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, 29 May 2010

The Reality of Dreams and Packaging Accomplishment

I was browsing the net looking at a long distance rowers’ website recently. They are currently embarked on the final stage of a 3 part journey across the pacific. Over the 3 stages the stated public aim of the journey seems to have shifted, from raising awareness of environmental issues to encouraging others to achieve their personal potential.

I’m always hugely cynical of projects which excuse themselves by “raising awareness of climate change”. Especially ones that require massive CO2 emissions to carry out this awareness raising. It’s a pretty rare corner of the world where people aren’t “aware”. However the media love this simplistic purpose and if you want the sponsors you have to play to the media’s tune.

My journeys have changed their stated purpose too over time. The chocolate powered lorry expedition was “the first ever carbon neutral expedition”. I’ve since come to hate the term carbon neutral with a passion. Short of sitting in a cold dark room holding your breath it’s pretty hard to do anything that’s carbon neutral. Every activity has some energy and CO2 or other Greenhouse gas (GHG) emission associated with it in some way. Don't get me started on the smoke and mirrors, and ethical subterfuge which goes by the name of offsetting. The planets systems can cope with some GHG’s so the aim is not to be carbon neutral, it’s to emit only as much as the planet can cope with. As it turns out that isn’t much but it is more than zero or neutrality.

Carping on about carbon neutrality is really unhelpful, because it’s an unachievable and unnecessary goal, like a five year old wanting to count to infinity. Count to a million, that’s enough.

A journalist friend of mine shared his theory on why the British respect these endurance athletes that perform these essentially unnecessary challenges in the name of saving the planet/inspiring others/any other equally pious reason. According to him, it’s down to the private school system which developed during the empire to create administrators that could go to the far reaches of Britannia, and endure the hardship. Getting a ruddy good hiding, wearing shorts through winter, single sex segregation, makes one into a jolly good chap. And these values have remained important to the British, and are at the heart of why rowers, polar explorers, mountaineers, jungle craft experts, the WWF Ambassador that just swam through lake Everest this week (to raise awareness for Climate change – Really, is it changing?) e.t.c. are so revered.

Playing up to this persona also lands you the cushy corporate speaking gigs, of which I’ve done a few myself, and let me tell you it’s the easiest money I’ve ever made. You talk for 20-40 minutes about what you’ve done and package it in a way that makes it relevant to your audience. I enjoy researching the crowd, and finding a way to make it relevant, but apart from that, the hardest part of the job is finding the venues with the appalling directions they invariably give you. (“Well you are an explorer, I’m sure you can find it”, Yes but I’m not a mind reader.) I really enjoy it, and I’m pretty good at it. I’ve had standing ovations, and I’ve had sober, intelligent adults ask me for my autograph!

High profile explorers charge “Ellen McArthur Money” as I once heard it described. £10-15,000 for an inspirational talk, but even those on “Andy Pag money” can get £1000 for 30minutes work. So there is an interest in managing your media profile to fit in with Britannia cliché of the explorer because it gets you on to the books with the agents. Maybe the Andy Pag money will go up now that I’ve been in prison. People love to hear about that. Unfortunately I haven’t figured out how to package that experience into a few pithy anecdotes just yet. It’s still way too raw. There’s a process of sanitation, and post rationalisation that needs to happen between the adventure and the inspiring tale.

With this in mind I tuned into the rower’s YouTube promo video for their corporate speaking, ready to cynically pick them apart, but instead I was really inspired, and got a better understanding of why I want to be here on this journey, based on their retrospective musings and what they’d learnt.

A few things they said really hit home; firstly forgiving themselves for mistakes early in the challenge, because the person that made those mistakes didn’t know any better, and that person didn’t exist anymore, having grown into the new better person as a result of those mistakes. Also when things went wrong they came to think of it as a success, because they’d set out to leave their comfort zone and things going wrong meant they’d achieved that.

I can really relate to that. Part of my survivalist Britannia mentality is to see exactly how deep of a shitpile I can climb out of and still smell of roses, because being able to do that gives me the confidence to deal with any life choice I make, and therefore the freedom to choose any life I want.

Meanwhile I’m hanging out with the tandem pilots at Frontiers Paragliding, and the more I speak with them the more I realise these guys are literally among the best pilots in the world. They include the altitude record holder, an ace aerial photographer and the team that attempted the trans-Himalayan Odyssey. It’s the most exciting and adventurous end of the sport. These guys are the Top Gun of paragliding. They live the sort of free life, travelling to fly and work, that would inspire so many that don’t have the courage to break from the familiar.

But the most inspiring part of their life for me, is seeing that their day to day reality is just as full of shit as anyone else’s. They get all pissy about the working conditions, and the people they have to work with. They are continuously skint, spending as fast as they earn, they bitch that they haven’t had a break in months and are sick of eating this foreign food. But deep down they know they are living a charmed life. Importantly it’s a charmed life which no one has handed them on a plate, it’s a life they’ve chosen to take for themselves, putting up with all the discomforts along the way. Those discomforts may by now have been transformed into pithy anecdotes, but at the time they were thankless moments of hardship.

