On the Bus

Until last night, I’d never given much thought to shipping containers. And if it weren’t for Andy’s Biotruck I don’t think I ever would. But yesterday the Biotruck arrived at the port of Tanjun Pelibas, Malaysia after an extended and inadvertent tour of Southeast Asia. We’d been long been awaiting this day, especially Andy, who had no idea when he loaded it on the ship in Calcutta that a series of miscommunications would result in it being lost at sea for over two months.

We arrived at the shipping yard early, cleared security, and embarked on a series of proceedings that would keep us there until after midnight. Unloading the container from the ship, the bus from the container, and ushering the bus through customs was No Small Deal and gave me about 15 hours to soak up the ambiance of the port.

It was hard to get comfortable there. The container yard employed a pretty much all-male force, and I was troubled that it was That Time of the Month and there was  no one around to empathize with my cramps, much less bum a feminine product off of. It was really hot there and–except for the oily unloading dock–there was really no place to sit, or anything to eat, or read, or do. I’m happy to concede that the problem might be mine—that maybe I just don’t have sufficient curiosity to appreciate a container yard. But it reminded me of a sensation I had on some of my in elementary school field trips to sewage plants or recycle centers: I was learning something for sure, but only sluggishly.

But just because I can’t relate to the shipping port, doesn’t mean it doesn’t relate to me. In fact, as I was watching the huge cranes raise and lower the containers against the skyline, it occurred to me that many, if not most, of the products I consume come through places just like this, that what I was witnessing was a behind-the-scenes look at global consumerism.

Maersk was the container company that was sponsoring the expedition by shipping Andy’s truck between continents. One of the nice things about Maersk is that they keep scorecards that feature a CO2 dial that is based on actual volume, routes and vessels making it easier for companies to monitor their carbon emissions. According to this scorecard, Andy’s transport footprint was 1/10th of what it would be if he were driving.

After waiting five hours for the container to be unloaded from the ship and then hauled over to the unloading dock, the real fun began. Because the Biotruck was the first private vehicle Maersk had ever delivered, there were a quiet a few snags.  For one, the truck was too wide for their loading dock ramps. So the trick was this: somehow they had to get it off the container platform, which stood a few feet higher than the dock. Preventing it from toppling off the narrow ramp and crashing to the ground would take a pretty steady hand; there was only about a 4-inch margin of error. At first Andy seemed willing to give it a try. He fired up the ignition, let it idle for a few seconds, and but then turned it off again. The risk was too big.

A team of ten stood on the loading platform scratching their heads as the sun began to go down in the Strait of Melacca. The workers hauled out wood blocks and beams and hammered together a makeshift extension to the ramp. It was a little doubtful whether wood was strong enough to support the six-ton truck, but it did widen the ramp by a few precious inches.

Andy revved the engine and the bus lurched forward slowly. Just as the front tires sunk onto the ramp the truck bottomed out and hung like a seesaw on the edge of the container. He shifted into reverse and backed up, shredding the makeshift wood ramp.

The workers set about rebuilding the ramp while a fork lift drove around to the back of the container and hoisted it up, tipping the platform forward so that the angle was less severe. Andy climbed back in the Biotruck and turned the key, only to find that battery was dead. They stretched a pair of jumper cables between the truck and the forklift and fired up the engine again. Andy pulled forward. The exhaust pipe peeled off the bottom with a huge ripping sound. Andy shifted back into reverse setting the front tires back onto the container.

By now it was dark–long past dinnertime–and we puzzled together under the yellow glow of the shipyard lights. Someone had the idea to drive the forklift around to the front of the bus and hold it up by the bumper and then slowly lower it as Andy steered the bus forward

Andy fired up he engine again and eased it forward onto the prongs of the forklift.  It looked precarious, but worked, and once the forklift got out of the way, the bus came flying down the ramp. Andy floored it down the aisle of the warehouse and peeled around the corner leaving a wake of chip fat smoke. I met up with him on the other side of the building where he was pushing the bus door open with his eyes wide.

“Let’s go save the world Christina!”

His sarcasm had clearly returned, but I was happy to see him revitalized. His sense of mission had been flagging after the truck got lost at sea and I was discouraged when he talked about abandoning the whole idea, dismissing the entire trip a failure, and in his darkest moments, declaring the planet’s future as completely doomed. I tried my best to buoy him by making our days dynamic and busy. I scheduled a compulsory boat ride through the Melaka canals, and prodded him through the night markets to ogle all the cool trinkets–childhood toys like slinkies and sidewalk pops.  While he played along, even lit up when I purchased two wire head-scatchers, somehow all the plastic-y tourist kitsch was only make him feel worse about the world. Even the man who held a crowed captive as he pierced his index finger right through a coconut was not enough to impress him.

Andy just grew increasingly despondent and rhetorical: Why bother? What’s the point?

I’ll admit I was starting to have trouble myself. Reports of crisp nights and crackling woodstoves had me longing for home, longing to escape the weighty humidity of Asia and walk under the big leaf maples of the ditch trail that I was sure by now were turning yellow.  Despite my ability to derive contentment from the smallest things—afternoon coffees and little walks– lounging on Facebook in cheap hotel rooms was not exactly my idea of an Expedition. My own disappointment was starting to mount.

