Thursday, 6 January 2011
Christina points out that it’s ugly and unsightly and when we are showing the bus off to visitors it makes the place look dirty. She’s right of course, and a new bucket would create a much better impression. It’s one of a number of improvements to the interior of the bus that would doubtless engender a more positive response from people we meet. For people interested in the journey it presents a distraction which suffixes the thought “but I couldn’t live like that” to the verbalised encouragement of “This truck is great”. The worst of it is that it creates the association that “eco” means dirty.
But there are a few sentimental reasons why I like this bucket. It reminds me of the hard work under the oppressive heat of a Delhi summer I had to put into it to scrub it clean of the engine oil that was in it, of the satisfaction of seeing it filled for the first time with clear oil-free water, it reminds me of the people that gave it to me, of the work we did together on the engine, of the insight into their lives they shared with me, of the showers I took after replacing the engine pistons and the dirt that flowed out of my hair into the shower tray.
I like that it’s waste too, that it’s living out a second life after the oil it originally carried is circulating around an engine somewhere. This sentimentality would be almost reason enough to keep the bucket forever, even build a plinth for it, but the fact that it's waste is the real reason I don't want to throw it out for a pretty new one. And far from being ugly I find that it is beautiful, because of the way it does what I need.
Firstly it coincidentally fits perfectly in the corner where we store it and it has a comfortable metal handle that doesn’t cut into your hand when fully laden. It’s made with a softer thermosetting plastic than most buckets making it less brittle and more resilient to cracking when crushed or knocked by the heavy jerrycan that lives next to it, and it’s the perfect size for one shower’s-worth of water. All of this leads me to see it as beautiful. It works so well, is so harmonised with its purpose that it is benignly beautiful.
So it is with much of the bus interior; devoid of aesthetic, the hideous curtains stitched by my sister with material offcuts work brilliantly at maintaining privacy, keeping out the heat but maintaining a bright interior, the grotesque seat pillows are cut to shape that folds into a spare bed, the atrocious carpet that lines the ceiling was fished out of skips and bins, and provides unprecedented thermal and acoustic insulation. It’s no beauty to look at, but it’s beautiful to see it at work.
Aesthetic and functional beauties aren’t mutually exclusive argues Chris, and suggests that I wouldn’t welcome her shaving off her beautiful long blond hair to be more functionally beautiful needing less water to wash it. I risk a scowl replying that her function is to be attractive to me so I see her hair’s aesthetic as being a functional feature and consequently beautiful on both levels. Perhaps it's the double compliment that saves me from getting so much as a frown. Aesthetic can serve a purpose, just like any other aspect of design; the choice of material, scale and dimensions.
To my mind’s eye, the ugliest thing in the bus is not the bucket or unpainted wood panels, the fraying seat covers, the stained shower tray or double glazed window at the back. It's the fridge that doesn’t’ work efficiently enough so that it can be left on permanently. Intermittent refrigeration is worse than none at all. To me it sticks out like an irritating needle in my functional fung shui of the drab cupboards and shelves that surround it. To everyone else it looks like a charming wood effect panelled fridge set against some rickety draws.
So with an upcoming round of presentations to give in Bangkok I was tempted to invest in new bucket. I've been faced with this compromise before. Should I do something against the principles of using waste to promote the benefits of using waste. Is there a greatergood? Or should I remember I am not an eco-disciple, responsible for teaching the world how to live, just someone who's overdue a shower.
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? Every atom in my body revolted.
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.
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 ….