After 10 days in the seductive tourist bubble of Bali, I was determined not to succumb to post-holiday blues. We were heading back to Dili for a final three-month fling before life in New Zealand swallows us up again. There wasn’t a moment to waste.
My good intentions lasted as far as the luggage carousel at Presidente Nicolau Lobato airport, named after one of Timor’s resistance heroes. Think Hokitika airport, only shabbier. ‘Finis’, said the airport attendant as I peered hopefully at the empty conveyer belt which had delivered Pat’s bag – and everyone else’s on our flight – but not my little blue suitcase.
We made our way inside the terminal to the office of Sriwijaya Air, an Indonesian airline. A smiley young Timorese man sat behind a glass wall. At the height of his desk, a small semi-circle had been cut out of the glass. To explain my problem, I had to bend down, twist my head and project my voice through this opening. To decipher his muffled reply, I put my ear where my mouth had been, all the time trying to maintain eye contact. It was hard to feel that Sriwijaya wanted to hear from me. Given the cold meal we’d been served on the plane and the airline’s habit of last-minute schedule changes, this was not altogether surprising.
The smiley young man filled in a form, gave me a copy, his phone number and a promise to contact me when he had news. ‘Today?’ I asked. He looked doubtful. ‘Or tomorrow,’ he said.
We took Pat’s bag and went to find a taxi. The airport recently set up a booking system to deter scrums of taxi drivers from mauling passengers. The man in charge consulted a typed list and quoted $15 to Bidau Mota Klaran, a third more than the going rate. Pat laughed and the price dropped. I felt disproportionately cross at this official attempt to scam the unwary.
It was a regular, yellow Dili taxi: no seatbelts or air con, a cracked windscreen, back doors that only open from the inside. A curtain of dangly things obscured the driver’s view as he shuffled between two working gears. Along the beach road, swanky embassies rubbed shoulders with rusty tin shacks opposite a grey sea. No one seemed to be around. We lapsed into subdued silence.
At home, I swept the dead cockroaches out the door and checked my emails, noting that my computer battery was going to die in less than two hours. The charger – along with those for my Kindle, phone and electric toothbrush – was in the missing suitcase. Dismay at my dependence on technology vied with horror at the prospect of life without it.
Just before 5pm, I rang the smiley young man to check on progress. There was no answer. A beer on the porch with our cheery VSA neighbour Dave helped, particularly when he told me he had an HP computer like mine and would bring the charger home from work the next day.
Dusk is the nicest time in Dili. The air cools a little; the light softens; even the roosters seem less raucous. Eight-year-old Zeni waved from her perch in the rosa apple tree where she was munching on the bell-shaped fruit. Three little pigs trotted round the corner. I realised with a start that all this felt normal. After 21 months, the extraordinary was becoming ordinary.
Boy, the sweet-natured, bedraggled dog I’ve befriended (this statement will astonish those who know me), came looking for food. I had nothing for him – or us, for that matter – so Pat revved up the Honda Scoopy and we went in search of salt and pepper pork at the Chinese restaurant in Lecidere. Across the road, there were few customers in the brand-new Burger King where a whopper meal costs a day’s pay for many Timorese workers.
Before bed, Pat turned on the air con to cool the room. It spat water and died. I spent the long, sticky night trying to decide what I would miss most if my suitcase had gone for good: the four chargers, the six pairs of shoes I’d taken to Bali (I have very small feet), the nice cotton frocks you can’t buy here. In the end, it was the earrings, gifts from friends, that caused the biggest pang, along with a strong dose of shame at how attached I was to all my stuff.
Next morning, I cornered our landlord Eusebio, who lives next door, about the broken air con. Then I rang the airport number again. The person who answered seemed to have nothing to do with Sriwijaya Air, although it was hard to tell from his rapid-fire Tetun. Eventually I hung up, none the wiser. One look at my forlorn face and Pat offered to drive me out there again. In the meantime, three young men had arrived, taken apart the air con unit and fixed it. I swear we have the best landlord in Dili.
At the glass-walled Sriwijaya office, the smiley young man greeted me like an old friend. Without any ado, his colleague pulled out his phone and produced a photo of my suitcase.
‘Where was this taken?’ I asked, wondering briefly when they’d been planning to let me know.
‘In Bali,’ the man said.
‘Last seen on its way to Kazakhstan,’ Pat said under his breath.
‘It’s coming on the first plane,’ the man said.
I beamed. We’d timed our arrival at the airport to coincide with the first Sriwijaya flight. When I turned around, passengers with trolleys piled with luggage were already straggling through the terminal. We hung around the glass wall. After a while, I checked again with the smiley young man.
