Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Dili miscellany.

I haven’t written for a while, largely due to work pressures but also thanks to no large focus.

So I’ve assembled a few small things, a bunch of verbal gewgaws.

Some Tetum expressions: oin midar (“sweet face”) translates to “smile”. “La halimar” (“not playing”) translates as “seriously” in the sense of “very” e.g. tasi bo’ot la halimar means “seriously big waves”. Oi-oin (face-facing) means “a variety”. Manas (“hot”) is fun. Rai manas (“hot land”) actually refers to hot weather, but if you are suffering from hot weather, you cannot say “hau manas”. That is either ungrammatical, or slang for “I’m crazy”. You can say “nia manas” (s/he hot) and that translates out straight into our English idiom of “She’s hot!”. Isin rua (“two bodies”) means pregnant; it’s a useful phrase in my office.

The deer who graze by the shore have vanished. I hope Christmas in July did not feature venison. The tents for the night time barbequers also all vanished one night, although the people did not. The wood and bamboo scaffolding round the statue of Jesus is no longer there. Unfortunately, it didn’t vanish. It was simply untied and pushed down the slope.

I see so many things that take my fancy here, it really is a different place. Last weekend, I was just wandering and a family invited me to sit down and have a drink with them. I smiled and declined, as they were drinking Coke and Fanta. Asking for tea might have been too much and asking for water may have been unhealthy, so it was easier to pretend I had somewhere to be rather than refuse hospitality. Nevertheless, it made me feel good.

For those who don’t know, Just Add Water is now a Dive Master, to add to her impressive list of credentials. Solves the problem of answering: “And what do you do here?”, although what she is currently doing is learning Tetum, an activity for which she hasn’t had time to date.

The dry season has started. No, it hasn’t. Yes, it has. No, it hasn’t. Yes, for the moment, it has.
Except it rained last night.

Work progresses, and I’m going to leave that description right there.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Update from the trenches

I haven’t written for a while, and this one really is just an update for those who are interested in personal happenings. It will be of less interest to those who read for an understanding of Timor-Leste.

I spent two weeks in Canberra. Subjectively, they were two of the coldest weeks I have ever spent and my normal clothing amounted to 5 layers, including thermals. Fidget was running around in shorts, a t-shirt and a hoodie. The hoodie was a fashion statement, he wears one in subzero temperatures and +30 degree temperatures. Naturally, just as I was about to come home I started to acclimatise.

Work has been crazy in any number of senses. We are at a key period and tension is running high. Our national (i.e. Timorese) management team in the office have been promoted or reshuffled and all are new to their jobs, which does not help, so the international advisors are working as change managers, have higher support requirements being placed on them and also are still trying to deliver on the original aims set in a somewhat different environment.

Tempers are not in short supply, but good tempers are.

I’m fielding a few job offers (or at least inquiries as to my availability) at the moment, here and elsewhere. Just Add Water has noted that diving facilities will be a key criterion in determining acceptability – one of the options fares rather poorly in that regard. And Three Strokes would reverse-disinherit me if I tried to go somewhere a little dubious. Like Afghanistan, Iraq or Pakistan. So places like that aren’t on the list. Although I am told that the hazards are somewhat overstated.

The dry season has arrived at last. Only no-one has told the weather, so the rainfall this week has been torrential.

Just Add Water is still in Australia and will be for a few more days. She’ll be thoroughly dehydrated by the time she gets back. And she acclimatised to Canberra’s cold awfully quickly, so I suspect she’ll be suffering a bit when she gets back.

I’ll try to get out for more Timor colour, but I appear to be working 7 day, 90 hour weeks at the moment.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A picture is worth a thousand words…

I was walking to work, and the sky was spectacular. Even that is too weak a word. Across a pale azure ceiling, someone had thickly spread a swathe of glowing lava, with a palette knife half the width of the sky. It was sharp edged, entirely artificial and gloriously natural.

Blessed are the early risers. We have already inherited the earth.

I think the air is alive.

I work in an office with 10 women. Two are currently pregnant, one gave birth 6 weeks ago (and has now been back at work for a fortnight) and I suspect one more is starting to show. Two are grandmothers and may be largely past childbearing age, although I wouldn’t be laying any money down.

Four are unaccountably not pregnant.

At least visibly.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

When success is failure, and failure success.

We were talking the other day about the quandary that faces most serious developers of capacity in any culture which has had long term aid programs. Decades of well meaning (I shan’t enter that debate) intervention often leads, not to a nation developing a robust system of responsibility, accountability and bedrock bureaucratic competence, but instead a disempowering of national staff in the face of international expertise.

Very often, the better the technician, the worse the capacity builder.

Of course, there are real traps here, because perverse incentives get built in. For national staff, while there is an advisor to take work off your hands if it is not up to standard, it is easier and safer not to do it well and push both the effort and the risk of failure onto the advisor. With a never-ending stream of advisors and a philosophy that seems common amongst agencies to ‘churn’ advisors, no one is there long enough to catch on. Or they are incapable of allowing failure. Or maybe they even play along too.

So what happens when the rules change? The advisor, hired nominally to build capacity, actually attempts to do so. She folds her arms and says “Not good enough, do it again. Or don’t. I am not going to do it for you, so I advise you to do better, for your own sake.” If she is alert enough, she won’t be fooled by a quite alarming number of strategies coming forward to shake her position, including stealthy resubmission of basically unchanged work, attempts to have other advisors take over the work, appeals to deadlines, appeals to urgency, appeals to friendship etc.

That is when failure can happen. If she has judged matters well, the failure will be painful but not fatal, and the errors will not relate to mission-critical work. She will not be popular, and the blamestorming will be intense. The failure may work well enough to shake up some entrenched dependent behaviours. Of course it needs to be supplemented by support mechanisms (for the very people vituperating her) and development strategies.

If she misjudges either the people or the situation, she may be sacked. Despite forcing a capacity build, she will almost certainly be endangering any extension of her capacity building contract.

No wonder some take the easy path of doing all the work and bemoaning the inability/incapacity of national staff. The system reinforces dependencies, institutes a round-robin of reports proving those dependencies and shores up the position of aid agencies abroad.

