The clock’s ticking

It’s just over 30 days until we’ll make our way back to New Zealand for Christmas. I’ll be staying on to start back at work and Mark will return to Timor-Leste to finish his assignment and while I’m not ready to talk about how sad that thought is, or to make you endure my heart sickness just yet, the sense of an end date approaching has given us a focus on what we HAVE to do before we leave.

We’ve seen a lot of the country, you’ve possibly followed us on our journeys up into the mountains, out to the coast and to the offshore island of Arturo and this weekend we made our way to arguably the jewel in the crown, the enclave of Oe-cusse.

If you look at the map of Timor-Leste, you’ll see off down to the West a blob in the middle of Indonesia and that’s Oecusse.

From Dili it’s a 35-minute flight, a 6 plus hour drive or a 12-hour overnight ferry. Each of the routes has its own challenges…the drive means travelling across the Indonesian border and it’s a complicated mission for first timers, you can secure a cabin on the ferry from one of the crew if you’re lucky (and ask the right guy) otherwise its a long 6pm to 6am awake and although the flight itself is super easy, getting on to the plane can be a bit hit and miss.

We were due out on Saturday, check in at 6am. We’d gone and booked the seats 3 weeks earlier, but we couldn’t buy tickets and we weren’t sure if they actually existed until we turned up at the airport.

Check in was at 6am, and then it was at 10 am, and then 10.40 am and then 12 noon. You get to the airport and go through security and THEN you buy your ticket. We’d heard that the plane had been grounded last week for some maintenance and we weren’t convinced we’d be on it until we actually took off.

At the other end of the flight is the Roto do Sandalo International Airport, it cost $119 million USD and was opened in June 2019. The chairs are still covered in plastic. While it complies with international standards it still isn’t accredited for international flights. Our little Twin Otter 19-seater plane is dwarfed by the place and the processes. Ground crew are pretty excited to see us.

It’s just the beginning of a visit that is punctuated with strange half complete, barely started projects and the whole place has a very weird “nearly there, could be great” vibe to it.

In 2014  the government created the Special Administrative Region of Oe-Cusse Ambeno. A national development programme to implement governmental policy, called ZEESM TL (Special Zones of Social Market Economy of Timor-Leste) is in place  with President Mari Alkatiri, a former Prime Minister of East Timor at the helm. 

The East Timor government that established the ZEESM TL programme was hoping that it would bring economic sustainability before the country’s oil and gas reserves run out. However, there has been criticism of the programme’s lack of transparency and accountability, and its absence of any public cost-benefit or risk analysis, or any significant private investment. Questions have also been raised as to whether the programme is one that is necessarily appropriate for the area, or likely to be in the best interests of its citizens. 

According to one commentator, many observers of East Timor’s strategic investment choices have wondered, “Why is the government of a country comprised of [largely] subsistence farmers obsessed with glitzy prestige projects at the expense of more pressing needs such as health and agriculture?” 

You’ll see these glitzy projects in all sorts of places. The new memorial at the site of the first landing where the trees have been cut down and the perimeters ringed with corrugated tin, where you have to peel open a hole to walk through because the security guard is off somewhere. Giant statues and a boat sit on a concrete platform with a waterless moat.

There’s always been a more humble memorial here to commemorate the first parts of the island of Timor on which the Portuguese established themselves. Considered the cradle of East Timor, the Dominican friar António Taveiro started missionary work here in 1556.It didn’t take long, by 1569 the area of  Lifau was mentioned on a European map. 

A dual carriage way will take you all through town, the roads are remarkable, the footpaths 3 metres wide, and if you follow one of them out past the airport you’ll come across the bridge to nowhere at Noefefan. It’s the longest in Timor-Leste and it goes…nowhere.

Up by the hospital (mostly good, Cuban doctors) there’s a new build. It’s a clinic designed for the global growth area of health and beauty tourism. Come to Oe-Cusse, leave with new boobs! Except there’re MRI’s and CT scanners and no one who can use them. There’re no technicians. There is a pharmacy. But there’s no medicine. Certainly no famous plastic surgeons ready to pull your droopy bits into line.

