishly.

I just wish my friend Jeanine had been there. I know that the same forklifts that were freaking me out as they barreled around the corner of the warehouse would give her the hugest thrill. She’d ask a million questions and revel in all the irritating loud noises of the port: the reverse beepers and belching trucks, the screeching automated doors. I, on the other hand, just can’t relate.

But just because I can’t relate to the shipping port, doesn’t mean it doesn’t relate to me. In fact, as I was watching the huge cranes raise and lower the containers against the skyline, it occurred to me that many, if not most, of the products I consume come through places just like this, that what I was witnessing was a behind-the-scenes look at global consumerism.

Maersk was the container company that was sponsoring the expedition by shipping Andy’s truck between continents. One of the nice things about Maersk is that they keep scorecards that feature a CO2 dial that is based on actual volume, routes and vessels making it easier for companies to monitor their carbon emissions. According to this scorecard, Andy’s transport footprint was 1/10th of what it would be if he were driving.

After waiting five hours for the container to be unloaded from the ship and then hauled over to the unloading dock, the real fun began. Because the Biotruck was the first private vehicle Maersk had ever delivered, there were a quiet a few snags. For one, the truck was too wide for their loading dock ramps. So the trick was this: somehow they had to get it off the container platform, which stood a few feet higher than the dock. Preventing it from toppling off the narrow ramp and crashing to the ground would take a pretty steady hand; there was only about a 4-inch margin of error. At first Andy seemed willing to give it a try. He fired up the ignition, let it idle for a few seconds, and but then turned it off again. The risk was too big.

A team of ten stood on the loading platform scratching their heads as the sun began to go down in the Strait of Melacca. The workers hauled out wood blocks and beams and hammered together a makeshift extension to the ramp. It was a little doubtful whether wood was strong enough to support the six-ton truck, but it did widen the ramp by a few precious inches.

Andy revved the engine and the bus lurched forward slowly. Just as the front tires sunk onto the ramp the truck bottomed out and hung like a seesaw on the edge of the container. He shifted into reverse and backed up, shredding the makeshift wood ramp.

The workers set about rebuilding the ramp while a fork lift drove around to the back of the container and hoisted it up, tipping the platform forward so that the angle was less severe. Andy climbed back in the Biotruck and turned the key, only to find that battery was dead. They stretched a pair of jumper cables between the truck and the forklift and fired up the engine again. Andy pulled forward. The exhaust pipe peeled off the bottom with a huge ripping sound. Andy shifted back into reverse setting the front tires back onto the container.

By now it was dark–long past dinnertime–and we puzzled together under the yellow glow of the shipyard lights. Someone had the idea to drive the forklift around to the front of the bus and hold it up by the bumper and then slowly lower it as Andy steered the bus forward

Andy fired up he engine again and eased it forward onto the prongs of the forklift. It looked precarious, but worked, and once the forklift got out of the way, the bus came flying down the ramp. Andy floored it down the aisle of the warehouse and peeled around the corner leaving a wake of chip fat smoke. I met up with him on the other side of the building where he was pushing the bus door open with his eyes wide.

“Let’s go save the world Christina!”

His sarcasm had clearly returned, but I was happy to see him revitalized. His sense of mission had been flagging after the truck got lost at sea and I was discouraged when he talked about abandoning the whole idea, dismissing the entire trip a failure, and in his darkest moments, declaring the planet’s future as completely doomed. I tried my best to buoy him by making our days dynamic and busy. I scheduled a compulsory boat ride through the Melaka canals, and prodded him through the night markets to ogle all the cool trinkets–childhood toys like slinkies and sidewalk pops. While he played along, even lit up when I purchased two wire head-scatchers, somehow all the plastic-y tourist kitsch was only make him feel worse about the world. Even the man who held a crowed captive as he pierced his index finger right through a coconut was not enough to impress him.

Andy just grew increasingly despondent and rhetorical: Why bother? What’s the point?

I’ll admit I was starting to have trouble myself. Reports of crisp nights and crackling woodstoves had me longing for home, longing to escape the weighty humidity of Asia and walk under the big leaf maples of the ditch trail that I was sure by now were turning yellow. Despite my ability to derive contentment from the smallest things—afternoon coffees and little walks– lounging on Facebook in cheap hotel rooms was not exactly my idea of an Expedition. My own disappointment was starting to mount.

I climbed down from the unloading dock and stepped up into the Biotruck to join Andy. After two months at sea, it was full of mouse turds and the dank smell of neglect, but for now we were just happy to be driving it away from the shipping yard it into the long dark. Behind us the huge cranes lit the horizon, facilitating the nonstop work of importing and exporting freight containers and enabling to the massive global transactions that make the world’s economies spin.

The next day we’d strip the sheets off, take them to the laundry, and procure cleaning supplies. We’d fire up the solar disco and get to scrubbing. There was a lot to do: We had a Biotruck to resuscitate, our idealism to reclaim.

Click here for photos

Sunday, 17 October 2010

And Another Thing II

If you think of the “environment” or let’s take a more specific example, the atmosphere, as a space in which we can store our pollution, the by-products of our consumption, then it’s easy to imagine it as a resource. Like a resource it's finite, keep putting things into the space and one day it will be full.

During this journey from the wealthiest countries in the world (UK, France, Switzerland), to the poorest (Nepal, India), I’ve become more convinced that the way we exploit our environment is just another facet of the global social injustice that has dogged the way this planet is governed since colonial times.

For over a century, richer countries have exploited the earth’s resources, providing a comfortable quality of life for their citizens at a disproportionate cost to the citizens of poorer countries. The exploitation of energy, oil, coal, mineral resources, timber, food crops, cotton, and more, has on the whole benefited the wealthy foreigners exploiting the commodity more than the country whose soil yields it.

So it is with the pollution-storing-environment resource. The beneficiaries who are fully exploiting this resource are the highly consumptive rich nations, who need a lot of rivers, sea, landfills and atmosphere to store the waste their high quality of life produces, and they are getting this globally shared resource for a knock down price. Free.

In the case of space to put the CO2 produced by energy consumption, the US and Europe has had more than 200 years of free rein, burning first their own forests to fuel the industrial revolution, then global coal and now oil reserves. And the situation continues to be exploited unevenly. The quality of each life in the US is using up that storage space over 3 times faster than the quality of each life in India.

And the impact of overusing this CO2 storage will be paid by developing countries. Climate change associated to manmade activities will impact the tropical countries most, where weather patterns are more susceptible to changes, and it will impact agricultural economies that rely on predictable climate to grow crops to feed themselves and earn foreign exchange with which they can give themselves a decent quality of life. Poor developing countries, not by accident, are almost always tropical and agricultural.

“Saving the Environment” is a confusing way of phrasing the problem. Firstly it distances people from the problem. A head teacher in India while congratulating me on this expedition told me “It’s great what you are doing. I love the environment, trees and all that, it would be a shame if we lost it all.” as though the environment is a nice-to-have bonus, something pretty to look at on the drive to work. Secondly it obfuscates the fact that it is humanity that will suffer not the trees. The jet stream will still blow (though no one knows for sure where), clouds will still form at the top of thermal columns of air, wildlife, animals and plants will quietly uncomplainingly adapt, migrate, evolve or die out.

