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.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Going Down and Bowing Out

So after all it turns out I’m not a terrorist, so I’m not going to prison again.

But it’s not a happy ending, because its resulted in the end of my journey. This court case has cost me €6000. To put it in perspective; from the UK to India I spent about €3000 on 3 months travel. India was meant to be one of the cheaper legs of the journey. My contingency cash is wiped out, and quite a lot more besides.

While I could afford to carry on for a bit, but I could only get to a place where I couldn’t afford to come back from, so I’m going to head to Nepal and then finish the trip and then head home via the lowest carbon route possible, unless I can find some cash sponsors here in India that can save the expedition.

It took 18 months to get the sponsorship together to set off for this trip, and most of that was support in kind. The vast majority of the cash was my own savings, so I know how hard it is to raise cash from organisations, and I’m under no illusion how difficult it will be.

However I am able to muster a lot of press interest here, and during the last few months I’ve met some pretty influential people who have been very supportive so perhaps they will be able to call on their networks to rally the support needed.

The final insult is that it looks like I won’t be able to get my €600 bail bond back either because I’m a foreigner which means I fall into yet another Indian bureaucratic catch-22. That, and I still have to undergo the timely, costly and dehumanising make-it-up-as-you-go-along procedure of getting my visa changed so I can actually leave India.

No one has admitted responsibility for the decisions which resulted in the case becoming such an unnecessarily costly affair and no one has apologised, and this has added to my bitterness and anger over the whole affair. I’m trying to let go but it’s really hard, and it’s certainly no fun for me being this angry.

Getting my phone back only served to vindicate that this has all been an unjustifiable waste of time and money at the hands of idiots. Under Indian law, I’d have had an easier time of it if I’d been dealing drugs to school kids.

I’ll be gutted if I have to can the trip here over this bad luck. It was going so well. Almost 20,000km without using fossil fuels, and more fuel-from-waste supplies lined up across India ready for the next leg into South East Asia. It would be terrible if it had to end over something as stupid as this sat phone case.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Sat Phone Update.

A quick news update on the sat phone trial. And hopefully the last time I blog about it cos I am truly fucking sick of the whole affair.

When I was arrested over 100 officers were drafted in to search for evidence against me. Why this was done is a mystery to me, as the lead officer from Military Intelligence, Captain Jatinder, had already seen the bus and my website. He must have had sufficient doubt to think it was all an elaborate cover story. What a fucking idiot.

The police or Captain Jatinder tipped off the press that they had apprehended a terror suspect and briefly basked in the glory, but I think the scale of the press response took them by surprise. As a result they got scared and cornered themselves and me with them. After such a fuss they couldn’t let me out without a court ruling so they charged me with an anti-terror law because it was a non-bailable offence, meaning only a court could grant bail, even though they were in no doubt by the end of the first day that I was not a terrorist risk.

I in the meantime had to go to prison awaiting a bail judgement and freaked out, hiring the lawyer that the Italian consul recommended, and because he was great, and had to travel 300km, he cost me a small fortune. Not only did he reassure my family, but he killed all the press speculation about me being a terrorist on his first day on the case. The cost spiralled each time the police delayed hearings.

By now the Times of India were writing pretty critical articles of the police’s behaviour, but instead of them dealing with it and ending the criticism, they hoped that by procrastinating, the media interest would die down. Clearly the police need a PR advisor to tell them that dragging things out makes the reputation damage worse. The most frightening thing about this experience is how much power stupid frightened people, can have over me.

In the meantime a Polish guy was caught on his sat phone in Jaipur. The police there, not being the village yokels found in Ajmer, had the good sense to charge him within 24 hours with a technical offence, the judge fined him and gave him back his phone on condition he didn’t use it in India. Speaking to the press, the Jaipur police said “We used our common sense.”

As a result of that arrest and the 2000 petition emails received by the Home Affairs Minister orchestrated through facebook (thanks everyone), the police in Ajmer couldn’t justify continuing the 7 weeks of procrastination in my case,. Not they have dropped the anti-terror charge and a technical offence against me. Thankfully the Polish case has also set a sensible legal precedent for the judge to follow in my case.

It seems that the Rajasthan Military Intelligence have a new piece of kit to play with; a sat phone detector, which they pull out for special occasions (Bangladeshi Presidential visit to Ajmer in my case, a cricket match in Jaipur in the case of the Polish guy). However they still haven’t mastered how to use it. They were adamant they had tracked me making calls in India, however I didn’t. All the gear and no idea. RTFM morons.

