Archive for the 'travel' Category

anti-racism, capitalism, colonialism, history, racism, society, travel

Happy Waitangi Day: The Shadow of a Land

Today is Waitangi Day, New Zealand’s national holiday. This day in 1840 marked the beginning of the end of New Zealand as a Maori Polynesian island, and its takeover as an arm of the white British empire. So, obviously a big cause for celebration.

The Treaty of Waitangi is given various interpretations, and the official and popular position today is that Waitangi day celebrates New Zealand and emphasises unity between Polynesian Maori and Pakeha (white New Zealanders). Many Kiwis see it simply, I suspect, as “a nice day off”. But Waitangi day – and specifically the 1840 Treaty – have also historically attracted a great deal of protest. And not within due cause.
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capitalism, climate change, society, travel, water

Water, water, everywhere. And not a drop to drink.

I’ve been thinking about water. For most of September, October and November I was on a sailboat, in the islands of the western Pacific ocean. It was wonderful, although clean drinking water was sometimes a problem. In much of Latin America as well, I was sceptical about the quality of the water. There is much bottled water drunk in Latin America and the Pacific – by poor people, not just the well-off – out of fear of dangerous tap water.

But even that is nothing. 6000 people every DAY die through water-related disease. And within just ten years time, 1.8 billion people will be living with absolute scarcity. The issues are huge, and the mainstream market response to poor quality water or lack of water availability is bottled water – an absolute disaster in every way. So, I’ve made a video with my personal solution for me – the LifeSaver Bottle – and about the global issues. Plus, I drink some water laced with guinea-pig poo. So. Worth watching!

capitalism, colonialism, history, Latin America, Panama, racism, society, travel, USA

The Panama Canal – the great globaliser

As part of my journey round the world, leaving the American continents and crossing the Pacific ocean I took a container ship, in order to minimise my personal carbon emissions, and because I thought it would be an interesting way to travel. The  ship passed through the Panama Canal and shortly afterwards I recorded this account of the history of the Canal, the effect it had on Panama throughout the 20th century, and its role in placing the world in the straight-jacket of economic globalisation.

capitalism, colonialism, history, Latin America, Panama, racism, slavery, society, travel

Independence Day

Panama City. Friday night. The old town, the Casco Viejo, the historical centre of the city. It is raining. In fact it’s pouring. The weather forecast shows 32 or 33 degrees with torrential thunderstorms for the next six days.

I sit in the white brightly-lit bandstand in the centre of the central square, the Plaza de la Independencia. This is where Panamá declared its “independence” from Colombia in 1903. At that time all of Panama City was contained within the Casco Viejo. Within a few years the Canal was creating a boom and the city expanded. Today this area is barely more than an urban slum with the trappings of past wealth, not alike the centre of Havana, Cuba. Tonight, the plaza is practically deserted.

My photo set “Panama City Contrasts” on flickr

Below, still guarding their jewellery stall in the twilight are two indigenous Kuna people, the woman immediately recognisable with her colourful blouse, gold piercings and naked tightly-beaded calves. Above in the bandstand with me squat two gringos around their laptops, taking advantage of the bandstand’s power outlets. I think they live in the large van I saw on the corner. Something tells me they’re running Linux. Two dogs join us, one belonging to the gringos. A middle-aged Panamanian asks the gringos what their dog is called. She misunderstands him and gives him her name. I think she is Australian. He is shaving his face, very slowly and without a mirror. He has two different razors, as if he fears one might not do the job. It is unclear to me whether he has any water, or soap. He picks slowly to remove hairs from the blade. I think he might be also charging his phone. I presume he has a home, but his shoes are held together with neat loops of string. For all I know everything he owns could be in the carrier bag beside him. Continue Reading »

climate change, fuel, travel

“The plane will go anyway”

I choose not to fly as much as possible. People don’t like to hear this, because they can already feel a potential judgment coming of their own actions or choices. But let me explain why first.

It’s not because I’m scared or because I don’t like looking at the clouds from above (in fact I do): it is just unfortunately the case that flying by air is just an incredibly quick way to blow all of the good karma you built up by cycling and reusing plastic bags. After space travel and splitting the atom it’s probably the fastest way you could burn fuel and create pollution. You’d have to cross the Atlantic by jet ski in order to be more environmentally unfriendly.