And humans will have to adapt, migrate, evolve or die out too. The ones best suited to adapting and migrating will be the rich ones. The ones without the money or the liberty to move freely around the planet will face the choice between evolving, and where that’s not possible, dying out.

So once again a valuable resource is being disproportionately exploited by people in wealthy nations, leaving a disproportionately high cost for people in poor nations.

I’m becoming more convinced that the mechanism for “Saving the environment” is universally linked to creating global social justice in the world. The two things are mutually dependent. In order to responsibly manage the pollution-storage-space environment there has to be social justice, and managing the environment will prevent social injustice.

Equal education, equal access to healthcare and equal access to global resources. But seeing as we can’t even eradicate poverty in the world I really don’t think we have any chance. Thank god I’m not a poor Indian.

People criticise the environmental credentials of this journey, sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly. I’m bored of having the same discussions and clarifying confusions about “Biofuels: good or bad?” or “The Environmental Impact of Container Ships”. There’s a bigger point. Living in the UK and especially London, it’s impossible to escape wasteful consumption and being a “valuable member of society” (which actually means working somewhere in the industrialised cycle of turning resources into commodities and delivering them to consumers – and is presumably opposed to being a worthless member of society). By taking to the road and escaping that cycle by living in a truck, I believe, means I am contributing more towards creating a socially just world and therefore helping reduce the CO2 I’m responsible to an even greater degree than the act of running my bus on waste oils. A consumptive lifestyle, complicity with unfair resource exploitation is the root cause of a carbon intensive lifestyle and the fuel I put in my truck is only part of the picture.

In an interview this week I was asked what people can do to help the environment and I said, “I don’t know, they have to figure it out for themselves.” I’m not a role model with easy pithy consumable answers, and if I said they have to quit their jobs, let all their hire-purchase electronics be repossessed, move out of the city and plant tomatoes, most people would understandably think I’m even more of a naive idealist idiot than they already do.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Writing Conspiracy

I have been complicit in a conspiracy.

This week I attended the Ubud Writers and Readers conference. Ubud is Bali’s answer to Glastonbury and Brighton. More yoga centres and organic buddhas that you can shake an Ayurvedic bush at. The writers festival was largely attended by readers, typically Australian women of a certain age, and in many cases a certain size, anxious to rub shoulders with their favourite authors. The atmosphere of divorcees on holiday with their girlfriends, enjoying their new found HRT-stoked freedom to express and be creative, infected the halls with a joyous vigour. Even the glibness of sunglassed authorrs weren't enough to quell the spirit.

I for my part had volunteered to get a free pass, avoiding the $350 ticket price, in exchange for helping out by setting up projectors at some of the presentations. Luckily for me, none of the workshops I had been allocated to, (How to write erotic fiction, How to read erotic fiction, and How to buy erotic fiction) needed to be enhanced with the use of a PowerPoint presentation. So aside from the extra shifts I helped out with, I really had nothing to do but pick the seminars I wanted to attend.

Along with my free pass I was also clutching a secret agenda. The idea of writing a book about my adventure is taking hold and this I figured would be a good place to figure out how to write a book and schmooze with publishers and agents.

I can safely say that the knowledge i need to write the erotic sections of the book I now have safely covered, but as for the rest of it I’m still hugely confused. The process of getting an agent and submitting to a publisher is a little less vague, and the faces and names of potential contacts might be one degree of separation closer now, but I only realised what the big question I wanted answering was at the end of the final session.

Daniel DeCruz, an Australian author who has written a runaway best seller about teenagers screwing and taking drugs in some party town down under (I forget where), was asked if he’d made any money from his book.

“A little bit.” He answered meekly.

So my question surfaced just as the moderator thanked everyone and drew the conference to a close. For a moment the burning urge to halt the ending and shout my question to the stage came close to overwhelming me, but instead I joined the conspiracy of silence that I realised all the other aspiring authors were complicit in from the start.

My question would have been; “So how do you sit at a computer day after day, without earning a penny, for months on end, knowing that you have maybe a 5% chance of getting anything but rejections letters back from publishers, and that if your book does get published and miraculously becomes a runaway success you might make ‘a little bit’ for all your efforts?”

I shared this with Christina who is in the throes of writing her first book, and she too realised this was also the question she’d been wanting answered all along. After the festival, she posed it to her editor on a skype call. The answer of course was obvious.

“Don’t ask that question Christina, ever.”

The Essence of Yoga

You’re no one in Ubud if you don’t do Yoga. Sadly I’m a yoga-phobe, afflicted by the fear of Yoga after a traumatic experience the first time I tried it. I’m going to share this horrific moment with you on my blog for the first time ever, in the hope that it will help me overcome my fear.

The first time I went to Yoga was with a housemate Chiara from Kentish Town. She convinced me that it was amazing and that I would see the light, so I pulled on my tracksuit and trainers and off we went to the community centre around the corner.

The instructor was tall and thin, with a voice that seemed theatrically soft, and a 1000-yard stare that looked beyond me as he welcomed me into his class with hands clenched in prayer. I instantly recognised these characteristics as that of a heavy stoner, which reduced my anxiety about the impending effort of exercise I’d been dreading. Much later I would learn this was actually the gaze and stance of the enlightened.

And so we took our places on the mats and started lifting our hands, bending over, lying down and various combinations of these poses; Lying down with our hands up, bending over while lying down, and lifting our hands while bent over. I looked across at Chiara to share a smirk at our inability and gracelessness, only to see a look of total concentration had taken over her face and furrowed her brow.

Starved of an accomplice with whom to snigger I too turned my attention to breathing and bending. Plank to Cobra, Namaste Hands and Mountain Pose. But after a just few moments of these body folds and exhalations, a new preoccupation descended on me. With my buttocks raised in the air while bending, lying and lifting my hands I felt a fart wrestling its way through my bowls on its way to the surface. I clenched down firmly on my coccyx, imagining the shock and condemnation Chiara and the teacher would give me if I let one fly in the midst of this sacred workout.

For a few moments I soldiered on, holding back the gaseous floodgates. Wincing with all my might in Warrior Two, Downward Dog and Lunge, I held on, but my grip was loosening, and I knew it was just a matter of time. Finally as I went from Cat to Cow there was nothing I could do and out it came. Like a trumpet fanfare at a jousting contest, the pitch changing musically as I arched my back, the noise filled the room, drowning out the earnest sounds of nasal inhalations. My eyes shot left and right looking for an escape, perhaps there would be enough confusion over its origins if I played it cool.

“Good Andy” said the instructor soothingly, quelling any doubt the noises origins. “Your body is expelling negative energy.”

‘Huh? What?’ I thought, my blush fading as Chiara confirmed the acceptability of my fart with a sweet smile that would have been just as appropriate if I had offered her a bite of my chocolate ice cream. ‘It’s Ok to fart? Well thank God for that,’ I mused, ‘cos there’s more itching to come out’.

Over the next few moves I relaxed my sphincter into the poses and emitted the ripest of peaches into the shared atmosphere of the hall, contented and calmed by the satisfaction that I was really overcoming my western inhibitions in the pursuit of Yogic truth. To hold back, after all, was to hold on to negative energy, anti-zen, yang, or was it ying, whichever the black one was.