I still have a visa that prevents me from leaving the country, and will need the Ajmer police help to get it changed when this is all over. I’m dreading going back to that visa office in Delhi.

The whole experience has brought me much closer to my family, and helped me understand my personal motives for doing this trip and I am facing up to some important personal demons. With hindsight even prison was a really positive experience for me, one I hope never to have to repeat. But let’s not get too gushy about it, this has probably cost about €6000 and killed the dream I’ve been working on for 2 years. I can afford to carry on the journey for now, but I now can’t afford to finish it.

The only lessons I can really take away from this is that people in power can be really stupid, and even more so when they are acting out of fear. Secondly, there is nothing you can do about it if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time

The Terrorists, the Cops and me.

[Ed - Written in February, when I was fucking angry]

The thing that really pisses me off is that there are a load of Taliban fighters holed up in Afghanistan somewhere reading about me on the internet, probably pissing themselves laughing at my expense. I now have a heightened awareness of the things I do and have done which could be used in evidence against me at my Kafka-esque terror trial.
  • Wear sandals (a heinous crime in and of itself)
  • Grow a beard (an equally unforgivable misdemeanour)
  • Visit Pakistan and the Afghan border region (usually only terrorists or opium smugglers, but actually it’s the only way to drive to India)
  • Drive a heavy truck full of fuel (You say “Truck Bomb”, I say “Biotruck”. Let’s call the whole thing off)
  • Carry multiple passports (I have dual nationality, it’s not a crime)
  • Have a passport full of stamps from Muslim countries in North Africa (its full of stamps from Christian countries too, doesn’t make me a KKK supporter)
  • Hang out near the a town where a contentious neighbouring country’s president is visiting (It was 20km away and how should I know where the hell the Bangladeshi president is going next week)
  • Go to Pushkar and say I’m a tourist (Lots of tourists do that too)
  • Carry a sat phone (So do many overlanders, mountaineers, sailors, foreign journalists and the British Ambassadors in India, but actually not me any more)
  • Take photographs of tourist sites (Lots of tourists do that too)
  • Buy local PAYG SIM cards when I am abroad, and then call people with it (cheapest way to stay in touch)
  • Take pictures with Mumbai hotels in the background (I hadn’t noticed the hotels until I got stopped by beach security for taking pictures of people who happened to be in front of them – seem Mumbai Romance in the Gallery)
  • Speak with Muslims (I worry about this every time I ask a hajji with a beard for directions – will they be photographed and rounded up for questioning later just cos I’m looking for a shop that sells milk? And in 2 months time how will it look when I the police show me this picture and I tell them I don’t have any recollection of this person.)
  • Have a laptop with Aircrack, software that theoretically allows me to log on to secure Wifi networks so I can upload a video declaring responsibility for my latest blog entry (Sadly I’ve never got Aircrack to work and had forgotten it was installed until talking about it with a friend tonight. I should really delete it cos it is a pretty dodgy bit of software any way you look at it [Ed – now deleted])
  • Receive support from Iran (OK tenuous here: but my regime-hating Iranian friends helped me find veg oil for the truck bomb, er I mean Biotruck.)
  • Go to hear a hard-line Muslim leader address a rally of supporters. (In Esfahan I took pictures of Ahmedinejad when he declared they would step up their nuclear enrichment programme, but even though I was surrounded by his supporters, I resisted joining in the chants of “Allah Uakbar” on cue, so I’m obviously not quite ready for my suicide mission yet)
  • Speak Arabic (not much, and Hassania is a dialect from the far west of the Arab world which is so corrupted no one outside Mauritania really understands me)
  • Go to the desert with Muslim men and learn new things while I am there (paragliding in Iran, 2-wheel-drive off-roading in Mauritania, panning for gold in Algeria, horse riding in Egypt)
  • Fly a paraglider (There’s a terror group in India that were, allegedly, planning on using them for an aerial attack – Oh please, do me a favour! If the winds are wrong they’ll end up blowing up the local bingo hall instead of the parliament building. They banned paragliders over Mumbai for the National holiday, despite the fact that the laws of physics have already banned it permenantly)

Reading this back, it looks like an application CV to Al Queda. Can you imagine the covering letter; “Dear Mr Laden, I know you have regular vacancies in the suicide bombing department. Others have commented that my skill set would be a good fit with your team...Salary expectations; not so bothered about the virgins, but a pension with eternity in paradise... Happy to work abroad...References available from Captain Jatinder of the Indian Military Intelligence and Superintendent Tak of Ajmer Police, they’ll tell you I’m a terrorist alright.”

