Monday, 22 November 2010
The 60’s hippies that drove to India and that danced at Woodstock, were acting on a desire to escape the values and job-for-life destiny of their parent’s generation who, coming out of the austerity of the Second World War, were revelling in a period of prosperity and technology advances that were creating a consumptive society. Sparked by the Beat Generation’s rebellion against the norms of music and poetry, the hippies rejected the norms of lifestyle, and clumsily developed an alternative way, founded on turning to nature and community.
When I started planning this trip, just before the credit crisis, the UK had experienced a 10 year stint of unprecedented prosperity, and developed a credit fuelled appetite for consuming. So I like to think that my escape was an attempt to reject those values, but like the 60’s hippies I have to admit that it was funded by that same economic growth spurt which has given me the savings and freedom to temporarily escape my “career for life” destiny.
Like the hippies of the 60’s I am playing the system, earning my money with a laptop, the internet and corporate clients and spending with a hippy bus journey. It’s a mistake to think that the bus loads that drove to India were anti-capitalist. They were savvy globalising entrepreneurs, long before Thatcher or Reagan made it fashionable or acceptable to be so. Journeys were funded by trading, just like Marco Polo centuries before. Selling auto parts bought in Germany to the Turks, selling spare seats to passengers on the hippy trail, selling Afghan weed to Indian lads, and then stocking up on Indian fabrics and silver jewellery to sell on the beaches of the Adriatic during the return journey.
In some ways I feel that this is where I’m failing my hippy badge. For 12 years I took cars across the Sahara Desert to West Africa loaded with Europe’s junk; broken fridges, auto parts, bicycles, Walkmans, and mobile phones, all to be traded and sold to fund the journeys. This trip hasn’t had that element of trade-as-you-go and I miss it because it’s a sweet insight into what the countries you visit need and what they have to offer. And if you can pull it off it’s a sweet earner too.
The hippy movement made a kind of resurgence in the mid 90’s in the shape of “New Age Travellers”, living in old trucks, squatting on land, and largely migrating with agricultural work cycles; from hop picking in Kent to winkle picking in Scotland, and then down to Spain for the oranges. New Age Travellers sprang from the rave culture but it also grew out of a rejection of the Loadsamoney culture Thatcherism was creating, so along with copious drugs and music, was active protest about social issues, like the Battle for Twyford Down road building, the Poll Tax riots, and pretty much anything else the Tories did.
And both movements arguably left their mark on their societies before their demise. The hippies of the 60’s settled down to merge with their Baby Boomer generation instilling it with a hint of liberalism and social consciousness as their voice blended into society’s voice. The New Age Traveller movement was largely smashed by legislation and then co-opted under Blairism into the mainstream but left an appetite for great music but moreover angry protest in the UK which still keeps the police on its toes.
I’m not sure that the Biotruck will have much of a generational legacy, but the green movement, which like the hippy movement has an interest in bringing society closer to nature and away from consumption, better had. In the meantime I'm reclaiming the term Hippy.
Sunday, 21 November 2010
The other insidious oxymoron designed to generate that warm everything-will-be-ok feeling is “Clean Coal”. A technology which turns coal into a collection of hydrocarbon gasses before burning it. It’s a cleaner, more efficient use of coal, but no measure of efficiency can escape the fact that this is the worst of the fossil fuels, the use of which is one of the best mechanism for taking carbon safely locked away underground and sticking it in the air to warm up in the sun.
Clean coal is often cited along with the phrase Carbon Capture and Storage (CC&S). CC&S involves putting carbon filters on the chimney stacks of coal fired power station, or using bacteria to absorb the carbon. The language makes it sound like the perfect solution; you catch the carbon and then store it. Why didn’t we think of this before? Problem solved. Except capturing CO2 gas into a solid filter is very difficult and makes the powerplants less efficient, so they have to burn more coal. And even then, the capture part is a doddle compared with the storage part. The filters are volumetrically hugely inefficient so the CO2 they do catch takes up lots of space. The bacteria that absorb the carbon quickly die and then decompose releasing their carbon atoms into the atmosphere in the form of methane and CO2, so the storage needs to lock their dead bacteria bodies and filters away forever. The gigatonnes of carbon atoms extracted from the ground in coal, petroleum and natural gas each year would need to be returned to the ground in a way that couldn’t find a route back to the surface. That would take a lot of unfeasibly large holes and a load of energy to dig them. Putting it back in the holes it came from is a lovely idea but not feasible for a host of reasons; you can’t put a solid back down a gas pipe for instance, it takes up more space afterwards than it did before, and you’d have to cover quarries with a concrete cap that would last 1000’s of years without cracking. Can you imagine the builders guarantee on that patio?
