Trekking in Turkey

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While I was in Bristol this past summer, my friends from Syberia Top (the guys I used to hike with in Russia) called me up and asked if I wanted to join them for a two week “gig” hiking in Turkey. They were planning on taking a group on a 100km trek along the Lycian Way in the south of Turkey and then doing a “photo tour” in  Cappadocia. They said they needed my help translating between Russian and English and helping out with things like cooking, taking photos, and making sure that nobody gets lost :). Since this trip was planned for September 28th- October 11th (just two days after I could legally re-enter Spain), and Syberia Top offered to pay for everything, including my flights from the UK to Turkey and Turkey to Spain, I couldn’t really refuse this trip :). Since I have so few savings left, I basically need to take any job I get offered.

So on September 28th I got off the big jet plane in Antalya, Turkey, and basically got straight to hiking with this group of about 15 Russian people.

We weaved up and down the mountains of the southern Turkish coast, walked through white rocky canyons and glanced out past the steep, tree-lined cliffs along the Lycian Way.

The Lycian Way is a nice trek that goes into the mountains and along the coast, passing by a few interesting sights such as a gigantic 600 year-old plane tree, Yanartaş (a fascinating rocky slope with dozens of constantly burning natural fires), and ancient ruins. The entire trek is about 540km long, so we only did a small portion of it.

The Lycian Way also passes through vineyards, pomegranate and apple gardens, small Turkish villages, and what seemed like a few people’s backyards :).

This was nice because it allowed us to come in contact with some very friendly Turkish villagers and take a rest at their little cafes and fresh juice shacks. So after every few hours or so of hiking, we were rewarded with fresh pomegranate juice, figs, apples, or grapes. This was convenient (or so I thought) not only because of the fresh fruit, but also because a lot of these shacks and cafes happened to have free WiFi.

I was used to taking people hiking in Siberia, where we never had phone service, let alone WiFi in the wilderness, but along the Lycian Way, we rarely spent a day without an internet connection. As a result, I got to witness the powerful effect that the internet (or more specifically, Instagram) had on “vacationers”.

You see, back in Siberia, I noticed that most people we took hiking were a bit obsessed with having photos taken of themselves, but I wasn’t too concerned about this obsession because I didn’t feel like it took over our entire hiking experience. We’d hike to a beautiful spot, enjoy the view, take a bunch of photos, hike some more, etc. We had time to enjoy the view and the present moment even while dedicating some time to photos. But in Turkey, I noticed an entirely new dimension to this photo obsession.

People were no longer just taking photos of pretty sights or special moments, now, because of Instagram “stories”, they felt the need to record absolutely everything they did! And when I say everything, I really mean everything.

Walk down the street– photo! Get on a bus– video! Sit on the bus– photo! Get off the bus– another short clip! Eat food- photo! Roast a marshmallow– photo! Eat it- video! Swing on a swing– photo! Do some yoga– photo! It’s like people no longer do stuff just to do stuff, they do stuff only for a photo.

Then as soon as we hit the wifi zone, most people were face deep in their phones uploading these posts and “stories”, then checking “likes” and replying to people’s comments.

I noticed that it wasn’t only our group that was doing this- it was almost everybody I came in contact with!

We climbed to the top of a 2,500 meter mountain to a sea of puffy drifting clouds, the view was fantastic! But on top of this mountain there was a gondola that brought up rich tourists and a cement building with WiFi. There, I noticed all kinds of random people frantically uploading photos of themselves onto Instagram and then commenting on these posts.

I noticed people filming absolutely everything, almost everywhere we went, and anytime we reached a particularly beautiful spot, everybody kind of photo-freaked. Their immediate reaction was to pose and get as many photos of themselves as possible. That seemed to be the goal.

I know what you’re thinking… “this is not new or surprising…” :D but I think it’s important to analyze what’s happening here…

 

We live on an incredible planet, filled with breathtaking mountains, clouds, oceans and canyons. Our time here on Earth is precious, we should enjoy as much of it as possible. Many of us have the opportunity to explore this planet, to see the wonders of plane trees, fires, sunsets and big ancient ruins. To gaze out past the cliffs, to smell lush forested mountains and to simply enjoy the moments of life. But if you’re so busy recording and uploading every single thing you do, to broadcast the best moments of your life to a public audience- are you really fully engaged in these moments? Are you even living these moments or are you just taking pictures?

After the Lycian Way, we took an overnight bus to Cappadocia, a fascinating region in the middle of Turkey. Cappadocia stands on a high plateau below several volcanic peaks. The plateau is covered in unique rock features that were formed from volcanic ash that coated the region millions of years ago. With time, this ash formed into soft, malleable rock called “tuff,” which eventually was eroded down by wind and water, leaving harder rock in the form of domes, pillars and penises up to six stories high.

Cappadocia’s famous mushroom shaped caps are a result of a tougher layer of basalt that formed over the tuff. Since basalt erodes slower than tuff, unique shapes were formed through weathering.

During the Roman period, prosecuted Christians fled to Cappadocia and soon realized that these unique domes and pillars were very malleable. They built homes, churches, stables and storehouses by carving into the rock, so some of these giant penises also have doors and windows :D Underground cities were also carved out and used as hide-outs for up to 20,000 people.

Cappadocia has a rich history and extremely unique landscape, but most of the tourists in Cappadocia seemed to be A LOT more interested in having photos taken of themselves than they were in the place itself.

This makes me wonder what these people are “traveling” for. Are they interested in discovering a new place, learning something new or simply enjoying a special moment in a beautiful spot? Or are they more interested in recording themselves and impressing others with their photos?

I mean, if you’re really having the time of your life and you’re so excited about the place you’re in and the present moment, then why would you bother proving that to other people? Why waste this precious time?

Maybe because most people in today’s society are constantly seeking for approval and appraisal from others. Being “liked” may be a lot more important than learning or discovering something new. This is created by the competitive environment we’re brought up in- people are taught to want to be better, hotter, and more bad-ass than the rest, and companies like Instagram (Facebook) take advantage of this and push people to compete for attention. Why? Because the more attention you get on Instagram, the more data they can collect. More likes, more clicks, more swipes – more data. More data means more money for Facebook.

Individual people seek for more and more attention on social media because attention can be rewarded and translated into “success”. 500,000 people like your page?! That’s “successful” because now you can make money. Companies will come to you to sell stuff through you, and the more attention you get, the more money you can potentially earn.

Keep in mind that these are all trades- you trade your time (the precious moments of your life) for post “likes” and attention. You trade your data (from posts, “likes”, etc.) to use the platform. Your data is traded for money (by the platform). If you get enough attention, you can also trade it for money or goods. But don’t forget that very first trade- your life. How much is it really worth?

Why I Left the Venus Project

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Personal Story

When I was a kid, my father took my brother and me to places like Tunisia, Morocco and Mexico, where we saw other kids living on the streets and begging for money, or begging us tourists to buy bananas or souvenirs. I noticed homeless people everywhere, from Moscow to New York, to almost any place we visited and I couldn’t help but wonder, how can people just be ok with other people living on the streets like this? How can our society be so careless? Does it really have to be like this?

As I got older and traveled more, I saw more waste, more destruction, more people living in worse conditions, and I never wanted to just accept or ignore this, but I had no idea what I could do about it.

In 2010, I (accidentally) got into a course called “International and Global Studies” at the University of Sydney in Australia. This degree spanned across many different faculties in order to give us an understanding of the global and international world that we live in. I studied everything from the global economy, to global environmental issues, global politics, international conflicts, international business, laws and agreements, international cultural dilemmas, indigenous land rights, environmental disasters, deforestation, climate change, sustainability, sustainable development and more.

Basically, I learned more about how fucked up the world was, but this time from an institutional point of view. I learned a lot about how different people and organizations were trying to solve big global problems today, and how none of it was working.

I learned that more than half of the population is being exploited; enslaved, basically, to work in horrible conditions in clothing factories, mines and wherever else. I learned that our planet is being exploited. I learned that we have no global control over anything, no global limits to deforestation, no global limits to fishing the oceans, we have all the technology we need to solve climate change, but not the international or global cooperation that’s needed to put this technology in place. The best we have today are some international agreements, which are almost completely useless.

Some of my courses promoted the need to develop third world countries. I never quite understood this.  I mean, I don’t want people to suffer, I don’t want human beings or anything on our planet to be exploited. But how is developing these areas through capitalism going to help? Ok you give these people some business opportunities and perhaps their business will thrive and they will do better, but businesses require resources, so the more successful businesses there are, the more resources we will need. There’s no global control over the resources we use, so this will inevitably lead to more and more exploitation of the land and therefore, more problems. That means no sustainability. Real sustainability has to be global.

I quit university several times to travel around the world and try to make sense of what I had learned. One day, I flew to Morocco and reconnected with an old friend who introduced me to the Venus Project (TVP). He showed me the documentary, “Paradise or Oblivion.”

The first part of the documentary was like a trailer to what I learned in the degree I was studying- it outlined some of today’s global problems and showed that our current methods of solving these problems weren’t working. It also made it clear that the entire structure of our global society was not sustainable and it needed to change, which I completely agreed with. The second part of the documentary showcased an alternative holistic solution for these problems: a global resource-based economy (RBE). That is an economy that’s not based on money or trade, but on the carrying capacity of the Earth’s resources.

After we finished watching the documentary, I turned to my friend and said, “that is really nice :), but you know this will never happen.”

He replied with something like, “but Sasha, if someone like you says that it will never happen, then it definitely won’t.”

I grinned. I continued to be skeptical but decided to keep an open mind and look further into Jacque Fresco’s work and ideas. I spent the next few months watching every Fresco lecture I could find. I was intrigued by this little old man, he was so funny and charismatic, I loved his criticism of our culture and society, I loved his ideas and I agreed with almost everything he said.

I still didn’t necessarily believe that a resource-based economy was achievable, but after I read Fresco’s book, “The Best that Money Can’t Buy,” I decided that it was necessary.

So basically, it went something like this (except in a longer time frame :)):

I decided that whether an RBE is achievable or not, we need to do something -anything- to at least try to make it happen. If we don’t, we’ll very likely bring ourselves and most other living creatures to extinction in the not-so-far-away future.

I decided to go back to Sydney University and finish that damn International and Global Studies degree. I graduated in 2014 with even more confidence that we really do need a global resource-based economy. I also had more confidence that there was absolutely no point of “joining the system” and wasting my precious time on Earth trying to create some kind of career for money, or trying to fix these big problems from within the system (like through business or politics).

I was exhausted from this degree and I didn’t really know what to do or where to go so I ended up traveling for the next couple of years and just having fun. I spent time in Indonesia, Australia, Sri Lanka, Hawaii, California, the Caribbean, Russia and Europe (mostly just being a dirtbag, living on $10-15/day and doing extreme sports). After those two years of just having fun, I started to feel a little guilty :). I couldn’t forget about those kids begging on the streets, the entire disaster I learned about in university and all the problems that I saw around the world. I also couldn’t forget about Jacque and his ideas.

He put so much effort into designing a better future for us, and here I was, doing absolutely nothing useful…

I felt like I needed to make a change in my life and do something more important than just traveling around the world for fun. I couldn’t think of anything more important than the Venus Project, so I bought a flight to Florida to visit the TVP research center and meet Jacque Fresco in person.

   –

Meeting Fresco

It was 2016 when I met Jacque, so he was already 100-years-old. He was frail, skinny, and even smaller than me. He couldn’t walk on his own, his hearing and vision were very poor, and he could barely hold a stable conversation, yet he was still participating in these weekly seminars and still talking shit about humanity :).

It was sad to see him in this condition. It was also sad to see that only two other people came to this tour. Jacque had such great, big ideas… but nobody seems to care, I guess.

The research center seemed kind of old. The building designs were dome-shaped and looked interesting, but nothing else about the place seemed unique or modern. The buildings were cooled by these big old loud window air conditioners, it didn’t look like anything was automated and it just didn’t feel like all that much was going on there.

That made me a little sad, but not hopeless- that just means that we have A LOT of work to do! I’m ready! :D

I figured it was hard for Roxanne and everybody else to take care of Jacque at that age, and that was their priority, which makes sense.