I climbed down from the unloading dock and stepped up into the Biotruck to join Andy. After two months at sea, it was full of mouse turds and the dank smell of neglect, but for now we were just happy to be driving it away from the shipping yard it into the long dark. Behind us the huge cranes lit the horizon, facilitating the nonstop work of importing and exporting freight containers and enabling to the massive global transactions that make the world’s economies spin.

The next day we’d strip the sheets off, take them to the laundry, and procure cleaning supplies. We’d fire up the solar disco and get to scrubbing. There was a lot to do: We had a Biotruck to resuscitate, our idealism to reclaim.

Click here for photos


I feel so lucky. I must have said this a dozen times yesterday as Andy and I were settling in to our volunteer posts in Ubud for the Readers and Writers Festival—one of the top literary gatherings in the world. Each October here, dozens of fantastic authors from Louis de Bernieres to Kate Adie converge in a setting that couldn’t be more enchanting: mossy stone temples line the narrow streets, morning vendors sell bags of lustrous marigold blossoms and bougainvilleas petals for the morning puja—or prayer—rituals. Beautiful and simple meals are served up on banana leaves.

We arrived at the Festival and met up with Gabe, the volunteer coordinator. She’s a fan of Andy’s Biotruck Expedition and invited us to stay at her house where we’d have our own room, kitchen, Internet, laundry, and showers. She drew us a map, handed us the key, and soon we were steering our rented motorbike through rice paddy fields and coconut palms that flank the road to Gabe’s house.

The past three weeks have unfolded just like this—idyllic, easy, synced-up. At Timbus, we happed on great paragliding conditions and flew for hours along the coastal bluffs. In Pandang Padang, the white sand waters were the just perfect temperature and we swam around in the craggy coves for hours before dozing off in the Bali sun. But, in the end, these were just the minor boons of good weather and timing. Where our good luck really shined was on our train ride across Java.

We were moving slow the morning we were to depart–so slow that we almost put off leaving until the next day. But we arrived at the station on time and embarked on the over-night trip to Serabaya. We passed the 12 hours eating cashews and noodle soup, shuffling through our ipods, and joining a 2 a.m. karaoke session in the “restaurant” car. We screamed Sweet Child of Mine into the microphone while passengers curled up like  cats around our stools, somehow sleeping through our bleating imitation of Axel Rose.

We arrived safe, but the same train the following day–the overnight train to Serabaya and the same one we’d have been on had we loafed a bit longer–got off on the wrong track and collided with another train, toppling carriages, injuring dozens, and killing 36. Holy shit, Andy said spreading the front page of the newspaper across the breakfast table, showing me the graphic photos of the tragic wreckage, the quotes from traumatized survivors. That could have been us.

From the start, Andy and I have gotten along preternaturally well—so well that even our differences seem charming. We haven’t tired of mimicking each others accents–him exagerrating the nasaly “a” of the American accent so that I come off sounding like a mallard, and me poking fun at the prudish way he refers underwear as “knick-knocks” and calls pants “trousers.”

These are cultural differences, but there are personal ones as well. After a year of driving his biodiesal bus halfway around the world, he’s learned how to rough it and make-do and can jerry rig repairs on his engine with a pen knife. Meanwhile, I have a meltdown if my dress zipper gets caught or the handle of my wheeled suitcase gets jammed. Come mealtimes, he is content as a monk sipping watery broth at street stalls, while I run about scouting for bakeries that sell crossiants and lattes. I compliantly pull out my wallet when presented with a bill, whereas Andy double-checks the math and enters the seven stages of mourning.  I complain constantly about the heat, while he stoically endures.  All the same, we’re well-matched companions, picket-fence wary vagabonds, pilots, writers, peers, and just fundamentally get each other.

On our first evening in Ubud, we unpacked and I rummaged up something nice to wear. Come nightfall, we got to attend the festival’s exclusive opening gala to watch a traditional Balinese performance of Vegas proportions—a nonstop parade of gilded outfits and choreography. We ended the night clinking complementary glasses of wine at Casa Luna and swaying around to live music.

But, ack. great as it’s been, good luck always makes me nervous. Bad luck I understand. When I am slogging for months in some depressed state, I figure it’s something I brought on myself, that I’m “doing time” for some past offense. But when things start too feel a little too idyllic, I feel undeserving and brace myself for a fall, for the other shoe to drop. Always a seed of dread contaminates my happiness.

In Bali, the ephemermality of luck is well-recognized. The other day, my taxi driver tapped my 30,000 rupee fee on the dashboard to ensure a lucrative day.  And, each morning, the Balinese place offerings of rice and blossoms in front of their door to court good fortune from the gods. This afternoon, as we wheeled the motorbike over dropped frangipani blossoms on the road leading to the Festival, I wondered: what ritual, chant, or stick of incense could I light to keep our good fortunes going?

I leaned over Andy’s shoulder and shouted over the engine noise: I feel so lucky.

But I don’t think Andy gives much credence to luck, preferring to think he steers his own fate as deftly as he plied the motorbike around the stray dogs and morning vendors that obstructed the road. He replied in this manner of his that I’m still trying to decide is either a sort of charismatic arrogance or just plain good self-esteem.

We are not lucky, darling, he shouted back to me. We are good.