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.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Road to Jakarta

I’ve had a religious moment. In fact I’ve decided that the whole journey from KL to Jakarta has been a religious moment.

Right from the start it seemed unclear if travelling overland and sea from KL to Jakarta was even possible. From the start the only certainty was the flying “You should take the plane.” the ticket girl told me as I bought a one way ferry ticket to Batam “For less than 50 euro” pressing her point.

“I don’t like to fly” I tried to explain, hearing the voice of the A-Team’s BA Baracus finishing the sentence in my head “ fool!” His meaty finger pointing at me, reminding me of what an idiot I must seem.

Why would any sane person not like to fly? The single serving sterile meals, the unique feel of the seat reclining button, the reassuring softness of the hostess call tone, the sexual allure of the cabin crew uniforms, and the glossy aspirations of the in flight magazine. Like a retarded Luddite the flyphobes must be afraid of technology. Afraid of crashing? That’s such an 80’s fear. In the age of budget airlines, where as Air Asia’s tag line puts it, “Now everyone can fly”, no one is afraid to fly anymore, and if they are, they get over it. My fear is that everyone will.

Batam is a small island 45minutes from Singapore by high speed ferry. It’s part of Indonesia, and as I clear immigration, I ask if there is a ferry to Sumatra. There is, it leaves at 7am. It’s already 9pm. I see a taxi, a cheap hotel, a food court, fend off a prostitute that follows me up to the door of my room, sleep, then I see another taxi and another high speed ferry.

In that short time I already know that I like Indonesians. They laugh hysterically at me because of my towering height. The laughter is so infectious that I can’t get upset or defensive. And I am twice the height of most of the people I meet. It is funny. I joke back about how short they are, and the laughter triples.

The ferry takes four hours, I’m told. Eight hours later it lands in Sumatra. “Is this Canburu?” I ask. The town I’m looking for is actually called Pekan Boru, but I still haven’t seen it written and my phonetic mimicking is accurate enough to be understood. It’s a bus ride away. The bus is full. My pack is loaded onto the roof, and I stand in the open doorway feeling the cool air and sporting a congratulatory smile on how gritty I must look. After 20minutes bouncing over potholes, avoiding the vomiting passenger to my right, the whipping long grass to my left and the chain smoking drivers-mate who darts urgently through the non-existent gaps between bodies collecting baggage money, I try to ask how long the journey to Canburu will take. It’s a question that requires some miming, pointing at my watch, up and down the road, but with both hands tightly wrapped in a death grip around parts of the bus framework that I think can hold my weight during the violent veering it takes another 10 minutes before I’m understood.

The answer comes much faster than the question. “Three”.

We arrive at 3? No, that was when we left. Three more minutes? I muse optimistically. But it sinks in that the missing word is “hours” and sure enough four hours later I un-curl my fingers from the rusted door frame and relearn the use of my legs as the bus pulls up in Pekan Boru.

“Where are you going?” asks the drivers-mate.
“Jakarta” I reply.
“Taxi, airport, fly” he instructs.
“No I don’t like to fly” I’m a fool.

There is a bus to Jakarta I learn. How long does it take? Two. Two? That’s not so bad. I just did Three and survived, what’s another Two? But the ticket costs more than the flight from Singapore. I shop around and find a cheaper ticket and in the process decipher that the Two in this case is days. I sink.

There’s a lot of moving and fuss to get me into a seat. People are dislodged from seats with more leg room by the ticket agent. Interfering seatbacks are rightended, there’s is much laughing at my height and inability to fit in the first few seats I try. But eventually I wedge myself into the window seat next to Irfan who offers me a clove cigarette as he lights one up for himself. A small celebration goes around the bus that I’ve been able to fit.