I couldn’t have much of a conversation with Jacque, but I did get to speak to Roxanne and a guy named Saso about volunteering. I told them a little bit about my background and they said that they were actually looking for a bilingual Russian-English volunteer. They told me that the Russian-speaking team was the biggest TVP team in the world (20-30 active volunteers and over 200,000 supporters), but they had some communication issues with the rest of the teams and needed a good “link.”

That got me excited! I could be the missing link! :D I immediately volunteered to help and gave them my contact information. Saso said that they would get me into the next “orientation process” (OP) to become a Point of Contact (PoC) for TVP, but that this would take a few months.

 

Volunteering for TVP

Nine months later I got an email from Saso, saying that they were ready to start the next OP and that if I wanted to be a volunteer Point of Contact, I had to take this quiz, have an interview (or “video chat”) with a ‘TVP Support’ admin and then I’d be able to start this 5-month long “OP,” which meant watching some TVP material, taking notes and then discussing this once a week with an admin and other potential volunteers. After I finished all of that (and signed a document with a bunch of rules), I would be an official “PoC” for the Venus Project.

I was a bit surprised to find out that there was such a long process just to volunteer, but I was very excited to get involved so it didn’t bother me.

The quiz was extremely easy, sometimes in a comical way, and the video chat went well. Then as soon as I started this “OP,” I was also added to the main admin chat of the Russian-speaking team. And what happened next, I did not expect at all.

It turned out that there were big BIG problems (not just communication problems) between the teams, and I was thrown right into the middle of a huge mess. I was introduced to problems upon problems upon problems. All internal issues, having to do with bureaucracy, laws, rules, trust and so on. The issues were so problematic that I actually flew to Florida a second time to meet Roxanne and talk about these problems with her in person. That didn’t end up solving anything, so then I wrote and translated a 22-page document to better explain what the Russian-speaking team wanted to communicate. But that still didn’t do much. Then I got into a series of long conversations with Roxanne and other TVP admins about all kinds of problems.

This is one example of one of the problems I tried to deal with:

As a result of a legal issue, Roxanne asked for all of the teams to change the name of their social media pages from “The Venus Project” to “TVP Support.” This might not seem like a big deal to an English speaker who knows that “TVP” stands for “The Venus Project,” but this is extremely confusing to a non-English speaker or anyone that has no idea what “TVP Support” means.

Just imagine this: a Russian speaker hears her friend talk about the Venus Project and wants to learn more about it, so she searches for “The Venus Project” in social media. If our team is not called “The Venus Project,” she will not be able to find the team’s social media page. If she sees a page called “TVP Support” she will probably ignore it because those letters mean nothing to her.

Just imagine if the English-speaking Venus Project page was called “Поддержка ПВ” -would you click on it if you were looking for information about the Venus Project? ..Probably not.

Even worse, there are “fake” groups in Russia who are working under the Venus Project’s name to make money or get attention. They say that they are the Venus Project (but don’t know anything about Jacque Fresco or TVP), they collect donations from people, and are even building “eco-villages” on the outskirts of Moscow, getting people to work for them for free- claiming that they are the Venus Project, and confusing the general public. The Russian-speaking team used to be able to block these scammers, and blocked 357 scammer groups back when they had “official status” but, about 3 years ago, one of Roxanne’s “close people” took away the team’s “officiality.” This apparently happened because of some rule violation, but as far as I could tell, it was because of a personal conflict, and as a result, the team is unable to block scammers. So now these scammer groups are on the rise, getting bigger and stronger. This is one of them, for example -this video has over 50,000 views. So, if the group changed their name from “The Venus Project” to “TVP-Support,” people would search for “The Venus Project” and instead of finding our “official” team, they would only find these scammer groups. Imagine how that would ruin the reputation of TVP.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg, if you’re really interested in reading about these problems, you can read more here.

At the time that I was involved in this mess, I thought that solving these problems was the most important thing in the world, but in hindsight, I can see that it was really just a huge waste of time. I basically spent almost every minute of every day writing and translating messages, contacting different people from TVP and digging into as much information about the organization as possible (*note- I was not focusing on learning about or promoting Jacque Fresco’s work or ideas). I wrote and translated over 100 pages of texts and documents to try to fix these internal issues. I tried so hard to be this “missing link” but nothing worked and nothing changed, and eventually I realized that it wasn’t actually a link that they were missing.

I realized that the people running the main (English speaking) organization of TVP were very incompetent and were contradicting what Jacque used to talk about. They were just “normal” people with “normal” lives and “normal” values, emotions and ways of communicating. I realized that the whole organization was a strict hierarchy, with Roxanne at the top, and barely anything could be done without her permission. I realized that TVP was stagnating because of all of this. Jacque used to tell people to always question everything and everyone, to take in new information and keep yourself updated, to let experts in their field make decisions, to arrive at decisions through research, and so on, but it seemed to me that no one dared to question Roxanne or any idea behind TVP, and that Roxanne’s word was the final word, whether she was an expert on the subject or not, and other people’s advice and opinions weren’t really considered.

Then I found stories and resignation letters from other ex-TVP volunteers, which were all similar to my experience:

Lucy

Tio

Steven

Aurovana

Ritta

Roberto

Response

So eventually I just stopped trying.

I finished the OP and became an “official” “Point of Contact” at the end of 2017. I stayed in the PoC chat because I still valued Fresco’s work, but I gave up on trying to fix these ongoing problems between TVP and the Russian-speaking team. The Russian-speaking team made some changes that Roxanne asked for but they were also fed up with TVP’s inability to communicate and collaborate with them, so they also took a step back from these endless discussions. I felt like the Russian-speaking team was much better at communicating and collaborating among themselves and with others, they functioned more how I would have expected the main TVP organization to function, except that they were restricted by the dozens of rules that TVP imposed on them. I stayed in their chat as well but didn’t participate much.

At the end of 2017, I decided to start my own blog and I also found out about the TROM project, which I was extremely impressed by. It was similar to TVP but much more detailed, with a 13-hour long documentary, dozens of free e-books and a bunch of other great tools. Then I realized that the person who made TROM had also worked with TVP and went through a similar experience to mine, but even more intense. I contacted this guy, showed him my new blog, and offered to help with TROM.

I spent the next year and a half learning more and more about TVP and TROM, writing blogs and hosting meet-ups on the TROM documentary and some Fresco lectures, both online and offline in Siberia. I called my TROM and TVP- based English Club “Better than your Average Conversation in Irkutsk” :D because it was :).

The Plan

I didn’t give up on the idea of an RBE after learning about how TVP was run, but I did understand that it was extremely unlikely that this organization would be able to do anything to substantially impact society. Aside from having a rigid hierarchical structure centered on Roxanne (who I do not see as a competent leader) and being unable to communicate and collaborate, they also have a poorly detailed and, in my opinion, unrealistic plan for working towards a resource-based economy.

This is the plan: https://www.thevenusproject.com/faq/what-is-the-plan/

Here it is summarized by me (Sept, 2019):

Phase 1: raise awareness through things like books, documentaries, videos and the TVP research center in Florida.

Phase 2: raise more awareness through a major motion picture.

Phase 3: build an experimental research city.

Phase 4: build a theme park to raise more awareness.

*As far as I understand, another big part of TVP’s plan is to build a new “Center for Resource Management” and eventually build more and more technologically advanced and mostly self-sustainable experimental cities. You can find more information about that here.

So most of the plan has to do with raising awareness and educating people about Fresco’s work and the idea of an RBE. I agree that this is important and that’s probably the reason that I didn’t officially leave TVP until just last month.

The other part of the plan is a bit more complicated.

-Let’s say that we raised enough awareness for most people to understand the need for an RBE- now what? How do we make it happen? Tell me more about the plan!!

I assume that TVP battled with this question a lot and this is what they came up with (again, this is still just my summary, if you’re curious about this, look it up for yourself):

    • Build efficient, automatic, self-sustainable cities where people are well educated about their environment and Fresco’s work, and they do not have to work meaningless jobs (because most of those jobs will be automated).
    • If this city is successful, another one can be built. Then another, then another, then another and so on. If the environment is what influences values and behavior, then such an environment (these cities) should “breed” saner people. If there are enough of these cities and enough well-behaved people that come from this environment, then perhaps the world can eventually become a saner place, and perhaps eventually the cities can connect to form a global resource-based economy. As far as technology and physical resources are concerned, we do have what it takes to rebuild the surface of the Earth with efficient and sustainable cities.

This all sounds very nice and the more you listen to Fresco, the more you may be convinced that (maybe) this really can work.

But let’s not forget to ask questions!!!

Here are some important questions that come to my mind:

*The answers are the conclusions that I personally arrived at after having studied TVP, after being involved with them, and talking to PoCs and other volunteers. Again, if you’re really interested in this, go find out for yourself 😉

1. How will TVP build such technologically advanced cities? Where will they get the funds or resources?

-Right now, the plan is to start small and not to build an entire city, but a ‘Center for Resource Management’ the size of a university campus. TVP estimates that they will need 18 million USD for this project and the plan is to raise 3 million USD in donations by the second half of 2019 and another 15 million by 2022 (resourcebasedeconomy.org).

-8 years ago, 200,000 USD was raised to write a movie script (thevenusproject.com), but this movie still has not been made (I think even the script still hasn’t been completed). I understand that there were difficulties with this movie script, but there will certainly be more difficulties with a ‘Center for Resource Management,’ and of course with an entire city and future network of cities. If TVP hasn’t been able to produce a movie script in so many years with $200,000 of donations, then I just cannot be confident that TVP will be able to build such an expensive ‘Center for Resource Management,’ let alone an entire city and a network of cities that are supposed to change the entire world.

I’m not saying that this is 100% impossible, but in order for people to take this project seriously, TVP needs much much more detailed information available to the public about the entire project. I don’t see any transparency on the website- how much money has been raised so far, what, exactly, has been done with this money, etc., the best I can see are some very vague graphs (source).

I learned a lot about TVP’s incompetence when I tried to communicate, collaborate and fix problems between the Russian-speaking team and the main organization. Sure, we were dealing with some complicated issues, however, building an $18 million center (and an entire city!) will inevitably be more complicated than running some social media pages, so there will certainly be more (bigger) problems ahead. If TVP already can’t handle problems, I can foresee this entire ‘building something’ as a disaster and a huge waste of time and resources. Again, if TVP had detailed transparent information about this project, then maybe I could change my mind (maybe).

2. Let’s forget about TVP’s incompetence for a moment and pretend like they really are capable of raising millions of dollars and building something. The next question that comes to my mind is:

Is it really worth it? In other words, is this plan likely to actually bring about the change we want to see in this world? More specifically, how will you ensure that the people living in these “experimental cities” are any different from “normal people” with “normal values” and shitty behavior?

– My main concern here is the influence of our global culture and society on the people living in TVP’s cities. Human behavior is extremely complex, and almost anything can influence the way you think and behave. If the people living in these experimental cities are not completely cut off from the outside world, they will inevitably be influenced by it. Even if the entire city was automated and self-sustainable, the internet will still surely continue to influence the people living in these cities.

– When I raised this question in the PoC chat, the replies I got were very vague. This is one example (you can read the whole discussion here if you’re interested):

“If my basic needs were met, meaning that if I had a home, food, water, and utilities at the ready for me; then you can absolutely say that my priorities would change. The whole reason for us working everyday is to be able to obtain and maintain the fulfillment of our basic needs. The shift in the paradigm of day to day living would change, people would start to focus more on their goals, hobbies, enjoyments, etc. Social media would most likely discontinue at some point, but you’re referring to a post-transition mentality.”

– In my opinion, maybe this could work in a small community living in such a great environment, however, I’m afraid that the more you scale it up, the more influence you will get from the outside, the harder it will be to control people, their influences, values and behavior. I’m afraid that having your needs met may not be enough to change most people’s values if they are still influenced by Facebook, Instagram, dumb YouTube videos and smart advertisements.

Other people brought up the Sociocyberneering Education Project (SEP)– TVP’s only educational course, saying that this course will be one of the important factors that influence the values and behavior of the people in TVP’s cities (or “Center for Resource Management”).

– If you happen to have read through the dozens of pages of discussions I had with Sue and Saso, you may have noticed this course come up as a topic of conversation. I also had discussions about the SEP with Roxanne and Theofilos, the guy that’s teaching the course.

