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.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Into the City

Trucks jovially roll around over the rough surface of the Countryside road. Here the tarmac is part of the land, laid down over and through the fields, its edges merging into the earth, and it’s path crossed indiscriminately by livestock and the mud tracks they leave behind. There’s no reverence for the road here, it’s another feature of the landscape, wrapped in clouds and birds, the things of nature. Tractors U-turn unexpectedly, or thoughtlessly bottleneck the road with their slow moving overflowing trailers. Cyclist and motorbikes react too late to release the width of the lanes killing the momentum of the trucks that grumble to pick up their speed again.

The pace of the road is slow and lazy, dwarfed by the massive distances that make each immediate moment of the journey too inconsequential, too trivial to demand urgency, too overwhelming to sustain the aggression needed for fast driving. At roadstops, drivers take a pause from waiting for their destination to arrive. Local workers are preoccupied with their own stories and the passing customers are merely forgettable details of their rich day.

Bright greens, blues, and yellows, fill the windows; colours so vivid only nature could pass them off as natural.

Then slowly the City nears. The tarmac improves. Smoother. The painted lines are sharper. Slopes and verges, appear. Fences, barriers, banking, walls, Arco, kerbs, railings, distinguishing the road from the surroundings. Intermittently at first, then more frequently, imperceptibly they form a permanent and lasting separation from the countryside. This road is heading into the City now, and the countryside with its primitive practices and backwards outlook, can only stand and watch it leave, indifferent to the betrayal.

The roadstops are often branded in this transition time. The theatrics of their wipe-clean colours and logos with sharp lines seem alienating at first, but quickly become the anticipated norm. Drivers are busier during thier breaks, with purpose and pressure. They are too rushed to leave an imprint of their lives and the staff too are kept by their role, dictated by their tasks, they give no glimpses of personality. They offer only foil wrapped, bite sized, single serving, predictable sterility. There’s no space for the irregularly shaped country fare on their rectilinear shelves.

The driving quickens as local commuters join the flow, powered by their intimacy with the City’s urgency. Encouraged by them, arrivals from far away accelerate with anticipation of their destination. A factory, then three houses, then a row of shops, incrementally the City starts to appear in the fields. The increased traffic demands more than the relaxed concentration of easy hypnotic driving and distracts while grey urbanity builds up, until a traffic light, or a junction stops everyone for the first time in miles and hours. It’s the moment to notice the City is all around. The road has unmistakably finished, replaced by streets who exist solely to position the City around them. There’s a short lived confusion over where the countryside went, but that soon fades in its unimportance, escorted by the failing memory of the countryside’s openness and freedom.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

On the Road Rage Again

After a few people sensing my despondency, and several attempts to motivate and revitalise me, it’s an unlikely contender that gets my thanks for giving me and this journey a sense of purpose again.

The pleasure I got from staying put is hard to overstate. Despite an engine rebuild the bus continued to leak water, and I was nervous about 100 problems that might manifest themselves at any time, so my subconscious brain didn’t want to drive anywhere and did a pretty good job of getting my conscious frontal cortex to come up with excuses why I shouldn’t.

But eventually after a week I was able to tear myself away from the comfort of good friends, the good flying and a familiar routine. The bus started second time, not an ominous sign, but not a good one either. Nothing about being on the road again seemed enjoyable. Even less so when I crossed back into the chaos of India. Traffic, incessant fucking horns, chronic potholed tarmac, kamikaze oncoming 17 tonne trucks, and an instant scrape to the low hanging exhaust on a speed bump which means it needs welding, again.

A rickshaw slips back into the side of me as I’m driving past and instantly shatters the toughened door glass. It’s a sound that makes you want to duck for cover and I need a few milliseconds to understand what’s happened and make sense of the spiders web of shards that remains in the door. The rickshaw driver has the nerve to start out expecting me to pay for his bent rain cover, until he sees the extent of the damage to the bus, and while I’m sweeping up the glass he makes a discrete exit.

Getting the glass repaired is the even more tortured than I imagine. The absence of any English speakers means I don’t realise the glazier only has offcuts of toughened glass to offer. Toughened glass can’t be cut, so the job requires 3 hours of sifting through piles of glass looking for a piece that will fit, give or take a few millimetres. I don’t know this as I’m waiting in the now unlockable bus and expecting him to return with a cut piece ready for fitting in no more than 20 minutes so after impatiently waiting 2 hours I flip out and my stroppy fit results in the search pace intensifying, and eventually a tinted piece which acceptably wide and only 10cm too short is found and fitted, with another smaller bit wedged into the gap.

