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, 17 October 2010

And Another Thing II

If you think of the “environment” or let’s take a more specific example, the atmosphere, as a space in which we can store our pollution, the by-products of our consumption, then it’s easy to imagine it as a resource. Like a resource it's finite, keep putting things into the space and one day it will be full.

During this journey from the wealthiest countries in the world (UK, France, Switzerland), to the poorest (Nepal, India), I’ve become more convinced that the way we exploit our environment is just another facet of the global social injustice that has dogged the way this planet is governed since colonial times.

For over a century, richer countries have exploited the earth’s resources, providing a comfortable quality of life for their citizens at a disproportionate cost to the citizens of poorer countries. The exploitation of energy, oil, coal, mineral resources, timber, food crops, cotton, and more, has on the whole benefited the wealthy foreigners exploiting the commodity more than the country whose soil yields it.

So it is with the pollution-storing-environment resource. The beneficiaries who are fully exploiting this resource are the highly consumptive rich nations, who need a lot of rivers, sea, landfills and atmosphere to store the waste their high quality of life produces, and they are getting this globally shared resource for a knock down price. Free.

In the case of space to put the CO2 produced by energy consumption, the US and Europe has had more than 200 years of free rein, burning first their own forests to fuel the industrial revolution, then global coal and now oil reserves. And the situation continues to be exploited unevenly. The quality of each life in the US is using up that storage space over 3 times faster than the quality of each life in India.

And the impact of overusing this CO2 storage will be paid by developing countries. Climate change associated to manmade activities will impact the tropical countries most, where weather patterns are more susceptible to changes, and it will impact agricultural economies that rely on predictable climate to grow crops to feed themselves and earn foreign exchange with which they can give themselves a decent quality of life. Poor developing countries, not by accident, are almost always tropical and agricultural.

“Saving the Environment” is a confusing way of phrasing the problem. Firstly it distances people from the problem. A head teacher in India while congratulating me on this expedition told me “It’s great what you are doing. I love the environment, trees and all that, it would be a shame if we lost it all.” as though the environment is a nice-to-have bonus, something pretty to look at on the drive to work. Secondly it obfuscates the fact that it is humanity that will suffer not the trees. The jet stream will still blow (though no one knows for sure where), clouds will still form at the top of thermal columns of air, wildlife, animals and plants will quietly uncomplainingly adapt, migrate, evolve or die out.

And humans will have to adapt, migrate, evolve or die out too. The ones best suited to adapting and migrating will be the rich ones. The ones without the money or the liberty to move freely around the planet will face the choice between evolving, and where that’s not possible, dying out.

So once again a valuable resource is being disproportionately exploited by people in wealthy nations, leaving a disproportionately high cost for people in poor nations.

I’m becoming more convinced that the mechanism for “Saving the environment” is universally linked to creating global social justice in the world. The two things are mutually dependent. In order to responsibly manage the pollution-storage-space environment there has to be social justice, and managing the environment will prevent social injustice.

Equal education, equal access to healthcare and equal access to global resources. But seeing as we can’t even eradicate poverty in the world I really don’t think we have any chance. Thank god I’m not a poor Indian.

People criticise the environmental credentials of this journey, sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly. I’m bored of having the same discussions and clarifying confusions about “Biofuels: good or bad?” or “The Environmental Impact of Container Ships”. There’s a bigger point. Living in the UK and especially London, it’s impossible to escape wasteful consumption and being a “valuable member of society” (which actually means working somewhere in the industrialised cycle of turning resources into commodities and delivering them to consumers – and is presumably opposed to being a worthless member of society). By taking to the road and escaping that cycle by living in a truck, I believe, means I am contributing more towards creating a socially just world and therefore helping reduce the CO2 I’m responsible to an even greater degree than the act of running my bus on waste oils. A consumptive lifestyle, complicity with unfair resource exploitation is the root cause of a carbon intensive lifestyle and the fuel I put in my truck is only part of the picture.

