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, 8 April 2011

Believe in me

I’ve met a few “citizens of the world” on this trip. Guys (invariably the are men) who have been backpacking for so long they either take offence at being asked where there from, or answer it with a treatise about socialisation to backpacker hostels and pancake breakfasts.

“Well I’m not really from anywhere any more.” The word ‘from’ spat out with total disdain at the concept of being owned by geography.

It doesn’t take long to confirm that they are pretty lonely characters who disguise their roots in the hope that it will either make them more interesting, or at least less pigeonhole-able. Drilling them with questions serves to both find their pigeonhole, and annoy them enough to entertain me. A fused Israeli ex-army soldier dealing pot to fund self medication, a dull Brit who bought a flat in London at a good time and pretends he survives off the crappy jewellery he makes in Nepal, an alcoholic Dutchman with questionable sexual peccadilloes living cheap in Goa... none of them were from anywhere.

I take pride in answering that I’m from ‘The London Borough of Croydon’ with a gentile cockney accent, knowing that that answer would cause eyes to roll anywhere in England, but that the full title can make it sound chic to a foreigners ears.

I always assumed that my shared love of travel with these global citizens came in part from the anonymity of being away from home. Gone is the defining insight your friend project on to you. No longer am I lazy Andy who gets really dull when he’s drunk, falls asleep at parties, and only gets comes to life when he’s talking technical about Toyota Landcruisers. Now I can be intrepid Andy, with a thought provoking blog, and a cool looking truck, rugged and mysterious; at least for the first few minutes of meeting people, before I have a drink and start winning on that the coil springs from an HJ80 can be fitted on a Pajero, usually followed by me dozing off.

But now I’ve come to another conclusion about why I like being away from home in this way, formed in part by watching the Wire, a cop show that I downloaded and got into watching over Christmas. (It’s taken a while for the penny to drop.) All the characters in the Wire, the policemen, the politicians, the drug dealers, the journalists, give their loyalty to their organisations for better or worse, and have to take compromised actions because they are bound by their allegiances. Good intentions and idealism gets sidelined for a greater good that generally doesn’t really materialise. Plans are thwarted by rival plans that dissect through the storylines. The organisations are the character’s failing.

In London not only am I bound by my friend’s preconceptions of me, which are hard to escape, but by the organisations I belong to and that govern me. My job, my home, my social circle, the local chain supermarket, the train station, the newspapers I read, the libertarian politics I share with my friends, the capitalist system, the rule of law, my nationality. They are all organisations, identities that I subscribe to, and in return demand that I make compromises for them.

Tom, my Nepali guru, told me his aim was to free himself of his belief systems, and the preconceptions they bound him to. He admitted it was impossible, but still worth striving for. Beliefs; religions, political leanings even attitudes, are also organisations and identities that support you when you join them, but demand your loyalty and compromised actions of you.

Living in the truck instead of a home, and living pretty frugally makes it easier to shed a lot of belief systems and shun organisation memberships. It’s hard to be without the stability and support of these organisations in life, but it’s liberating too. And this, more than the anonymity of travel, is really what I’m enjoying about this life on the road.

As you head inland from the SoCal coast to the desert life becomes more alternative, less regulated, more hippy. At the gates of Death Valley I’ve entered a realm of eco-statues, communal skinny dipping in at night in hot pools, and live Bluegrass echoing around the desert mountains. It’s about as far from the organisations of the London Borough of Croydon as I’ve been on this trip.

But if I’m asked what I think about something, I guess I’ll be answering, “Well, I don’t really think anything any more.”

The Rules

I’ve always been involved in the loading and unloading of my truck at ports. In less authoritarian countries you can get proactively involved. Usually I’ve been able to see how it was lashed and what potential damage might be done.

This time, for safety reasons I wasn’t allowed into the port to unlash it, but by an accidental oversight of security I was ushered into the port for a coffee and ended up being driven out to the truck where they were struggling to get it started.

They’d unlashed the bindings and set up a ramp, but despite various attempts couldn’t get it running. I’d disconnected the battery before it shipped and they hadn’t been able to find the battery box. Once reconnected, it started it up first time and they insisted that for security and insurance purposes they had to drive it off the ramp. The final section of the ramp was a high kerb and the driver went too fast off it, crunching the side of the skirt as it bounced down. [Had he gone slower there might have been less or even no damage, similarly had they built a better ramp or consulted with me it would have been fine] A bent support which no one could humanly bend back and a cracked glass fibre panel were the results. No one said sorry. To say sorry would be an admission of fault, and therefore imply liability.

These guys are the professional descendants of gruff burly Longshoremen. A Google search for the words Neanderthal and Longshoremen returns 18,900 results. The care and diligence these men have done their job with over the years is one of the reasons why containerisation took off so fast, and perhaps why they chose to make containers out of rugged corrugated steel. There’s no choice when you ship a container. No matter how great your shipping company is (and mine was fantastic), your cargo ends up in the hands of someone working at a random terminal you’ll probably never see or meet. The truck survived the Tsunami at sea only to be damaged by yellow jacketed, crow-bar wielding muppets. It gets worse.

Two miles out of the port the engine stopped on a precarious hill. I opened the engine cover to see that one of the longshoremen had disassembled part of the fuel line, presumably in an attempt to start it, although if there is no electrical power to the dashboard lights, and the starter motor won’t turn it’s pretty clear the battery is not connected, and there is no reason why disassembling the fuel line would help. Anyone who knows the slightest thing about engines knows that, and anyone that doesn’t know the slightest thing about engines shouldn’t be disassembling fuel lines. Much less the return fuel line, which does nothing more than allow air into the system and cause the engine to stall.

