Contents | July/August 2002
More on foreign affairs from The Atlantic Monthly.
The Atlantic Monthly | July/August 2001
he Central Maritime Hotel is a converted Russian hospital ship that was rebuilt in Finland, used as a hotel in Myanmar, and then towed to Dili, the capital of East Timor. A long guarded walkway runs from the shore to a dock beside the ship, and a conspicuous sign there announces, NO THONGS. NO SINGLETS. NO WEAPONS. The joke in the expatriate community is that NO THONGS excludes the Timorese, most of whom wear cheap thong sandals; NO SINGLETS (sleeveless undershirts) keeps out drunken Australians; and NO WEAPONS excludes ordinary UN soldiers.
A growing new—but familiar—social order thrives in the world's trouble spots
by Mark Lee
The restaurant on the Maritime is highly unusual in East Timor, because it takes reservations and accepts credit cards. Virtually all the food and liquor is shipped in from Darwin, Australia, in cargo containers, and each meal is thus a triumph of logistics. Around eight o'clock in the evening the diners begin to arrive. One night recently the restaurant was host to some Korean officers serving in the UN peacekeeping force, some barrel-chested Fijian cops who are now UN policemen, and two thirtyish UN employees on a first date. The Timorese put all these people in the same category: they're "internationals"—members of a large and rootless global culture that inevitably establishes itself in the world's trouble spots. More than 4,000 civilian internationals alone have passed through East Timor in the past two and a half years. Many thousands more are at work around the world.
East Timor is on one half of a dagger-shaped island directly north of Australia. A former Portuguese colony, it proclaimed its independence in 1975, and was then invaded by Indonesia, which ruled the country for twenty-four brutal years. When the Indonesians pulled out, in 1999, the United Nations arrived with administrators, consultants, policemen, and soldiers. The country is small, approximately the size of Connecticut, and the internationals have had the impact of an occupying army. They are the new colonialists. Unlike the sahibs of British India, they would never use the word "native" or write poems about the white man's burden, but they nevertheless create a social order that walls them off from the people they serve.
Any UN employee arriving in Dili instantly becomes one of the wealthiest people in the country. Salaries vary, but internationals working for the UN also receive a daily "mission subsistence allowance" of up to $100, which is supposed to cover food, lodging, and local transportation. This might be subsistence-level pay in New York City, but it's a fortune in Dili. The internationals there typically rent entire houses, hire servants, and still have enough left over for vacations in Bali. And the MSA isn't taxed, so it's free money, a bonus for being an international. Not long ago, during happy hour at the Roo Bar, in Dili, a UN consultant made a triumphant and typical announcement. "Another day of MSA," he said, and ordered more beer.
George Orwell, who was once a police officer in colonial Burma, analyzed how the British obsession with the pith helmet was just one more way of emphasizing, as he put it, "the differences between the natives and yourself." The internationals in Dili have similar ways of distinguishing themselves from the locals. Few Timorese own cars, but the internationals drive expensive Land Rovers or Toyota Land Cruisers with insignia on the doors. Air-conditioning is another symbol of the economic divide. During the wet season, from December to April, the daytime temperature in Dili regularly reaches 90¡, with 80 percent humidity. In this heat the internationals move quickly from air-conditioned homes to air-conditioned cars to air-conditioned offices, thus inhabiting a different climate zone. Then there's the issue of water. Internationals like to carry around 1.5-liter bottles of purified water, and to keep cases of it in their offices. Bottled water has become a status symbol for local drivers who work with several aid organizations in East Timor: they now demand it as part of their compensation.
The old colonialists played polo. The internationals jog. They lace up their Nikes and, just like "mad dogs and Englishmen," trot through Dili in the noonday sun. The Timorese recognize that some people are athletes, and they're proud of their boxers and martial artists. But the idea that an adult would want to put on revealing clothing and expend energy in this way is incomprehensible to them. It's even somewhat shameful. When a squad of Portuguese soldiers ran up the boulevard on the Dili waterfront one day recently, little boys laughed and pointed at them. An old woman seemed embarrassed and looked away.
Active social scenes for the internationals in Dili are centered on the English-speaking foreigners and the Portuguese, and spending time with either group often feels like an endless journey on a cruise ship with the same people. Drinking in the courtyard of Dili's Turismo Hotel, internationals exchange personal histories like tattered business cards. Their pasts often involve failure—a career at a dead end, a collapsed marriage. Several Americans working for the UN police received their divorce papers after arriving in the country.
For the internationals, East Timor is a hardship post but also a means of escape. A Dutch graduate student who couldn't finish his dissertation suddenly finds himself passing out relief food to hungry refugees. An American cop from a four-man police force is put in charge of 20,000 Timorese in a rural district. In this respect the new colonialism resembles the old version: it gives instant power to those who have never had such power before.
Internationals break free from the niggling responsibilities of ordinary life. No one tells them to wash the dishes, rake the leaves, or remember their father-in-law's birthday. They usually don't have to pay for their gasoline, and for UN flights they don't have to buy a plane ticket. It's impossible not to feel superior in such an environment. This affects the way internationals talk. The locals quickly become they. A foreign visitor hears that they can't drive. They can't fix a computer. They can't organize a press conference or march in a parade.
There is one crucial difference between the internationals and the colonialists of the past. A young Frenchman traveling to North Africa, or a Dutchman sailing to Indonesia, could expect to be in the region for a very long time. Many colonial army officers served twenty-five years abroad before they finally retired. Internationals working for UN peacekeeping missions spend six months to a year in any foreign country. Their allegiance is to their career. They have no reason to feel a strong attachment to the people they're helping, because they know they're going to leave. East Timor is a "non-family" post for the UN, and the lack of children or spouses adds to the rootlessness of the situation. Most of those in East Timor haven't bothered to learn more than a few words of Tetum, one of the main island languages. They don't waste time fixing up their homes or planting gardens. Their houses, their cars, their cats, and their Timorese girlfriends will all be left behind. It's the ultimate rental mentality.
There's always an international party going on somewhere in Dili, but even the best party has to end. As the work contracts run out and East Timor becomes self-sufficient, the internationals gossip about possible job openings. "What's Kosovo like?" someone asks. "Is Sierra Leone really that bad?" Some of the internationals are temperamentally suited to this world, and look forward to spending the rest of their lives searching for the excitement of the latest war zone. Others envision a more desperate, and lonelier, future—catching malaria, perhaps, because their systems can no longer tolerate the various preventive drugs. Will they end up alone in a hotel room in Nigeria or Bangladesh? Will they lie sweating on a plastic mattress while lizards scurry up the walls and the ceiling fan spins?
The wise international tries to avoid such thoughts. It's best to organize a weekend beach party or make dinner reservations at the Central Maritime Hotel. On a recent Saturday night a band from Malaysia was playing "Still the One" on the hotel's top deck. A few internationals sat at plastic tables, drinking and staring up at the moon. The Maritime was booked at 90 percent capacity, but the UN is gradually pulling out of East Timor. Perhaps anticipating a drop in revenues, the Thai conglomerate that owns the Maritime is trying to sell the floating hotel. If no buyer is found, the propeller-less ship will be hitched to a tugboat and, like the internationals, will disappear over the horizon.
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Mark Lee's novel The Canal House, set in the world of foreign correspondents and aid workers, will be published next spring.
Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July/August 2002; The Internationals; Volume 290, No. 1; pp 35-36.