Sunday, November 30, 2014

Travelling West

A bit an adventure yesterday. I went to a nearby town, Liquica, with the hash for a walk. It was pretty hot but somewhat cloudy. Liquica is far enough away to have different weather to Dili anyway.
Our walk set off. It was to be a short walk around the town, pointing out points of interest rather than a long walk with occasional beauty spots whose purpose was principally exercise.

The points of interest arose before we reached the first one. A group of youths had blocked off the street with traffic cones and were saying “Labele! Labele!”. This literally meant forbidden and it was clear from the context that we were not to follow our path. A rapid exchange of Tetun began and it looking up ahead there was a large outdoor ceremony with people on plastic chairs overflowing out of a shrine and blocking the road. Our prospects for continuing did not look good.

Just then the skies opened. Torrential rain bucketed down. My carefully applied sunscreen and mosquito repellent were gone in a flash, but there was no sun to speak of and any insects foolish enough not to be seeking shelter would have instantly drowned. All the chairs on the road were immediately shifted to positions with a less favourable view but more cover. The youths manning the roadblock, seeing the way clear, allowed us past with an instruction to be respectful.

We went past the shrine, where a bass-baritone was singing something that sounded like it might have come out of Timor-Leste’s animistic past. A supreme irony of the Indonesian occupation was that through their refusal to accept ‘non-organised’ religions, like the widely prevalent animism, they may have created the most Christian and Catholic country on earth outside Vatican City itself. Nevertheless, articles I have read suggest that strong roots to the old animism survive inside ‘Timorese Catholicism’.

We quietly filed past the crowd, who looked at us curiously, but no-one disturbed the old man singing. We made our way up to Liquica Hospital and back down through the ceremony once more. This time a pair of teenagers were singing a religious duet. We quietly filed by again, and although some of the younger people in the crowd looked at us and giggled (they were sheltering and we were stolidly trudging through the rain) it seemed we had not really impacted on those for whom this was most important. I hope so, anyway.

We went past the Portuguese governor’s mansion, now being rebuilt after having been pretty much destroyed, an intact church where Indonesian troops or their Timorese supporters had massacred women and children attempting to hide from the fighting and other buildings, either derelict and being rebuilt or in the process of being built to stimulate social and economic life. One walker commented that after travelling the districts he was stunned at how little trade took place. Firewood, cigarettes, ‘pulsa’ (mobile phone credits) and car and bike fuel accounted for a great deal of it.

Eventually we made it back and went to dinner. I’d decided to go home early and fortunately so had many of the drivers. We went in convey at several kilometres out of liquica were stopped in a traffic snarl. There had been a flash flood, the road had washed away and locals were performing a basic repair as traffic built up. I went to look. They were using nothing but sticks and bare hands as tools. Eventually the heavy equipment – a single spade – was brought. After about an hour we got through, aware by that stage that there was another potential trouble spot ahead.

The bad news was that there was indeed a blockage, with a worse traffic snarl than before. The good news was that a combined trench digger/bulldozer was already at work. The bad news was that the road had been washed away to a depth of 3-4 metres – it was a gaping gash and the digger at best could create only a single lane passageway while traffic was snarled in both directions. The good news was that there was a landslip behind us, which we had avoided but hash members from the US Navy Construction Brigade (known as the “CBs”) had been caught behind. Using their own bare hands and with local help they had cleared the road enough for them to catch up with us.

Eventually, the digger finished its work and with CBs directing traffic, we set off along roads that had been choked with dust that afternoon. It was now night and the roads were wet all the way to Dili. The night was cool and pleasant and we’d driven the 40 kms home in about 3½ hours.

I hope my next travel out to the districts isn’t quite as interesting.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Monster post

I swear I am going to start a new blog. Currently I have to go into a years-dead identity, linked to a now non-existent ISP, to log on. Because Google knows what my current identity is, it helpfully  logs me into that instead and refuses access to this. So I have to do it via an incognito window - cumbersome, but I can do it, so enough complaining.

I've been in Timor for a month and it has changed in some ways and remained very much the same in others. Despite the huge turnover in advisors and diplomats and aid workers, I'm pleased to keep running into old mates. Long term expat friends are also a pleasure plus I'm making new friends.

I have been as busy as a one-legged man in a bum kicking contest, trying to find accommodation, buy a car, learn Tetun and put in a decent week's work while learning the ropes. Also I have absolute nightmares with Google, IT and networks, so forgive the lack of communication until now.