I started talking to them about the SEP because Roxanne told the Russian-speaking team that they couldn’t post anything except direct translations of what was on the main TVP Facebook page or website onto their own social media pages, unless somebody in the Russian-speaking team had taken the SEP. I told Roxanne that I could take the SEP and share it with the team so they could translate and automate it. She didn’t seem so thrilled about that idea and she also said that the SEP was not available. – There is only one teacher of the SEP (Theofilos, a pilot from Greece) and back then (2017) there were only two people taking the SEP- Sue and Saso, and Theofilos did not have enough time to teach it to anybody else (plus there was a huge waiting list anyway). As far as I’m aware, no one has ever completed the SEP, even today.

– So again, I have very little confidence in this SEP since I’ve never heard of anyone completing it, the PoCs don’t seem to know much about it and there is very little information about it on the TVP website. If it’s so important then there should be plenty of information about the details and progress of this course available online.

But what concerns me the most about the SEP is not the lack of detailed information about it, but the aim of this course. The aim is not really to educate the general public, it is to create “mentors” who can accurately represent TVP.

This is a document I received from Theofilos when I proposed to automate the SEP. It says:

“The Sociocyberneering Education Project, is a carefully planned educational course attempting to achieve a particular aim. This aim is in summary: To have people who must be able to discuss and teach The Venus Project material comfortably and with no requirement of any guidance from a mentor or founder. The student must be completely autonomous with producing new material, arranging events, representing The Venus Project in interviews, debates, discussions and events.”

The fact that the aim of the SEP is to create “mentors” is scary in many ways. If you’re interested in reading more about this, see page 18 of this document.

Since the SEP is taught from person to person and seems quite inefficient (and there is very little information about it), I have very little confidence that it will have much impact on the people living in TVP’s center for resource management or experimental city.

But let’s pretend like TVP actually did create a fantastic course and most of the people living in this automated experimental city got to take it. You must realize that that’s still not enough!

 

Since humans are influenced by everything in their environment, it should be obvious that one course will not be significant enough to bring about a big change in the general population of an entire city. Yes, the people taking this course will be influenced by it, but 1- how can you ensure that everybody (or even most people) in this city takes this course? And 2- these people will not only be influenced by the course, they will also be influenced by their peers, their family, the social media they use, videos they watch, and surely by the internet and the outside world (unless you totally cut them off like North Korea :P ). Education and employment is by far not the only thing that influences your values and behavior.

 

More Problems

Now let’s go a little further- let’s pretend like TVP is able to build a super technological, automated and self-sustainable city with a great educational course for all its people. Most jobs are automated, the people are well educated and have the time and opportunity to focus on challenges, goals, projects, problem solving and hobbies.

I still see big problems:

Mainly- Resources

Even if this city is super efficient and self-sustainable, it will still require some resources from the outside world, therefore, it will still have to use money and trade with the outside world.

– People may need certain building material, software, new gadgets, healthcare specialists for rare diseases and many other things.

– This means that people will still need to use money, regardless of whether they’ve made money obsolete within the city. And that poses a dilemma: now the citizens of this city have to figure out a way to make some money, whether as a group or through individual jobs.

If these people are still concerned about how to earn money so they can get some stuff from the outside world, then I really don’t see how building an “experimental city” would change anything.

We can already see many examples of self-sustainable communities in our world- Kibbutz in Israel is one example that started off as self-sustainable communities that provided for most of the needs of its members, but because these communities were still influenced by the larger society and still dependent on the outside world for some resources, eventually, many Kibbutz members had to get jobs and basically just become “normal people” again. They wanted to change the world by example, but after a few decades, the world changed them instead.

TVP would be naïve to believe that they are exempt from the influences of the outside world, especially if they depend on it for some resources.

It’s important to understand that an RBE is nothing more than an idea.

Sure it’s a great idea, but unfortunately, that’s all that it is.

There have been many great ideas about how to better organize our society- technocracy, socialism and communism- were all nice ideas! But the implementation of all of these ideas was a whole other ballgame and, in every case, it was a great big failure.

See this documentary about the rise and fall of socialism and notice how the idea of socialism was never actually implemented:

The idea of a resource-based economy could never be “implemented” or demoed through experimental cities; and the structure of our global society has never changed through demoing a better way to organize itself. Instead, society changes through problem solving.

Take a look at any problem- transportation: how do we get from point A to point B quickly and efficiently? – This was a problem and people dealt with this problem by coming up with different solutions. People didn’t envision an entire world of airplanes, trains and self-driving cars, they took the problem and created solutions- horses, bikes, cars, etc., eventually these solutions evolved. Today there is by no means a great transportation system, but it surely is much quicker and more efficient than walking.

Another problem: how to connect people over long distances? Radio waves, then fiber cables and the internet, today we have satellites and other means. How to fix infectious diseases? Again, tons of solutions. Problems change our society.

And the change comes gradually almost all the time- through education + infrastructure. Ford didn’t demo how a society based on cars is better than one based on horses. Stallman didn’t showcase how a free and open-source software society could work, he started to create free and open source software and educate people about it.

So that’s the next challenge: Identifying the Problem

When I brought this up in the PoC chat, I realized that the PoCs didn’t have a unified agreement about the problem they were trying to tackle. I think that they generally agree that “the entire system” is the problem, but what does that really mean? What about the system is so problematic? Some said it was money, some named scarcity.

So let’s analyze these problems:

Money.

– Money is a medium that people use to store value and to trade goods and services. We can try to focus on getting rid of money, but since money is just a medium, other mediums can take its place without actually changing what it was used for. If you buy products with cryptocurrencies as opposed to traditional money, not much will change; if you trade your data instead of your money to use certain websites, there will still be problems; if money is replaced with social credits, this will solve nothing. By focusing on money, you ignore other mediums (trades) that could be used to replace money, but will not solve the actual problem.

But even if you forget about the previous paragraph and say that TVP wants to tackle the ‘core problem of money,’ how will this be achieved through TVP’s current plan? If there is still a need for the people in TVP’s “experimental cities” to buy some resources from the outside world, then you’ll still need to use money in the first city, and the second, third, hundredth, thousandth… and surely people will get corrupted by their need to use money. Society is extremely complex and TVP should not brush that aside too quickly.

Scarcity.

Jacque talked a lot about scarcity and some of the PoCs named it as the ‘core problem,’ saying things like:

“Trade and/or the use of money comes from scarcity, and scarcity can be real, created or perceived.”

I agree that scarcity is a problem; scarcity usually leads to shitty behavior (fighting/domination/etc.) or to the need to trade (which leads to an imbalance of power). However, I don’t think that trade and/or the use of money comes only from scarcity, since in today’s world, we do trade things that are not scarce at all.

Think about what’s actually scarce in our world- not much. Take any example- H&M – it makes an abundance of clothes! There is no real, created or perceived scarcity of clothes in our world, yet H&M convinces millions of people to buy more and more clothes because its main incentive is to trade (to make a profit). You can sell bottled water even in countries that have perfectly clean and abundant drinkable tap water.

We already produce an abundance of food- we throw away something like 40% of it, yet people are still starving to death. If you go to any supermarket you will notice that food is not scarce, it’s just that some people don’t have access to the food because in order to get access to food or almost anything else, you need to trade. You can trade money to get that food, you can maybe trade bitcoin, labor, sex, other products or anything else, but if you don’t have something to trade in return for the food that you require, then you might starve to death.

How about the internet? YouTube- it’s abundant! There are hundreds of hours of YouTube videos uploaded every minute. But YouTube collects data from you- that’s a trade and this causes problems. Same with Facebook- it’s abundant (and ‘money-free’) but is based on data trading.

There are more empty homes than homeless people, so that means we already have an abundance of homes, but people don’t have access to these homes because of the need to trade (not because there is scarcity). Same goes for electronics, transportation and almost everything.

Some people pointed out that it doesn’t matter if there’s an abundance of YouTube videos, apartments, clothes or any particular item because the reason that trade happens is because something else is scarce, and in this case, that something is money.

I can’t really disagree with that, so I would say that scarcity -in this sense- can be seen as the root cause of most of today’s problems. However, the issue with this scenario is that focusing on scarcity like this gives you a completely unrealistic problem to work with. If the abundance of any particular item/service is not enough to solve the problem of scarcity in this world, and you need an abundance of absolutely everything, including money and anything people might be persuaded to want, then what can you possibly do about this problem? Even the richest person in the world wouldn’t be able to solve such a problem today.

*Notice that I’m not talking about abundance in an RBE, but in today’s world.

And, again, how is TVP’s plan working towards solving this problem of scarcity? If there is still a need for the people in TVP’s “experimental cities” to buy some resources from the outside world, that means that scarcity still exists and human values and behavior will still be influenced by it.

In general, I think it’s a big red flag that TVP doesn’t have an aligned and detailed idea of the core problem their organization is trying to tackle. If you “have the solution” but you don’t know much about the problem, then your solution is nothing but a nice idea or fantasy. Compare this to the medical field- people with “solutions” but little knowledge of the problem are your shamans, chiropractors and spiritual healers. On the other hand, doctors who perform surgery or develop medicine for any specific disease have studied the disease in great depth- and that was how they arrived at a solution.

So what’s the problem then?

Well, we analyzed money, which is one medium of trade, and we analyzed scarcity, which usually leads to trade. Some people say that “ownership” is the problem, and although that could theoretically be true, again, there’s just not all that much you can do about this problem; that’s similar to saying that “imagination” is the problem, since we wouldn’t be able to use money or hoard much wealth without our imaginations :).

So let’s just choose one core problem that we can actually work with. How about trade itself. The entire structure of our global society is based on trades. You go to work to trade your time and skills for money, you trade that money for food, shelter and other things. You trade your attention and data to use platforms like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, so they can trade this data for money; you may trade cryptocurrencies for goods or services; you may trade your freedom for a good social credit score or a passport. There are tons of other trades, and if you pay attention to this, you will notice that the more that something (or someone) is influenced by this “force of trade,” the more corrupted it tends to get.

Trade encompasses many other big problems (such as money) and it actually gives you something realistic to work with. If trade causes shitty behavior, then make trade-free stuff so that people are less dependent on trades. And also, don’t forget to educate people about the problem.

Remember, problems are solved gradually, through education + infrastructure.

A very interesting thing to note, by the way, is that if you manage to solve this “trade problem,” you will consequently solve the “money problem” and probably also the “scarcity problem” because when something is trade-free, it is usually also abundant.

This idea of pinpointing “trade” as the problem is well described in this book, so if you’re interested in all of this, I would recommend reading it. And don’t worry, it’s trade-free 😉.

Conclusion

I feel like my “TVP journey” was really intense, but that’s not a problem because that’s usually what happens to me in life :D. I am very glad that I went through all of this because I learned a lot.

I learned that:

  1. Fresco’s ideas and the organization of TVP are two very different things.
  2. TVP (the organization) has a rigid hierarchical structure centered on Roxanne. Almost everything that goes on in TVP has to be approved by Roxanne, who is by no means an expert on everything.
  3. Many TVP people (especially “old-timers”) are so bad at communicating and collaborating with others that they actually contradict what they teach/ what Jacque used to talk about.
  4. Many TVP people are so emotionally attached to TVP that they will not question it (neither the ideas behind TVP nor the organization). I brought up topics like “how will the values of the people living in TVP’s experimental cities change if they are still influenced by the outside world” in the PoC chat before I left and some people replied that it was “inappropriate” to discuss this and/or TROM in the PoC chat. You can read my entire last discussion with the PoCs here.
  5. The aim of TVP’s only educational course (the SEP) is to create “mentors” rather than to educate the general public.
  6. TVP seems extremely incompetent and lacks transparancy in its projects; as a result, I doubt that they are capable of raising enough funds and building a multi-million dollar ‘Center for Resource Management,’ and later an entire city and network of cities.
  7. If they do manage to build anything, I doubt that it will have much of an impact on the world; most likely, the world will have a much bigger impact on it instead, making the whole project a huge waste of time and resources.
  8. TVP (the organization) seems to brush off the complexity of this society and its influence on human behavior.

*”TVP” refers to the main (English speaking) organization, not the Russian speaking team. The Russian speaking team is continuing to do what they can to popularize the work of Jacque Fresco.

