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.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Oh Ship!

Just last week Jimmy handled a big shipment for the US troops going to Afghanistan. The blue, ochre, green and white “boxes” (containers to you and me) surrounding him contain all the stuff we consume, on their way to and from being made and being used. Banal toothbrush holders and bed linen, cool digital cameras and iPads or quirky components who’s function is known only unto the consignee and a mystery to the common man. To Jimmy they are all just numbers, corresponding paperwork with locations and routings.

He’s the saviour of the day today. Most days the progress of the Biotruck requires a saviour. Yesterday it looked like the loading of the truck on to the container was going to cost $1500. That’s for me to drive it up a ramp onto a flat platform container (a Flatrack), and for 3 guys to strap it down with steel cable. You expect to get fleeced when you go through a port, but even by international standards of captive marketeering/racketeering, this was way high. Thanks to Jimmy from Taiwan working on the port operations team on a 4 year contract, who took a liking to the truck, and to us, I was able to get a price more commensurate with the standard level of arbitrary exorbitance associated with the phrase “port fees”. US$550.

I spent the morning following a very important customs officer around his office while he clutched my paperwork. Occasionally he would turn to me and gruffly bark “one minute” with a melt-your-heart smile, while he surveyed and signed triplicate copies agents deferentially begged his attention for. I knew he was important by the way officer and agents fawned at his passing, bowing deeply, and laughing excruciatingly hard at his jokes, most of which I assumed were at the expense of my height or at our inability to communicate. I’d been passed slowly up the chain of command from one officer to the next as each one admitted defeat at the confusion over the paperwork I had and how to dealt with it. I smiled a poor helpless man’s smile to help deflect their annoyance and expedite my file up the ranks. From the second floor, end of corridor I was passed to the first floor by the lifts, then just passed the toilets, and finally to the big glass office behind reception to the burly boss.

At each the of encounters, the men in charge called upon the women doing all the work around them to translate for me. I’ve been hopelessly in awe of women in Thailand. Not because of their drop-dead looks, uniform short skirts, silky legs and 6 inch stilettos. But because they are infinitely smarter than their wallflower demeanour implies to my western man’s mind. In fact they are infinitely smarter than my western man’s minds, full stop.

I listen in the hostel lobby to an American meathead jock, attempting to impress the stunningly attractive daughter of the owner about how cool travel is, and how he loves Thai culture, and meeting Thai people. She politely listens while smiling with sweet interest, slowly turning back to revising for her final year Pharmacy exams without giving any impression she is disinterested in the conversation. Desperate to make more of a mark on her, he changes tack and decides to show some interest in her curious little books. Over a series of questions he slides into the realisation that this little hottie is on a university scholarship at one of the most prestigious universities in Bangkok.
“How did you get that?” asks Meathead, intimidation starting to infuse his faux-charm, as he realises she’s not the bar girl he thought.
“I study for exams” She beams back, seemingly shrinking him to dwarf like stature.

Ann at Maersk is another example. Frighteningly competent, she takes on the job of co-ordinating every aspect of getting the truck, and me, on a boat to the US, and I realise how far from the day-to-day of Maersk’s business this project is. Containerisation was designed and took off in the 70s because it makes everything from doormats to paint dye to DVD players the same, standardised, and therefore easy to deal with. The Biotruck was built with the un-apologising side effect of being the complete opposite. Too wide, too tall and too long to fit in with the backstage props the movers of the world are used to. None-the-less Ann relentlessly tracks down solutions to problems before they appear on the horizon. Working in a non-native language she speaks, not just great English, but fluent office-speak too, a language that normally makes my skin crawl, but coming from her is poetry.

Not only am I adrift with Thai, but I can’t get the international language of shipping right either. I confuse “Stuffing”, with “Lashing”; the all important “Cut off” I keep referring to as “Clearing”; and I don’t know my “Cubes” or “High Cubes” from my “Platforms”, “Flatbeds” or “Flatracks”. Even though the truck in “in gauge”, all of my linguistic hesitancy slows progress but both Ann and Jimmy don’t flinch. I give up when the acronyms start around the table. “The WCRS is fine but I’m worried about the ISF”, Ann proclaims. I don’t know what ISF stands for but if Ann’s worried about it, I know it’s important. I wish Ann could organise every aspect of my life.

