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.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

That's life.

“If you’re so clever, why aren’t’ you rich?” This is a question that has troubled me since my mother read it out of the newspaper sometime in the 90s. I think it was the name of a play or a book in the review section.

It’s a question that resonated with me as I reached adulthood. I’ve always thought I was clever, so I was naturally disappointed when I grew up and didn’t become rich. But lately the question has become “If you are so clever, why are you so skint all the time?” (Skint, for American readers can be translated to penniless).

This journey is amazing and I’m so grateful to be able to travel the world almost at will, but one drawback is that when I get places I feel inhibited to do anything that costs money because the more I spend, the more I shorten the life of the journey.

In my attempts at frugality I may have gone too far. Several times I have had ugly realisations that I am no longer living out an exciting adventure in which hardship is jovially endured, but I find myself drowned by the demoralising realisation that “This is my life.”

We dragged glider bags and suitcases on the Los Angeles MRT lines because we didn’t want to pay for a cab, stayed in the grimmest part of town risking drive-bys, strolled Compton’s streets for some cheap sightseeing, and the lowest moment recently was when we caught ourselves arranging our day around the free french-fries and champagne that the hostel doled out at 7pm each evening. That’s my life.

My beard trimmer has packed up after I overcharged it with the solar panels so I have a full on unruly beard. My jeans are stained from crawling under the bus fixing a leaking brake line yesterday, and to fight off the morning cold I pulled on the closest thing I could find, Chris’ paragliding sweatshirt, a size too small and wondered into a cafe for breakfast. In the glass door I saw a homeless guy in sandals and socks and for a second I steeled myself ready to fend off the request for a quarter from him, before realising it was my own reflection. That’s my life.

Chris is in the same boat, she was offered a free breakfast by volunteers at a homeless shelter on her way through town yesterday. Aside from our own, I’ve seen a lot of homelessness here. On a small piece of cardboard pithy pitches give you a life story and a reason to care. “Need money for dog food and a bigger piece of cardboard” says one. “I’m Michael, I served in Iraq. Every dollar you give reminds me why.” says another. Even the homeless, with all their woes, know the benefit of self promotion and effective sales communication. “Since 2009 [I’ve] been driving around the world in a truck that is made from and runs trash” begins the press release I type out in the cafe.

Next to me half a dozen beautician franchisees gather round the company founder for their annual meeting. It starts of cringingly enough as they dutifully laugh at inane stories the owner tells of the funny things her children said and did this week, but briskly moves into overdrive. For an hour she rattles through sales figures and targets like a machine gun. She refers to her underlings not by their names, but by the name of their franchise. “Santa Fe Ranchero, you’re up $10,000 on last year but a proportion of that has come from retail, none the less that’s good work, you can be pleased with that.” “San Diego South, your are only 51cents away from averaging $40 a sale, that’s amazing, but total volumes are down and you need to work hard to get back into the $2million turnover club. More focus on ORTs next quarter” There’s little time for any genuine emotion in her interactions. Every phrase is calculated to motivate and direct. Individual’s personalities are de-personalised by the sales-speak.

It’s exhausting to hear, even from 4 tables away. I head to the toilets where a sign says “Associates must wash their hands after using the toilet” Associates? What a lovely way to refer to a low paid coffee shop Mac-jobbers. Partners, Stakeholders, Franchisees. Sure enough a uniformed barista walks from the cubicle straight past me and the sink on his way back to work. As I return to the table the beauty queen is leaving in a sports car. She is clearly very rich. And from the complicated target driven way she knows how to motivate her franchisees, I’d guess she is also clever. I’m so glad that is not my life.

The beautician mogul has left me with an answer to my mother’s question. You not only have to be clever to be rich, you also have to be driven by money. All the corn in Nebraska couldn’t motivate me to be like that. At the risk of sounding all Buddhist, my truck has everything I need (apart from running water at the moment – the pump is still playing up) and while I wish I had €2000 for a tandem paragliding wing so I could fly with Chris and other people we meet on the journey, I’m happy to make do without it. That’s my life.

Monday, 14 March 2011

West Century Boulevard

“LA is a great big freeway” sang Dionne Warwick in the 1968 classic Do You Know the Way to San Jose.

The lyric has stood the test of time. Outside the motel/hostel is an 8 lane highway. It’s as long to cross as my street at home is to walk down. The planes lining up for the northern runway use West Century Boulevard to line up their approach, and from 6am there’s the regular rumble of 737 spraying the ground with atomised unburnt fuel and melting droplets of blue ice melting from the frozen leaks of their toilet plumbing.