Everywhere I go however (by bus, boat and train) from Toronto to Mexico, from La Paz to Rio de Janeiro, I hear the exact same words, from different people, repeated with eeiree similarity: “But the plane will be going anyway. So why not be on it?”.

It’s fascinating to me that humans can trick ourselves with statements such as this when we know it would be morally reprehensible to respond to “look, we’re gonna gang-rape this girl anyway, so you might as well join in”. Continue Reading »

colonialism, history, Latin America, travel, USA

“A Tale of Two Revolutions: Guatemala & Cuba” or… “Sandwiches with Roberto Pérez”

On my travels in 2010, two of the countries I got to know the best are Guatemala & Cuba. Both had revolutions (Guatemala in 1944, Cuba in 1953) whose effects resonate through history. Both revolutions had similar causes and relationships. But ultimately very very different outcomes.

Guatemalan seller

Today Cuba is practically unique in the world. A socialist economy, largely centrally-planned and state-run, but one that boasts developed-world levels of health, life expectancy, literacy, and, dare I say, equality. Let me say right now that Cuba has problems – big problems. But on many indicators they are doing surprisingly well, especially given their handicaps, which still include being under a trade embargo by the United States.

By contrast, Guatemala is poorer in both absolute and per capita terms, much more unequal, and has a very low ranking on the UN Human Development Index, even worse so when accounting for its inequality.

More noticeable when I was there is the way that indigenous people sometimes turn their heads to look down or look away from you. Hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans were killed by their own government, well into the 1980s.

Yet I found Cubans to be outgoing, passionate, care-free and confident. It pains me to say it: you could never call Guatemalans care-free. Half of them live in absolute poverty. Continue Reading »

capitalism, colonialism, history, Latin America, politics, racism, society, travel

Machu Picchu: “100 years of prostitution of Andean culture”

This month saw the 100th anniversary of the discovery of Machu Picchu. Its discovery by the West, that is: it was in July 1911 that Hiram Bingham, a Yale historian, was led to the already 400-year old site by a local shepherd boy, and announced the presence of the Machu Picchu estate to the world.

Machu Picchu, morning mist

I visited Machu Picchu a couple of days before its anniversary; it was glorious. A sublime city in a sublime location; the hundreds of tourists walking around could not detract from its wonderfulness. I was back in nearby Cusco, “the heart of America” for Che Guevara, and capital of the Inca empire, for the anniversary itself. To celebrate, Cusco’s main plaza saw parades, a stage with big screens, and a Peruvian folk/rock band in the evening. It also saw low-key protests, including one banner that particularly caught my eye: “100 años de la prostitución de la cultura andina”.

Elsewhere on the streets, the Incas’ conquered descendants mainly went about their business; selling chewing gum and proffering beautiful and often hand-made gloves and ch’ullus (traditional hats made from alpaca wool) to the hoards of foreign tourists, at knock down prices. Continue Reading »

capitalism, Latin America, politics, the Right, travel

Something rotten in the state of Peru

Peru must, I think, have the most dysfunctional democracy I have encountered yet on my travels. And after the US, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras, that’s saying something.

Tomorrow Peruvians go to the polls to decide how to vote in their Presidential election. There are only two candidates left: Ollanta Humala, a left-wing military officer and previous presidential candidate, and “Keiko”.

Keiko propaganda

Keiko propaganda - below is grafited "corruption" and "murderer"

