Ton Sai, Thailand: the destruction of paradise

Thailand

img_20160920_203530“No Entry!! MOVE ON!” a security guard yells at us as we jump off the longtail boat at Railay beach. He is guarding a new, expensive resort, meaning that the ‘common’ public have to wade through the sea, waves crashing up to our waists, rather than step on the resort’s swimming pool grounds. Heaven forbid us commoners walking on the rich man’s land. 

I first visited this peninsula – made up of the bays of Railay, Phranang and Ton Sai – back in 2007. Coming back nine years later, things are bound to have changed. But i’m not prepared for how much it’s changed.

Problematic backpacker tourism in northern Thailand

Thailand

The below blog post addresses just some of the problems of (mostly white European) backpacker tourism. When I first travelled in south-east Asia ten years ago, I did not see that my presence could be detrimental to the communities that I was visiting. My awareness of this has grown and evolved over the last few years, and there are, no doubt, so many more issues that I am unaware of with regards to how I impact communities as a white European. Every day is an opportunity to learn and become more aware.

tmp_1506-karen-woman-northern-thailand-image-by-ferry-yenni-gunawan-cc-by-2-0781311593

An example of one of the photos that has been used by Lonely Planet

“Hill tribe tour!” “Trek to a longneck village!” “Spend the night with a hill tribe!”

Hill tribes hill tribes hill tribes. You can’t walk more than five metres in Chiang Mai without seeing signs for these tours.

Tour companies and guide books such as the Lonely Planet use different terms for indigenous people, depending on which country they’re referring to. In Laos it’s the term ‘minority’.

Brighton: the invasion of the cupcakes!

Anarchism & Activism, England

You know that a city is too gentrified when you start to see cafes selling cupcakes. I have a particular problem with cupcakes because they’re just fairy cakes, similar to those that we used to make in primary school and sold for 10p. But rebranded as cupcakes, they’re now sold for £3 per tiny cake.

Gentrification in progress. There’ll be cupcakes! an artist’s mural announces on London Road in Brighton.

I have called Brighton – and the London Road area – my home for a number of years. Brighton’s a great place. Small enough that you run into friends on the street, and big enough to be a hive of alternative cultures and projects.

Travels in Rojava (part 2): Kobanê

Kurdistan, Syria
wpid-2015-11-13-14.56.02.jpg.jpeg

Kobane city

“All religions have the same heart. We’re all one,” a man says to us warmly as we drink tea in his home.

We are in the city of Kobanê in Rojava, an autonomous and democratically run region in the north of Syria. In late 2014, Kobanê became the focus of the world’s media when ISIS attacked the city and surrounding villages. In response, the US eventually bombed Kobanê, flattening it in the process. As they fought ISIS, the bravery of the Rojavan YPJ and YPG fighters was all over the news, whilst their brother and sister PKK guerillas within Turkey’s borders were, and still are, branded terrorists by Turkey and its allies.

Travels in Kurdistan (part 1): Massacres in North and West Kurdistan

Anarchism & Activism, Kurdistan, Turkey
Polen Ünlü, an activist in the conscientious objector movement, died in the bombing in Suruç on 20th July. (Photo taken from JINHA women's news agency)

Polen Ünlü, an activist in the conscientious objector movement, died in the bombing in Suruç on 20th July. (Photo taken from JINHA women’s news agency)

It’s June 2015, and we arrive in North Kurdistan (the part of Kurdistan within the Turkish borders) at election time. The Kurdish population is ecstatic, because for the first time in the history of the Republic of Turkey, the pro-Kurdish HDP party has won 80 seats in parliament. The HDP could only have any seats if it gained at least 10% of the total vote (a rule that was put into place in 1980 to stop Kurds from ever being represented), and it achieved this. Although I’m an anarchist, I can’t help but be a bit impressed by the HDP, with their promises of women’s and LGBT rights, and their attempt to represent all ethnicities and religions.

Smile like you mean it and it will be returned!

Anarchism & Activism, Spiritualism & Buddhism

“Smile like you mean it and it will be returned.”
– Nahko & Medicine for the People, Father Mountain

I live in a society that is suffering from a sickness – a society where we are fearful and distrusting of our fellow human beings; a society where any sense of community has vanished and where we don’t have a clue who our neighbours are; a capitalist society where we are conditioned to be individualistic and competitive in order to be the best, as opposed to selfless and giving; a society where we have been brought up to think that it’s okay to bomb and massacre other people because we’re somehow more right and just; a society where our obsession for smart phones and social media feeds our egos and fuels narcissism; a society in which many of us are suffering from epic rates of mental health problems.

to be an anarchist…

Anarchism & Activism, Society

Having referred to myself as an anarchist in various blog posts, I thought I would write about what anarchism means to me. Anarchism means something slightly different to each anarchist, so this is a very personal post.

