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.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Dili traffic

I’ve been meaning to write about this. Dili traffic has a poetry all of its own, an ebb and flow that is particularly sea-like.

Aside from the newly marked one-way streets, Dili’s traffic adjusts to the time of day. Four any given two lane road, four lanes of traffic will flow, three to four of them in the predominant direction. Tooting seems to be about the sole form of communication with headlight flashing not only rare but random in occurrence and intent. Added to this is the habit of taxi drivers to toot all prospective fares, young men to toot pretty girls and 4WDs to toot to establish their precedence in the traffic pecking order. Nevertheless, it’s not loud and not particularly aggressive. Flow is the perspective and the word.

Things more flow into things than barge, push or shove. I’m looking forward to getting a car but they are unaccountably expensive.

A lot of writers mention bad and aggressive UN drivers. I haven’t really noticed this personally, but I’ll give it time. They do seem less patient than others, but then others can be infuriatingly slow.

As with many places, the majority of people walk. The little minibuses (‘mikrolets’) travel absolutely packed with usually 3 or 4 guys hanging out the door. This appears to be traditional, rather than required by space considerations. Taxis are also cheap but I tend to walk because I see more that way. A restaurant (Mama’s, a new Thai place) that I’ve eaten at a couple of times, the owners said that they were used to seeing me walking around. I guess most malae (foreigners) don’t walk, and those that do aren’t wearing an Akubra.

Families of four or fewer often travel on a scooter or motorbike. I have seen the occasional bike laboring along with 5 passengers. Mum and Dad have helmets, but the kids don’t. I imagine accident statistics are not particularly favourable, although I haven’t actually seen a crash scene. The main form of damage to cars is not dents from bumps, but smashed windscreens from rocks. Up to a couple of years ago, gangs were notorious for stoning cars. I passed one car yesterday with what looked like a bullet hole in the windscreen. Expats were nonchalant about the sight, suggesting that in all likelihood the hole was years old.

Update: One thing I forgot to mention is the common sight of the men driving the bikes and the ladies riding behind, often sidesaddle. It, like many things East Timor, looks very elegant.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

You never get a second chance to make a first impression…

…so I guess these are my second impressions of Dili. The street kids are poor, but they are also dirty. Not sure why that is, as even in the slums of the Solomons you could have used their clothes as the after shots in a laundry detergent ad.

Everywhere there is building going on. All the footpaths are being repaved and the longer term expats say that there is a bit of a new feel to the people.

There isn’t much in the way of rubbish bins, but also not significant loads of rubbish around the place. At the same time they don’t burn stacks of rubbish, although I’m told they do burn fields and like a bit of fire.

I walk. A lot. The people are friendly and the place is laid out relatively predictably. I got turned around a bit once, but a nice young man, with almost as little English as I had Tetun got me to where I was trying to go (rather than back the way I came, which I could have managed). I’ve often guessed a bit wrongly as to which way to go, but I usually don’t get lost, just cut down a side street and re-establish my route.

You see more of the town that way, anyway. I could carry a map, but I haven’t bothered, at least to this point.

Expats here are referred to as “Mr [Firstname]”. I don’t resist, since I refer to my Timorese boss as Senhor A, and his assistants, my counterparts, as Senhores A, C and E. I’m still feeling my way around addressing the ladies in the office. My guess is that most or all are married, but it’s not the sort of thing you want to get wrong, and enough glitter and bling is worn to make judging by rings pretty unreliable.

I start Tetun lessons today after the lady at the college whose course teaches intensive Tetun promised that after 3 weeks of spending all morning learning Tetun ( big ask in time terms!) I would be able to barely hold my own in a short social conversation. So I’ve hired a tutor instead. Afterwards, I found out she has a PhD in Tetun, and maybe her linguistic bar is set pretty high.

There are lots of pigs and goats, with the occasional and always brilliantly coloured chook around. The huge number of goats and the lack of goat on ANY menu I’ve seen to date, makes me wonder if they are milk animals. The dogs don’t look exactly healthy but they aren’t mangy street rats.

My wondering about the vendors continues. A bloke with a pole with bunches of fruit on each end was trying to sell them, as you do. He chanted out “mango,mango,mango”, pretty much as one word, as you might, to draw attention to his produce. What is wrong with this picture? Well, he’d actually wandered into a restaurant at lunchtime while everyone was sitting down and eating. Oddly, he didn’t make a single sale.

