Everyday over Atauro, by about noon, a top-heavy cloud ascending tens of thousands of feet into the air forms. The cloud is billowy, white, gargantuan, like a bouffon hair style over dwarfed island in a sky of bright blue. There is something so full about these clouds, their silent steady formation makes the morning seem lazy and wasted. While I sat in front of a screen, a fifteen thousand foot cloud formed on the horizon.
From the beach, it was so clear today you could see every ripple of and valley on Atauro Island like peacekeeper abdominal muscles. The sun was so hot that you couldn’t bear to be out if it weren’t for the wind. Sitting in the shade you would get the chills from the cold air blowing off the water from the north. Fishermen and kids were in the water from the Sant’Ana bridge all the way to the nice restaurants a half a mile down. Jumping in the surf, wading pulling and repairing nets. There was this feeling of cleanliness, of clarity and freedom in the air today. Heaps of people passed piled into yellow dump trucks or pick-up trucks, kid sandwiches on motorbikes, families taxis, old men on foot, boy on bikes, with a face which is only displayed on Sunday after mass.
I met Savio yesterday at the sweaty Tropical Bakery, home of the most American donuts in East Timor, of Key Lime Pies, and Brownies, which cost a day’s Timorese wage. He was preparing for his trip to the United States for foreign service training at Georgetown University. His journey, I pointed later on a world map to his cousins, would take him literally across the world. My finger on “P. Timor,” I realized how far away I was from America really for the first time. And thinking of Savio shivering his way through a DC November caused me to realize that’s about as odd as me biking around sweltering Dili. The dislocation is similar.
After drinking orange juice and stubbornly drinking a sweaty cup of Earl Grey, I watched Savio emerge from his house in a fine, blue button-down shirt and clean and pressed khakis on his way to the airport. Then it hit me what it means to be a career third world diplomat – it means knowing how to leave your dusty, entirely unfurnished house that you share with heaps of distant relatives for a cold, efficient, expensive and place.
On the way to the airport Savio’s cousin reminded him that he needed money. Money for the trip? I said, you can get that in Bali. Savio explained that he had agreed to pay 5 buffalos of his cousin’s dowry, and that this was something that could not be forgotten. This cousin, he said, lived for 25 years in the jungle, and was somebody that really deserved the extra trip to the ATM for $500 of buffalo money. The problem is, in East Timor, it’s a minor miracle that there are ATMs at all, and any time you start to depend on 24 cash out of a machine, you just get burned. I could have predicted it myself. Both ATMs down.
So I assured Savio that I could lend his cousins the money, even though I really probably couldn’t. Well, at least I know for sure I’ll have $300 coming my way in mid-December. Quite a story, I have to say, that an aspiring diplomat, on his way to the airport, needs to draw out $500 to buy buffalo for his cousin’s dowry. Things like this first world diplomats will never understand or internalize about their counterparts.