Despite all of this, I still respect Jacque and the work that he did. I still see Jacque as a very inspirational character and I still agree with a lot of what he talked about. If I was in Roxanne’s shoes, I would forget about building anything, and instead would concentrate on educating the public about Jacque’s work. The most efficient way to do that would probably be through a free online platform.

However, the most important thing I can take away from this big long blog and my saturated experience with TVP and TROM is that society changes through problem solving, not through envisioning or demoing a better society. Realizing this was the last straw that made me see TVP and even the idea of a resource-based economy as irrelevant- and that was why I finally left TVP.

Maybe we don’t know how to solve these gigantic problems of trade, scarcity, money, ownership or whatever else, but if we can identify the problem, then we will at least be one step closer to solving it.

How to (or not to) get a passport overseas

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I got robbed nine and a half years ago while I was in Naples and every valuable thing that I had was stolen, including both my US and Russian passports. I went to the US embassy in Naples and got a replacement US passport within a month (the Russian one I applied for later in Sydney). The US replacement passport was no different from a normal passport and expired 10 years from the date that it was issued.

Nine and a half years later (July, 2019) I lost that passport somewhere in the UK. I went to the embassy in London and was surprised at how easily I was able to apply for a new one. At first, I stressed out about collecting all the documents and copies of documents that I thought I needed as proof of citizenship, but when I got to the embassy, all they asked to see was my driver’s license. They said that my application was approved straight away and all I had to do was pay a $145 processing fee and buy a special envelope to get the passport in the mail. I got my new passport within 10 days and at first glance it looked great! Legit little booklet with 52 pages! But when I took a closer look it turned out that the expiry date was not 10 years from now, but only 1 year from now, in August 2020.

This might not be much of an issue for somebody that lives a “normal” life and just goes overseas for their 2-3 weeks of yearly vacation, but this is a problem for me. For one, I don’t have another $145 to spare on another little booklet, and two, I may need a “full validity passport” (one that doesn’t expire in 1 year) to get certain documents, to apply for certain visas (like a working holiday visa) or even to get into some countries.

I emailed the embassy and searched online to see what I can do about this. I found out that you can change your “limited validity passport” for a “full validity passport” by applying at the embassy in London, and there is no fee to exchange this passport for a full validity one. So I made an appointment and went back to London to exchange this one-year passport for a ‘real’ passport.

I took a bus from Bristol to London yesterday at 4am, got to London by 7:00 and walked to the embassy just on time for my 8:00 appointment. The guy at the US embassy counter seemed to accept my application but told me that I needed to pay another $145 for a new passport. I showed him a printed piece of paper from the US embassy website that said there was no fee for exchanging this passport for a full validity one. Then he told me that this didn’t apply to me because I didn’t get an emergency passport. I got a “normal” passport, but the expiry date for this passport was one year from now because I had lost my passport more than once in the last 10 years.

I told him that I didn’t have another $145 to pay for a piece of paper, but I need a real passport, not one that expires one year from now. This guy talked to his “big boss”, then this boss came up to me (with quite an attitude) and told me that even if I pay the fee and apply for a full validity passport, I will probably only get another 1-year passport. And actually, any time I apply for a new passport, they can basically deny me from getting a “full validity passport” if they feel like it. And I won’t know what passport I’ll be given until I get it.

So basically, they have a huge amount of control over my life because not having a “full validity passport” will restrict me from being able to do a lot of things. – And that, to me, is really fucked up, and not all that far from China’s social credit system. China is at least transparent with all the information they collect about their citizens, whereas in the US, no one knows what information they’re gathering and what they do with it. If they can restrict you from getting a “full validity passport” as much as they feel like- that is a big deal.

 

Citizenship is a Forced Trade

Many Americans think that they’re so “free” but they have no idea how restricted they really are, how restricted we all are, actually, by our own modern-day tribalism and bureaucracy. You might not realize this when you live inside the system and follow the rest of the sheep herd, but as soon as you try to step outside, you’ll see that you’re hardly free at all.

I mean, you’re born on this planet and you’re assigned a citizenship (something that’s imaginary but upheld by the people in the tribe you were born in)- you have no choice but to take this citizenship, and when you do, you have to follow the laws and regulations of this tribe, and the laws and regulations of other tribes that tell you what you can or can’t do as a result of the place you were born in.

All these 1st world countries preach for racial and gender equality, yet they have absolutely no problem with discriminating against people born in the wrong tribes.

Take just one example: “oh you want to come to the US for a holiday? – Show me a piece of paper that shows you come from Australia, Western Europe or another rich country, and you can come right in, no problem. But if you come from Indonesia, Nigeria or any other poor country, OH NO NO NO- you can’t just come in here! You need to prove that you have a fulltime job, perhaps a house, lots of money, a ticket there and back, perhaps medical papers, and a lot of other crap”. You’ll have to spend months collecting all these documents and filling out forms, spending tons of money on all of this plus the visa application fee (which of course, is greater than the average person’s salary in your country) and then you can still be denied the visa, even if all your paperwork is solid. And even if you get the visa after all of this, you still may be denied entry into the country, just because the agent you speak to at the airport might “feel like it”.

You can’t just “travel around the world” if you were born in a 3rd world tribe- other countries won’t let you in! – And in today’s world, this is not considered “inequality” or “discrimination”, it’s just considered “the law”.

Understanding Language

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When you travel around the world, you have to learn to communicate with a huge variety of different people. Many of the people you encounter will use different languages, will have different values and beliefs, and may express themselves in unfamiliar ways.

When I was in Bulgaria, for example, I learned that the locals shake their heads from left to right to signal “yes”, and up and down to signal “no”. Imagine how confused I was trying to order food in a local cafe :).

Auto-translators don’t always work so well. See the wonderful English translations of this Bulgarian menu:

As I traveled, I tried to keep our limitations to communication in mind. A language barrier was, of course, a problem here and there, but I always seemed to manage to communicate simple things like asking for directions or ordering food, no matter where I was. More complicated communication, however, requires much more than a common language. It requires a common understanding.

So how can you manage this communication problem?

I felt like I had learned a lot about communication when I went through the orientation process to become a point of contact for the Venus Project. I listened to Jacque Fresco’s lectures about the inadequacy of language and people’s limitations to communication and realized that this language problem was not only a problem for travelers, it was a problem for all people, regardless of whether they ever encounter a foreigner.

After digging a bit into this topic, my understanding was that we could improve communication if we:

  1. Understand our limitations to communication-

– Understand that many words and sentences can be interpreted in many different ways, therefore the people you speak to might not interpret what you say in exactly the way that you interpret it, and vice versa.

– Understand that our different degrees of background knowledge about any particular topic limit our ability to discuss that topic.

  1. Try to understand each other better while communicating-

– Think about a person’s background and why they may be saying what they’re saying.

– Think about their intention to communication.

– Try to be understanding rather than emotional and defensive, even if you disagree with whatever is being said.

– Keep calm while communicating and try to stop your emotions from getting triggered by any particular words or phrases.

  1. I also considered the idea that a better-designed (less abstract) language with words based on physical referents would help people communicate properly.

This video might give you a better understanding of what I mean:

The above video was made by Tio (TROM), but after its release, Tio spent a year researching this topic and working on a book on language; as a result of his work, his thoughts on this topic evolved and he no longer agrees with this part of his own documentary :).

And I have to say that after reading the TROM book on language, the same thing happened to me. I realized that the ‘solutions’ that I previously had in mind were really just patchwork to a massively complex problem. I didn’t understand how much of a problem it was, actually, until after I read this book.

What I understand to be Fresco’s solution to our current problem of language and communication does not seem to be sufficient. Just because words are based on a physical referent doesn’t mean that the people using those words have sufficient background knowledge (/the same cultural context) to be able to communicate properly. It works with engineers and physicists because they share similar background knowledge and cultural context.

But the world is so complex and dynamic that this could never be achieved in an idiotic society that’s pushed and shoved by consumerism, irrelevant information, pseudoscience, etc. The only way to make a saner language is to create a saner society, because language is all about the context. If the context is insane and unscientific, the language will mirror that; if the context is based on science/a scientific way of thinking, the language will mirror that.

If you’re interested in delving into this topic, I highly recommend this book. In the book, you can find tons of interesting analogies, pictures, videos, and interactive tools that help you easily understand the complex topic of language and communication. In the end, you will even get an idea of how to create your own language, as that is what Tio started to create.

Before I read this book, I not only didn’t realize how important this topic was, but I also had no idea how interesting it is.

Thanks again TROM for creating such interesting, relevant material and making it trade-free 😉.

Bothies: a trade-free shelter!

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Ever heard of trade-free accommodation? Well here’s one example: UK mountain bothies!

My friends and I recently took a trip to Scotland, where we spent several nights sleeping in mountain bothies. Bothies are remote buildings that have been renovated by the Mountain Bothy Association (MBA) and are open for those in need of shelter.

What?

If you hike or cycle to a bothy, you are welcome to open the door, step inside, and sleep in it. You don’t need to pay any money, sign any agreement, work on a farm, or trade anything for the use of this accommodation.

How does this work?

Most of the buildings are owned by a person who no longer has much use for the building and has agreed to allow the building to be used as a bothy. Two bothies are owned by the MBA itself. Maintenance work is done by volunteers and financed by donations and voluntary membership subscriptions (you do not have to be a member in order to use the bothies). This allows 100 or so bothies to be kept wind, water-tight and available to the public.

What are they like?

Most bothies do not have running water, beds, electricity, kitchens or toilets (but a shovel is always provided 😉), so you should be prepared with your own camping gear when hiking to a bothy (bring your own sleeping pad, sleeping bag, camping stove, etc.); in other words, bothies are simple shelters- four walls and a dry place to sleep.

A bothy may not sound like much, but these four walls can be a life-saver for a lone hiker crossing Scotland in a brutal storm (which there seem to be a lot of!).

This trade-free shelter was extremely helpful and convenient for my friends and I when we traveled through Scotland. As we hiked, we encountered storms, were drenched with rain, at times we were attacked by swarms of midges, and other times we were cold and uncomfortable, but once we reached the bothies, we felt safe and cozy. We were able to warm up, hang up our wet clothes, escape the midges, change, cook food, and have a good night’s sleep. This can be very important as Scotland is prone to very wet and windy weather!

In the bothies, we met a number of other hikers who were all very friendly and happy to share not only the bothy space, but also some stories, information and even some tasty food.

What I love about trade-free things is not just the “free” aspect of them, but the way that people behave in such places. I could never expect this kind of kindness and openness from strangers in the lobby of a hotel, let alone, inside of a stranger’s hotel room 😊.

Some people have argued that “a bothy is not really trade-free because somebody else pays for it.”

-If you say this, then you don’t understand the “trade-free” concept.

The point of a trade-free ‘thing’ is that it is trade-free for the people using it.

In this case…

Of course, the bothy still needs resources to be built and maintained, so most-likely it is built and maintained using some kind of trades. That doesn’t mean that you need trade in order to build and maintain bothies, that just means that you need some resources to build and maintain bothies, and unfortunately, almost all resources are controlled by some kind of trade (usually money). As a result, it is very difficult to make a trade-free ‘thing’ out of 100% trade-free resources. But I don’t think we need to stress about this too much because we have to start somewhere!

Let’s compare this dilemma to waste and recycling.

Let’s say a group of people are concerned about the build up of waste on our planet and they want to do something about this. So they say,

“let’s make musical instruments out of recycled material! This won’t solve the entire problem, but if we at least start making some cool instruments out of plastic bottles, maybe this idea will catch on and more people will start making more stuff out of recycled material, and maybe, if this is practiced by many and for long enough, this can solve our waste problem, or at least make it better than what it is today. But in order to do this, we can’t just make cool recycled instruments, we also need to scream about the problem! We’ll make instruments out of recycled material and tell people that waste and pollution is a problem!”

-So these people are alleviating the waste problem through creating something, but more importantly, they’re spreading awareness (education) through their project, in order to attempt to influence others to also work on alleviating the problem. Culture and society change gradually, through problem solving.

Now let’s say someone comes along and says that they’re not really making musical instruments out of recycled material because the tools that they’re using to create these instruments are not made from recycled material.

Is that really true?

No! Fuck no!

