Knowing our sponsor letter for Indonesia would take at least a week, we submitted all the paperwork and then decided to sail to the island just off the mainland to go scuba diving, Ataoru. Part of the coral sea triangle, a visit by marine biologists recently declared it to be one of the most diverse reefs in the entire world.
We wave goodbye to the Hotdog boat as we up anchor and start off across the way - eyes peeled for any whales. We reach the anchorage as the sun sets to dusk. The hillsides glow golden, the smell of dry grass warms our noses. We anchor and head into town.
The village is tiny, a network of wide dirt roads. We walk along the beach and find Barry’s Eco Resort. A beautiful compound of grass thatch huts for hotel rooms, solar panels, tropical flowers, sandy walkways, and a cold beer refrigerator. We meet Barry and he invites us to join his guests for dinner in the main lounge.
The next morning, our dive guides pick us up directly from Sonrisa. Talk about door to door service! The whole dive boat vibrates a little bit with enthusiasm. I look around to see where all the color is coming from, and it radiates from our guide Pat like heatwaves off a sand beach. She is moving and adjusting air tanks while talking about her favorite dive trips, the fish we might see here, and her recent arrival in Timor. She seems as excited to dive as we are.
We reach the first location and tip overboard. She gives us the okay sign, and we descend. What will we find here?
Color. The reef has so many different kinds corals, sponges, fish, anemone, sea stars, etc. that my eyes cannot adjust to any one thing. It’s like floating above a blanket of wildflowers, a high-altitude mountainside mid-July. As we swim along, Pat might find something exciting and motion boisterously through the water for us to see.
Between dives, we chat. I learn Pat studied law and holds her juris doctorate, and she started a career in business management that took her to foreign countries for work. She loved it, and decided she wanted decided to travel even further afield. Once on the road, she studied to be a dive instructor. This started a series of destinations at which she lives, works, and explores for a year or so on each dive assignment. She laughs as she tells us stories, reaching out her long arms to demonstrate.
After three dives, the dive boat delivers us back to Sonrisa and we part ways, But can that possibly be enough Pat for one trip?
Back in Dili, we are supposed to schedule a trip to Nilthon’s District and Mount Remalau - the holy mountain that is the Timor Ancestral Crocodile. It is also the mountain that has the Holy Virgin Mary counterpart to Christo Rai. When we arrive, the streets of Dili are almost silent. Where there were thousands of motorbikes and hundreds of cars and trucks all jostling for place before we left, now there is only one here or there. Businesses are shuttered, no one is sitting along the wharf. Where is everyone?
We learn it is a holiday, and the entire City of Dili has been emptied of its occupants. They all went home, into the mountains where their families are celebrating their ancestors for All Souls and All Saints Day. Nilthon texts us to say he is already with his family now; he asks us to follow.
“How do we get there? How long is it to get there?”
“Take a public bus, and it will take eight hours.” He replies.
“Eight hours one way?” I ask. Andrew claims over and over again Nilthon meant up and down - four hours one way. But, I read the texts again and I’m not so sure. It seems like it’s eight hours one way. We take microlet to the large bus station, also next door to the larger fruit and veggie market. All the buses are already full and gone, having taken holiday goers out to the Districts earlier that weekend. Nilthon is disappointed to hear the news. Maybe we can go later next week?
We wander around the market, undoubtedly more calm today than usual.
We stick around in Dili, doing a bit more exploration. We find a woman selling locally grown and roasted coffee. "The best coffee in the world," the Timorese will say. And it could be true. We enjoy a bit of the Dili Cafe culture.
We walk the street along the beach and find Consulate after Consulate from every country imaginable. The American Consulate looks like a smaller version of the White House. All the old properties are framed in razor and barbed wire, but it is now dilapidating and falling apart. Scattered in between the streetscapes and citizens going about their business, we see burnt out hulks of old buildings, still standing, but broken, empty and charred. Next door to that, new construction in progress.
We enjoy the variety of food and restaurants that have cropped up to cater to Ex Pats working for the UN or other International organizations. We try a Vietnamese Restaurant right on the beach for a bowl of Pho and Shrimp and Green Papaya Salad.
It just so happens that they are playing live music and launching paper lanterns at the Thai restaurant next door. What a lucky pick for dinner this night!
We also get in touch with Pat to schedule drinks. “Thursday night after dinner?” She suggests.
“Sure, want to aim for 7:30 or 8?” I ask.
“No, after dinner.” She says.
Right. Right. She’s Portugese. Dinner doesn’t start until at least 8:30 p.m., so drinks….”9:00?”
I cover the phone and confirm that Andrew can stay up that late. “We’ll have a coffee at 3:00 p.m. to keep us going,” He says. (We are 80 year old people in 36 year old people’s bodies.)
“Sounds good!” I tell her.
We head to the restaurant at 7:00, so we can eat dinner at a reasonable time. Then, we enjoy a beer while we wait. She breezes in promptly at 9:00, colorful earrings swinging with her gait. We stand to give her a Portugese kiss-kiss, which is somehow different from the French kiss-kiss, but I am not familiar enough with the subtleties to identify what that difference might be. Standing next to her, I realize she is almost as tall as Andrew.
We trade travel stories. She tells of the day she had a funny feeling and decided to hop a train away from the City only to have a location she frequented almost daily bombed in her absence.
We move to skydiving. Pat is trained to jump on her own. She packs her own chute because she doesn’t trust anyone else with such a task. Then laughs and stretches her arms up and out as she describes the day a chute packed by someone else didn’t open properly, got twisted in the air, and she had to figure out a way around her potentially fatal conundrum. I imagine her mid-air, falling at terminal velocity, shrugging, looking skyward, and thinking: “Hm. I guess I’ll have to untangle that.”
We move to captaining our ships, we learn she is a licensed sea captain, too. I'm always fascinated by people who live life on their terms, continuously build and grow. Discipline, passion, enthusiasm, happily in command of their own path.
“Yeah,” she says, I’m really friendly, unless you are an Open Water Student. I’m really mean to my Open Water Students, because their lives are in my hands. I need to make sure they are trained right, from the very start. Building good habits is a good habit!” She chimes.
“Pat would go to Mount Remalau in a local bus,” I think to myself as we head back to Sonrisa that night. I start scheming for a trip next week.