Their inspirational life stories are available for the price of a beer, and a plane ticket to Pokhara.

Friday, 28 May 2010


Until now on this journey I’ve managed to avoid much contact with the freaks and geeks that make up the India-Nepal backpacker circuit, but here in Pokhara, the restaurants I regularly eat at is a big draw for them as well as me, so over meal times I get to hear the profound discoveries about the world they share with each other.

Most of the discussion tends to focus around how much they have paid for things, or “been ripped off” to use common parlance. There seems to be a genuinely held feeling that the whole country exists to service the needs of this naive flotsam with bulging wallets that do nothing but plead poverty.

Once in Camping Mousafir, the bottleneck stop for any overlander heading down the west coast of Africa, an elderly new-age-traveller, Fred, overheard some Quebequois youngsters telling a beggar that they had no money. Now it’s fair to say that the Québec accent is enough to wind anyone up, but Fred tore into them with gusto. “If you don’t have any money then fuck off back to Canada. Don’t insult these people by telling them you have no money. If you’re too tight to share your wealth with people who have nothing at least give them the dignity of telling them you don’t want to share it with them.”

It’s a logic that’s hard to argue with and since then I’ve never dared to tell a beggar I don’t have any money.

I ask a girl from Elephant and Castle if she is in Pokhara on holiday, “No I’m travelling” she replies without a hint of irony. I immediately and involuntarily adopt the most Brit-abroad stance on everything, including an overdeveloped cockney accent, and the urge to call her “darlin’” or “swee’heart” at every opportunity. “Oh yeah, so you more into all the culture ‘n that? Oh yeah, that’s swee’ darlin’. I like the culture stuff too, but me, I’m jus’ on me ‘olidays. I come for the cheap beer really.” She can’t get away from be quick enough.

Nuttiest of the lot is Catwoman. She’s maybe 20, shaved head from Bologna Italy, with an effervescent personality and a penchant for delivering eulogies on the merits of various diets. Just last night I had to listen while the entire restaurant sat enthralled by one of her lectures on the health benefits of Tofu Ice cream. She mixes Italian words in with crap she talks in English, making her sound so much more authoritative and worldly. I call her Catwoman because she carries a tiny kitten around with her in bright pink plastic basket, who she has christened “Meaowmeaow”. Meaowmeaow should actually be called Meaowmeaow the second, as Meaowmeaow the first disappeared after one of the local stray dogs (Woofwoof?) got hold of it.

Catwoman is only beaten into second position on the freakometer by the Ethiopian, who wonders around town with half a tonne of fabric wrapped in a beehive turban, and barely the tiniest stitch covering the rest of his skinny shinny black body. Sometimes he also carries a carved 2m stick which no doubt has some ceremonial importance, but more practically helps him hobble barefoot over the sharp stones. Now he might actually carry off a shred of credibility if it wasn’t for his unmistakable heavy Chicago accent. The fact that he stays in a lovely little hotel also leads me to wonder how he’s paying for his endless Pokhara sejour? I bet he sold a successful car dealership before the crash, or owns the franchise to a couple of McDonalds back in the US.

He is also a lecturer in the important things in life. “The dog is happy because he is not enslaved by the need to work in an office”. The lounging stray looks back angrily as the Ethiopian points him out with a prod of his ornate walking stick. I pray that the dog bites him back, but it seems it too is cowed by the Ethiopian’s aura of profundity.

There’s a trio of English Cougars here too patiently sitting out their 2 month Indian visa exile in Pokhara before returning to their homes in Goa. It’s not really fair to call them cougars, as I haven’t seen them with any younger men, but I think the only thing holding them back is their British reserve. They met in the restaurant and all 3 are radiant 50-somethings with beautiful long blond greying hair, smooth soft tanned skin and peaceful smiles. Very attractive, if it wasn’t for the fact that they sit each day transfixed by the Ethiopian, like devotees at the Ashram, slowly nodding and gently moaning in agreement with each new insightful revelation. “The sun puts heat in our bodies and warmth in our hearts” he says on a particularly hot lunchtime. Sounds like the horny Chicago car salesman is on the pull!

Last night, as I sit for dinner, Catwoman hands me a stapled menu of films explaining to me in Italian that there is a French guy who has collected all the best, most inspirational films in the world, and he’s trying to get to India but has run out of money, so is now offering to burn the films of your choice onto DVDs for a small fee. I flick through looking for a Steve Martin film where he plays a fake evangelist preacher, but I can’t remember the title. I’m also in the mood to watch The Wages of Fear in preparation for the drive back down the mountain but needless to say the films on the list are all far more worthy than my shallow search for easy entertainment.

The Scouse lads at the next table are curious about the list and not having understood the Italian explanation ask me what it’s about.