“If you want to charge me a westerner’s price I expect a western quality job” I tell him in English knowing my words mean nothing. I hand over 60% of the price we’d agreed pointing to the smear of silicon filling the gap between the panes and he accepts.

The next day I give the bus a proper check. My usual daily routine is to check the oil and water, then spend 10 minutes staring at the engine to see what there is to see. It’s hard to do that while you have people hanging around waiting to see you off, so it didn’t get one in Pokhara.

The coolant is down by 4 litres. The whole system only takes about 7. This means the leak should be big enough to spot easily, so I crawl around and sure enough its part of my heat exchange system and quick but dirty to fix.

So as I set off I’m feeling pleased that that mystery of the water leak is finally solved and in my head I’m calculating how long before I reach Calcutta and thinking positively about how the windscreen and exhaust could be repaired when I get there.

But the funny thing with the brakes that started yesterday evening is un-ignorabley worse today, and because I’m low on fuel I might as well fix it sooner rather than later, so binding brakes don’t increase my fuel consumption.

I pull over and my good humour is evaporating fast. This part of India is one of the dirtiest I’ve seen, and I’m going to have to crawl around under the bus. I’ve not got much Indian cash, and it’s Sunday so I can’t change any money, but happily I know the brakes well and can save on mechanics a mechanics fee, so I find a good spot and peel off the wheels myself and try to free up the blocked drum, but it’s just not releasing. After almost fainting in the heat, I give up and call a mechanic from across the road. I shouldn’t need to spend any money on parts, just a well placed smack with a hammer. I can budget for a mechanic with what I have in my pocket. Again the language barrier means he doesn’t understand the problem even though by now I’ve developed a creditable skill for understanding foreign conversations, based on context, hand gestures, facial expressions and the occasional English word that pervades every language. It’s like a vague but reliable sixth sense. Frustratingly my hand actions, which to me are clear and obvious, just leaves him staring blankly back.

I’m sick of it and I’m thinking fuck this, fuck this fucking truck, fuck this fucking country, fuck vegetable oil, fuck driving around the fucking world, fuck every Indian truck driver that ran me off the fucking tarmac today, and fuck this mechanic that can’t even understand me.

Deep breath. “I’m here because I want to be” I resentfully mutter my mantra which has become wholly unconvincing since I’ve been in India, but the irony helps me keep sane. An hour later the drum is off and the brakes have been stripped and checked unnecessarily, because the problem is the wheel bearing. Almost certainly as a result of sitting in a damp field for 2 months, near the drain pipe for my acid wee, it is pitted and therefore is ceasing, behaving like a blocked brake, and worse, the side with the etched part number has been scratched off by the rubbing so there’s no easy way of tracking down another one.

A guy comes to my rescue in more ways than one. He speaks terrible English but can understand some of what I say. I’m so relieved to be understood. It feels great. On the way into town to look for a replacement bearing we have to ride by his house to pick up his license and helmet. As I arrive in the little tenement farm, I’m first stared at with a fear that might great an alien landing but then the sister urgently wipes down the newest of the 4 plastic chairs and places it in the middle of the room for me. My hero sits in the second best chair against the un-plastered mud brick wall, and starts to tell the family the story of this treasured find sitting before them. I follow the gist with my sixth sense.

"He’s driven from England to our village ... his bus is like a house inside ... the number on the bearing is worn off." No detail is spared and his excited pace makes time for pauses that build suspense as he eyes each of his siblings and parents gathered in the room and huddled out through the doorway. They listen intently, consuming and savouring every word. The mother pulls her veil over her mouth and gasps incredulously each time the intonation merits. His eldest sister’s wide dark eyes flit between the words coming from her brother’s mouth and me sitting on my plastic throne picking out the details in my clothes and dirty fingernails that illustrate the story. The youngest five siblings vie for position in a silent wrestle outside, eager not to let their fight drown out any of their brothers words. Then the father asks why my driver isn’t fixing the car. “He’s the driver, and he built the truck,” there’s a pause for more gasps “and he’s an engineer.” says my hero, and the father turns his gaze slowly up at me with the respect a beloved king or emperor might inspire, shaking his head slowly at the wonder of the world and what man can do in it.