I appreciate that for a country which saw violent terrorist shootings less than 18 months ago, [Ed – and the Pune bombing since I wrote this] this is a raw nerve and my comments will seem in very bad taste. Well if there are any Indians that are offended, don’t think I am unsympathetic to the shock of those events and the losses. But don’t be angry at this blog entry written from my rage at being imprisoned for a week and deprived of the money to fulfil the dream I worked hard to make possible. Instead be angry at the fact you have an incompetent police force and illiterate Military Intelligence officers who shouldn’t be put in charge of a train set let alone terrorist investigations. Alarmingly for you, these people are responsible for protecting you but have no clue how to use their resources effectively, missing the real terrorists and wasting the time of 150 officers to investigate someone who is clearly innocent.

For the 3rd time (twice with David Coleman Headley, and once with me) SP Tak and Captain Jatinder of MI have let India down. If you want to investigate risks to Indian National Security start with them.

9/11, 7/7, 28/11, Now it’s 24/7

[Ed - Written in January, when I was fucking pissed off and on the verge.]

Trying to be philosophical about my predicament I tell myself this is a measure of the post 9/11 world. I remember watching the live news coverage as the towers collapsed almost 10 years ago and prophetically thinking, “Things are going to be different, shitter, from now on.” That morning I’d just had a great meeting with a travel company and pitched them some tours I wanted to operate in the Algerian desert. They asked me to prepare some itineraries and prices so they could put them in their brochure. This was going to be my first big break in organising proper adventure tours, a new business I was really excited about. Then I came home to see the rolling news of planes flying into the twin towers. Islamaphobia took hold in a major way and there was no point preparing the itineraries and the prices. No one was going to holiday in Algeria.

That winter I’d just got back from an overland drive from the UK to Niger, crossing the stunning Djanet plateau and discovering what North Africa looks like when it has petrodollars. I’d established contacts with some local ground operators and together we agreed to I’d market their amazing tours in the UK via some adventure tour companies.

This week I was arrested under suspicion of terrorism in Pushkar, India, but I was arrested as a suspected terrorist once before, that same year, when I crossed the border from Algeria through the northern Tenere Desert into Niger arriving in the abandoned town of Djado. Terrorism was a comparatively gentlemanly affair before we all saw images of Twin Towers suicide attacks.

Unbeknown to me I’d driven the route taken by arms dealers that were smuggling weapons to Tubu rebels in the North of Niger. Niger, like several Saharan countries divided by the tropic of Cancer, had a Muslim population in the north in conflict with the non-Muslim government in the south. In Niger, at that time, the Tubu tribes in the north, who happen to be Muslim, were waging a pretty successful uprising over rights and self governance. These days it would be called an Islamic terror campaign, and the US would fund the government forces.

As a result of stumbling into this very tense situation I was arrested and spent 3 days held at a desert military camp in Dirkou, a seedy smugglers outpost full of traffickers taking Nigerian prostitutes and fake dollars bills up to Libya. The military explained they were acting under orders from the capital and then the call came that I was to be interviewed in Niamey by the National Chief of Police. I was made to drive my crappy Datsun Patrol 1500km across one of the world’s harshest deserts to Niamey, where I was interviewed by a French secret service agent. The French still run Niger and the Ambassador parades around the capital like royalty. The French spook paced confidently behind the broad leather chair of the National Chief of Police, aggressively asking questions. The police chief, a man so dark I couldn’t make out any of his features in the shuttered office, apart from his glistening perspiration on his forehead, stayed silent throughout. The interrogation didn’t take long to reveal I was just a muppet who had no idea what this was all about, and after an afternoon of repetitive questions, he instructed the police chief to find something to fine me and I paid £4 for a bald tire. “When do you think Niger will obtain independence from the French?” I asked as I handed over the money, probably the finest example of my unerring ability to piss off people in high places by not being able to keep my mouth shut.

So far, in Pushkar, I’ve done my best work ever at keeping quiet, and none the less I’ve made my sister feel like I’m ungrateful and uncooperative with all the hard work she’s done, the lawyer almost dropped me completely when I tried to negotiate a lower fee, and the British Embassy don’t want to touch me with a bargepole. Thankfully Avinash, the journalist at the TOI is on my side and doesn’t print any of my libellous rants that would land me in jail for sure. And I’ve stayed friends with my interrogating officers but I think that has more to do with the lawyer passing them sweeteners to look after my welfare – which would explain why he’s so expensive. Everyone keeps telling me to shut up, and I’m trying but this situation is so nuts that I’m clinging to this ridiculous notion that I’m not a bad person, and being truthful is my best protection.