A sugar-free donut is sugar free because it doesn’t have sugar in it, therefore, the person eating the donut will not eat sugar. It doesn’t matter if there’s sugar in the oven it was baked in or if it was once coated in sugar, so long as the finished product is sugar-free.

Musical instruments made from recycled material are still made from recycled material regardless of what tools were used to make them.

Open source software doesn’t have to be created using open-source software for it to be open-source. If it’s made on a proprietary operating system, that doesn’t stop it from being open-source.

A trade-free shelter is a trade-free shelter because the people using it don’t have to trade anything to use it. It’s still a trade-free shelter regardless of what tools or trades were involved in building and maintaining it.

Get it?

One more thing!

I know guys… mountain bothies are not going to save the world :D

These kinds of trade-free wilderness huts can actually be found in many different countries around the world, they’ve been around for a while, and they’re not all that special.

The Mountain Bothy Association has probably never heard of the trade-free movement, doesn’t label itself as trade-free, and probably doesn’t talk about for-profit remote shelter (or for-profit anything) as a problem.

Nevertheless, they still do a great deed for hikers and cyclists in need of shelter and they are a real example of trade-free accommodation that exists even in this profit-driven society.

Read more about the MBA here.

Update on my life :)

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Hey guys, it’s been a while since I’ve written a blog so this is going to be a long one :).
I would like to backtrack a tiny bit, and also explain what’s happened to me between this past winter (living in Siberia/ice biking/ice diving) and now (I’m currently in the UK).

Let me backtrack a bit…

My goal, since the last time I quit the “job-game” was not really to travel around the world, it was to do something more meaningful and important with my life. I wasn’t sure what, exactly, that could be, but I knew that I had to separate this goal from any means of making money (in other words, I needed to minimize the amount of time I spent trading my time and energy for money). So I lived off of my savings and didn’t search for another job, I traveled a bit and looked for something more interesting and important to do with my life.

I ended up joining the Venus Project (TVP) as a volunteer point of contact for the Russian speaking team and I also started this blog. Later, I found out about TROM, started volunteering for them, and I also decided to write a book about my life story, ideas about the world, TVP, TROM, etc.

This past winter, I isolated myself in a small village on Lake Baikal to concentrate 100% on my book. I rented an old house for about $5/night and managed to live on about $10-20/week of food. The house didn’t have running water and it was a bit chilly when it got down to -37° outside, but I managed to keep myself warm with hot tea and the right clothing. I woke up each morning, got straight onto my laptop and started writing. I’d write for 4-5 hours before I finally got so hungry that I had to drag myself away from my computer. I cooked (mostly cabbage and buckwheat), ate, wrote some more, then took a break by riding a bicycle on the frozen lake.

I loved this :). I had a bike with spiked tires that allowed me to explore every corner of the southern end of Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal. I rode this bike over crystal clear, cracked and sometimes bubbly meter-thick ice, I found enormous icicles, climbed mountains and watched the sun set over the frozen lake.

Then I came home and wrote some more :).

My Book

I wrote about 150 pages while living in this village, which I estimate to be about 2/3 of my book. This is what I’ve written about so far:

-Hawaii (2017): Oahu, the Big Island, Maui, Molokai, Lanai, Kauai

-Road trip through the East Coast (2017)

-Traveling through Russia (2017)

-My story with TVP and TROM

-Childhood

-Troubled teenage years

-Driving across the US (3 times) to Whistler, Canada

-Traveling the West Coast of the US and Canada

-Backpacking Mexico

-Living with Mormons in Utah

-Backpacking Australia

-Living in NYC

-Backpacking Europe

-Living in Switzerland

-Backpacking Italy and Turkey

-Living in Sydney

-Studying ‘International and Global Studies’ at Sydney University

-Quitting university, traveling through New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, sailing in NZ, hitchhiking across the US, traveling to Mexico and back to NZ

-Back to Sydney University (2012)

That’s where I finished writing, but after 2012, there was a lot more traveling. I still want to write about: Thailand and Cambodia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Morocco, Outback Australia, South Coast Australia, Lake Tahoe, St. Maartin, Aruba, Gili Trawangan, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Hawaii 2015, Eastern Europe, Slovenia, Austria, Russia, Nicaragua (2017)… and then we’ll see if I leave it there or bring it back to today. I never know how my writing will unfold until I’m in that moment :).

Throughout my traveling stories I also write about the problems I’ve faced with society and the things I have learned about the world. Some subjects include climate change, sustainability, trade and other global problems; I will tie these subjects together with TROM, TVP and ‘trade-free’.

I would have stayed in that small Russian village to finish the entire book if I didn’t have bigger plans ahead.

Change of Winter Plans

I left the village in late February, when my buddies Alfie and Nico flew in to Irkutsk for an ice diving adventure. You can read about that here if you missed that blog. We spent about two weeks learning to ice dive and taking underwater (and ice) photos and videos, and another two weeks or so filming the beautiful spots that I had explored while bike-riding on the frozen lake.

Luckily, I didn’t have to spend any money on any of this, since this trip was sponsored by the companies my friends were filming for. Actually, I even got paid for it because I was their fulltime translator, guide and dive “model.” And translating an entire diving course from Russian to English is not as easy as it may sound…

So, Alfie and Nico flew out at the end of March and I had new plans:

Get to Spain!

Tio, the founder of the TROM project, had organized a meet-up for TROM volunteers in the north of Spain in May. This would be the first ever TROM meet-up and there was no way in hell that I would miss such an event, so I planned the next part of my life around that.

Unfortunately, the ice-diving gig didn’t pay a whole lot and my savings account was looking a bit skimpy (after over two years with no job), so I had to figure out a very cheap way to get from Siberia to Spain (9,000 km).

I packed up all of my stuff and bought a one-way railway ticket from Irkutsk to Moscow ($60, 4-day train ride, about 5,200 km closer to Spain), then I hitchhiked from Moscow to Spain. I had a fun time hitchhiking as I met many people along the way, visited friends and saw some new places. I filmed some of the rides I caught hitchhiking and posted these clips as Instagram stories. You can view some of them as “story highlights” here.

After about two weeks of hitchhiking, I made it to Spain! There, I finally met Tio and about 10 other TROM volunteers. We rented a house overlooking the sea and the cute little town of L’Estartit, and spent the next three weeks getting to know each other, bouncing around ideas, and just having fun.

TROM Meet-Up

We went swimming, hiking, running, played music, watched documentaries, filmed some videos, had BBQs and talked a lot. One night, we took Tio’s telescope to a beautiful lookout and observed the craters of the moon, the storm lines of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn. It was absolutely amazing. Then we watched the sunrise over the Mediterranean Sea and walked back ‘home’ down L’Estartit’s beautiful bushy, seaside hills.

Everybody I met in this meet-up was inspiring in one way or another. They were all so bright, enthusiastic and interested in this world. This was the first time I met so many people that were on the same line of thinking; meaning that we could all have interesting conversations without having to explain simple things or fight against “normal” (fucked up) values. The 12 of us were from 9 different countries, so that was interesting as well.

Tio

Everybody in this meet-up was inspiring, but Tio struck me on a whole other level. I had read his story before- that he struggled throughout his life as he worked on TROM and TVP. He had always worked for free, so most of the time he didn’t have enough money to support himself, but he kept on going- researching, learning, writing books and articles, making videos and important tools- putting them all out for free, no matter how shitty of a situation he had to live in.

He couldn’t afford his own place, so he lived with his parents who didn’t understand a thing about what he was doing. I knew all of this before, but when I saw the room that he worked and lived in, I just felt like my heart shattered a bit.

It was a small, stuffy room with a bunk bed and a gaming chair, but not enough space for a desk. Instead of a desk, he used something that resembled a music stand. There was no air conditioning and heating was extremely expensive, so it would get very hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Sometimes, the neighbor’s dog barked non-stop, making it almost impossible to concentrate. He spent most of his time in this room, just hopping between sleeping in the bed and working in front of his computer (working like 15 hours a day).

Tio explained that this was actually a much better room than the one he had spent most of his time in. For most of his years, he lived and worked in an even smaller room in the same house, where there was a bunk bed and no space for anything else. It was even stuffier than his current room and he got extreme back pain from having to work from within this bunk bed.

He made TROM Documentary from the set up you see below (computer pinned to the ceiling above the top bunk)-

From these extremely uncomfortable conditions, he managed to write, review and design dozens of books, create a 14-hour long documentary, customize a trade-free computer operating system, create a documentary website, a music website, and countless of other useful tools such as curated news, curated videos and more– all for free! So that others can use them trade-free! (Not to mention all the stuff he did for TVP when he volunteered for them…)

You might think, “oh but maybe he just doesn’t mind living in such a place”- but that’s not true. He hated it and all he wanted to do was move out, but again, he couldn’t afford living on his own because his only income came from donations and that wasn’t enough for his own place.

So naturally, I wanted to help him. I didn’t have a whole lot of money left, but I still had some. Spain was quite cheap, so if we rented a place together, it would only cost about 150-200 euros a month each. That was affordable for both Tio and me. I figured that if I bought nothing else but very cheap food, life in Spain would cost me only about 300 euros a month. So I decided to stay in Spain and rent a flat with Tio.

I wasn’t sure how well we would get along while living together or how long I could manage to legally stay in Europe, but I decided that I will help him no matter what, whether he liked me or not and whether I could physically stay in Spain or not. I had enough money for my portion of the rent for the next 6 months, so I wanted to use that on a shared flat regardless of whether I could actually live there the whole time or not.

So at the end of May, everybody else left L’Estartit and I stayed with Tio and looked for a place to live. It wasn’t so easy to find, since this town is dominated by mass tourism in the summertime, but after a few weeks, we managed to rent a great (and cheap) apartment thanks to Tio’s sister. This apartment had plenty of space for a comfortable “TROM office” with a big desk :).

Life in L’Estartit

Tio and I spent over a month living together in this nice apartment, being together almost 24/7. I talked to him about everything, and I felt like every day that I got to know him, I liked him more and more. He’s so fucking smart, so hard-working, and so humble; his work is extremely underappreciated, but this doesn’t get him down. He’s extremely passionate and has a deep fascination with the world. I love his appreciation and love of science. I think it’s sad that so few people understand and appreciate the significance of science, yet Tio not only appreciates it, but grows my curiosity for it, and inspires me to want to learn about everything. He’s so interested in everything.

Tio’s also very creative and helped me enormously with my website. Almost everything you see now on my site- from the style to the photos of my crap and me, to the polaroid theme- was all his idea and creation. I think he spent more time working on my website than on his own :). We both put a ton of work into my site while living together and finally managed to release it the day before my flight out of Spain.

I had to leave Spain because my Schengen visa expired in mid-July. I didn’t want to leave but I didn’t really have a choice- by law, I can only spend 90 days in the Schengen zone out of every 180 days. So after 3 months in Spain, I have to spend 3 months outside of Europe before I can return for another 3 months. That’s the kind of bullshit society we live in, you can’t just live on Earth without being subjected to tribal laws.

I didn’t know where to go. I wasn’t going to go back to Siberia, since that was so far away, and I haven’t had a “home base” for about 12 years. I considered going to Cape Cod, Massachusetts; I’ve never been there before but a friend had told me that this place was a gold-mine for making tips in bars and restaurants. I thought that perhaps this could be a good opportunity to re-stock on money. But the more I thought about going to some random American tourist location, to slave for some restaurant and serve food and drinks to East Coast vacationers, the more I just wanted to kill myself.

I tried to be strong and convince myself that going to Massachusetts was a good idea, but one day, I just broke down as I was looking at a map of Cape Cod on Craigslist 😊. I just started crying at the thought of walking around aimlessly, looking for restaurant work. Tio noticed this and stopped everything he was doing, calmed me down and started looking for solutions.

“The main problem is money,” he concluded, “if you have enough money to live on, you don’t have to go to the US. You can stay closer, finish your book and then sell it. After three months, we can solve the visa issue, now let’s figure out what else we can do about this money problem.”

I felt extremely disappointed in myself for breaking down like this. The last thing I wanted to do was stress Tio out about money, he already stressed a lot about his own money situation since he barely makes enough to cover his living costs (even though he works over 12 hours a day, without any long breaks, holidays or weekends). The one thing I wanted to do was help him with this money situation and now I was failing at that myself.

