Thursday, 28 June 2012

A tale of three festivals (part 1)

I love festivals. Music, people, fun - what's not to love? I also really love working at festivals - not only do you get a free ticket (whoop!), but I find it also gives me a bit of structure and a different perspective on the experience.

Over the last couple of years, I've been helping to run treasure hunts at festivals, taking a team of my friends and running fun and unusual activities for festival goers. Yes, it's been partly about getting into nice festivals for free, but also it's a good feeling to offer something a bit different for people there. This year, there's a bit more of that on the horizon (see parts 2 and hopefully 3), but my first festival of the year was a different story.

Earlier this year I met Marcus who runs a festival called Cloud Cuckoo Land. I was introduced through one of my friends after enquiring as to which festivals theloveofit should go to this year, and Cloud Cuckoo Land was their top suggestion. I'll write more about Cloud Cuckoo Land another time, but suffice to say that it's a really great small and environmentally concious festival with awesome music and great people. Marcus invited me to go with his team to Sunrise festival last weekend, to run an area that was called "Occupy your tents". The premise was simple - bring back a bit of the festival atmosphere to the campsight. For me, it was an opportunity to run some creative workshops and be involved in something a bit different. And so off to Sunrise I went.

For me, it was a really great opportunity to go to a new festival as well. I've never been to Sunrise before, and in all honesty, I probably wouldn't have gone if someone hadn't offered me a place on their team. It's a very eco and green festival, aiming to "partake in the ushering in of the new paradigm of holistic, sustainable living, natural wisdom and the loving unity of all beings". Not entirely sure what to expect, I pitched up on Thursday lunchtime, armed with my tent, a sleeping bag and two bags of miscellaneous games and craft. I'm used to going to festivals in a group of my friends, so going on my own was an entirely new experience for me.

My first impression during an initial amble around was that it was much more alternative than I was expecting. I'd anticipated a slightly more eco version of a regular festival, but it was far more so than I'd imagined. A friend described it to me as a collection of the most hippy people from Glastonbury festival all in one place, which was something similar to my first impression, and while I loved it, I wasn't sure if I would fit in. I was also a bit bemused about a lot of the programme - I come from a pretty traditional background, and a lot of talks and workshops were on spirituality and things that I just didn't understand (I genuinely have no idea what esoterica, entheogens or geomancy are). 2 hours in, I was a little bit uncertain about whether this was a good idea.

And then I sat down in a cafe for a coffee, and got chatting to the two people at the same table as me. A couple of hours later, they headed off, giving me their phone numbers to keep in touch if I needed people to hang out with during the festival. What nice people, I thought to myself, continuing on my way. But that kind of openess and friendliness was something that I found continued throughout the whole weekend. Hands down, it's the most friendly and genuine festival I've ever been to. People talk to you, smile at your, and occasionally hug you for no reason.

And given the weather situation, hugs were needed. There was a bit of rain. And by a bit, I mean a lot. Which then of course resulted in a slightly epic amount of mud. Fields became mud baths, and paths became treacherous pits of sticky-slidyness. The sun came out, but it was too little too late.

This put a bit of a dampener on our creative plans. Gone was the outdoor stage and the firepit. In came the free tea and craft workshops. All in all, I think we made the best of a bad situation, and still had fun doing it. I also found the time to make it to a few talks and workshops - some of which were things that I would probably not otherwise have gone to, but I'm really glad I had the opportunity to go. Sometimes I think it's good to gently nudge at the boundaries of what you find easy or comfortable.

I also met some great and fascinating people. We were working very closely with the Up-Cycle team (partly due to overlapping friendships and team members), and so there were a total of 16 of us between the two groups. It was great for me to meet several people who are living in different ways and running or helping out with some amazing projects along the way.

Going to a festival on my own was definitely a different experience. I missed my close friends and the ease of having people always there, but it definitely pushed me to meet new people and have the guts to go to things I really wanted to see on my own (one of my highlights was seeing Yes Sir Boss on the Sunday night, which I went to by myself). And now I'm back in the real world with new friends, inspirational thoughts and a whole heap of muddy clothes...

