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.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Vulture Restaurant

It’s only 20km away but it’s taken us 2 hours to get here, the early start, the amoeba in my stomach, and skipping breakfast has made the motorbike journey tough, but it’s the overnight rains that really slowed progress on Ramji Gautam’s motorbike. The only road that leads to the site of the Vulture Feeding Sanctuary is completely washed out.

For much the tough uphill parts of the journey I’ve had to walk up following the Yamaha scrambling over shale, pebbles and small streams that continue to erode what’s left of the track. In the dry season the road is fine Ramji assures me, small consolation to my sweat ridden body. His effervescent enthusiasm pervades every inconvenience in a way which is characteristically Nepali, and it’s hard not to be drawn into giggling at how close to collapse I am.

It’s at that moment we spot a couple of Egyptian Vultures above us. When perched, their hunched neck gives them a sinister demeanour in keeping with their reputation of untrustworthy carrion eaters. But after an ungraceful launch, once in flight, these birds are the most majestic in the sky. Their wings, stretching up to two metres across, lock into the perfect aerodynamic form, able to take advantage rising air currents with the smallest adjustment of the splayed feathers at the tips and a twist of their fanned tail. Their sizeable weight effortlessly circles up through the mountain terrain, able to cover distance faster and quicker than any other animal as they search quietly for food. Not killing for meat makes vultures one of nature’s few ethical carnivores, and their role in picking clean carcasses prevents the spread of disease in other species, including humans. None the less the unfair Machiavellian reputation persists.

It’s a good job this route is usually easier, because the “Vulture Restaurant”, as Ramji calls it, conjuring images napkined diners tucking silver forks into a vulture soufflé, plans to become self funding by bringing in tourists to watch the birds feeding. Numbers of the enormous and regal White Rumped Vulture have been decreasing over recent years, and the drop is largely attributed to the use of Diclofenac, a miracle anti-inflammatory used by local farmers to cure sick cattle.

On the occasions when the Oxen fails to recover, and dies with Diclofenac in its system, the meat is a toxic cocktail to the vultures that feed on the carcasses left out to be picked clean. The feeding sanctuary has been set up next to a small village near Pokhara, with donations from conservation groups and individuals to provide a safe source of food, to allow the population to recover. Local farmers have been encouraged to use alternatives to Diclofenac, and old cattle is bought for100 rupees (US$1.30) and brought to die in the specially selected area where vultures can feel unthreatened as they tuck in.

Oxen used to pull ploughs, and cows that provide milk, become an expensive burden once they are too old to work, so the farmers are pleased to sell them to the project in a country where the Hindu religion prevents slaughtering the sacred animals.

The Pokhara valley, where the sanctuary is based, is one of the last habitats where the birds can be found in any number according to Brad Sander, a record setting paraglider pilot, who last year flew the width of Nepal and says he didn’t see a single White Rumped vulture until he arrived in Pokhara, half way through his journey.

This anecdotal evidence is largely backed up by the research performed in Bird Conservation Nepal, which shows that White Rumped numbers have declined by 90% in Nepal over the last 11 years. The Royal Society for Protection of Birds has tracked vultures migrating 1000km in a week, happily moving along the Himalaya between Nepal, India and Pakistan, and the drop in numbers is even higher in the studies performed in India.

One reason that the Pokhara valley might be a relatively safe haven for the White Rump, and therefore an ideal site for the sanctuary, is that the local farmers prefer traditional organic cures for their cattle, largely unaware of Diclofenac unless it’s prescribed by a vet. The drug has now been banned for use in cattle thanks to lobbying work by conservation bodies in all the countries where the White Rumpe flies, however its cheapness and efficacy means its use persists illegally in places.

I ask Hari Datta Pokharel, chairman of the village committee set up to administer the sanctuary, what he thinks about foreigners giving money to protect vultures, which in Nepal have the same evil reputation as elsewhere. He tells me that having seen the birds feeding during the pilot stages of the sanctuary he has grown to admire and respect the birds. It’s true that a flock of birds using their wings to wrestling over the meat of a carcass, digging their necks into the heart of it, their heads bathed in drying blood as their sharpened beaks claw away lumps of red flesh, accompanied by the smell of rotting meat and guts filling the air, is a sight to inspire respect. But I would be more convinced if Hari had told me that as long as the project brings in the tourist dollars it promises, he’s happy to feed them old cows.