Why did I do that? In the past, it was quite easy for me to just pick up and go, find a job somewhere, save money, quit, then move on. What’s so different now? I don’t know. I still don’t know, maybe it’s that I really want to finish my book, or maybe it’s that the last time I worked in a restaurant, I told myself that this will be the last time I ever work in a restaurant (although I say that every time I quit a restaurant job :)).

Then Tio came up with another idea- to make a fundraiser for my book. He said that he would help me with everything, all I had to do is explain my story on video and send him some nice footage. I agreed to give it a shot.

Meanwhile, I had to figure out what my other options were.

‘The UK is outside of the Schengen zone… I can’t work there legally but I can stay there for 6 months without a visa… I have a good friend in Bristol- Kristina, she visited me in Siberia last summer and I distinctly remember her inviting me to her place :)’

I called up Kristina and she told me to come to Bristol and not to worry :). I looked up flights and found one for only 15 euros! I booked that flight then started working on my campaign video. I realized that I really don’t need that much money and that if working in a restaurant makes me want to kill myself, then I shouldn’t do it (at least not until I finish my book). I would love to have a few thousand euros so I could feel “safe” for the next few months and concentrate on my book without stressing, but maybe I don’t need that much. If I just eat rice and cabbage every day, I can (maybe) survive on $300/month. So if I have $1500, that’s 5 months. Maybe I can finish my book in 5 months. After that, we’ll see, I’ll figure something else out.

I was still a bit disappointed in myself (for being so weak :)), but I felt like I was doing the right thing. Tio, again, helped me enormously by putting together this video:

We worked on the video all night, didn’t sleep at all, but managed to finish it just a few hours before my flight to Bristol. Once in the UK, I was able to release my new site and fundraiser. And don’t worry, I didn’t leave Tio to pay the rent for the entire apartment all alone, I left my portion (although he tried to refuse it and now says that he will give it back to me :P) and another TROM friend of ours (Aaron) moved into the house before I left, so it’s still affordable.

The UK

Theen… (I told you this will be a long blog, right? :D) about a week after my arrival in Bristol, Kristina wanted to go on a road trip to Scotland with me and another friend. I told her that I would love to see Scotland but that I was broke as hell, but can probably still afford it if we do this trip the cheapest way possible. Most people don’t actually enjoy travelling “Sasha style” 😊(the cheapest way possible) but Kristina and her friend Millie were happy to camp, couchsurf, and cook all of our meals, so this was still affordable even for me.

We spent 10 days driving around Scotland, hiking, camping, seeing some beautiful places and staying in some bothies (small huts you can sleep in for free). The trip was really fun despite the fact that the weather wasn’t ideal (I don’t think you can ever get ideal weather in Scotland for 10 days though :)). It rained quite heavily the first few days, and when it didn’t rain, we were attacked by huge swarms of midges (small flies that bite like crazy). There were so many of them in northern Scotland that we couldn’t even hang out outside without walking or running.

We did some beautiful hikes regardless and didn’t pay for a single night of accommodation even though we slept indoors for more than half of our trip. It was great to experience trade-free accommodation, both through bothies and couchsurfing. I’ll write a separate blog about bothies soon.

London

Once we returned to Bristol, I needed to deal with getting a new US passport (don’t ask :D). So I stressed a bit about getting together all of the documents and paperwork I needed for a new passport, and then I had to go to the US embassy in London.

The bus tickets between Bristol and London were cheap and I took the opportunity of being in London to meet some very nice TZM people and to go to the Museum of Natural History- which was awesome.

Bristol

So! I got that done and came back from London a few nights ago and now I can finally figure out what to do with my life :D. I will definitely come back to Spain as soon as my visa allows me to (early October). I raised 765 euros through my fundraiser so far, which is very nice, thank you so much to everybody that donated! -That will probably cover about 2 months of life on Earth. I still have maybe $1000 in savings. -So that’s 5 months altogether before I hit absolute zero in my account 😊.

Maybe I can finish my book in 5 months. Maybe not, but I think it’s worth a shot. I think I will try to concentrate on it at least until I hit absolute zero (or negative since I do have a credit card! :D). For some reason, I feel like that’s the right thing to do, so that’s what I’m going to do. I just have 3 more blogs that I want to publish (one on bothies, one on language and one on TVP, TROM and trade) and then I will get back to my book. Fuck the money, I’ll just eat rice and cabbage :D.

If you would like to help me out, you can donate to my fundraiser here. Please also feel free to share my campaign video– I think that might help too :).

Thanks again to everybody, and enormous thank you to Tio and Kristina for your amazing amazing help, I don’t know what I would do without you guys!

Whew that was a long one! :D

Ice Diving in Lake Baikal

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*Diving photos by Alfred Minnaar

Scuba diving is an expensive activity- it requires tons of training, heavy equipment, infrastructure, and more. So you may be asking, “how the hell does somebody like small Sasha, who travels around the world on less than $500 a month, possibly become a divemaster and ice diver?!”

Well, here’s the explanation + some information about ice diving in Lake Baikal, Russia:

Personal Story

I have a friend named Alfie. We met in Whistler, Canada, 12 years ago (2007), right after I finished high school and drove across North America on my own. Alfie’s from South Africa but also left home to travel at a young age. We got along straight away because we were both nothing but dirtbags back then :)

We were both dead broke and just lived to have fun- to snowboard, explore the world and seek out adventures. We both left Canada after 2008, but stayed in touch over the years. I kept on traveling and Alfie eventually found himself a job scuba diving in Indonesia.

In 2014, Alfie invited me to Gili Trawangan to do a divemaster internship. He never asked me if I knew anything about scuba diving, he just said, “we need some help in the shop. If you can come to Indonesia and work with us for 3 months, we can certify you all the way up to divemaster for free.”

I was located in Australia at the time and had about $1800 in my bank account, no job and no working visa. I had tried one intro-dive years before but I didn’t know a thing about diving or have an Open Water certificate… So it was pretty hard to refuse Alfie’s offer.

I checked some flights, did the math and bought a one-way ticket to Indonesia, then spent 4 months learning how to dive and helping out in the dive shop.

Learning to Scuba Dive

Every time we splashed into the water, the world above became irrelevant. The underwater world was so different; it seemed peaceful, quiet, yet colorful and alive. We explored underwater landscapes and admired the vivid sea life- fish, coral, turtles, octopuses, cuttlefish, eels, stingrays, nudibranchs, and much more.

We did 2-3 dives almost every day. I felt strong, healthy, and excited, yet absolutely exhausted. After a day of diving, I’d collapse into my bed and dream about the underwater world. Then I’d wake up and my dreams would merge with reality. It was like being in Avatar. 

In those 4 months of non-stop diving, I managed to get the following certificates: Open Water Diver, Advanced Diver, Rescue Diver, Divemaster and Nitrox. We did deep dives, drift dives, night dives and even chased after little sharks every once in a while. Between dives, we just had fun with our group of international scuba friends. Back then, none of us, including Alfie, owned a smartphone or shoes. 

I left Indonesia when I was down to about $50 in my bank account, bought a flight to Australia and found a cash job in an ice cream shop. I made enough money to buy a flight out of Aus before my tourist visa expired, then lived and traveled in Sri Lanka, Hawaii, Europe, Nicaragua and Russia. I didn’t do much diving in the last 5 years because diving is usually expensive, but I did manage a few fun dives with friends every now and then.

Lake Baikal

I came back to Russia (my country of birth) in August of 2017 and took the railway from Moscow to Siberia. When I saw Lake Baikal, I decided that I wanted to stay there for a little while. I had been traveling for over 10 years at that point, and now I wanted to slow it down, read, write, and watch the seasons change. I also wanted to see Lake Baikal in all of its beauty- to see it freeze and melt, to drink it, breath it, swim in it, and explore the world above and below its frozen winter crust.

I noticed a dive center called New Dimension in a lakeside town called Listvyanka. I did one dive with them in October, then found out about ice diving. I didn’t have enough money for an ice diving course, but this dive center said that I didn’t need one to ice dive with them.

‘Perfect!’  ;)

Alfred Minnaar

Meanwhile, between 2014 and 2017, Alfie managed to not only buy shoes and a smartphone, but a camera, computer, and underwater housing. He also learned to take great photos and successfully grew his reputation as an underwater photographer using Instagram and some good hook ups on Gili T.

As soon as I found out that you could ice dive in Lake Baikal for relatively cheap, I immediately contacted Alfie and told him to buy a plane ticket to Russia.

His response was, “it looks nice. I will try. I’m low on money… Have to buy a new camera… It’s complicated…”

So he didn’t come in winter of 2018 and I tried my first ice dive on my own, which was an interesting experience. You can read about it here.

The Real Story

After my “discover ice diving” experience, I trolled Alfie a little bit in an attempt to convince him to come to Lake Baikal and take ice diving photos :). I wasn’t expecting much, I just wanted to have some fun diving, take a few cool shots and show Alfie the lake… But Alfie managed to take it up a notch :D  Not only did he buy a plane ticket to Russia, but he also found two sponsors for the trip: Poseidon Diving Systems and Delma Watches.

And here’s the funny part that shows that Alfie is still as much of a dirtbag as me :D  – Alfie contacted Poseidon and Poseidon contacted their dive connection on Lake Baikal, which was a dive shop called Dive Center Sval. Poseidon asked DC Sval if they could help us out a bit… “maybe just give them some extra gear or some advice about the lake…”

Andrei, the owner and instructor of DC Sval, agreed.

Then Alfie contacted a popular adventure sports videographer named Nicolai Deutsch and pitched him this trip, basically making it sound like Poseidon is sending him on this big one-month ice diving adventure in Russia. Nico liked the idea, sorted out his visa and bought a flight from Germany to Russia.

Then Andrei, from Dive Center Sval, decided to ask Poseidon some very important questions, “are these guys certified ice divers? Are they certified to dive in a dry suit? Have they dived in cold freshwater before?”

The answer was, “no, no, and not really…”

Then Andrei found out that there were three of us: Alfie, Nico, and me (photographer, videographer, and dive “model?” :D ).

“Alright,” said Andrei, “that means not just gear and advice, that means a full ice diving course. For three people…”

That was clearly a lot more work for Andrei, but he was willing to do that for Poseidon because he works with this company and has a lot of respect for their gear.

However, soon after, Andrei also realized that not only did he have to give all three of us a free ice diving course, but he would also have to drive us around to different dive sites, dig new ice holes for us and participate in the making of these underwater photos and film clips.

Andrei’s wife, Olga, explained that Andrei enjoys training people to see progress and results, but what he absolutely detests is publicizing his own face.

…And soon after our arrival, Andrei found out that not only did he have to give us gear, tanks, ice diving courses, drive us around, make new ice holes, and take care of us under ice, but he also needed to be the “star” of all of our film clips and photos! AND his face might end up on the cover of a magazine! :D

Ice Diving Course

Once we started the course with Andrei at Dive Center Sval, I realized how dangerous it was to ice dive without proper training.

Andrei took us through all the vital elements and procedures of ice diving: making a “mine” in the ice, using safety line signals both above and below the ice, learning how to use a dry suit, controlling the equipment, organizing the dive, rescue diving procedures under ice, and much more.

Andrei warned us about gear malfunctioning in the cold, but I didn’t think that this would happen very often. It turned out that I was wrong. One of our regulators froze up and free-flowed almost every dive. This was probably because the three of us always took too long to get from the warm hut (or car) to the “warm” (1-degree) water. Remember, freshwater will not be below freezing, so it is warm compared to winter air temperatures in Siberia. Your equipment freezes when you spend too much time outside in the cold air, so your job is to get from warm air to “warm” water as quickly and efficiently as possible, of course, while being organized and following safety procedures.

Dry Suit Diving

The greatest challenge for me was the dry suit. Whenever I had to put it on or take it off, I felt like Jim Carrey in the movie, Ace Ventura. You know, that scene where he came out of a rhino.

By the end of the week, I learned that I had to dance to reggaeton to get the suit on without assistance.