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Bristol, Barcelona, Bilbao and back...

And what an adventure it was! It was everything I’d hoped it would be and so much more. The aim for me was to experience a touch of slow travel, to travel by methods other than flying, and to meet people along the way.

The initial destination was a festival just south of Spain. The easiest way by far to get there was to fly to Barcelona and then head to the festival from there. However, that didn’t quite fit with the deconsumerism brief, so instead, 3 friends and I decided to go on a bit of a road trip and turn that into part of the holiday.

Three days in a car might not sound like much fun. But when you see it as part of the holiday, it becomes an adventure in itself. The route was planned via a series of beautiful swimming spots (from the Wild Swimming France book) and some friends of a friend’s house in Brittany. Yes there was a lot of driving (but an awesome chance to listen to great music and Adam and Joe podcasts), but it was also a brilliant opportunity to hang out with my friends, see the changing countryside, stop in places I never would have seen (including some lovely French towns), swim in places I would never have otherwise had a chance to stop at, and meet some really lovely people.

One of the highlights for me was the first night when we stayed with a couple called Fred and Vero. A few years ago, they bought a dilapidated old house and piece of land, and have been living there ever since, renovating the house and creating an amazing vegetable garden. Along with their two children, they’re living the slow life – growing a lot of their own food, sourcing a lot locally, renovating their own home in the countryside – it’s a style of life that part of meal really yearns for, but yet isn’t quite ready for. Talking to Fred and Vero was enlightening – it’s not been an easy journey, and they lived in a camper van for months with a young baby while they were renovating the house to a liveable standard. But everything about the renovation feels right – natural building materials, a composting toilet, the characterful details that come when you do a job yourself...

The road trip was followed by three days at a festival run by another friend. A couple of years ago, Anna bought a piece of land a few hours south of Barcelona and set about creating Boodaville. The idea was to create an eco tourism with positive environmental and social impacts. The site has no electricity or running water, and everything is done in the lowest impact way possible (she built the yurt herself using a guide downloaded from the internet). For the past couple of years, over her birthday weekend she has put on a small festival, and that’s why we were there. With my “love of it” hat on, we were running some fun games on the Saturday afternoon, but mostly we were just there to have fun.

Nothing had quite prepared me for the place to be honest. The site itself was beautiful, and I enjoyed the lack of electricity and running water on site – it takes you away from your life a bit and helps you to properly relax away from life. The other people there were, quite simply, brilliant. It’s not since I studied for my Masters at the Centre for Alternative Technology that I’ve met a group of people that I’ve clicked with so instantly. And they are the perfect people for me to be meeting this year – from people running bike trips across Bristol, to people involved in eco building and permaculture. I can’t really summarise the experience well, so I’ll just say that there was beer drinking, river swimming, late night dancing, scrabble playing, amazing food eating and lots and lots of chilling...

After all that chilling, it only seemed right to get back to civilisation a little and so it was off to Barcelona. I’d tried to find a couchsurfing place in Barcelona with no joy (people just get inundated with requests and it’s supposed to be one of the hardest places to find somewhere to stay). However, whilst at Boodaville, I bumped into someone I’d met a few times in Bristol and she invited me to stay with her in Barcelona. So I cancelled my hostel, got dropped at a tiny train station in rural Spain (only 3 trains a day...) and found my way to Barcelona.

For me, it was the perfect experience. I know I would have met people had I stayed in a hostel, but I wanted to meet people who lived there, not other tourists. Staying with Alice was just this, and a welcome surprise after I didn’t manage to find a couch surfing space). While Alice was at work during the day, I explored Barcelona (using as my guide a list another friend who used to give in Barcelona had given me), and in the evening she showed me around – we went for dinner in a squat, stumbled across some kind of festival involving samba drumming and fireworks, drank mojitos with some of her friends, chilled with her housemate... In there I also found the time to meet up with a couch surfer who had been unable to host me but was still enthusiastic to meet up, and we spent an evening chatting about sustainability and photography whilst drinking beer and wandering around the streets. The things I’ll remember about Barcelona are those moments, not the beautiful architecture or tourist attractions.