Along West Century Blvd, a series of low rise retail outlets enliven the concrete express way and the cube units on either side with a plink of colourful signs, sized for the speeding motorist, advertising cheap motel rooms, muffler repairs and a range of food for under a dollar.

Nothing ever costs what the price tag says here. If it’s not the service charge it’s the sales tax. Everywhere else in the world has sales tax and it’s included in the price. It’s not such a difficult concept to grasp. Everywhere else you tip if the service is OK, not because you know the waitress is hardly being paid.

I saw a man on the sidewalk of West Century Blvd who was holding a sign to advertise a mobile phone shop. It had a curved bottom edge and his job was to rock it around in an unpredictable way that catches driver’s attention. How much can that job be worth? He’s wearing shades on a cold but sunny day and plugged into some headphones that no doubt the music helps with his sign gyrations, but prevents me from asking him about his wages.

The 117 bus runs down W. Century Blvd. The driver is chirpy, chatting incessantly to the passengers, making terrible jokes that the ladies in the front seats politely honour with a smiling groan or giggle. He wears surgical gloves and tells me if I don’t have enough change he won’t be mad at me. I get off at the Mall where I can print some documents I need at Staples. It’s an open air mall with units surrounding a big car park. Not like the enclosed air conditioned marble palaces of Asia, reverently attended for special occasions and visited with guests and family. You have to work hard to pick up the waft of corn starch food here. But sure enough it’s there, just outside the In-N-Out fast food restaurant. I’m hungry but I don’t go In-or-out. I’m craving a meal but the universal rule seems to be if it is advertised with a picture and the price, then it will be inedible and leave me feeling depressed.

I get excited when I see Radio Shack. I’ve never seen one before and bound in expecting it to be full of quirky cables and nerdy gadgets, CB radios and SWR meters. It’s not. Digital cameras and mobile phones with 2 year contracts line the shelves. Bland Mallism. A mirrored bottomed American Airlines plane flies overhead. Next door is Jumla’s Juices. There are no big pictures of their freshly squeezed orange juices or bold posters showing you what you can get for a dollar (“plus tax” in small print). They have real oranges piled up behind the counter. They look dirty and inappropriate for the mall setting. A machine turns them into juice.

Having taken the bus to the Mall I now realise its close enough to walk back. My sandals are not the mode of transport LA invites. The occasional other pedestrians glance over their shoulders suspiciously at each other if the separation gets too close. I accidentally creep back up behind a man that’s overtaken me earlier. He looks like he’s about to grab me and throw me over his shoulders in self defence. Another lady gives me a cheery “Well hello?” as I overtake her. Friendly as she sounds her body language is tottering sideways braced in case I’m minded to punch her and steal her bag.

The endless straightness of W. Century Blvd is disaffecting, dehumanising, grim, soulless, washed up and washed out but it’s also compelling exotic Americana at it’s best and most modern. It's ripe for romanticising. Cars turn right on a red, I almost get run over stepping out while looking the wrong way at the enormous pickups. Traffic grinds to a halt around my J-walking while neon signs invite me to cash checks or buy cheap pizza. I’m so excited about driving here I'd planned to hire a car tomorrow to use for the trip to the customs office. Except that when you add in the tax and insurance in it comes to over $90.

Today Dionne would sing “Put a hundred down and rent a car”. I’ll take the 232 bus down town to Long Beach instead. Things will be great when I’m down town.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Call of the Wild

A little out of date now but:

Surely I wasn’t the only one that was thinking it would be fun to go for a ride on the back of one of these massive Elephants. At the Elephant Nature Park, an hours drive from Chang Mai such thoughts can never be spoken. The park differs wildly from the other Elephant Tourist attractions in the neighbourhood, of which there are many, in that it is a retirement home for Elephants that have been used in the logging trade. Here the Elephants come first, and the visitors willingly take second place.

The focus is less about entertainment and more about how elephants, an animal that features on the Thai National Emblem, are treated in Thailand. Not well it turns out. Illegal loggers dope them with amphetamine, and work them to the point of injury, blindness, and in some cases literally til their bones break. Others are used as street entertainment, under fed and separated from their families. Traditional methods of training involve trapping young elephants in a wooden cage and torturing them into submission over a period of days, with metal hooks. It’s disturbing to watch, and it’s inevitably part of the process that makes an elephant rideable. As I learn all this, the desire to jump on their backs wanes.