Diving in a dry suit is much more challenging than diving in a wetsuit. There’s a layer of air between your skin, the suit, and the water, so when you descend, the air pressure decreases and the dry suit squeezes onto your skin. If you don’t add air to the dry suit, it will compress your body like a vacuum package. When you ascend, the air in your dry suit expands. The higher you go, the more it expands and the faster it shoots you up to the surface. Going up too fast is dangerous because the air in your lungs also expands as you ascend. In ice diving, there is an added danger of hitting your head against the layer of ice on the surface.

You have to release air from your suit to stop yourself from ascending uncontrollably. Air can get trapped at the feet, where there is no release valve. If this happens, you have to change your body position to move the air bubble up to your shoulder. You must learn to control that air bubble!

Our first day of diving was not under ice, but just at the edge of the frozen lake, where Lake Baikal meets the Angara River. I felt a bit shaky at first, since this was my first dive in one year, and diving Lake Baikal is so different to diving in the tropics. Within the first 10 minutes of diving, air got trapped at my feet and started pushing me upside down. I changed my body position as Andrei instructed, but got nervous and somehow choked on water, then shot up to the surface. I started doubting my own diving skills then, thinking, ‘maybe I am not an experienced enough diver to pull off this ice diving shoot…’

Andrei met me on the surface, calmed me down, took me back underwater and showed me how to gain control of my equipment. We did buoyancy exercises and learned how to control that air bubble. Once Alfie and I felt comfortable, we went for a short swim around the ice.

I am so grateful to have had Andrei as our instructor ?

Diving Under Ice

The next day, we jumped into our first mine. I felt more comfortable with the dry suit this time, but I ran into new trouble- claustrophobia.

Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world (1.6 km deep) but its depth does not change gradually, so when you dive Baikal, you either dive extra shallow (2-3 meters deep) or you dive a wall that drops down to over 100 meters beneath the surface.  

Our first official ice dive with DC Sval was in shallow water topped by 1-meter-thick ice. I knew I was in safe hands with Andrei and his divers, but it was a psychological challenge to calm my mind while floating in the 2-meter space between thick ice and the ground below. The water was crystal clear and the ice was enchanting, but at one point an overwhelming fear came over me-

‘the space between the ground and the ice is so tight! I can’t maneuver easily! I lost sight of our exit! There’s a meter of ice above my head!’

I knew that the worst thing that a diver can do is panic, so I looked down at the ground, breathed in steadily and calmed down my mind.

‘It’s all psychological. Feel the rope, move slowly, don’t panic. Breathe. Take a look at the exit. Breathe. Admire the ice and the beauty of Lake Baikal- that’s what you’re really here for, isn’t it?’

I calmed down and kept on diving. After the dive, my dive-buddy Dima said:

“when you dive in the tropics, you dive to have a look at the underwater world- fish, turtles, sea-life, and beautiful reefs, but when you dive Lake Baikal, you dive to look inside yourself.”

I kept this in mind when we dove the 120 meter drop the next day.

Diving Lake Baikal

The challenge of diving Lake Baikal comes from the conditions- freshwater, cold temperatures, and steep vertical drops. I’ve dived many vertical walls in warm saltwater and after over 100 dives in Indonesia, I never thought I would have a problem with buoyancy, but here in Lake Baikal, I felt my body plummeting down the side of the 120-meter wall. This time, I kept Dima’s words in mind, “when you dive Lake Baikal, you dive to look inside yourself.”

‘Be calm, be rational, be strong. Control your body- use your lungs. Control your mind- never panic. Control your equipment. Remember your training.’  

Andrei explained that people lose half their brain when they’re underwater. They panic and lose the ability to make easy, simple decisions that would save their lives. This is hard for people understand when they’re sitting on their couch, but underwater, everything is different.

So to be a good diver you have to learn to think underwater. Your brain has to function the same way below the ice as it does above the ice- and this takes tons of practice and training.

I got it together that time and had a great dive with Dima down the side of the wall to a small cave. I was surprised at how much light there was coming through the thick, snow-covered ice in Listvyanka.

Alfie and Nico tried out their camera equipment for the first time under ice.

Apparently, Alfie couldn’t hold his buoyancy either and was bobbing up and down like an Open Water student, which is crazy because he’s had thousands of dives!

I thought ice diving and Siberian winter was going to kill him actually :) Coming from tropical Indonesia, Alfie was absolutely exhausted after every cold dive; he slept a lot and was on the verge of getting sick. Nico, on the other hand, came from Germany and seemed to handle everything quite well- from the dry suit, to his buoyancy control, to the cold.

So we didn’t get many underwater photos from that first dive, but we got some great video footage and some pretty cool “above the ice” photos and videos.

Getting these shots was actually very exhausting. Andrei and I had to walk around with steel tanks on our backs for about 30 minutes, right after an ice dive. Our dry suits froze in the cold air and we tried not to slip on ice as we walked around the mine feeling like robots.

Diving Bolshiye Koty

Andrei arranged for us to dive in two freshly made mines in a town called Bolshiye Koty, about 20km away from Listvyanka. We paid about $100 to have each new mine made for us (because making a mine is a huge amount of work) and another $100 for a guide to safely take us over the ice in a vehicle. There is no road going to Bolshiye Koty so the only way to get there is via ice in the winter, boat in the summer, or the Great Baikal Trail.

The drive can be dangerous even over 2-meter-thick ice because you can run into huge ice cracks and sections of ice that become unstable from methane bubbles. And as you can imagine, stopping a car on ice is a bit slipperier than stopping one on land. Andrei said that he had found many dead bodies in Lake Baikal, so he was extra cautious during this drive.

The Bolshiye Koty dive sites were spectacular. The first mine was next to huge, crystal clear blocks of ice, sections of clear, cracked ice, and mountains on the shoreline.

We jumped in the mine and admired the ice cracks from the underside, then dropped down to a staggering canyon. On top of the canyon was a cross that was put there by Andrei himself, in memory of his best friend.

Each dive was usually only about 30-minutes long and we only did one dive per day. Doing more than one dive wasn’t really an option since our equipment would freeze in the cold air between dives. The air temperature was “pretty warm” while we were there (around -12°C) but that was still cold enough to freeze our equipment in a matter of minutes.

Usually mines are about 2 x 2 meters, but we asked to make one 3 x 1 meter mine to have more space for half-half shots like this one:

So for our second dive in Bolshiye Koty, we jumped into this mine:

It was a tiny bit frightening to dive into an ice hole in the shape of a grave, in what seemed like the middle of no-where in Siberia… But totally worth it ;)

Après-Dive

Between dives, we ate salo (pig fat) on bread to keep us warm, and after the dives, we drove back to our cabin in Listvyanka, unpacked and undressed, then hit the banya ;)

Banya is a Russian sauna where you warm up and unwind after a cold day. In the banya, there is a hot sauna as well as a room temperature area where you can hang out and enjoy some food and drinks.

There is also an interesting sauna ritual that I believe only exists in Russia :) -Hitting yourself or others with a bouquet of dried leafy branches. This is meant to open up your pores, improve blood circulation, and let the heat seep deep into your body. Both Alfie and Nico got a hell of a banya beating from Andrei and his friends :D

Andrei said that both the salo and the banya are an essential part of the diving experience in Russia:

“salo helps you survive, banya helps you revive!”

After a few more days of diving and a lot of help from Andrei and his crew, Alfie and Nico got enough underwater footage for the film clips and photos they were sponsored for, but now we needed some land footage.

Olkhon Island

I wanted to bring the guys to the village that I lived in this winter, around Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal. I had spent the winter biking all over the frozen lake in that area so I knew exactly where to film and stay for cheap or free. But there was one dilemma- car rental. We needed a car because we had a lot of gear but none of us had an acceptable license. Nico is German but has a New Zealand License, Alfie is South African but has an Indonesian license, and I am Russian but I have a Hawaiian license.

So rather than renting a car, we made a deal with a friend of mine who had a 4WD and wanted photos of acroyoga :)

– We said that we will pay for his gas, food, and accomodation, and take acroyoga photos with me wherever he wanted, if he would drive us to and around Olkhon Island.

He agreed!

This must have been one of the most random deals I ever made with anybody, but it allowed us to see most of the best sites on the island, get some great video footage for Nico’s film clips, and some pretty cool acroyoga shots while we were at it :D

I suppose this is one benefit to being “Jack (or Jill) of many trades, master of none” :D

This blog is already very long so I will leave it at that and share the video footage with you once Nico is finished editing. – There will be 3-4 short film clips.

Expect them to be awesome!

Enormous thank you to Andrei, Olga, Dima, Vanya, Aleksei, and everybody else at DC Sval!

If you’re looking for a good dive center on Lake Baikal, you can contact them here or here.

And of course big thank you to Alfie and Nico for coming out to Siberia and taking these great photos and video clips. And to Anton for all of your help!

Much love and aloha ;)

On the Road Again

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I’ve returned my bicycle, packed up my backpack and I’m ready to hit the road again tomorrow! I think there are few people in this world that get more excited than me about being homeless :). I love the feeling of stuffing everything into a backpack and just going in one direction. No bills, no rent, no responsibilities. Another reason I should never have a child :D

It’s been a very productive month and a half here in this small village by Lake Baikal. I’ve managed to write about 140 pages of my book, which is probably about 2/3 of the way there and a lot more than I expected to do in a month and a half. That shows me how valuable it is to set your mind on the things that you really want to do. I have to leave now because my buddy Alfie is flying in from Indonesia to do a big ice diving adventure :D Very excited for that.

I’ll be in different areas around Lake Baikal for the next month, then I’m off to Spain to meet the guys from TROM! Yaay :)

Below are a few screenshots of the rough draft of my book- just some of my past struggles with money and some funny moments-

2008

2010

2012

Eastern Indonesia, 2011

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I have about 115 word-doc pages of my book written now and I’m up to the year 2011, which means I only have about five more years to write about! That might take me a while though, since those five years were kinda crazy :D

I’ll share one of my favorite adventures with you now. This one starts off after I quit university for the fourth time and traveled through Indonesia from Bali to Komodo National Park by myself at age 22-

*this font is what I wrote back in 2011

The default print is my narration of the story. Italics are my thoughts at the time. Hope it makes sense!

[… Chapter 13]

I decided to keep on going east, where there were no tourists. I wanted to catch a bus to Bajawa, which was the closest city to a number of interesting looking native villages. There weren’t many busses around, however, and I ended up catching a ride with a tour guide for the same price as a bus. It was that cheap only because the guide was going there anyway.

The drive from Labuan Bajo to Bajawa was incredible, it went through big lush green mountain passes, weaved around the side of the ocean and up and down colorful hills. It’s no coincidence that the Portuguese colonizers called this island “Flores.” The jungle was covered in flowers!

We stopped at the guide’s mother’s house, in a small village in the mountains on the way to Bajawa. She gave us some snacks and a fresh cup of coffee, then the guide explained some things to me,

“When I was kid, there was no road here. If you want go to Labuan Bajo, you walk for four days on this path. Now the path is road.

Things change too quickly here in Indonesia. Look at my mother, I gave her a cellphone so I can call her, but she don’t understand. I call her and it rings but she don’t know how pick it up. I explain but she don’t get it.

Environment is changing so quickly, but the people’s minds can’t keep up.”

I thought about this. I suppose that’s why there’s so much garbage everywhere you look. 30 years ago, the only garbage these people had were banana peels and coconut shells. It wasn’t a problem to eat a banana and throw the peel anywhere you want, but the people’s minds didn’t change when Western companies replaced those bananas with snickers bars and the peels with plastic.

After another four or five hour drive, we made it to Bajawa.