“Some lazy French chancer is trying to make a bit of cash by selling pirated DVD’s” I stop short of delivering a full lecture of my own to the restaurant which would have gone something along the lines;

“Not only is this weasel stealing the intellectual property of the filmmakers, people who he professes to respect and admire, but worse, he’s also stealing business from the Pokhara DVD shop 3 doors down the road that also sells all these titles. In the process, he’s depriving genuinely poorer people of their source of income. If this Dharma-wit really doesn’t have the money to get to India, then in the wise words of my old friend Fred, he can fuck off back to France.”

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Gulliver's Travels

A moment of self congratulations if you’ll allow me; I’ve taken a scrapyard bus and driven it from Croydon to the Himalayas on waste. Reason to be proud, for me and for the many people that have helped me along the way.

If you’ve never met me you wouldn’t know that I am almost two metres tall. Here in Nepal I feel like Gulliver arrived back in Lilliput.

Nepal is fantastic. Calm and clean. Compared with India, there’s no litter along the streets, and grassy meadows butt up to the road. It took me a while to realise the sound of incessant truck horns are missing from the air, and the two day drive from the border I’ve only been run off the road once by oncoming trucks. Believe me that’s very good stats.

I was told before I got there that Indian women were beautiful. I think they can be, but only on the rare occasion they smile. Here in Nepal the women are stunning and it’s the second happiest country after Bhutan, so they, and consequently I, have a lot to smile about here in the land of the little people.

It’s strange to think that from here to the North Pole, it’s all communist. The country is potentially only a few days away from civil war. A deadline for integrating Maoist militia into the army is about to pass, but seeing as only a few months back they were killing each other, it’s hard to see how they will reconcile their differences. If the deadline passes without an agreement there’s a chance the country will descend back into fighting.

Pokhara is a little removed from the troubles, at least I’m counting on the fact it will be. If it does go bad here in paradise, the Indians will take 10 days to issue a visa so I can exit. So once again I’ll be screwed by the pace of Indians doing their work so diligently.

I was in Niger in 1999, while the government was violently oppressing a student uprising. A couple of the friends I’d made there worked for the UN and together we’d gone for a drink at the local five star Hyatt hotel. Sitting by the pool we had a view down over the river, and on the opposite bank was the university campus. Leafy, green and lit up by the occasional thunder flash and the sound of Kalashnikovs.

We’d unwittingly got front row sun loungers to the end of the revolution, with the waiter bringing us gin a tonics to wash down the show. If the fighting does come to Pokhara I half think it will be comparable. I’m parked in the tourist suburb, and the fighting isn’t likely to spread to this end. Being 21st century Moaists, they don’t want to jeopardise the country’s biggest foreign exchange earner. And even though the season is at an end, it’s still busy.

From here you can take the Annapurna trail, and this is where the climb to Everest starts. The reason I’m here, is that it’s also a mecca for paragliders, renowned for being one of the best sites in the world. Today I had my first flight. Amazing. At one point, as I was in the air tightly circling up on a punchy thermal with 2 other pilots and an eagle, the clouds parted to reveal Annapurna, the towering snow peak camouflaged against the fluffy cumulus clouds below it.

The tandem pilots here are world champions and world record holders. They lead a romantic life moving around the world, following the seasons like migrant workers harvesting the winds. They fly tandems to earn money and then spend it on adventures to fly outrageous peaks or on competition entry fees. In my eyes they are the real giants of Pokhara alongside the mountains.

In the sky they are very professional, but the pre-flight preoccupation amongst them is who’s going to fly which girl. Patrik, a handsome French acro pilot who speaks like the shellfish in the dentist’s tank of Finding Nemo, charms some Spanish girls into his tandem harness to whirl them round the sky. I land after him and we cross paths as I am walking back to the bus in town. I’m short of breath and drenched in sweat. He’s all smiles and relaxed on his moped, with the cutest Spanish girl on the back riding out to show her a “leetle playce” only he knows. Surf-bums of the sky.

I hear myself muttering, “if I was 10 years younger” which is quite a scary thing to catch yourself thinking. But even quicker I’m wondering what happens to these guys when they turn 40? Are they still eeking out a living flying tandems, or do they end up in a job selling photocopier supplies?

Unlike 5-year-plans would have you believe, life’s options aren’t that polar. Pero, a Macedonian pilot is thinking of going back to finish his degree, but he’s worried about joining the rat race and giving up this life. Tom the oldest pilot on the hill, who retired from his career several years ago and can still pull the splits in his late 50s, has given Pero the sense that this life is something he can always come back to.

Like Pero, I’ve always been petrified of what the future holds, planning and working towards a goal and anxiously worrying that I won’t achieve them. But then in a revelatory moment a while back I realised that I’d been worrying about, and then successfully achieving, or failing in those goals since I was at school, and the only constants was the anxiety, and the unshakeable fact that things always work out OK in the end, even if the plan doesn’t.

It’s a philosophy at odds with my pessimism over the environment and this sustainably fuelled experiment I’m carrying out, but ironically if I was worried about my personal future I wouldn’t be here, and I’m sure that destiny will provide after this journey and something will work out.