It’s stage one of a three stage development. It’s stalled. There is one blessing however. The doctors that are there are accepting local patients.

There’s a 5 star hotel that’s been built at the edge of a swamp. It’s the central piece of a tourism jigsaw that was meant to include golf courses and casinos. 

The pool is empty, there’s no power on, security walks out of the guard house to see who we are and why we have stopped by. The grass is brown because there’s no water, not just for the garden, but for anywhere in the hotel. Our guide wonders what may happen in the rainy season when the mudflats fill and its more swamp than desert.

These places are surreal, almost darkly funny until you realise that to build the hotel 30 families were moved off their land and shuffled down the road. No consultation, no negotiation, no reimbursement.

But crikey it’s peaceful and beautiful and the water is warm and the snorkelling (if the tide is right) is great. There’s parrot fish and clown fish and iridescent blue fish and turtles and down the road a bit, a couple of dugongs doing what dugongs do.

We stay at a place beachside, hosted by an exported Aussie called Mark and his Timorese wife, Vero. The rooms are sound, the beds comfy, there’s aircon, flushing toilets, a good shower, a bar with cold beers and good food. Mark makes us up an “esky”…really it’s a chilly bin, with a few Bintang and we carry our chairs over to the beach to watch the sunset. On our second night we turn our chairs so the sun sets behind us so we can watch the thunder and lightning of a tropical storm front that seems to be racing towards us. The wind gets up, there’s 3 or 4 drops of rain and we realise we are sitting on the very edge of it and it’s doing its worst out at sea. I am slightly disappointed.

The local guys at the guest house help take the kayaks out, and we borrow snorkelling gear. It’s a gentle stroll across the road and down to the water. There’s a dog on site. His name is Captain. He sleeps in the middle of the path but wakes when he hears we are getting ready to go. He leads us across the road and lies down beside our gear and growls at passers-by. He keeps his eye out while we swim and escorts us back across the road when we are done. Payment for his services of a bit of a belly rub and a scratch behind the ear seem to be enough to encourage him to do the same thing the next day.

Mark and Vero have 5 children and they are ably led by their eldest daughter, a 12 year old who leaves us in awe of her capability. She’s sorting out the bar, the snacks and the bill at the end. She’s doing the cooking. She speaks 5 languages, the local dialect Meto, Portuguese, Bahasa, Tetun and English. She’d give all of us a run for our money when it came to organisational skills and she’s polite and funny.

Mid-way through the afternoon, post a swim, just out of the shower and the kids come running to us. “There’s a whale, a whale” they say. And we pull on whatever clothes are handy and race across the road. Captain’s with us of course.

It’s us and a gaggle of kids scanning the horizon and I don’t know who shouts first, or who’s the most excited but we see one spout and then another and another and some dark shapes rising just above the water. The kids climb the tree for a better view.

At the guesthouse there’s a brochure outlining any number of great walks you can do, visits to waterfalls and mud pools. We’re from New Zealand, we don’t want to compete in the bubbling mud stakes so we decline. Mark can hire you a scooter, he’ll pick you up from the airport and he’ll take you on a tour around town. You can do as much or as little as you want.

We choose the odd afternoon nap and the serenity. We didn’t hear a rooster all weekend.

My Mark and I talk about how we could live here. In contrast to the heat and dust of Dili, Oe-Cusse is a haven of peace. The weather seems more temperate, the air clearer. We could rebuild that old Portuguese building down by the esplanade, I’d help out with the tourism projects, he’d build a garden, grow some cows, goats and pigs. We’d have a little boat with an outboard motor and we’d catch our dinner. I’d bake bread in the oven he builds me out the back. We’d learn Portuguese and our Tetun would improve with more practice. We’d buy a little Cesna and learn to fly. 