The fact that filling and emptying a container is referred to as “Stuffing” and “Unstuffing” doesn’t full me with confidence, but the confident manner with which the giant forklifts pick and stack cubes like momentous Lego blocks is reassuring. Their un-human scale requires a conscious effort to remember they are further away than you think.

Tomorrow morning, in the wake of the night out Jimmy is planning for us around Pattaya (gulp), the truck will be stuffed onto the flatrack, in time for the Saturday midday Cut Off. On Tuesday it sets sail for Honk Kong and a 3 day lay over. Assuming we’ve got the ISF sorted, it will then be Trans-shipped on another vessel (not ship or boat!) to Long Beach, Los Angeles, USA. Sadly I won’t be on the first leg of the journey as it’s not a Maersk vessel and the owners didn’t want some beardy eco-warrior on board. We’re waiting to hear back from the captain of the trans-pacific vessel that runs the 21 day route to America to find out if I can join the crew and avoid the massive flying leg. Choosing her words carefully Ann said she is “hopeful”. In that case, so am I.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

This is my life

Incredibly I have managed to secure an early appointment to request a visa through the US embassy. Ironically the good news came with the bad; that it’s unlikely Maersk will be able to let me travel by container ship to the US because of “Security reasons” (my words, not theirs) surrounding US ports. A consequence of which is that I won’t need a visa after all.

After 4 months in South East Asia the constraints of security forces petrified of not doing enough with respect to safeguarding us had become a distant memory. The only reminder is the apologetic and pathetic searches of my bag when entering the MRT underground train stations in Bangkok. The security guards are caught between a need to be seen to do their job and the engulfing embarrassment of having to intrude into a stranger’s bag, a far cry from the uniformed Neanderthals at Heathrow airport, visibly high on the power to stop and search.

The visa issue is another up and down moment which the Biotruck expedition has provided numerous examples of so far. But I'm no longer removed from the expedition. It has become my full time experience. I’m so engrained in it that it is no longer a funny series of escapades endured on a finite tour. It’s now my reality and it feels endless. Just today as the shower ran out of water while I was all soaped up, I smiled to myself; Oh just another fun misadventure. Then the ugly realisation that this is my existence. I live in a world where the shower runs out mid wash, I shared the bus with a rat for 3 months, and I have to beg for fuel and suck it from people’s bins. This is who I am. It’s not a quirky game I’m playing as I journey around the world with my credit card loaded with get out of jail cash. It’s my life and irritatingly it’s regularly quite demeaning.

I had such promise once. Once upon a time I knew where I was going. When I was five I was going to be a fireman, then in my teens I was going to be a racing car designer, then an engineer, then a tour operator, then life stopped being driven by ambition and became about the next adventure. And it’s getting worse. I’m not sure where the future is leading. This journey is taking so long my aspirations have become totally blurred.

Today as we sat in the waiting room at the US Embassy trying desperately to find a way to get an appointment earlier than March the 9th, but resigned to the fact that there was nothing to do, I twigged to the distinct demographic sharing the room with us. Retirement aged American men, with a dishevelled demeanour, out of shape physique and a dress sense that belied their inability to look smart at any cost. I noticed a sense of entitlement amongst them too in the security line, indignantly made to wait with the Thais. The idea that a municipal building in your own country is somehow welcoming to members of the public is laughable, but when it’s your embassy, a home on foreign soil, there’s a sense that this is your place and inside are “your people”. Here surely you’ll be welcomed and come first. Of course embassy staff are just as dispassionate about the great unwashed, the plebs, (or members of the public as their training manual insists they be referred to) as any other front line civil servant. “Get in the line sir.”