“Anarchism means a condition or society where all men and women are free, and where all enjoy equally the benefits of an ordered and sensible life.”
– Alexander Berkman: ABC of Anarchism (1929)

Anarchy, and anarchism, doesn’t mean chaos, despite what the media and politicians will tell you. Anarchists believe that no-one should be ruled over or managed and that no-one should hold more power than another. We believe that we can organise together and that people should directly run society, as opposed to governments enforcing their laws on us and imprisoning us if we don’t obey. We demand a world without oppression and without governments, judges, the police, the military, landlords and land owners, and we demand a world without borders. We believe that all people should have a right to land and a right to move wherever they want to, no matter how ‘poor’ they are, or what colour skin they have, or what passport they have (if they are privileged enough to have one at all).

friendliness versus hostility: a visit to Italy

Hitchhiking, Italy
"Today is a terrible day," moans Nicol as we cross the border to Italy

“Today is a terrible day,” moans Nicol as we cross the border to Italy

“WHORE!” a man yells out of his car window at Nicol, as she stands at the side of the road with a sign for the next town. She screams something back at him in Italian. “Welcome to Italy,” I think to myself. Chris has joined us on our roadtrip. Unfortunately for him, both Nicol and I are in foul moods. Nicol’s got mixed feelings about returning to her home country, and I’m sulking because we have left friendly France, where people are softly spoken and rational (women are not conditioned to be scared of hitchhikers) and we have entered paranoid Italy, where we are only taken by male drivers who talk non-stop and tell us that the world is full of dangerous people.

But maybe I’m being too harsh on Italy. After all, I’ve been hosted in drivers’ houses four times on my previous visits, more than the France that I’m pining for. And hitchhiking as a three is proving to be surprisingly easy here.

Sure enough, a driver called Carmine takes the three of us all the way from southern France to northern Italy. He then checks us into a hotel room, which he pays for, and then takes us all out to his favourite pizza restaurant (and doesn’t get offended when we order cheeseless pizzas!) He’s a friendly man with a huge smile, and really talkative. He tells us about his job as a lawyer and his dreams of retiring and travelling the world.

Nicol and Carmine in the pizzeria

Nicol and Carmine in the pizzeria

VEGAN HITCHHIKERS!

VEGAN HITCHHIKERS!

We’re in Italy because we are going to visit Nicol’s family in a village in the northern Italian mountains. As we drive up, up, up the twisting, turning mountain road, me and Chris feel nauseous as we are suddenly transported to over 1000m high.

The visit is difficult for Nicol. She’s excited to see her family, but now that she’s returned home, they want her to stay there permanently with them, and they find it difficult to understand her lifestyle choices. Italian village life comes as a shock to me. Everyone knows each other’s business, and people gossip about the clothes Nicol wears and the fact that she has hitchhiked here. Still, it’s beautiful to see the place where one of my close friends grew up.

Chris and Nicol in the snowy, snowy mountains

Chris and Nicol in the snowy, snowy mountains

The snow is taller than Tommy the dog, but he insists on walking himself!

The snow is taller than Tommy the dog, but he insists on walking himself!

Chris has never been to Venice. “You have to see Venice!” I say. So off we go to Venice, hugging Nicol goodbye with the intention of meeting each other again in a few days for the hitchhike home to England. But, of course, life never goes according to plan, and when we say goodbye to Nicol, little do we know that she won’t be joining us for the hitchhike home…

Chris loves Venice. We wander the narrow alleys and he is pleasantly shocked by the crumbling buildings and the activist graffiti all over the city.

Mmmmm, vegan pizza from l'Angelo pizzeria, complete with vegan cheese :)

Mmmmm, vegan pizza from l’Angelo pizzeria, complete with vegan cheese 🙂

Beautiful Venezia

Beautiful Venezia

Activist graffiti, raising awareness about the No Tav campaign, against the building of a high speed train link that's set to desecrate the Italian/French mountains

Activist graffiti, raising awareness about the No Tav campaign, against the building of a high speed train link that’s set to desecrate the Italian/French mountains

We move eastwards towards the Alps, and to save time, we decide to hitch the motorways, rather than the country roads. I have been hitchhiking for many years now, and I have grown sick of hitching on motorways. I try to take the slower, scenic route whenever I have the time. Almost everyone driving on the motorway, in every country, is miserable. And it’s no surprise why: after all, the whole experience of driving in a metal box at about 150km per hour for hours on end, completely disconnected from nature, is really miserable! And the only break from the monotony of it all is a shitty service station with sugary, crappy fast food, which will only make you more miserable if you put it in your body!

Autogrill shitness at the Italian service station

Autogrill shitness at the Italian service station

Italy’s got to be one of the worst countries for hitchhiking on the motorways. We stand at the Autogrill (Italy’s brand of service station) and Chris tries to politely explain to drivers in Italian that we are hitchhiking. But whenever he says hello, people deliberately blank him, or give him a hostile response. This is poor Chris’s first experience of people being so rude to him whilst hitchhiking, and instead of getting upset, he laughs lightheartedly at the absurdity of this paranoid, fearful society. Chris is a breath of fresh air when I need it most, and I am thankful that he’s on this journey with me.