Ramji believes that other reasons may also be contributing the declining numbers. For several years he’s been studying vultures, performing counts, decoding their behaviour and surveying farmers’ attitudes towards them. His unique expertise is recognised by the university where he lectures as well as the conservation groups that ask him to advise on their projects. The increasing rural population according to Ramji has meant there is less space to dispose of carcasses safely without risking the spread of disease through rats and mice that also feed on the decaying flesh. Health education programmes are advising farmers to bury dead cattle rather than leave them to be cleaned by the birds. Less food means fewer birds, and the larger White Rumped, which need the most food, is perhaps the first to feel this effect. The smaller Red Headed Vulture have also declined in number but not as dramatically as the White Rumped.

Beyond the village is the sanctuary site. I’m faced with a walk down and then back up a 100m cliff. At the bottom I’m shown the cattle shed and the observation hide the villagers have built with the donated money. There are also the bony remains of 3 carcasses, and the dead body of a cow which died just 2 days earlier. The villagers have given over these five hectares of hard to farm land for the sanctuary, bordered on one side by a fast flowing river bend, and on the other by the cliff. On the far side are some old cows grazing, while villagers collect grass and wood around them. I’m panting for breath with every step, looking for a rock to sit on every time we stop. I apologise to Ramji that my stomach bug is slowing me down and he asks if I’ve taken any drugs for it. Not yet. I laugh nervously, realising me that I’ve just passed the sanctuary’s criteria for vulture lunch.

In six weeks the project will officially open its doors, with national and international guests, including key scientists invited to see the facilities, Robi Pokharel, the hands on co-ordinator tells me. His enthusiasm for the project seems more heartfelt than the chairman’s, and he makes no secret of the fact that he wants this to work to bring money into his village.

There are still a few jobs to do over the next week, he tells me in flawless English. The plastering around the observation hide needs to be finished off, along with storm drainage. They need to plumb in a water supply for the visitors, and they have to clear a path to transport the carcasses from the grazing area where they die, to the feeding area. Moving a dead cow over the rocky grassland by hand is no small task and if the carcasses aren’t in the feeding area, not only will the birds feel less comfortable coming to feed, but the tourists in the observation hide won’t be able to see them. Robi tells me he needs a camera so they can photograph the vultures show absent supporters how well the scheme is working.

To the casual observer, there is another problem. The old cattle are feeding on great pasture land, irrigated by the mineral rich glacial river, and far from keeling over after a hard life, they seem to be thriving in retirement. None the less in the four months during construction and pilot stage four cows have already died and been fed to the birds and the heard of fresh meat waiting it’s turn has grown to seven.

Ramji estimates that the meat from one cow would be enough to feed the vulture population for a month, but the birds can’t go a month between feeds and there is no obvious way to butcher or store the meat. The carcasses can remain unnoticed for a few days before the vultures come to feed, and then the feeding is all over in a day. The tight schedule of tourists wanting to see vultures feeding will be tough to co-ordinate with the natural death of a cow and the eagle eye of a hungry vulture. But the project supporters include Scott Mason a falconer, who runs Parahawking, a successful tourist business using trained vultures in Pokhara. His expertise and contacts in the local tourism industry will be crucial in developing the marketing and logistics of the tourist visits.

During our visit Ramji picks over the bones of a carcass pointing out a couple of broken ones. Vultures scrape the bones clean, everything goes, the sinew, the tendons, the fat. All that’s left is the stomach contents, the pristine white bones and the skin which can be sold to leatherworkers, while the bones can be used to make cutlery handles. But vultures don’t break bones when they eat. Dogs and Jackals do that, and unlike vultures, they spread diseases to humans. There’s a risk that if the project is not carefully managed, it could end up feeding the wrong predator.

The sight of a couple of dog-gnawed bones isn’t enough to worry Ramji, and these are precisely the sort of teething troubles which the pilot stage is designed to flush out. The model of using tourism to sustain a conservation project is keeping everyone, the villagers, the donors, and the conservationists motivated, and that gives the project a great chance of rewarding their efforts, and setting an example which could be replicated elsewhere.