Last night a hotel turned me away. They said I was trouble and didn’t want me staying there. I didn’t shut up there and told the owner a few truths too. I was so upset and it compounded with finding out the police report isn’t ready yet so the case will be adjourned, and the lawyer broke the news to me that when this comes to trial it will still take several days more. I broke down again and felt like I had no one left to call. Everyone’s pissed off at me. It’s made me reconsider the suggestion a few people have already made that I should speak to a psychiatrist. I’m not well. So if I piss you off, just put it all down to the ranting of a mad man.

Obviously I can’t post this, so now it seems I’m typing to myself too. Call the doctor!!!

Goa aint goin' on.

Readers from the UK will remember the series of Gold Blend TV commercials in which an I-can-have-it-all feminist yuppie and an I’m-a-devilishly-handsome-new-man-from-next-door have coitus non-startus despite being regularly brought precariously close to nookie by their shared love of instant coffee. The ads were a classy documentary statement on Thatcher’s children of the early 90’s. The cringing dialogue was delivered with atrocious eyebrow acting, affirming, lest there was any doubt, that this couple was terribly clever and terribly in charge of their destiny. I wasn't the only viewer left hopping they’d both be engulfed in a dry roasted fire.

Now 20 years on, imagine he’s a bare chested, leather skinned 60 yearold playing with his silver pony tail in a cheap Mexican restaurant in Goa, bragging about his past travels in a faded Aussie accent, while she is a fresh skinned slender 23 year old German girl with thick matted dreads, and beads and bells on the hem of her long tie-dyed skirt.

Him [offering her a joint with a furtive eyebrow flick]: Would you like a smoke?
Her [raising an eyebrow]: I don’t do drugs, I prefer reality.
Him [raising an eyebrow back]: Reality is for people that can’t handle drugs.
Her [raising her other eyebrow to meet the first]: I don’t like to alter my perception on reality when I’m travelling.
Him [trying to raise his first eyebrow higher, but giving up and opting instead to furrow it downwards]: Drugs don’t alter my perception on reality, they just alter how I deal with reality.

And so it went on for a good hour. By the end they both had eyebrow exhaustion and thankfully had to shut up. As to the will-they-won’t-they? No granddad, never in a month of Sundays was she coming back to yours to smoke your gold blend. Ironically their conversation did finish up on the best filter coffee in town.

That was my table company for lunch. For dinner I was in Arambol's cheapest restaurant surrounded by dreadheads playing didgeridoos and gushing about what a great party last night was and tonight would be. They were already giving me suspicious looks when my phone rang from home and I had to discuss my company accounts submission, directors report and corporation tax filing. It was a bad line so I may have been quite loud. By the time I’d put the phone down I was surrounded by pursed lipped evil hippy stares. Thankfully before being burned at the the joss-stick, someone remembered that sunset was only a few minutes away and everyone urgently left with their guitars and bongos, for the beach to stare adoringly, and pursed lipped, at the sun dipping into the sea, again.

Everyone here is desperate to appear interesting. Everyone has their unique angle; locks, tattoos, Enfields, guitars, yoga, nudity, sequin dresses on the beach... and ironically no one is interested in anyone else’s interesting angle, apart from the sexagenarian nudity; we all stare purse lipped at that.

It’s all disappointingly insincere and unoriginal. The art here is commercial tat, the live music is great but the ambience is so dead it kills the music. I was expecting 1000 people, hands in the air on the beach at 3am under lasers and banging trance, but maybe it’s the end of the season so instead there are 50 people stood round the walls head bobbing while the German 23 year old frees her perception of reallity the dance floor alone.

Actually I think it’s more like the end of Goa. Arambol, Agonda, Palolem, they all have the feel of places that were interesting but are now just morphing into Clacton-on-Ganges . Five, 10, 15 years ago I bet this place really meant something and dished out ideas that changed the people that came here, sending waves propagating around the world when they left. Now the ideas are stale, and the place is a Russian holiday resort waiting to happen, but prevented from happening by planning laws which keep it locked in this hippy-happy state of tumble-down shacks. There’s a lot of good in that, the world is fine without another string of Club-Med resorts and adjoining golf courses. But equally, is there any need for this centre of phoney or old ideas?

