“So what do you have planned today?” My mom asks me. For the last hour or two, I’ve been rooted to the same spot on Sonrisa’s salon bench, strategically nestled beneath the fan. Sweat glistens on my upper lip and drips off my chin. My parents are enjoying this view via Facetime. I would go up on deck and give them a panorama of the area, but there’s no wind up there and I refuse to leave my spot in front of the fan.
I check my watch: 10:30 a.m. here.
“Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think we have a specific plan for…”
Andrew breaks in. “Actually, I think some Navy guys are going to come over at some point.”
“Yeah, Jim (a single handed, 80 year old sailor from Anecortes, Washington) stopped by a bit ago and said he met some Navy guys who would like to come visit a sailboat. It’s their day off. Is that okay?”
“Sure, Okay.” I tell Andrew, then I switch to giving my parents the report. Back to Andrew, I say “what time are they coming by?”
“Any minute now.”
“What?!” I look around me. First, I am still in my pajamas. Second, let’s just say that Sonrisa is not currently organized per Navy regulations. We need to clean. And tighten the corners on the bed sheets and pillows!
I all but hang up on my parents and start scurrying around to get things in order. We wash dishes, organize the ropes in the cockpit. I mutter to myself, "Oh, what would my Grandmother say....What was it she always said about keeping a house? One must always be ready for houseguests..." I struggle with the bed sheets trying to pull a rectangle tight over the corners of an oblong bed shape tucked against the curve of Sonrisa’s hull. It’s not going to happen.
I reorganized the crumpled mess of sails on the bow berth, grunting as I push and pull 2200 square feet of fabric around less than 75 square feet of space. Eventually, the sails are pushed around into a different crumpled mess than we started with. Oh, the shame. Oh the humanity!
I stand back, put my hands on my hips and heave a sigh. There is nothing to fix this, except moving them back into storage beneath the lazarettes. I don’t want to do that. They live on the bow bed so that I can easily deploy them through the forward hatch while we are sailing. I abandon this post and move to the navigation station where a tangle of electrical cords splay about like Medusa’s hair. My luck is only marginally better here.
Then, I hear voices over Sonrisa’s side deck. “OOOOH!” I scramble to my clothes closet, open the bathroom door to block the view of the hallway and give myself a little dressing room. I select a quick and easy frock while Andrew settles everyone into the cockpit.
When I join the group, I learn the fellas are “Sea Bees,” an arm of the Navy charged with building infrastructure projects, while standing ready to do battle if necessity warrants. They are civil engineers, and they have never been sailing! This particular contingent of Sea Bees are deployed to Timor Leste to help build schools and show America’s good will toward the government of this newly formed nation. It is a peacemaking, alliance building project.
Mike, Clay and Sailor Jim are great company. We chat, Mike and Clay bring salami and cheese to share. They speak of the challenges involved in building infrastructure within villages already grappling with thin resources. They share war stories of battles done trying to acquire parts, pieces and tools in this far flung outpost. We share sea stories, mostly of battles done trying to acquire parts, pieces and tools in this far flung outpost. Then, the wind comes up. We figure it’s about time to take everyone out for a sail.
“You guys ready to go out for a sail?” We ask.
“Go sailing? We get to go sailing!?” Mike and Clay’s faces brighten.
“It wouldn’t be right to have you visit your first sailboat, but not go sailing.” I start removing the shade cover so Sonrisa can be sail ready in minutes. Jim decides to sit this one out, so we leave Grin with him while we go to sea.
We set sail toward Ataoro for a few miles, Christo Rai standing watch just to our right. The the sun warms our noses, the sea state is calm, the wind is perfect. We sit on Sonrisa’s side deck, in the shade of the full genoa. The tale tails flutter and tap against the sail, the sound of a perfectly trimmed headsail. The sail is perfect. In fact, it is so perfect that Mike decides this is the life for him. He threatens to go AWOL next week, on a sailboat of his own. (Kidding of course, mostly. Definitely kidding.)
