Monday, 27 April 2015

Ageing & Simple Pleasures

Waking again this morning to spring sunshine, my still dreamy mind leaped instantly to the thought of a cycle ride. Get out there on the lanes, amongst the trees, the English hedgerows, the sound of birdsong and the sobering sight of squashed hedgehogs. Recently I passed 57. That's years old, not squashed hedgehogs or miles per hour! I know 57 is far from old, but I already see how people my age are telling themselves they are too old to do things. Some of them even think they are too old for sex, for goodness sake! (a bad back is no excuse - be more imaginative). Thankfully my passion for such things – physical exertion, expeditionary travel and the great outdoors – is as strong as ever. I am determined to stave off the depressing world of coach trips, mobility scooters, Zimmer-frames, Tenna-pants, stretch waistbands, cream teas, gift shops and queues for the toilets. Surely these things needn't be the mark of a person over sixty-five?
If all else fails one could take up Zimmer-frame racing

Dementia & Obesity Epidemics
Recently there has been much publicity about the "dementia epidemic." It is due to strike Western
Europe and other developed regions any time now, we are told. Partly this is due to many more people living into their eighties and nineties and beyond, but research suggests that more sedentary
lifestyles plays a strong part in it. Nowadays, far fewer people do active outdoor jobs – it has become more the norm for people to sit at a desk all day. Sport in schools has been hugely reduced and we
have gone to great lengths to find ways to avoid the need to walk or cycle to work, school or to the shops. Leisure for many increasingly means "pampering." It begins early – children do not go out to play like they used to. They have become voluntary prisoners of their screens. This sets up habits for a lifetime. And clearly the obesity epidemic goes hand in hand with this sedentary lifestyle. Only the recently resurgent interests in cycling, hill-walking and camping (albeit largely at the more mature end of the spectrum) give any cause for cautious optimism. So I am relying on this kind of regular activity to keep me sane, and enjoying it at the same time. And for those who dislike the outdoors, I suggest you check out the strange but effective activity that is  Finnish Disco Dancing

For those who can manage the outdoors, there is still plenty of it available

The Benefits of Maturity
No doubt at some point my physical ability to cycle, surf or walk long distances over hilly terrain will begin diminish, but so far it seems to be improving. I intend to keep it that way for as long as possible. What I lack in sheer strength I seem to make up for in a more relaxed approach, which seems to get me further and in a more pleasurable manner. I find my judgement is a bit better. I have learned from experience to give a little more thought to when it makes sense to stop, how much water and food to carry and most of all to remind myself that I have nothing to prove to anyone, not even myself. I've done it all before so I can just enjoy it. I am happy to reassure younger people that this is a great stage of life to reach. For me it feels like a reward for years of self-induced pain and hardship. But the greatest reward of being a "mature" cyclist, surfer, motorcyclist and rambler is to have the time. No longer the 2 week summer holiday once a year, at the same time as everyone else is out congesting the roads. No longer the all too brief weekend jaunt stolen between the intense responsibilities of work and child-rearing. Now I am becoming more able to go where I want, when I want and almost for as long as I want. And the great thing about cycle touring or any of the other outdoor pastimes I've mentioned, is that you don't need a fortune to do it. I urge you not to give in to old age incapacity. As Dylan Thomas said (although he was frequently incapacitated) "Do not go gentle into that good night."

Pick Up Thy Zimmer-frame And Walk!

Where To Go
I tend to divide up my cycling, surfing, walking and motorcycling (I also squeeze in a few sailing trips with friends) trips into categories based upon the length of time they take and therefore the amount of preparation required.