The rewards to nationals of taking responsibility are unclear and often uncertain. We are not looking to incentivise the system, and the perverse results remain.

This post is more asking the questions than proffering answers. I’m not trying to offend aid agencies – I work to one that is serious about trying to develop capacity, not just pay lip service to the concept. I just wish there was more consciousness of this and less reliance on systems and methods that seem to have such a poor track record.

In the meantime, my arms are crossed. My national friends can – and will – do better and will be better off for it.

I hope they eventually forgive me.

Limpeja, round 3.

Dili’s emu parade is still on, with the President exhorting the UN and diplomatic agencies and non-government organisations to join in. About the only group not included in his call is the unemployed who would probably leap at the chance if offered a couple of bucks and a brush every week.

He wants the place to be clean and tidy, “like Singapore”. Some malae fairly acidly observe that the problem is not in the cleanup, the problem is the littering that immediately follows.

If Ramos-Horta seriously wants the place to be as clean as Singapore, maybe he needs to take a leaf out of Lee Kuan Yew’s book – make littering illegal, make the penalties both severe (stiff fines) and humiliating (caning) and enforce them.

Medical doctors often prefer to attack the disease rather than treat the symptoms.

Just sayin’.

In the meantime, Friday morning should be a relaxing stroll with a broom or a bag.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Apparently, my dad enjoyed buying cars...

...and I like cars, but have been able to scrape by without one for a while in Dili.  Taxis are cheap, usually, and walking is really cheap,  but both are problematic after 8:30 pm.  Also, we own enough cars back in Canbera as it is.  However, we have finally bought a[nother] car, a Honda CR-V.  It's basically a 5 door hatch back automatic all wheel drive [AWD], relatively compact but not tiny.

Our previous experience has made us familiar with AWDs.  For Defence wonks, these AWDs are not to be confused with Air Warfare Destroyers.    For a start, instead of several billion dollars,  they cost USD 8,500.  Or this one did anyway.

$8,500 is a reasonable amount of money.  Until you go to the bank and attempt to take it out, whereupon it suddenly became unreasonable.  I've already taken out a bank cheque once and won't do that again if I can possibly avoid it.  But I did get a shock when they handed it to me in $10 notes.  All of it.  

Talk about feeling vulnerable!  I would have felt less visible with one of those huge and stupid publicity cheques, rather than with this fat bundled envelope which 50 people in the bank had seen me stuff to overflowing with banknotes and take out.

Fortunately, I was able to flick it to the seller quick smart.  In her car, soon to be my car, she pulled out a computer case and slipped the cash inside.  Then she refused a lift to the bank, hopped out and was on her way.  She was very cool about the whole thing.

It probably looked like I was dealing drugs.

Sights of Dili, here and there.

Motorcycle gangs, some on heavy duty 125cc machines, most on smaller bikes.  Some with sports exhausts.  Umm, yeah.


Girl asleep on the beach in the afternoon.  Looks like it’s her usual spot.


A deer (no kidding!) grazing on the park near the beach road.  I think it belongs to the US or Norwegian embassy.  It seems content, rather than overheated.


Honey sold in bottles hanging off the end of shoulder poles.  Atypically, the sellers are usually female.  Instead of corks, a dried corn cob is used as the stopper (plus sometimes a layer of bees).  The honey itself is strong and aromatic.


Guards outside the President’s house to protect it.  In the shadows of the walls, 10 feet from the guards, people smoking and selling petrol.  Security, anyone?


Although the Dili emu parade (the “limpeza”) appears to have ended, some bits of rubbish didn’t get moved.  Like a derelict car on the foreshore that has now been there for over four years.  Maybe no-one noticed it.


Kids picking aluminium cans out of the garbage and off the beach.  There must be a market for them, although since only the kids do it, it probably doesn’t really pay.


The normal PR victory of a huge 4WD, emblazoned with “UN” on all sides, driving well over the speed limit and horn blaring at any daring to get in its way.  I think the driver was in a hurry to get to breakfast.


People washing cars by repeatedly throwing buckets of water and/or hosing them down, and (separately) scattering water on the ground in front of houses and stores to settle the dust.  My comment that some of these activities would be illegal in my home town was met with blank incredulity. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Walk to work

My usual form of exercise is to walk to work. This takes between 45 minutes to an hour, depending on how hard I push it, and I carry a 7-10 kilo pack. I start before dawn and walk to the Palacio. I usually go past it, down to a local café, where I meet a few work friends and discuss the day’s issues before heading off to begin the actual business of sitting down and producing.

I decided, despite my poor camera skills, to actually record this. With my normal good timing I must have picked one of the haziest days I have ever seen to do this. The smoke on the air largely smelled of wood, rather than plastic, which was nice.

I started at my front door (the photo is the view looking out from there), then I basically stopped every 5 minutes and took a photo and then moved on.

However, the camera work slowed me down to the extent that I’m unlikely to do it again, so here’s the walk on Flickr.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Good news, bad news.

The good news was that like most of my work area, I was excused from ‘Limpeza’ (the Dili emu parade) this week.  The bad news was that, unlike the rest who were on a training course, I had worked till late the previous night.  I then worked early through to late on Friday, and was going to have to work all Saturday. 


However, the good news was that my first boss said the Saturday work would just be facilitating meetings.  The bad news was that it was Ministers of Government who were meeting and I don’t speak the language that well. 


However, the good news was that one of my co-workers will be there to translate, assist and for me to help her as well.  She’s sharp, well qualified and a subject expert on much of the material.  The bad news is that she doesn’t want to be there and may not turn up.


However, the good news is that my other boss says that I’m not facilitating the meetings anyway.  The bad news is that my first boss doesn’t know this. 


However, the good news is that I’m not being forced to take a position, just agree with whoever spoke last.  The bad news is that the situation is a bit like two dogs with one bone, and I’m the bone. 


However, the good news is that the meeting will define a lot of our strategy for us and help us aim things in the direction that the Government wants.  The bad news is that this will involve a shed load of high pressure, tight deadline work.  Which will inevitably fall on the shoulders of malae advisors.


However, the good news is that I am alive, healthy and happy.  After that, there can be no bad news.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Mothers Day 2009

We went out to Bob’s Rock for Just Add Water to just add water to her sadly dehydrated physiology.