I’m glowing at the thought of how the story is being retold and embellished by the family to the neighbours and on. I’m not suckered into believing I’m a legend, but it’s motivating and humbling to be adulated, even for just a few minutes. While I’m lost in the frustrating challenges of this journey it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. Later, on the way into town, we crossed the River Ganges, the first time I’ve seen the river. The bus has made it (almost) to the Ganges. Not bad for a junk bus that started from Thornton Heath.

We didn’t find the bearing and it looks like it’s a rare size which might need special ordering while I’m forced to camp in a disused petrol station. None the less I’m honestly back to believing that “I’m here because I want to be.”

Push My Button

It’s my own fault. I should have found a gym with weights, or gone swimming. Instead I’m lying on my back listening to Stephanie’s soft French voice telling me to feel “ze hair moove fram yohr nows intoo yohr lahngs” (the air move from your nose into your lungs - for the non French speakers). The problem I have with Stephaine’s yoga/meditaition class is that I want to be sweating, hurting, working off nervous energy, not fighting off sleep while I’m supposed to be “brushing my body with my consciousness”.

After 2 classes I reach breaking point. I’m genuinely worried that in this semi-hypnotised state I may become susceptible to Stephanie’s cosmic pronouncements; Regular Yoga will cure you of any disease. Breathing will make your body regenerate and reverses the aging process. Indian shoe repairers that sit in this pose never get bowel cancer. “They did a study” she confirms, nodding her spindly neck sagely.

My mind is fired by this trigger: What? A study? Who did a study? Who funded it? Was there a double blind control group? Peer reviewed? Surely diet and lifestyle of the Indian shoe repairers is more of a factor, did they take that into account? Should I be palms up or palms down? It’s a big enough population; there must be a few recorded cases of cancer, surely? Was it a long term study? More than 10 years? Is my foot pointing in the right direction? That would be expensive research for such a banal thing as posture’s impact on the bowel. Bet it was funded by some Yoga Ashram. Loads of money. Biased research. What about the shoe polish fumes? That can’t be good for you? Day in, day out. What cancer would they cause? Are these yoga mats made in Nepal or imported from India? And the fumes from the shoe adhesives? Full of atomised benzene rings. Or China? Yeah, must be made in China. Lung Cancer probably. Or Brain Cancer? Shifting my weight makes my hamstring sting more than my calf muscle. Which should sting more? Foam would be too volumetrically expensive to container over the Himalaya, must come from India...

My consciousness has too many questions to process, and is too busy to focus on my left toe, or upper right buttock for long. I’d never even thought of my buttocks as having upper and lower parts. My brain fires again pondering how many ways a buttock could be divided. Meditation is popular with people that want to slow down their over active minds. That’s criminal. I’ve learned to enjoy the ride my trains of thought take me on. I can’t see any value in slowing your thoughts down, and even less in sitting straight-backed for hours mumbling a deep bass mantra. It’s as mentally fruitful as getting stoned, or having a lobotomy.

Rob rides a stubby Enfield, and sports a Chelsea smile from a pub brawl 25 years ago. He spent 5 years in prison for armed robbery after holding up a string of pharmacies with a replica at the height of his drug dependency. While inside he found yoga and 20 years on is totally clean and claims he meditates for 2 hours a day and has been celibate for 9 years. He’s refreshingly aggressive and argumentative, but is a prime example for the fact that meditation is a crutch rather than a cure for whatever psychosis pulls you into it.

Tom, a trained therapist, friend and flying partner agrees that from a psychological point of view, gurus or Gods act as surrogate parents to people searching for reassurance. Gurus will look after you and provide you with the answers you need now that you’ve grown up and mummy and daddy don’t do it anymore. “But,” he says, “meditation is likely to bring a lot of things up, and then provide no outlet for dealing with them.”

After class my yoga-mates agree that Stephanie is a bit far out, and yet while pushing through downward dog we’d somehow all conspired to consume her explanation of the nervous systems’ sub atomic particle being the link between the body and the consciousness. She has answers to some big questions and within the walls of her Yoga classroom they seem agreeably plausible.