In an interview this week I was asked what people can do to help the environment and I said, “I don’t know, they have to figure it out for themselves.” I’m not a role model with easy pithy consumable answers, and if I said they have to quit their jobs, let all their hire-purchase electronics be repossessed, move out of the city and plant tomatoes, most people would understandably think I’m even more of a naive idealist idiot than they already do.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Writing Conspiracy

I have been complicit in a conspiracy.

This week I attended the Ubud Writers and Readers conference. Ubud is Bali’s answer to Glastonbury and Brighton. More yoga centres and organic buddhas that you can shake an Ayurvedic bush at. The writers festival was largely attended by readers, typically Australian women of a certain age, and in many cases a certain size, anxious to rub shoulders with their favourite authors. The atmosphere of divorcees on holiday with their girlfriends, enjoying their new found HRT-stoked freedom to express and be creative, infected the halls with a joyous vigour. Even the glibness of sunglassed authorrs weren't enough to quell the spirit.

I for my part had volunteered to get a free pass, avoiding the $350 ticket price, in exchange for helping out by setting up projectors at some of the presentations. Luckily for me, none of the workshops I had been allocated to, (How to write erotic fiction, How to read erotic fiction, and How to buy erotic fiction) needed to be enhanced with the use of a PowerPoint presentation. So aside from the extra shifts I helped out with, I really had nothing to do but pick the seminars I wanted to attend.

Along with my free pass I was also clutching a secret agenda. The idea of writing a book about my adventure is taking hold and this I figured would be a good place to figure out how to write a book and schmooze with publishers and agents.

I can safely say that the knowledge i need to write the erotic sections of the book I now have safely covered, but as for the rest of it I’m still hugely confused. The process of getting an agent and submitting to a publisher is a little less vague, and the faces and names of potential contacts might be one degree of separation closer now, but I only realised what the big question I wanted answering was at the end of the final session.

Daniel DeCruz, an Australian author who has written a runaway best seller about teenagers screwing and taking drugs in some party town down under (I forget where), was asked if he’d made any money from his book.

“A little bit.” He answered meekly.

So my question surfaced just as the moderator thanked everyone and drew the conference to a close. For a moment the burning urge to halt the ending and shout my question to the stage came close to overwhelming me, but instead I joined the conspiracy of silence that I realised all the other aspiring authors were complicit in from the start.

My question would have been; “So how do you sit at a computer day after day, without earning a penny, for months on end, knowing that you have maybe a 5% chance of getting anything but rejections letters back from publishers, and that if your book does get published and miraculously becomes a runaway success you might make ‘a little bit’ for all your efforts?”

I shared this with Christina who is in the throes of writing her first book, and she too realised this was also the question she’d been wanting answered all along. After the festival, she posed it to her editor on a skype call. The answer of course was obvious.

“Don’t ask that question Christina, ever.”

The Essence of Yoga

You’re no one in Ubud if you don’t do Yoga. Sadly I’m a yoga-phobe, afflicted by the fear of Yoga after a traumatic experience the first time I tried it. I’m going to share this horrific moment with you on my blog for the first time ever, in the hope that it will help me overcome my fear.

The first time I went to Yoga was with a housemate Chiara from Kentish Town. She convinced me that it was amazing and that I would see the light, so I pulled on my tracksuit and trainers and off we went to the community centre around the corner.

The instructor was tall and thin, with a voice that seemed theatrically soft, and a 1000-yard stare that looked beyond me as he welcomed me into his class with hands clenched in prayer. I instantly recognised these characteristics as that of a heavy stoner, which reduced my anxiety about the impending effort of exercise I’d been dreading. Much later I would learn this was actually the gaze and stance of the enlightened.

And so we took our places on the mats and started lifting our hands, bending over, lying down and various combinations of these poses; Lying down with our hands up, bending over while lying down, and lifting our hands while bent over. I looked across at Chiara to share a smirk at our inability and gracelessness, only to see a look of total concentration had taken over her face and furrowed her brow.