I took photos on the way (set on Flickr) but most of them were blurred. Some things stuck with me, however. There were goats on the beach, a heavily pregnant pig which desperately wanted to pinch all our food and a couple of dogs, similarly motivated. Sometimes the pig would start to make a move on the food only for the dog to warn it off – a bit of an amusing game, all said.

Also we drove through an IDP [internally displaced persons] camp. This was a bit of an eye opener. I had expected UN supplied tents and folks sitting around doing nothing. Neither was the case. They had constructed huts out of local materials, the roads were lined with stacks of firewood and there were little canteens and such selling the necessities of life. Commerce was quite active. The denuded hills behind the camp pointed to the source of the firewood. These people are refugees in their own country, displaced largely in 2006 in the most recent round of significant civil strife. The Government is trying to resettle them back in their villages, but problems remain.

At Bob’s Rock, Just Add Water spent 90 minutes underwater on each tank, which is really low air consumption – good value for money, too! I just sat and read, as my initial snorkelling plans were derailed by murky water and a report of strong currents.

On the way back, we saw an accident near where we had dived, but the ambulance was approaching and we had no room in the car. Then we were diverted, as a UN car had apparently fallen off a low bridge just coming in to Dili proper. Then we were diverted again near the Royal Thai Embassy, for reasons that were not clear, but involved swags of police.

I later found out that, apart from these accidents, two young Timorese men had drowned that weekend, swimming near Cristo Rei in Dili. Unlike Just Add Water’s dive at Bob’s Rock, there are treacherous currents in front of Cristo Rei, the two men did not have scuba tanks and they were not Dili locals. Both left behind young families and one had just graduated from university with a master’s degree in international relations – a tragic loss for both his family and the nation. I had met him at several Rotary meetings. The other turned out to be a friend of my Tetun instructor.

Although this sounds fairly alarming, I mention its more by way of assuring people that this sort of thing is not normal. I see very few traffic accidents, despite the often carefree approach to driving.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Just for Fun…

[i]Hau nia naran Diak Malae.  Hau nia ferik-oan nia naran Just Add Water.  Ami iha ona-mane rua, sira nia nara Three Strokes ho Fidget.  Hau hela Timor-Leste fulan rua ona, e hau ho Just Add Water atu hela iha fulan sanulu liu nia laran.


Horiseik dadeer Just Add Water luku oras ida ho balu nia laran, e horiseik lokraik hanesan.  Nia gosta barak.  Nia haree “juvenile warty frogfish” hanesan “clown anglerfish”.  Iha lingua Tetun, ikun.  J


Sexta koruk iha hau nia servisu fatin, sira dehan katak hau nia xevi ba hosi director iha diretor geral.  Ami advisor sira preciza ajuda Ministeirio agora.  Depois, tenki servisu liu.


Hau aprende Tetun maibee hau comprende ituan ituan.  La gosta la bele koalia lingua Tetun seidauk, maibee hau hela aprende segunda-segunda, quarta-quarta, sexta-sexta.   Hau nia maestri hanoin hau koalia diak liu agora, e nia kontentu.


Yes, I’m showing off, but if you had to work the way I do to make what feels like really slow progress, you might feel a little bragging reinforcement was good therapy too.


Translation follows:


My name is Diak Malae.  My wife’s name is Just Add Water.  We have two sons, whose names are Three Strokes and Fidget.  I have lived in Timor-Leste for two months now, and Just Add Water and I will stay for [a further] 10 months duration.


Yesterday morning Just Add Water did a dive for an hour and a half and did the same in the afternoon.  She was very happy [with that].[ii]  She saw a juvenile warty frogfish, also known as a clown angler fish.  [That translates][iii] into Tetun as “fish”. J


Last Friday at my office, [it was announced][iv] that my boss was [promoted][v] from director to director-general.  We advisors will need to assist the Ministry [to adjust][vi]  now.  So, [we][vii] will have to work harder.


I am learning Tetun, but I still only understand a very little. [I][viii] do not like not being able to speak the Tetun language yet, but I am continuing to learn every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.  My teacher thinks [that][ix] I am speaking better now and he is happy [with my progress][x], [xi]

End notes:


[i] Just Add Water is a spoil sport and has insisted on a translation

[ii] Tetun is highly contextual – many parts are not spoken, they are simply understood.

[iii] See ii.

[iv] I have mistranslated/oversimplified this due to my insufficient language skills.

[v] See iv

[vi] See v

[vii] See iii

[viii] See vii

[ix] See viii

[x] See ix

[xi] See vi

Friday, May 8, 2009

Lots of blogging goodness today.

I have now caught up somewhat. Everything was delayed by wanting to get the piece on Kakadu up (in chronological order) and that meant getting the photos on Flickr and that meant getting the internet at home (which we have at last) and that meant getting organised. All of which I have now done. Normal service is resuming.

Some comments have appeared regarding adviser salaries up here, with that expert on running a lean, mean organisation, the Hon Alexander Downer, putting his 2c in. For those of my readers who know him and his track record, my advice is to read his contribution, apply as much belief as you would have to any of his previous statements, and you are all too likely to arrive at the truth. I'm not going to comment further on the issue, as the criticisms have not been based in fact, and responding to them is like putting out a fire by pouring on petrol.

May 1 celebrations

I am told that on May 1 it is a tradition in the villages to hold what Aussies call an ‘emu parade’. You go round sweeping, picking up litter and generally making the place more presentable. On very short notice, the Government in Dili decided that public servants would do the same in public places. So would the consultants. Of course May 1 is a public holiday here, so all the public servants were on overtime. The consultants were unpaid.

Then the Government held a celebration in the just-cleaned area. Three hours work by five hundred people flushed straight down the drain as the crowds gaily threw, and trod underfoot , every piece of litter they could lay their hands on. As I was nearby, I was only grateful that no-one had thought of burning it, as most was plastic.