“Carbon Credits” is another cuddly positive sounding term. Companies emitting CO2 get taxed on the amount they produce in a bid to discourage them. It creates a “Carbon Market” the theory goes, where pollution can be traded like debt. The market forces (also know in Marxist circles as ‘the law of the jungle’) are left to sort out the problem. But as always the raw natural forces of the market are only as good as the rules which manipulate them. The “Cap and Trade” scheme of carbon credits introduced in the US was so unpopular with industry that it’s been watered down, some say, to the point where it has become a toothless disincentive.
Cap and Trade systems allow you to pay off some poor third world farmers to work harder in a way that emits less CO2 while you continue to churn out your existing levels of pollution. In the meantime the poor farmers will take your money and if they have any sense at all continue to do what they were doing before, because no one is policing these offset schemes, especially in countries rife with corruption.
So how about this term I’ve made up; “Extraction Tax”. Sadly it’s not very lovely and soft, it’s harsh with two x’s and lots of hard t’s that jar as they come out of your mouth. The problem of greenhouse gasses starts when carbon atoms are lifted out of the ground. That’s when they become a liability that someone is going to have to deal with (or ignore and vent along an exhaust pipe). It’s like pointing the blame at the person in the room that farts. In the end we all breathe it in, but it’s the farter who should apologise. I appreciate this is a crap analogy (excuse the equally crap pun) but I can’t seem to write a blog post without some toilet talk and this was the only way I could think to insert it here.
The Oil & Gas and mining companies would carry the burden of paying it based on the number of carbon atoms they pulled out of the ground. No one likes the Oil & Gas or mining companies so it would be hugely popular with the public, and compared with the unaccountability of the capped and traded 3rd world farmer it would be easier to manage because there are only a few oil majors and OPEC countries in the cartel. In practice they’d pass the tax on to energy consumers, you and me, who would pay a more realistic price for the energy we use, reflecting its environmental impact.
But how could you get the world to agree implement such a tax universally? Well of course you can’t. But perhaps you wouldn’t need to. It might be enough if you had just one country that turned to all the oil companies and OPEC and said if you want to sell any of your fossil fuel energy here we are going to tax you for all the carbon you’re pulling out of the ground around the world, even if it’s not mined or used in this country. Like a license to trade with a fee that’s based on the size of the business. Of course it would have to be a country with a massive consumption or the oil majors and OPEC would just boycott it. A global superpower, a world leader, a country headed by someone who cares about the environment, the planet’s policeman. Yes, that’s right, China.
In practice the Chinese (and the US) are desperately looking for energy from wherever they can find it, and the last thing they are about to do is start taxing their own imports of the stuff. But globally, no one could afford for China to shut down its industry if OPEC called their bluff, and ironically so dependent is the rest of the world on China that we would probably have more to lose by China shutting down than the Chinese would, so this threat could be used to leverage other countries to come onboard with the Extraction Tax. Then, Western politicians could finally implement a harsh, costly effective green tax they always dreamed of, and blame it’s unpopular consequences on those bloody Chinese.
I can’t for a minute honestly imagine this would happen, but it’s been a peculiar week on the geopolitical stage; A communist country accurately pointed out to the capitalist ‘Free (Market) World’ that its currency is worth nothing and it doesn’t know how to manage it, which is surely a moment as significant in world events as the fall of the Berlin wall. Up-Perestroika, and raise your Glasnost! Twenty one years later and it turns out Communism won after all. China now owns America, it’s got all their money, and it’s going to be using it to buy all the energy that none of us will be able to afford in the future. It’s also suffering from largely unreported flooding on a massive scale caused by freak weather patterns that have hit all over Asia from Pakistan to Thailand. So I’m going to enjoy that the fantasy for a while that its leaders will put two and two together and play a poker hand that will make us all pay for the true cost of our energy.
Just recently Vinesh of Fathopes Biodiesel invited us to stay at the five star G-Tower Hotel while we were in KL, and as the hotel director, Melissa, gave us a “room orientation” explaining all the hi-tech features that made this tailored to the business user, I started rekindling those fantasies of being business man away from home.
