3:35pm today

The rainy season began at 3:35 pm October 31, 2002, today. Few things in the tropics are this certain, this exact. Siestas have no particular beginning or end, verb tenses are non-existent and promoting unclear chronologies. In temperate zones, the seasons may be marked on the calendars, but these days are probably only celebrated by elementary school children and astronomers.

We were sitting talking about the Indonesian military, as one does in this house, when the humid, hot afternoon suddenly lost 10 degrees fahrenheit in the course of as many minutes. The sweat started drying on our foreheads. Grey poured towards us, and dark patches swelled forth. Then we heard rolling thunder once. Then a second time. At this moment, I finally allowed myself to think that today could be the day. Our Timorese friends and sources had all insisted “next week,” some being so bold as to pick the date November 2, All Saints Day.

A couple of minutes later it seemed possible this could be all part of a dramatic build-up, that we would actually have to wait until next week. The sky lightened. Then the pattering began. Unintelligible at first, was only briefly in the background. Rain today could never be white noise. I hopped up to see the neighbor behind pulling clothes off the line. I repeated what I had been told about a local taboo against dancing or standing in the first rain. And there were no screams of relief or children dancing. Just a beautiful peace.

The two dozen doves in the next yard left their house and flew together, three circuits over head, a spontaneous salute. The rain was still soft and slow. The sky was a simple silvery grey. We silently waited for the great din on the corragated metal roof of the porch. We were waiting for large drops splashing up from the ground, puddles, the feeling of drenching. I watched the orchids hanging at the end of the patio drink up what they could.

Only a couple of minutes later and the din on the roof came. It felt like a legitimate rain. The sense of relief was finally complete. I sat back in my chair. It felt like the seasons had changed in the middle of our conversation.

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Afloat

This is the riverbed where I lost my shoe six months ago. Then it was dry on the weak surface, but a hungry, gelatinous mud-tar beneath that sucked my leg into it, an ambitious first bite. I should have noticed no human foot prints across the ditch just recently an estuary for the Comoro River. I should have noticed other Timorese people making a wide arc around this muddy finger between me and the rocky rise were the tide broke. Ciara sat there waiting for me, gazing out towards the ocean, the deep water between us and Atauro Island.

The first bite startled me, the adrenalin and fear of dying in mud distracted me from the fact that a crowd was gathering — a crowd of skinny shirtless kids, darkened by the sun, and a couple of young men in boot-cut jeans standing with one hand on their hips. My foot was stuck up to the knee. I tried to set backwards with the other foot, which plunged into slightly less wet mud, but once again to the knee. I scanned my brain for sixth grade wisdom or tenth grade emergency training, stop, drop and roll… no… Then it came to me, as if from after-school Scooby Doo episode. Do not move in quicksand. Do not struggle, or I will die like a villan. Some one can help me out of this.

I look up.

Now there are probably 4 fingers pointing at me, and at least half-a-dozen other kids and young men cackling at me. None have any kind of Baywatch look about them, not even a boyscout honor about them. I am a foreigner. I have made a stupid mistake. If there had been a life-saving buoy, it probably would have “Ha ha you stupid Malay” and it would not have been thrown to me, but rather held proudly for me to see as I was sucked deeper into the mud.

It was clear that the stopping altogether theory was only partly correct. Not thrashing about wildly like a soon-to-be extinct mastodon was a useful tip. But I was going to have to take action, and risk getting extremely muddy. I did not allow myself to imagine the worst-case scenario.

Careful pulling out the leg behind, and gripping the Brazilian flip-flop on that foot with all the strength my toes could muster, I was able to place that leg, from knee to foot, long ways on the drier surface of the mud. Would my increased surface area of one leg be able to save me? I slowly began to move my weight from the first extremely bogged foot to the half-leg. Then I truly began to feel the force of the estuary mud. It was not only heavy around my leg, but it seemed to be gripping it, fighting for its floundering prey. I gave it one powerful pull feeling the other white shoe sacrificed for my survival, and was finally able to place it horizontally to the other. I began to slowly crawl back to dry mud, like some tidal-zone pilgrim. I’m not sure this was the ending which the assembled crowd desired, but seeing a foreign woman drag herself hands and knees through the mud was clearly satisfactory.

I walked, in an arc, as everyone else had to begin, on dry mud up to the ridge where Ciara sat down the beach. I arrived, and did not need to tell my story. As I washed off the mud in the ocean, she asked almost rhetorically, “They didn’t help you?”

“Wow, that’s the kind of thing that can really ruin your relationship with a place.”

Now I stand here after three months away, at the end of a long dry season, over a parched field where the river will soon roar again. I am the only Malai on this beach. Atauro Island is invisible in the haze. There is a family down the beach from me in one direction, and a large group playing in the other. No roving young men, no derisive little boys. I throw my sandals down and run into the cool water. It’s not an adversial relationship I have with this place. I have not won. I’ve just kept afloat.

Eagle

I had for the first time yesterday, this shuddering feeling of what the US means to most people in the world. It came at a strange moment, I was reading the recently released State Department Human Rights Report. I looked at the eagle emblem, the stiff two dimensional picture which appears on the dollar bill, and I suddenly felt repulsed and intimidated, I felt like I was looking back at the US through the eyes of a faraway marginalized person. The reason I say this was “strange” is because there was a certain feeling of physical distance and detachment, and eerie analogy would be like looking down at one’s body during a near death experience. Looking down at a white body, the eagle with its rigor mortis grip on the arrows on the olive branch.

Somehow being here surrounded by dirty children, mud and malaria, with TVs number increasing faster than latrines, I begin to realize what it means to look at the US from here. As long as you just accept that this clean, orderly place on TV is like somekind of afterlife, somekind of heaven that you aren’t yet permitted to experience, then you can go on. But if you question why the white men on TV live such a comfortable existence, why they have the power to tell you what’s just and unjust, then you will be consumed by a certain smoldering rage. You will watch the profits made on your streets and the products imported into your ports, and see the money boomerang out, back to that heaven. Maybe you will realize how far you are from that heaven, even when you are only a 2 hour plane ride. What do you do? You will become a criminal by thought or by action.