By Raul Quintana
At four in the afternoon a daily ritual begins in the small town of Atambua. The dry air and the parched earth shrug off the sluggishness of the afternoon and people start to leave their homes, relieved by the blessings of the breeze. The field in the center of town fills up with soccer players. The one-room shops along the main street re-open for business and people from all backgrounds converge upon one of the best afternoon gathering spots in town: the airport runway on the north side of town.
Atambua receives approximately five flights a week, all of which land around noon. As the heat of the day starts to fade, the simple utilitarian airport transforms into a magical gathering place. Instead of planes, the runway welcomes joggers who come here for daily workouts on smooth pavement free from the traffic of motorbikes and trucks. Children explore the tarmac on their bicycles under the watchful eye of relaxing parents. High schoolers congregate with friends, learning to pop wheelies or slouching against the seats of their motorbikes, as the memories that they will eventually romanticize slowly form. Cows graze in the adjacent field, occasionally stopping human traffic to reach the small water reservoir on the other side. A military helicopter sometimes appears next to the airport’s one-room terminal, an indication that the nearby base has received a guest. The stillness of the cool, afternoon air fills with the constant thrum of laughter interspersed with motorbike revs and soccer ball kicks.
The scene is beautiful and, to an American, surreal. Red and orange streaks change the hue of the world. The small mountains that dominate the Eastern and Western horizons of the runway transform into a muted purple in ritual preparation for their embrace of the sun that night and its eventual release in the morning. The landscape provides a mythical backdrop, lending the afternoons an air of the inevitable and the destined. As you drive onto the runway, you look towards the mountains in the distance and, for a moment, you are iconic. Admirals look across oceans. Luke Skywalker gazes across Tatooine. You sit on your bike and look into the distance and contemplate the unknown.
Every Sunday, I come here to jog with my friends and decompress before the school week begins. The routine has taken the place of my American Sunday routine, which primarily revolved around watching football games and being perpetually disappointed by the Chicago Bears. On this particular Sunday, I have combined the two past times. I leaned against my bike while holding a bright green mini football, bought from a Wal-Mart during my last week in the States. I had given myself two goals as an American cultural ambassador, and I had already started to teach my students to say y’all. Now, I prepared to start the second task, fresh with the carefree buoyancy that comes from holding a newly inflated ball. I was ready to teach.
My friends soon arrived, three Indonesians interested in learning this new game and the other American ETA, who I hoped could help me teach what I had slowly realized is one of the more complicated games in sports. My friend Untung, whose name means “lucky” in Indonesian (his name and the small spot of white hair on his right temple remain the only legacies of his flirtation with death as a newborn), walked over and picked up the ball while we stretched. He inspected it with a combination of care and confusion. He attempted to dribble it, first like a basketball, then like a soccer ball. Its elliptic shape caused the football to bounce erratically and skitter off the runway into the dry, faded grass.
I ran to grab it and came back to explain that you throw it. With a circle formed, we started to practice and I explained the concept of a spiral. Kak Yun and Pak Cypri, who both teach English at local schools, got the hang of it pretty quickly, especially since they had never seen a football before. Untung decided not to throw in a spiral manner. He threw the ball in a quasi-lob pattern over his shoulder. It quickly became clear that he was the best passer out of all of us.
“Where does the keeper go?” Kak Yan, Untung’s older brother, asked with interest. This led to a brief explanation of offense and defense, particularly the fact that they are two different parts of the same team. An onslaught of questions soon followed, as the other ETA and I tried to walk through each of the game’s parts: what it means to have four downs, why you only kick on fourth down, how exactly each play stops (describing the process of a tackle is more difficult than it seems), the unnecessarily complicated point system. We speak in a strange hybrid of body movements, basic Indonesian words, and English football terms. We have already developed a new language to define and explain this game, and each of us improve our fluency as we start moving down the runway, throwing the ball between us as we go.
Atambua’s relative proximity to Australia means that people here know the basic rules of rugby, even if they never play it. “It’s like rugby,” quickly became my refrain for the afternoon. And the combination of catching and jogging resembled an easy game of rugby more so than American football. There were a few forward throws, some behind-the-back show off moves, and a lot of sideways laterals. A new game developed as quickly as the new language that we had used to explain it. We had created something fluid, a constant interchange between passer, receiver, and defender as we marched down the runway and avoided the groups that loomed like obstacles in our path. It wasn’t football exactly, but it was a good start, and we agreed to meet the next Sunday for practice. We watched as the sun set, a lazy game of catch replacing the need for words, and quietly absorbed the tranquility of the world.
When I came home, the two high-school students who live in my boarding house were sitting in the courtyard. I handed them the ball and started, once again, to explain the concept of a spiral in this new language of movement and hybrid sounds. Guided by the light bulb at the front gate, we played catch into the night, our movements an intricate dance of shadows across the courtyard. They both threw with the lob motion over their shoulders. The ball floated freely, perfectly, through the darkness before landing safely in the other person’s arms.
About the Author: Raul Quintana is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Atambua, West Timor. Hailing from San Antonio, Texas, he graduated from Harvard University in 2014 with a degree in Social Studies.