The visitors here are trustafarians, who can go back to easy money in their home countries any time. Fledgling consumers, training to join the rat race of yuppie yoga mums and office workers that had a colourful past. I’d have more respect for them if they were aware they are just on an extended cheap 18-30's holiday and behaved more hedonisticly, rather than reciting this empty fantasy of connectedness, and spirituality. Like the couple from the Gold Blend commercial, they are so introspective, they’re not even shagging.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Mid Air Life Crisis Collision

Being a psychiatrist is the perfect complimentary profession to flying tandem paragliders according to Tom who is both a pilot and a shrink.

“People tell me all sorts of shit up there” he’s not bemoaning the revelations, but doesn’t seem overly enthusiastic about them either.

I miss the opportunity to ask him “And how do you feel about that?” which has become a running joke between us, after I impressed him with my impersonation of a therapist, nodding and grunting understandingly.

“You’d get a psychology degree for those ‘hmmm’s’ Andy”, his deadpan Australian accent and straight face hiding any trace of irony.

Incidentally, Tom confirms my suspicion that the correct response to being asked “And how do you feel about that?” by a psychiatrist is to say “Hmm, well, I don’t know. How would you feel about it?”

In one of our conversations, cum therapy sessions, Tom explains that very few of us are present for very long. Most of the time we aren’t attending to life around us, but going through it in a lower state of consciousness. Presence, or focusing on the moment, is probably what Eastern Gurus refer to as an enlightened state, and as with enlightenment, being present for a sustained period can be a euphoric joyous experience.

Adrenalin sports provide a different route to the same presence, demanding a sustained focus on the moment because of the fear and imminent risks.

It’s no surprise then that the paragliding beginner class is heavily littered with gentlemen staring their midlife crisis squarely in the face. Having done well in life, job, house, car..., they have woken up to the need to live a more real, present existence. They could have ended up in an Ashram, instead they are following the teachings of their paraglider Gurus.

In Tom’s case he rented out his successful practice and home in Australia, and now lives in a dorm room, flies every day and dishes out acupuncture treatments to the bruised students.

I go for a flight with him so I can take some aerial pictures of other pilots, and sure enough it’s the perfect environment for a therapy session and provokes me to share a really weird dream I had the night before, involving a demonic girl with no eyes and a cactus growing out of her. We both erupt with laughter as I point out a narly prickle-free cactus on the hill below us which best resembles the one protruding from the girl. “Like that one but blue. What does it mean doctor?”

“Holy shit! If you figure it out you’ll get a whole PhD out of that dream Andy.” He pulls a spiral dive spinning us towards the ground, and as the adrenalin and the G-force builds, draining the blood from my head, he calls out “...and how did it make you feel?”

“Fucking scared!” I yell back, grinning euphorically, eyes wide open and totally focused on the bright world whirring beneath me.

100 Hours of Doubt

I have to build up 100 hours of air time before I can do a tandem paraglider rating, allowing me to take passengers. I’m currently only at 17 hours, but it’s goal I want to focus on while I am here in India so one day I can take my sister for a flight, and share the experience with others.

I’m excited about all the things I’ll learn over the next 83 hours flying. I already know some of the things I have to learn and how I will learn them. For instance my spot landings need improvement. That will come partly with practice and familiarity with the equipment and locations, and partly with new techniques that I am currently only vaguely aware of.

But I’m even more excited that I will learn things that I don’t yet even know I need to know about.

I’m sure there will be some scary moments and mistakes I make along the way, but hopefully the consequences will be no more severe than a few sobering flashbacks and lessons learnt, making me safer for the passengers who will one day trust me to fly them.

There are 2 ways of making mistakes. If you are unsure, you take your best guess in the knowledge that it might be wrong. But the more dangerous type of mistake is when you are sure, and it turns out you are wrong in your conviction.

Far from making me more confident, this journey from the UK and the encounters with people of different beliefs and practices has made me even more unsure about how the world works. There is so much variety and countless right and wrong truths. If there is one thing that I have become certain of, it’s that people who are convinced they are right are the most dangerous. Be it political, religious, environmental, or philosophical; any fervent belief belies a very narrow view the world and an intolerance of diversity. We are too varied a planet to be intolerant of diversity, and too varied for one set of ideals to work universally.

Perhaps leaders would do a better job if they were more uncertain and indecisive, ready to procrastinate more. As I’ve always said, if you put something off for long enough, you won’t have to do it at all. Probably not the most effective approach, but it’s useful to temper every decision with the humility that it might be wrong no matter how sure you are.