But it was Christina that noticed the demographic first and had already put two and two together. These are Americas sex tourists. Their garish floral Hawaiian shirts, a uniform among the 50-plus born-again-studs popping Viagra for dear life in the hostess bars, was the biggest give-away. The redish complexion of alcoholism merely an unnecessary confirmation. Their presence in the embassy was either to plead for their Thai girlfriends request to visit the US, or to denounce their Thai ex-girlfriends for having made off with their passports and money. But once again in a moment when I should have been smirking at the absurdity of the situation this journey has thrown me into, I noticed that Christina was begging for my visa appointment with pleads that were as bouncing off the bullet proof glass of the counter just as apathetically as those of the randy grandpas begging for their bar girls. I stood engulfed by the sensation of having no more dignity than a bearded Thai mail order bride.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Without Prejudiced Eyes

I’ve just bought my first pair of cheap US$2 sunglasses and I’m over the moon about it, despite the fact they’ve effectively cost me $1500.

I’ve been recognising faint hints of bigotry in myself and some foreigners that live in South East Asia towards “the Locals”. At one of the schools I visited the English teachers talked about their diligent student with disdain, forgetting what delinquents they probably taught back in the UK.

At the BTS metro I witness a couple of foreign girls lose their temper with the gentle Thai clerk who can only dispense change, not a ticket, and tries patiently to explain this to them in his broken English. Not too long before, I’d done the same thing in frustration at not understanding how to buy a ticket.

I hear an American girl frustrated by staff at the internet cafe’s inability to repair an interruption with her connection mutters “I need someone white”.

Allegedly and tourism breaks barriers by bringing people together. But the evidence suggests it frustrates and confuses people by bringing them close enough to see they don’t understand the other, and that they don't have much in common.

But more than the language barrier, there’s a condescension from Westerners about these diminutive foreigners and their funny accents, which smacks of imperialism. And perhaps it’s mirrored in the Thai psyche, who seem to play along, affording much more respect to Western visitors that we deserve.

The Thai economy is trouncing the West’s, the levels of professional pride and competence are doing the same and so is the quality of life. I’m struggling to see what Westerners have to feel superior about. The balance has shifted since the 1940s. The big cities of Thailand and Malaysia are far from 3rd world.

Tom, a psychologist friend, says everyone harbours racist sentiments.

So wrestling with my own imperialist tendencies I decided there was no reason why I shouldn’t trust my precious eyesight to Thailand’s health professionals and I signed up for LASIK corrective eye surgery. I first thought about it 5 years ago in South Africa, but spent the money on a microlight pilot license instead. Then again I wanted to do it in Iran but didn’t have enough time. I was almost thwarted this time too as the Thai-ger economy growth here means that my hard currency is worth a third of what it was last year, so cheap medical treatments are correspondingly more expensive. However, by a stroke of luck I found a hospital doing a promotion for the month of February which meant I could afford it.

But the price was so cheap, I imagined some dingy backstreet one room clinic with a flickering neon sign over the door, and a cockroach scuttling across the reception desk.

I’ve never been to a private hospital before, so I’ve never known a level of care and thoroughness like it. Endless nurses bowing with praying hands, every surface spotlessly clean and leisurely consultations giving me time for every question and explanation. Even biscuits in reception. Yes, when it comes to trusting someone to slice you up, a few custard creams all it really takes to win me over. I can’t even begin to compare this with the “care” the NHS dispenses along with the faint scent of urine and infection.

Downloaded from a US medical association website, I started to ask the Doctor 50 questions to assess the clinics ability. By question five I was supposed to ask the Doctor if they were drug or alcohol dependent, how many malpractice suits they’d had filed against them, and if they were a convicted felon. I looked up from the list of questions at the impeccable professional demeanour of the Doctor, another 2 pages still to read in my hand, and smiled embarrassed “This all seems fine”. I folded the papers away.

“The lady’s done over 800 operations using this machine” I told Chris, realising that if she’d been a man I would have said “The Doctor’s done...”. Another example of my subconscious bigotry no doubt? Her reassuring manner mixed diligence with the confidence of experience. I instantly felt comfortable. Zap me I decided. I signed the waiver.

In Pre-op the nurse handed me a sealed envelope with the results of my compulsory HIV test. Before I could open it she told me they’d all read it assured me it was fine. Checking my heart rate and pulse on the monitor she announced with a grave smile “No Mor Blood Pressure”. It must have been the stress causing failure I assumed, I prepared to feel the life drain from my body.
“Is it bad?” I said weakly, with my last gasp.
“No.” She grinned confused “It’s Nor-mor”
“Normal!” I repeated a little too loud feeling my grip on life returning.