The first few screamers were met with sympathetic and knowing smiles by the other students, but as the smell started to take hold, and the flow of my bad chi showed no sign of abating, resignation and then irritation took hold of the facial expressions around me. Even the instructor’s calm voice started to crack with irritation as my negative essences reached the front of the room and overpowered the essential oil burner.

Chiara shot me a glare of disapproval, which I misread as concern, so I responded with a gaze of serene profundity, to reassure her that I was sincerely bubbling my way towards enlightenment.

By the time I had expelled all my negative life-force the hall had a hum of natural spirit to it which was making even me wince. The instructor, unable to open the security locks on the windows, decided to end the class early and was obliged to part refund the other students. I was relieved the bending and lying down had come to an end, because as well as draining my internal chakras, I’d also worked up quite a sweat and my muscles were ready to give up.

Chiara didn’t speak to me for the walk home and in the wake of her admonishment I’ve never been able to face Yoga again.


From the minute I put the glider bag on my back I’m tasting every one of its sensations. The coarseness of the shoulder straps, the weight pushing down on my back, the extra burn in my thighs on the steps up to launch. Under a heightened tone of quelled excitement everything slows enough to be savoured. I unfold the upside down wing onto the ground, reaching in to grab a wing-tip, feeling the crispy fabric in my fingers and the promise of flight my mind associates with its texture. Stepping backwards, the white underside reveals itself to me and the sky as it unconcertinas out, bold and proud, unashamed of the space it needs. I spread out the other side and wings full scale spikes my anticipation.

My hand slips around the end of the lines, where they are connected to the stitched woven risers that will clip into my harness. Their reassuring strength is rough against my bare fingers. One at a time I clear the lines, untangling them with gentle pulls, or quick jerks, a tinge of pleasure coming from my familiarity with the deft task of judging how to deal with each knot in turn.

To prepare the wing for launch I have to stretch it out fully above the ground, like a kite, and check the lines while it flies. I reach through the collection of coloured lines, grabbing the appropriate ones in each hand, sitting familiarly in between my fingers.

During the launch my right hand will pull the glider up into the air, and I’ll fight to hold my ground against its pull. This is the hand that joins the glider and wind’s conspiracy against me. They will tug me when the wind is strong and I will have to yank them when it’s weak. My left hand is the rein with which I tame the dragon spirit of the wing’s unruly behaviour. It steers, and slows the glider’s eagerness, and when I am caught out or off balance it will save me by killing the wing back to the ground.

The air on the back of my neck guides me to wait for the right cycle of the breeze, just a gust is all I need for now, a few seconds worth. As it comes I start the puppeteering and the openings at the front of the wing catch the breeze, rising, unevenly pulling open adjacent cells, accelerating skywards like leaping salmon vying with each other. The wing stretches out its folds as air snakes sideways in-between the double skin inflating it to form its aerofoil shape. As soon as it’s lifted just clear of the earth and fully unfolded I’m resisting its strong pull, already putting pressure into the reins to hold it and leaning back from it. I scan the fabric, brightness filling my retina, but I’m looking for the lines, each one even and spaced, ordered and un-knotted. The wing’s ready and wants to fly. I’m awed by the thought of this, and have to fight the excitement as much as the wind. I pull in with my rein fully to bring it back down to earth, conceding a step towards it’s pull as it nestles into a neat arc on the ground with the cells all evenly open ready to catch the wind when launching.

I push my hips forwards bringing the caribiner of my harness closer to the lines and clip in with a satisfying click. “You are now the pilot in command of this aircraft”, the distant echo of a voice from my first flight still sends shivers of pride through me as I do this. I loop my hands through the brake handles that I will use after the launch when I’m in flight, and those words feel even more genuine now after a year of flying. I attach the speed bar connections checking they are free, double check my buckles and look at the wing, still in its arc wrapped around me, the leading edge raised into the breeze, the open cells quivering with readiness.

I’m fighting the urge to go now. I’m seconds away from being in the air. The launch will take less than 5 seconds if timed and executed right, but I have to tame the eagerness and pick the right moment or it won’t lift cleanly and I’ll have to abort or risk a dangerous launch.
I nestle myself in the centre of the open wing, breathe, smelling the humidity in the air, and wait for the wind’s cycle to start. The breeze comes and goes and as I feel it rising again I seize the moment and pull to lift the wing, slowly at first, but quickly responding to my touch. With the reins I hold back the speed, stepping into the pull, reducing the pressure, balancing position, velocity, force. My eyes scour for clues of how the wing might chose to misbehave, but any visible signs are pre-empted by my harness’s grip on my shoulder straps telling me to sidestep under the shifting centre.

The glow of knowing its going according to expectation flashes behind my concentration.

The wing is open, off the ground, perfectly curved and rising. I add some pressure to the reins, fighting its urge over shoot. Only in the air can the wing adopt its natural state, smooth, un-creased, a curved shape that is only true to itself in the freedom of the sky. As its pull on my body becomes more vertical than horizontal I release both hands, and pull gently on the handles looped around my wrists, my thumb and fingers open so they can’t slip out. This is the moment when flying takes over from standing; even though I’m still on the ground my weight is now shifting from the ground to the air. I’m entering the sky.

The wing is overhead now. My eyes are looking up, but my concentration is listening the sensations of my body, arms and legs. I spin to face the cliff edge ducking the lines as I turn, stepping towards the ground’s end at the same time, playing with the force of the lines, my speed towards the edge, and the distance before the abyss. I’m sending my weight forwards, towards the drop, committed, pushing towards it, accelerating, sure that speed is now more important to me than the ground under my boots. In two steps my heaving paces have become a smooth fast run oblivious to the discomfort of the leg straps pulling me up into the harness. Against my legs’ push the final release from the ground take the last ounces of my weight from my the soles of my feet and I swing back weightlessly into the harness as the earth’s edge glides past below me and I’m in the air, flying.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Road to Jakarta

I’ve had a religious moment. In fact I’ve decided that the whole journey from KL to Jakarta has been a religious moment.

Right from the start it seemed unclear if travelling overland and sea from KL to Jakarta was even possible. From the start the only certainty was the flying “You should take the plane.” the ticket girl told me as I bought a one way ferry ticket to Batam “For less than 50 euro” pressing her point.

“I don’t like to fly” I tried to explain, hearing the voice of the A-Team’s BA Baracus finishing the sentence in my head “ fool!” His meaty finger pointing at me, reminding me of what an idiot I must seem.

Why would any sane person not like to fly? The single serving sterile meals, the unique feel of the seat reclining button, the reassuring softness of the hostess call tone, the sexual allure of the cabin crew uniforms, and the glossy aspirations of the in flight magazine. Like a retarded Luddite the flyphobes must be afraid of technology. Afraid of crashing? That’s such an 80’s fear. In the age of budget airlines, where as Air Asia’s tag line puts it, “Now everyone can fly”, no one is afraid to fly anymore, and if they are, they get over it. My fear is that everyone will.