Half day and one day trips tend to involve cycling or walking to a country pub - usually a micropub (
Long weekend trips naturally require a little more planning, but not much. These might involve a cycle tour of a number of micropubs in Kent, where I mostly live. My friends and I usually take a packed lunch and eat it in a churchyard as micropubs don't serve food. Yes, it's very much like "The Last of the Summer Wine." Sometimes I cycle alone somewhere, out to a farm shop or to visit a friend. Half-day motorcycle trips tend to follow the same pattern. The main thing is these activities require little or no pre-planning. A phone call the evening before or on the morning, fill my water-bottle and perhaps make a sandwich before I set off. Sometimes it might be a trip across to France or Belgium. Motorcycle jaunts can be longer - perhaps down to Wales, up to Yorkshire or over to Belgium or France. Every so often I ride over to Ireland to see a race like the thrilling North-west 200 near the Giant's Causeway. One or two week trips usually involve going further and might involve camping if the weather is good. I often go with friends to cycle The Way of The Roses cycle route from Morecambe to Bridlington (coast to coast in Lancashire and Yorkshire). I've also recently started doing Camino walks (pilgrimage walks to Santiago de la Compostela in Spain) which can take months. It's not all old fogeys mate! And then there are expeditionary trips. These usually take anything from a month to a year. My longest was 9 months cycling from Ireland to Japan with my son. This November my son and I are thinking of doing a one month cycle trip in India or Morocco. Last summer I cycled the Elbe in East Germany, down through Czech Republic and then back along the Danube with my wife (slowly). It's hard to be bored when you have a bike or a good pair of boots. I'm waiting to cycle The Himalayas at some point, but I'm in no rush. My body seems to work better than ever and that's probably thanks to all this regular exercise.

 Men in lycra. A trip to Poperinge Beer Festival (Belgium)

 The road from Ireland to Tokyo was 10,000 miles. Thankfully not all of it was like this. 
Track over Mt Anai Mudi. Kerala, near to Munar.

 The NW200 Port Rush, Northern Ireland. They're at nearly 200mph!

 The Way of The Roses, somewhere near York

Passing pilgrims on the Camino Finisterre, Galicia, Spain

Next Expedition
My son Sam and I are currently discussing the finer detail of a one month trip in India. This time we think we will either buy a couple of those old-fashioned Indian bicycles (very heavy and very unreliable but very cheap) then give them away to some deserving local family at the end. Sam favours the idea of getting a couple of scooters (Honda C90 type) and riding them back to UK. I'm thinking we'd need to add at least another month for that but it sounds great. So long as my ageing body holds up.

In 2008/9 Mark Swain cycled from Ireland to Tokyo, a journey of 10,000 miles with his 18 year old son Sam. If you would like to read their bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons', you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Contempating an Overpopulated World

I recently returned from a one month tour of Asia - specifically Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and China. With the exception of Malaysia, which outside of Kuala Lumpur is fairly sparsely populated, the trip served as a reminder of what we must accept we are moving towards in terms of density of population and how we might deal with it. I also find this concerning in the light of the recent migrant crisis, with tens of thousands of people fleeing war, poverty and political unrest for a chance of living somewhere safer with a better quality of life. And who wouldn't? Many of us living in relative comfort are here because our forefathers struck out and left somewhere far less attractive, for the sake of providing a better future for themselves and their families.

The media is on fire with reports about swarms of migrants invading our shores 
in search of a better life. But this is nothing new.

World Population - The Statistics
World population officially passed 7 billion on 31 October 2011. According to the United Nations' World Population Prospects report,[4] the world population is currently growing by approximately 74 million people per year. Current United Nations predictions estimate that the world population will reach 9.0 billion around 2050, assuming a decrease in average fertility rate from 2.5 down to 2.0. Almost all growth will take place in the less developed regions, where today's 98.3 million population of underdeveloped countries is expected to increase to 7.8 billion in 2050. During 2005–2050, nine countries are expected to account for half of the world's projected population increase: IndiaPakistanNigeriaDemocratic Republic of the CongoBangladeshUgandaUnited StatesEthiopia, and China, listed according to the size of their contribution to population growth. China would be higher still in this list were it not for its One Child Policy (although this policy has been recently relaxed). More data is available on Wikipedia and other sites such as the UN, but the above statistics alone make startling reading, do they not?

Urban sprawl. Mexico City goes on and on. See Guardian pics on Overpopulated Planet.