“Keiko” is now such a household brand in Peru that nobody need say her family name: Fujimori. A name that could – or at least should – strike fear into many Peruvians. As President of Peru throughout the 1990s, Keiko’s father Alberto Fujimori first enacted wide-ranging neoliberal reforms, called the Fujishock. Electricity costs quintupled, water prices rose eightfold, and gasoline prices rose 3000%. Yet Peru was made safe for international capitalism. Then, feeling that Congress was holding him back, with the support of the military he carried out a presidential coup, which was roundly condemned by the international community. Strangely – and this is the worrying thing about the Peruvian national mindset – the coup was welcomed by the public, according to numerous polls. Continue Reading »

climate change, fuel, society, travel, USA

4 tuktuks, 3 airplanes and a Mississippi steamboat – my Carbon Footprint in 2010

I’ve done a lot of travelling in 2010. Namely across the Atlantic, looping around the USA, into the Caribbean and travelling down Central America as far as Nicaragua. So naturally I’m concerned about what the cost is to our shared natural environment of all my wanderings. From the outset I’ve tried to travel as environmentally friendly as possible, which informed my decision to travel across the Atlantic by ship

Even so, my travelling must have had a big impact on the environment that we all have a stake in, and over the New Year I’ve been trying to figure out to my satisfaction what that might be, and how good an idea (for everybody else and our shared global environment) me travelling around having a good time is.

To give you an idea of why I think this is important, have a look at my recent article that details how the world’s politicians have failed us when it comes to combatting climate change, and how we are, unfortunately to say the least, heading for an all-out global catastrophe.

I’ve worked out a very approximate answer in terms of a “carbon footprint”, measured in metric tonnes of carbon dioxide (* see note 1).

But rather than first list a bunch of figures I want to look back on exactly how far I’ve come, compare that to my “carbon budget”, and consider the choices I made and what I got out of it.

I arrived in New York City at the beginning of January on a ship from Southampton, England. After visiting Philadelphia, Boston, Washington D.C., Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal by long-distance bus and train, in April I moved to Chicago (by train) and spent 3 nice weeks there. I then hired a car (a hybrid electric Toyota Prius) and drove 5000 miles across the West through Seattle and down through Portland and Eugene to San Francisco, where I left the car.

13 000 miles around the USA

13 000 miles around the USA

I then got a train to L.A., took a campervan around wine country for a few days, and then took a 3-night train ride to New Orleans (these are big distances…). I then took bus and car (with my parents) to Florida, and then finally visited New York City by train again very briefly for the 4th of July before returning by train to Florida. Up against my visa time limit, I flew out of the country to Nassau, The Bahamas, where I stayed for a month and a half. I then flew (there is no other option) to Cuba, and then from Cuba to Cancun (the closest exit). I only took buses after that.

Just taking the carbon cost of the first 6 months in the USA, the obvious big costs are the ship to the Americas, the private car road-trip across the West, the campervan (surprisingly bad) and the flight out of the country. The ship accounts for a huge 1816.1kg of CO2 (nearly two tonnes… although I calculated at the time, marginally less than a transatlantic flight (* see note 2). Continue Reading »

society, travel, vegetarianism

Why am I vegetarian?

It’s something I get asked often enough. I’ve been travelling for nearly eight months now and it’s a daily question: if not from other people but for myself. Even in the USA, finding vegetarian food was not the easiest thing. Finding vegan food was harder again, and, yes, I quite often ate vegetarian instead of vegan simply in order to have some variety and to be able to participate in at least some of the culture. And after eleven years of being vegetarian, and ten years of being essentially vegan, I wanted to re-examine the reasons for my choice in the first place. Certainly now that I’ve arrived in Cuba I have a feeling that vegetarianism is going to become harder and harder as I travel down into Central and South America. I’ve only been here one night and already I’ve had three occasions where the words “Soy vegetariano” have been greeted with the same mix of incredulous surprise and pity. I’ve not had any scary experiences so far on my eight month travels, but then until yesterday in the Bahamas I’d been living with a vegetarian and a vegan. Looking ahead to Mexico I watched a YouTube video online that showed the making of a typical flour tortilla. The standard ingredients are flour, water and pork fat. And even if I was to ask for just some healthy steamed vegetables wrapped in a flour tortilla, apparently the done thing to do is to smear some more pork fat onto the tortilla to provide that all-important basting.