The sun really bites here, you can feel it beating down. I wore a big hat everywhere, and collared shirts, but even so, I managed a mild sunburn but I got to it with cream and it has faded. I didn’t leave home without applying sun block this morning.

I'm liking it here.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

A week is a long time in politics. And Dili.

A full week in Dili and I’m left with all sorts of impressions. There are a lot of street vendors, selling cigarettes and telephone cards, or ones with tricycles selling water and soft drinks, along with cigarettes, chips and noodles. There are a lot of roadside canteens selling basic necessities, and at least along the main drag a lot of Indonesian and other food places. I’ve been in a couple and you get a very good lunchtime feed for not that much money. Others find the vendors an annoyance – I’m glad they are doing something, anything, to raise a quid.

Hypocritically, of course, I am not consistent. Taxis beep malae (foreigners) as a way of saying ‘You’re walking, surely you want a lift’. By the twentieth beep in a 10 minute period, I get pretty jack of it. But as I say, they are only trying to make a crust. It’s not their fault I’m so out of condition that I need to walk everywhere. As penance, I’ll hire one soon to take me to Christo Rei, the huge statue of Christ that overlooks the harbour, and back. It’s about a 4-5 hour round trip on foot, and I will walk it at some stage, but I figure there’s going to be one lucky taxi driver.

A kid came up to me today to sell me a baseball cap with Timor Leste and the flag on it. I actually had been looking to buy one (or more) and was told that they cost US$3-7 depending on how hard you wanted to bargain. I was going to the ANZ machine as I was low on cash, but I asked him how much. “$5, I mean $10” he said. I laughed – the greed play was so over the top. By the time I came away from the cash machine the price had dropped to 4 hats for $10, without my saying a word. I pulled out my wallet (the cash machine was broken) and discovered $2. Total. I’ll get my hats another day.

I walked out to some of the stores along the way on Sunday, including to the Cormoro markets where I bought turmeric root – mmm. Betel nut was on sale and I noticed more of the red mouths than I had seen before (betel nut stains everything bright crimson). There was meat on sale – I wouldn’t have touched it in a pink fit – flies all over, no refrigeration, definitely whiffy and that’s not even taking into account what the animal’s health was like to begin with. At One More Bar, where I’m currently living, the owner is a skilled butcher. He kills the animals and carves them, makes his own sausages and has a smokehouse as well. Sunday roast is a bit of a treat. This week it will be beef, pork, turkey, chicken and duck. One of the other hotels has gone into direct competition, with ‘traditional Aussie roast’ ever so coincidentally on Sunday as well. I have the vague feeling that One More Bar is going to come out on top, on this round.

More joyously, as the only meat options are frozen meat or market meat (urrgh!), the owner has agreed to sell meat to me – fresh, wholesome and tender. I’ll empty my freezer soon, but I intend to buy his sausages, which are not specially spiced or anything, just a plain good ol’ snag.

I had dinner with Fully Loaded the other night. We put away a fairly nice bottle of red that I had managed to secure and gossiped about work and the people there. His partner managed to turn on a bit of a feast including some delicious chicken. Fully Loaded attempted to find out how it had been cooked but apparently got stonewalled. I guess it was a case of 11 Secret Herbs and Spices. Speaking of which, there appears very little in the way of real roadside cooking – I’ve seen it once or twice only. That may be a function of the ‘warungs’ – the roadside cafes that are everywhere here.

I understand more barbequing goes on down at the beach area, which is about a half hour hike from my place. I’m more or less on the shore, but the beach restaurant strip is a little way away.

Xanana Gusmao is my near neighbour. For those a bit hazy on Timorese history, he was jailed for some time by the occupying Indonesian forces, became the country’s founding president and is now the Prime Minister. It’s kind of cool having a sub-prime-ministerial address, but you know it when his convoy comes through – high speed, sirens blaring and weaving through the rapidly clearing traffic. I want take a photo of his gurads, although I don’t have a camera. It’s not every day you see the National Guard carrying AK-47s (which also appear on the national crest).

I attended my first hash, in the hills above Dili. The scenery was breathtaking, truly gorgeous and other superlatives. Insert your own and be in the running to win a prize of a free, no-expenses-or-ticket-paid holiday to East Timor. You can stay with me if you don’t mind sharing a bed.