What This Means To You And Me
Statistic tend to baffle. It sounds a lot but what does it mean in real terms? The naturalist and campaigner David Attenborough is a great campaigner for increased awareness and individual responsibility over human population growth. He campaigns via the organisation Population Matters and much detail can be found on their website about the likely practical realities of the issue. Population Matters are rather good at putting things into terms we can understand. People have differing opinions about what it all means to us but one thing is clear, people will not be able to continue living on this planet as we currently do. It has been said that by 2050, the only way the world will be able to support the predicted number of human beings is if we all live the way most Indians now do. This means a meagre vegetarian diet, travel by bicycle, very few cars, minimal overseas travel and only having a very small space within which to live. This extreme change in quality of life will shock most westerners. Of course if we do not manage to keep on top of the battle against drug-resistant viruses, then the population figures might be very different. But who would wish for that? It may well be us westerners with our sanitised lives that die-off first.

Hong Kong suburb of Tai Long Wan. Some think it ugly, but it works. 
There are parks & trees and under each group of buildings is a kindergarten, 
supermarket, laundry, cafes, tennis/basketball courts etc.
The Alternatives
If we look at China, with a current population of around 1.4b, we can see that ruthlessly restricting the birthrate via a one child policy does work. It will be interesting to see how people in western democracies respond to being told how many children they are allowed. Freedom of speech pales into insignificance by comparison. Asian cultures seem to more easily accept the concept of doing things for the good of their country or culture. Singapore is a prime example of where a vibrant capitalism in terms of monetary and trade policy has been easily accepted alongside rigid social policies involving restrictions (tax penalties etc) on the number of children you can have, on car use and in housing people in numerous collections of high-rise blocks. Hong Kong and Chinese cities have done the same. Huge new-towns of identical skyscraper apartments are increasingly prevalent. Elderly people grumble but most accept it as necessary and focus on the benefits. But how easily would we in the west adapt to such measures? Well the truth is we are unlikely to have the choice. Short term we could move to less populated wilderness areas but those would soon be overrun.

Not all of Singapore suburbs look like Bladerunner scenes.
Today near Jalan Kayu, an idyllic Singapore village where I was born. The local rail network links to MRT tube network.

The Model For The Future
China is embracing green energy and electric transport. There are estimated to be over 120m electric scooters in China and growing fast. Hong Kong copes well with population density. In the New Territories, not much more than half an hour out of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, people live in quiet countryside. Commuting is a foreign concept to them. They also seem to like living close together. Like Singapore they have a myriad of new tower-block suburbs do deal with the demand to live there. But they are more chaotic than in Singapore - less happy to be told what to do. Lee Kuan Yew, the single-minded visionary who shaped the modern miracle that is Singapore, saw all of this coming and prepared for it. Looking at his country now, one can see that he probably got it exactly right. Singaporeans accepted being told what to do. Visitors marvel at the place but often criticise it for being somewhat sterile, perhaps robotic in its efficiency. As someone who was born there back in 1958 when it was markedly dirty and inefficient, I sympathise with that view. But unlike many beautiful cities elsewhere, Singapore is sustainable. Its people as well as its infrastructure are ready for a densely populated future. They will thrive while other places wither. But some things surprise me. Cycling is not a major form of transport, but then that is probably due to the heat (in Hong Kong they say it's because of the hills but I enjoyed some great cycling there). But why not legislate to demand electric vehicles only in the city centre (as in many Chinese cities now)? And with so much year-round sun why is every building not compulsorily fitted with solar panels? Perhaps they are waiting until things get really bad first? There is clearly still room for improvement. But looking at Singapore - a small island with a big population that punches well above its weight economically - I do feel I see the model for a sustainable future more than in most places. And that cheers me. With solar power and more facilities for cycling, I could put up with Singapore. 
China - 120m electric scooters and rising (they cost around £200 new)

Unlike Wilson Chan, most locals have yet to realise how good cycles are 
for getting around Hong Kong

By accepting high-rise living, Singaporeans can afford a proportionally large, pristine jungle in the centre.
It provides recreation, a home for indigenous wildlife, keeps people sane and cleans the air.

In 2008/9 Mark Swain cycled from Ireland to Tokyo, a journey of 10,000 miles with his 18 year old son Sam. If you would like to read their bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons', you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.