It’s Time to Get Smart With Plastic

Let’s be realistic, we are not going to stop using plastic. It can’t be un-invented, and even the most die-hard environmentalist would not want a world completely free of plastic.

Why?

Because without plastic we have no electronics other than very basic lighting and heating.

No computers. No phones.

None of the smart machines that help to keep us alive in hospital.

Forget aircraft, other than the wood, glue, wire, string and cross-your-fingers ones of the beginning of the 20th century. They’d be propeller-driven and trips to the other side of the world would be a thing of the past, other than for the very rich with lots of time on their hands.

Although that brings up another environmental question altogether, of course.

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No, I don’t know why I chose this picture either.

What we do need to do is to get smart with how we use plastic, and what we use it for.

Most importantly, single use plastic bags should go. Period. So should all plastic bottles. Just getting rid of those items would cut plastic waste enormously.

We should return to using paper to wrap food products, and linen or paper bags to carry them.

This would limit what could be shipped long distances, and our choices, but we need to accept that.

There will still be those who say ‘I demand freshly picked paradiddles from the rain forests of the Antarctic and I don’t care about the environment!’ but society has to learn to say ‘Well, you can’t have them!’

But might we be able to have our cake and eat it?

Or even our paradiddles?

Possibly…there are already excellent alternatives to plastic bags, in the form of bags made from corn-starch, which is similar to the plastic ‘traditional’ plastic bags are made from, but really is bio-degradable. In fact, they are bio-compostable, which is one step up from being merely bio-degradable, in that they break down into carbon dioxide and organic matter only. This means that to get rid of them you simply chuck them on your compost heap and they break down rapidly. * but see below

There are disposable cups, food storage containers and much more already in use. And even the thickest items, such as corn-starch cutlery, take only 6 months to decompose once thrown away.

Why is there not a greater push towards using these worldwide?

Dare I suggest vested interests?

 * I am now adding a rider to this!

It seems I didn’t do my homework thoroughly on this one. There are problems in disposing of corn-starch polymers in that they have to be separated out from all other plastics, which is totally impractical since they look much the same, and cannot be sent to landfill sites. And if mixed in with ‘normal’ plastics, they contaminate them and prevent their being re-cycled.

Pah – I thought it all seemed too simple!

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The (Shy And) Retiring Type…

A few days ago, I made the decision to retire from my present job.

It is something I have been brooding over for some while, and having a little time and space to think while I walked on Dartmoor last week enabled me to finally accept a decision I had really come to some time before.

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For a long time I have instructed groups in an outdoor environment, in activities such as climbing, canoeing, navigation and team building. As I have got older, though, I have naturally found these activities both physically and mentally more demanding. After all, when you are responsible for people’s safety as well as teaching them skills, there is an added pressure on everything you do.

A number of other stresses in my life over the last year or so have not helped, especially as they are still ongoing.

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So as well as a sense of regret, there is certainly a great feeling of relief. Regret, because I have had a huge amount of both pleasure and satisfaction from this work, which has carried me through those times when I felt it was becoming all too much, but relief that now it is time to call it a day, as I have reached the point where I know I cannot carry on for much longer.

I love being in an outdoor environment. It is why I choose to go to hills and woods and mountains rather than towns and cities, and this was instrumental in my deciding to teach these activities in the first place. But the obverse of that coin is that so often I am unable to really enjoy being there, since I am entirely focused on my group and the activities – which is how it should be, of course.

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One thing I shall look forward to, then, is being able to enjoy that environment every time I am there, without constantly having to check everyone is safe, or ensuring the activities are taking place as they should be.

While I intend to bring a greater focus to my writing, and also to my painting, I will also have to find something to bring in a little money for the next couple of years until I reach the state retirement age. I’ve no idea what that will be, yet.

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Essentially, I just feel burnt out. It is a very intensive job, in the way that care work, for example, can be, and I know it is the right time to go. Otherwise, there is the risk I will begin to run sessions that no one will want to take part in.

And that’s not the way I want it to finish. Far better that people should ask why I am going, than they should ask why I have not gone before now.

Bob on Holiday

Just in case you were wondering where he was, Bob has been on holiday. He’s back now, though.

And actually, he’s rather cross.