Starved of an accomplice with whom to snigger I too turned my attention to breathing and bending. Plank to Cobra, Namaste Hands and Mountain Pose. But after a just few moments of these body folds and exhalations, a new preoccupation descended on me. With my buttocks raised in the air while bending, lying and lifting my hands I felt a fart wrestling its way through my bowls on its way to the surface. I clenched down firmly on my coccyx, imagining the shock and condemnation Chiara and the teacher would give me if I let one fly in the midst of this sacred workout.

For a few moments I soldiered on, holding back the gaseous floodgates. Wincing with all my might in Warrior Two, Downward Dog and Lunge, I held on, but my grip was loosening, and I knew it was just a matter of time. Finally as I went from Cat to Cow there was nothing I could do and out it came. Like a trumpet fanfare at a jousting contest, the pitch changing musically as I arched my back, the noise filled the room, drowning out the earnest sounds of nasal inhalations. My eyes shot left and right looking for an escape, perhaps there would be enough confusion over its origins if I played it cool.

“Good Andy” said the instructor soothingly, quelling any doubt the noises origins. “Your body is expelling negative energy.”

‘Huh? What?’ I thought, my blush fading as Chiara confirmed the acceptability of my fart with a sweet smile that would have been just as appropriate if I had offered her a bite of my chocolate ice cream. ‘It’s Ok to fart? Well thank God for that,’ I mused, ‘cos there’s more itching to come out’.

Over the next few moves I relaxed my sphincter into the poses and emitted the ripest of peaches into the shared atmosphere of the hall, contented and calmed by the satisfaction that I was really overcoming my western inhibitions in the pursuit of Yogic truth. To hold back, after all, was to hold on to negative energy, anti-zen, yang, or was it ying, whichever the black one was.

The first few screamers were met with sympathetic and knowing smiles by the other students, but as the smell started to take hold, and the flow of my bad chi showed no sign of abating, resignation and then irritation took hold of the facial expressions around me. Even the instructor’s calm voice started to crack with irritation as my negative essences reached the front of the room and overpowered the essential oil burner.

Chiara shot me a glare of disapproval, which I misread as concern, so I responded with a gaze of serene profundity, to reassure her that I was sincerely bubbling my way towards enlightenment.

By the time I had expelled all my negative life-force the hall had a hum of natural spirit to it which was making even me wince. The instructor, unable to open the security locks on the windows, decided to end the class early and was obliged to part refund the other students. I was relieved the bending and lying down had come to an end, because as well as draining my internal chakras, I’d also worked up quite a sweat and my muscles were ready to give up.

Chiara didn’t speak to me for the walk home and in the wake of her admonishment I’ve never been able to face Yoga again.


From the minute I put the glider bag on my back I’m tasting every one of its sensations. The coarseness of the shoulder straps, the weight pushing down on my back, the extra burn in my thighs on the steps up to launch. Under a heightened tone of quelled excitement everything slows enough to be savoured. I unfold the upside down wing onto the ground, reaching in to grab a wing-tip, feeling the crispy fabric in my fingers and the promise of flight my mind associates with its texture. Stepping backwards, the white underside reveals itself to me and the sky as it unconcertinas out, bold and proud, unashamed of the space it needs. I spread out the other side and wings full scale spikes my anticipation.

My hand slips around the end of the lines, where they are connected to the stitched woven risers that will clip into my harness. Their reassuring strength is rough against my bare fingers. One at a time I clear the lines, untangling them with gentle pulls, or quick jerks, a tinge of pleasure coming from my familiarity with the deft task of judging how to deal with each knot in turn.

To prepare the wing for launch I have to stretch it out fully above the ground, like a kite, and check the lines while it flies. I reach through the collection of coloured lines, grabbing the appropriate ones in each hand, sitting familiarly in between my fingers.