The hash master, Daisy, is a tall, long haired, tattooed hoon. He also supervises Rotary projects here and is apparently the only paid Rotary project manager in the world (it’s his full time job). Rotary has troubles raising interest and effectiveness here, which is disappointing as there is so much work to be done. I’ll attend next Thursday to see what I can do to be of assistance. The Dili hash is less tuneful than the Honiara hash, which I hadn’t thought possible. There needs to be a greater involvement of locals – few or none attended with about 50 running and walking. They also desperately need a choirmaster. I may volunteer for their version of the mismanagement committee. Hash horn, OTOH, actually managed to get a tune out of the instrument.

There are four really major supermarkets here – Landmark and Leader (about 90 minutes walk away), Cold Store over the back fence, and Lita, next to the PM’s house (i.e nearby) and across from some pretty spiffy fruit markets. Landmark and Leader are the big ones, but it’s a bit of a case of needing to try them all to find what you need. And prices are SOOOOO variable. I saw DVD machines on sale recently – not Aldi prices, but OK. Until. I got closer and read carefully. They were actually VCD machines and I’m not sure if anyone even makes VCDs anymore. The DVD machines were a little further on and went for US$200 a throw. Minimum. On special. Sheesh! I saw gas BBQs for $US500 plus. I was stunned and not tempted. I think I’d sooner eat at warungs every day.

All is going well at work. I have, ever so infrequently, been accused of being opiniated and pigheaded. Fortunately, Fully Loaded makes me look mild in a number of ways. Maybe I should be Slick Willy. I’ve been getting on well with my new boss, who for the purposes of this journal will bear the sobriquet Nixon, partly from a sonic congruence, partly because he is truly political and definitely not as a reflection on his morals or standard operating procedures. By the end of my second week I should have a work program ready for approval by all, and hopefully by the end of the following week a staff development plan.

And I’ve got to learn Tetun, the local language.

In summary, a jumbled, confused, satisfying and accomplished week. I’m happy, healthy, hale and hearty and I’m off to eat some roast duck. And beef. And pork. And chook. And turkey. And gravy. I’ll lose weight tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Food for thought

It doesn't take me much to make me happy. Good red wine, fast internet and the occasional burn in a sports car.

So why Dili? Maybe I'm just not smart...

Start up enterprise

My first day in the office was, like all first days, a bit of a mixed bag. Along with all the things I did expect, there were also those I didn’t, such as where were my passport photos for ID cards (hadn’t been asked), my passport to get a telephone (hadn’t thought of that) and my computer (they were supposed to provide one but the new ones will probably be here in September. Maybe.)

The tour of Dili confirmed some impressions – it will be a lot easier to buy most things that we found hard to get in the Solomons, fresh milk is unavailable, and you don’t drink the water, but you don’t have to. The ups and downs continued that day and into the next. Up: Fully Loaded, my co-worker is a lot of fun and sharp. Down: my UPS, carefully packed was somehow smashed by Air North – a couple of hundred bucks and 8 kg of baggage and excess baggage fees shot. Up: At least I can get a replacement here. Down: Things move as slowly as one might expect. Up: I should have a kitchenette apartment in a couple of days – hooray!

I'm here!

So I’ve landed in Dili and so far it’s gone well. All my bags arrived! The customs guy eventually conceded that maybe I didn’t need to pay duty on a 3 year old coffee machine or a 3 year old printer. And no, I didn’t have the purchase invoices. The guys from the Department picked me up and brought me to my digs where there was no one in the office, it being Sunday. They nevertheless got the key and we moved in.

They had taken off before I realised that there was no kitchenette and the room was pretty sparsely furnished. Not what I had paid for, and not very like the photos. Later things got better. I spent of lot of time walking around the local area and bought a little fruit (bananas! bush limes!) and just taking in the sights without trying to form too many impressions. There’s more variation in skin colour than I expected although less than the Solomons, and some of the people have that same elegant posture that I missed while back in Australia.

I met quite a few people, including several Dili hash regulars such as Footrot and Wal, a newbie named Whip Me, Beat Me who had singularly managed to attend his first Hash, get named and be awarded PoTW all on the same run, a couple of construction workers who talked fishin’, fightin’ and other stuff involving the letter f, some fairly inebriated but very pleasant folks celebrating a significant birthday, and the owner of the establishment, Gil. Gil blamed my accommodation on the travel agent, who is currently in Bali and can’t be contacted. In other unpleasant news the internet was slow (no surprise) and not free (as promised by the same travel agent).

And tomorrow, I start the new job. I’m unwilling to really unpack as I might be moving rooms. If I’m lucky.