1. a budget traveler of the extreme variety.
2. a specialist in creative vehicle conversions, spontaneous road trips, and serendipitous meetings.
3. a wandering seeker of friendship, adventure, and art.
1. a budget traveler of the extreme variety.
2. a specialist in creative vehicle conversions, spontaneous road trips, and serendipitous meetings.
3. a wandering seeker of friendship, adventure, and art.
My partner and I were in Milan visiting his family and his sister asked if I wanted to get a haircut together. “Sure,” I said. It seemed like a great way to bond. “The salon is a little expensive,” she warned, “but they do a great job.” That’s okay I thought. After traveling and living out of a bus for eight months my hair had this hang dog look, so I didn’t mind paying a little extra for a trip to the groomers. She booked the appointment.
The next day we ascended the metro steps near the Duomo. The salon was right on the main square.
“So, how much do you think it will cost?” I ventured.
She gave me an estimate, a number that I can’t bring myself to make public. Let’s just say it was bigger than a breadbox. Waaaay bigger.
I didn’t know it at the time, but we were headed to Aldo Coppola’s salon. Cappola and his team are some of the most famous stylists in the world. That I hadn’t heard of him was no surprise. The L’Oreal models and celebrities that make up his client list don’t loiter in the grotty beach lots where my partner and I park our bus at night, or do they dine at the street stalls where we eat dinner.
I swallowed hard. For a drifters like us, money is time. Every new Balinese sundress is a step closer to the cubicle, a minty mojito on a Tarifa beach can liquidate an entire day on the road. For this reason, we eat couscous and rice, avoid toll roads, and think thrice before buying new clothes. If my calculations were correct, the price of a haircut from Aldo Coppola’s salon would shave off a week of travel.
We proceeded across the square and a flock of pigeons parted in front of us. There was still time to back out. I could tour the cathedral while she had her cut and we could bond over coffee lattes afterwards. Later, I could ferret out the Italian version of SuperCuts and get a cheap trim.
But I kept walking toward the salon. Part of me was too enthralled to turn back. I flashed on being 12 years old and living the humdrum state of Nebraska. At that age, I plastered the walls of my shag-carpet bedroom in pictures of fashion models and dreamed of things like getting a haircut in Milan. There is no doubt that training my young mind on those bone thin images was toxic to my self-image, but it wasn’t without benefit. Those exotic pages of Vogue ignited my very first dreams of travel. For the first time, I could imagine a world outside that midwestern eternity of cornfields. Of course the reality now is that I was wearing a pilled-up flannel jacket rather than Prada and suffering a decidedly different form of anorexia than those waif-y magazine models: the financial kind. Nonetheless, here I was: on the brink of getting a haircut in Milan.
We entered the large glass doors of the building and I contemplated the estimate as we rode seven sets of escalators to the top floor. As we ascended, I let the seven stages of grief fell behind me like so many split ends: denial, guilt, anger, reflection, and on the seventh floor finally, acceptance. It’s not just a haircut, I reasoned. It’s a cultural experience.
The salon was housed in a bright round sunroom. There was a small buffet bar, and in reflected in every mirror were the sharp spikes of the Duomo and the surrounding cityscape. I tied on the white cape the stylist handed me and then, like a dieter sliding at last into a cream cake, I sank into a chair and for the next hour-and-a-half, had my matted head massaged, scrubbed, conditioned, and combed. The stylist flipped my hair around like an origami master, combing it from one side to the other, sectioning it with clips, and snipping off breath-taking lengths. She sensed my anxiety. “Don’t worry,” she consoled in a thick Italian accent. “It will still be long.” When she was finished, she took the clips out and set it loose. She blew it dry. Indeed, it was the best haircuts I’d ever had.
I handed a stack of Euros over.
Afterwards, my partner walked toward me across the square, a large grin of approval across his face. For the moment I could ignore the fact that his jeans were worn thin and his shoes in a late state of decay. Here I am walking toward my lover in Milan, I mused, my Great Hair bouncing behind me. Soon enough we’d go back to our monastic routines, soaking lentils and sleeping in the bus. I would no doubt suffer a financial hangover. But the 12-year old girl didn’t care. The moment was worth every penny.
According to the traditions of the East, there are two ways to diminish your ego. One is to surrender your Self to The Whole and play your part as a father, son, hair-dresser–whatever—to the fullest extent possible. The other way is to travel. As you wander through unfamiliar lands where no one knows Who You Are, you’ll eventually lose track of your self. This is one of the ideas behind the wandering mendicant
I won’t pretend I’ve become wandering mendicant–unless mendicants are permitted margaritas and leather knee high boots–but like these drifters, I’ve been traveling long enough that my identity has faded and my sense of home whittled to where my Stuff is: a 10 x 10 unit at Store-A-While in Ashland, Oregon.
I sometimes get nice emails coaxing the adventure onward. They are full of words like “inspirational” and “motivating.”
These emails are good reminders. Indeed, unless taken under the duress of exile, to travel is an undeniable privilege, and sometimes an act of courage. Doors open and remarkable people breeze through—like a Mexican popstar, a sculptor in Paris. The world offers up its treasures.
But it would be a lie to say that travel puts one in a permanent state of enchantment.
In fact, right now I’m writing this blog from Tarifa, Spain feeling less-than-adventerous. Tarifa is the southernmost part of Europe, at the very end of the road. Just nine miles from its wind-whipped shores, across the shimmering Strait of Gibraltar, lies the Icon of Adventure Travel: Africa.
