Tuesday, December 30, 2014


I first came across this term as having the meaning to ride your skateboard behind a car holding the bumper bar, preferably ducking low enough so the driver couldn't see he was towing you as a hitchhiker-cum-stowaway.

There is a refinement here in Dili. A kid on a bicycle will hang on to the tail hook of a cooperative motorbike rider and coast along. Sometimes 2 kids. My record, though, was Dad with one hand on the right of the tow rail and his other arm linked to a son whose brother was linked to him.

But wait, that’s not all.

On the other side, brother number 3 was holding the left of the tow rail, making for a 5-wide cavalcade of riders. They were travelling at a comfy 20 kph down the main street of Dili calmly ignoring the honks of protest from traffic banked up behind.

There aren't that many roads without deep or extensive potholes in Dili and it didn't seem to me that the one handed riders (or none, in Dad’s case) would cope with this well. I wonder where they were going?

Conference in a Carmelite Convent

It’s the weekend between Christmas and New Year, and I’m working trying to begin the process of educating staff. Some of them are finance staff who have never been shown their budgets. This weekend they are going to be told about execution rates, how to estimate cash needs and even perform the actual estimate for next year. 

They are also being told they will be getting position descriptions (most have none, and those that exist are outdated) and the outline of a restructure will be promulgated for discussion. It’s a massive load of work for staff who really aren't prepared for much of this.

The beauty of finance, governance and systematization will, I suspect, be largely lost on them, given the extraordinary amount and mix of coceptual, legal and process work and learning being imposed in such a short time.

But we are in an Carmelite convent, in Maubara, one and a half hours west of Dili. It is also beautiful. And I’m about to upload some photos of the convent, high on a hill, and the views to my Flickr account. Edit: Sorry, Yahoo has bought Flickr and locked me out of my account. Here are a couple of the convent, and the view. Clicking on them should bring out the lovely large HD images.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The things you see

There is a principle in law in Australia called adverse possession. If you use something for at least 20 years and don't recompense the owner, who does not make a claim on you, you can claim ownership. It's a very drawn out version of 'Finders keepers, losers weepers' I guess. I'm not sure that the same principle applies in Timor, but quite a few companies publish letters stating their sole right to names (such as Samsung, Toyota etc). I do wonder if this is in response to, or anticipation of, such a law.

It rains every day, and there is more water on the roads and less water in the drains. Haven't figured that one out.

Many of the Timorese seem to sing their language (which is not tonal). Just Add Water pointed this out to me about a month ago, and now my accent is much better as a result. Rising and falling inflections are often the only way to distinguish between a statement, a question and a demand. No wonder that the word for language in Tetum ('lian') also means song.

It's Christmas and all over Dili, people are building nativity scenes, with spare wood, thatched roofs and cut-out or even plaster figures. And huge numbers of multi-coloured LED lights. Often there are sound systems and kind of impromptu parties going on. It seems to me that these are being set up by poorer, rather than richer folks, despite the electrics etc. Sometimes Santa Claus is accompanying the three kings. The local Burger King hands out cardboard crowns (without branding) for kid's birthdays, and some of these are being used on the plaster heads of the kings.

There is an unofficial contest for 'highest Chrstmas tree in Dili'. The current winner is Telcomcel, whose entry is only visible at night, since it is green LEDs strung from the ground to the top of a mobile phone base station. A lot of us have thought that the Telcomcel people in particular are showing tendencies about which Freud might have something to say.

All Government cars have to be labelled as such ("kareta estada"), to prevent corrupt use. This does not stop assignees legally using the cars after hours, just as in Australia governments fund privately plated cars for senior officials. There seem to be an awful lot of "kareta estada" on the streets.

Fireworks seem to be freely available and a toy of choice for children. I haven't yet worked up the courage to ask where I can buy some, but a few (or more than a few) fireworks for my birthday next year sounds like fun.

Dogs are everywhere. In the heat of the day, they sleep so bonelessly by the side of the road that I've thought they were dead, perhaps fatally hit by a car. Until they'd open one sleepy unconcerned eye or cock an ear. A dog on my street barks a bit at anyone, but goes nuts whenever I walk by. I'm wondering if it hates me because I smell like a malae. Or if I just need to change my deodorant.

People, especially young women, and also people on motorbikes wear jackets or hoodies backwards. To my eyes it's an odd look. Maybe it helps keep their clothes clean?

Best (?) laid plans

I’ve been having endless and fairly boring problems getting and keeping an internet connection and as a result have had to use two different computers to do my work on. [Warning: Dangerous stupidity alert. If you are subject to contagious stupidity, reading further is at your own risk.]

So I’m working, unavoidably, on the same piece of work on two computers. I can do this with what used to be known as the sneaker network – you carry the work from one to the other on a USB (or, in the old days, a floppy disk). So what do I do? I store it in the cloud so that whenever I access it I have the latest version. Which is great for version control, but not so good if you are having internet access problems. So now I can’t get at a vital piece of work on either computer. I can’t believe I did this, especially since work provided me with a 4GB USB drive.
Final solution was to get a temporary internet connection, download the paper pronto. And get a new computer from work, my third in two months.  I started blushing now every time I contact IT support. :(

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Tempu udan (rainy season)

The rains have really come. They are washing out the sewers and the garbage men have obviously been waiting for this. At the grates of every canal/sewer all the plastic bottles, litter and other stuff has gathered and can be easily scooped up and trucked away. Littering is not a national sport here, but it is a part of normal life.