Batam is a small island 45minutes from Singapore by high speed ferry. It’s part of Indonesia, and as I clear immigration, I ask if there is a ferry to Sumatra. There is, it leaves at 7am. It’s already 9pm. I see a taxi, a cheap hotel, a food court, fend off a prostitute that follows me up to the door of my room, sleep, then I see another taxi and another high speed ferry.

In that short time I already know that I like Indonesians. They laugh hysterically at me because of my towering height. The laughter is so infectious that I can’t get upset or defensive. And I am twice the height of most of the people I meet. It is funny. I joke back about how short they are, and the laughter triples.

The ferry takes four hours, I’m told. Eight hours later it lands in Sumatra. “Is this Canburu?” I ask. The town I’m looking for is actually called Pekan Boru, but I still haven’t seen it written and my phonetic mimicking is accurate enough to be understood. It’s a bus ride away. The bus is full. My pack is loaded onto the roof, and I stand in the open doorway feeling the cool air and sporting a congratulatory smile on how gritty I must look. After 20minutes bouncing over potholes, avoiding the vomiting passenger to my right, the whipping long grass to my left and the chain smoking drivers-mate who darts urgently through the non-existent gaps between bodies collecting baggage money, I try to ask how long the journey to Canburu will take. It’s a question that requires some miming, pointing at my watch, up and down the road, but with both hands tightly wrapped in a death grip around parts of the bus framework that I think can hold my weight during the violent veering it takes another 10 minutes before I’m understood.

The answer comes much faster than the question. “Three”.

We arrive at 3? No, that was when we left. Three more minutes? I muse optimistically. But it sinks in that the missing word is “hours” and sure enough four hours later I un-curl my fingers from the rusted door frame and relearn the use of my legs as the bus pulls up in Pekan Boru.

“Where are you going?” asks the drivers-mate.
“Jakarta” I reply.
“Taxi, airport, fly” he instructs.
“No I don’t like to fly” I’m a fool.

There is a bus to Jakarta I learn. How long does it take? Two. Two? That’s not so bad. I just did Three and survived, what’s another Two? But the ticket costs more than the flight from Singapore. I shop around and find a cheaper ticket and in the process decipher that the Two in this case is days. I sink.

There’s a lot of moving and fuss to get me into a seat. People are dislodged from seats with more leg room by the ticket agent. Interfering seatbacks are rightended, there’s is much laughing at my height and inability to fit in the first few seats I try. But eventually I wedge myself into the window seat next to Irfan who offers me a clove cigarette as he lights one up for himself. A small celebration goes around the bus that I’ve been able to fit.

After asking my name Irfan second question is about my religion. I ponder my predicament and as if to explain why I’m 20 minutes in to a 48 hour bus ride which could have been over in 75 minutes 2 days ago, for less money, I tell him “I’m a Rationalist, and quite extreme.” My arms are waving frenetically trying not to drown in the irony.
“Like Christian?” he asks confused.
“No Rationalist. It’s very different” I declare sternly. He accepts it and later when he asks why I didn't fly from Pekan Boru to Jakarta I tell him that it’s against my religion. Another passenger asks for my favourite number so he can buy a lottery ticket. He asks me if I want to buy one. “No thanks, my religion prevents me” I declare proudly. I then try to explain that only gambling where the odds are against you is forbidden, but the language barrier is too much and I admit defeat leaving the impression of Rationalism must be a pious joyless religion.

By now Irfan has adjourned everyone on the bus about me. At a rest-stop, while the waiter lays out 10 dishes in front of me to choose from in the pay-as-you-eat and I finally understand the pay-as-you-eat system, I hear Irfan at the table behind me saying “Inglis” and “London”, and turn to find him and eight other men staring at me nodding. I make out other words “Switz” about my Taiwanese Rolex and “nokia” about my phone accompanied by more nodding, before one cracks a quick quip and laughter erupts as they point at my long legs coiled up by the low seat. I’m all elbows and knees, and I can’t help laughing too.

Irfan has also told everyone I’m running out of rupees, a feat made easier by being charmingly stiffed every time I have to pay for something. The other passengers buy me tea and water bottles, pass me biscuits and dried fish. The only way I feel I can return their generosity is by accepting and ingesting all gifts. By the time I wake to dawn for the second time on the bus my feet are swollen like my grandmothers, and my arse is numb, but religiously clenched.

Perched on stools in the aisle, a woman is sleeping against my legs, while her husband’s head rests on my shoulder, his long hair tickling my neck, as their baby’s legs rest motionless on my lap. My seat back has broken so we are all four reclined into the lap of the mother and child in the seat behind me.

I wrestle my way to the front of the bus to sit with the driver and drivers-mate hoping this first change in posture for 10 hours might stem the Deep Vein Thrombosis and atrophy which must by now surely be inevitable. They take turns to touch my legs and discuss how they are more solid than expected. More jokes are thrown forward from the first four rows. In return, they offer me donuts for breakfast. I relish the stomach blocking carbohydrates as payment for the entertainment my freakish body provides.

The driver and mate light up simultaneously, their nicotine craving synched like menstrual cycles. The mate assiduously watches the road for mopeds and trucks, as well as potential passengers to cram on to the full bus, calling out “Java Java Java” to the most disinterested bystanders before waving the driver on or urgently calling a stop. The driver in the meantime is developing an unhealthy obsession with my legs. Between them and the comedy video playing above his head the road ahead is becoming an irritating distraction.

I use my distracting legs to clamber over the aisle passengers back to seat 18 and recline into the bosom of the mother behind me to discover she is breast feeding. She smiles down at me.

At the next road stop an old man and I have a amiable conversation, me in English, him in Indonesian, which concludes abruptly when I say that I’d prefer to walk off my swollen feet than have a massage, and only as we both nod thoughtfully at this am I filled with the suspicion that we’ve almost certainly been talking on two totally divergent topics.

Later with Irfan’s translating help, another man tells me that the Police at a previous stop had asked him if I was from Pakistan, but he’d told them I was from England and a religion other than Muslim. Perhaps the beard or the cricketers build raised suspicion? I suddenly appreciated the value of surrendering my privacy to this group of travellers, while a twinge of suspicion descended over the easiness of Indonesia.

The bus rolls on to the ferry for Java eight hours ahead of schedule, and for the first time in days the pathetic air conditioning vent above my head is replaced with the feel of a real breeze on my skin, Sun fills the horizon and my eyes. I’m sleepless but feel reborn as I stare at blue sea. For a few seconds I seriously entertain jumping into the water from the 3rd storey of the ferry. I’m already such a physical freak, that eccentric behaviour would surprise no one.

It was almost a teary goodbye at Jakarta, with most of the passengers staying on for the following 36 hours to the east of Java. I waved to everyone and again laughter erupted as I clouted my head on the DVD player above the door.