When Sita, the wife of the Hindu god Rama was kidnapped, a vulture tried to stop the villains who cut off its wings. When Rama couldn’t find Sita the vulture told him what had happened. As a thank you Rama blessed vultures with the ability to regenerate and 1000 years of life. Ramji tells me that villagers often ask him if vultures, Giddha in Nepali, can really live that long. If this project can be made sustainable it could help regenerate the dwindling vulture population and give the species a chance to live as long as their mythical lifespan.

Monday, 21 June 2010

The Selfish Boodist

Pokhara is full of Dharma-wits that are coming or going to Pashmina Meditation retreats (I know it’s called Vipassana, thank you) and most of them seem filled with the vacuousness you’d expect of someone that hasn’t spoken in 3 days and got no idea why.

Rachel also spent time in a monastery but has uniquely brought some critical analysis to the experience, and is able to say more than most participant’s “It was amazing”. According to her, this sort of Buddhist invites initiates to pick and choose rituals from the monastery menu which are only practised by the most extreme monks after years of devoted study. To delve into this deep end of rites and practices without the understanding is as useful as buying a ticket for a ride at the Buddhism theme park.

Apparently one of the cores of Buddhism is that there is no Self. I’ve been struggling with what this actually means. Rachel who introduced me to this idea, thinks that outside of the context of a Nepali upbringing this can’t really make sense to a westerner, who’s every cultural stimulus since birth has rewarded the urge to feed one’s own needs.

At first I thought this absence of the Self meant you had to defer to the community, perhaps explaining the penchant for Nepali Maoists militants to commit acts of unconscionable violence in rural areas. But that’s not it by a long way.

Another friend who has signed up for a monastic course for people managing emotional distress (or the chronically-fucked-up as she and I call them) has been sending me emails, on the one hand parodying the other incumbents on the course and their neurosis’ , emails that make me cry with laughter, and simultaneously telling me I could benefit from controlling my emotions and should sign up for a dose of “Buddhism for the chronically fucked-up”, accommodation, food and spiritual salvation included. Just check your cynicism (or critical thinking as some might call it) at the door.

I’m getting this third hand so it wouldn’t be surprising if I’m missing some of the more salient details, but by “speaking right”, resisting the temptation to be rude or angry, or allowing your emotions into your communications, you can control your thoughts and consequently your emotions. I don’t think that’s true, you can hide your emotions, but that’s not the same as controlling them. But even if it does work, I don’t really see how that’s a benefit. Emotions are for having. We should have them. We need them. Acting on them is the problem. It’s OK to be angry just don’t make decisions based on anger. Use logic, reason, reductionism to plot your course of action, but you can still be pissed off when you carry it out..

I think that is a much better way of not having a Self. Denying your emotions by bottling the feelings is counter to human instincts, but controlling them is what separates us from animals. If you ignore your feelings for long enough, they don’t eventually just disappear. On the contrary, you may find your Self shooting up a high school.

During this trip I went through a phase of being really angry at the injustice I received; As a wealthy foreigner if someone caused me a problem like a dent in the bus or spilling oil on my clothes, they would just shrug it off and I’d have to accept that’s just the way life goes, but if the roles were reversed, I’d be expected to make amends. Now, I’m much more resigned to the unfairness, and I’ve accepted that if I want to drive my bus around the world, this is how it is. This acceptance is a form of compassion and forgiveness for my fellow human beings who dent my truck and spill engine oil ON MY ONLY PAIR OF JEANS, MOTHER FUCKER! Forgiveness and compassion are both important Buddhist mainstays, which I think mean I have in some ways shelved my Self.

Above all, the journey has taught me that disappointment is a totally futile emotion. How can you be disappointed with something that fate deals you? And everything that happens in life is something that fate deals you. That’s how it goes. Disappointment is nothing more than thinly veiled Self pity. Its only purpose is to act as a wet nurse for our damaged egos. Get over it, the world is big and it’s not all about you, because there is no you, no Self and no ego in this vast world. You’re so small, and the world is so big, you and your problems just don’t count.

This logic makes perfect sense in countries where nature is vast and powerful and might, on a whim, chose to destroy everything you have tonight, where people live under corrupt governments and don’t know their rights because they can’t read, where people are indoctrinated into a caste system which enslaves them, and where people have limited access to healthcare because of geography or poverty. In the West we have liability insurance and lawsuits which rewards the Self’s every disappointment with the promise of cash pay outs. But even then, there are times when we feel utterly helpless and defeated. Perhaps that’s the moment we should let go of our Self, and rejoice in being the flotsam on life’s beach.