The hotel is “green” she tells me, the hot tap water is warmed by the air conditioners’ waste heat, the terrace decking is made of rice husks, and it has fibre optic internet cable, saving on copper. There are lots more slightly lacklustre but well intentioned green initiatives which are enough to catapult this into the position of the greenest hotel in KL.
Sustainability is a radically new concept in oil-rich Malaysia, and everywhere the truck goes it’s met with enthusiastic curiosity. We are invited to park in front of the lobby of the hotel, despite the vent from the compost toilet being fully engaged in blowing out an atrocious movement from a few days back. Their reverence doesn’t wane as we lollop in our flipflops through reception and the concierge asks us all about the oil conversion system without coughing as the idling exhaust engulfs him.
I’ve never felt more like a hippy, and because I’m so out of place, I enjoy the hospitality and attention all the more. In the room I play with the telly, test the shower, fiddle with the stereo, sniff the mint shampoo and accidentally call room service when I sit on the phone.
A toilet TV has been installed so business travellers don’t need to miss a second of CNBC, but by the time I discover it I don’t have the enthusiasm to try it out. The next day my feelings about the hotel have darkened to match the stained reclaimed hardwood interior.
It’s not home. My home is in the parking lot downstairs. The aircon has given me a cold, and all the soft towels, mini-bar peanuts and sky-rise infinity swimming pools can’t make up for the fact that I’d prefer to be in my truck parked up in the Perdana Lake Gardens of KL, surrounded by the Orchid and Butterfly parks.
Overnight my envy at the first class business traveller has evaporated. Their beleaguered lonely faces at breakfast say it all. No longer does fawning staff, delightfully wrapped salmon vol-au-vents, or fresh bathrobes come close to compensating them for the fact they aren’t at home either.
Once again been reminded of the good will this colourful bus generates and the importance of that for making this trip a success. It’s not the first time. In Dorset, Adrian gave up his weekends to crawl around the mud fitting parts for the engine conversion system. In Iran, Sammy took me in, acted as my cultural and language translator, and with Hamid scoured Tehran to find a solution to my oil crisis. In India, Prateek, my lawyer put up with my petulant fits, patiently helping me fight the forces of law and disorder, while Avi and the community of paraglider pilots in Kamshet adopted me and soothed my anger with their friendship.
In Delhi, Gurjit hosted me in his home while his mechanics pimped the bus back to life and made it liveable. That’s not to mention the people that have donated fuel, and time to help fix the bus, or the countless people that have waved and cheered the bus along the road, perhaps recognising it from the newspapers or just buoyed by its lively paintjob.
The day after we arrived in Malayasia with the bus battered from its shipping ordeal, we limped up to a garage. Big and well run I was sure this workshop could fix the bus’ problems; A growling wheel bearing, seized callipers, engine, gearbox and diff oil overdue for a change, a dead battery, and a host of electrical problems caused by a rat/mouse that continues to chew through new wires every evening. But I was also pretty sure that it would be an expensive garage bill. Gone are the days of cheap Indian roadside mechanics that can rebuild engines for a few dollars, but hopefully gone also with them are the days of repairs that last only as far as the next mechanic.
I was resigned to bite the bullet on the repair costs, but within minutes of arriving they had the story out of me; driving around the world, living in the bus, built it myself with the help of friends, run it on vegetable oil. Soon word had gone up the management chain of command to the boss who decreed that the work on the bus would be free of charge.
The next morning a couple of journalists woke us with the news that we were to have traditional Birds Nest Soup hosted by a local politician. We dressed and just before the big arrival, Jason the kindly owner of the workshop introduced himself and insisted on whisking us away for breakfast. It took a while to realise that as well as running the garage Jason also ran the Bird’s Nest restaurant, and the penny dropped that he was the local politician. The busy restaurant was full of journalists he’d invited for the press conference he’d arranged, and without even trying we’d kick started our Malaysian publicity campaign. On hearing about Christina and me recently getting together, he showered us with pink champagne to celebrate and offered me cigars and pledged a big meal that evening.
Jason owns a number of business employing 2000 people in a village with a population of 10,000. As we ate piles of crab and shrimps that evening, he passed me a fold of notes, “To help you enjoy Malaysia” he explained as I looked down too bemused by the significant wad of cash to show my gratitude.
The work on the bus continued for 4 days, any spare part I wanted was ordered, delivered and professionally fitted. The workshop guys bought us lunches and we traded T-shirts like World Cup players. As the newspapers carried our story, more interested in the round-the-world adventure than the environmental aspect, customers at the garage recognised us and they too bought us more lunches. We posed for countless camera-phone pictures while hiding any hint of indigestion.