Too soon my time in Barcelona was up and I was off to Bilbao. A couple of couchsurfers had already offered to host me for my three nights there, and Diego kindly met me at the station before showing me back to their flat. Him and his girlfriend, Cristina, really couldn’t have been any kinder. They took me on walking tours of the city, fed me the best sushi I’ve ever had, took me to their favourite spots to eat and drink and showed me some amazing and unusual places (including the incredible hanging bridge). They even took invited me for a meal with Diego’s family, which featured the most immense spread of food!. For my first proper couchsurfing experience, it was amazing.

The journey home was a real adventure as well. I had to be in Hendaye by Monday evening and so I decided to leave Bilbao in the morning and spend the day in San Sebastian. It was probably the most touristy part of my trip. I found somewhere to dump my bags then spent the day ambling around and chilling out. I climbed a big hill, ate some nice food, drank coffee and sat and read my book on the beach. Late afternoon I ambled back to the station and found a train to Hendaye, where I got on my sleeper train up to Paris.

The beginning of the sleeper train was great. I had the four bed (first class!) cabin to myself and sat and read my book. At 10 another girl got on, and promptly announced she wanted to turn the light off. So at 10pm I was stuck in bed reading my book, not ready for bed. Later, two people joined, and I eventually went to bed at midnight. I didn’t sleep very well, but I did sleep. The train was more rattley and jerky than I anticipated, but I still enjoyed the experience and the adventure of it. Once in Paris, I got the Metro across to Gare de Nord, then the Eurostar to London. The Eurostar was actually the most hassle full part of the journey – there was quite a lot of queuing and waiting around. But arriving in London was wonderfully easy, and you walk straight off the train into St Pancras International station. Then a quick tube ride across London, followed by a coach back to Bristol and a taxi home.

All in all, it was about 20 hours door to door for me to get back. But I enjoyed the journey, and it felt like so much less of a chore than flying home which always feels like the worse part of the holiday.

Experience wise, it’s up there with my favourite holidays ever (the other would be my trip to the Philippines, which feels like the most similar trip I’ve done to this one, apart from the long haul flight either end...). I didn’t mind the long journeys, and actually feel they added to the experience. I also met so many people on the trip and that added to the experience massively. It’s the first time I’ve travelled on my own and I really enjoyed the experience and wouldn’t hesitate to go away on my own again.

Cost wise, it was definitely more expensive. The car trip down cost about £150 each for the car, ferry and petrol. But given that it was door to door (especially given the remote location of the destination) and that it included 3 days of holidaying, it felt like a bargain. The trip back cost about the same – the sleeper train from Hendaye to Paris was £50 odd (it would have been less if I’d bought the ticket earlier – closer to £35). The Eurostar clocked in at the most expensive part of the journey at £85ish, but if I was on a budget I could have chosen to get the megabus to London for just £4. The coach back to Bristol was about £6 (my budget choice over the far more expensive train). So yes, it’s more expensive, but that’s mostly because flights are unsustainably cheap at the moment!

And for me, it was worth every penny! Now I'm off to plan my next adventure...

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Inspiring Projects - The Bristol Bike Project

For the first in my inspiring projects series, I went to speak to the Bristol Bike Project about reuse, funding and the levelling effect of bikes. 

For my birthday this year, I asked for a bike maintenance course from my sister. I wanted to get presents that were more about doing and learning things, she didn’t know what to buy me, and I really needed to learn how to do some basic maintenance on my bike. After a bit of searching, I decided to do the one at the Bristol Bike Project. A few of my friends had volunteered there in the past, it was good value for money, and it had the convenience of being just round the corner from my house...