But I stepped off the bus with more than just a bruise on my head. I stepped off, not quite with God in my heart, but a sense of purpose and cohesion which I’ve been struggling to find for a while. The God in my religion would be Truth, a concept just as confused and indefinable as it is in any other religion. On my road to Damascus, via Jakarta, I’ve realised that I’ve been developing practices of worship, rules and creeds during the last 12 months on the road, and even longer before that. By thinking of my Rationalist, Reductionist ideology as a religion, I can justify my strange extremist behaviour; Eco busses, anti-consumerism, social justice, fear of flying. It’s all becomes unified under the banner of a religion. It’s what I believe, my faith. Best of all, if I err from my ideology, then I’m an inexcusable hypocrite, whereas erring from my religion makes me a sinner, forgivable and human.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

India, it's a dump

One of the questions I always get asked in interviews by journalists trying to ferret out some drama to my journey is “What was the worst part of the trip?” I have vowed that from now on I will always answer that question with these 4 words. “India, it’s a dump.” And here’s why:

A university professor I shared a platform with at a talk I gave is worried about the next generation of Indians, and told me that any bright Indian student wouldn’t for a minute dream of becoming a teacher. There is no sense in which it’s a valued profession, one your overbearing Indian mother could be proud of, and it’s badly paid. There’s no appreciation that serving India’s future generation is noble and worthy, he said. Being a doctor is respected, not because of the altruism of the profession, helping to heal the sick, but because it’s a good earner.

I’ve met very few Indians interested in community, or making their country better. For instance among the 300 young volunteers that come daily to help at the orphanages and projects of Calcutta, there is rarely a single Indian youth.

So as the clever Indian 20-somethings seek out their MBA programmes and the lucrative corporate jobs in the booming economy that follows graduation, there is no chance their skills will liven the next generation of kids from poorer classes.

Of all the developing countries I’ve been to, the divide between rich and poor here is the most obscene I’ve ever seen - reminiscent of feudal Europe of the middle ages. It isn’t just that large wealth is in the hands of a tiny number of super rich, it’s that there is a whole strata of wealthy middle class, that live unfazed and accepting of the squalor of poverty around them, which I find so troubling. They use the flimsiest excuses to justify their disengagement, waving their responsibility to help because these people are “drug addicts” or “prostitutes”, and that “Begging is the easiest job in the world” and “shouldn’t be encouraged”.

Having tried cleaning windscreens at traffic lights during college, which is only one step up from begging, I can tell you it’s not an easy job, and it should be discouraged by helping people out of poverty so they have alternatives to prostitution and drugs to medicate the nihilism.

Despite the far left spectrum of Indian politics, (Communist, Maoist, Marxist, even a healthy quorum of Leninists!), the door that government provides as a mechanism for creating a fairer society is firmly shut here. When I’ve asked about politicians motivated by ideals, the reaction is laughter. Either the voters are fools for believing the politicians are truly altruistic, or the politicians are fools for thinking they can make a difference. The system is so weighted toward corruption that any good intentions are undermined as you climb the political ladder. Consequently power and moral authority are mutually exclusive.

So who could blame anyone for not wanting to be a low paid school teacher, or joining the Stagno-cratic Civil Service, the IAS (Indian Administration Service), working in the strangled atmosphere where initiation and change is cause for constructive dismissal. Forget about the dismal pay, even a motivated ideologue would have their initiative put down at every opportunity, and soon realise they are serving as the active arm of the politicians self interest and greed, often visibly in conflict with the needs of the population.

But where has the change-activism and idealism of Ghandi’s era gone? I’ve looked for it here and apart from a few very unique individuals, the only sign I found were amongst the activists fighting for Bhopal justice, a cause so scandalously unfair even Indians can’t stand by and watch it evaporate. But things here are so screwed up I’d expect to see young idealistic university students marching against corruption? Where are the political agitators calling for a week-long baksheesh strike? The only idealism of the next generation is BMWism.

Perhaps it would help if the media were more worried about the corruption in the affairs-of-state than in the IPL Cricket League? Where are the journalistic exposés of corrupt governance? They wouldn’t be hard to dig up. Sadly the media is co-opted into the corruption, according to a retired media sales executive I met, who told me how news media is funded not by sales, but almost exclusively by advertisers with an agenda they expect to see reflected in the news' content. Editorial lines are constrained by the business motives of the News Barron owners.

I could tell you about the astounding intellect of engineering under-graduates, and the fox-like savvy of street kids, but to romanticise Indian’s ingenuity is no more helpful that eulogising over “beautiful colours”, vibrancy, and spicy food in the tourist brochures. It doesn’t compensate for the national lack of compassion. Perhaps it's is caused by the host of tragic tales in India that seem to touch everybody’s lives. Whether it's the tailor in Pushkar who lost his job and his home over a clerical error and never got it back, my lawyer who spent 3 years bed ridden with an illness, or my paraglider guru who was locked up for 2 years by the Air Force he served in, to "cool his heels". It’s a country that dishes out cruelty with casual indifference. The result is a population that is tolerant, but psychologically vaccinated against compassion, and ready to dish out more indifference to the next generation. So in an environment immune from sympathy the only sensible option left is to isolate yourself from the hardship and the ugliness of poverty by personal wealth acquisition. A good survival-of-the-fittest strategy which, after all, is what the developed nations have been doing to poor countries since the start of globalisation in the colonial era.

But it’s an ugly strategy, which deserves to be criticised. India has made me squirm on all levels; The piss-stinking streets that assails my nostrils, as much as the blinkered world-view of the allegedly educated Mercedes-Benz yuppies. While national pride is worn so ardently on the uniform of police officers, they conduct traffic yards from naked street kids playing in sewerage. Like the Emperor’s New Clothes, no one dares to say that this country has much more to be ashamed of than it has to be proud of. During 15 years of travelling, to over 50 countries, I’ve never been to a country that has so reviled me that I hope I will never to see it again.

But still I believe in India. It’s ripe for reform. Out of the Greed is Good, Reagan and Thatcher era, the new social enterprise political ideals of Clinton and Blair were born. India is on the cusp of finding its own “third way”. One that will create a fairer future by building better and compulsory education for all, and a wider culture of social mobility that will eventually kill, or at least reduce, the wealth divide.

In both India and the West, business pass money politicians. But there’s a big difference between aligning yourself with a political leader you believe in, compared with buying them off with cash and hookers. What if Indian businesses, lead by Indians with experience of working in the West, start to support change leaders? With open and transparent campaign contributions? In the CEO of a construction firm sponsoring me, and other senior managers I’ve met who have returned from time working in the West, I see an irritation with the system. At their fingertips they have the resources, imagination and maybe the inclination to stage a coup.

What if a young new leader found a voice with their clean funding on a platform or education and reform. Imagine that candidate coming to office. They’d have the energising authority to reform every corner of Indian politics and welfare. It would kick start a rebuilding of faith in the system. Their first action might be to implement ISO9000 in every IAS office followed by a 300% pay rise for every civil servant, easily paid for by sacking 75% of them. Surely being asleep on the job, reading the paper, or taking 4 hour lunch breaks are sackable offences, even in the IAS, so it shouldn’t be too hard finding grounds to reduce the staff to a quarter. If necessary pension them off to avoid a riot. But this breed of politicians could make the IAS, and above all the education system, accountable and attractive alternatives to business for smart young minds. Good pay, good career trajectories, and autonomy for those with talent and clean hands. The frou frou dinner parties of Indian homes would resonate with “Your son is teacher Mrs Singh?! Well we must introduce him to our daughter, she works for the government you know!”