There is a form of spinach which grows in the sewers called cancun or kang kung. Although I recognise that many of our vegetables are grown using hen excrement (excuse me, dynamic lifter) there is something that worries me about eating the product of the human equivalent. The outside is washed (at least by restaurants) but even so…

We have also been warned off water coming in the 18 litre bottles for the duration of the wet season.

Just Add Water and I have been exchanging poetry. Usually haikus, but she did demand a sonnet. I have recently been readmitted to Rotary which meets at Timor Plaza. A dinner is served at every meeting as a small fundraiser. The following event occurred when I spotted my favourite food, pesto, but discovered I had made a slight mistake:

In the dark lonely night of old Dili,
Where the Plaza Club towers e'er higher
I took a huge mouthful of chili
And was set in an instant on fire.
I called out  "For pity's sake, water!"
And the steam from my ears reached the rafter,
As my friends and their pitiless laughter
Made me feel like a lamb to the slaughter.

Her response to an event back home sent me into fits of laughter:

Hey diddle diddle
[Names are deleted]
Went for a walk in the wetlands.
The little dog laughed to see such fun
And ran away, and ran away, and ran away…

You have to know our dog to understand the humour I guess, but let’s just say that she has ribbons for obedience and is allowed into (and behaves in) restaurants and libraries.

Work continues to amuse, absorb and frustrate in turns, but ‘twas ever thus. I’m very focused on doing the right thing and sticking to my hours, to prove that a solid day’s work and putting 10 hours or more per day is not a prerequisite for good performance. Overwork sets a poor example for my Timorese counterparts who can conclude (a) that if they want good results they too have to work hours that separate them from family, family life and social obligation; or (b) the malae will take care of it all, so why bother?

I’m afraid I have become somewhat cynical about the motives of a minority of the consultant community who seem to either deliberately breed dependence to keep getting highly paid contracts or who like to feel the country would collapse without them.  The firing and expulsion of the Portuguese judges and legal advisors and trainers are possibly a case in point. Nearly all the arguments have been around the independence of the judiciary. The only arguments in relation to existing Timorese capacity was that foreign judges and trainers were not doing enough to justify their continued presence. This criticism has largely gone unanswered.

Meanwhile, the rains are usually warm and pleasant to be in. On one occasion, my wallet, the cards in it and that ridiculous paper US currency got soaked. Drying them all was a challenge, but in the end everything was OK. Just like being here.


Monday, December 1, 2014

Hanesan, maibee la hanesan ("the same but different")

'Same same but different' is what the street hawkers in Bangkok tell you when you ask if the $20 Rolex you are about to buy is authentic. I've been promising for some time to say how Dili has changed in the five years

Some of the differences: Dili now has some really decent roads. Unfortunately the previous lower speeds are not maintained by many of the drivers, some of the motorcyclists in particular. They are breathtaking in their audacity, skill and ability not to worry about their safety or anyone else's.

Dili has a shopping mall with a Gloria Jeans, a Burger King and a cineplex. It charges much more than its less elegant counterparts. It does have a decent supermarket and a really good coffee shop run by a local charity for orphans and abused youth. Of which Timor has a shocking number. I am told that the advent of a Burger King was not greeted with enthusiasm by UN workers here. An international fast food chain ticked the last box for lowering the hardship allowances they were being paid.

On the seashore in the bar/restaurant stretch that we used to frequent, a new coffee store has opened. They only use Timorese coffee, which is very good, from accredited growers who are paid a higher price for the product. They roast the coffee right in the store (mmmm!) and serve a great espresso.

Much of the area where I used to live was the centre of town, due to its closeness to the Palacio do Governu (essentially Parliament house and the Department of the Prime Minister rolled into one).

The central focus of town is now the Dili Plaza (the new shopping mall, not far from the airport. That old centre has really declined. It's rather sad that some of the places are now so run down. Less sad is the closure and demolition of some of the brothels which were accused of having underage prostitutes and of people trafficking. However, I was told by an expat that anyone who wanted anything could fairly easily find it in Dili. It was not a topic I wanted to explore, but his expression gave me the impression that this was on the rise.

The rise and fall of restaurants is to be expected, with some having massively improved their quality and some declining markedly. The informal market which used to set up each night along the beach near the restaurant strip selling barbecued fish, chicken, corn cobs and root vegetables got moved on to a place where they would have a hard time making a living. Again, a shame. I wasn't scared of eating their produce and had the occasional cheap and tasty snack.

All in all, it's a story of slow, unequal and less than planned development. But there are plans and as I saw in Liquica, the will to put them into action. I shall now pour a gin and tonic, and toast Timor's development. Ba Futuru!

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.