Later still we get philosophical over a bottle of Portuguese red wine. “Has being in Timor-Leste changed you do you think?” 

I’ll answer that next time.

The Grind

It’s in the detail isn’t it? The changes to routine and the “otherness” of what we are doing here In Dili that seems to be the most interesting to you Dear Reader.

The morning starts when the rooster starts. It could be any time from 5.00am, when he’s supposedly greeting the day every 15 minutes (it’s not even dawn). A certain level of tolerance has built up and so it’s more likely to be around 7am and when like an alarm on snooze he ramps it up to every 20 seconds that he finally gets the better of me and I get up. He lives directly under our bedroom window and his crow is mostly a squawk. In fact, I’ve yet to hear an actual cockledoodledoo? Mainly he sounds like he’s got something stuck in his throat and he’s trying to hoik it out. I don’t think there’re many chickens in his life…he seems to be there mostly as decoration. Everyone here has a rooster, the lucky ones are saved from the pot and the cockfights by being good to look at. I reckon having lived in such close proximity to him for the last year I can bust plenty of rooster myths… the whole joyous crowing to welcome the sun for one. This dude can go off at any time and for any reason. One night ALL the roosters in the neighbourhood went nuts right through the evening. And during each of their breaks, the dogs took up the slack and howled into the gaps.

We lie in bed and read news from New Zealand. Mark thinks it’s hilarious to tell me the current temperatures in Palmerston North and Wellington. “8 degrees and raining” he says, “oh it’s a high of 14 and cloudy”. When I get up I look out the kitchen window and it’s hot and bright. Same same every day at this time of the year. 

Breakfast is pretty standard. Amazing bread (praise the Portuguese, at least for this) toasted, butter from a tin, marmite (thanks Australia) and coffee. We make coffee Italian style on the gas ring of our cooker. I drink it milky in the morning and sweet. Mark’s found a supplier of weetbix. He gets a variety of homemade yogurt (I AM a domestic goddess).

We wash the dishes by hand and with water we’ve boiled in the jug. The key to less parasites is a hot wash and a good dry. No parasites is an unattainable dream. I’ve learnt to love mine. He sleeps a lot and he’s often no bother, except when he wakes and jumps around in my guts. It’s amazing the conversations we have about poo.

Outbound literature from VSA mentions weight loss is likely in hot countries, I laughed and said bet I’m the only person who doesn’t. True. I suspect it’s all that sugar…and donuts…and just the fact that when you find something to eat, you eat. Mark’s weight is sustained by Bintang mainly.

At 8am the English language radio station starts broadcasting. It feels like you’ve stumbled across someone else’s Spotify account. Some mornings that person is an 18-year-old bogan, there’s a lot of death metal, and other mornings it’s grandma’s classical playlist. At least there’s no inane chatter. Or ads. And there’s a strangely comforting consistency to its inconsistency. Who needs classic hits, when you can play no hits. 

The shower is mostly cool, no need for hot water when the temperature is now 29 degrees at 7.30am. Teeth cleaning is with bottled water (you could use the tap water, but yeah parasites!) and this amazing toothpaste I’ve been buying and stashing away for my return to New Zealand. It’s a dollar. I buy 2 tubes every time. One for the bathroom, one for my bag.

Customs guy “anything to declare?” 

Me: “ummmm 26 tubes of Indonesian toothpaste”.

Can’t see that going wrong at all! Particularly when we travel via Bali. 

I’m heading to work so it’s the upmarket part of the wardrobe…literally a nicer top and skirt and sandals instead of jandals. After 7 months I’ve just about given up on trying to change out my meagre wardrobe. I wear pretty much a mix of the same 3 skirts, tops and dresses.  A splodge of mascara, a dab of lipstick and some perfume which will melt off my skin as soon as I go outside. But you know, standards.