      It’s obvious that I will need to know very clearly why and how I am vegetarian if I am to have any hope of making clear food choices in Latin America that don’t stress me out on a daily basis. I had a great chance to re-examine my commitment to being vegetarian when a friend in New York City lent me the new book “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer. Safran Foer is a youngish Jewish novelist, living in Brooklyn with his wife and young son. He says he began researching the book as a way to explore his own on-off dabbling with vegetarianism and to discover what would be the best way to raise his new baby. Safran Foer begins the book as a meat-eater, and a fairly committed one at that, listing many good reasons why everyday human connections contribute to us sharing a culture of meat eating. Continue Reading »

capitalism, colonialism, politics, slavery, society, travel

The Bahamas – sun, sea, sand & slavery

Today is Emancipation Day, not just in the Bahamas, but all across the former British empire. 176 years ago – in 1834 – my nation, Britain, finally abolished slavery. The Bahamas as a nation, however, is only five years older than me… not until 1973 did the Bahamas became independent from Britain – they celebrated the birthday the weekend I arrived.

This island and its family islands of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas share alot of history in common with the Caribbean as whole; the region was home to several million peaceful native Americans, who were almost completely wiped out by the Spanish and then by the English, through slavery, outright murder and disease. Both countries then imported black slaves stolen from Africa, depopulating some areas by between 60 and 90 per cent. For a time in the 17th century the Bahamas was administered from the Carolinas, and from 1718 directly by the British. These are young cultures, with their populations all from somewhere else – most of them moved here by force.

Sacred Space by Antonious RobertsOne of the most moving things I’ve experienced on the island so far is an artwork “Sacred Space” by Bahamian artist Antonious Roberts; figures of slave women carved out of casuarina trees, still rooted in the ground; they look out over the ocean, towards Africa. Even more moving, a few yards away are the “Pirate Steps”, more accurately called the Slave Steps because up them from about 1785 onwards were marched thousands of African slaves who were brought here to work for the ruling white people on the island. At the bottom of the steps I found a young white American couple from the South, larking about and taking photos of eachother on the rocks, unaware or uncaring of how their predecessors had driven thousands of other human beings across those rocks like cattle. A few yards further along, the same harbour that berthed the slave ships now accommodates Esso oil and gas tankers.

So most people in these countries like the Bahamas have been the working class, working for someone else’s benefit, for not just decades but centuries. Since I’ve been here I’ve met black Bahamians who are film-makers, business people, university staff and professors, poets and authors. People who are well-travelled, highly intelligent, thoughtful, conscientious and considerate. But black society in Continue Reading »

Green Party, society, travel, USA

Canada… versus the USA

ottawa's war memorial

Ottawa's war memorial

I’ve spent less than a week in Canada, to my sadness.

After a day, the differences between here and the US were tangible. After nearly a week, the differences are overwhelming.

As a young English guy from Guildford told me at a bar in Toronto, Canada has all the advantages of the US (which for him were late licenses and plentiful weed) with none of the drawbacks. To drugs and alcohol I might also add: liveable human-scale cities, cosmopolitan cultures, a national respect for linguistic and ethnic diversity, a relaxed and positive sense of national identity, decent public transport, a progressive political system that publicly funds political parties and outlaws all corporate donations, a largely non-psychopathic government, great outdoors (although so far I’ve seen a lot of low-grade grassland (it’s not prairie – that was killed that long ago)), plenty of space and natural resources (a mixed blessing), good comedians (apparently) and surprisingly good beer.

In Ottawa and Toronto (although not Montreal) I saw a very low level of homelessness. In fact I saw almost nothing but healthy happy people, in good houses, with a very nice quality of life.

Frankly, its surprising any Americans still live in the US.

Did I mention, Canada also has universal health care?

Canada’s health care bill argument had some of the same elements of people crying “communist” as we’ve just seen in the US; but that debate was concluded 50 years ago, and unlike the US, not only did the best side win, but it achieved a genuinely-progressive result: single-payer healthcare, similar to Britain’s National Health Service.

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The power of the ocean

written 5th January 2010

It’s the first proper day of my voyage across the Atlantic and according to “Captain’s Log” – the only onboard TV channel on offer that I’ve much interest in – we’re passing underneath Ireland. It’s blowing a “fresh gale” outside: 47 miles per hour, hitting the ship abeam, but it’s only causing a slight judder as I lay typing in bed. If this were an ordinary hotel one would think the couple next door were engaged in some particularly energetic love-making, but alas it’s just the sea, and besides I suspect my neighbours are well past it in advanced years.