During the launch my right hand will pull the glider up into the air, and I’ll fight to hold my ground against its pull. This is the hand that joins the glider and wind’s conspiracy against me. They will tug me when the wind is strong and I will have to yank them when it’s weak. My left hand is the rein with which I tame the dragon spirit of the wing’s unruly behaviour. It steers, and slows the glider’s eagerness, and when I am caught out or off balance it will save me by killing the wing back to the ground.

The air on the back of my neck guides me to wait for the right cycle of the breeze, just a gust is all I need for now, a few seconds worth. As it comes I start the puppeteering and the openings at the front of the wing catch the breeze, rising, unevenly pulling open adjacent cells, accelerating skywards like leaping salmon vying with each other. The wing stretches out its folds as air snakes sideways in-between the double skin inflating it to form its aerofoil shape. As soon as it’s lifted just clear of the earth and fully unfolded I’m resisting its strong pull, already putting pressure into the reins to hold it and leaning back from it. I scan the fabric, brightness filling my retina, but I’m looking for the lines, each one even and spaced, ordered and un-knotted. The wing’s ready and wants to fly. I’m awed by the thought of this, and have to fight the excitement as much as the wind. I pull in with my rein fully to bring it back down to earth, conceding a step towards it’s pull as it nestles into a neat arc on the ground with the cells all evenly open ready to catch the wind when launching.

I push my hips forwards bringing the caribiner of my harness closer to the lines and clip in with a satisfying click. “You are now the pilot in command of this aircraft”, the distant echo of a voice from my first flight still sends shivers of pride through me as I do this. I loop my hands through the brake handles that I will use after the launch when I’m in flight, and those words feel even more genuine now after a year of flying. I attach the speed bar connections checking they are free, double check my buckles and look at the wing, still in its arc wrapped around me, the leading edge raised into the breeze, the open cells quivering with readiness.

I’m fighting the urge to go now. I’m seconds away from being in the air. The launch will take less than 5 seconds if timed and executed right, but I have to tame the eagerness and pick the right moment or it won’t lift cleanly and I’ll have to abort or risk a dangerous launch.
I nestle myself in the centre of the open wing, breathe, smelling the humidity in the air, and wait for the wind’s cycle to start. The breeze comes and goes and as I feel it rising again I seize the moment and pull to lift the wing, slowly at first, but quickly responding to my touch. With the reins I hold back the speed, stepping into the pull, reducing the pressure, balancing position, velocity, force. My eyes scour for clues of how the wing might chose to misbehave, but any visible signs are pre-empted by my harness’s grip on my shoulder straps telling me to sidestep under the shifting centre.

The glow of knowing its going according to expectation flashes behind my concentration.

The wing is open, off the ground, perfectly curved and rising. I add some pressure to the reins, fighting its urge over shoot. Only in the air can the wing adopt its natural state, smooth, un-creased, a curved shape that is only true to itself in the freedom of the sky. As its pull on my body becomes more vertical than horizontal I release both hands, and pull gently on the handles looped around my wrists, my thumb and fingers open so they can’t slip out. This is the moment when flying takes over from standing; even though I’m still on the ground my weight is now shifting from the ground to the air. I’m entering the sky.

The wing is overhead now. My eyes are looking up, but my concentration is listening the sensations of my body, arms and legs. I spin to face the cliff edge ducking the lines as I turn, stepping towards the ground’s end at the same time, playing with the force of the lines, my speed towards the edge, and the distance before the abyss. I’m sending my weight forwards, towards the drop, committed, pushing towards it, accelerating, sure that speed is now more important to me than the ground under my boots. In two steps my heaving paces have become a smooth fast run oblivious to the discomfort of the leg straps pulling me up into the harness. Against my legs’ push the final release from the ground take the last ounces of my weight from my the soles of my feet and I swing back weightlessly into the harness as the earth’s edge glides past below me and I’m in the air, flying.