On the horizon is the outline of Morocco’s Rif Mountains where tribes hand roll couscous and handweave kilims in hillside villages. I can see across to the port of Tangier where spices piled into rust-colored cones are sold from street stalls. Normally, my curiosity would snake toward the flute-song of all the exotic prospects. Today, for whatever reason, it is not.
Millions of dollars in marketing lead us to believe that we would feel less agitated if we could just stretch out on the bow of that sailboat off the Grecian Isles, sink into the warm waters of a Turkish spa, or get our chopsticks around that pretty little Dim Sum on the rooftop restaurant in Hong Kong.
That may be true of a two-week vacation. But long-term travel is just like everyday life: it goes through cycles, and one of them happens to be disenchantment.
Tarifa in the off-season is a fitting place to bottom out. I wonder if in some part the place isn’t responsible for this somber state. Its nonstop “levante” winds are known for a stirring an agitation in the air and in the mind. In fact, the town has a sinister claim to fame: word on the street is that it has the highest suicide rate in Europe.
Mountaintop wind turbines churn on the horizon, their stature ecological yet somehow haunting. The remains of medieval walls crumble near the port, moody and atmospheric. The leftover architecture of Moorish invasions is juxtaposed with rows and rows of empty cashquick apartments— cheap boxes to house the summer influx of kiteboarders that swell the town’s population from 15,000 to 100,000.
I force myself out on Tarifa’s empty streets in the afternoons, walk past shuttered storefronts while dark clouds mushroom overhead and seek refuges. In the laybrthine medina, a few cafes are open and inside them are a few warm hearths of community and coffecups. I peer inside and recall what it feels like to be a local.
When I find myself cut off from these insular social circles, travel can feel reduced to the machinations of eating and sleeping in different settings. The world flattens into pretty landscapes, impressive paintings, and facts to finger like shells. No doubt, it’s beautiful, but unless you penetrate these surfaces, you begin to inhabit your life in the third person—are neither the cause nor the effect. The very laws of physics seem to grind to a halt: I push on the world, and yet nothing seems to move. I have written about this sensation before.
“Things can feel stale at home, too” a friend reminds me from rainy Oregon.
The cure, I know, is just to wait. Something happens. It always does.
We’ll breakdown in some obscure town and suddenly be following a local to a secret waterfall while the tire gets repaired. Or we’ll be invited to a chalet in the Rhone Alps to eat local Camembert and drink wine deep into the night. Opportunities open out of nowhere: I got to teach travel writing at a quirky bookstore along the Seine, lucked upon a dog-care gig in central Amsterdam, and have scored house sitting jobs on every hill in San Francisco—all because we are up for it an available. We are thrilled on a regular basis by the kindness, generosity, and serendipity of the road.
But for the past couple nights in Tarifa, that kind of travel magic feels elusive. I’ve been waking up to the wind whirring through the scrubby landscape outside the windows. The glass shutters in the panes. The darkness feels deep. In the morning I walk my No-Self to a café and order a coffee from a barista who doesn’t greet me by name and doesn’t make it exactly the way I like it.
Buddhists say that every road will eventually lead to disillusionment, even if that road is in the Bahamas. The knowledge of this lies deep in the bones of every long-term traveler.
So, if this is the case, why not just stay home and spend my money on local produce? On days like today, I’m not sure. Maybe I suspect that sitting still somewhere would do no good. It’s time–not place–that makes the difference. Moods pass just like mileposts do.
So if I fasten my jacket against the levante and wait.
Happy Note: Since this writing the “Something” happened: We met Juan at the nearby paragliding launch and he is rapidly networking us into Tarifa’s social world. We tangoed last Monday and helped prepare a community feast at the local Eco-Center. We’re even signed up for next week’s CSA delivery. A box of local produce awaits us on Tuesday.
Our Biotruck made it around the world!!
As far as errands go, stopping for gas is really pretty easy. In Oregon, where state law requires that an attendant dispense the gas, you just roll down your window and say Fill her up with regular and soon enough you’re driving cross-country. The pay off is huge considering the tiny effort you expend. Yet somehow this simple task can feel like a real nuisance.
But if I thought stopping for gas was pesky in my car, in the Biotruck it’s a Homeric ordeal.
First off we have to find a station that dispenses biodiesel. There aren’t that many. Selling biodiesel is a tough business, the domain of dogged dreamers and innovators, so unless you’re driving through certain idealist epicenters like northern California and Oregon, you can find yourself at a loss.
Then it has to be the right kind of biodiesel—not the stuff made from crops grown specifically for biodiesel, like imported palm oil. We don’t want our journey powered by valuable farmland and food resources. We are in the market for fuel made from waste cooking oil.
If that didn’t whittle the options enough, then we have to find someone who likes what we are doing enough to fill our tank for free in exchange for advertising on our bus. The Biotruck’s holding capacity is 300 gallons, so it’s a Big Ask. Andy picks up the phone and in 100 words or less must pitch our cause to the producer in a way that appeals to their adventure fantasies yet avoids stirring a bitter realization that while he/she is scraping grease traps all day in bib-overalls, we’re freeloading our way around the world.
Except to say free-loading is inaccurate. Sure we haven’t paid out any hard cash, but to get our fuel, we’ve made some compromises.