Now, lot’s of people return from holiday having had a wonderful time and feeling a bit tetchy that they have to come back to the daily grind, but it’s not like that.

No, Bob thinks we’ve all been lied to.

He went away to a holiday enclave in a West African country – or so he says. Bob’s sense of geography being what it is, I wouldn’t be too certain of the destination without checking his passport stamps first. And I wouldn’t do that. So I’ll take his word for it for now.

‘Now, I’m no fool,’ he said, looking at me.

‘No, of course not, Bob,’ I replied. ‘Absolutely not. Anything but. In fact, anyone who says…’ My words died away as I heard Bob’s wife, Gina, laughing somewhere behind me. ‘Go on,’ I ended, lamely.

‘Well, we read all the time that this is one of the poorest countries in the world,’ he continued, ‘yet I’ve never been to a nicer place! The hotel was really luxurious! Food was brilliant. All the staff were wonderful – they were smartly dressed and they couldn’t do enough for you! There were masses of security men all around the perimeter, mind you, but I don’t know what they were there for. And the beach was fantastic!’

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‘Was it just you on the beach?’

‘No, there were dozens of us.’

‘Any local people?’

‘No, they don’t go there, apparently. They don’t like sitting around on the beach like we do.

‘Did you go outside the hotel grounds at all, Bob?’

‘Yeah, we went to a village to see local artists at work. I loved the village. It’s such a minimalist lifestyle. They don’t waste time or money on all those pointless things that we think are so essential in the west.’

‘Like what?’

‘All that rubbish we don’t need!’ he said, heatedly. ‘They live a simple, healthy, lifestyle, and what matters to them are the things that are really important.’

‘Like what?’ I repeated.

‘Well, simple food, for example. It’s much healthier, you know. You don’t come across any of the locals there who are overweight.’

‘What is this diet, then? Do you know?’

‘Well, mostly they make a sort of porridge out of some local grain, apparently.’

‘Is that it?’

‘Oh, no. Of course not! They usually have it with, er beans. And onions.’

‘It doesn’t sound very exciting.’

‘Food doesn’t need to be exciting! It’s there to keep you alive!

It was a side of Bob I’d never seen before, and, to be honest, it was a bit scary. I never realised he could be so evangelical. At least, not about things like that. I’m used to him banging on about how wonderful a new beer is that he has discovered, or about his favourite pizza topping (which I’m not going to talk about here, but…pineapple on pizza…how could you?), but now he had all the fervour of a fresh convert to some extreme religion.

‘And then there are the houses they live in,’ he continued.

‘The houses?’

‘Yes. Gloriously simple and uncomplicated!’

‘As in small and built of odd pieces of driftwood and plastic sheeting?’

‘Exactly!’ He smiled warmly. ‘I love the way they make use of what’s locally available to build with. It keeps the costs down, and reduces the environmental impact of transporting thinks like bricks from far away. Simple.’

‘But would you want to live in one of those?’

‘I wouldn’t mind. I mean, what else do you need? Just some sort of bed in there and, oh, a table, I suppose. And a couple of chairs.’

‘But you just told me how luxurious the hotel was, and how much you enjoyed it.’

‘Well, I wasn’t going to turn it down, was I? But apparently it’s because us Westerners are all just so soft and pampered. The native people don’t live like that at all.’

‘So you say. Does this mean you’re going to change how you live, then, Bob?’

‘Well, I don’t think it’s particularly practical in the West.

‘I suppose not. Tell me about the artists you went to visit, then.’

‘Ah, yes. Mainly carvers. Lovely wood; mainly animals and masks. I bought a couple. Look, that’s one of them.’ He pointed to a beautifully carved and polished elephant in black wood, standing on the mantelpiece. ‘It cost the equivalent of about two pounds in our money.’

‘That seems very cheap.’

‘I know, but it’s a lot to them. And it’s putting money into the local economy.’

‘Who did you give the money to? The chap who carved it?’

‘No, there was a bloke who showed us round. Nice guy in a suit. Looked very smart. We paid him.’

‘I don’t suppose the carver was in a suit.’

‘Of course not! You wouldn’t wear one of those while you were working, would you?’

‘Describe him, then.’

‘Well, he was wearing a pair of shorts.’

