East Timor. The roads are long and dusty. The grass is brown, dry, and crunches with every footstep. Above all the overbearing heat and humidity weighs down on you, making your shoulders slouch with exhaustion. It is worse in a wetsuit.
We drive over an hour to each dive site, on roads that wind along the coast. At first the scenes that flash by our windows are punctuated with restaurants and pubs aimed at the rich expats who work at NGOs, then with schools, embassies, and first-aid posts. A police road-block separates them from the villages, and then even they soon peter out into sun-dried nothingness.
Uncomfortably we waddle into the rocky surf and descend. Within a few fin kicks we are at the edge of an underwater precipice, where it is much, much cooler. Even here, however, as above, there are few signs of life.
On shore, a local man smiles and hands us barbecued fish on crooked wooden skewers. His dogs gather around us as we flick pieces of meat at them and learn about the bloody history of the land.
His story starts with personal pain. The crinkles of laughter around his eyes disappear for a moment as he gazes into his memories and recalls his family and the war. It was a difficult period, he pauses. I decided to come here to sell phonecards on the streets.
How old were you?
Seventeen, he answers.
Did your family come with you?
No. And then he breaks into a smile. But I have a wife and a daughter here now.
There is a triumphant rebelliousness in the tenacity of life. We all fight to survive, as individuals and collectively as a species, in the ways we each know best. Like a single bloom of flower in the frost, or a lone nudibranch in an expanse of rubble, there is beauty to be found if you open your heart to it.
On the journey back home, the sunlight filtering through the dust in the air somehow seems more golden; and in the distance under the rosy sky, a pod of dolphins joyously breach the surface, as the waves pound the shore again and again, endlessly, long after we are gone.