The rains came today (it remains to see if they last). At 4 pm it felt like 45 degrees C, at 4:05 I was wondering if I was too late to build an ark. (And where would I get the animals, two by two? Dili's not London and it hasn't a zoo!) By 6 pm 2 inches of rain had fallen and the roads were largely dry. Muggy is too mild a term for how it feels, but the temperature has dropped to about 30 and the humidity can't be too much above 98%.

I'm working in a Ministry which at least for now shall go nameless, helping them strengthen their financial systems. I'm getting used to the pitying gazes when I say that, and the surprise when people realize that I'm not here for the cash, I think this can be done and I am the bloke to do it. Not the only one in the world, obviously, but uniquely qualified all the same. And I really have some great people to work with.

(As everyone knows, I don't discuss matters properly the business of the Timorese government, the Australian government or my employer here on my blog. Apart from anything else, it would a betrayal of confidence and totally unprofessional.)

I smile and say the greeting appropriate to the time of day to many people on the street (I walk nearly everywhere which is great for fitness but has led to a couple of bad sunburns). I get the occasional thousand-yard stare, but usually at least a smile and/or a verbal acknowledgement. Quite a few times young people (and I remind readers that the Timorese are rather beautiful, with the most stunning smiles) have walked along with me. I have spoken in my fairly stumbling Tetun, which their English generally puts to shame.

I have to admit, I was rather worried about the intentions of some of the young women, but it seems that they just wanted to talk to a friendly malae who was at least trying. I realise that very few foreigners do try. A couple of the young men did want to use me as a contact with the embassy to help them access the 'working in Australia' scheme, but I managed to persuade them that I was not in the embassy and had no influence on their selection processes. They gave up with reasonable grace, and as with everyone else, I thanked them for the Tetun lesson.

In talking in Tetun, direct questions are asked, although indirect replies often given. Questions not considered nosy when talking to someone for the first time include "Where are you going?", "Where are you [originally] from?", "How many children do you have?" and "How old are you?". The answer to this last question nearly always shocks them, in that I am so old (they wouldn't have guessed) and that I only have two children, none returned (i.e. died before the age of 2). I get my own share of shocks. One girl I was walking with turned out to be 22 (somewhat more then I had guessed although I had been misled because she was still at school) with two children.

Oddly, your name often is asked last, or not at all.

Tonight I am sitting in the restaurant in the place where I live. The food's not great. Apparently it used to be then both chefs left. I had fried eggs the other morning for breakfast. Possibly deep fried. The staff are friendly but need just about a .45 fired over their heads to get their attention. Like much of Timor, busy work plus a fair bit of wandering back and forth and taking mobile phone calls occupies them. This is not a slur, It is an indication that 400 years of occupation where initiative was punished takes its toll on even the proudest people. But it is something that can, in time, be adressed.

And that will be part of my job, in a country that has always known the stick and rarely the carrot.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Back on the ground again

Where has the time gone? Just Add Water and I have been rushing around like the proverbial headless chooks, particularly trying to arrange new accommodation. The market is very tight for reasonable apartments or villas. Between the two of us we've inspected well over twenty and the search continues. The thought of living in a hotel room for a year leaves us both fairly cold.

With the sacking and expulsion of a number of foreign legal advisors and judges (remember, my blog does not make political comments or judgements) I was rather selfishly hoping that some quality stuff would hit the market, but none of my contacts have come forward. At the moment we are paying $US3,200 per month for a 2 bedroom place overlooking a construction site with electricity, gas, laundry, cleaning, water rates and everything else NOT included. There is free internet but you are fortunate to download a single page in a night. Reminds me of internet speeds in 1990!

We're also looking for a car, although we might have a little more luck there. A soon-to-depart aid worker has a relatively good 4WD on offer. Cars in Timor keep their value, and so are relatively expensive but you get your money back in the end.

Less household, more Dili.

I've been on one Hash run (walk), walked the 11 km loop around the Christo Rei peninsula behind the huge statue of Christ, attended Rotary (funny how many of the Hash hoons are pillars of the Rotarian society) and covered a very conservative 50kms on foot in the last two weeks. Just Add Water has been doing well and will go on her first dive tomorrow. Somehow, don't ask me, last night she was complaining of cold feet (literally, not figuratively).

Dili has changed in some ways and not at all in others. I'll go into more detail later, but I'm warm and there's really nothing that compares with a G&T in the tropics. The Dili population, by and large are not as painfully thin as I remember them, but I'll be visiting the hospitals in the districts soon and I expect to see another story. Hunger is a major issue here.

The clever merchants of Dili have come up with a way to market jeans. Given that Timorese women are still very slender on the whole, they buy skinny leg mannequins, squeeze them into the jeans and just leave them unzipped at the front (no way that these jeans are going to fit a western model's figure!).