‘What else?’

‘Nothing else. That was it. they could have done with a wash, though, I must admit.’ He put his head to one side and stared into the distance. ‘And a bit of sewing.’ He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. ‘Really, he could have done with a new pair of shorts. They were pretty ghastly.’

‘Maybe the nice man in the suit will buy him a pair.’ Bob smiled happily.

‘I’m sure he will!’

Going Green

On the morning of the 26th August, 2019, every single person on earth woke up to find that their skin had turned green.

For a few hours, there were an awful lot of people trying to find a way to change it back again, to try to dye it, rub the colour off, swallow lots of strange potions, try magic spells, see doctors, priests, scientists, mystics, druids, and all sorts of other experts and so-called experts, all of whom claimed they could cure the problem.

But all of whom had green skin as well, so they didn’t come across as very convincing.

Finally, someone thought to bellow up to God ‘Oi, God! What on earth have you done?’

There was a rumble of ethereal chuckling, and then God replied: ‘I am just so totally pissed off, like, with your saying how some of you are better than the others, like, just because of the colour of the skin I gave you. It’s all pretty random, after all. So now you’re all the same, and you might as well just stop it.’

‘Yeah…but…green?’

‘Yes, green. If I make you all white, then the ones that were already white will make out that was because they were superior in the first place. Same with all the other skin colours. So…green. None of you were green before.’

‘But…’

‘Plus,’ and here God gave a little Godly snigger, ‘you all equate green skin with aliens. So now you’re all aliens. And, even if I say so myself, that’s a good one.’

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Nothing’s ever simple, though, is it? Within a couple of weeks, once everyone had realised there was no mileage in everyone claiming to be a Green Supremacist, all the major religions started working overtime to fire up extra feuds and wars and to persecute anyone within reach who thought differently to the ways they did, anyone they considered heretical, those who some thought might be a slightly different shade of green, or cut their sandwiches in a non-prescribed way.

And then the sound of the loudest ever irritated sigh filled the skies and echoed around every valley and mountain and city on earth. It rumbled across the plains and seas and everyone stopped what they were doing and muttered ‘Oh, crikey. Now what?’

And God roared out ‘I thought I was angry before, but now I’m really pissed off! What on earth makes you think you can speak for me? This is all, quite frankly, rather insulting! I made this lovely planet, and put you on it so you could enjoy it and look after it and be nice to each other! How dare you presume to say that I hate people who you disagree with? How dare you say you have authority to kill in my name? And, while you’re at it, you can stop all the servile bowing and scraping, too. I mean, what sort of an image do you have of me?

‘Oh, and I almost forgot (‘cos I’ve got a lot of gripes with you lot!). Men are not superior to women in any way whatsoever. So you men can stop paying them less, treating them differently, forcing them to hide themselves, denying them education, declaring them inferior or evil, or discriminating against them in any other way at all, or else I’m jolly well going to visit a few plagues on you that will really make your blood run cold!

‘Now, start to look after my bloody planet, treat women with respect, and stop trying to find more cowardly ways to exterminate anyone you think different to yourselves!’

Blimey. Better do as She says.

Go On A Journey!

Everyone should go on a journey; a journey of discovery.

Even if they only do it once.

The journey will be different for everyone. No two journeys will be the same. But what they will have in common is that they will all be journeys where the traveller discovers something about themselves, as well as the environment where they have chosen to journey. The essence of the journey is that it gives the traveller both time and space to think; that on the journey they allow themselves to be open to new sights and thoughts and people.

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For some, it will be a carefully curated tour to a country with a different culture to their own. Perhaps a Westerner travelling to Nepal or Cambodia, or an Indian visiting Spain or Iceland, with a carefully prepared itinerary designed to help them get the most out of their journey.

For some, it could be much the same, but as an independent traveller. They would have the flexibility to either keep to a strict itinerary, or to go off somewhere new as the whim takes them. Because everyone’s sense of adventure is different.

For some, it will be a long, long trek through difficult terrain, pushing themselves physically and mentally every step of the way.

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For some, it might also be a long journey, but under easier conditions, where the aim is more one of contemplation, perhaps a pilgrimage of sorts.

For others, the difficult terrain might be that of their prejudices and fears – the terrain of the mind.