I’ve made many friends here, people that have given me their love and support through possibly the toughest time of my life, and it’s hard to think how they will interpret the contradiction that I’ve found Indians uncompassionate after they have taken me into their hearts, offered me companionship to warm my soul, beds to sleep in and food to burp. To them I say thank you for your friendship, I value it deeply and though I may not show it, I'll keep you close to my heart, always. Please don’t be offended that I don’t like your country, instead come and visit me in England. Now that’s a dump...

Saturday, 21 August 2010

An Unquestionably Good Soap Opera

She asks me for a ride on the bicycle, but she’s too short to reach the pedals, so I put her on the handle bars and as I’m circling the car park I can feel the fleas in her hair and dress biting my arms. She’s one of the street sleepers that live under the flyover bridge across from where I’m parked with a dozen other families.

I don’t know her name, but Reema is a beautiful name so lets pretend it's Reema. Reema’s family is probably from the countryside, if they were from the city her family would have a small home in one of the waterless tenement blocks of the city. Instead she sleeps on a blanket laid over the uneven paving stones, next to the gutter, and by a few bushels which are home to a few rats. Maybe she’s eight years old.

I tell her I’m going to give her some soap for her dress to wash out the grime and make the frilly lace collar less of a perfect habitat for lice. But, I warn sternly, I expect to see it clean. She nods dutifully. I pick up a bar of clothes soap and keep it in my pocket until I see her again. She is excited and rushes off. A while later I see her as I’m cycling past, and she runs into the road in her underpants and vest shouting and pointing that her dress is drying. I feel flush. I have done some good. Unquestionable, unchallengeable good. It’s the best kind of good. No downside. Perfect. And consequently I am a good person. Today I have done enough to earn a daily membership to the human race.

And the next day she knocks at the door with the dress on, clean, as clean as the grime stained fabric could ever be gotten, and a proud smile that would melt any heart.

I hatch a plan. Emami, the company that gave me biodiesel also make soaps. It’s the same reaction produces biodiesel as well as soap. A few bars from their factory them would be nothing to them, maybe even some end-of-line stuff? Factory seconds? I remember the boss of the Emami group gave me his card, its nestled in my wallet. And what if I could get him to set up a scheme whereby employees dish it out on a regular basis. The plan can’t fail. I compose the email. Pomp, urgency, flattery. He can’t say no. Send.

The plan fails. He doesn’t say no, or yes. He just doesn’t reply, despite calls and more emails. He’s out of town, and I’ll be gone before he’s back.

Calcutta has hand pumps on almost every street, so water isn’t a problem but for the large community of street sleepers the expense of soap is a luxury they could use some help with. This is too good an idea to fall now.

I hatch plan B. I speak to a friend who runs a high end retail store. But it turns out they don’t sell soaps bars. Plan B is looking shaky. I wish Plan A had worked. My friend is polite about my scheme but he finds a kind way to advise me that a lot of these street sleepers are into prostitution, child prostitution, drugs, and some are “gaylords”. If I give them soap, they’ll just sell it and buy drugs. I really wish Plan A had worked. It’s not the first time I’ve been patronised this week, but this time it matters so I swallow it, smile and reply full of understanding and respectful nods.
“The people that sleep near the bus are families, not mafia, there are no charras pipes burning at night like there are on Sudder Street.” I counter. “And I can’t imagine them getting much drugs for the four rupees [eight US cents] that a bar of soap sells for. So even if they are gaylords and drug addicts, wouldn’t it be better for everyone if they were washed gaylords and drug addicts, less likely to contract and spread Weils diseases from the rat piss?” I could have said urine, but I throw in the final swear in the hope it gives me a gritty street authority.
“Oh the rats here are very clean”, he assures me, but out of politeness agrees to help me out at the weekend. In the meantime Reema keeps asking me for more soap. I’m beginning to suspect that she has me pegged as a soft touch, and that irritates me. “You promised me soap!” she demands. “I’m working on it” but she doesn’t understand the delay.

I could get the soap from the local grocery store, and dish it out, but that would be the beginning and end of it. I’d like to co-opt this friend and get him to see these are vulnerable people for whom a bar of soap is an essential luxury they’d otherwise forgo. My hope is I can persuade him that this is something that should be done on a fortnightly basis. If I could persuade him, he’s the sort of guy that would persuade others.

But in the meantime I buy 20 bars of body soap, and 20 bars of clothes soap. As I walk over to the traffic island the rumour spreads that the tall white guy has finally got some soap. I’m mobbed by pleading hands, sorrowful frowns and whining voices. I just see a mess of little fingers, old fingers, female fingers. The same kids that were dancing and giggling to the solar disco are now acting out the pain of their existence, needing only whatever it is in my bag to heal them. The insincerity of adopting this Dickensian role irks me even more, but it's so ingrained that they can’t it even though we know each other.

Reema is the first pair of hands I sink a couple of bars into. After I give out a few more bars her hands are out again. “No I haven’t had any” she insists. I’m angry she takes me for such a fool, and frustrated by how hard it is to physically distribute and spread around the soap so no one is left out. I give up, and try again at night, but the mobbing is just as bad. I end the night locked in the bus with about 10 of the original 40 bars left and a mute lady making a grunting noise at the door. Despite stripping off and taking a good shower somehow the fleas make it in to my bed.

In Mauritania, a Spanish couple I was travelling with, Maria and Juan, pulled a football from the boot of their car, in a quiet desert village with 3 kids milling about in the central sandy open area. It took about 60 seconds after that first kick for the pitch to fill with over 30 kids, appearing from all directions. And less than a minute more before the pretence of a game totally vanished and the wrestling match to get ownership of the ball had begun in earnest. To their credit Juan and Maria managed to wade in and stop the match after only two or three minutes of all out rioting child carnage. Considering the violence of the scuffle it’s a testament to the hardiness of Mauritanian kids that so few of them were bleeding. Maria and Juan opened up the boot of the car once again and started dispensing plasters and bandages along with a healthy dose of admonishment. Unfortunately the clamour for medicines caused a second even more violent riot which involved a fair few adults too.

Eventually, three hours later and after quelling several more riots, they presented the remains of the punctured football to the smallest kid with the most injuries, who promptly steeled himself for the final riot that would centre on him as soon as we'd driven out of the village.

After a moment to reflect, my anger turns on myself. Why am I surprised that I was mobbed? How can I begrudge them the soap I’ve bought them because they didn’t form an orderly line, with pleases and thank-yous. They didn’t fulfil my fantasy of grateful urchins allowing me to relish my moment of unchallengeable goodness. How arrogant. If I’d been in their bare feet (they don’t have shoes) I’d be snatching the soap bars out of the bag. I allowed my friend’s paranoia that the bars will be sold instead of used, to grip me. How stupid.

But my ego aside, the problem remains; how can I do it so that I spread what I have around, so that the most vulnerable get them and no one gets hurt in the scramble. I toy with buying ink to stain fingernails of recipients, setting up a table, somewhere in the bus is a clipborad, and laugh at the over complication. Better to spend the ink money on more soap and give it to the wrong people.

And that’s it, the best solution I can come up with; buy too much and give it out scattergun knowing that at least some will hit the mark even if some might miss. We’re only talking about cheap soap here. And anyway how can it miss? If it washes someone’s body after they’ve slept on the street then its hit. It’s arguably good, not quite unquestionably good, but still not bad. Perhaps they’ll give me half a day’s membership of humanity for that?