Stopping for gas in Kuala Lumpur, we got roped into a 3-way promotional gig with a biodiesel company and a 5-star “eco” hotel. The concept sounded great over the phone: we’d park the Biotruck in front of the downtown high-rise hotel to attract attention. The TV news would come interview us, we’d wear the company T-Shirts, and the hotel would be visible in the background. Everyone wins.
But when we pulled the Biotruck into the circular drive in front of the lobby, the marketing director greeted us with a tense smile. Like two cyber lovers who court online only to realize face-to-face that they actually look nothing like their picture, it was a strained moment. The Biotruck with its rusty frame, cracked windshield, and wafty compost toilet was not exactly what they had in mind. But the disappointment was mutual. Their 5-star notions of “eco”–floors made of rice-husks, refillable shampoo bottles– did not make up for the sheer exorbitance the place.
Still, they followed through on their agreement to comp us a room for a couple of nights and so we abandoned our grimy-but-lovable Biotruck and on the 23rd floor swaddled ourselves posh white towels and crisp sheets. Andy leaned back and swiveled around on the leather black office chair like an entitled CEO, while I swam laps in the rooftop infinity pool like a trophy wife.
But the story doesn’t end there. The biodiesel company then offered to rebuild our truck into something shinier and more marketable. In exchange, we would become the company’s mascot. It was an attractive offer and we spent a lot of time in the lounge discussing the potentialities in view of the Patronas Towers during the hotel’s happy hour. But just as I was consigning myself to living in Kuala Lumpur forever, the deal fell through. We got our promised fuel and were happy to return to the Biotruck and resume our adventure.
It was a stop for gas that not only took a week, it almost rerouted our lives.
Last week we found a station in Temecula, California that fit our criteria. Promethean Biofuels agreed to full our tank for free so it was worth the detour. On arrival, we were directed to park in the recycling yard around back. There we waited amid the shattering sounds of dutiful home recyclers hucking their glass jelly jars and beer bottles into the correct bins. An hour went by while I wrote, tidyed, up, and staved off an encroaching headache with a few deep breaths. Eventually, the manager Todd popped his head in the door with a huge smile.
He led us into the biodiesel plant. He was giddy to show us the facility–the filters, grease traps, gauges, and collectors. He explained in detail every step of the fuel-making process from collection to processing to dispensing. While he spoke, he held glass jars of fuel up to the lights and ogled them like pure honey This was all stuff I want to know—I’d grown long tired of referring all the techie questions to Andy–but despite Todd’s infectious enthusiasm, it was hard to absorb the information. My critical thinking faculty hadn’t felt this battered since high school chemistry.
My attention wandered. I brought it back. The shadows outside grew long while Todd launched into an extended explanation about energy efficiency–something about how ethanol and methanol would separate into biodiesel and glycerine all on their own, but to meet the current fuel demands, he has to add heat to accelerate the process. His point being that humans-in-a-hurry mean that more energy must be expended to speed up what would otherwise happen naturally. I shifted my weight from leg to leg, practiced my bandha exercises, and nodded my head.
The sun was setting as we finished up a tour of the plant. Todd wheeled a barrel of fuel over to the Biotruck. Andy readied the hoses and tank.
The fuel suction hose was broken. Fifteen minutes later he had it fixed and at last the Biotruck drank in 75 gallons of fuel.
It was clear that our plan of camping in the mountains that night was off, so when Todd’s wife arrived it made sense to take them to dinner. Wendolee was gorgeous, wore heels, and had an uncommon charm. I loved the fact that she was a Mexican singer and she was thrilled to meet the only gringa in America that listens to Vicente.Fernandez.
Together the four of us browsed the faux Wild West streets of Temecula looking for the right restaurant. Andy didn’t really care what we ate, but wanted a place with swinging saloon doors. We didn’t find the doors, but we did find a few spellbinding martinis that fueled the best nights any of us had had in a while. Before the night ended, Todd leaned forward.
You’re sitting with a bit of a star, you know. It turned out that Wendolee is a pretty famous popstar in Mexico and her latest album was a week away from being released on iTunes.
In the morning we’d wake up hung over and look her up on You Tube. Sure enough, we’d been hanging out with a Big Star. There she was, dancing and singing in a music video.
So when traveling in the Biotruck, this is stopping for gas thing is not a perfunctory five minute nuisance, We don’t just turn up at a station, say hand over the fuel buddy, and drive off to our intended destination. Getting gas is often multi-day affair that has us joking that the Biotruck is not just powered by wasted oil but also by wasted time.
Except it’s not wasted. Sure we have to hunt down a station, plea our case, and drive out of our way. But we never know where it will lead us. One moment we think we are just stopping for gas and the next we’re about to move to Kuala Lumpur for the rest of our lives. Or, we are topping off our tank and then suddenly laughing over martinis with a Mexican popstar and a biodiesel maker who helps you to realize just what a damn miracle fuel is.
These kinds of things never happen at Chevron.
Thanks and cheers to our great new friends Todd and Wendolee.
It was about a month ago that we pulled the Biotruck up to a gas station off the highway for the night. It was a perfunctory stop, determined by the encroaching darkness and our no-driving-after-sunset rule.
We ate a quick dinner and, feeling uninspired, laid down for sleep. About 30 minutes later, I heard loud music and peered out the bus window. In a field across the highway was a giant tarp enclosure. Wary of guidebook attractions, it’s usually these type of mysterious developments that make this expedition the idiosyncratic long strange trip that it is. I pulled on some clothes, and went across the road to investigate.
