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.