And at least I’ve had a practice run ready to take my friend out tomorrow, but I know Plan B is headed the way of Plan A. I read a great quote “In India, sometimes you have to surrender to before you can win”, but I’d add that sometimes, you just have to surrender.


I’d never been in a punch up before I came to India, unless you count chinning Paul Morianni’s older brother Karl, when I was 13 at the Pool and Snooker Club. He kept moving the balls just as we were about to play our shots, he was goading us. All 3 of us got kicked out. I don’t know which one of us was more surprised when I landed one right on his jaw. Brawling in a pool hall aged 13 may seem like an auspicious start, but that was the last time for me. I didn’t like the shame of being a cast out, branded a thug, and, moreover, I was always afraid my glasses would get broken when the fists started flying.

But tonight was my fourth punch up since being in India. Something is let lose in me, perhaps because of latent anger over so many things, or maybe just because opticians are so cheap here.

The first one I was really a bystander that tried to protect the truck driver that had just almost killed me and his assailants, but that didn’t stop me taking a few good blows. Now hardened by Indian time, I look back with wonder at my naivety.

Then there was the time I parked by a water spring, on a narrow road and the truck immediately behind me curved round into the oncoming traffic, instead of pausing, and blocked everyone. Within minutes there were 80 cars in gridlock, but the truck driver was working it out. I in the meantime, somewhat arrogantly, decided that it was the truck drivers fault, and even if I moved the bus down the road the problem would just repeat there, further from the spring, so I was already filling my bottles quick as I could. Another motorist realised I was the bus’s driver and after exchanging a few angry words during which I antagonised him with my lethargic I’m-not-raising-my-tone-so-there’s-no-need-to-raise-yours-with-me tone. He grabbed my arm and yanked me towards the bus. In response I splashed him with the open half filled bottle in my hand. He slapped me around the head. I saw it coming, and took it with an acceptance that I’d been an arse and deserved it. But then seeing that I wasn’t going to respond he hit me again. Again I saw it coming but because I thought the first blow would have been an end to it, I wasn’t expecting it I reacted too slowly and got a second sting to my face.

I don’t want to hit this guy, but I want him to stop. How? He swung again and this time, expecting it, I used the ample time for his backswing to palm him off by pushing his face away sending him off balance. His stumpy arms flailed short of my face, while I poked a finger clumsily into one of his eye sockets. That was the end of it. The crowd dragged him off, and I moved the bus even though by then the truck had worked his way round so there was no more need.

Then there was the truck that was trying to overtake on a really dangerous section of night road. I didn’t want to let him past until there was a place that would be safe for him to pass without damaging me. The honking and flashing continued for a few kilometres until he eventually forced his way past me and to teach me a lesson he swerved to ram me off the road. I braked and because my bearing was already seizing, skidded sideways towards the verge, almost losing it into a ditch.

I was livid, but calm. He raced off. I took a moment to compose myself, angry but accepting. No harm done. Then up ahead a train crossing brought the traffic to a halt. He dived up the opposite side of the traffic, something which is infuriatingly common in India, and seeing a moment to set things even, work on some anger release, and give the guy pause for thought next time, I followed. As the driver stepped out of the truck I tapped him hard with the bumper as I pulled up. I then jumped out and calm as an arrow in flight, almost nonchalantly you could say, I punched him in the throat sending him stumbling backwards down the bank. As he came back up it was clear he was blind drunk, making me even more angry that he’d almost totalled my truck, my home and my life. I would have left it at that, but in the moment I re-evaluated what would be appropriate given he was now a drunk driver, rather than just a bad one. Simultaneously the realisation flashed in my eyes that I could get away with more tension relief, free of the risk of any dangerous retaliation. I slammed his head against his truck as he walked around me. And after he got inside the cab closing the door for protection I landed another neat one on his jaw from the road. Around me other drivers looked on with a confused dispassion. The barrier lifted, we all drove on. I let him go first so he wouldn’t have to overtake me again. I felt calm and just. And smug. With hindsight I should have thrown his keys into the dark bushes and let him sober up for an hour while he searched for them.

Tonight I finally got some attention from one of the long haired brown eyed Spanish girls. Clara had asked me from the next table to charge her IPod in my computer a couple of days ago and I’d stuck some more music on it and copied all of hers. Now we sparked up a conversation about bad girl rapper Maria La Mala Rodriguez and ended up flirting, maybe a little too overtly, in a roof top bar. Until a fat stumpy bespectacled Indian man in a shirt and tie took her to be a prostitute flirting for trade. Drunkenly he came over from his table for one, and asked her if she knew Tantra.

He held out a pack of cigarettes, “A present for the lady”, who’d misheard the initial approach, and it’s meaning. He tried to push it past me to her.

“We don’t want it” I grabbed it and sent it sailing over the balcony down to some street sleeper below. But he stood his ground in the face of my competitive client actions, and continued in Hindi, with guttural ludeness in his words listing things, positions or acts that she might perform, or reasons why he’d be a better client. I pushed him away and he circled back to his seat across the terrace.

I sat for a minute processing what he’d said and how inappropriately mildly I’d reacted. It welled up inside me. “Vamonos Clara” I said “No me gusta restar aqi.” I filled up a glass of water, and walked to the door via his table while Clara took the more direct route through the busy tables sensing my mood change or that I was plotting something.

“Hello friend,” he smiled broadly, the sexual fantasies reigniting in his eyes as he sensed my approach brought new opportunities that tingled from his body. Up to then he was just going to get water in his face.

“I’m not your friend,” The glass’s contents doused him and the mobile phone held to his ear, and as he flinched in his chair, my fist followed the water across the table into the bridge of his spectacles, “you cunt.” I didn’t raise my voice especially. The next table wouldn’t have made out more than mumbled drone before I calmly stepped past him towards the door and Clara, who was looking at me with controlled shock, rapidly piecing together what must have triggered my actions. We both walked unhurried out of the restaurant, calculatedly returning the cheery “Goodnight” of the waiter who’d not seen the punch.

It was more than he deserved from me, but he did deserve as much. I kept imagining him explain his cut nose to his concerned wife.

As we stepped into the slow elevator down from the 9th floor Clara went from shock that she could be judged so, to anger around the 8th floor, to a sincere and formal thank you mid way between the 7th and 6th, and then a considered action, she reached up to me and by the time we reached 5 we were kissing, a long wet kiss that lasted all the way to the ground.

Punch the bad guy, walk away cool as a Bollywood Hero, and kiss the girl. My walk-tall lasted through the foyer to the street. “My boyfriend arrives from Spain tomorrow Andy” she broke it to me on the pavement before there was any awkward embarrassment over where we were each spending the night. It was the moment to say ‘Goodnight Clara’ and ‘Goodnight Hero’ but the moment to say ‘Goodnight India’ can’t come soon enough. With it, I hope, will be a goodnight to this unwanted aggression so I can go back to being the specky geek that runs from a fight.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Los Volontarios

This end of Calcutta is full of Volontarios; mainly Spanish, mainly female, mainly in their early 20s. Drawn here by the industry in volunteering that Mother Teresa (God rest her soul) started and still thrives today. At peak periods, some 300 volontarios a day come to help the poor and less fortunate. Ahhh.