Soaring a ridge in lighter wind is a balancing act. The closer you get to the hill, the more lift you are likely to find, but there is always a risk you can hit a pocket of sinking air when you are too close, and end up dropping onto the slope below; a lovely euphemism for crashing. Every inch of the way you are feeling the lift while adjusting your position and direction, assessing the terrain ahead and predicting what the air is doing over it. Even though you might know the contours of the hill well, the nature of wind is too variable to assume any certainty in the air’s behaviour.

At university a fellow student wrote his dissertation on how to make decisions based on uncertain information. It was such a theoretical paper that I think the practical engineering professors failed him, but in essence it said that you had to make decisions that firstly kept your options open, and that secondly allowed you to move to a position of less uncertainty so you could make a better decision.

So bring on the next 83 hours full or confusions and re-evaluated certainties. Whatever lessons I learn, I’ll always be moving to a position of less uncertainty, but I’ve already accepted that whether I’m on the ground thinking about the heavens, or in the sky thinking about the world, I should cherish and nurture my doubt as much as I cherish and nurture my truths.


“When you start, Paragliding is 90% physical and 10% mental. But it becomes 10% physical and 90% mental” TJ is giving a pep talk to the students starting their first day training course and as usual I’m eves dropping to see what I can pick up.

My first flight was about a year ago, but the poor conditions in the UK meant my training never moved much beyond the 90% physical stage. Then in Annecy the mountains, thermals and ridge lift transformed my understanding of the sport, and opened my eyes to what paragliding was really about.

Sitting on launch sites feeling for the slightest changes in wind, looking at the hills and clouds and theorising about what might be influencing the airflow has become such a pleasure that it almost feels like the game is half over when I decide conditions are right for launch. In the air, pulling neat flat turns is no longer as important as deciding when to make those turns. The satisfaction of searching for and finding lift along a ridge after you’ve dropped below takeoff to nurse your way back up again with smooth flying and well timed turns, is immense. “I did that”, I tell myself as my perspective on the launch site comes level and then rises over it. Well me, and the wind, and my wing did that.

Arriving in Kamshet I was full of courage, but not confidence. I’d try launching my glider in strong winds, but I’d be nervous, relying half on luck and half on skill, that the inflation would go as planned.

Ten days later I’ve had great conditions to build up my airtime and practice ground handling; inflating and deflating my wing, adjusting my position for the best takeoff line and feeling for the nature of the wind before trusting it with my gravity. It’s the ground that hurts when you hit it, not the sky, so it’s often said you should practice ground handling for as many hours as you spend in the air, but in reality hardly anybody matches it hour for hour.

This week I almost did, and now my ability to launch in stronger winds has improved immensely. I’m no longer wracked with nerves before I pull on the risers to lift the wing above me ready for takeoff. My actions are now more intuitive than reasoned, and therefore faster and more effective.

I’ve even become an honorary member of the Temple Pilots flying team. My time with Avi, TJ, Tom and the others have given me confidence and skills to feel like I am a real pilot now, instead of just a guy ready to throw himself off a hill. I’m very proud of my progress.

Before each session Tom leads the instructors and students in a stretching session. In truth it’s a 10 minute yoga routine, but I’m too curmudgeon to admit I’m doing yoga so I call it a warm up. During that time Tom invites us to “visualise” us accomplishing our flying tasks. It’s the sort of voodoo mumbo jumbo talk I’ve always sneered at, but standing on the edge of a launch area 200m up, in 25km/h winds it really makes sense, and provides a meditative moment that calms and focuses me.

Watching an eagle effortlessly gliding a few feet along side me, I realise I have some way to go before the 10% physical/90% mental stage, but the weeks’ experiences have also convinced me that flying in the thermals and updrafts has a large spiritual component too. Once in the air, understanding how the air is flowing becomes less of an intellectual puzzle and more about feel. The privilege of playing with something as big as a mountain and all its forces is both elating and grounding. Nurturing that spiritual sense is as important as learning how to pull aerial manoeuvres.

The Condition Monitoring and Diagnostics Coma

It’s one of those geeky subconscious thoughts that you have while you are doing something else. Distracted, you don’t even realise your mind has wondered into the subject until the thought resurfaces later and you track it back to what fired it in the first place. The philosophy of machine maintenance.