However I get particularly irked by the use of misconstrued science to justify ideologies that exist in an incompatible paradigm. I’m a rational extremist, and the western mind is indoctrinated to trust the language and branding of science, to the point where it accepts without fully understanding it. We have faith in science, which is ironically wholly unscientific. Stephanie unwittingly twists this trusted branding within the vagaries of popular misconceptions to validate her Hatha philosophy, at the same time providing solutions to problems where science is lagging behind (cancer cures, eternal youth, a definition of the soul...). This bastardisation of physics and medicine makes my sphincter tighten, back rise and chest inflate, opportunely into the ideal mediation pose which Stephanie congratulates me on.

Stephanie's wackiness is charming, but it’s the evangelists disciples I’ve lost patience with. “Oh Andy, you absolutely must read this book [about Meditation/Yoga]. It really explains everything...” No. I absolutely mustn’t. Clearing out my belly button fluff would be more enlightening than spending time reading books that reaffirm the faith to believers but deliver only unconvincing proofs for cynics. Put it on the shelf there next to the Dharma, Bible and Koran, and have a look at the size of this lint cotton ball! “You really must read the British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Associations’ regulations on Tandem pilot certification. Now THIS really explains everything.” I parry with my booklet, but there is no appetite for cockney sarcasm in the earnest world of the enlightened.

I’m grateful I didn’t come to India when I was 20. I would have swallowed these ideas up wholesale and by now I’d probably be a shoeless Baba or buff yoga master teaching the path to levitation on the beaches of Goa. I’d have been a black-belt in Yoga. Instead I went to Africa, where the spiritual philosophies are proper doll-stabbing gri-gri, and therefore can’t be taken seriously by even the most open western mind. Perhaps that introduction grounded me with the cynicism that just because ideas are exotic and foreign, they aren't necessarily the answer.

I don’t think Nepali’s ever attend Stephanie’s yoga classes so it’s hard to see it as anything more that another one of Pokhara’s tourist attractions, alongside white-water rafting or trekking. If there is a tragedy in all this, and there probably isn’t, it’s that westerners come away from Nepal thinking they’ve discovered the essence of the country by thoroughly examined their own navels. Sadly, their home country promptly dissolves the Karma out of them as it dawns how irrelevant these philosophies are to their day to day reality. But worse, along the way they’ve missed the chance to understand the Himalayan agricultural cycle, the opportunities for permaculture, the impact of the annual rice yield fluctuations, the construction techniques of mountain roads and their destruction techniques by the rains, the common faults of Bajaj motorbikes, or how to bathe with your clothes on, which is all much more interesting and useful than the physical or metaphysical navel fluff we are so captivated by.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

A Berk versus the Burka

Philip Hollobone, a conservative back bench MP in the UK has tabled bill to ban the Burka, and head scarves that cover the face.

Dressed up as a bill to protect Britishness (It’s “not the British way” to wear a face covering says Hollobone) this is nothing more than an insidiously shitty racist bit of legislation.

Cappuccino is not the British way to make coffee. Should we also ban Starbucks and force everyone to drink lukewarm instant coffee? Nachos, Baguettes, Mercedes, Halloween, Gwyneth Paltrow, none of these are British either. Something really must be done.

If face coverings are so offensive, should we insist motorbikers use open faced helmets, cyclists prevented from using pollution masks? Wedding dresses made without veils so the Bride's identity can be confirmed? And on a cold day no one should be allowed to wrap a scarf over their face. Foolishness. Hollobone would have more credibility if he said “I don’t understand the way these foreigners behave. I don’t like it and I don’t want to be confronted by it.”

The only redeeming feature of Britishness is that it’s one of the most cosmopolitan and tolerant societies in the world. Mainly because of it's overwhelming politeness, it accepts al-comers. Yet the far right politicians and press invoke this subconsciously populist idea that Britain should revert to a post-war blitz-spirit nation of cricket on village greens as Routemaster buses drive past laden with gentlemen commuting to work in bowler hats. Shoe-shines for a shilling squire. Happy days.

Except the austere 1950’s weren’t happy days, and ironically post war Britain was rebuilt with the sweat and ideas of an army of immigrants from Ireland, the West Indies, Southern Europe, India and Pakistan.