We laugh at how all of the men in Italy aspire to look like the below picture. Absolutely everyone is wearing the same jacket, along with aviator sunglasses.

Italian vanity.

Italian vanity.

Eventually, we get a lift with two friendly men, and the Into The Wild soundtrack plays on their car stereo. My god, we couldn’t be further from the Alaskan wilderness that Chris McCandless explored, I laugh to myself.

And then it’s another shitty service station, and more hostility awaits us. But then Chris gets us a lift with a 6’4″ man with huge muscles from the USA.

“Shit! He’s military!” I whisper to Chris as the man puts our luggage in his car. “Don’t say anything!” I warn Chris cautiously.

We’re anti-militarist activists, and I worry about how this journey is going to go. Inside the car is the soldier’s beautiful young wife and their baby. The soldier tells us about his life in Italy, and I find it tragic when he explains that he gets discount petrol in Italy when he shows his NATO pass to petrol station staff. Oh, can’t he see the irony? I wonder to myself. A military force, murdering for oil, getting cheap petrol. As I sit there in silence, I wonder why I have accepted a lift with this man. After all, if a truck driver transporting animals to be killed offered me a lift, I would refuse it. Surely there’s not too much difference. This man, if not directly a killer, is contributing to the killing of our brother and sister humans.

“Stay safe,” the soldier says in a cliché, macho way, as we get out of his car. Can’t he see the irony of that comment? I wonder yet again.

Chris would have liked to have talked to him about his job – after all, it’s possibly the only time he’ll be in the car of a NATO soldier. I am annoyed with myself: I sat in silence so that I could selfishly get a lift 100km further. I should have either refused the lift or engaged in a conversation about this guy’s ‘job’.

Of course, hitchhiking the Italian motorways isn’t completely doom and gloom, and we do meet a few friendly people and get lifts with lovely drivers, including a car full of actors who are touring the country, performing a play.

Our last stop in Italy is the Susa valley, close to the French border in the Alps. We’re here because we want to visit the area where the high-speed train track (Treno Alta Velocità, TAV) is going to be built – mostly for freight trains – with tunnels being bored through the Alps to neighbouring France. The No Tav activist campaign against the destruction of the valley has been going for two whole decades.

Chris and I are only about 15km from France. We decide that the border really can’t be far away, and that we’re going to walk it. Of course, we’re ill-prepared, without a hiking map. All we know is that France is somewhere west, over the insanely snowy Alps. I take my compass out of my pocket, and we start walking in a westward direction. Surely it’ll be easy…

France is somewhere over the Alps...

France is somewhere over the Alps…

A lunch break in the Susa valley with Chris

A lunch break in the Susa valley with Chris

After about six kilometres of hiking, we run into a group of activists.
“You can’t go this way!” they say. “It’s too dangerous!”
They explain to us that we’re about 1km away from the site where the tunnel is being bored through the mountain. There’s army protecting it absolutely everywhere, and apparently they’re quite pissed off with activists today.

The No Tav activists are friendly, welcoming people, and they invite us to their resistance house, give us dinner, and let us stay for the night. They tell us about two decades of struggle, and they talk about the environmental hazards of the TAV project. The mountains contain uranium and asbestos, which will be released as the tunnel is dug. Spending time with these inspirational, courageous activists is the perfect way to end our time in Italy.

The site of the building of the high speed railway. NO TAV!

The site of the building of the high speed railway. NO TAV!

Resistance flags and activist structures at the site of the destruction

Resistance flags and activist structures at the site of the destruction

The nature at the location of the railway site, set to be disfigured and killed

The nature at the location of the railway site, set to be disfigured and killed

London: a rant.

Anarchism & Activism, England
Protesters at Piccadilly Circus last year

Protesters at Piccadilly Circus last year

I loathe London. I lived there for a decade. I did my time there, I lived on both sides of the river, I knew the city. So now I feel that it is my right to loathe it!

Why do I dislike London so much? Maybe my views are tainted by the past – by memories of the old me. But mostly I dislike London because it is the epitome of the capitalist system.

Fighting to shut down Brighton’s arms factory

Anarchism & Activism, England

Since moving to Brighton, my second home has become the Cowley Club, a collectively-owned non-profit base for activists to meet each other, hold meetings, stage events and eat vegan cake! I have become involved with Smash EDO, an anti-arms campaign against the local weapons factory, EDO MBM. Admirably, Smash EDO has been campaigning constantly since 2004, holding weekly demonstrations outside the factory, as well as organising many mass direct actions, rooftop occupations, peace camps, critical mass bike rides, blockades of the company’s phone lines…the list goes on. And in January 2009, when more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed in the Gaza Massacre, a group of activists broke into the factory and caused hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of damage. In court, the activists were found not guilty, as they were trying to prevent a greater crime. Despite all this, EDO remains in Brighton, protected by police at every demonstration.