As a good Buddhist, I should also stop desiring. But that’s just crap. Stop consuming, OK. But the desire to do, and to change things is a crucial ingredient in the recipe for good, and relinquishing ambition for it is just stupid. Nothing would ever get done. Did Buddhists invent gunpowder, the printing press or the compass? Er, well actually yes, I think they nailed at least 2 out of 3 of those, long before rationalism was even a glint in Plato’s eyes. And that’s a pity, because my point was going to be that sacrificing desires and ambition means you don’t contribute to making things better. The same forces can also make things worse too, but to deny them for that reason is to live by the creed of head-in-the-sand-ism, and not a valid reason to stifle your Self’s curiosity.

If you don’t have any feelings about things that are bad, you’re unlikely to try to make them better. Here more than elsewhere I feel like I’m missing the trick with Buddhism, but apart from this, just by being much more fatalistic than I used to be, I think I could pass my Self off as a convert.

I’m petrified that I’ll wind up fulfilling the hippy cliché and find myself smoking pot and playing the guitar in some dead-end Westerners hangout 20 years from now, droning on about what it was like to drive to India “back in 2010 man”, so it’s worrying to me that this journey from the UK may have unwittingly touched me spiritually, enlightening me without me noticing, and that heaven-forbid, I have unknowingly adopted some of the tenets of Eastern philosophy. If that’s the case, then the one saving grace is that there’s an awful lot of money to be made teaching this Buddhism stuff to Dharma-wits. Perhaps if I’d washed the bus more often I’d have learnt Karate by now too. Wax on, wax off.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Digital Displacement

Driving through mountains is a huge frustration for me. I use so much fuel going up, and wear out the brakes when going down.

I’ve been thinking that the perfect vehicle for paragliding should have a system of regenerative braking, which turns the energy from braking back into useable energy to push you along and up the hills.

The only way to do this, that I was familiar with, was to use an electric drive train, where the motor on the wheels can be used as a generator which slows the vehicle down and charges the battery.

Many trains have a diesel electric drive train, in which a diesel generator creates the electricity which drives a motor connected to the wheels. This seems like an unnecessarily complicated approach; when you have a diesel engine spinning away, it would seem to be more logical to connect it to the wheels rather than a generator connected to a motor connected to wheels.

In fact diesel-electric is more efficient, because there are less transmission losses (there’s no gearbox) and it allows the diesel engine to run at the speed where it is most efficient. Diesel engines are very inefficient outside a narrow rev range.

So the obvious answer is diesel-electric hybrid truck, or in my case veg-electric hybrid, with regenerative braking. I could take the gearbox out, and attach a generator in its place, then attach a motor to the differential at the back where the drive shaft would be. The Toyota Prius is able to capture and reuse about 50% of the braking energy.

Unfortunately the components required to control and power manage an electric vehicle are hugely expensive, and fitting them is much more complicated than just bolting on some off the shelf parts. But in theory it could improve the efficiency significantly, and I’d love to give it a try, because if there is one thing this bus is missing, it’s efficiency.

Last month Iain got in touch through Facebook and told me about "Digital Displacement" technology which I’d describe as a “diesel-hydraulic” hybrid system. Instead of a generator, a hydraulic pump is attached to the engine. This then creates hydraulic pressure, which can be stored in a pressure tank full of nitrogen or directed to a hydraulic motor attached to the wheels. The clever part of the system, which has been designed by Artemis Intelligent Power in Scotland, is the fast reacting valves that control how the hydraulic pressure is directed. The valves make the motor much more efficient than anything that’s gone before. The system is computer controlled, so that it acts as a variable speed gearbox. The engine always runs at optimum revs for the power required to move the truck along, and the speed is computer controlled by distributing the pressure to the sophisticated drive motor.

But best of all, the flow of pressure can be revered. The motor can be turned into a brake converting the energy from slowing the truck down into hydraulic pressure, which is stored and subsequently used to drive the car again. It’s much more efficient than an electric regenerative system, capturing and reusing 85% of the braking energy, because moving and storing energy at the high rate a braking vehicle generates it, is easier to do with hydraulic pressure than it is with the high currents generated and the batteries of an electrical system.