Monday, 17 May 2010

The Great Unknown

I did my first solo flight today. Obviously I’ve flown solo before, but this was solo in the sense that there were no other pilots around. I assessed the valley all by myself, and decided it was flyable. A young lad showed me the way up to a tiny launch site, barely big enough to lay out he wing, and below I picked out a number of options for landing fields.

I took off full of nerves, repeating mantra like; better to be on the ground wanting to be in the sky, than in the sky wanting to be on the ground.

Gentle thermal lifted me straight of takeoff but they also dropped me and it was hard for me on my own, with my skill level and with no other wings in the air to show me the currents to really get lift, so I headed out into the valley and there found plenty of turbulent thermals, which pitched and turned me. I was expecting it, but it was stronger than I’d thought so I found an area without lift and headed down and landed in nil wind in the largest unploughed field, edged by low power lines.

All in all a good, brief flight, though there’s a catch-22 that I would have enjoyed this first solo flight more if I’d been with another pilot to share it with.

I used to hitch a lot and in Panchgani I discovered that cross country paragliding requires you to hitchhike in order to get back to where you started. I’m so happy to have rediscovered this old friend. Just like being in turbulent air, where you only have partial control and have to manipulate what the conditions give you, so hitch hiking requires the same relinquishing of control over route, schedule and comfort. I don’t know why I love that so much.

Two Drunks Brawling

From the darkness of the bus I moved the curtain over just enough to point the telephoto lens out at the two brawling drunks.

One of them passed out on the floor was really wasted, he just wanted to go back to sleep while the other one beat him, slapping his body and head, standing on his ankles, pulling him across the ground by his hair, and at one point stamping on his head with his boot.

Funny, you might think that an Indian drunk was wearing boots. But this was part of his uniform. A police uniform. The second drunk was a policeman. What he was doing was nothing short of torture, and for no other reason than the sadistic pleasure of being in a position of power and able to get away with it.

Around him 3 other officers watched the dis-coordinated drunken beating dispassionately and after the 10 minutes that I had been watching one made a half hearted attempt to stop it, but it continued.

I got dressed and confronted the officer. I asked him for his name and he took off his name tag and hid it in his pocket. His reactions were slow enough I was able to grab it, release myself from the officers pathetic lock and take a photograph of it. It’s Hindi so I have no idea what his name was.

Twenty minutes later the SHO arrived on the scene and asked me why I had taken the officers badge. I quelled any idea that he could somehow blame me for the confrontation by showing him the photographs I’d taken and telling him I’d be emailing them to my numerous contacts in the Newspaper.

The drunken officer was there too, but had given himself time to sober up and the overpowering whiskey smell of his breath had now been cleaned away.

As it happens I have 3 breathalyser kits which were freebies from the Mobility Tech expo in Milan, sitting in the glove box. I don’t know why I kept them, but remembering they were there I grabbed one and challenged the officer to blow up the bag. He refused and I asked the SHO if he would order the officer to do it. He didn’t.

There was much discussion amongst the officers and I went back to bed. Next morning I made an official written complaint to the SHO, much to his bemusement: What would I care about a street drunk getting a deserved kicking?

So there you have it. The great Indian police. So full of procedure and self importance. Drunk on duty, sadistically flexing their power over someone too weak, and powerless to defend themselves, both physically and by their ability to access their rights. And while one acts, the others are complicit, firstly in the activity, and perhaps later in the cover up.

India is desperately short of police officers. Some regional offices are 30-40% down on staffing levels. The reality is that most Indian police officers are at best incompetent, at worst smart enough to know how to use the system to their advantage. There is no sense that their role is to serve the community, despite the inane slogans posted in the stations. A junior officer in Pushkar told me that his salary was 15,000Rs, but on average he topped it up with about 3,000 from bribes, and that as he got promotion he expected both incomes to rise.

I have no doubt the Bhimtal SHO, in Utranchal, will sweep this under the carpet as I am just passing through this small town and there is no need to follow it up, and that’s why I am posting the photos online (see the gallery), and mailing them to Anvinash and Avijit at the Times of India. I hope they will publish them.

Friday, 7 May 2010

The Cost of Failure

If you make 1000 one inch widgets in your widget-making factory, they won’t all be one inch long. Some will come out longer, and some will be shorter. There’s a natural statistical variation which if your widget making machines are in good condition, and run by well trained widget-makers will be quite a small variation, or if you are a British manufacturer from the 70’s and 80’s the variation will be massive and that’s why no one bought the lazy crap you made.
The British idea of quality was to make your widgets within a certain tolerance, no bigger than so much, and no smaller than so much. The Japanese realised that only striving for perfection was good enough.

