Flying Free: the ideal life?

In certain ways, pilots are the same the world around: friendly, eager to share their local site, their passion for flying, and just generally high-on-life.

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 ….

Like Fish

There are rules to being a good guest. In Malaysia, we broke them all.

This past week we’ve been living outside SM Success Mechanic shop in the town of Gelang Patah. The shop-owner, Jason Teoh, immediately took a liking to the Biotruck, admiring Andy’s ingenuity and, even more, his audacity to drive the thing around the world.

All the repair work he said For free.

With that, Andy and the team of mechanics spent a week under the bus, replacing wheel barings, filling the tires, repairing the wiring, changing the gearbox oil, and a whole lot more.

Each morning, Jason would idle his car into the lot and rouse us for breakfast. One morning he arranged a press conference and uncorked a bottle of champagne in  honor of the expedition. Come afternoons, when we were hard at work on the Biotruck, one his crew members would invariably show up to drop off some take-out chicken and rice.

The shop crew knew how to work hard and played hard.  Late evenings, they sat us down to Dionysian feasts. At their goading, we hammered our way through plates of crab, popped the caps off cold Heinekins, and navigated our palates through heaps of inscrutable but delicious Chinese entrees. Around midnight, when we’d leaned back in our chairs clutching our guts in surrender,  the waitress would mercifully upend all the plates and platters, dumping all the leftovers into a mountain on the table. She’d then gather up the cloth and haul away the fall-out.

The gorging was taking a toll, but throughout the week Jason served us a few rounds of an ancient Chinese beverage called Birds Nest. The potion—literally made from a bird’s nest—is known to boost vitality and clear up the worst cases of hang-over complexion.

Having not had my own place for nearly three years, I’ve grown accustomed to being in the role of “guest.” I have stayed long stretches in other peoples’ houses, visited their towns. It can be precarious—striking that balance between being a novelty and overstaying. But there are three rules to maintaining goodwill of hosts, which I’ve tried to implement, however imperfectly.

1. Bring your own bedding and towels and a gift.
2. Be an attentive conversationalist
3. Make yourself indespensible.

During our time in Galang Patah, this little set of bylaws which have served me so well in the past, proved to be worthless.

The problem wasn’t so much that we didn’t have our own bedding and towels; we did. But in the Biotruck living space is tight, and we keep nothing that isn’t absolutely functional. Mourn-it-and-move-on is the motto. In this lean spirit, Andy recently had to discard his map of the Annapurnas, and I have to box up several cute, but extraneous, sundresses and send them home.  There is no room to be sentimental or aesthetic. Unfortunately, this also means that we have to break Rule Number One: we can’t carry gifts to offer our hosts. As a pathetic substitute, we over-smile and pester them with thank-yous. I sometimes enlist my 3rd-grade level art skills and draw up a  crappy thank you card.

So, the least we can do honor Rules Number Two and be good conversationalists. Malaysians are a highly social bunch, holding court in cafes easily until 1:00 or 2:00 a.m.   Andy and I, however, couldn’t keep up. The language barrier always created a distance that our clumsy charades could not breach. Our rapport could be strained and difficult and we sometimes just sat there nodding our heads and dumbly gumbing our sea cucumber.

That leaves us with Rule Number Three: make yourself indispensable. Pick up their mail, take out their trash, maybe do a little weeding in the garden. If you do a good enough job and they’ll start to wonder how they ever got by without you. But between Jason’s many businesses, we were of no use to him. He already had a workforce of 2000 at his bidding. We’d have offered him cash, but he beat us to the punch, handing us a wad of bills to support the expedition.

During our week there in Gelang Patah, our every single need was met. I could hardly pry a sprig of tarragon from my teeth without someone handing me a toothpick.  If I drained my water glass, it was filled.  If I yawned at the dinner table, the driver would stand up and shake the car keys.

I’m still trying to figure out why they liked us so much. Who knew that a couple of hippies in a bus could ever inspire such royal treatment? No one here sneers when we park outside their business, or at our rumpled clothes. When the police drop by the bus, it’s not to tell us to park elsewhere, but to say hi and wish us well.

It all speaks to the relativity of perception, doesn’t it?  What one person calls “living out of a car,” another person calls “traveling.” What one person dubs “cheap,” another calls “environmental.”  One person’s “homeless person” is another’s “spiritual seeker.”

But it may well just be that our experience in Gelang Patah was less about us and The Biotruck and more about the intrinsic manners and hospitality of Malaysians. This is a high-energy country and economy is good. People are optimistic and there’s enough to go around.

They say that guests are like fish: after three days they start to stink. But if we were starting to smell, Jason and the crew at SM Success didn’t seem to notice. Or maybe they did, but chalked it up to too much Tom Yum. Whatever the case may be, we pulled out of the shop in Gelang Patah in good repair and good spirits and, as we turned onto the road to continue our long journey, our new friends set down their wrenches and air compressors and waved us goodbye. By the looks of it, they were actually sorry to see us go.

For pics of some of the best food and happiest mechanics in the world, click here