Having travelled through a host of Muslim countries, and in non Muslim areas like Rajasthan where women veil their faces against the sun, and in northern Mali where Tuareg men and women cover their faces to protect from the sand and wind, I’ve grown used to dealing with people whose faces I can’t see. Initially it was a bit strange, but it’s not that big a deal. Perhaps Hollobone has used a device called the Telephone which offers a similar experience allowing people to speak without seeing each other’s faces. Telephones were invented by an American, so they’re probably on his not-British-enough blacklist.

So much communication is non-verbal. As human animals, our brains are highly attuned to pick up facial expressions and body language, but legislating against people who don’t communicate well would involve a lisp ban, and perhaps prison sentences for mumbling?

Every counter argument I’ve read has been very quick to point out that the idea of women being forced to cover up by their misogynist husbands is abhorrent. And perhaps there are some cases of women who dream of skipping down the street without a blanket over them but can’t because of their husband’s enforced insecurities. However I suspect the reality is a bit different.

The conformity of the small Burka wearing community is probably a result of societal peer pressure from other women as much as men, and of previous generations. These are the same mechanisms that dictate how women dress in every other community. These particular standards may seem repressive to a culture unused to that level of prudishness, but it is normal in a lot of other places. There’s no malevolence and no reason for the huffy likes of Hollobone to feel insulted or threatened. The tribes of the Bijagos Islands, off Guinea Bissau, weren’t offended when I visited and wore more than just a leaf over my cock, even though they must have thought I was a bit weird for the T-shirt and trousers I had on. I can’t imagine being forced to conform to a level of nudity I’m not used to.

Amidst all this liberal and reactionary posturing, has anyone thought to ask Burka wearing women how comfortable they’d feel if they weren’t allowed to wear their coverings in public? Surely the Muslim Council of Britain should be commissioning the research as I type.

The sort of sweaty toothed wife beater that forces his wife and daughters to wear a Burka against their will, will be just as happy to prevent his wife and daughters from ever leaving the home if they aren’t allowed to wear their sackcloth in public. Even if legislation could be devised to punish that small breed of chauvinist dinosaurs it wouldn’t be as effective as the erosion British multiculturalism is already reaping on those values. Values which will have vanished completely within a couple of generations. Rest assured his daughter is already poking that handsome Jamaican boy from school on Facebook or in video chat-rooms with horny teenage boys from Saudi. This is what makes 2010 Britain Great, yet the white indigenous British are scared to rejoice or take pride in that. Instead they reminisce about the days of the Spitfire or Geoff Hurst’s 1966 World Cup goals.

I’d like to think I was a liberal neo-feminist supporter of women’s rights, and all that fluffy stuff, but as a man I know what goes through a man’s mind when he sees a woman in a figure hugging outfit. I’m not the only man that has these thoughts. I’ve conducted widespread research (“Here, mate, you seen ‘er over there? Phoarrr!”).

So based on the fact that men are such predictable Neanderthals, women have two choices. Either they can play us, by power dressing, reducing us to the loin driven simpletons that we are at heart, or secondly perhaps with a little more dignity, they can refuse to play. The idea that a woman chooses to keep the sight of her beautiful hair, or her beautiful face exclusively for the view of the man she loves, isn’t that alien from the idea that most British women wouldn’t flash their tits at every stranger in the street.

Rather than focussing the blame on "these people", (a phrase that is only ever used to thinly disguise racist contempt), - these dark skinned Muslim Johnny Foreigners with their suspicious religion and spicy food, who cover their women folk with potato sacks, - I'd say that every man who’s ever had a randy thought about a female stranger should stand up and say “I am to blame for women covering themselves in this ridiculous way”.

And that’s why the Burka is ridiculous. Women can’t escape the fact that men find them attractive. It's genetic. We'd have died out if it wasn't. It's not a bad thing, because most of us men manage to restrain our urges to a tolerable level.

The Burka is not the daftest thing worn in the name of religion; skull caps, circumcised foreskin, catholic guilt, protestant restraint, bishops hats, turbans, Bindis, saffron robes and shaved heads are also pretty ridiculous. So are high heels, hair straighteners, eyelash curlers, and make-up bags. But the best thing about Britain is that we indignantly tolerate it all, until it eventually adds to the net worth of our unique culture in some unexpected way we would never have predicted.

In the final assesment, a law that forces a lady to strip off her clothing is absolutely "not the British way". It wasn’t in the gentlemanly days of the 1950’s, and even more so, it isn’t now.