It’s a system that’s ideal for vehicles in stop-start driving scenarios, and the best energy savings will be on large vehicles, for instance bin-lorries and busses. Currently the technology has been sold to Bosch-Rexroth who will no doubt trial and develop reliable components first for this heavy vehicle market and then hopefully roll it out for smaller vehicles like cars if the energy and cost savings can be shown to be worthwhile.

There are other advantages over diesel-electric too. The components are lighter, and there isn’t the associated environmental impact of battery manufacture and ultra-capacitors burning out.

Using this gearbox on a large saloon car, Artemis have shown certified fuel savings of around 40%. This is one of those rare technologies that make a massive leap forward. In principle it’s a technology that can be retro fitted to any vehicle, especially trucks. I’ve been in touch with Artemis to ask if they have any components I could trial. The answer was an understandably lukewarm no, but I'm going to persist. This is prototype stuff and I suspect they don't have a license for road going vehicles anymore. I’m trying to get hold of people at Bosch to ask them too but I doubt they will want to let me test out the technology at this early stage, when they have everything to lose if prototype components are seen to go wrong.

The energy storage capacity needed to capture the energy of braking when driving down through mountains is much bigger than that for stop-go traffic so I’m still unclear how big the pressure tank would need to be to make the best use from the slow ongoing breaking energy of my 6 tonne truck descending from the Himalayas.

At the very least I hope the next Biotruck, Biotruck III, will be a Veg-Hydraulic hybrid designed for a tour of the world’s mountains.

Beautiful Energy

True beauty only exists in nature. That’s my stance in an ongoing debate with Rachel, an Israeli in Nepal for Buddhist meditation. Being as she’s Israeli, it’s good that we have something other than politics to argue about. Our one foray down that road leads to the whole restaurant stopping to listen to what turns into an aggressive shouting match.

Our friendship survived, only to be jeopardised again when she had the nerve to tell me the bus needs more colour, and proceeded to give me interior design tips. The idea of beautifying the physical manifestation of my philosophy of non-consumption/waste-consumption, with a lick of paint or some wood stain is almost as odious to me as the unfolding news of the Flotilla murders.

Next she accuses me of being a reductionist, incapable of appreciating art. I don’t see that as bad things. The world could do with more reduction. And anyway, I do appreciate art, for the ideas it presents, but not for it’s pure aesthetic as Rachel thinks I should. Its visual beauty is a manmade construct designed to manipulate emotions, and as Magrite said, C’est ne pas une pipe (This is not a pipe, this is a picture of a pipe). The ideas and history of artists and their artwork can be beautiful but how can you find their visual emotional trickery beautiful. Interesting, thought-provoking, but not beautiful.

Mountains are beautiful, and I don’t get to say goodbye to Rachel because she’s gone before I make it back from a stunning mountain trek which, for 3 days, bombards me with beauty. Not just beautiful landscapes, but beautiful ideas that are totally new to me, and ways of living whose functionality is beautiful.

It’s physically draining. My muscles tremble unable to turn my calories into movement strong enough to lift me up the path, or catch me as I descend down it. The unforgiving futility of dropping 400m and having to climb it again to reach a village less than a mile away batters my mental forces, and still my legs step on, sometimes so slowly I wonder if they are taking me anywhere.

I’ve never known a remoteness like this. My concept of time and distance can’t adjust to the world not being flat. I look at my map, and although the next village is close it could be hours away. The journey could more usefully be measured in terms of exhaustion rather than time, or by how much daylight will be left when we arrive, or by how much rain or sun we’ll get along the way, or how many rests the route will demand.

The second day is 8 hours of trekking, about the same journey time from central Rome to the centre of Milan by car. Walking on flat land you might cover 40km in that time. We finish the day 10km from where we started. Our first stop for rest is an hour into the day. I regain my breath as the sweat grows cold on my back. This would be the outskirts of Rome, motorway driving from here on, time to settle back after the aggression of driving through Roman traffic, set the music up for the journey, maybe a moment to stop for a cup of coffee or coke to fondle and keep me company.

As the crow, and rescue helicopter, flies, we’re never far from “civilisation” but the only way to get there for me is time and energy. I watch the eagles hovering perfectly still in the blustery ridge lift searching out a mouse or gecko on the ground, and dream of how much easier it would be to climb and traverse with a paraglider. Our 8 hour day could be done in 30 minutes with the right winds and an area flat and big enough to land.