I thought it was a fair assumption that in the same way as Star Fruit isn’t really made of stars, Bird’s Nest soup got its name from looking a bit like a nest. On the second day we got a tour of one of Jason’s aviaries where they farm the nests, and the factory where they are picked clean with tweezers. On the final day we noticed on the menu that a bowl of the soup sells for US$20. 1kg of nest is worth two thousand dollars. Under Jason’s hospitality we’d been casually munching it down like cornflakes.
Jason sat back after his last mouthful. “I love this village” he beamed contentedly, his mother looking on from behind the restaurant counter, his brother busily texting on his iPhone across the table. To someone passing through it would be hard to see the charm of Gelang Patah, a little industrial village on the edge of Malaysia, 15 minutes from the Singapore border. But it has a village feel with an uncannily close knit community. A friend of one mechanic heard I had a bike on the back of the bus and turned up unannounced to service it, while another took a screwdriver to my amplifier tuning the equaliser of the solar disco after hearing it distort.
In the UK I guard my privacy jealously. But the further I get from Europe the more inappropriate it seems to try to mind my own business. People walk in and out of the truck to have a look as if it’s a bus stop, catching me in my pants or picking my nose. I’m asked personal questions about my finances, relationships, even how I shit. But I’ve grown to understand the value of sharing yourself with the strangers around you, especially in small towns. It lets me join the community albeit briefly.
One thing that Jason and all the other people who have helped me have in common is that they love their homes, and have no yearning to travel, yet seem to have this admiration for those that do. This contradiction has been a mystery to me, but perhaps I’m getting closer to understanding it. While I’m ambitiously trying to understand how the whole world is put together, they are on a similar quest to learn the intimacies of their local world. Astutely knowing their way around their community, these amazing hosts are able and enthusiastic to show them off in its best light to strangers.
Another trait which confused me was the disinterest in the gifts I’ve left as a thank you. And here again I’m getting even closer to understanding. Their help hasn’t been offered in exchange for gifts, business contacts, or the publicity the truck can bring them, but it’s offered for the opportunity to be part something exciting that’s come to their town, and above all for the exchange of friendship with the new exciting people that have stopped at their door. I’m lucky to have met these amazing friends and have this network dotted around the world. The only regret is that I the friendships are short lived. Our paths are unlikely to cross again once I leave their worlds. The only solution I can think of is that sooner or later I will settle into a little world of my own. Seeing Jason’s contented smile as he announced his love of Gelang Patah made me feel that perhaps I could really enjoy that same feeling too, and when I do, it will be my turn to host intriguing strangers with birds’ nests of my own.
“Glad to be able to help you on your way” said Jason’s SMS text message as we pulled away.
Tuesday, 2 November 2010
Until last night, I’d never given much thought to shipping containers. And if it weren’t for Andy’s Biotruck I don’t think I ever would. But yesterday the Biotruck arrived at the port of Tanjun Pelibas, Malaysia after an extended and inadvertent tour of Southeast Asia. We’d been long been awaiting this day, especially Andy, who had no idea when he loaded it on the ship in Calcutta that a series of miscommunications would result in it being lost at sea for over two months.
We arrived at the shipping yard early, cleared security, and embarked on a series of proceedings that would keep us there until after midnight. Unloading the container from the ship, the bus from the container, and ushering the bus through customs was No Small Deal and gave me about 15 hours to soak up the ambiance of the port.
It was hard to get comfortable there. The container yard employed a pretty much all-male force, and I was troubled that it was That Time of the Month and there was no one around to empathize with my cramps, much less bum a feminine product off of. It was really hot there and–except for the oily unloading dock–there was really no place to sit, or anything to eat, or read, or do. I’m happy to concede that the problem might be mine—that maybe I just don’t have sufficient curiosity to appreciate a container yard. But it reminded me of a sensation I had on some of my in elementary school field trips to sewage plants or recycle centers: I was learning something for sure, but only sluggishly.
I just wish my friend Jeanine had been there. I know that the same forklifts that were freaking me out as they barreled around the corner of the warehouse would give her the hugest thrill. She’d ask a million questions and revel in all the irritating loud noises of the port: the reverse beepers and belching trucks, the screeching automated doors. I, on the other hand, just can’t relate.
But just because I can’t relate to the shipping port, doesn’t mean it doesn’t relate to me. In fact, as I was watching the huge cranes raise and lower the containers against the skyline, it occurred to me that many, if not most, of the products I consume come through places just like this, that what I was witnessing was a behind-the-scenes look at global consumerism.