Worse, the missing bolt was missing, nowhere to be seen. Thankfully with the help of a stranger I managed to bypass it and seal the fuel line from air leaks. It didn’t help that there was a fuel starvation problem caused by the fuel setting solid in the relative cold of the shady container port, but I was able to get the truck going and put off the drudgery of searching for a replacement bolt until we were in San Diego and had some local contacts that could help source it.

To me breakdowns are stressful, but not because I don’t know if the truck will ever work again, they are stressful because I don’t know where to find the parts or tools that I’ll need. That’s the thing that keeps me from fixing a lot of the minor problems with the bus, like the worsening cracked windshield, and fills me with dread when I feel a problem developing. After a day of looking for this fucking $2 bolt, a mechanic I stopped at found one at the bottom of his draw and gave it to me for free along with a couple of washers.

All was now well. And then in my routine daily inspection I noticed that the brake fluid level looked a little low. In a year and a half it’s never needed topping up. The only fluid the truck has never leaked is brake fluid. I like it that way. I knew immediately where to look; the cables used to lash the truck down had been wrapped around the axles close to where the brake line meets the wheel hub, but there was no leak there. Instead the leak was in the middle of the axle, where the line splits to go to each wheel. Nudging the line, while working under there to lash or unlash the truck, someone had caused the seal at the join to break and fluid was seeping out in generous globs.

I’m convinced this happened in the US [but for legal reasons I should state that it is impossible to know for sure]. The care and patience employed by the Thai dock workers was astoundingly diligent. I worked with them to lash it, and explicitly discussed the risk of damaging the brake lines with the team that did the work. If it had happened when the truck was loaded it would have been leaking for a month while on the ship and [it could be argued that] there would have been no fluid remaining in the reservoir and more staining on the brake line. Where it was unloaded I saw the charred end of a lashing cable, implying the longshoremen used a grinder or a torch to cut the cables off, instead of unbolting them. Unbolting steel cable ties is hard physical work, but wielding either kind of cutting tool in the confined space under the bus is a lazy option that invites a greater risk of damaging it than a spanner would.

The same garage where I found the bolt lent me a flaring tool. I was secretively quite excited and nervous about using it. Before I opened the box, I didn’t even know what it looked like or how to use it. I only knew that’s what I needed to ask for because I had a brake line failure on the chocolate powered lorry in 2007 and a friend told me I’d need a flaring tool to repair it, but in the end we found a spare brake line.

I carefully cut an inch off the brake line and re-flared the end, creating the bell shape ending to the tube that deforms when you tighten the line up into its housing and creates the high pressure seal. It was really hard steel, original Mercedes parts, and the first attempt didn’t quite work. But I’m proud to say, in the end I did quite a nice job on it.

The reason for ranting on about this is that I care about my truck. Since arriving in SoCal (Southern California dude) I’ve really felt the oppressive weight of rules created because there is a expectation that people won’t care.

After the freedom of South East Asia it feels stiflingly dictatorial. You can’t park your car on the side of the road facing the wrong way. The cops tell me it’s for safety reason because they point out that I’d have to have driven on the wrong side of the road to get to the space. So assuming I don’t care about oncoming traffic and was about to hurl myself into the path of other road users, the SDPD have kindly invented a rule to supersede the need for anyone giving a shit about head on collisions in the search for parking spaces. Phew, that’s lucky.

And it’s all pervasive. Fast food staff wear gloves, not because they care about the quality and cleanliness of the food, but because there is a rule that says they must. Minimum wage earners are dictated to by endless litany of rules to make up for the lack of enthusiasm their dull and disconnecting jobs instil.

Even amongst paragliders I noticed the mindset of rules and laws that outweigh caring. While flying in Torrey Pines, a coastal soaring site, I flew over some of the luxury houses along the cliff edge to get a closer look. Another pilot shouted over that it’s illegal to do that. Actually Air Law states it’s illegal to be within 1000ft [or 500ft depending where you are] vertically and 1km horizontally from a populated area, so under the only law that applies the whole cliff edge, the whole flying site, and indeed most paragliding sites are arguably ‘illegal’ and he was also breaking the law from where he was shouting his friendly warning to me.

He had a valid point, but elsewhere it might have been phrased as a reminder not to intrude, or to show respect for privacy, to act as a caring person, rather than the menace of some inapplicable rule of law. Incidentally it was a Monday and the houses were all empty because they are $50m weekend getaways that only get used for a few days in the summer so I don’t think anyone was left feeling invaded by my Maveric flyby (“I’m going to buzz the tower Goose”).

To fly at Torrey Pines I had to sign about 15 times over 6 pages of liability waivers. Maybe in that document there was a rule about flying over the houses. But I didn’t care to read the whole thing.

It’s hard to care when you’re in an uncaring environment. But nonetheless when co-opted into our story, people do care. The mechanic gave us the bolt and the flaring tool because he liked the truck. The biodiesel producers we’ve visited gave us fuel because they cared about our trip. John the shipping agent worked a load of hours on helping me get the truck out of the port (and still hasn’t sent me an invoice), he cares. Carlos who stopped to help me when the truck was broken down just outside the port also cared. Mike and Marie cared about our trip and loaned us the keys for the shower block at the Long Beach Marina.

The mechanisms of interactions disconnect people. The burger guy in MacDonald’s is making 100 patties an hour and never sees any of the people that will eat them. The call centre operative at T-mobile needs your account number and pin code before the rules allow them to speak to you. The police officer has a law book of rules to refer to. How can any of them care?