There, again, I could not escape the constant attention. Every 20 feet I walked in a public area someone would yell ‘bule’ (white skinned tourist) at me. The thing that bothered me the most was that I felt like I could not relate to anybody. I was always on the other side, always the ‘bule,’ never another human being. It seemed like everybody just wanted something from me, that I could not talk to another human being on a straight and honest level, and that nobody could be trusted.
I was angered by this and did not want to give my money away to anybody. Because of this, rather than paying for a tour or even a motorbike ride to the traditional villages, I walked. I walked for 20km and reached the village of Bena- where they asked me for money to enter the village…
It was an interesting looking village. The houses had thatched roofs and there were graves in the front yard. There were also big stones and little thatched-roof shacks and umbrellas on their territory.
The next morning, I woke up feeling fed up. I decided that I should no longer venture further east to my next destination, Kelimutu (the volcano with three different color lakes), because it was too frustrating to deal with the people here.
I decided to spend one more day in Bajawa, visit one more traditional village or see the hot springs, then head back to Lubuanbajo and eventually back to Bali (from where I could fly).
However, I felt like it would be a shame to leave these traditional villages without learning much about the people and their ways. I read a small bit of information in my guide book and tried to find more on the internet but was quite unsuccessful. Then I decided that it may be worth it to pay for a tour as long as the guide was very knowledgeable. There were several one-day tours available and also an over-night tour where you can sleep in one of the traditional villages.
The over-night tour seemed ridiculous to me- paying over $100 to sleep in someone’s house is not what I would call a meaningful experience. If you are paying to be a guest, you are still very much on the other side, and still learning very little. Finding an intelligent, English-speaking guide for a one-day tour also seemed unlikely, I got the feeling that these ‘tours’ were actually more just expensive methods of transportation rather than enriching guides.
So I walked again. I walked until my feet ached and then flagged down a bemo (minivan). I asked where it was going, looked at my paper map and said “okay, take me there!”
I was dropped off at a vibrant market; walked around it for about 15 minutes and then bumped into a young girl who started speaking to me in English (this was surprising because most people around Bajawa don’t know a word of English). After about a one-minute conversation, she invited me to visit her village. At first, I was a bit skeptical, thinking that maybe she wanted something from me as well, but she seemed very nice so I decided to trust her.
This was (and still is) a truly amazing experience. Right when I had had it and was about to give up on Indonesia, I was accepted and brought into the other side.
My friend’s name is Asry. She showed me her village, introduced me to her family, fed me and invited me to sleep in her house. Really funny and ironic isn’t it? Her and her family are the traditional Ngada people, from the same background as the people of Bena and Wogo, the villages people tour and pay big money to sleep in.
The entire family is very kind to me, they accept me and tell me that I am a part of their family. They feed me enormous amounts of food and ask for nothing in return.
On my second day in Mala Nusa (their small village), I was invited to a huge family celebration. This was something I never expected. Asry’s family dressed me up in their traditional black cloth and told me to carry the gift for the party on my head- it was rice in a traditional basket. When we arrived, swarms of people surrounded me! There were about 200 people at this party and I think that most of them had never seen a white person before. They dressed me up even more, adding a yellow band, beads and a headband to my outfit. Then they crowded around and observed me, making comments about my nose and white skin. No one except Asry knew a word of English, but it was easy enough to understand what they were talking about.
They gave me rice and grilled meat, then commented about the way I eat. They were surprised that I liked rice and that I could eat with my hands. It was a bit difficult to pick up rice, but I didn’t really have a choice, since there were no utensils at the party.
After they fed me, they sent me to not only watch the traditional ceremonial dance, but to participate in it! They shoved me into a circle of people in the middle of the ceremony and I tried my best to copy their dance moves. Luckily, it was an easy dance, just some foot shuffling and long hand motions.
I snuck off the dancefloor somehow, then the drum circle got louder, as did the powerful yells to the ancestors, and the animal sacrificing began.
Asry led me to a small room in the middle of the big house that this party surrounded. The room had a small door and was elevated above all the other rooms in the house. Asry explained that this was the spiritual room, where the family prays to their ancestors. The door is small so that you give respect by bowing your head when you enter.
Next, I hear a scream and loud banging drums- a large pig was sacrificed outside. I looked out and saw its neck split open and blood dripping into a bucket.
Asry explained that this party was a celebration of the building of the new house we were sitting in. This house will be the “main house” of a small village, the place where family members meet, have celebrations and pray together. Animals are sacrificed on this day and their blood is smeared onto large sheets of metal which are then placed on top of this elevated spiritual room to create a special trapezoid-shaped roof. The blood of the sacrificed animals is an offering for their ancestors.
Asry left the spiritual room and I sat there with 10 very old people that gave me more rice and grilled meat.
‘I sure hope their ancestors don’t like human blood.’
I knew it was crazy to think that they might want to sacrifice me too, but I couldn’t fully get that thought out of my head, especially since I had only met Asry two days before this ceremony and everything seemed so wild! The banging drums, the black cloths, the yells, the dancing, the blood!
But at that point, I figured that if they did want to, it was already too late to do anything about it now, since I was god-knows-where and outnumbered by about 200 people.
I laughed about the fact that if anything like that did happen, nobody would ever find me!

Yeah, these were still the days before I had a smartphone.

The second animal I saw being sacrificed was a dog. The tribal leader gave it three smacks on the head and it fell dead and was hung from a rope tied to a large wooden pole. A few minutes later, they tied a second dog to this pole while the dead one still hung in the air. As you could imagine, the living dog was absolutely shitting itself.
I did not see whether the second dog was sacrificed or not. I saw it tied to the pole for several minutes, panicking and emitting so much fear that I could practically see it, then a man untied the chain and lead it away.
This made me wonder more about fear. Manu told us that fear attracts spirits. Fear is powerful. Maybe they didn’t actually kill this second dog but were using its fear to attract the spirits of their ancestors!

I’m not saying that I believed in all this stuff, by the way, I just thought it was interesting to try to understand other people’s perspectives.

Asry’s family cooked and ate every part of every animal that was sacrificed, including the dog. During this celebration, 30kg of rice were cooked, everybody ate A LOT and each family unit took home a goody-bag of rice and meat in the same traditional basket they came in with.
Later, they put up the thatched-roof shacks and umbrella-like structures that I noticed in Bena. These structures are called ‘ngadhu’ and ‘bhaga,’ and they commemorate the male and female ancestors of each family unit.

No one attempted to sacrifice me during this party, so I ended up living in Asry’s village for over a week. I felt honored to be there and to have this experience.

Asry’s house was made out of bamboo. It didn’t have running water, a kitchen, much electricity or much furniture, but it was nice and cozy, especially in the mornings.

Each day I would wake up slowly as faint sunrays shined through the misty air. Sometimes it felt a bit damp and chilly in the morning, since her village was in the mountains. The smell of smoke, fire and coffee filled the air. I stretched out my arms, took a deep breath, then slowly made my way to the family room. There were always six or seven family members crowded around a fire inside the house in the morning. Somebody would always hand me a fresh cup of home-grown coffee, the best coffee I had ever had. Then I would sit quietly on a small stub of wood, sipping the coffee and getting lost in my thoughts and the crackling sound of the fire.

In the day, Asry and I walked around the village and met with more family members. They were all so nice and they fed me A LOT! They showed me their cows, their pigs, gardens, rice fields and coffee plantations. They showed me how they made their own knives, their own furniture, weaved clothes and crafted many other products.

Asry’s family also took me on a motorcycle trip to some hot springs. On the way, we stopped at a Virgin Mary shrine, where the family members prayed to a Mary covered in their traditional black cloth. This was always awkward. I assumed that the family would believe that I was evil if they knew that I didn’t believe in any religion, so I explained to Asry that I just had my own religion, but she translated this as, “Protestant.” I decided not to argue.

Almost everybody on the island of Flores, including all of the people involved in these tribal ceremonies, considered themselves to be Catholic. During the big celebration where Asry’s family sacrificed animals for their ancestors, they were also displaying pictures and cards of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

Since I knew that the locals were Catholic (and not Muslim), I didn’t think too much about what to cover my body with in these hot springs. I brought a towel and a bikini, nothing else. And once I had nothing but my bikini on, I noticed that every woman in the springs was in pants and a T-shirt and that every man was staring at my body. It was awkward but a bit too late to turn back now, so I just went in while everybody stared at me as if I was naked. I was kind of used to getting stared at at that point anyway.

I decided to leave Asry’s village after her brother and cousin drove in on a cargo truck and invited us to go on a road trip with them. They were delivering heavy equipment between Bajawa, Maumere and Larantuka (the eastern end of Flores) and were happy to bring family and friends along.

Seven of us squeezed into this giant truck- Asry, her brother, three of her cousins, me and for some reason, a five-year-old kid.

I don’t remember who’s kid he was, but I don’t think that he was the child of anybody in our truck. That didn’t seem to be so important to them though, since everyone in the family took care of all of the children. I would even get confused from time to time because Asry would sometimes refer to her uncles as her “father” and her aunts as her “mother,” even though her mother had died and her father was living with her. It was interesting to see a different perspective of the idea of a family and how to raise children.

According to the map, the drive between Bajawa and Larantuka is only about 400 kilometers, but since the road was not well maintained and weaved around like crazy, going up and down big mountains, the drive took several days.

It was a beautiful drive, nevertheless, and Asry and I had front row seats in this big truck. We drove through flowery mountains, passed by black volcanic beaches, rice terraces and lush jungles. We took breaks by the ocean and stopped to eat rice and curry in local eateries.

I remember walking into a busy lunch shack in a small village somewhere far east; we sat down, had a look at the menu, and all of the sudden the entire place turned silent. I lifted my head and every single person in the lunch shack was staring at me.

Everywhere I went, I was greeted with excitement and curiosity. Since I was now with Asry and her family, people didn’t seem to attack me for money like before, now they wanted to give me stuff instead!

We slept in the houses of Asry’s aunts and uncles in other villages on Flores. Their family members took us in and fed us until we could barely move.

October 7, 2011
Now I am in Moni, a small village below Kelimutu, the volcano with the tri-colored lakes. Tomorrow I am meant to see this volcano (leaving at 4:20AM to watch the sun rise above it!).
I am not sure exactly what will happen next, but I feel that it is time to leave Indonesia and move on to new lands…Plus, my friend is calling me to join him on his yacht in New Zealand on a two-month sailing trip!! So as long as they let me back into Aotearoa, I shall soon be writing of grand adventures in open seas.
I hope that you can now understand that although I am not in university, I am learning more about international and global studies than I ever have.

Right, so all of that Caveot font about Indonesia was originally written for my mother’s birthday in October of 2011. Not sure if that was a good birthday gift, now that I think about it, I probably scared the shit out of her more than anything else. My poor mother…  

I did the short and easy hike up Kelimutu the next morning, watched the sunrise over the three different colored crater lakes (blue, green and black), then made my way all the way back to Bali. The trip back to Bali was much easier now that I knew a bit more Indonesian and I felt like I could communicate and relate to the local people better. I took buses back and made some stops along the way. I rented a motorbike in Mataram, Lombok, and drove around the south of the island by myself, then I took a ferry to Bali and flew out to my next adventure: a two-month long sailing trip around the North Island of New Zealand…

For the Love of Ice Bubbles

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I accidentally rode my bike into a giant ice crack today. I realized I was in it only when I was about a foot deep in ice water…distracted by staring at an amazing ice cave. I kept peddling and didn’t fall into the lake. Whew. And my big fluffy winter boots are so thick that my feet didn’t even get wet :D But one of my breaks fell off and the other one froze. I’ve owned bikes with no breaks before but here it’s more of a challenge since there’s not so much friction between my boots and the ice that I’m riding on.

In other news, I’ve been head deep in my book. I’ve basically been doing nothing else but writing and bike riding as a break. I don’t even shower and I barely eat anything because I don’t want to waste time cooking, eating and cleaning it up. Today I had an onion sandwich :D Yea, raw onion on bread. Little bit of oil, salt and pepper. I don’t recommend it, to be honest.

It’s been a rough couple of day though. I’ve basically finished the first part of my book, which explains the past two or so years, and now I’ve gone back to write about my childhood and teenage years, which were fucking nuts. I cried a lot the past two days :) But after crying I always laughed at myself for crying, and then I felt good. It’s like therapy, I recommend this to everybody. Write a book about your life- it doesn’t matter if anybody reads it or not, just write it and you will learn so much about yourself. I used to think that it was just my teenage years that made me live this traveling lifestyle now, but no- it was everything.

I feel really tired, both physically and emotionally. Drained, actually, is a better word. It feels good though, like I’m draining all the shit from my life- all the bad stuff, all the stuff I’ve left behind and thought I would never come face to face with again. I brought it all back up, and then I drained it into my book and out of my life. Now I can fill myself back up with good things, like my love for ice bubbles :).

I believe that this is real art- the beauty of ice bubbles frozen in a crystal clear lake. Not this crap that they sell in art galleries for tens of thousands of dollars.