I rounded the tent in the dark, and soon could hear music and the unbounded cheers, laughs, and shrieks of children. A row of vendors sold fishballs and kabobs, and tended spitting vats of fried bananas. I ducked past the ticket taker and stood at the tarpaulin doorway. Inside, the arena was flooded by a spotlight that seemed to carve a circumference of daytime in the black night. At its center, three majestic elephants lumbered down into to a kneeling position, each with several children straddled across its backs. The audience roared approval, and carnival music cranked into the sky from bad speakers. The elephants’ eyes glimmered in the light, sea-deep and a thousand leagues away.
I held my open palm in the air. I don’t know why. Something I do whenever I feel helpless.
A few years ago, I was asked to write a magazine article about the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee. Though the Sanctuary is known as a happy place—a sort of pachyderm retirement home where 14 rescued elephants roam unbothered on 2,700 acres, the circumstances that prompted my story were grim.
One of the Sanctuary’s caretakers, Joanna, had worked with an elephant with the innocuous name of “Winkie” for over six years. But on one particular day she was performing an eye exam when Winkie knocked her down, stepped on her, and killed her instantly.
Joanna’s death was a devastating shock and prompted researchers to find an explanation. It was scientist Gay Bradshaw (of Oregon’s Applegate Valley) who pointed to the possibility of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Her theory was this: that Winkie’s violent outburst was a flashback, similar to what any war veteran might experience. Bradshaw’s reasoning added up: like a veteran, Winkie had a troubled past. Before arriving at the Sanctuary, she’d endured the torture of being kept as a zoo elephant—taken from her mother early and forced to endure years of confinement, harsh training techniques, and sensory deprivation.
The media caught on and everywhere articles popped up addressing the possibility of PTSD in elephants. Are we Driving Elephants Crazy? asked the New York Times.
Carol Buckely, the Sanctuary’s founder, was not surprised. She’d long known elephants to be hugely advanced and highly sensitive—the terrestrial equivalent of a whale. They are extremely social, forming tight friendships and engaging in complex communication. Like humans, they experience an array of emotions from happiness to anger. They also mourn their dead.
My worldview has always accommodated the idea that animals are complex, emotional and more like us than not. Who hasn’t seen a dog look bored, excited, sad, or fearful?
For their insight, for their outspokenness, for their love of what is not-human, Buckely and Bradshaw fast became my heroines.
So, it was amazing in northern Thailand to run into Carol Buckely at the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai. I was on as assignment writing about elephants again, and was interviewing Lek Chailert, a pixie-sized Thai woman who has been single-handedly changing the treatment of elephants in Thailand. Her 2000-acre refuge is home to over 34 rescued elephants.
Buckely was there performing elephant foot care and training one of the babies. I sat on a hay bale and watched on as she taught the young elephant how to lift his foot for a veterinarian exam. I tentatively asked her how, four years later, she was coming to terms with Joanna’s death.
She seemed resolved and upbeat. Horrible as it was, she explained, there have been some positive outcomes; the tragedy brought awareness to the abuses of zoos and circuses, and also reframed the way the public viewed elephants—appreciating more their complexity.
“If Joanna knew that her death was used in this way, she would be so pleased,” Buckely said.
We sat up late that night, and Carol shared stories of her own former circus days, the way she toured with her elephant Tarra. She told of the awakening she’d had when a spectator accused her of abusing Tarra by making her rollerskate. When the message sunk in, Buckely hung Tarra’s 50 lbs. skates up forever. Soon after, she purchased land in the subtropical banana belt of Tennessee to provide a refuge for abused zoo and circus elephants.
She is away from the Sanctuary now, and is making the best of her time by setting up elephant care centers in Asia. The hardest part of being in Asia is being separated from her elephants–especially Tarra, who she’s spent so many years of her life with.
A friend of mine did a mediation, she explained to all of us circled around the table. She said that in her meditation, Tarra told her that she could understand what I felt even when I spoke without moving my lips. A veterinarian at our table then started talking about plant-spirit medicine and the difficulty of practicing in a scientific world. Everyone at the table seemed rapt, including me I guess, because later Andy, ever the skeptic, would say you really seemed to eat that up.
Did I? I replied. I was surprised. Though I’ve always had a deep belief in Nature, I’ve been more than wary of woo-woo type spirituality. One Halloween I dressed as a New Age charlatan called “Frauda”–a costume that was borderline offensive in a town that’s home to Jean Housten, Neal Donald Walsh, and Ecstatic Dance.
Had I gotten all new-agey without even noticing it?
I walked back around the tent, raising up my hand and offering another one of my feeble blessings. At the end the day, what left is there to do?
Did you know squid experience jealousy? I inquire whenever a friend raises a forkful of calamari to their lips. I yell at people who hit dogs, and have occasionally opened bird cages. Last year, hitchhiking along a remote Himalayan road, I waved off a rare ride when a truck crammed with stumbling water buffalo stopped to pick me up. These things have annoyed a lot people, but haven’t changed a single thing—not even in my own behavior. Like tonight, when I polished off a plate of cashew chicken.
I stepped back into the Biotruck in tears and crawled into bed. Andy was empathetic. Sometimes your reactions seem extreme, but I think if beings from another planet came down, they would say see this and say,’ Christina is having the right reaction.’
I took that as a compliment and lapped up the validation. So many times, I’ve been told that I over-react—like when my grandpa and I put out a fishing line overnight and pulled up the bowed rod the next morning only to find we’d hooked a turtle. I was undone. Christina, you are too sensitive, said my grandmother.