It was like Christmas Day this morning to wake up knowing I was feet from the ocean. With long coat hanging down to meet some very long socks I was covered enough to open the curtains and simultaneously turn the lock of my balcony door, stepping outside in one motion as if opening a Christmas present.

I wasn’t disappointed. If the new Doctor Who’s catchphrase is going to be “Geronimo!”, mine on these travels is obviously going to be “wow”, which is what I said to myself out loud when I saw the Atlantic ocean stretching out in front of me. No land now, no chance of the mobile signal I was desperately trying to hang on to last night, just sea – ocean, everywhere. The day is pretty – equal amounts of blue, white and grey in the sky; the clouds fluffy. When I change TV channels to the “Bridge Cam”, more ocean, the same as the perpendicular view from my windows. I kept saying “wow” in fact as I realised that this wasn’t just being close to the Atlantic ocean… being on the beach in Cornwall is being close to the Atlantic ocean. This was being IN the Atlantic ocean, on the Atlantic ocean… completely surrounded by the Atlantic ocean. Five hundred feet below us and at least 100 miles in any direction. Interestingly the Captain has just made a ship-wide announcement – obviously a daily thing: we have sailed 324 nautical miles so far and we’re equidistant from the tip of Ireland and the tip of England…100 miles from both and soon to be leaving both behind on our way to Newfoundland. Tomorrow we’ll have also left behind the continental shelf of Europe, and will be in even deeper water: two miles deep.

But wow. That ocean. I just have to keep going outside to the balcony and looking at it. I’ve seen the Atlantic ocean before. Its edges. But now I’m going to get all of it. Its whole breadth. For seven days solid we’re going to be crossing this vast expanse of ocean and it’s now, now we’re out of port, that the sheer majesty and size of it hits me. There’s also the thought in the back of my mind that we are imposters here, interlopers. If it really wanted to the sea could swallow us up, and why would they ever find us? The ship is big, but the sea is so so much bigger, and that’s apparent once you’re on it. Respect is healthy.

This adds a different dimension to my travels: most trans-Atlantic travellers – by airplane – scarcely have any commerce with the Atlantic itself (let alone the history of traveling this ocean and its consequences for the world). But here I can hear it, smell it and feel its spray on my face, spit in its spume if I wanted and add an infinitesimal amount of my own life-giving water to be assimilated into its own ample and unimpressed massiveness. To me this further illustrates what small creatures we – me and the boat – are compared to the huge sea.

For all the Cunard line’s laudable but politically-correct talk about environmental stewardship of the sea, it is not dependent on us. We are dependent on and beholden to the sea. And this has implications for how we think of ourselves on this planet mainly covered in oceans. Even my brief time spent regarding the ocean has warned me off – and nothing untoward has even happened yet. But I am innately cautious of such a big and unruly creature. I think we should all be, for the oceans are so powerful that if there were to give us any trouble – including in the case of catastrophic sea levels rises brought on by runaway climate change – we would certainly come off the worse.

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Flickr video: Braving the Atlantic Ocean in winter.

This video shows a particularly dramatic and exciting day on the ocean!

fuel, travel

Travelling by ocean liner – a green alternative…?

written 9th Jan

For the last few days I’ve been enjoying the luxuries of the Cunard White Star Line ocean liner “Queen Victoria“, as it makes its way across the North Atlantic from Southampton England to New York. We’re currently just entering the shipping lanes of the East coast of America, above the island of Nantucket, and I’m watching the container ships gather on the horizon from the luxury “Commodore Lounge” at the top of the ship. I say luxury because I’ve sadly found that these cruise liners aren’t really built for travelling across oceans: they’re built for “cruising”. By and large, my fellow guests are retired, well-off and in couples; whereas I am a single young man: one of only two that I have met on board. Most guests seemed to have “cruised” before – one retired English couple blaisely spoke to me about their 10th world cruise. Clearly I have very different motivations from almost everyone on board: my motivation has been Slow Travel and minimising the damaging greenhouse gas emissions that flying to New York would have caused. My young friend – a philosophy lecturer in his late 30s – shares my motivation about slow travel, but his main motivation is fear of flying. Unfortunately, because of the social scene these cruises don’t seem to lend themselves to be enjoyed by youngsters (under 50). And, perhaps because the motivation for most guests is not to ease pressure on our shared global environment, the effect is not particularly environmentally friendly either.