It’s a 10-minute scooter ride to work, along the waterfront. Morning traffic is crazy, you already know this, we’ve talked about it before. But there’s something new lately, a sense of ease and with it the odd daydream…”man, look at that sea, it’s so blue, I wonder if those whales are gonna be there, is that a whale, it could be a whale, imagine if it was a whale ” and finding yourself suddenly being squished up against the side of the road by some lunatic in a 4 wheel drive. 

As an aside, we actually went whale watching this weekend. It needs a new name…whale seeking, or whale exercises in patience, or whale disappointment. 5.5 hours up and down the whale highway, and not a single sign. There were no “thar she blows” from our boat.

Work is…work. A comfort to know that what I do in communications, the basic things you do to make sense of the world, how you tell the stories, is the same in Timor-Leste as it is in New Zealand as it is anywhere in the world.

There is something though. Something about being surrounded by people who don’t speak the same language as you. So, although I’m in an open plan office and although my colleagues are talking to each other, it’s kind of quiet.  It’s a bit like the radio being on the background, I need to tune in to catch what they are saying. Even then I can go wildly off track, I know a smattering of words, every time someone says malae I think they mean me, I’m like that dog that jumps up when someone says walk.

It’s fascinating too if you’re interested in the study of office dynamics. All those non-verbal things, it’s obvious when someone is annoyed with someone else, an office arsehlole is an arsehole in any language.

Lunchtime is a trip to the pool. I meet Mark and Adrian there, we flop about in the increasingly warm water, talk about nothing of importance, get dried, dressed and I head back to work.

I’ve usually planned what’s for dinner. It can be a complex task. Last night we had a sort of baked chicken tomato thing (although obviously not baked, cos no oven). The tomatoes, chilli, onion, garlic come from the vege market, the chicken from one supermarket, chicken stock from another supermarket, and the potatoes from a third.  The chicken costs about $2 for nearly a kilo…2 giant halves in a bag with no information about its origin or packing date or use by information. It’s a high trust model. Yesterday one of the pieces still had a big feather attached. We think the chickens are Brazilian. Mark suggested maybe “not that one, if it’s still got feathers” …god, already with the dad jokes!

Last week 5 people ended up in hospital with food poisoning after buying chicken from a roadside stall. It was $1 for 1.5kilos. We’ve been told again and again under no circumstances to go to the hospital. At the moment there’s no sterilisation equipment and word has it they’re trying to buy all their drugs back from the clinics they sold them to last month. It seems to me our options of heading to one of those clinics makes us exceptionally privileged and I worry about the Timorese who don’t have that luxury. I heard yesterday another baby may not make it, and they’re not sure about mum either.  Imagine for a minute the terror of a c-section knowing it’s such an emergency that they’re going ahead without STERILE EQUIPMENT.  And that there’re limited drugs to fix that infection you might end up with. And limited technology or experience to save your baby.

A few days ago, I went to a pharmacy. Imagine you enter the building, there’s a wall about 20 metres along the back and a counter that runs from one end to the other. It’s waist height, maybe 4 shelves deep and spread out along these shelves is about 8 different medicines. I ask about a couple of things, “don’t have”, “don’t have”, “try other pharmacy”.  The local shop up the road sells single sheets of amoxicillin, about 10 pills on each.  You can buy one sheet or 20. You choose your own dose. And then cross your fingers.

I feed Melo (left over raw chicken carcasses and dog biscuits).And we start heading to bed about 9pm. We sleep in grey striped sheets, after abandoning the white ones we brought with us. No matter how often you wash, the dust and grime of Dili becomes a constant companion in bed.

Twice a week we gather our laundry into a big basket and place it on the step where our landlady collects it. Returned within 24 hours, Mark’s work shirts are so well folded they don’t need ironed, I’ve learnt a new way to fold socks, everything smells good and all for $5. When we first arrived, I used to hand wash our smalls. The thought of someone else having to wash my grundies felt, well, overly intimate. And I had visions of a very tiny Timorese woman holding my undies in both hands, like a ship’s sail without any wind, limp and beige and then folding them over and over and over until they were considered small enough to fit in my drawers. No one wants their knickers treated like that.  I imagined the children wearing my bra like a hat!  Now, I just hand ‘em over, the benefits far outweigh the shame.