A Japanese Engineer/Philosopher (I can’t remember his name and have a mental block with it being Tamagochi, that’s not it but it’s the best I can do) came up with the idea of measuring the cost of failure caused by a widget not being the perfect size. Once the widget is installed in the machine, and it fails, there is the cost of lost working time, the cost of the repair labour, and finally the cost of the replacement widget. He multiplied that by the probability of his widgets failing before their designed lifespan, and he realised the cost of failure is always disproportionately more than the cost of investing in the process to make the widgets better. I vaguely remember an amazing formula to calculate C.o.F for any widget you might want to make. On that basis he came to the conclusion that it was no less than immoral (his words, albeit in Japanese) to make any widget a size other than the exact size they are supposed to be.

That was in the 1970’s, by the 80’s the Japanese were producing the best products in the world, and by the 90’s everyone in the world knew the Japanese were producing the best products in the world and were desperately trying to understand and copy what and how the Japanese were doing; including getting hairy-arsed Geordie fitters to do Tai Chi at the start of the day on the assembly line. WTF?

I’d been thinking about the Cost of Failure after my engine rebuild. The pistons and the liners are pretty simple parts, and comparatively cheap, but the work required to replace them is disproportionate. Its not a fair comparison because the truck is 21 years old, so they have already outlived their designed lifespan.

But this was in the back of my mind when Ravitej, the CEO of Mago Construction who contacted me out of the blue to help keep the expedition on the road with sponsorship cash, was talking about how sustainable energy infrastructure may be expensive, but the eventual financial cost of not going down that path was much higher.

Lord Stern from the London School of Economics has produced a world renown paper which looks at the financial cost of climate change, compared with the cost of implementing solutions now to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Needless to say it’s much cheaper to deal with it now before it becomes massive.

But the reality is that the pre-emptive cost would have to be paid primarily by the developed, industrialised nations, whereas the picking-up-the-pieces payments would come from the pockets of developing nations.

This is the same issue Tamagochi faced, in that the cost of producing better widgets is borne by the widget maker whereas the cost of repairing a machine with a broken widget is paid by the widget buyer.

However what made Tamagochi a 1970s visionary was that he saw that the widget buyer the widget maker lived in a metaphorical symbiotic Buddhist temple together and swam in the same sea hunting for prawns as the sun set (my words – I doubt he ever said anything like that, not even in Japanese). Basically the relationship between producer and buyer is tied, so it’s in everybody’s interest to minimise the failure. There are no winners when the widget breaks.

The cost of developing nations struggling with climate change will be evetually be borne out by all nations, directly through increased aid, but indirectly in so many more and expensive ways.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

The Good, The Bad, and the Oily

India is 5h30 ahead of GMT. Not six hours, not five, but five and a half. It’s a classic example of Indian attitude to the rest of the world. What with a large part of the world living here, what need is there to follow the accepted international norms elsewhere. India can set its own norms.

Some engine parts you can find the world over. I chose a merc for this journey because you can find Mercedes everywhere. Not in India. The dealership quoted me 10 days and €2000 for a set of pistons (a more usual price might be €200). I’d visited Mercedes when I was in Pune, to ask for sponsorship. Their big enthusiasm quickly waned into unanswered calls, and I did think at the time, that the understated sign that said “Mercedes-Benz, India” in that familiar reassuring font and colours, should really say “Mercedes-Benz, but India”.

A merc oil filter is, in most countries, like a dollar bill. Maybe not commonplace, but seek and you shall find. Not in India. They don’t have mercs, they have Tata’s. You want a Tata filter and you have a choice from original (made by Tata), branded aftermarket (made by someone else who knows what their doing), or non-branded (made by neanderthals with a big stick). None of them fit.

By complete coincidence Tata licensed the rights to my OM364 engine from Mercedes years ago, modified it slightly and stuck it in the most common vehicle on the road in Northern India. The 407.

Helpful to a degree, but the modifications affected the parts I needed (like the oil filter) so back to square one. It looked like the only option was to cut down a similar piston so it would fit.
Eventually the speculation about weather cutting pistons down would work was put to bed when Amitoj from Paulco Autoparts located the right pistons (albeit non-branded neanderthal ones) in Agra. The casting quality was terrible, the anodising looks like it’s been done by primary school kids, but they are undoubtedly the right size. Criticism aside, it’s worth praising Amitoj for achieving what in 3 days no other spare parts shop managed, and believe me they tried.

So with pistons in hand the story passes to Deshanka and Sanjay, my mechanics. By this stage I’d already been living in the side street next to their workshop/cupboard for 5 days with no engine in my bus, and jacked up so the shower wouldn’t drain.

Deshanka was feeling the pressure of the other mechanics who all told me he wasn’t up to the job of rebuilding my engine. This need to prove himself made him rush and bodge the rebuild at times, so I watchfully checked almost every bolt he put back in. Good mechanics aren’t the ones that know how to rebuild an engine, they all know that. They are the ones that take their time to think things through, look at the parts and bolts and be assured that they are putting back together according to a design and reason.