This Friday, we are being told to do it again. I view it as a bit of a hoot, other malae were less amused. However, no-one could really complain. I saw the Minister for Finance with a broom (see photo), and she can’t walk too well (having had polio), but she was quietly and methodically sweeping away. I am told the PM was also in line for cleaning and that this is part of a “Clean Up Dili” campaign. The old UN administration (UNTAET) apparently used to do the same.
And the streets do look very much cleaner for the exercise. I saw a lot of private companies also taking part near their shopfronts.

Thursday, May 7, 2009


We set off at a leisurely pace, following the route of the tourist bus, but about 3 hours behind it. The first place we stopped was a really wonderful nature lookout called “Window on the Wetlands”. Very highly educational, in a kind of Questacon/Powerhouse Museum sort of way and its upper storey was a terrific viewing platform looking out over a vast wetlands. With free telescope. In fact the whole thing was free!

My favourite bird, the wedge tailed eagle (Autralia’s largest raptor), inhabited the area in quite large numbers. Unfortunately, my attempts to photograph them failed due to battery failure, and, when the batteries were replaced, they were insufficiently powerful to drive the camera. Getting ahead of myself, on the way back they were too shy or too close to the road (meaning that they bolted as soon as the car approached) to offer a decent photo opportunity. It doesn’t matter too much, it’s a widely photographed bird for those that don’t know it, and for me the pictures will live in my mind.

We stopped at Nourlangie Rocks, which has some absolutely spectacular aboriginal rock art. Photos are on Flickr here. We spent quite some time wandering around and looking at things. We spent the night at Cooinda, where the accommodation was good and inexpensive and the food was passable and hideously costly. The word ‘gouged’ was on our lips a few times.

The following day we arose at dawn to take the Yellow Water Cruise. We saw sea eagles, kites, several salt water crocs, including a largish one about a metre away from the boat and a very big one on the shore. There were other highlights as well, including jabirus in their nest in a tree and a sea eagle pinching a fish out of the water just before the saltie got there! Again, photos on Flickr.

We drove up to Ubirr to look at more rock art and back to Jabiru for an hour’s flight over the Arnhem Land escarpment. It was wonderful, as we were right at the end of the wet season and the waterfalls were still flowing (just). The only downside was the haze as the pre-dry burns were going all across Kakadu. After a pretty full day, we jumped in the car and drove the 250k back to Darwin. For some reason, I was a bit tired that night.

Eventually we got back to Dili. As usual, our first plans didn’t work, but I was back to work in time and Just Add Water came a couple of days later. It is clear that Dili Customs don’t really know how to use their equipment (our overshopping was a challenge and I probably ended up paying a little too much duty), but even that was an amusing, if a little extended experience. It took an hour to clear customs, but we’re home again.

Our excellent adventure

None of us had ever been to the Northern Territory for more than a few days. Even then, it was only me and I’d been there on business, no real time to tour and in any case not recently.

Darwin is almost unrecognisable from 10 years ago, much less from the scenes of wreckage that Cyclone Tracy left 35 years ago. It’s an interesting, cosmopolitan city. All the restaurants are proudly badged with one ethic cuisine or another – Turkish, Indian, Thai, Italian etc. The pubs are open air bars and there is a real pulse to the place. There’s a real racial mix to the population, as well. Along with the standard white Aussies, many aborgines are visible, plus Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian and even African faces.

I’d always thought Canberra was pretty multicultural, but Darwin leaves it for dead. The developing countries I’ve been in usually have something of a mix, especially in the expatriate population. The UN in particular draws its field staff from a wide range of countries. In Darwin, however, you get the feel that these people belong here.

We took off from Dili at an ungodly hour and arrived in Darwin, only to find that rental cars were like hens’ teeth. Apparently all the rental companies are getting ready to sell of their present fleet and very few were available. I’d had no luck booking on the web, but we travelled hopefully and the wonderful woman on the Hertz desk managed to wangle us exactly the car we wanted. Hooray!

One bad thing about Dili is that although you can get most things, the prices are hideous. It is seriously cheaper to buy what you want, fly it back to Dili paying excess baggage prices and duty at the other end rather than buying it in Dili. So we hopped into our rentacar, drove to a huuuuge shopping mall and did in about 2000 bucks worth of purchases. We are still going to have to get it through NorthAir, Customs and Dili Customs, which should be entertaining.

Just Add Water attempted to have her dive gear fixed, but the guy who had taken it apart in Dili had even done that wrong so she didn’t have the crucial bit. An hour later she had a whole new subunit, and she’ll install that herself. Next time, she’ll bring home the right bits and get it all fixed.

We collapsed into our room with our booty in the midafternoon. The first thing we did was to haul out our empty bags and fill them. Yes, we arrived and we packed. Nobody promised normal, alright?

After dinner, we returned to the room and watched Spicks and Specks and the Gruen Factor and laughed ourselves silly, so much so that Just Add Water was worried that we might have disturbed the next door neighbours. I reflected that it was more calming to hear a whole family giggling like maniacs than fighting like savages. A bit, anyway.

Next day, we were off to Kakadu.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A break, then a break

I haven’t posted for a while, as life has been a bit hectic with Fidget in town and adjusting to living not-alone again (hooray!) and moving house out of the sports bar to the other end of town near Embassy Row.

I will continue not to post, as Just Add Water, Fidget and I are off to Darwin tomorrow for five days. We’ll do the full tourist bit, including a dash through Kakadu. I will keep a log and update next week, when we arrive back.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Sights of Dili.

Some of these I have mentioned before, others not. It makes up some of what strikes me as different about this place.

Radiating out from the city centre, they are repaving all the footpaths with hexagonal pavers, usually in red and black, but sometimes also including yellow, the three (main) colours of the flag.

You see quite a few flags around. Most are East Timorese, but a large number are Fretilin flags. Fretilin is the largest party in East Timor (currently in opposition against a ‘unity’ coalition) and was the key political party representing armed resistance to the Indonesian occupation.

Children fly kites quite a bit here, to impressive heights. I haven’t seen the construction close up, but the string appears to be light fishing line and the kites are made principally out of discarded plastic shopping bags.

I have not seen refrigerated (iced) fish anywhere except in restaurants, and even that wasn’t top notch fresh. The man in this photo with fish on a shoulder pole had just finished rinsing them in the sea to wash away some of the smell.

