Tale of two embassies

Today I had the “privilege” of visiting two of Dili’s most important embassies: that of Portugal, and that of the United States.

I’ll go in chronological order.

I had promised to try to help Otelo make sense of his ongoing, three year-long process to gain his Portuguese passport. In order to enter the Embassy, only a couple of weeks ago, it was necessary to queue up outside the place at about 6am. (Now, with the Report, and nervousness all around, Otelo reported that he had arrived at 10am to find very few people waiting.)

Portuguese friends will recognize this arrangement as similar to the Loja do Cidadão, where migrants deal with immigration issues, except at the Loja, when the office opens, people draw a senha or a number in line in order of arrival. Here it is every man for himself, there is no list. A bad attitude will set you back.

The man who controls the destiny of those waiting outside is a 50-something man with a paunch, a uniform, and an attitude. Our Exmo. Senhor Security guard speaks passable Portuguese and works for the second largest private security firm in Dili, called Seprositil. This is his lucky assignment!

At first Exmo Senhor Security tells us we must wait til noon to enter. This seems very arbitrary so I ask until what time they attend people. He says 1pm. So I insist on better information.

Then after a couple of minutes of frustrating repetition, he changes, saying they attend two people at a time. When two leave (implying the waiting room is full), two can enter.

He along with two “porteiros” (who only appear after 45 minutes of us loitering) control Access to the Embassy.

Otelo rightly points out that the area outside the Embassy seems more appropriate to a bus station. It’s dirty, full of loitering people.

We finally get in, after about an hour and a half of waiting. There is one other man there waiting. And 14 empty chairs in the waiting area.


We wait our turn, and Otelo takes his seat, adopting a submissive posture. The ferik, elderly lady, basically assaults Otelo in Tetun, not even looking at me.

I ask if I can sit down, no answer. I take a seat. I politely ask her to slow down, as I am there to try to clear up his doubts about the process. She says it’s simple and looks at his receipt, which he paid to “Authenticate” his identity documents in Dili five months ago. These documents have apparently been sent to the Conservatory in Lisbon for a second verification of his right to citizenship.

After much frustrating back and forth, and us asking her to try to explain the process step by step, another ferik behind us launches into an aggressive tirade going through the process at lightening speed. I am attempting to write down everything she says.

I understand that Otelo’s documents are probably stuck at the Conservatório somewhere in Lisbon, being reviewed by lawyers. It is conceivable there is some issue or problem with one of them. But we simply don’t understand what to expect and when.

The ferik claims she will send an “ofício” asking about Otelo’s process to Lisbon. I ask if there is somekind of reference number or confirmation we can have for this “ofício.”

No. I ask, just to confirm then, with whom are we speaking? She responds, I am a mere “mule” of the Embassy.

I said, but the Senhora does not have a name?


After searching her desk and bookshelf for some indication of her name, I see a name plate on the bookshelf with her name. I note it down.

I insist one more time in asking about the “normal” length of this Conservatory process.

Then Senhora speaks up, addressing a person hidden in the corner behind the bookcase. “Is there a ‘normal’ length?”

A Portuguese voice emanates from the back of the room “There is no ‘normal’ length.”

Then a quite cordial Portuguese man pops up from behind the bookshelf, explaining that the diplomatic mail is extremely slow, and that in July and August work basically goes to a standstill in Portugal. It is quite possible that they haven’t even started reviewing it. He says they have not received the diplomatic mail from September yet.

I ask if it could take over a year. He was noncommittal. He reassured me that they will contact Otelo if/when there is news.

We leave.

After a consolation lunch at my favorite Warung with Otelo, I headed out to Pantai Kelapa to see about contacting a NGO working in Baguia. Rides are always better than trucks and buses. I didn’t have much luck, just got a phone number.

Walked through the market (which taxis refuse to go through). Everything calm. Bought a huge box of filter cigarettes for the katuas. $13 for twenty packs of 12 each – much cheaper than the Uatocarbau Sunday market!

Then, as I was nearby, I decided to drop in on the US Embassy and register myself. I should have done this ages ago, so they send in the cavalry for me if (in the remote possibility) everything gets really dicey again.

Let me preface this story by telling of my only other “official” business with the American embassy during my stay in 2001-3, which was to get extra pages added to my passport. Then, I was friendly with a Texan who at one point basically ran the show in the Embassy with very limited local staff and his boss.

At that time, the Embassy was near the lighthouse, in the small house which is now USAID. I didn’t even have to sit down, Texan welcomed me, went back to a cabinet, pulled out extra pages, stuck them in, stamped them, and I was on my way. How, well, cozy!

Since then, America has moved to Pantai Kelapa, the palm tree beach, to occupy the former Indonesian governor’s residence. Moving from the small house to this gigantic compound seemed laughable at the time. How would they fill all that space? Why such a big Embassy? I suppose Timorese conspiracy theorists went to town with this expansion. (“Perhaps the top-secret submarine base under Atauro island really does exist!”)

I approached the main gate. At all American embassies around the world, a strong local staff is recruited as the “first line” of security. I actually saw no trace of Marines or American security. I walked through a metal detector (that I was not sure was working) and the security checked my bag. They commented, a lot of cigarettes!

I tried to explain my business in English, but didn’t get very far, so I switched to Tetun. They took me to the Consular building, an annex to the “palace.” There were lots of prefab Kobe huts behind this building.

Inside, I felt like I could be anywhere in the world. The building must have been brought in and dumped here in its entirety. I took a seat under Condi, Dick and George. (Dick is the only one who shows no teeth, the others have big white toothy grins.)

It was actually uncomfortably hot in there. I got the feeling not too many people spent much time there, and that the glassed-in offices surrounding me were kept ice-cold.

I noticed the place was teeming with “Facilities Management” staff, drivers, cars, lots of local office staff, and I caught a glimpse of a couple of American staff. I was wondering why the US would want to invest so much in Timor. Is this the price of being the “superpower”?

What a change since a couple of years ago.

A subtly smiling blond woman (not toothy) came out with the appropriate form, explaining that there is an email and SMS network for emergencies. SMS is only used for big emergencies like the violence in May. “Everyday” violence is not SMS-worthy. I was glad to hear, the last thing I needed was a paranoid laundry list of crime clogging up my cel phone.

I filled out the form, turned it in, and left. It all lasted about 20 minutes.


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