During a conversation my eye is drawn to the worn truck tire behind the guy I’m talking with. The conversation continues while I’m looking at the construction of the cross matting visible where patches of rubber are missing, thinking about how many plies the tire has, how much rubber is left before the steel inserts pop through, and if the rolling surface will puncture before the cracked sidewall splits over a pothole. It’s a 13 tonne Indian truck which means it’s probably loaded with about 40 tonnes. My guess is the side wall will go first. In fact my guess is that the side wall should have gone a long time ago.

When I was starting my brief career as a manufacturing engineer, Planned Maintenance (also known as Preventative Maintenance or PM) was the newest thinking from Japan. By having a schedule for maintaining your machinery you could pre-empt breakdowns and reduce the lost running time, increasing the Mean Time Between Failure (MTBF) of your line. I was never that convinced that applying PM to every machine was for the best. It meant stopping the lines to fix things that weren’t necessarily broken, and with some machines they’d spend more time stopped for maintenance than they ever would have for unexpected breakdowns.

The secret was to have a good PM schedule, that understood the design of the machinery and the lifespan of the components, but even then, the rated lifespan and load tolerances of components are always underestimated with safety factors so PM schedules are inevitably an overcautious approach. Nonetheless from a commercial point of view having a line stop when you are expecting it costs a lot less than having a line stop when you aren’t, so PM makes good businesses sense.

And then Condition Monitoring and Diagnostics was born. CMD involves having sensors on machinery that give you an indication they are about to fail. For instance you might have a vibration sensor on a bearing that detects the increase in vibration which indicates it’s worn and about to fail. Marry that with a neural logic controller that learns how to predict failure rates based on the severity of the vibration and you have a system that can dynamically extend the schedule for maintenance shutdowns if the machine is running fine.

The dashboard indicators on cars that tell you when to service the vehicle work on similar principles, but they are mainly dictated by time elapsed and miles covered, unless something starts to go badly wrong in the meantime.

I don’t have a PM schedule for the bus other than regular servicing, oil and water checks, and I certainly don’t have a CMD controller in my 1989 truck. So my approach is similar to the Indian truck drivers that listen out for problems and carry enough tools to fix whatever situation might arise. I’ve seen drivers rebuilding engine blocks by the side of the road. I couldn’t do anything that extreme, but I don’t quite have the drive-it-to-destruction attitude that the truck tires here suggest, so hopefully I won’t need to.

Effectively I am the CMD neural logic controller. My ears and arse are the sensors that listen out for new noises and vibration, my right foot detects changes in performance and my hands feel for alterations in the handling. Any new behaviour is worrying, but unlike a well designed CMD system I’m not necessarily able to immediately identify what’s causing the symptom. In Turkey I first noticed a squeak from the alternator bearing. I wanted to change it there and then, but the mechanic I showed it to said it would last for 5000km. That was 8000km ago and it’s not getting any worse. That’s my neural feedback loop, learning how the extremity of the symptom relates to the remaining lifespan.

My journey isn’t paced against a tight schedule. I don’t have to be somewhere at a given time, so I can afford to have unexpected breakdowns which delay me. In fact as long as they don’t happen too regularly I love them when they do happen as it flings me into a new adventure with new people. Heidegger, a German philosopher said our minds function in an auto-pilot sub-consciousness most of the time until things don’t work as we expect and then we have to snap out of our slumber and actually think. Opening your front door is an automatic action that doesn’t require thought, but imagine the key won’t turn. You have to mentally change your plan, from entering your house, to figuring out how you are going to open the door. He called that moment “breakdown”.

Mechanical breakdowns cause me to snap out of my slumber and look again at where I am and what my plan is. I think Heidegger said that these moments of breakdown are the only times when we are really alive. If he didn’t say it, then I do. CMD, and the other engineered solutions that keep things running to the expected standards, and without surprise interruptions, also keep us in a relaxed mental state where we don’t have to think. Kind of like a coma. Maybe knowing you are only one pot hole away from a deadly 40tonne blowout conversely keeps you alive.

Child Labour

Shaylar hill is a sloped paraglider take off site half way up a sharp black granite cliff. To get there you turn off the road at Kamshet, a small market village on the old road between Pune and Mumbai, and bounce along the rock road for 30 minutes. It gets its name from Mr Shaylar, a toothless granddaddy who dispenses shot glasses of sweet milky tea for 5 rupees, and dirty laughs for free to the elated pilots in the landing area.