I laid awake in the Biotruck bed. Please may humanity wake up I prayed to no one in particular, knowing that I was dealing with forces were probably too great to be stopped: the stream-roller of commerce, the deep-set traditions, the congenital cruelty.
So, I keep doing it, raising my hand up, blessing things, feeling half-silly, but hoping there is a little room left for some magic to happen, a collective awakening of the sort that Carol had when she hung up Tarra’s skates for the last time.
I don’t believe much in prayer, but I pray for elephants.
Link to my Oregonian article
Eating is a sort of love of the world. If you can’t taste the joie de vive in a fresh peach, then your heart is hard. I’ve always taken my free-roaming appetite as a reflection my open-ness to experience. I want to try it all: from oysters to skinning dipping, from tzitziki sauce to sky diving, nothing is off limits. On the occasion that I do run into a hang up—as I once did with eggplant—I don’t blame the food, but chalk it up to some limitation in myself. My approach is to keep sampling the problem food until I “get it.” After enough Baba Ganoosh, and after so many eggplant burgers, I finally understood the purple orb and now cherish it in its many forms.
I’ve prided myself on being the Ultimate Omnivore, afraid of almost nothing. It’s all just protein, arranged into different shapes, I’d blithely tell myself, when confronted into a roasted guinea pig in Peru, or a boiled chicken foot in Nepal.
(Disclosure: I do retain a moderate aversion to canned black olives and crystallized ginger. Also: I have a couple of ethical hesitations with foie gras and squid, or anything from the highly emotional cephalopod family aka squid)
If eating is a love of the world, then being finicky, I’ve always thought, is a sort of rejection of the world. I’ve had little compassion for fussy eaters. Oh come on, I mutter, when someone throws a wrench into a dinner party with some dietary idiosyncrasy, pushing away a plate of a gorgeous bruschetta because they are allergic to gluten or decling a stuffed bell pepper because they don’t do nightshades. Even if you do happen to derive a certain salutary benefit from avoiding this food or that, surely such inflexibility can kill you–if the inconvenienced cooks don’t kill you first.
I’ll never forget the shock of waking up one morning in college and opening the kitchen cupboard to be greeted by a handwritten note taped up by my roommate, who’d recently turned Fundamentalist Vegan and also happened to own all the pots and pans in the house.
Attention: Please refrain from cooking animal products in these skillets (btw, this includes eggs).
Wasn’t at least a weeks notice was in order?
In Asia, I’m now being put to the test. I have no problem gobbling up the pad thais and the peanuty papaya salads, but also being confronted daily by such an overwhelming amount of new food that I don’t have time to “get it.” Indecipherable goo balls wrapped in banana leaves for breakfast? Cartoon panda heads floating in my soup? Torn up chunks of white bread soaked in green syrup and ice cubes for dessert? Normally a pleasure, now mealtimes are unnerving–like being blindfolded and shoved into a car and driven somewhere unfamiliar.
Thailand, I figured would be a cinch. I’m crazy about their chilis, their lemon grass. So, I wasn’t at all mentally prepared for any disappointment. But in the south central part of the Gulf Coast, the mealtimes that I always looked forward to were starting to feel like trials. If there are different Geo-Culinary regions (I think I just made that word up) then it seems that we’d found Thailand’s Nebraska—a region of vast agricultural land punctuated by bad restaurants. There were curries all right, but they were not the coconutty numbers I loved so.Nothing, in fact, seemed to resonate with my taste buds. Again and again, I lifted pot lids only to be assaulted by a lethal smelling steam rising from the inscrutable entrees. Rotten fish? Spoiled meat?
Andy coaxed me into eating soups, but the bland bean sprout broths inspired no delight, adding up to about a scant 60 calories and just feeling like a lot of hard work.
With each missed meal, I became a bigger pain-in-the-ass, even more impossible to please, and more adamant in my hunger strike. I was starting to act like my mother on our trip to Italy, with her plaintive cries for the cold chocolate milk that was her morning habit back home. Chocolato Freddo? I begged the confused baristas on her behalf. Exhausted and resentful of her rigidity, I sternly broke the news: Mom, Nestle Quik Chocolate milk is Just Not Done in Italy.
I could see that same uncompassionate wariness building in Andy, as he hopefully stopped the bus at every roadside shack only to watch me sputter out Nescafes and fold half-chewed dried shrimps into my napkin. My blood sugar fell homicidally low and I glowered at him from across the table while he alternated between silent judgment and righteously working some weird curly tentacle into his mouth. I knew what he was thinking. Worse, I knew he was right: there are people starving in this world.
I finally broke my fast with a cozy little pad thai served from a collapsing hut in a muddy parking lot. Not long after, I found a latte at a coffee shop along the highway and soon my sour mood lifted. But in its place was a sheepish embarrassment. Posing always as the Intrepid Traveler, I’d revealed myself to be a real pansy.
So maybe it turns out that I don’t love the world as much as I thought. Just like people who don’t do gluten or nightshades, it happens that I don’t do weird looking blobs of meat and Technicolor beverages. But if there is any redemption to be found, it’s that after dinner last night, Andy spent the night in the bathroom reconsidering his Tripe dinner, while I slept soundly, dreaming of the next boring round of pad thai.