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What starts as a pilgrimage might end up in your discovering that you do not believe in God; well, that is fine. Remember, it is perfectly possible to be a spiritual person without believing in any god.

Although what ‘spiritual’ actually means is not so easy to nail down. I think of it as pertaining to the spirit, rather than to material things. In that sense, I would associate altruism with the spiritual, and greed with the material. A sense of calm and peace with the spiritual, a rowdy hedonism with the material.

For some, the journey might be from their house to a town or village a few miles away, and the journey might take no longer than a day.

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It is essential, though, that the journey is undertaken for the sake of the journey. The destination is, in some ways, unimportant. It is what happens on that journey that matters.

Many, perhaps, will journey without realising that they have done so, or arrive at their destination not realising that is what it is. They might only realise later.

Some will arrive at a totally unexpected destination, and perhaps that is the best destination of all.

Go on, then, off you go!

The Great Sandwich Schism

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, God created the world. And he looked upon the world and said ‘Well, so far so good’.

And the world was full of beautiful things and good things and a great bounty of useful things that humans would later ransack and destroy in the name of greed, although that is a story for another day.

But when the people whom God had created looked upon his great works, they said unto Him ‘How might we thank you, oh God? How might we show our gratitude for your benevolence?’

And God replied ‘Oh, I don’t know. I really wish you wouldn’t bother. But if you must, just make me a sandwich, or something. I’m feeling a bit peckish after all that creating.’

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And so the people made haste to slice bread and find Good Things to become a tasty and delicious filling for the sandwich they had made for their God. And there arose minor disputes such as whether ham and cheese really went together in a sandwich, or whether mayonnaise actually counted as food, but the people settled their quarrel in an amicable fashion and so the sandwich was created and placed upon a golden plate that was decorated with the names of angels and archangels, and set about with small mountains of salad and just a little dash of mustard in case God should fancy some.

And then one among them rose up and said ‘Wait, for we must cut this sandwich before we present it to our God, unless it be a bit too large for him to handle and he drop pieces of cheese from the sides or drip mayonnaise in his holy lap.’

And all at once there arose discord, for some were found who would cut the sandwich in a diagonal fashion, and yet others who declared that would be an affront to His holiness and that the only Right Way would be to cut the sandwich into equal rectangles.

And lo, the factions took up weapons and fought, yea, even in the Holy Kitchen, and they did massacre one another and each declared that the other faction was a worshipper of Satan, who was completely bemused by all this, since he had no followers (not even on Facebook), and they did create rival churches and rival nations and declared undying enmity against each other, spending the next few thousand years thinking up new and more imaginative ways to hate and kill and destroy each other.

And God groaned and held his head in his hands and said ‘Oh verily, what a cock-up this has become. I think I shall destroy the lot of them.’

Save Naini Tal

A rather different post from me, today. This time I am requesting everyone’s help to save the lake in the Indian hill station town of Nainital.

I was alerted to this by fellow blogger Rajiv Chopra, who has the link to the petition on his Facebook page, but for those who have not seen it, the link is also here: Save Nainital

I have a special affection for Nainital, as I visited it in 2005 and only discovered afterwards that my father had also visited it during WWII when he was stationed in India. I have a couple of previous blog posts on Nainital which, if you are interested, you can find by searching my blog – I’m not putting up the links, since the purpose of this post is to garner signatures for the petition.

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My father on Naini Tal

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My first view of Nainital in 2005, having just stepped (groggily!) off of the overnight bus from Delhi.

So, what’s it all about? Simply, the lake is drying out. The causes for this are complex, but apparently high on the list is the simple fact that more water is being taken out by users in the town than the natural rainfall can replenish. Many trees are being felled to make way for too much construction – this increases the water run-off, and means even less water is retained in the ground.

Please click on the link; all the information is there – much more than I have written here. Again, it is here: Save Nainital

There are also many articles on this subject on the web, especially those by the premier Indian newspapers. Please sign.

Thank you.

Responsible Travelling – Part 1

In a way, this could be titled ethical travelling, but I would like it to cover cultural issues as well as environmental and other ethical concerns. I don’t particularly like proselytising, but I think that we all need to be responsible for our actions: it makes for a happier world for all concerned.