There are no areas big enough to land. The only horizontal surfaces are the terracing, but they are so steep that the fields are tiny, barely big enough to lay a wing out, let alone land it. The work to make the terraces, drag a plough around them and move the plough and ox to the next one screams at me through the landscapes graceful tranquillity.

There are no internal combustion machines. It would take more work to get the fuel to them, than whatever work they could do. I’ve been to remote places in the Sahara, places that take days to reach, places that aren’t on the way to anywhere else, places so isolated that people have been transfixed, by my white skin and, in turn afraid then reduced to fits of laughter by my hairy arms and legs. But the difference is that here the remoteness is created not by distance but by difficulty.

The inconvenience of Gandruk and Goripani has created an infrastructure dependent on human and animal power because none of the alternatives we’ve invented are of any use here. It’s an infrastructure that totally sidesteps the things I am familiar with, roads, petrol stations, supermarkets. And it’s really good. It really works. It’s not full of compromises or cop-outs like most alternatives to the industrialised world. The whole way along the route people seem content. I’m sure it’s not utopia, but people are happy.

I’m accustomed to work, effort and labouring being the enemy, and conditioned to work, effort and labour only as much as necessary in order to avoid more work, effort and labour. Along the trek I see everything in terms of the energy it took to create with horror filled eyes. The natural forces that formed these mountains are countered by the forces of men that carried and laid the stone slabs making this never ending path, or by the strength of the mules that carried up the cement for the houses.

My morning maize porridge stares back at me politely reminding me of the effort to plough a field, harvest maize, grind it into flour, then collect wood and chop it for the fire to boil it into porridge. It’s full of calories in so many ways. Slowly my horror turns to the sort of respect that demands emulation, but my body doesn’t yet acclimatise to the pace.

We all have a base level of how physical our lifestyles require us to be, and this must be one of the most demanding corners of the world, but just like anywhere else, the kids play jokes and run up and down the path after each other on the walk to and from school.

They have electricity in places, created locally by small hydro-electric generators, and distributed by steel cables hauled up the mountainside and strung from small but heavy pylons, before being tightened by hand. Occasionally I see small solar PV panels, big enough to charge a radio or torches.

The last hour of the walk back to Birethanti is along 3km of roadworks. They are carving a road into the mountain. We time our run past a JCB on the cliff overhead to avoid the falling rocks and shale. Last month a local man was killed here. Carving a road through any landscape is an environmental holocaust; and in this landscape the destruction per mile is so much higher. It’s a thought that keeps me entertained when I am bouncing the bus over some shitty track, cursing the corrupt politicians for not having built a road yet.

It’s easy to be judgemental about road building, but roads bring healthcare, cheaper supplies and better profits for rural farmers. You can’t begrudge remote communities that. My magnanimity is made easier safe in the knowledge that there is no way man will ever be able to construct a road to Gandruk or Goripani. A thought, which along with the mountains that surround them, and the way of life there, is beautiful.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

The Prism of Tourism

For five years I worked as a tour guide around Europe, taking coach loads of people to see the sights and making a handsome living out of translating the cultural experience, into Europe-Land for foreigners.

I had a great time and it was a period which formed me into a European. I hate the cliché of renouncing your nationality, in exchange for some greater global oneness, (I’m a citizen of the world, man), but I really do now feel more European than British or Italian. I’d speak 3 and a bit languages every day and finish up having a drink with local friends in my regular bar no matter what big city I was in. My job not only took me to the most beautiful cities in the world, Florence, Rome, Paris, but it required me to enjoy them. And when I wasn’t working I was sofa surfing, around those same cities to see friends (and deal in cars).

This journey and the overland expeditions I’ve done outside Europe have helped me understand how the rest of the world is linked to my cultural references as a European. Its shown me radically different ways of deciphering, understanding and managing the things life throws at you, and shown me the variety of projectiles life has in its arsenal. It’s also helped me see more objectively the things Europe does well and does badly.