The day before, the doctor had explained everything she would do and how it would feel, then reminded me of it again before I went into theatre, and then talked me through it again as she performed each part of the operation. Following her instructions from the previous day I’d been practising staring at a spot. In essence this is all I really had to do while the laser guided missiles melted the surface of my cornea. I hadn’t been that good at it in training but thankfully my performance on the day was drug enhanced with a weighty Vallium slipped to me before kick off, by the nurses.

The first part of the operation involved the machine pushing down on my eye with the force of a Sherman tank in order to position the blade and slice my eye into Papaya salad strips. Next a laser from a 1970’s sci-fi movie performed a scatological light show to the smell of roasting flesh, and I just had stare back. “Excellent, you did really well” the doctor congratulated me as I slowly sat up from under the laser, surprised to discover that I’m better than the average person at staring at a spot while my shredded eye burns. The fact she undoubtedly says this to everyone did nothing to undermine the reassuring effect.

For the rest of the day and night I slept off the Vallium, waking every now and again to the sensation of having opened my eyes face down in a golf bunker. What have I done? What if it hasn’t worked? What need was there?

Before the operation the doctor explained the risks; 5% chance you get less than 20/20 vision and need to do it again, a 1% chance you might never grow back the nerves that stimulate tears. And 1 in 10,000 you get an infection and go blind. As I lay there listening to my anxieties wrestle with the diminishing level of tranquillisers in my body, I was more concerned that it might not work than the thought that I might go blind.

At one point I got up and stared out of the window at a skyscraper across the way. Through the cracks in my protective eye shields and the darkness of night I could see it clearly. The rooms, the balconies, even the air conditioning vents on the roof, surprised to discover that this laser thing might have worked. I held up my specs in front of my eyes. Holy crap! The world blurred into an indecipherable fug. Is that what I’ve needed to see straight?

I like my specs, I think I look better with them on, but I hate being totally dependent on these crappy bits of plastic. Every morning I have a full on panic attack if they aren’t exactly where I thought I’d put them. If they take a knock, a scratch or a dent I’m in a state of panic. Without them I can do nothing. I can’t even find my way to an optician to make a new pair. I resent the dependency I have on them for everything I see.

This morning however, the nurse peeled off the protective shields and the first thing I saw in glorious Technicolor was her beaming smile, the wrinkles in her forehead, the hue of her teeth, the creases in her lipstick, streaks of blusher on her cheeks. I looked out at from the clinic 18th storey window over the skyline of Bangkok, and I could see it all. Every last detail of this enormous city. Like an eagle. In the optometry room I easily read the line of numbers next to the label “20/20 vision” and could partially make out the line below. 3, 9, something, 4, 6. “20/16 vision” it said alongside the line. I don’t know what that means but that’s better than 20/20.

Back in the waiting room I was almost high-five-ing the cardiologist who’d gone under the knife just before me. The day before we’d both reappeared from surgery beaten and traumatised to our loved ones and hadn’t said a word. But today elated by sight we shared every nuance of the experience.

The doctor says I’m not allowed to wash my face for a week. For a soap dodger like me it just gets better. And now I can buy all the $2 sunglasses and I'm no longer petrified I might lose or damage them.

I’ve not been to a hospital as clean or as caring before. The professionalism of the staff goes beyond pushing the buttons on the laser. It was the reassuring psychology they used throughout, recognising my concerns before I did. On the way out they stuck a little heart-shaped badge on me to wish me good health. They’ve been calling me every day to check if I’m having any problems putting the eye drops in. I’ll be back later in the week to get my teeth done, and am trying to develop complexes about other body parts just so I can get them fixed too.

I have grown one healthy inferiority complex in Thailand. I’ve always believed that (although everyone in the world is equal, and all that), essentially Western European is the best race to be. We had The Greeks, Romans, and the Renaissance, the Alps, the Mediterranean, the best cars, the best looking and cleverest people, the tastiest food, and the best economy. Lately I’ve been having a big rethink, and although it’s too late for me now, I wish I was a bit more Asian. They have the best manner. I can see that quite clearly now.