Personally I could do without the grand “Royal Court Theatre” that occupies the forward parts of decks one to three. And as much as I’ve personally welcomed the small onboard gym I could probably manage with just the one swimming pool (not three). But with a casino, a ballroom, a disco, four restaurants and many more cafes and bars, the Queen Victoria sets itself up to be a high “consumer” of energy and resources.

In fact, before booking the journey I was pained to find that ocean liners typically use 120 kWh of energy for every “100 passenger kilometres”. That’s in fact more than an Boing 747 airliner, at – depending on fullness – between 30 and 53 kwH per 100 passenger kilometres [according to David MacKay’s very useful “Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air” (p.128)]).

By Cunard’s own calculations the ship emits about 0.53070307 kg of CO2 per passenger mile. Multiplied by what I estimate as a rough distance for the trip of 3422 miles, that is a total of 1816.1 kg of CO2. That is alot of CO2, whichever way you look at it; more than most people in the world are responsible for in a year.
By contrast according to the calculator at Choose Climate the same distance by plane would create only 650kg of CO2. So, what on earth am I, as a green, doing taking a form of transport that emits more CO2 than a plane…?? The answer is two-fold: the first is that the plane’s CO2 emissions are not the whole story. We know these days that due to the total warming effect of CO2 plus H2O (contrails) plus Nitrous Dioxide in the upper atmosphere, the damage from an aeroplane at 40 000 feet is effectively tripled, so that the original 209 kg of fuel which burns with twice the amount of oxygen to create 650 kg CO2… creates 1949 kg of CO2-equivalent warming effect, delivered direct to the upper atmosphere, where it does instant damage.

So already, with this amendment, even the ship’s vast CO2 emissions per passenger just narrowly beat the plane’s.

The Queen Victoria's extravagance is a barrier to mainstreaming ocean travel

Secondly, however, I wanted to travel by sea for a different reason: I was simply damned if I was going to fly.
Apart from anything else, if there is no viable alternative to taking the plane, where is the consumer choice in that, and what does that say about our society’s one-track version of progress? It seemed obvious to me that surface travel by ship should be less environmentally-damaging than air travel, and when I was unable to find a suitable passenger-carrying container-ship, I turned to ocean liners as the next most environmentally-friendly way to get across the Atlantic (needless to say, if I had been able to find a container ship on which to travel then the environmental impact of my presence on board it would have been truly negligible, as MacKay’s book discusses).
Aside from the aesthetic slow travel aspect (which has been wonderful), the high figure of the ship emitting 1816.1kg of CO2 on my behalf on the journey also accounts for my being put up in 4 star hotel luxury for seven days with a la carte meals three times a day (it’s a battle to get out of the restaurant at any point during the day and do something to work off the calories), entertainment, shops, and a support team of 1000 staff (one for every two guests).
Herein lies part of the hope I feel for ocean travel as a (more) sustainable alternative than plane travel. Plane staff could barely be pared back. But (labour considerations aside) downscaling a ship’s staff complement/guest experience by a third would reduce the experience to a mere 3 star luxury, which would be quite enough for me. Because the Queen Victoria with all its luxury already manages a lower overall level of climate-damage than an aeroplane, just think what could be achieved by trading in some of the luxury and adding some more environmentally-inclined processes to the ship’s layout and systems. A ship that was truly designed for moving people across oceans rather than being a floating hotel for well-off retireees could I’m sure give the aeroplane a run for its money in terms of environmental credentials. With the right investment and market conditions, a new era of ocean-going travel could provide a viable and more-environmentally-friendly alternative to transatlantic flights.

And lower prices might allow a greater diversity of people to enjoy the experience of slower, more environmentally friendly travel.