Lek, the founder of the park, has a mouse like stature but an elephantine presence. She came from a family that worked elephants. Disturbed from an early age by the way they were treated, she embarked on a different path to provide a haven for the animals, which resulted in her being ostracised, beaten, receiving death threats, but eventually recognised, supported and now lauded. She is almost a household name in Thailand and the mention of the Elephant Nature Park brings nods of approval throughout the country. She’s developed a working relationships with loggers in Thailand and in Burma where poverty drives the dependence on animals and the problem of animal cruelty more acute and more violent. Instead of confronting she co-opted them into changing their behaviour. It’s a mammoth task but where she has been able to make inroads they have been impactful.

Just a few hours watching a herd coalesced around their youngest offspring is enough to convince that these animals are familial, affectionate and need to be in company. All the elephants introduced into the park have paired up, not as mating couples (only 3 of the 32 adults are males) but as spinster friends, promenading freely like retired sisters in their 50s majestically taking in the air. It’s hard not to anthropomorphise their outward demeanour, but their need for camaraderie is unmistakeable.

It’s impossible to know the exact age an elephant, often paperwork the previous owners provide is faked, or they have been rung like a second hand car after their predecessor meets an untimely end, but these trunked cut-and-shuts look like they’ve had a pretty hard life. One hobbles on an impossibly arduous broken hip, rocking up then down with each step, another’s eye is scratched out, and one limps on the stub of its leg blown off by a mine.

Their keepers (Kwan, in Thai) escort the elephants around the park, using only their body language and a bag of bananas to encourage the elephants. There are no hooked sticks here, the usual tool of the Kwan in Thailand. But there’s a hint that the Kwan are wrestling with this non-traditional approach. They aren’t the only ones. The idea of letting the elephants make the rules has to be balanced with the resources of the park, and the management of a herd of 34. In the evening they are penned, and the males are chained when they are in Musk to prevent the old boys doing themselves and injury. These animals have lived all their lives as domesticated animals. While the intention is to give them back their freedom, the elephants aren’t fully able to deal with it. It took one elephant two weeks to get used to not carrying a chain around its foot and had to be slowly weaned off it.

Lek is aware of this, and her goal is to provide a totally wild environment where human visitors don’t even get the chance to come second, and aren’t allowed at all. No habituation. It’s a model pioneered by Carol Buckley who is coincidentally also visiting the park while we are there. Carol bought an enormous plot of land in Tennessee, where the climate is similar to the subtropical environments that is a home for elephants in Asia and Africa, and then set free a load of rescue elephants from zoos and circus's in it. People, however, are not welcome.

It’s an uncompromising attitude that hasn’t won her many friends. In fact it’s probably at the heart of a spat with the directors of the Elephant Sanctuary charity she co-founded, which have now sacked her. The dismissal is an emotionally devastating wrench and she’s coy to discuss it, in part because it’s the subject of legal proceedings and maybe in part she’s a little indignant about her removal from her own project after a lifetime spent on it, despite her outward stoicism.

As a result of Carol’s Elephants-first approach, the charity received more donations than it could imagine spending and not allowing visitors became a position that was harder to justify. Being in such a unique position to fund an education programme through a visitors centre, it could be seen as remiss not to use those funds to create an infrastructure where visitors can learn about elephants in a “wild” environment. But the remit has always been about the elephants, and allowing people in removes the very wildness that makes the Elephant Sanctuary unique. Ironically as the pioneering site in Tennessee is being held up in Thailand as the gold standard, it may be on the verge of performing an about face.

Carol’s story is as fascinating and serpentine as Lek’s, the Elephant Nature Park and of the all the elephants that inhabit it. She bought an elephant from a tire store in California, the 1970’s when you could have an elephant in the parking lot just to get customers’ attention. For over a decade she toured with the circus and even developed an act where Tarra became the world’s only roller-skating elephant, something she is adamant Tarra loved to do.

There might have been an epiphany or perhaps just a seven-year-itch that made Carol want to hang up Tamara’s roller skates and leave the performing life. She talks animatedly about the whole story, but that part is a little vaguer than the rest. Nonetheless she has no shame about her circus days. As long as an elephant has room to roam, compatible friends and enough live vegetation Carol says it’s happy, even if it’s performing.

Her life has been tied to Tarra for over 30 years. At the start Tarra was her livelihood, but then as she looked for a suitable place to retire the elephant in 1996, she sank all her savings into a plot of land, which through her force of character and persistence with the neighbours grew to 2700 acres, big enough for the 14 elephants that now live there to roam and with a buffer big enough to keep visitors out.

