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 …

Yuan Fen

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.