Sure enough the timing was 180degrees out and it wouldn’t start. The pump came off, we turned the crank and put it back on. Fired first time. All good. For now. Time will reveal any other rushed jobs Deshanka has done as they work lose, and bring me to a halt. On balance I think probably none.

Deshanka is 27 and Sanjay his apprentice is 22, both from the north of India, migrants to Delhi in search of work. I saw their poverty first hand. No money to put fuel in the borrowed motorbike, only 2 sets of clothes, they didn’t wash before eating and the whole neighbourhood had a cough which I too now have. They slept in their workshop and when the bench was full of my engine parts they slept on the floor with the mice. As soon as they got any cash they got wasted.

When I paid them $100 for 4 days work, they were ecstatic, and promptly spent a fair portion of it on food and beer, for us all, smuggling me into their workshop where the other mechanics couldn’t see us getting blind drunk.

Once again I’ve discovered yet another India. Within the borders of this country is an arrogant nuclear super power, a third world agricultural nation, a paralysing bureaucracy, a corrupt police state, a massive military machine, a bi-polar tourist industry, a hyper-materialistic middle class, a nation criminalised by their poverty and under-education, and an alcoholic urban slum. It’s hard to like or dislike India because all these countries are India. And strangely each one is largely oblivious to the other countries living superimposed over it. The only thing these India’s have in common is the kindness and generosity of their citizens.

I ask a foreign journalist here what the government does to help people. There are schemes to provide the super-poor with work and cheap rice, but on the whole the most an average indian can hope to get from the government is that it leaves them well alone.

I’ve got my passport now, and I’m off. Delhi is less than 400km away from the Nepalese border. One day's drive. But I have to wait till the end of the week to set off. Even a totalitarian Maoist regime seems attractive after 5 months here. Thanks India, it’s been real. After everything you’ve done, there is no way I will ever love you, but somehow, even though I should, I can’t quite bring myself to hate you.

Engine Failure

The engine temperature is slightly high, and the oil pressure is also high. Normally a warm engine would thin the oil and drop the pressure, and I’m low on power. With hindsight its obvious what’s happening. The oil has thickened to the point where it’s resisting the engine from working.

But at the time I don’t know so it could be anything. I stop and change the radiator coolant. No effect. I stop and remove the exhaust filter which might be blocked. No effect.

The temperature is rising and settles just under 100C. I remove the thermostat and clean the outside of the radiator. No effect. I check the connections to the gauges. No effect.

We stop for dinner, and when I drive off again, the oil pressure drops to zero. That’s bad, really bad.

I check the dip stick to see if there is any oil left. It’s there, but it’s turned to a rubbery tar, and is stuck to the dipstick like silicon or chewing gum. I drive on to the next filling station which thankfully sells oil, open the sump and nothing comes out. It’s all gone solid.

Finally it all makes sense. Engine oil reacts with vegetable oil, and somewhere in my engine there is a leak. It’s one of the reasons I check the oil every morning for level and thickness. I’d been worried about it thinning as it mixed in with fuel, but over the last few days I’d been reassured that it looked thicker, and put the thinness down to the variability in morning temperature.

I’ve been changing the oil every 6000km but this time decided to leave it til 10000km as I’m using an engine oil which is supposed to avoid this problem. After 8000km it polymerised. It’s hard to imagine what a mess polymerised engine oil is. It’s heat resistant and rubbery, and it sticks to metal like silicone sealant.

That night I managed to flush enough of it out with diesel. It will dissolve a bit in diesel. I then ran the engine with a mix of new oil and diesel to try to dissolve the rest, but after 500km arriving in Delhi the engine was still full of it, and, at some point it had already caused one of the pistons to cease.

So here in Delhi I’ve had no choice but to do a complete engine rebuild, with new pistons and cylinders. It’s major surgery. You can’t strip the engine back any further than this.

Thankfully it turns out that this engine was copied by Tata and is very popular here, but they copied it with a few modifications so not all the parts are the same. The big problem has been the pistons. The Tata pistons are a little taller than the Mercedes ones.

Pistons aren’t cylindrical. They are very slightly oval. They are cut on an OCUMA (Ovality Cutting Machine). It’s like a lathe, but as they spin the cutting tool vibrates slightly in and out creating an ovality which when in the engine means that that the piston deforms into a cylinder when forces of the exploding fuel act on it.

So unlike most things in India, you can’t get a backstreet mechanic to make a new one. But I can get the machine shop to modify one that is almost the right size.

Shaving 2mm off the top of the Tata piston will create a piston that will fit, but the risk combustion bowl in the top of the piston. When the piston is at the top of it’s cycle all the air is squeezed into the small bowl cut into the top of the piston. The volume of the bowl is critical because it dictates the compression ratio. The cylinder is one litre, and the bowl is about the size of a shot glass, so all that air is compressed down into that space before the fuel is added and for the engine to work properly the compressed air has to be the right pressure.