Carol is touring Asia, funded by donations through paypal on her personal website (, visiting elephant conservation projects like the Elephant Nature Park, training the staff in elephant pedicures and the new born elephants with a positive reinforcement techniques, a rival to the savage caging method, which takes only a few minutes a day and doesn’t leave the elephant’s spirit crushed. The elephant is rewarded with treats when it lifts its leg or flaps its ears on command. The purpose is to teach elephants moves that vets will need them to perform during examinations.

Carol also wafts into new-age extremes, and hints at be able to communicate with Tarra through a kind of meditative telepathy. Yet she's so grounded in the reality of elephant care that none of this comes across as at all strange. In fact it would be odd if spending almost 40 years in the presence of an elephant didn't build bond of the senses.

There are two new born elephants in the park, and I’m confused why they encourage breeding when the little ones take up the resources which could be used to rescue another adult. Offspring draw the herd together, and several females will adopt the role of motherhood, not just the natural parent, but the real answer is less considered. Spading an elephant is a big impractical operation and keeping the males in check when driven by six tonnes of darwinian urges is an endless battle that the Kwan don't always win. On our final day at the Elephant Nature Park, a male that is segregated while he’s on Musk breaks his chain and rampages over to the females, sticking his trunk where a gentleman never would. On this occasion the Kwan manoeuvre the giants apart with deft skills without call to sticks or hooks, and this time the ladies honour is preserved.

Every animal, including humans has to work for a living, even elephants in the wild, and in the search for a fair way to treat elephants, Carol and Lek provide a master-class in managing the compromises that we all face in search for our utopias.

The Price of Fish

I’m once again facing financial Armageddon as the cost of untying the truck from the container involves fees beyond all recognition.

It’s my welcome to America. A wake up call after the cheap living of Asia. $4 for a starter!? Are you nuts? I expect a 3 course meal and change from each of my dollar bills!

The price people have asked me for doing stuff along this journey has varied wildly along the trip. Often because some countries are just cheaper, but a bigger factor is the goodwill the truck and the journey engenders. Often people have generously based the price they charge me for things or for services based on what it costs them, just cos they like what I’m doing, want to help and feel like they don’t need to make a profit on this oddball project.

I think that in the US that feeling will be harder to engender. Having said that I’m waiting to hear back from a lovely contact at Michelin about some cost price tires.

From Christina’s description, her community in Ashland seems to function on a income of relatively low paid jobs which brings in enough money to get by, but then use a system of endless trades to make life taste sweet. She paid for part of her paraglider by editing the flying school’s website. Her best friend Allison swaps massages for other types of “body work”. Pot Luck dinner parties are the focus of the social life.

I’ve offered to unlash the truck myself to mitigate some of the costs. I have all the tools, all I need is a ramp, and undoubtedly they will say no for insurance reasons. Along with “security reasons”, “insurance reasons” are the most heart-breakingly stifling excuse people hide behind when disconnected from the people those reasons affect. Still I can’t complain. I can’t honestly say I wouldn’t be lining up to sue the minute things go wrong.

Maybe I can give the warehouse workers and fork-lift drivers a Thai reflexology foot massage as a work trade? Hmmm, I’ll run it by the management.

Ironically cheaper countries are sometimes more expensive because people don't have the luxury to be generous with the truck.

The cost of an hour of anyone's time is nothing. Chinese factory workers might accept just a dollar or even less for that hour. But an American warehouse worker will expect a lot more. The warehouseman needs more because he lives in a country made more expensive by his compatriots all charging lots for each hour of their time. It's like a conspiracy of wealth, a catch22 or vicious circle that could collapse, along with a nation's economy if everyone decided their time probably isn't really worth that much.

Having seen the Asian boom it's hard to believe that an American hour is still worth more than a Malaysian one. Asia is circling up. America and Europe are spiralling down. It won't be long before Americans and Europeans release their grip on the value of their time.

I postulate this flow of global wealth as my tuna bake is cooling in front of me. It’s a cheap tuna bake from the cheap restaurant of the cheap hostel I’m staying in. I daren’t stray far from the hostel after dark. The kindly man at the airport desk that recommended this place told me this district, Inglewood, isn’t the safest part of LA by day or night. As I arrived here I was bum rushed by 6 LAPD officers charging in to the hostel to arrest one of the guests. As well as a police escort there are lots of other free things that come with the dorm bed; undrinkable coffee, vinegar flavoured cocktails, hour long bus transfers to the airport 2 miles up the road. This is the way of reducing costs that I'm familiar with. Roughing it.