Thursday, September 6, 2012

Dili Sept 6


From China -- hypermodern and hyperrich -- to East Timor. Asia's newest country, the poorest by far in the region...it's a major change.

Getting here wasn't easy, at least it didn't feel easy. We left Beijing at about 10:30 p.m. after a long day. Everyone in the official party was eager to get out...I think the blunt rebuff that Clinton had received on the South China Sea had taken everybody a little by surprise.

But none of us was looking forward to another night on the airplane. It is tight quarters in the best of times, and night flights can leave you feeling both sleepless and trapped. I had equipped myself with eyeshades and earplugs, however, and settled in. It was a weird night: I never felt as though I was sleeping, although I suppose I must have.

At one point we hit an air pocket -- first time for me and not something I want to repeat. Suddenly the plane shuddered, and then the nose pointed down and it really felt like we were dropping. One of the flight attendants screamed out "oh my god!", which isn't something you want to hear, and there were great crashes as things got knocked about in the galley. I was gripping the arm rests and I think everybody else was too. There were more big jerks -- like hitting waves (of air, I suppose) -- and then another drop. Then, of course, it leveled out and calmed down. It couldn't have lasted very long but was pretty alarming.

So, tired, frazzled and unwashed, we arrived in Dili, East Timor. The place looks pretty from the air -- long coast, backed by sharp mountains. Dili itself is a tiny place (see the airport picture). I don't know much about the Timorese liberation struggle but it certainly looks like they are still picking up the pieces. We went to the ambassador's house, where they parked us outside by the pool. Of course nobody's blackberry was working, and while they had set up a mobile hotspot it was repeatedly overloaded. Made for some frustration as we tried to sign on and figure out what was next. Plus, it was hot. But on the plus side they were all very nice and had some wonderful coffee for us.

Clinton made the rounds for her official meetings. They had lined up school kids on the roads to cheer and wave flags, all wearing their uniforms. The effect was both cute and creepy -- Asia's newest democracy had ordered its youth onto the streets to salute Hillary. The official buildings are mostly Chinese built, and not much to look at. But the honor guard at the president's office was great -- see picture above. You really see that this place is on the edge of Indonesia and New Guinea.

Clinton also paid a visit to a coffee sorting facility. Coffee is Timor's second largest export (much of it going to Starbucks) and USAID is supporting the industry. She seemed to enjoy it ... chatting with the women who sort the beans, listening intently while the managers described the process. And finally having a cup herself. Afterwards she posed for pictures with the workers.

Then it was the PM's office, a news conference which didn't produce much, and back to the ambassador's house. We had been told we were only going to stay for 15 mintues or so, but it dragged on and on..why? We didn't know. When we finally did leave about an hour later we finally learned that they had stopped in to the ambassador's office to watch a taped verssion of Bill Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention...which he had probably given just as she was sipping coffee in East Timor. Later on the plane she couldn't restrain herself and pronounced the speech "great". Secretaries of State aren't supposed to talk domestic politics, but I guess she gets a bye in this case since it was her husband. Seems hard to imagine that all that political back and forth was going on in Charlotte while we were knocking around in Dili south of the equator...

We are now in Brunei, which is sort of a Gulf emirate in Southeast Asia. Colossal hotel, no alcohol, very rich. Tonight Clinton is going to the Sultan's for dinner and we are being allowed to tag along, at least to the palace. This guy used to be the richest man in the world (I'm not sure if he still claims that particular title), and the palace is supposed to be over the top. I'll let you know.