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So, in no particular order…

Trekking

First of all, when arranging a trek, please try and have a look at the ethical policy of your chosen company. Nowadays, many have a policy of ensuring that porters are properly paid and treated, food is sourced wisely and money makes its way back into the local community. The guides / cooks / sherpas or what-have-yous should be trained to ensure that the environment is treated with respect during the trek. Personally, I feel that from a selfish point of view it makes sense to choose a company that follows these guidelines, because I feel that I will be treated better by them, too. It should not be much more expensive, either.

Secondly, it is not all up to them. One of the most important things we can all do is avoid littering villages and countryside as we trek. Apart from the unpleasantness of spectacular scenery ruined by plastic bags and used loo paper, we can hardly criticise local laxness in this area if we are guilty of the same ourselves.

Deforestation is a major problem in the mountains now, which can only get worse with the effects of global warming. Consequently, anything that we can do to minimise the burning of wood is important, so please do not insist on unnecessary fires to sit around or warm up. You should have brought sufficient clothing on the trek for that. And it seems a minor thing, but if a group of trekkers turn up at a tea house and insist on lots of different dishes, then that will involve a lot of extra firewood to cook them. Try and have the same dish, if possible.

Shopping

Ah, yes. Such an important part of our visit, really. The ultra-cheap clothes, the amazing antique statues, the cheap religious paintings…unbelievable bargains, compared to what we would pay in the west…

…and rather a minefield, unfortunately. Those cheap imitation brand names, as we should all know by now, are usually produced in sweatshop conditions, conditions that would often justify being described as ‘slavery’. As well as being, usually, rather inferior quality. Difficult to avoid them all; after all, who is to say we shouldn’t be buying those attractively embroidered ‘I did the Everest Trail 2017’ or suchlike t-shirts for the equivalent of a couple of dollars?

Well, there is a world of difference between the genuine sweatshop (if I can use such a phrase) and the family sitting around their sewing machines under a tarpaulin beside the stall producing their goods. The latter may be working hard for a poor return, but may be infinitely better off than those with no work and certainly better off than the sweatshop labourer who will earn far less, in conditions far worse. Even today, unfortunately, some of them are bonded labourers.

The antiques…if you go to the Kathmandu valley, you will in many places find the remains of religious statues that have been stolen from their sites beside roads or outside temples. These statues usually find their way to the west to ‘collectors’, or may be sold off to tourists who know no better. In many countries you will need an export licence from the authorities to take antiques over 100 years old out of the country simply to attempt to prevent this sort of desecration. Invariably it is possible to buy modern copies of these items – handcrafted and as beautiful as the originals. It is better for everybody if the traveller contents themselves with these, not least because the smuggler can be hit with a hefty fine or prison sentence. It is also worth mentioning that many of the ‘antiques’ are fakes, in any case.

And the religious paintings. Again, in Kathmandu, Thankas, the paintings that hang in temples, are frequently offered for sale. And again, if genuine, should not be sold. They have probably been stolen. Wherever they are offered for sale, however, there will be bright new paintings for sale – equally beautiful, well made and far cheaper. Spend your rupees on them and support the craftsmen that make a living that way.

BIG or small?

Staying with the shop theme, it seems fairly obvious that by buying from the little shop rather than the supermarket you will be far more likely to be putting money back into the local community. All well and good. Inevitably, though, it is never quite as straightforward as that. Moving south across the border to India, we may find that in the market that we are searching for souvenirs, as well as local traders there may be traders from Tibet or Nepal, Kashmiris and dealers from the city. How you wish to spend your money may pose a dilemma that I cannot solve for you. But at least give it some thought!

The same situation can arise with hotels and trekking companies. I feel that in that situation, the small company or hotel is likely to get my rupees, since, unless I know otherwise, they are more likely to put money back into the local community.

Water, water everywhere…

…but most of it comes in plastic bottles which end up littering the environment, or refilled by unscrupulous rascals with what could be contaminated water, to be sold on again. Avoid this if you can (not always possible, I admit) by taking water purifying tablets and using the local water – read the instructions carefully to see exactly what is required – or using the boiled and filtered water available in some places (See info in places such as Lonely Planet guide books). If you buy plastic bottles, scrunch them up before disposal to prevent their re-use.