Sadly being barely out of school and thrown into the hardest city of a developing country many of these volontarios are hard pushed to look after themselves, let alone anyone else.

It’s the aid-world’s equivalent of chucking a bucket of very thin paint at a wall. Whatever sticks is so faint it’s a hardly worth it. Between their youthful naivety and the heavy dose of Catholic rights and wrongs they have to extol, the volume of volontarios means that the job of managing them must rival the work of providing support for Calcutta’s orphans, disabled, elderly and street sleepers. Hosé, one of Mother Teresa’s co-ordinators, who sometimes has to deal with young volontarios going off the rails, confides that many are sent here by religious parents as a punitive or educational experience.

Salvatore, in his 30’s works with the handicapped full time in Sardinia. He tells me about his first time here when he volunteered through Mama T, “They were fighting each other over who would wash these old handicapped men. Fighting. But after an hour they’d all slopped off because it’s physically hard work. I had to clean 20 people in an a day, alone.“

The one benefit of their presence, so small by comparison to the effort involved to achieve it, is that most of these girls go away with an understanding that the challenges of helping the poor, of delivering aid, is not as practically or ethically simple as it seems. Actually that realisation is no small thing, and most will admit that the experience is more beneficial to them than to vulnerable Indians. It’s a form of extreme-socially-conscious-tourism.

Salvatore has nothing to do with these centres for gap-year-do-gooders anymore. Without much effort he’s able to collect several thousand Euros during the year and has made annual visits since 2008 with the money, spending it locally on tarpaulins, shoes, body soap, clothes soap, anti-lice shampoo and food, which, with the help of a friend Manuela, he bags up and distributes direct to street sleepers. This happens at night to avoid mobbing, and under the direction of the Parvesh, the taxi driver Salvatore has used for 3 years. He’s the arbiter, advising Salvatore on who is needy and who is trying it on when there’s a doubt.

As a project it’s a good one, but as a formula, it’s open to a host of vulnerabilities. Salvatore is completely unaccountable to the anonymous donors, apart from a few pictures and videos on facebook, but he diligently makes sure every penny is spent, and pays for his own flight ticket to India. Parvesh could use his leverage with Salvatore to win favours from friends he directs handouts to, but because the recipients are so poor, and the parcels only of value to street sleepers this doesn’t seem to happen.

Each of the parcels he gives out costs about 100-150ruppees to put together. I ask him if it wouldn’t be better to just give out money, and let people decide what they need, but he’s tried that and he just got mobbed that time too. Later, he confides that secretly he sometimes gives cash out, but doesn’t like the Parvesh to see as it would put him under greater pressure to stay unbiased.

They invite me to join them on their final sortie of the year. Salvatore is a burly, stocky man, with a crew cut and an organised way about him, and at first it feels exciting, paramilitary almost. But the trip through town takes me to new depths of poverty. Young babies covered in grime, children sleeping on spit stained squares of cardboard, inches from ferreting rats, the deep slumber on their faces a reminder to me of their uncompromising innocence. Just a fluke of birth separates me from these children. I see an old man so thin and still that I test his pulse, relieved to feel he’s alive. Another man clutches the apple from his parcel like it’s a radiating heat on a freezing day, fondling it in his grim hands while the world rotates around him. It’s not a fun evening. I don’t feel uplifted at the end. I just want those places not to exist anymore. Salvatore is on a high because his work is over for the year. “This is the last year I’m coming back to India. I’ve seen the same people on the streets for 3 years” His need to quit is part revulsion, part despair.

If the Volontarios are watery white wash, Salvatore’s direct approach is like a skilled graffiti artist, beautifully tagging a small corner of the wall. Thankfully he’s good at what he does but there are others that given his cash would just make the wall look untidy.

Part of the money Salvatore raises he also gives as a large lump sum to Anand Bhavan, Hindi for “The House of Joy”. It’s a home for 30 disadvantaged girls, created so they can have an environment to support them through their education. The staff includes Maria a Spanish psychologist who explains that they also work with the girls’ families and there’s a trickle-out effect from these 30 girls effecting their siblings and parents, instilling a value for education. The hope is that all the girls will go on to vocational training or further education after their time there.

It’s clear to see that being chosen to come here for 5 years makes a radical night-to-day transformation to the girl’s lives and the opportunities they will have. Soon the first quorum will graduate from school and they have dreams for the future; Alisha wants to be a nurse (her mother’s unfulfilled dream), another girl wants to be a teacher, antoher an air hostesses (because they are very beautiful). Ambition in a 12 year old Indian girl from a poor family is a rare thing. Instilling the self-belief that they can dream, is a great achievement which Anand Bhavan should be proud of. For other girls from the same background, destiny is to be passed on to a husband so parents see educating them as a waste. To dream of a job is not in a girl’s frame of reference.

The centre costs €40,000 a year to run. This year Salvatore has donated €3000 to them of the €7000 he’s raised. Over 5 years, to transform the life of each girl costs around €6500. All the money comes from donors in Europe. None from Indians.

I ask Antonio, the programme director, why there is no fundraising from India. He tells me he thinks India is not “solidario”. After seven years living here, he knows how wealthy the country is, but that they don’t have a culture of giving to projects like this. Perhaps Indian generosity goes through the local temple to the local poor, he suggests. Incidentally The House of Joy is multi-faith and the statue of Jesus sits between Ganesh and an extract of the Koran.

Maria looks at the fact that the centre is paid for with foreign money from a social rather than political point of view. She attributes the behaviour more to the fatalism inherent in Hinduism and the psychology that goes with it. People here accept their destiny, and live up to the role of society ascribes to them. I’m poor, that’s what I will be. She’s worked in the slums of Rio before coming here in 2006, so I’m surprised she doesn’t have a broader perspective.

Cash is becoming harder to raise since the Spanish government cut funding to Indian NGOs in favour of South American ones after their financial crisis. In the context of radically changing a life, €6,500 seems like a small price, but perhaps if the project only kept girls for 2 years instead of 5, twice as many girls could have more than half the transformation? That’s a debateable premise. But there might be ways to get more from that money. To torture my wall analogy; here they are pinning up a small but expensive painting. Calcutta has a population of 15million people. An awful lot of those people could benefit from this sort of transformation.

I spend the day with the girls, making bracelets with beads, being silly, giggling, listening to their singing practice, and letting them take pictures with my camera. They laugh hysterically at the sight of their friends on the screen. I’ve been looking at this as a numbers game. But up close it’s not. This project shouldn’t be viewed in the context of saving all the vulnerable of Calcutta, it’s about 30 girls. They are a family. Maria and Antonio are almost their guardians or foster parents. They raise the money needed to make things better for these 30 girls by giving them a chance at education.

Salvatore looks at me helplessly, a gaudy bead bracelet hanging from his muscular wrist, and a softness in the hard man's eyes and says “I guess I’ll be back next year.”

Donations to Salvatore can be made my contacting him direct;
Anand Bhavan accepts contributions online at if you can fathom the Spanish.