The way oranges are sold is again off the pole, but they are bundled up in a really elegant way.

Children here are very openly joyous and free. At the same time, family discipline and hierarchy are very strictly observed.

The local bird here appears to be the Australian sparrow, which is a definite improvement over the Indian mynah. I’ve also seen some pretty large pigeons.

The earth near Dili has red Australian tones and there are plenty of eucalypts. Eucalypts and palm trees is an odd combination for me.

But I am continually struck by the demure, sidesaddle, scooter passengers, ankles crossed and often nursing a child.

I’ll write about this more…

A seaman, a spaceman and me.

The hash house harriers are a world-wide organisation of friendly yobbos whose motto is that they are “drinkers with a running problem”. Or in my case, walking.

Each week we gather in a different place. Runners follow a marked trail, walkers another. There are tricks and misdirections. You get to see places that you wouldn’t normally go near, in a way that is both fun and safe. One malae might be a target in some circumstances, 20 or more would give anyone pause. And often there are a few locals with us as well.

Today’s walk was terrific; flat, dry and long, through farms and fields, with children running and pointing, yelling “Malae, malae!” and laughing with glee as we replied “Bo tardi” [“Good afternoon”] and high fived those brave enough to approach. It seemed clear that although we were barely 2 kilometres from the main road, the sight of malae, and especially malae going through their villages, was a complete novelty.

The circle (the ceremony after the run/walk) was a relatively muted affair, followed by pizza and beer. The hash had been held far from my home and although I had walked there, it would have been midnight by the time I got home had I walked back. I didn’t think this was a hot option, but if I could just get to the highway taxis would still be running. But Spaceman came to the rescue and offered me a lift home. He also agreed to drive Seaman in the opposite direction. As it happened, the opposite direction was across the Cormoro River (which has a steel girder bridge).

However, both Spaceman and Seaman were geodesically inclined. They wanted to go the shortest route which meant cutting across the river bed, and in places the river. Half way across, there was a discussion as to which route to take. The navigator had all the advantages except one. He was near his home, he drives the area himself and part of the route was across water. The astrogator, on the other hand, had the steering wheel. Guess who prevailed?

We set off and made quite reasonable progress, cautiously navigating bumps and ditches until we were maybe 30 metres from the other side. That was good. We bogged. That was not good. We tried to drive out and sank to the chassis. That was bad. Eventually, while a band of locals fruitlessly helped to dig us out, Seaman walked the rest of the way home, and brought spades and tools and implements of destruction. And a chain with a 4WD attached. Unfortunately, he didn’t want to use his car to pull us out in case he sank too. We could see his point.

We dug the wheels clear of the sucking mud and the locals tried to pull us out with the chain, nearly succeeding. On the strength of that demonstration, Seaman decided that he could risk it with his 4WD and we were freed.

We had to drive to the other side – we had gotten so close! – and then unaccountably, Spaceman decided to take the bridge route on the way back.

Chicken. :)

Lazy Sunday afternoon

As readers know, I live in a sports bar. This is not as bad as it sounds, particularly at lunchtime on Sunday. The football is up at one end of the bar and I’m at the other, looking out to sea. Vendors move slowly, sticking to the shade as much as possible, and families saunter up and down.

There are three main types of vendors. Some have pushcarts or tricycles and sell a range of snacks, drinks (including beer), cigarettes, phone cards etc. Then there are the guys who walk the streets with a pole across their shoulders. From each end of the pole hang such things as fish, bananas, mangos, potted plants, live birds, bundles of oranges, bags of limes – a wide variety. You buy something from them and they cut the string attaching it to the pole and off you go. The third type are the likely lads, who wander the street selling tourist trash for 4 times its fair price – tais cloth, Timor Leste baseball caps, lanyards for hanging your pass on, cheap jewellery, banknotes from the previous regime etc. And, of course, cigarettes and phone cards.

From here I can see the port, boats, Ataúro Island and a wide sweep of ocean. Some days, although not today, the waters are brilliant blues and azures. Last night’s downpour has flushed a lot of mud into the harbour, dulling the colours.

There is a wind chime near where I am that, although soft, drowns out most of the noise from the televised rugby except the roar and the whistle when a try is scored.

Down on the beach, small children have entirely stripped off and are jumping up and down in the shallows. The boys seems to bathe naked up till perhaps 8 years old or so – the girls cover up at a much earlier age.

Some fishermen have pulled up their boat. Some are sorting and mending their nets, and one is cooking. Although from here I couldn’t possibly make out the details it is almost a certainty that they are boiling rice and chargrilling small sardine sized fish on skewers. I didn’t see them offload their main catch.

It really is peaceful.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Dili traffic 2

I saw it all today, but unfortunately captured very little on film. I saw 5 on a single motor bike (and the woman looked possibly pregnant).

I saw 5 guys hanging out the door of a "mikrolet" (the minibuses that are the cheap form of transport around here. Think about that for a second. The guy at the front can hang onto the door frame. The guy at the back can't quite do the same as the sliding door gets in the way, although he can if he faces backwards. That is apparently not an option, from my observations. Even the one in this photo has only glanced backwards.

So what you had was the front one (who is the conductor) gripping the frame and the seat and all others hanging by their fingers to the rain guttering!

The attached photo really is the one that got away. When I took it, they were straight in front of me, when the camera went off this is all I got.

If you look closely, the mother is sitting sidesaddle, as she has a skirt on. She is holding a small boy between herself and the father.

Completely obscured is the second child in front of the father.

I was in a taxi, stuck at a red light and by the time we could go, they were out of sight.

About the only thing Three Strokes ever told me about cameras that I understood was that lag time was a killer. I agreed with him at the time and do so even more now.

On the subject of cameras, photos etc, I have set up a Flickr account, where I will post photos. That way you can look at them if you want to without being forced to load them as a consequence of accessing this page. I'll try to put a permanent link to it on the sidebar.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


Episode 1 – Honestly!

Hunting for accommodation, one of the young women who served at the bar had several times offered to show me a place, only to not show up each time. I vowed this one would be the last time, having begun to believe that the place didn’t actually exist. Maybe she’d been promising it in a kind of Melanesian way. If I thought that I had a chance at something, whether or not it was the case, then that would make me happier temporarily, which had to be a good thing. As per usual, she didn’t show. I gave up and went around the corner, near to where I normally have breakfast and waited in a department store for the owner who also let out properties.