After asking my name Irfan second question is about my religion. I ponder my predicament and as if to explain why I’m 20 minutes in to a 48 hour bus ride which could have been over in 75 minutes 2 days ago, for less money, I tell him “I’m a Rationalist, and quite extreme.” My arms are waving frenetically trying not to drown in the irony.
“Like Christian?” he asks confused.
“No Rationalist. It’s very different” I declare sternly. He accepts it and later when he asks why I didn't fly from Pekan Boru to Jakarta I tell him that it’s against my religion. Another passenger asks for my favourite number so he can buy a lottery ticket. He asks me if I want to buy one. “No thanks, my religion prevents me” I declare proudly. I then try to explain that only gambling where the odds are against you is forbidden, but the language barrier is too much and I admit defeat leaving the impression of Rationalism must be a pious joyless religion.

By now Irfan has adjourned everyone on the bus about me. At a rest-stop, while the waiter lays out 10 dishes in front of me to choose from in the pay-as-you-eat and I finally understand the pay-as-you-eat system, I hear Irfan at the table behind me saying “Inglis” and “London”, and turn to find him and eight other men staring at me nodding. I make out other words “Switz” about my Taiwanese Rolex and “nokia” about my phone accompanied by more nodding, before one cracks a quick quip and laughter erupts as they point at my long legs coiled up by the low seat. I’m all elbows and knees, and I can’t help laughing too.

Irfan has also told everyone I’m running out of rupees, a feat made easier by being charmingly stiffed every time I have to pay for something. The other passengers buy me tea and water bottles, pass me biscuits and dried fish. The only way I feel I can return their generosity is by accepting and ingesting all gifts. By the time I wake to dawn for the second time on the bus my feet are swollen like my grandmothers, and my arse is numb, but religiously clenched.

Perched on stools in the aisle, a woman is sleeping against my legs, while her husband’s head rests on my shoulder, his long hair tickling my neck, as their baby’s legs rest motionless on my lap. My seat back has broken so we are all four reclined into the lap of the mother and child in the seat behind me.

I wrestle my way to the front of the bus to sit with the driver and drivers-mate hoping this first change in posture for 10 hours might stem the Deep Vein Thrombosis and atrophy which must by now surely be inevitable. They take turns to touch my legs and discuss how they are more solid than expected. More jokes are thrown forward from the first four rows. In return, they offer me donuts for breakfast. I relish the stomach blocking carbohydrates as payment for the entertainment my freakish body provides.

The driver and mate light up simultaneously, their nicotine craving synched like menstrual cycles. The mate assiduously watches the road for mopeds and trucks, as well as potential passengers to cram on to the full bus, calling out “Java Java Java” to the most disinterested bystanders before waving the driver on or urgently calling a stop. The driver in the meantime is developing an unhealthy obsession with my legs. Between them and the comedy video playing above his head the road ahead is becoming an irritating distraction.

I use my distracting legs to clamber over the aisle passengers back to seat 18 and recline into the bosom of the mother behind me to discover she is breast feeding. She smiles down at me.

At the next road stop an old man and I have a amiable conversation, me in English, him in Indonesian, which concludes abruptly when I say that I’d prefer to walk off my swollen feet than have a massage, and only as we both nod thoughtfully at this am I filled with the suspicion that we’ve almost certainly been talking on two totally divergent topics.

Later with Irfan’s translating help, another man tells me that the Police at a previous stop had asked him if I was from Pakistan, but he’d told them I was from England and a religion other than Muslim. Perhaps the beard or the cricketers build raised suspicion? I suddenly appreciated the value of surrendering my privacy to this group of travellers, while a twinge of suspicion descended over the easiness of Indonesia.

The bus rolls on to the ferry for Java eight hours ahead of schedule, and for the first time in days the pathetic air conditioning vent above my head is replaced with the feel of a real breeze on my skin, Sun fills the horizon and my eyes. I’m sleepless but feel reborn as I stare at blue sea. For a few seconds I seriously entertain jumping into the water from the 3rd storey of the ferry. I’m already such a physical freak, that eccentric behaviour would surprise no one.

It was almost a teary goodbye at Jakarta, with most of the passengers staying on for the following 36 hours to the east of Java. I waved to everyone and again laughter erupted as I clouted my head on the DVD player above the door.

