Stopping for Gas

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.

Praying for Elephants

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.

Joanna, the trainer that died at the Sanctuary, had the same impulse to pray. Her father, Paul Burke, said his daughter often asked him to pray for the elephants. “She loved her girls.”

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

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.