Unbeknownst to me she had arrived a few minutes after I left, late but actually coming. She already knew where I had breakfast (had a waitress friend there) and rushed around the corner to see if I was there. She missed me by 2 perhaps minutes as I fruitlessly hung around the back of the nearby store, out of sight and view of the street, waiting for the owner. Eventually I got in a taxi and went to the department store owner’s property to look at it. The barmaid and I must have crossed paths quite a few times.

My work phone went off. I had owned it almost two days, just about no-one knew its number and I didn’t recognise the caller. It was her. She’d convinced the cleaner to let her come into my room while he was cleaning it – everyone knew about my househunting – saw the packaging of the phone and read the number on the side. Her phone had been stolen a week earlier so she borrowed the bar manager's phone and called me.

I gave her points for trying hard and went back to look at her house.

Episode 2 Dis-Honestly!

I was at a dance and someone asked to borrow my phone, as hers was out of charge. “Out of credit”, I thought, but lent her my phone. A day later I started getting missed calls from a number I didn’t know. It was the young lady from the dance, who had used my phone to call her own phone and discover and save my number. She’d ring once and then hang up, hoping that I would call back on my dime. Which I did, once. Surely I remembered her, and wanted to take her out?

Her calls have since gone unanswered. 10 points for cleverness, 5 points for humour in the situation, 0 for integrity and -10 for ever wanting to lay eyes on her again.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Eating and drinking in Dili part 2

After 2 long entries, a short one.

Victoria, on the eastern set of beach restaurants. Coral trout, parrot fish, good company and BYO good wine.


Monday, April 6, 2009

Eating and drinking in Dili part 1

This can never be a final list. Competition here is savage, and I expect owners to go broke if they can’t successfully find and defend a niche. There are 2 sports bars, for instance and they go head to head on everything, even Sunday roast. On the other hand, there is one really fine restaurant, Nautilus, which has decided to unashamedly go for the top end on everything – food, wine list, staff training etc.

So bearing in mind the inevitability of some takeovers, remakes etc., here is the scene as far as I know it. Bear in mind that my research has been extensive, but not intensive and the views are mine. Many others disagree.

Also, this would be an ultralong post if I tried to include everything. Geographically, there are three main groupings – bayside to the west (bar/restaurants, some with accommodation), near all the embassies, in the centre of town, bars and restaurants often with accommodation as a primary earner, and bayside to the east (mainly beachfront restaurants).

We might start in the centre of town, for no good reason other than I live there. My home is the ‘One More’ Bar (motto “one more: why not?”), a sports bar with a nice feel. The meat here is always top notch and the food is traditional Aussie with a bit of fusion thrown in. You want a good snag, come here. They’re made on the premises. Cool, Van Morrison style music played soft and live on Friday’s and Sundays. Waiting staff are friendly and competent. It’s a really comfortable place to be.

Roo bar. Quirky, Aussie themed pub. For Australians, well worth a visit for the cultural icons collected and on display. When I get some internet back, I may return to the Roo Bar and do a stitch panorama. If 3 strokes wants to criticise my technique or technology he can keep it to himself. Or snicker behind my back on Flickr.

City Café. My favourite café and site of some morning breakfasts. I go there every day and had a pretty good dinner tonight. Staff are good, I don’t actually take to the owner much, and the food and wine list are very Portuguese themed. Stacks of UN staff there most days and I’m pretty sure a lot of them stay there.

Discovery Inn, incorporating Diya restaurant. Diya is the other fine dining spot in town that I am aware of. Expensive, very good wine and spirits list (up to Johhny Walker Blue!) and an odd but effective Portuguese, Japanese and Indian themed menu. Very slow, but that and the expense are about their only flaws.

Café Brasil. This is where Fully Loaded and I often hold business meetings. Good coffee, good snacks, often on Friday they hold a late night Brazilian event (only went once, was bored and left) and a beef carpaccio to absolutely die for.

Various Indonesian café/restaurants around the area. The economy option, they are largely indistinguishable from one another. Food is so-so, service is refectory style – point at what you want and some gets dumped on your plate, prices are low.

Sanan Ria Foun [New earth pot]. Interesting, newly opened restaurant. Food was OK but not spectacular, service was eager and I should probably have eaten outside, but hey, we all make mistakes. Met a friend and passed a very pleasant evening indeed there.

Sri Lankan restaurant. Oh boy, they had all the luck that night. Blackout. Generator malfunction. Sudden crowd of takeaway orders. I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt, and go back one day.

Indian Megha restaurant. Keen restaurateur, nice food. The butter chicken was more tomato-ey and less buttery than I’m used to, and that was rather a theme with his food. A more angular, penetrating taste, perhaps, without being aggressive or overspiced. Very economical, and I should go there one Saturday so I can snooze in the afternoon without guilt ($4.50 for all you can eat – hi, Fidget!).

Moon Bar, My Flower Bar. Have been to one, not the other. Chinese ladies peel off the wall and gravitate towards you, accidentally touching you. Finished my drink and left quickly. Was told the other is pretty much the same.

There’s more, lots, lots more, but that will do for the city centre. Next stop, Embassy Row.


It was the night Ugly Early turned ugly late. Ugly Early are a hugely popular local band (4 guitars, drums, and violin) who play classic rock – Hendrix, Stones and more with their own Timorese twist to it. If I can find a CD, I’ll buy it, and if I can find a clip (and someone was filming last night), I’ll seek permission to link to it.

The band was due to start at 9:30 but despite having done a sound check earlier in the night, ran into all sorts of tech troubles. Eventually the place rocked out and we all had a great time. Heineken was plentiful and everyone was having a good time. After the band had finished we were just getting ready to go when a bit of pushing and shoving between some Timorese started.

Security moved in to separate people but weren’t having much luck. Some people started picking up sticks but malae like myself persuaded them to put them down again. I think it was a relief for some to be able to say that they were going to support their brothers, but a malae stopped them. It seemed that we had calmed things down, but anyone who’s ever seen a bar brawl knows that the first thing about them is some idiot won’t take no for an answer. Generally another idiot will call him on it.