It’s hard to measure these things accurately but the bowls are almost the same size, however worryingly the new bowl, in the Tata piston, when cut down will be about 5ml smaller, which means the pressure increase will be a bit higher. This might affect the engine in a number of ways. Firstly the Injector pump might not have enough force to overcome the increase in pressure, so it won’t push any fuel into the engine. Secondly compressing air like that creates heat so the extra compression might mean the engine runs hotter than usual. Finally it might be too much pressure for the bearings or the crankshaft to take, and either might crack under the strain.

On my phone's calculator I estimate that with the original pistons the air is compressed about 24 times, so the pressure is 24 times atmospheric pressure. With the cut down Tata pistons it will be about 27 times. I’d really like a syringe to measure the volume properly.

To my mind this difference from 24 to 27 is nothing, and if anything will make the engine run a bit more efficiently, but the mechanics are petrified that it won’t work, and it can’t be tested other than by reassembling the engine which is a day’s work.

The guy in the parts shop looks at me horrified when I tell him what I plan to do. “Modifying pistons is not recommended” he tells me. No shit, Sherlock? Is that right? At first I’m stuck for words. Then I start to think of all the things I’m doing which aren’t recommended. Crawling around under my bus on some dirty street isn’t recommended, riding across Delhi in the back of a scooter without a helmet isn’t recommended, not taking anything for the cough I’ve caught off my mechanic isn’t recommended, and that's just this morning. Driving to India in a 21 year old shitty bus, dragged out of a scrap yard, and fuelled by all sorts of crap I’ve scavenged along the way is not recommended. I think increasing the working pressure of the engine from 24 bar to 27 is probably the least of it.

I think it will be fine, but I’ve got enough people filling me with fear it’s really put the doubt in my mind. So now I want to do it just to see if it will work.

The engine will either not run, not run for long, or I’ll spend the next 6 months being highly suspicious of every characteristic of the way it runs, then forget about it, then in 2 years time I’ll remember the pistons and realise it was all Ok.

Pene al Pesto

I order Pene al Pesto in a restaurant and for the time between placing my order and receiving the food I am in heaven, tasting the delicious familiar flavours and textures in my head, and delighting in the satisfying feeling that follows the completion of the heavy carb dish.

Of course when the food comes there’s a rude awakening from my dreams, It’s hard to screw up Pene al Pesto, but the restaurant kitchen must be running a masterclass on just how many ways it can be done; floating in oil, cold and dried-out pasta, half peeled garlic cloves...

After 4 months here in India, I’m not expecting anything less. I only ordered Italian food so I could live the brief dream. I didn’t for a minute expect it to be fulfilled.

In so many ways India dashes my hopes and expectations, and screws up my plans and schedules. The endless court case delays and the spiralling legal fees, the tandem paragliding lessons which never really happened. Paying extra for the bus that doesn’t go as far, getting delivered to the wrong side of town by the rickshaw driver that speaks no English, removing the oil filter which can’t be found in India.

Three times I’ve visited Pushkar for the final time, only to find I have to return. My next final visit will be to collect my passport which will have my exit visa in it. I’m not currently allowed to leave the country. I had planned to collect the paperwork I needed from Ajmer and take it all back to Delhi and get the exit visa there. Instead they kept my passport and told me it won’t take more than a week. My brilliantly thought out plans shattered, I will now have to take the 18 hour return train journey to collect my passport and once again visit Pushkar.

But this time I was pretty quick to accept my fate. I tried to argue my corner but these guys were adamant, and I had the sense that they’d done it before, so a voice in my head (I think it was my sister’s) said just go with it.

On reflection it saves me from 2 days wrestling with the immigration officers mofos at Jaisalmere House and the FFRO office in Delhi. And I quite like the Indian trains, they’re cheap and I can write my blogs and eat the variety of low rent restaurant offerings.

After the trial I felt things were far from over, and getting congratulations from everyone about how well I’d coped with it all was an extra frustration. Now 3 weeks on, I’ve raised the money back which I spent, the journey can continue, I’ve got my bail money back and in a few days I’ll get my passport too (they say).

So now, I’m reflecting on how I’ve behaved in my moments of stress. People are fascinated when I tell them I was in a Rajasthani prison, Indians and foreigners alike. I think they are curious to know what it was like maybe because they’d like to muse about how they would cope. I’d thought about ending up in a foreign prison before and always imagined I’d keep my cool. When it happened, I didn’t. With hindsight I’ve got a better idea of who the good guys were and who the bad ones were, and I often directed my anger at people who were helping me and on my side. It’s a testament to them and the Indian character that they put up with me.

But even the “bad guys”, SP Tak and Capn Jatinder of the Military Intelligence, were scared by the events, scared of criticism and jeopardising their positions. None the less, through their fear they stayed courteous (if not dispassionate) which is more than I managed. I’m not particularly proud of the hissy fits I’ve thrown along the way.

In my defence this journey was motivated in part by my anti-establishment desire to escape authority in all its forms, and in India I’ve singularly failed to do that. So I suppose the moral of the story is, if you do end up in a Rajasthan prison through nothing more than bad luck, remember just because it’s not your fault, it’s not everybody else’s either and if you want good Pene al Pesto, go to Italy not India.