But I stepped off the bus with more than just a bruise on my head. I stepped off, not quite with God in my heart, but a sense of purpose and cohesion which I’ve been struggling to find for a while. The God in my religion would be Truth, a concept just as confused and indefinable as it is in any other religion. On my road to Damascus, via Jakarta, I’ve realised that I’ve been developing practices of worship, rules and creeds during the last 12 months on the road, and even longer before that. By thinking of my Rationalist, Reductionist ideology as a religion, I can justify my strange extremist behaviour; Eco busses, anti-consumerism, social justice, fear of flying. It’s all becomes unified under the banner of a religion. It’s what I believe, my faith. Best of all, if I err from my ideology, then I’m an inexcusable hypocrite, whereas erring from my religion makes me a sinner, forgivable and human.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

India, it's a dump

One of the questions I always get asked in interviews by journalists trying to ferret out some drama to my journey is “What was the worst part of the trip?” I have vowed that from now on I will always answer that question with these 4 words. “India, it’s a dump.” And here’s why:

A university professor I shared a platform with at a talk I gave is worried about the next generation of Indians, and told me that any bright Indian student wouldn’t for a minute dream of becoming a teacher. There is no sense in which it’s a valued profession, one your overbearing Indian mother could be proud of, and it’s badly paid. There’s no appreciation that serving India’s future generation is noble and worthy, he said. Being a doctor is respected, not because of the altruism of the profession, helping to heal the sick, but because it’s a good earner.

I’ve met very few Indians interested in community, or making their country better. For instance among the 300 young volunteers that come daily to help at the orphanages and projects of Calcutta, there is rarely a single Indian youth.

So as the clever Indian 20-somethings seek out their MBA programmes and the lucrative corporate jobs in the booming economy that follows graduation, there is no chance their skills will liven the next generation of kids from poorer classes.

Of all the developing countries I’ve been to, the divide between rich and poor here is the most obscene I’ve ever seen - reminiscent of feudal Europe of the middle ages. It isn’t just that large wealth is in the hands of a tiny number of super rich, it’s that there is a whole strata of wealthy middle class, that live unfazed and accepting of the squalor of poverty around them, which I find so troubling. They use the flimsiest excuses to justify their disengagement, waving their responsibility to help because these people are “drug addicts” or “prostitutes”, and that “Begging is the easiest job in the world” and “shouldn’t be encouraged”.

Having tried cleaning windscreens at traffic lights during college, which is only one step up from begging, I can tell you it’s not an easy job, and it should be discouraged by helping people out of poverty so they have alternatives to prostitution and drugs to medicate the nihilism.

Despite the far left spectrum of Indian politics, (Communist, Maoist, Marxist, even a healthy quorum of Leninists!), the door that government provides as a mechanism for creating a fairer society is firmly shut here. When I’ve asked about politicians motivated by ideals, the reaction is laughter. Either the voters are fools for believing the politicians are truly altruistic, or the politicians are fools for thinking they can make a difference. The system is so weighted toward corruption that any good intentions are undermined as you climb the political ladder. Consequently power and moral authority are mutually exclusive.

So who could blame anyone for not wanting to be a low paid school teacher, or joining the Stagno-cratic Civil Service, the IAS (Indian Administration Service), working in the strangled atmosphere where initiation and change is cause for constructive dismissal. Forget about the dismal pay, even a motivated ideologue would have their initiative put down at every opportunity, and soon realise they are serving as the active arm of the politicians self interest and greed, often visibly in conflict with the needs of the population.

But where has the change-activism and idealism of Ghandi’s era gone? I’ve looked for it here and apart from a few very unique individuals, the only sign I found were amongst the activists fighting for Bhopal justice, a cause so scandalously unfair even Indians can’t stand by and watch it evaporate. But things here are so screwed up I’d expect to see young idealistic university students marching against corruption? Where are the political agitators calling for a week-long baksheesh strike? The only idealism of the next generation is BMWism.