There’re so many things that are the same, the need to eat, sleep, find shelter, talk, laugh, belong. The amount of time we have been here, our experience of our days makes us think that THIS is normal. But it’s not really. And it’s this familiar unfamiliarity that makes some of our fellow volunteers talk about the need to get out for a bit, just for a breather. The need to not have to think constantly about the inconsistencies. That just when you get used to the weather, it ramps up a few degrees and you’re panting like a dog in the heat again. And then it’s going to rain. Sometime. Just when you think you’ve found a place that serves a dish you like, the next time you go they won’t. 

When you think you know that shortcut to work and next time you start to head down it it’s become a different one way. Or there’s a roadblock and police, searching for weapons.

That the power’s been on consistently for months and then suddenly it’s always out on a Saturday and Sunday. That the dog on the beach is suddenly a deer. That the parasites are asleep, and then they’re not. Oh boy, are they not!

I guess then it’s not the grind is it?? Because that’s what we were used to, the unrelenting sameness of how life can be when you’re comfortable. It’s certainly not that here in Dili.

Cows, bees and chickens in a bag

Mark’s got a bee in his bonnet. He’ll tell you it’s tinnitus, but I know it’s not. I know it’s that little bee buzzing around inside his head. Sit with him long enough, and trust me I do, and he’ll get onto his favourite hobby horse ummmm I mean subject.

You see since he’s been here, he’s become increasingly interested in nutrition, and in particular the reasons why a country with plenty of water, a reasonably temperate climate, decent growing conditions and a fairly fertile soil still doesn’t seem to be able to feed its inhabitants.

Now I know he’s not expecting Timor-Leste to turn into the breadbasket of South East Asia, or the next big dairy producer. There’s a story about the Aussies bringing in dairy cows…no real research, some hints of misspending, a bit of “she’ll be right mate ” with the resulting outcome, no milk and heaps of dead cows. Australia’s past failures withstanding, he has become mighty interested in who’s growing what, where and how.

For Mark I think it’s the maths and stats he loves. His background on the farm has given him a passionate dispassion about the growing of food. Like some giant complex excel spreadsheet the workings appear something like this: take this much land, prepare pasture thus, add this many beasts, send in this type of male, get these sorts of babies, grow them for this amount of time, add in this amount of additional food, water, nutrients, wait again for this amount of time and like sorting the formula in excel, click this button and get this back in the bank…and repeat. All things going to plan. Which obviously with farming isn’t often the case. 

Same goes for crops, vegetables, fruits and other plants. 

He’s become amazingly aware, thanks in part to some of the very small girls who have hung out at his office (eating a meagre 500 calories a day) but mainly from the huge amount of reading he’s done, that malnutrition is a HUGE deal when you want a population to thrive. It impacts on everything from education outcomes to maternal mortality. We were out in a village a couple of weeks ago, and the girls had a real gingery tinge to their hair. I thought, here’re some of “my people”. It turns out that hint of red is caused mainly by protein deficiency.

There’s been a lot of reading and thinking and poking around, a lot of conversations (a lot…I spend pretty much 16 hours a day, 7 days a week with him, so I know, sigh) but last weekend Mark got the chance to really see what was going on courtesy of a kind invitation from a Timorese colleague to join him at his family property.

It’s a 5 and a half hour motorbike ride East along the coast and then inland to the district of Manufahi and the area of Alas. Mark’s keen to have a conversation with the farmers about the opportunity to use Gallagher’s solar electric fencing to, at the very least, keep the stock in place. Once you know where they are you can manage supplemental feeding, and breeding programmes. 