When we fantasized about life in the Biotruck, we imagined parking up somewhere along the Gulf of Thailand. Andy would unload the solar disco, crank a little Banco de Gaia while I’d make fruity Mai Tais. We’d easily be the coolest travelers on the beach.
But in six weeks the closest we’d come to this vision was an overnight near a fishing pier where in the morning I stood and watched mudskippers lurch around in a bog. A busload of school children arrived with colanders taped to the end of long sticks and began scooping up the poor creatures.
We posed for photos with the kids and their slimy catches. It was fine. It was cute. But it wasn’t our Beach Fantasy.
We crossed the border into Thailand highly motivated to realize our Biotruck Beach Party vision. We began a marathon drive toward Krabi, overnighting at a bleak truckstop and then continuing on in the early morning until we arrived.
A complicated network of jungle roads thread through the region of Krabi. It’s easy to get lost, and with our vague maps and sluggish GPS, we made several wrong turns. But we finally found a bit of coastline. It was littered with old tire rims, sun-bleached shacks, and rusted lobster traps.
Great, Andy said, stepping out of the truck and into a scattering of broken styrofoam bits. We found the ugliest beach in Thailand.
We can rent kayaks from somewhere, I said hopefully. We can paddle around …
He turned back toward the bus. Let’s get out of here.
The extra effort paid off. We soon found our way to the most gorgeous stretch of beach I’d ever seen. It wasn’t our party spot—there was no one around to sip on Mai Tais with–but dramatic archipelagos rose from the water and the sandy shore went on for miles in both directions.
I poked around in the nearby forest, finding an old road that led through an abandoned resort. It must have been a lively place at one time—there were dozens of rotting bungalows nestled between the trees. A dilapidated patio that encircled the front of an old restaurant must have seated 100. Now, it all looked like a shipwreck.
I wondered if this former resort had been ruined by the 2004 Tsunami that destroyed so many of the beaches and towns in southern Thailand. Every few meters a Tsunami evacuation sign pointed the way toward high land. The coconut palms along the beach were all short and young—the old ones, I presumed, were victims to the salinity poisoning that affected many of the coastal forests around Krabi after the sea water rushed in.
I headed back toward the bus along the shore, noting the debris in the line of driftwood–a plastic doll arm, noodle packets. The tsunami had always seemed an abstraction to me, a newscast sandwiched between fictional television dramas. At that moment, it seemed powerfully real.
We took a late afternoon swim. The water was flat so that the dribble of water off our bodies resounded when it hit the surface, our voices carried. Andy wrapped himself in a sarong collected some wood and made a fire and I boiled up some pasta right there in the sand while the sun set spectacularly.
It’s been almost exactly six years since the Tsunami wrecked the beaches and claimed over 6,000 lives in southern Thailand. In some places, the rebuilding has been swift—especially in high dollar tourist destinations like the island of Ko Phi Phi—a favorite of scuba divers and beach junkies alike. Still, in other places tourism has been slow to recover.
Protected by the island of Phuket, Krabi wasn’t the most effect deeply affected, but the memory of Khluen yaak—the Great Wave– is still fresh in people’s memories. The area served as a center for refugees and hundreds of bodies were taken there for cremation.
People still talk about the Tsunami as if it happened yesterday–a common impulse, I think, for humans to live in reference to their last tragedy. Perhaps it is somehow healing to repeat these stories again and again. They remind of our tenacity—of how we were down but found our way back up again.
I don’t normally get spooked anymore. I thought I left that feeling behind at slumber parties where we freaked out to Friday the 13th movies. But that night in Krabi was eerie for me. I woke several times in the night feeling like I’d entered a sensory deprivation chamber; the darkness was so total I wasn’t sure that my eyes were really open. I couldn’t hear a sound.
Questions kept me awake. What was it like here on Boxing Day when the surf came in and didn’t stop? What’s it like not trusting that the ocean to stay in its place?
We drove away from that silent paradise the next morning, leaving behind the ashes from our cookfire and a few waterlogged coconuts rolling around in the surf. We passed down the rutted road, past a bog dotted with several emerging pink lotus. We didn’t realize our Big Biotruck Beach Party there, but it was hard to complain. We may have lost a fantasy, but people had lost their homes, even their lives.
In all my rainbow-chasing I’m seeing that whatever I think should happen inevitably doesn’t. I nestle into the beach chair of my dreams and open a good book and then someone starts blaring bad music through a scratchy speaker. I think when I see Everest, that I will bask in glowing achievement, but instead I brace against the other tourists that are nearly elbowing me over the edge of a boulder.
What really drives a place into our marrow is not the fantasy of what will happen there, but what actually does happen. The connection usually sets in after-the-fact, when destinations are no longer oppressed by our fantasies, but allowed to become the old storied places where you can’t but help and walk around pointing: This is where I first learned to ride my bike, this was my favorite tree, this is where we met …
This time the Biotruck broke down near Bidor–a small, dusty Malaysian settlement lined with unremarkable storefronts. As I kicked around the parking lot of the mechanic shop, I asked myself: why can’t the truck spring an oil leak at places like the Taj Mahal or Angkor Wat?
I surveyed the lay of the land: a fruit stand, a hardware store, a hair salon. For the next few days I’d be exiled from the truck as it filled with mechanics, oily rags, and expletives. There was really only one helpful thing I could do: keep out of the way.
Bidor appeared to be the Middle of Nowhere. Of course, the last time I thought that—in Galang Patah– we ended up on a Dionysian jag with influential politicians uncorking champagne in our honor, celebrating our journey and the Biotruck.
