Last night, I dreamt of the roads. It was the rainy season, and I was back in town. Another Australian volunteer was back too, and he had his car–an old, beaten up sedan–and we were driving around the city, trying to find our way to the clinic.
He drove right through a river of muddy water. It must have been six feet deep, and the car got completely submerged. But somehow, it came out the other side, and he grinned at me from the driver’s seat, flashing a waterlogged thumbs up.
We were going to stay in a hotel. After all, we didn’t tell our homestay family we’d be coming. I didn’t know when we had arrived, or when we had decided to come. We just showed up. I wonder if anybody knew we were here.
We decided that we would stay at Dili Beach Hotel. Or if it was too expensive, at one of the other hotels in Colmera. We had to find something to eat, too. But where to go? It was so muddy outside. The roads didn’t look familiar anymore.
We ate our first meal in Bali with gusto–at McDonald’s, of course. “No matter where you are in the world, it’s always the same. It’s fantastic,” an Australian man told us. I was inclined to agree. It was the first time in months that my taste buds felt genuinely American again. All thanks to this fast food franchise.
The Big Mac was delicious; the fries tasted just the way they did back home. And the ketchup–they had such good ketchup here. I went back for more, ordering a $2 McChicken–ignoring the fact that there was no Dollar Menu. I ate because it was delicious–not just because I was hungry. I hadn’t eaten all day; we were too busy rushing to the airport to have time for lunch.
We were both amazed at the parking lot outside the Bali airport. So many cars, arranged so neatly on the smooth, black asphalt. The largest parking lot I’d seen in Timor had been at Dili National Hospital. And that was only 20 cars or so. The Dili airport’s parking lot was just a mishmash of U.N. SUVs and taxis; it was nothing compared to this.
Nobody spoke Tetun. The last Tetun we heard had been a group behind us at customs–two men and one woman, brandishing maroon Timorese passports, mutteringly quietly to each other. We had only left Timor a few hours ago, but already it felt like days.
The sidewalks around Bali weren’t all beautiful black asphalt like the airport; some were made of no more than wobbly concrete squares spread over drainage gutters, with bags of cement spread in between the gaps. It wasn’t quite the reassuring pavement I walked on back home, but it wasn’t the comforting reddish brown soil of Timor, either. My feet longed for the familiar, fine layer of dust that had covered everything for months–tires, flip-flops, shorts, backpacks. But here there was only concrete–and beyond it, the dirty grey sand of Kuta beach.
The people here–good Lord, there were so, so many people. It was disorienting at times. Even at malae hotspots, like Kafe Aroma and Dili Beach Hotel, you needed only to walk twenty meters in any direction before you were greeted with warm Timorese faces and the beautiful sound of Tetun. Here, you couldn’t escape the steady stream of Westerners. They flooded in from every direction. And the funniest part was that I was one of them too. I wore Reefs, Levi’s work shorts, Puma boxer briefs, and a Wong Fu Productions “Nice Guy” t-shirt. I was the epitome of American consumerism. And yet I just wanted to escape from it all.
I found a place that served nasi goreng ayam. It was nestled in a quiet alley, between a massive upscale seafood restaurant and a ritzy Western place with a stage where exotic dancers shook their bodies to a pulsating beat. It was 32,000 Rupiah for my dish–almost twice what I was used to paying–but it was the best I could find. They served Indian food too, apparently–they had blurbs about lassi, cumin, northern Indian spices; it was a blissful respite from the flashing neon lights of the street.
I asked for a seat nearest to the lights; I had brought a book–a novel co-written by Michael Crichton and Richard Preston, named “Micro.” I would end up finishing it in just 24 hours, intent on losing myself in the wonderfully written science fiction. It was amazing how quickly one could forget where they were going, what they were doing, just by picking up a book. But soon, I had to walk back to the hotel.
They called out to me with every step that I took; every one of them spoke decent English, and some even tried their hand at Cantonese. I suppose that’s what I looked like to them–a Chinese tourist, maybe from Hong Kong, taking a couple weeks off of work to relax in Bali. In Timor, I had looked like a Chinese man too–but there, everyone had assumed that I was a doctor. If not a doctor, then part of an NGO; and if not that, then at least a shop-keeper. But definitely not a tourist.
It was hard to explain my identity as a Chinese-American. Eventually, I just said that I was an American, but that my parents were Chinese. That made the most sense to them, and it was true after all–if not still a bit confusing.
They asked me to take a look–just a look–into their shops. They had sunglasses, t-shirts, running shoes, scooter rentals. Maybe I would end up buying another pair of Onitsuka Tigers. The shoes looked real enough, even though I knew that they weren’t. I hadn’t really had time to do any tourist shopping in Timor.
They stood up immediately as I began to walk by. Four of them–all young, all beautiful–all wearing identical, slender green dresses. One of them smiled at me, and even in the dim light I could see the spark in her eyes. If Greek sirens were real, they might live on this road; her voice was sweet–in the cool evening air, it could almost pass as loving. “Massage? Would you like a massage?”
If I were a few years younger, I might have once broken my stride for them; if I had just flown from anywhere else, I might have at least stopped to smile back. She started to walked beside me, and her hand found the small of my back; she ran it down my side, as if grasping for a connection. But her fingers found nothing, and she soon fell behind. The darkness swallowed them up, and a minute later, I was back at my hotel.
I never thought I’d miss the cries of children shouting, “hello mister!” at me–that the chirps of, “malae! malae!” might make me feel at home. But as I sit on my comfortable hotel bed–swathed in clean sheets, with breakfast delivered to me by a beautiful, smiling young lady–I can’t help but miss the mosquito net hanging over the tiny bed in my homestay. I miss the sound of Timorese children laughing–the sense of wonder that washes over you when a baby opens its eyes for the first time. I know that this feeling will fade in time–that by the time I step off the plane into Logan airport, I’ll be well on my way back to the mindset of college life and Western society. But for now, it’s all so fresh–the people, the sounds, the food, the atmosphere. For now, the feeling lingers; pulses; glows. For now, it’s still real.