We return to the return to the anchorage at dusk. Andrew, spends twenty minutes trying to forewarn them that sailing is not always this pleasant. We try to explain this is the most epic iteration of “a sucker’s wind”: wind so nice for an entire day that it hooks a new sailor and convinces them they must immediately buy a sailboat and cast out to sea. Andrew and I got hooked on a January sucker's wind on the Great Salt Lake.
Mike hears nothing of it. He is convinced! He’s already a Navy “Sailor” why shouldn’t he go sailing? Jim laughs when he hears the news.
The Sea Bees aren’t the only American contact Jim found for us. Ex-Pat Bill and his Timorese wife Durva offered to take us on a road trip to Balibo the next morning. We are instructed to meet at the Marine Police yard at 7:00 a.m. the next morning, but we know little else about the adventure we are about to embark upon.
We head into shore. Bill and Durva step out to make introductions. If there are fashion instructions for representing the American Ex-Pat contingent, I am confident Bill read them carefully and checked every qualification: Sandals with socks, black shorts, a “TEXAS Lone Star State” T-shirt, topped with a Hawaiian shirt, and a cap complete with an American Flag brim. For the extra touch, an American flag belt buckle. They motion toward our ride: a shiny, new charcoal gray Ford extended cab. It has a diesel engine, a crane for tugging other vehicles out of the mud, a snorkel for forging rivers, and blissfully chill air conditioning.
“Ahhhh…..” I say to Andrew. “America!” As I sit back in my pleather seat, complete with an operable seatbelt.
“The drive is three hours one way, three hours return trip.” Bill tells us. We fill up with diesel on the way out of town. “We should have enough, but you never know.” Bill says. “Just in case.”
We take off out of town, driving along the coastline of the steep and craggy island. The scenery is beautiful. The ocean, turquoise against white sand beaches. It reminds us of the California Highway 1. We pass brine pools where the local sea is dried away leaving fresh salt to be bagged up and left next to the road for trucks to fetch and take into Dili for sale at the market. Giant Rice paddies stretch through a large, lush valley.
At first, the road is well paved, even four lanes in places! But then, at random, without signage or warning the paved four lane road abruptly ends and turns into a dirt/paved path strewn with obstacles. There isn’t much time to slow down, and maybe Bill doesn’t want to slow down. So, we bounce in a cloud of dust from pavement onto dirt road, swerving with sharp swings right and left to dodge holes, motorcycles, pedestrians, goats, pigs, dogs.
“Are all these goats and pigs wild?” Jim asks, amazed at the number of animals wandering around on the main thoroughfare.
“No, no. They are all owned by someone. And, if you break it, you buy it!” Bill says, explaining “if you hit a goat or a pig, you must pay the owner for it. Trust me, they’ll come running.”
Here and there a large boulder is placed in the road. “It’s a warning boulder.” Bill explains. We swerve around it and see that just beyond the boulder, the road has crumbled out from under itself, down the cliff and into the sea. “Wouldn’t want to drive this road in the dark, without headlights, that’s for sure. Bill lays the gas pedal down and swerves into oncoming traffic to pass the car in front of him.
As we drive, we chat. We learn Bill is a Chemical Engineer, graduated from the very same program as Andrew at the University of Utah. A fellow UTE! Bill and Andrew even took classes from some of the same professors. The Navy stationed Bill in Timor Leste, near Balibo for a stint in the late 90s/early 2000s as part of the UN Peacekeeping mission. He met Durva, married her, and took her back to the U.S. when he returned to Point Loma in San Diego. They spent the last 15 years+ there, then moved back to Timor Leste to retire and be closer to Durva’s family.
“The roads were even worse back then!”
I’d like to say I can’t imagine, but I have driven a few island roads now, so, I can imagine.
Three hours later, right on time, we arrive in Balibo. We enjoy lunch at a beautiful hotel renovated out of the bones of a Portuguese fort.
And, we start our real history lesson on the formation of this new, little nation.
…To be continued.