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, 21 August 2010

An Unquestionably Good Soap Opera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Los Volontarios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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