That was pretty much the case. Things escalated again. People were hitting people with chairs, punches were being thrown and lots of unsuccessful effort was going into trying to separate the parties. This time I stayed well clear – many faces were quite devoid of reason and voices were brimming with alcohol and anger.

One camp had been pushed and jostled out of the bar (which is open to the air) and the other camp (which included the owner) remained inside. A bottle came flying in, followed by stones. There was a funny noise and something hit the roof. Someone said a gun, but I’ve never heard one that sounded like that. By this stage, anyone with brains was sheltering behind the speakers or other convenient places. I made my way from there to behind the bar, and then to the back kitchen. I also called the cops, only to find that others had done so before me.

Eventually they arrived and restored order. That took time in itself. It didn’t appear anyone was too badly hurt, and eventually they let us go. They wanted someone to come down to the station to make a statement about what caused the fight. I begged off as I still don’t know the proximate cause or, as was of more interest to the police, who threw the first punch. Some left earlier, but I was a bit concerned that although this had been a strictly Timorese affair, roadblocks and other hazards could be on the cards. Despite the excitement, I hadn’t been in any real danger all night, and I wanted to keep it that way.

Eventually I got home at about 3:30, stiff and aching and tense, owing someone 4 Melbourne Bitters as taxi fare. I wanted a massage, but the only options I know for massages in this town are the physiotherapist and some of the beauty shops, unlikely to be open at that hour, and a karaoke/massage bar. Hmmm, perhaps not. So I went to bed.

I fell asleep at about 4. My alarm went off around 6. Someone rang about 8, breathless with the news of the fight. Eventually at about 10:30 I dragged myself out of bed. I look like hell today.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

I work in a palace, part 2.

I told you so....

I am, as Three Strokes will assure you, nobody's photographer. This is not art, but it is proof. It is also my workplace.

Read the silver lettering on the centre of the building. If you can't then double-click the photo itself and a full sized version will appear in a new window. Generally speaking, from this point on I will lower the resolution and/or set up a Flickr page and provide a link. But just for now, I wanted to do this.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Storm in a teacup

First the smarttraveller site told us that a Cat 1 (lowest intensity) cyclone was headed for Timor, although by the time it hit Dili, it would again be a tropical low, having vented its fury on the south side of the island, and the mountains.

For those of us registered with the Oz embassy, the warning was repeated by email (twice, because the first time didn't work for some, including me) and by SMS.

Then we were told by email and SMS that the path had shifted, a little away from Dili.

Finally, we were told by email and SMS that the forecast cyclone would not develop, had gotten a bit dizzy and tracked back on itself, and would pass at least 100km to the north of Dili, no gale force winds expected. Several expat friends muttered about overreactions and 'Dili never gets a cyclone'. I haven't reserached the statement so I don't know if it is true. There is a lot less leaf housing (easy to rebuild after a cyclone) in Timor than you see in cyclone prone Melanesia, but is that a weather thing, or a colonisation thing?

But I'm grateful.

I knew what was happening, up to date as predictions became public. Don't forget, chaos maths was almost invented to explain weather patterns. It was neither the fault of the Oz embassy or the Bureau of Meteorology that the predictions did not come to pass. I was grateful for the continual communication and the sense that there was a plan, or one developing, as the system and the situation did. And I'm hardly disappointed that I am not living through a cyclone, even a mild one.

Well done Stephen Smith, DFAT team, Consulate and BoM. Hopefully inan ho tia (the set of my female antecedent relatives by both blood and marriage) will sleep more securely knowing that you have demonstrated that you are indeed on the job.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Dili downsides

There's not that much I don't like about Dili. So here's a list.

Every river, every drain is a stinking, open sewer. The smell suddenly hits you like a Mike Tyson haymaker.
It is possible to drive without constantly using the horn. This fact appears largely unknown.
Fresh milk is entirely unavailable.
Cigarettes are entirely too available. I saw some under 5's 'practicing' smoking with a discarded cigarette butt.
There are several 'one stop shops' in Dili. They aren't.
Street prices are more expensive than shop prices. That's just wrong.
In a coastal city in a port town which is the capital of an island nation, fresh fish is hard to find.
I don't think I dare cycle in this town. Cyclists are apparently a slightly lower life form than plague rats.

The list of what I do like about Dili is too long to write up. I leave it as an exercise to the student to infer the list from primary sources.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Is Bleg even a word??

I don’t really care, here’s mine.

I met this guy. He is concerned that in this country a great deal of preventable death could be avoided if only condoms could be efficiently distributed.

He has an idea, which I don’t like AND I think is utterly brilliant. Bear with me and remember that this man is passionate about health.

The distribution of condoms should be done in an industrial fashion, he argues, for economies of scale and utilisation of existing channels. So far, so good. Moreover, he wants the product to get in the hands of males, which makes rice and foodstuffs a bit less useful. He needs something sold in small packets on a frequent basis is to get the condoms in the hands of individuals, free and unavoidably.

So who is going to do this? Aid agencies? They’ve tried but have no real ‘leverage’ with the intended consumer, many of whom would not going to walk across the street to get a condom even it was free. Pharmacies? IF they exist where the people are, they need to profit from every product (whether or not they are paid not to). This guy’s answer?

Cigarette companies!

He doesn’t like them any better than you or I do, but they could actually assist health in this regard. Smoking in Timor is more prevalent than you can guess. I like empty restaurants because it means some jerk is not going to light up in the middle of my meal but the life expectancy is so low that I actually think that the ability to distribute condoms and control both fertility and disease would lower the incredible infant mortality rate.

A health worker told me that in the first year of life, the infant mortality rate was immense, I think on the order of 10 per cent! Much of this was preventable and could be addressed by nutritional education, but quite a bit is due to the economic pressures caused by large families, and the poor health of mothers due to continous pregnancy and poverty, which leads to low birth weight, less robust babies and more deaths.

Cigarettes are poisonous and objectionable. However, if people are going to smoke, and nearly every male in Timor seems to, then perhaps something good can be made to come out of it.