Perhaps it would help if the media were more worried about the corruption in the affairs-of-state than in the IPL Cricket League? Where are the journalistic exposés of corrupt governance? They wouldn’t be hard to dig up. Sadly the media is co-opted into the corruption, according to a retired media sales executive I met, who told me how news media is funded not by sales, but almost exclusively by advertisers with an agenda they expect to see reflected in the news' content. Editorial lines are constrained by the business motives of the News Barron owners.

I could tell you about the astounding intellect of engineering under-graduates, and the fox-like savvy of street kids, but to romanticise Indian’s ingenuity is no more helpful that eulogising over “beautiful colours”, vibrancy, and spicy food in the tourist brochures. It doesn’t compensate for the national lack of compassion. Perhaps it's is caused by the host of tragic tales in India that seem to touch everybody’s lives. Whether it's the tailor in Pushkar who lost his job and his home over a clerical error and never got it back, my lawyer who spent 3 years bed ridden with an illness, or my paraglider guru who was locked up for 2 years by the Air Force he served in, to "cool his heels". It’s a country that dishes out cruelty with casual indifference. The result is a population that is tolerant, but psychologically vaccinated against compassion, and ready to dish out more indifference to the next generation. So in an environment immune from sympathy the only sensible option left is to isolate yourself from the hardship and the ugliness of poverty by personal wealth acquisition. A good survival-of-the-fittest strategy which, after all, is what the developed nations have been doing to poor countries since the start of globalisation in the colonial era.

But it’s an ugly strategy, which deserves to be criticised. India has made me squirm on all levels; The piss-stinking streets that assails my nostrils, as much as the blinkered world-view of the allegedly educated Mercedes-Benz yuppies. While national pride is worn so ardently on the uniform of police officers, they conduct traffic yards from naked street kids playing in sewerage. Like the Emperor’s New Clothes, no one dares to say that this country has much more to be ashamed of than it has to be proud of. During 15 years of travelling, to over 50 countries, I’ve never been to a country that has so reviled me that I hope I will never to see it again.

But still I believe in India. It’s ripe for reform. Out of the Greed is Good, Reagan and Thatcher era, the new social enterprise political ideals of Clinton and Blair were born. India is on the cusp of finding its own “third way”. One that will create a fairer future by building better and compulsory education for all, and a wider culture of social mobility that will eventually kill, or at least reduce, the wealth divide.

In both India and the West, business pass money politicians. But there’s a big difference between aligning yourself with a political leader you believe in, compared with buying them off with cash and hookers. What if Indian businesses, lead by Indians with experience of working in the West, start to support change leaders? With open and transparent campaign contributions? In the CEO of a construction firm sponsoring me, and other senior managers I’ve met who have returned from time working in the West, I see an irritation with the system. At their fingertips they have the resources, imagination and maybe the inclination to stage a coup.

What if a young new leader found a voice with their clean funding on a platform or education and reform. Imagine that candidate coming to office. They’d have the energising authority to reform every corner of Indian politics and welfare. It would kick start a rebuilding of faith in the system. Their first action might be to implement ISO9000 in every IAS office followed by a 300% pay rise for every civil servant, easily paid for by sacking 75% of them. Surely being asleep on the job, reading the paper, or taking 4 hour lunch breaks are sackable offences, even in the IAS, so it shouldn’t be too hard finding grounds to reduce the staff to a quarter. If necessary pension them off to avoid a riot. But this breed of politicians could make the IAS, and above all the education system, accountable and attractive alternatives to business for smart young minds. Good pay, good career trajectories, and autonomy for those with talent and clean hands. The frou frou dinner parties of Indian homes would resonate with “Your son is teacher Mrs Singh?! Well we must introduce him to our daughter, she works for the government you know!”

I’ve made many friends here, people that have given me their love and support through possibly the toughest time of my life, and it’s hard to think how they will interpret the contradiction that I’ve found Indians uncompassionate after they have taken me into their hearts, offered me companionship to warm my soul, beds to sleep in and food to burp. To them I say thank you for your friendship, I value it deeply and though I may not show it, I'll keep you close to my heart, always. Please don’t be offended that I don’t like your country, instead come and visit me in England. Now that’s a dump...