‘Just wait,’ he said. ‘It’s coming on the first plane.’
I took to pressing my nose against the opaque glass separating the public from the dingy customs area. Random passengers were being pulled aside to have their luggage searched. It seemed to take forever: when we’d come through the previous day, no one was even manning the scanner. Eventually the last passenger drifted out, followed by the staff. Through a window at the rear, I spied the blue wing tip of a plane taking off down the runway.
I went back to the glass wall and spoke through the semi-circle with as much dignity as I could muster bent in half. ‘Excuse me, I’ve just seen the first plane leaving.’
‘That’s not the first plane,’ said the man who’d shown me the photo.
‘No, it’s a Garuda flight.’
‘But the Sriwijaya one was due an hour ago,’ I said.
‘Yes, it’s running late.’
He looked at his watch. ‘It’ll be here in about 10 minutes’.
Deep breath. I hadn’t thought to ask. He hadn’t thought to tell me.
We found a seat in the single row of chairs that edge the terminal and were swarmed by a group of kids. Timorese children at Dili airport are usually well-dressed and well-fed: their families can afford to fly. But these ones had runny noses and peaky faces to go with their big smiles. A 12-year-old girl stroked my wrinkled arm with one finger. ‘Moutin’ (white), she said wonderingly. I stroked her smooth one. ‘Metan’ (black), she said. We discussed the usual things: names, ages, kids, grandkids. I launched into the alphabet song. She countered with ‘Bingo Was His Name-O’.
A new planeload of people wandered into the terminal with that dazed traveller look. We shooed the kids away and headed back to the glass wall, optimistic that Sriwijaya would now be pulling out all stops to retrieve my suitcase. The desk was vacant. Tucked around the corner, away from public view, a woman dozed in a chair. The smiley young man hovered out of earshot, smoking a cigarette. There was no sign of the man with the photo.
Ordinarily, I’m a fan of the laid-back Timorese approach. I find it oddly endearing that a pile of rubble can block half our street for weeks on end while cars and people weave around it and no one shovels it to the side. That the government can announce a public holiday at 4pm the day before. That a volunteer can find out one Friday afternoon her office is moving to new premises over the weekend. Things happen when they happen. No point fretting about the future, especially when it has let you down so often and you can rally the troops at short notice if you have to.
I can afford to feel benevolent. I don’t have a regular workplace where I have to GET THINGS DONE. Pat handled our motorbike registration: six visits totalling two full working days over the course of several months. VSA deals with most of the other red tape in our lives. But at that moment, my patience was stretched as thinly as Sriwijaya’s customer service.
Let me put this in context. There are, at most, two Sriwijaya flights a day into Dili. Each one carries no more than 150 people. There are also between three and five other incoming flights a day – short hops from Bali, Darwin and SIngapore – none of which were near the airport at the time. How hard could it be to unload one small aeroplane, find a little blue suitcase and return it to its anxious owner? Unless, of course, the suitcase was on its way to Kazakhstan.
I held off until the last passenger and all the customs staff had once more filed out of the customs area. Then I caught the smiley young man’s eye, went into my crouch-and-twist routine in front of the glass wall and said, ‘Everyone’s gone.’
He nodded. ‘Just wait.’
Waiting is not something I’m good at. I’ve grown up in a culture which expects everything to happen right now. Time is money, efficiency is king. I’m not alone. Flicking through an old Guardian recently, I came across a survey of American students that showed two-thirds of men and a quarter of women would rather give themselves a mild electric shock than sit alone in a room for 15 minutes doing nothing.
The Timorese are experts at sitting and doing nothing. A friend married to a local told me about visiting her in-laws in one of the districts. People would gather on the porch for hours, she said. Sometimes they’d talk; often they wouldn’t. She could only stand it for half-an-hour or so before hiving off to read a book. They found this amusing.
Here people have to wait for just about everything: a passing truck to give them a ride to town; the rain; a square meal; books for school; a job. They do it with far more grace than I found myself able to muster over my suitcase.
As if reading my mind, the smiley young man became suddenly business-like. ‘Can I have your form?’ he asked. I handed it over. ‘My friend will be here in a minute to help you,’ he said.
The friend arrived. He led me out the back and pointed through the gloom. There, standing beside the scanner like a lost child, was the little blue suitcase. I gathered it up, thanked him, exchanged waves across the terminal with the smiley young man who seemed as delighted as I was. Then Pat and I scooted home along the waterfront on the Scoopy, the sea as blue as the case wedged tightly between us.
Too tempu oin/Until next time
PS I couldn’t resist sharing this Leunig cartoon sent by ex-VS volunteer and Dili neighbour Dorothy Culloty in response to my conflicted feelings about technology.