The site starts “working” in the afternoon as the westerly wind starts hitting the ridge and is diverted vertically upwards. It’s usually too strong until about 15h30, until the first pilots feel confident enough to wrestle their wings over their heads getting lifted vertically off the take off area. From there it’s best to head to the right and do a few beats over the U-shaped dry waterfall which directs the wind upwards even if the direction varies a few degrees. Then with enough height you take the plunge to head all the way left, back over the take off site, now with 50m altitude above it, to the far end where the ridge forms a ‘V’. It’s like an elevator taking you up 50m. A flat weight shift turn and you won’t lose altitude before a beat close to the granite cliff face and you are up another 100m along it, and soon above it with the view over the agricultural plateau stretching out for 20 or 30 miles below you. Once you’re up there you can potter about in the sky for 2 or 3 hours, or practice wingovers or spiral dives down 200m, before working your way back up again.

At most sites the car drops you at the top and picks you up from the bottom, but at Shaylar the dirt track is 2km away from take off, and in the 30degree heat, the walk from where the cars park can’t fail to soak you in sweat. Fortunately a gang of village kids besiege the cars as they arrive. “Carry? Carry?” they ask pointing at their chests with cutely furrowed foreheads. A simple “No Thanks” is all it takes if you don’t want their services, but herein lays the Shaylar dilemma:

Do I engage this child labour for 50 ruppes (£0.60) to carry my 15kg wing and harness 2km across fields and then up the steep 10minute hike to the launch site, along with the clear message that they are wasting their time doing anything else, like say school, and are much better off hanging out here for half the year? Or do I succumb to my middle class guilt associated with paying poor people to do things I don’t like doing, and sweat it out myself depriving them of this meagre income?

I can’t help feeling that the village school is probably a waste of time for most of these kids anyway. T-J the head instructor with Temple Pilots flying club is originally from the village and he certainly doesn’t have anything positive to say about his school days. Luckily he got into flying and now is a formidable pilot and instructor, and has a respectable career teaching, while his counter parts are tending the sugar-cane fields.

I carry my own wing, mainly because I need the exercise, but secondly it makes me feel like I’ve earned the flight. The one time I let one of the kids carry my wing, the wind died just as I took off, and I missed any lift, so there’s a bit of superstition mixed in to my decision too. And then there is the ethical minefield over how much I should pay. The going rate is 40 or 50Rs from the car park to the launch site, but at first they’ll ask you for more, so should I haggle with these 14 year olds barely bigger or heavier than my pack, and maintain the price integrity, or should I just give them what they ask and introduce inflationary pressures to the incentive dynamic, and probably kill off the prospect of any future farming as well as any education. In the end I don’t give the kids any cash despite the fact I do think they are probably wasting their time at school.

Sure they need to learn to read, write and add up, but the best hope for the kids around Shaylar hill, is that paragliding develops more thoroughly; perhaps someone will set up a little bar serving cold cokes at the landing site, perhaps even a little hostel. A permanently tended landing site clear of shrubs and rivulets, with a fee for private pilots and schools wouldn’t be unreasonable. Nor would a smoothed gravel track to the site paid for with a parking fee. And how about a training academy via the local flying schools to help a handful of the kids become tandem pilots and instructors each year. It’s such an amazing site, pilots are getting a bargain flying there at the moment, and no one could complain if the village earned more than the random payments the flying schools make to the farmers every now and again. Happily, I think there’s a good chance that some of this will happen.

Everywhere I’ve flown, I’ve learnt a new way of packing my glider, Woldingham, Annecy, Olu-Deniz, Tehran, Yazd. In each place pilots are adamant that the origami they follow to fold the wing away is the only correct way to do it, and any other method is foolish heresy. In India there is a different technique again. You hand over 20Rs to one of the kids that come running as you land, calling “Packing? Packing?”. Again I’m paralysed by the guilt of exploiting of the economically vulnerable, whereas the Indian paragliders have no qualms about paying the youngsters to pack and carry their gliders back to the carpark. The transaction isn’t exploitation but part of greasing the big Indian wheel, redistributing wealth, filling in the rich-poor divide.

I like to pack my own glider. It gives me a warm glow, and a chance to check it over, but also it’s a good physical routine to go through while I come down from the mental high of flying. Another Zen-for-an-excuse reason not to support the local economy Andy? Yeah, these kids should be in business school, learning how to market T-shirts printed with “I flew Shaylar”. Some have already graduated, selling me and other dehydrated pilots premium priced bottles of water and battered fried vegetables, which perfectly compliment the sugary pick-me-up tea Mr Shaylar serves in his botulism glassware with a smile.