In my early trips through Africa I felt obliged to like and accept everything I saw, because it was “culture” and therefore it had to be good. Not liking it, was a reflection of not being worldly enough to appreciate it and a sign of my ignorance, I thought. Now I’m a lot more critical and a lot more confident in my cynicism. I’m not troubled, for instance, by the fact I think Tibetan arts and crafts are atrocious. I don’t feel that because I don’t somehow understand the artform fully, or that because I haven’t lived the pain of what it is to be a Tibetan woman, I’m not entitled to dislike the stuff they sell on the street corners. I mean I find arts and crafts the world over pretty hard to digest, (along with rock engravings of hunters with big willies), but the Tibetan stuff really does rank among the worst I’ve seen. There are westerners trudging up the high street here in Pokhara wearing clothes they would be embarrassed to wear as pyjamas back home. Even the Tibetan ladies that sell the stuff look at them funny.

But my point isn’t about tourist tat, it’s that to make any sense of a place, it’s not enough to rely on your encounters made through the prism of tourism. I know this because for a long time I was the translating prism. The people I guided around Europe didn’t want to hear about local unemployment, crime figures, health care management, or tax structures. They wanted to hear a bit of easy to digest, sanitised history in the shape of an anecdote or two they could tell their freinds, consume a bit of local culture in the shape of food and souvenirs, and go home with a picture of them stood by the Eifel Tower, so that’s what I and the Tourism industry gave them a premium price.

I made a lot of money by turning the reality of Europe into the Europe-Land Experience they wanted, where a rude sales assistant was transformed into a charming example of French panache, and ooh did you see that really old church, and isn’t this museum art beautiful, or profound, or whatever.

The best example was the street of “rubies and diamonds”, my nickname for the Champs Elysee, so backed up with traffic that at night it’s a river of red brake lights (rubies) and white headlights (diamonds). It’s fucking nightmare traffic jam reframed through the prism of tourism as a beautiful sea of precious jems. And it worked every time. People would take a photo of the beautiful lights. Do me a favour!

Here in Pokhara, the part of the town I’m in, Hallan Chowk, Lakeside, Pokhara-6, is so removed from any actuality about Nepal it’s hard to reconcile with a country that could be on the brink of returning to civil war within 48 hours. Everywhere I walk I’m greeted by charming shopkeepers that call out “Namaste” as I pass inviting me in to look at their wares. My simple response should be to interpret Nepal as a place of charming albeit pushy shopkeepers, or maybe I should think that Nepalis are just money grabbers looking to fleece me because I’m a tourists. Actually if there is any conclusion to be made it’s that the Nepali here are pretty hard working and resilient to the rude responses of the tourists they make their living from, but still relatively naive to the most effective marketing techniques that work on their target clients. It’s not that this neighbourhood isn’t the “real Nepal”. It’s real, and it’s really in Nepal. But the reality is Nepali people working in tourism, building Nepal-land through thier own prism,. It’s a creation brought about because of the presence of tourists in Nepal, the result of the big bang that happens when different cultures and their purchasing powers collide at the speed of a Boeing 747.

Tourist strips in developing countries the world over; Gambia, Marrakech, Goa, are all the same, populated by people that are there to work and make money. Why else would they put up with rude tourists and their unfathomable demands for egg and chips. Money was the only reason I stuck with the job by the end. Doesn’t make Nepal, or Europe, a land of money-grabbers. While it’s fair to say that tourism spoils a place, most of the time the spoiling remains pretty well contained in tailor made ghettos for tourists, even in Europe there are specific restaurants, attractions and hotels that segregate the visitors to Europe-Land from Europe.

Spaghetti and meatballs doesn’t exist in Italy. There’s no such dish, it’s a creation of Italian Americans. I explained this to a New Yorker who was appalled at me for the suggestion that it wasn’t genuinely Italian. At the next restaurant she showed me it was on the menu. It was a restaurant that only dealt with tour groups and had been asked for spaghetti and meatballs so many times they’d put it on the menu. To the New Yorker this was vindication. How could I explain that although we were in Rome, this wasn’t an Italian restaurant? All the evidence was against me; the Neapolitan music, the candles burning in empty raffia wine bottles and the gesticulating waiter, Luigi, shouting “Mamamia” from the behind the pizza oven.

Tourists are willing accomplices in this apartheid, naively accepting tourist-land without challenging it, which is why “cultural tourism” is such a facile sham. I have more respect for Benedorm’s sun-seekers or Ibiza’s revellers, than anyone with a guide book in their suitcase.