One Saturday course later, my bike was in significantly better shape, my ability to carry out basic maintenance was dramatically increased, and my hands were satisfyingly covered in grease. I’d also had a bit of an insight into the bike project and the range of work they did. Inspired in particular by the reuse and sustainable funding aspects (which fitted in really well with the deconsumerism areas I’ve been looking at recently), I went back to the project a few weeks later to talk to Henry Godfrey, one of the directors, to find out more.

So, how did the project come about?

It was started in the winter of 2008 by two friends, James and Colin. James was working at the Welcome Centre, getting to know refugees. He identified that there was an important need for transport amongst refugees and asylum seekers, and people were desperate for bikes. So they got some bikes and gave them away, but quickly realised that ‘giving away’ was the wrong attitude and it wasn’t just about giving people a handout. The idea that people would come in to the workshop and work on the bikes was added, which is the basis of the Earn A Bike scheme.

Through the scheme, we take bikes that are donated, repair and refurbish them and distribute them to underprivileged groups. As part of the scheme, the people who receive the bikes come for a session at our workshop and work on a bike alongside us. It’s a moneyless transaction as the bike is free – the investment for them is time.

As well as the Earn A Bike scheme, there are a number of other aspects to the project. There are weekly women’s nights and a weekly bike kitchen (where people can come and work on their own bikes using our tools and the workshop), as well as maintenance courses, bike hire and sales. The project is also run mainly by volunteers, of which there are about 20, who volunteer usually half a day to a day a week.

We’ve found it’s important not to try and expand the project too quickly though. It’s finding its place, and there’s only so many days in the week. If there’s too many people in the workshop, it’s bad as people make mistakes. We aim to be busy without being hectic.

Where do the bikes come from?

A majority of the bikes come from public donations, but we also get some from railway stations and the police. A lot of these would otherwise have been thrown out and ended up in landfill. We probably get on average 10 bikes per week, and of these, about 50% are able to be refurbished. If this isn’t possible, we either strip them down as an educational exercise for new volunteers, take off the usable parts or scrap them. Things have to be dealt with quite quickly when they come in as we don’t have much space. Generally, if people donate a good quality bike, we can always fix them up. But a lot of people buy cheap bikes that we simply can’t do anything with other than scrap.

With our waste, a lot of it can be recycled. Of the parts that cannot be, some is given to other people who find a use for it. The inner tubes and tyres are used by someone locally to make accessories (, and some of our scrap wheels have been used to make a geodesic dome. However, we are unfortunately limited by time and space, and so can’t do as much as we’d like.

How are you funded?

There is a trading arm to the project, which allows it to be funded in a sustainable way. We didn’t want to be constantly chasing funding, so it is mostly funded through the maintenance courses, bike sales, repairs and bike hire. This is important, as funding for working with people like asylum seekers is very difficult to find. There is still a need for some traditional funding, but all the wages are from the trading activities.

Who does the project help?

We get people referred from a number of places like the Welcome Centre (asylum seekers), Bristol Drugs Project, the Probation Service, and the Big Issue. Some come through the Earn A Bike scheme, and others come as supported volunteers, a couple of whom have been coming for years.

So, as well as providing people with bikes, the project trains people who are struggling to find work by contributing to their personal development, equipping them with skills and empowering people. It can also provide people with a reference to help them in the future.

There are also many additional benefits from the project. For example, it reduces the demand for stolen goods, as many of the people who receive a bike through the scheme may otherwise have bought a stolen bike.

What’s it like to work on the project?

Fixing bikes is easy. But managing a workers cooperative and the flat structure is hard and there’s a lot of unpaid work involved. People come to us in difficult situations, and we aim to be part of people turning their life around. It can be very challenging – people are not always easy to deal with and have a lot of their own problems. However, seeing people use the project as part of their self development is very rewarding. When people say that they want to be here, it’s really rewarding.The project can be a base for people – somewhere for people to come back to.

I also find that bikes are a good leveller – it’s such an inclusive and accessible technology for people. We have people who sleep rough working next to people who work at Rolls Royce or the MOD. There’s not many places where you get that.

For more info, see the Bristol Bike Project website, and watch this short film for a glimpse into their work