In some places, such as Ladakh, you can find environmentally minded laundry shops, where the soapy water is disposed of properly, rather than just poured into local streams. May they prosper and multiply!

 

Indian Salt Miners

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Salt workers pose for a photograph at the salt pans near Marakkanam, just north of Pondicherry (now renamed Puducherry, its original name before the French arrived, although everybody continues to refer to it as Pondicherry, or just ‘Pondi’). The sea is allowed to flow into ‘pans’ (not unlike paddy fields) and then it evaporates over several days under the hot sun, leaving behind a layer of salt which is gathered by hand. Salt has been gathered this way in India since time immemorial.

Even when I took this photograph in 2006, on my first visit to South India, it struck me as a harsh environment in which to have to earn a living. Since then, I have learned more.

Salt is, and always has been, an essential commodity, especially for a population living in hot conditions, but when the British in India imposed a salt tax, this eventually led to the ‘Salt March’ led by Gandhi to Dandi, on the Gujarat coast, where he symbolically gathered salt at the coast after a 200km march, an action that contributed to the loosening of the hold that the British Raj held on India.

In Gujarat alone, approximately 112,000 labourers are employed in the industry (Gujarat State Law Commission figures).

In all, there are approximately 1,000,000 people employed across a total of nine states harvesting salt. Typically, women and girls make up most of the workforce.

But the conditions that the salt miners labour under today are little better than they were then.

They suffer eye problems and blindness from constant exposure to the sun reflected off of the brilliant white of the salt pans. Skin lesions from the salt are common. After a while, feet become septic and absorb salt; so much so, that according to some accounts even after death the salt content in their limbs are so high that hands and feet are difficult to burn during cremation (Daily Telegraph 24/2/10).

In addition, the labourers suffer from many of the other problems common across the labour force, such as exploitation by contractors and money lenders, and poor educational opportunities for their children. There is often inadequate housing, drinking water and food, and an absence of primary healthcare (Indian Express 26/4/16).

It is frequently said that saltpan workers have three ways to die: first gangrene, second TB (tuberculosis) or third blindness.

Their life expectancy is 50 – 60 years.

The hardships and problems they face are slowly being brought to the public’s attention, but clearly there is still a very long way to go before they enjoy what most would regard as decent working conditions.

The Assassin’s Garden

My mood is strongly affected by the environment, and this will naturally influence my writing.

Although it is obviously not necessary to recreate exactly the conditions of the story I might be writing, it certainly helps if the mood of where I am matches that of the environment I am writing about.

During the years I lived in a desert environment, for example, I never once wrote a story about whaling in Antarctic waters.

Today is grey, cold, basically miserable. To sit and work on my India novel is, quite frankly, impossible. Instead I have been re-working some of ‘The Assassin’s Garden

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The Assassin’s Garden‘ is the working title of the novel I have been writing for almost 5 years, now, and which got overtaken when I had the inspiration for ‘Making Friends with the Crocodile‘, and couldn’t be much more different. It is a complex tale, with a timeline that begins in Medieval Persia, passing through Mogul India to Victorian England, back to Victorian India, and then England again. It is (obviously!) a historical story, which also has strong elements of detective story and Gothic horror/fantasy.

I don’t really know which genre it truly fits into. Perhaps it needs a new one.

Proto-historic-goth-punk, perhaps.

As it stands, it is well over 100,000 words long, and may well end up being split into two or even three separate books.

Perhaps it is time that I finally completed it.

In other news (switch to picture of newsreader staring earnestly into camera, serious look on face, effect ruined only by line of kittens dancing a can-can in the background), I’m finding it quite difficult to sort out my Print On Demand edition of ‘Making Friends with the Crocodile’, and have now decided to switch printing companies (oh what fun).

I know I’m not the only writer who just enjoys writing the stories, but hates all of the publishing and publicity sides of the business – I am just not a businessman in any sense of the word; I dislike doing it and find it difficult. It also goes completely against my nature to go around saying ‘My book is fantastic, you must buy it now!’

Unfortunately, if there is a button I can press on the computer after I have finished writing the book, labelled ‘format, publish, promote and sell’ I’ve not noticed it yet.