I needed to give Bidor a chance.
I am fairly useless in breakdown situations. It’s not that I lack the brainpower to figure it out, or that I’m too girly to get my hands dirty. That isn’t it. It’s just that I’m so completely uninterested. Car parts to me are so boring. Thankfully, Andy feels otherwise. It’s like having a conversation with the engine, he explained.
Days passed while he carried on heated conversation with the fuel filter and the injector pump. I filled the blank hours drinking tea and submitting myself to inane things like having my hair flat-ironed just so I could wait out the brutal Malaysian heat in the air-conditioned salon.
No doubt, it felt wrong that while poor Andy should be covered in grease, I strolled around the parking lot all day with great hair. So I went over to a fruit shop, deciding that I would bring refreshment to the oily crew. I selected a few mangos, bananas, and a watermelon. I knew the counter space in the Biotruck would be covered in wrenches, so in a clumsy mix of English and charades, I asked the owner for a knife and a cutting board. I sat and chopped the fruit on a mat near the register, balancing a plate on my knees while runnels of watermelon juice ran down my arm. Her son set a box down by my feet to catch the peels, her husband came over to watch and soon, cutting up the fruit became a family effort.
What is interesting about breakdowns isn’t what went wrong, but the question of how to get rolling again. A disintegrated fuel filter can throw you at the mercy of strangers. Who will help you? You invariably meet people you would have never met, and in some places walk away with the strong sorts of friendships that sometimes get forged under duress. In our case, the truck quit on the highway and Andy had to guide it onto a narrow stop on the shoulder. While he poked around under the hood, I laid a blanket on the grass near the highway and, setting up our laundry hamper as a backrest, resumed reading the literary megalith that is Shantharam. The day dimmed, the mosquitoes bit and it started to worry me that maybe we would have to spend the night right there on the shoulder. Thankfully two laughing Chinese mechanics from Kim Lim’s towing happened to drive by with a tow truck and stopped to give us a hitch. That’s how we got to Bidor.
Mr. and Mrs. Fatt owned the fruit shop. The morning after our collective fruit slicing session, they idled their car up to the bus and asked us to breakfast. We sat at an open-air Chinese market, poked breakfast dumplings with chopsticks, and did our best to make conversation. We must have done well enough because they took us out to dinner again that night. We got on with them well. They were fun loving– Mr. Fatt liked to tease and in return his wife delivered him regular impish punches to the arm. Over the next couple of days while the Biotruck was in surgery at Kim Lim’s shop, we started hanging out at their house, watching their TV, using their shower, and internet. They showed us a nearby waterfall where we waited out a long hot afternoon in the mist. Before long, Mr. and Mrs. Fatt begin to feel like family, and that dusty block of Bidor storefronts started to feel like home.
On our last night, they took us out to dinner. While we sipped from our beer bottles, Mr. Fatt pulled out a pen and a napkin. He scribbled out a Chinese character and drew a big circle.
Yuan Fen he said, pointing to the Chinese symbol. The he retraced the circle. Big world, opposite sides, but still we meet. This friendship is a special privilege.
Later I would look up the meaning of Yuan Fen and begin to love the word for the way it filled a gap in the English language for a phenomenon that I had experienced, but had never had the verbal tools to articulate. I think ”chemistry” might be the closest word we have.
Simply put, Yean Fen is the “binding force” that links two people together in a relationship. The amount of Yuan Fen you share with someone determines the level of closeness you will achieve. It’s not just about proximity; you can live next door to someone all your life and never get to know them. This just means you have thin Yuan Fen. On the other hand, you can fall madly in love with someone, but just can’t stay together. “Have Fate without Desinty” is a Chinese proverb used to describe this tragic condition.
The meaning can get more complicated. Some believe the phenomenon is tied to past lives and karma. As another Chinese proverb goes: It takes hundreds of reincarnations to bring two persons to ride in the same boat; it takes a thousand to bring two persons to share the same pillow.
But for me, it is enough that Yuan Fen explains how sometimes people who meet get along, or don’t get along, why friends become friends, lovers become lovers, and also why sometimes relationships break apart. It puts a word to the phenomenon of why there are people I’ve lived near for so long, yet consistently fail to maneuver the conversation passed a “hello” and yet at the same time manage to make a heart connection halfway around the world. It explains how we should find Kim Lim’s shop, and then intersect with Mr. and Mrs. Fatt, who don’t speak our language, who live thousands of miles away, and run a fruit stand in a dusty little “nowhere” town called Bidor.
All this could definitely be said about Yati and Nafi, our site guides in Malaysia. The couple get out to their hill every weekend and are always eyeing the clouds. Still, one thing really sets them apart from the tribe of the semi-nomadic pilots I hang around.
Nafi and Yati have five children. One, Two, Three, Four, Five.
Fortunately, like most Malay families, theirs is a close knit one so they have a lot of support when it comes to getting out to fly. Grandma lives nearby and is happy to watch the kids—right along with Nafi’s brother’s five kids. Still, I had a hard time reconciling this carefree and daring couple with my ideas about parenthood. Shouldn’t they be a little more uptight and frazzled? At 31, Yati still looks like she just got off the school bus. I marveled as she loaded three ballasts in her harness to keep her tiny person in the hemisphere. I’ve honestly never met anyone like her.