End of Season

Slowly everyone is leaving. Patrick takes the bus tomorrow, Charlie left before the weekend. Pero is planning his return to Macedonia, maybe with Peter, but now it looks like Pete may head to Austria instead. Brad is just waiting for his visa to Pakistan to come through, and Tom’s going back to India in 2 weeks. The only foreign tandem pilot left will be “Kite” but he’s a self-medicated weirdo with some unfathomable mental health issues and an involuntary shoulder spasm which means he shouldn’t be put in charge of a shopping trolley let alone flying tandems.

I’ve only been here 2 weeks but I’m so at home that when I sit on the balcony to use the wifi, not more than five minutes goes by without someone I know passing by and stopping for a chat. Evan the tiny Swiss solo pilot, Wally the Romanian, Bhupal the owner of Frontiers Paragliding...

My day begins when the sun wakes me around 7h30. I check the sky from bed. If it’s clear then I’m up and ready for the 9am jeep up the mountain, a bowl of low-rent cornflakes and buffalo milk sitting uneasily in my stomach. All the pilots sit in the back and we talk over the day’s flights and conditions. I love it. Really feel part of the team, even though as a beginner solo pilot I am in primary school compared to these university professors.

Depending on the lift I fly til midday. The conditions can be anything from totally still air to 15km/h winds, and the thermal lift fluctuates from none, to smooth, to leaf-in-a-tornado. My flights have ranged from 10minutes to over 2 hours including several visits to the cloud base, and I flew briefly inside the cloud. Total whiteout. The cloud base is quite low, which means doing any cross country flights is quite hard, so I am focusing on practicing finding and coring the thermals (circling in the strongest part of the rising warm column of air) and flying in formation with other thermaling gliders.

As I’m turning in a thermal I’m trying to feel if there is more lift to the left or right and making minor adjustments to the brakes to help me find it. After a few minutes of spiralling up, listening to the vario beeping contentedly, and eagerly watching the other gliders in the thermal I realise that while being totally focused I’m also zoned out. Suddenly wisps of cloud I’m heading into snap me out of the climb hypnosis. Coring the thermal is a chance for my brain to relax from the concentration of searching for lift, and as soon as it has an easier repetitive task it’s no wonder it spaces out.
On the contours of the hill, the shadow of the other wings rising round the same column of air form a swirl of ovals which gives you the satisfaction of knowing you’re probably in the best place for lift, as well as a glow of knowing your mates are there with you.

John, a retired ex-paratrooper from the UK and owner of the Safari Garden hotel leant me his vario/gps. Flicking through the logs stored in its memory, the longest flight is 2hours 17minutes. I’m trying to beat the best score on the instrument before I give it back. It’s become like an arcade game obsession for me. 2hours and 14 minutes so far. Three minutes short!

After I’ve flown and walked back into town with my wing on my back, I’ve got such a sweat on, I cycle round the lake to a place where I can swim and wash. Because of the rains, the level has climbed and the water feels smooth and soft. There’s still the occasional buffalo turd floating out there, but where I go now is much better than the dam outlet pool downstream of the lake. I’ve tried collecting rain water running off the bus so I can shower inside, and it worked really well at first, but I tried it again today and the bus is so grubby that the water I collected is brown.

On the last no-fly day Tom, Pero and I cycled 10km up the valley to swim in some rock pools which we never found, so we made do with the river and pretended it was where we meant to go.

For lunch I’m off to the “Cathouse”, the nickname Tom and I have for the restaurant where Catwoman holds court (see previous post Dharam-wit) although I think she might have left now, and I miss her. The place is like X-Idol without Piers Cowell. Over apple pie, Tom and I share our post-match analysis about the morning flights. Today we discussed coring theory. It’s like a cult meeting where we feel uninhibited to geek out about our thoughts on tandem spreaders, practical rights of way, pros and cons of using speed bar and how long it takes to clean puke out of a tandem harness.

After a nap, I check my emails, try to make some skype calls on the atrocious broadband connection, and finally it’s time for the nightlife, which mainly consists of sitting in one of two bars with Pete and Pero wondering if the girls they flew during the day are going to turn up. Statistically the (100%) safe money is on them not showing up, and my faith in these guys’ ability to pull more than a glider into the air, means and I’m currently down 100Rs.

I can’t imagine this being of any interest to anyone else, but I’m loving every minute of it.