Maersk was the container company that was sponsoring the expedition by shipping Andy’s truck between continents. One of the nice things about Maersk is that they keep scorecards that feature a CO2 dial that is based on actual volume, routes and vessels making it easier for companies to monitor their carbon emissions. According to this scorecard, Andy’s transport footprint was 1/10th of what it would be if he were driving.
After waiting five hours for the container to be unloaded from the ship and then hauled over to the unloading dock, the real fun began. Because the Biotruck was the first private vehicle Maersk had ever delivered, there were a quiet a few snags. For one, the truck was too wide for their loading dock ramps. So the trick was this: somehow they had to get it off the container platform, which stood a few feet higher than the dock. Preventing it from toppling off the narrow ramp and crashing to the ground would take a pretty steady hand; there was only about a 4-inch margin of error. At first Andy seemed willing to give it a try. He fired up the ignition, let it idle for a few seconds, and but then turned it off again. The risk was too big.
A team of ten stood on the loading platform scratching their heads as the sun began to go down in the Strait of Melacca. The workers hauled out wood blocks and beams and hammered together a makeshift extension to the ramp. It was a little doubtful whether wood was strong enough to support the six-ton truck, but it did widen the ramp by a few precious inches.
Andy revved the engine and the bus lurched forward slowly. Just as the front tires sunk onto the ramp the truck bottomed out and hung like a seesaw on the edge of the container. He shifted into reverse and backed up, shredding the makeshift wood ramp.
The workers set about rebuilding the ramp while a fork lift drove around to the back of the container and hoisted it up, tipping the platform forward so that the angle was less severe. Andy climbed back in the Biotruck and turned the key, only to find that battery was dead. They stretched a pair of jumper cables between the truck and the forklift and fired up the engine again. Andy pulled forward. The exhaust pipe peeled off the bottom with a huge ripping sound. Andy shifted back into reverse setting the front tires back onto the container.
By now it was dark–long past dinnertime–and we puzzled together under the yellow glow of the shipyard lights. Someone had the idea to drive the forklift around to the front of the bus and hold it up by the bumper and then slowly lower it as Andy steered the bus forward
Andy fired up he engine again and eased it forward onto the prongs of the forklift. It looked precarious, but worked, and once the forklift got out of the way, the bus came flying down the ramp. Andy floored it down the aisle of the warehouse and peeled around the corner leaving a wake of chip fat smoke. I met up with him on the other side of the building where he was pushing the bus door open with his eyes wide.
“Let’s go save the world Christina!”
His sarcasm had clearly returned, but I was happy to see him revitalized. His sense of mission had been flagging after the truck got lost at sea and I was discouraged when he talked about abandoning the whole idea, dismissing the entire trip a failure, and in his darkest moments, declaring the planet’s future as completely doomed. I tried my best to buoy him by making our days dynamic and busy. I scheduled a compulsory boat ride through the Melaka canals, and prodded him through the night markets to ogle all the cool trinkets–childhood toys like slinkies and sidewalk pops. While he played along, even lit up when I purchased two wire head-scatchers, somehow all the plastic-y tourist kitsch was only make him feel worse about the world. Even the man who held a crowed captive as he pierced his index finger right through a coconut was not enough to impress him.
Andy just grew increasingly despondent and rhetorical: Why bother? What’s the point?
I’ll admit I was starting to have trouble myself. Reports of crisp nights and crackling woodstoves had me longing for home, longing to escape the weighty humidity of Asia and walk under the big leaf maples of the ditch trail that I was sure by now were turning yellow. Despite my ability to derive contentment from the smallest things—afternoon coffees and little walks– lounging on Facebook in cheap hotel rooms was not exactly my idea of an Expedition. My own disappointment was starting to mount.
I climbed down from the unloading dock and stepped up into the Biotruck to join Andy. After two months at sea, it was full of mouse turds and the dank smell of neglect, but for now we were just happy to be driving it away from the shipping yard it into the long dark. Behind us the huge cranes lit the horizon, facilitating the nonstop work of importing and exporting freight containers and enabling to the massive global transactions that make the world’s economies spin.
The next day we’d strip the sheets off, take them to the laundry, and procure cleaning supplies. We’d fire up the solar disco and get to scrubbing. There was a lot to do: We had a Biotruck to resuscitate, our idealism to reclaim.