As an engineering student we had to design mechanisms that change one input into another output. The teacher called them black box problems. You have a spinning rod going into the black box, design a mechanism that will make the output rod reciprocate (move back and forth) – the answer is a crank.

The idea stuck with me that the role of an engineer is to isolate the users of their creations, from how they work. And in the last 30 years through the boom of manufacturing methods, materials, tighter tolerances and improved quality they’ve become very good at it.

Turn a key in a modern car and it starts. You don’t need to know about the ECU, signal bus, MTTF of the switch mechanism e.t.c. As artefacts have become more sophisticated, so they have become more like mysterious black boxes.

This also means that as a consumer of artefacts, it’s very hard to know, not just what’s in them but how they have been made and the impact they’ve had during their production.

Kaylan from Bangalore has a few ideas on how to change that. After quitting his business consultancy job a few years back he set off to explore India, living frugally and working manual jobs as he went. In India, dropping out of the rat race like this is unheard of.

Thanks to his experience on the journey and also his business management knowledge, he’s designed a set of principles which he wants to apply to retailing, taking the idea of fair trade a step forward. For instance the price tags will have a breakdown of exactly how much goes to everyone in the chain of production, transport and retailing and the shop will be staffed by disabled clerks. These are just a couple of the ideas that “I-Create” has. I share with him my idea that food should be sold next to screens that have live feeds to the farms and factories where they are processed. Imagine choosing battery framed eggs if they are next to video image of a battery farm hatchery.

But these are just a few of the idea for his approach to retailing. He’s also about to start work on his a village development project, Proto-Village, which I think has some really positive benefits over traditional NGO principles.

Firstly the goal is sufficiency, not development; to get the village to a place where they have enough, sufficiency, not growth at all costs.

Secondly it’s a finite project with a timeframe. Most NGO’s have a vested interest in perpetuating the problems they work on. If they drip feed a solution, the problem is still then the following year when they have to beg for funding, Solve the problem once and for all, then the need for the NGO’s existence goes away. The “Proto-village” scheme will be around for 15 years. At the end, if the team have succeeded or not, it will wind up. Again, it’s a nice alternative to the goal orientated approach, which doesn’t always work in the development field for so many reasons.

Kaylan is looking for volunteers to help with the project. They need to have expertise in one of 9 areas which include economics, welfare and education. Experts will spend 5 months in the village understanding how it works, drawing out solutions from the villagers, and applying expertise and access to funding so village life can be improved where it is insufficient.

People interested in opening the black box should visit

Dialogue and Brake Lights

"Grumpy John", my travelling companion in the chocolate powered lorry we drove to Timbuktu, introduced me to a great car game. Road Kill Bingo. Everyone chooses an animal and each time you see a dead one in the road you get a point. I didn’t know that John had been conducting a little survey before we started playing and by going for donkeys I had no chance of beating him with camels or cows in West Africa.

In Rajasthan stray dogs would be the game winner for sure.

The back of trucks are emblazoned with the phrase “Use Dipper at Night” and various other safety instruction to following motorists, but few truck have working rear lights, and those that do are largely obscured by ornate metalwork grids to protect them. In traffic it’s a rare but relaxing bonus if the truck in front has working brake lights, otherwise full concentration is required to check for the unpredictable stops it might make.

The Pune blast in the German Bakery 2 months ago claimed 16 lives, all tragic and unnecessary losses of course, but I bet more than that die each week in avoidable road traffic accidents on the 200km Mumbia-Pune Expressway.

The terrorism fear though is so that every move Pakistan makes is diligently documented in the Indian press, to the point where I know more about what Pakistani ministers are doing, than Indian ones are (embezzling the IPL cricket money). The average Indian is more likely to be the victim of a fatal car accident that a terrorist attack, yet the newspapers aren’t full of campaigns against bad drivers, or poorly maintained vehicles, which cause avoidable deaths.

I share this idea, that the anger and venom reserved for Pakistan would be better directed at erratic drivers with Chetan, a fellow paraglider and retired media sales executive. He launches into one about Pakistan’s malevolent intentions, and how they manipulate the tap of terror to obtain political concessions. All the more reason not to give shoddy stunts like the Pune bomb the credibility it doesn’t deserve.

Technically speaking (from a military point of view) it was a lousy attack, a small blast, a soft target, probably carried out by 2 or 3 village kids from some backwater hicksville, too dumb to recognise the indoctrination and perversion of Islam their handlers have given them.

By responding with the derision it deserves the media could undermine the political influence of such an attack. Instead they launch into it and propagate it with outraged stories of a Muslim Indian tennis player marrying a Pakistani cricketer, decried as betrayal instead of heralded as a symbol of the potential for unity.

Dialogue with Pakistan will yield peace, just as antagonism will yield more attacks, but working brake lights would prevent even more deaths than Indo-Pak talks.