And the tobacco companies would probably be only too happy to improve their poor image.

Of course the aid agencies won't touch it with a barge pole for fear of being tainted with the accusation of supporting cigarette companies.

So here's the bleg in two parts:

(1) Can anyone think of a way to make this idea fly? It needs support and practical demonstrations before a company is going to change its manufacturing process to wrap condoms with its products, although I understand a trial has just started in Cambodia.

(2) Can anyone suggest a better product? It needs intense market penetration, a male bias (or at least not a female one) and a sophisticated manufacturing base. If the concept could be made to work with a less objectionable product and the manufacturers were will to pick up on it, that would be good. Soap is one suggestion that has been made. Are there others?

Accommodation blues

By and large, accommodation is not easy here. Big companies like Patrick/Toll apparently have their own compounds as well as long term contracts on houses. The Oz embassy has a huge compound on the beach front. Most hotels have their long term options booked long term. Love the business model, hate its personal implications. Quite a few of the hotels were put up when the initial UN intervention happened. They are converted shipping containers, no joke. Even some of them have no vacancies. For quite a while there was a floating hotel as well. I think it sailed away last year to a more troublesome trouble spot when it looked like the UN was reducing its presence here and accommodation would be less profitable.

I’ve been spending some time looking for alternate accommodation. I’m quite OK where I am, but I’m mortally certain Just Add Water does not want to live in a sports bar. It’s just the way she is. She would be happy except that she doesn’t like loud noise. Or sports. Or bars. Last night ‘Jim Ligament’, my travel agent, decided he was li'l Axel Rose, Deep Purple and Screamin' Jay Hawkins rolled into one package. At about 10 pm and 120 decibels. And I admit that I’ve never heard an amateur scream as tunefully as he did. But I was glad Just Add Water missed the fun. I was discussing biz with Fully Loaded, but I eventually gave up.

Even so, anyone coming to Dili should give my present digs a try. The owner is great and bends over backwards to try and meet all reasonable requests. Some people have literally been living there for years. Contact details available.

But life keeps giving. I was all out of leads at 7 am and by 8 am had followed up a promising but futile lead. Its night, I’m waiting on one phone call tonight and an email lead tomorrow, as well as having put out a plea on the hash network (for which I will be assuredly punished, but possibly rewarded as well).

I was told, I don’t know if it’s true, that my extremely senior local boss at work moved out of his own house to rent it to someone like me! It was a deal that worked for everyone, but it speaks volumes. Cross your fingers for us.

I don’t mean to sound disloyal, but…

...Timor has truly more than its fair share of good looking people of all ages and both sexes. I’m not alone in this opinion and although I’m slightly straighter than a ruler’s edge, I have gay friends here who tell me that my observation crosses sexuality as well as gender lines.

Suffice it to say regarding the young men, that they seem to have a certain amount of grace, handsome faces and some of them the sort of bodies that would certainly not be out of place on magazine covers. Beyond that, and their lovely skin colour, I’m not really qualified to comment.

The women are pretty in a way that I haven’t managed to define. Asiatic almond eyes, Melanesian skin tones, Polynesian hair and Iberian grace and style. It is a truly attractive combination.

The men often don’t dress that well – the street guys wear daggy jeans and loose fitting short sleeve shirts or t-shirts, usually with English-language logos. Work dress is a bit better, but it certainly lacks the panache of the women. Hoop earrings, glossy satin shirts, tailored tops and well fitting jeans with embroidered pockets is more or less standard. Hairstyles range from layered with quirky tails, through bunched ponytails to long hair hanging free.

I'm told the men go to exquisite care when dressing for the disco, but since I've never been there, I'll have to take the statement on faith.

Today in the office was a bit odd, actually – several were wearing skirts, which is not unusual, but they had gone for the unironed look. It’s rare that I’m amongst the best turned out in any office, although I do try. I’m just not very talented at it, I guess. Or maybe I was just failing to understand an important fashion statement.

Alternatively, since there was a blackout last night, if they didn’t have private generators, they might not have been able to iron the weekend washing.

Monday, March 23, 2009

I work in a palace

The Palacio do Governu is a literal palace, white walls, columns and arches, tiled floors and modern furniture. And I work in it. It’s a far cry from Honiara’s asbestos hut with the bodgy aircon, toilets in another building etc. I’m told Budget Directorate has only just moved in, and that accommodation used to be less salubrious, but I don’t really care. It’s lovely.

It isn’t Canberra, of course. The grounds are littered with prefab ‘kobe houses’ (pronounced almost like cubby houses, and sharing some of that atmosphere), the IT infrastructure is unreliable at best and the wood pattern lino, laid in the last month or two, is already lifting. It’s still lovely as far as I’m concerned.

For a variety of technical reasons, the cleaners couldn’t get to the windows in Honiara, and they had 2 years worth of grime obscuring the outside. There are guards all over the place, but they seem pretty relaxed and they carry nightsticks, not AK-47s. They apparently sometimes give you a bit of grief if you don’t have a pass, but that didn’t happen to me, and now my pass has been issued.

The Palacio fronts the Ocean and is really worth a photo or two. I guess I should get a camera if I’m going to take this seriously. For now though, you’ll have to deal with word pictures.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Scar tissue

I cut myself shaving, alright?

Just not the usual way and in a far more comprehensive fashion than the phrase conjures up.

I had finished my morning shower and was reaching for the razor. There was soapy water on the floor and I remember losing my footing, reaching for the bathroom shelf and falling. I woke up on the tiled floor and muzzily tried to go to work.

Fortunately I ran into Fully Loaded at the gate who took one look at the blood and sent me back to my room. I was deep in shock, I guess. I woke again a couple of hours later when someone came to make up my room, only to find blood on my clothes, bedding and mossie net. The bathroom floor was a sea of crimson.

The twin cuts on my forehead hadn't really stopped bleeding so I went to the pharmacy for some bandaids. They took one look at me, ushered me into the back room, lay me down and put a stack of stitches in. Later, the editor of the Dili Guide Post photgraphed them (along with others cuts and abrasions and his own bandages) for a what not to do in Dili issue. Looking forward to that. For those overseas, he puts up the Guide Post in .pdf format on the web.