We were at Seremban, a ridge soaring hill that rises above the palm plantations of central Malaysia. The October day would turn out to be a bit of a struggle for me; it was the hottest flying I’ve ever endured and the only time I heard my vario beep was when I stood up after going to the bathroom. Still, we were in great company. The flying club from Borneo was visiting and come evening they joined us for a post-flying dinner.
Nassa, a local pilot, had the backyard grill on full flame and was churning out an endless feast of lamb chops, chicken wings, and fish fillets. We nibbled on meaty bones and gathered around a laptop to watch a slideshow of the days’ flights. Like everywhere I’ve ever flown, the pilots were welcoming and happy to speak English with us. As it got later, the party grew larger and an extended family of friends and relatives arrived. Children ran around on the lawn, babies were passed around. Soon, the Malay language filled the balmy night. My companion Andy and I sauntered away from the table and reclined out on the lawn.
This is the only time of year I get homesick. Andy said. Today is bonfire night back in England. He reminisced about his neighborhood, the cool nights, the fireworks.
Having organized over 15 vehicle expeditions across Africa and throughout the world, he’s spent the majority of his adult life on the road. He’s had cinematic adventures, met lots of characters, and flown a ton of sites. But great as it’s been, all the vagabonding can take a toll. One Christmas he spent on an airplane between San Francisco and Sydney. Birthdays can be a let down, too. People always forget, and it’s a reminder that in some ways, I’m sort of a loner.
It’s a sensation I can to relate to more and more. For three years I’ve avoided the expenses of maintaining a home in order to chase paragliding, writing assignments, and whims. The adventures I’ve had are unsurpassed, yet there are moments when all the moving around feels starkly empty. And as time goes on, I return to my “home” in Ashland, Oregon less and less. My friendships adhere with the feeble glue of Facebook status updates and infrequent emails.
To have a real home—a Place—you need to return to the places you departed from and stay for a while. You have to cultivate history, memories, and connections. But these days, my life is starting to resemble less the ancient circle of coming and going, and more a line—and a somewhat solitary one at that–disappearing into the future.
Nassa’s party turned off around 11:00 and we climbed into the car with Nafi and Yati. It was late and they needed to pick up children One, Two, Three, Four and Five from Grandma’s house. As Nafi steered the glider-stuffed car down the dark highway, Yati turned around and peered at me with curious eyes, her face framed by a red hijab:
Christina. You are 35. Why not married?
I wanted to give her some thought-out explanation, some philosophic explanation. But the truth is that it never really felt like a decision. For a long time, I thought I was just simply too young to be married—that I just needed to have one more adventure before settling down. But one more adventure has turned into a lifestyle and at 35 years old, that excuse has long out of steam.
I floundered around for reasons. I explained that it wasn’t uncommon to stay single in America and that through some process of social-selection, I’m surrounded by a set of friends who live the same way. It just seems normal. I didn’t bother with the other complicated reasons–that my family had a legacy of divorces that made me wary of the whole institution. That I was deadest avoiding the suburban afflictions of Quiet Desperation and The Problem That Has No Name.
Maybe they are more into Self? Yati asked.
I’m afraid she was right, but I hated to think of it that way. Most of my friends led really active meaningful lives, I explained. They had a passion for flying or for travel. And many had taken up terrific causes, working on behalf of others–restoring wetlands or assisting in disaster relief.
But there was no denying, I suppose, that there was a selfish aspect to not settling. Like many pilots, I enjoy my freedom. I love the novelty of new places. I love how I can re-invent myself again and again. With no children, my mornings are serene; my mind is my own. If the flying is good, I just get up and go. In some ways, it seems like the ideal life.
Yati was trying to understand, but confused. But we need someone to take care of, and to take care of us, no?
I knew she was right. But my friends and I did form our own family of sorts. And in the flying community, pilots form their adrenaline-bonds and have their own particular way of looking after each other. Romantically, I’ve had a few relationships. We took care of each other for the time we were together. Of course, when our paths start to diverge, we are quick to call it a day
Is it ego? She asked.
Probably, I admitted. No doubt I was living out a very Western idea that it is our birthright to uncover Who We Are and express it. My destiny, I was taught, is entirely my own and I should never compromise it for anyone. As a result, there are just some things I don’t know how to do. Like stick with a job I hate, or move to Texas for love.
Nafi and Yati dropped us off at the bus that we’d been traveling and living in for months. Andy stashed our wings away in the back and expressed his admiration for Nafi and Yati’s close-knit family. If were not here for each other, we might as well not even be here.
As much as I’m always espousing the benefits of the free and easy nomadic lifestyle, I couldn’t help but agree.
Nafi and Yati had us over for dinner before we left town. Grandma made a feast of boiled greens, chicken curry, and ox tail soup and the house was so crowded we had to eat in shifts: Nafi, Yati, Andy and I, then the ten grandchildren, then all the aunties and uncles.
As usual, Nafi and Yati made sure we were well fed. Malaysian hospitality is often overwhelming. This might be the last time we see you, Yati explained. This is our only opportunity to treat you. It was true. They had firm roots here, five kids to take care of. As for us, the likelihood of ever returning was slim.
By the time we left that night, the children were wrestling in a pile of the floor and the house was so noisy and chaotic that it was hard to have a clear thought. It was also full of a ton of love. Andy and I said goodbye and walked out the door into peaceful night, into the big open world. We’d soon discover our next friends, the next flying site. Just us and the big world, with lots of space to move around in. Lots of space ….