It’s a matriachial village of around 200 people. Mark’s colleague is one of 9 siblings. Their mother passed away last year. Land is owned both collectively and individually with the village collective most concerned with growing enough rice and vegetables to feed everyone with individuals keeping cattle, pigs, chicken and goats.

There are about 300 wild horses up in the hills. 

There’s plenty of water, a main river runs through the village and lots of underground springs, the land is fertile and produces coconuts, bananas and coffee.

He visits Granddad who has left the family home and lives out in the fields so he can keep an eye on the cattle. Not just protecting them, but protecting the valuable plants that are being grown to feed the villagers…a hungry cow can do a lot of damage, and make for some pretty unhappy neighbours.

Grandads hut

Granddad sleeps on a platform on a grass mat. He reaches the platform, barefoot and up a ladder. The closest estimation is that he’s around about 95. 

Later in the night while they sit and talk someone mentions they’re thirsty and the nearest kid clambers up the tree and drops down coconuts to be briskly cut open and drunk. Mark asks for a glass (you’ve got to love him).

Several of the villagers gather to discuss the fencing, the opportunities to give it a try and see how it goes. Mark answers questions where he can.

They’re interested in making changes, there’s no sense of reluctance but rather a real desire and interest in giving things a crack. As dusk approaches he’s fascinated to see one of the women call the chickens in. They arrive, chicks in toe, eat a bit of scattered rice then all individually climb into baskets on the ground which are then hung up on hooks. Hens and chicks safely tucked up for the night, making that noise contented chooks make, like a sort of poulty purring. He goes to sleep on a mat, it’s surprising cold, about 17 degrees and he’s left all his clothes on. 

It’s 6am in the morning and breakfast is boiled bananas and a doughy bun. And very very sweet, very very strong coffee. Everything is still cooked on a wooden fire, although power to the main house also offers a rice cooker and a camp oven for the bread. Nourished, clean from a bucket shower and off for a walk across the land. He loves this kind of thing. Many of the cattle have recently calved so they’re hard to find, they’re red like the dust and disguised in the scrub. Completely organic, fed only salt as a supplement, the ones he does see are sleek, shiney, lush. They’re not used to being handled, you’d not be able to lead one into a pen for a vet inspection. Well you could, except there’re no real pens and no rural vets.

His colleague tells him he’s the first malae (white visitor) to have been in the village for 20 years. He should have quessed as much by the kids’ reactions. Big eyes, mostly staring. Loud whispers. A few giggles and the odd prod to the bravest one to approach him. He brought a block of Whittakers’ chocolate from my stash from my last trip to NZ and had to explain, twice, what it was. 

He comes home and says to me ‘I was almost completely wrong”. Every preconceived idea he had, all the maths and stats just won’t work here. The solar powered fence is still a go, but it’s just one small solution in a vastly bigger issue. Fix one thing and then see how to fix the 200 others.

But even more significant, perhaps there’s no need to “fix” that original list he thought he had. Well not straight away. Taking what’s essentially a free-range herd to a domesticated herd (think the NZ deer industry in the 70’s) while not losing the advantages of being truly organic, and sustainable and without adopting any of the negative BIG farming issues prevalent in a whole lot of factory farming worldwide. Keeping the ethos of collective land use, land rights, water safety, support for families and authentic honest discussions that benefit everyone while delivering a growth strategy will be a delicate balancing act. 

Finding a way to grow more “protein” on the same amount of land could vastly change the outcomes for those 60% of subsistence farmers living outside Dili, making less than 1 dollar a day.

Mark’s talking to Gallagher’s. There’s a chance for some funding to get some fencing kits to trial. He’ll be back out to Alas before we leave to see how it goes. There’s a lot to be said for having a bee in your bonnet.

Getting out of Dodge

Timor-Leste has a way of suckering you in to finally believing you know what’s what and how this place works. Just when you’re relaxing into a place where you can singsong your way along through the traffic (on a scooter, this means many stares) and where you know without doubt that that’s the “cheese” supermarket, something else happens that leaves you feeling out of place and out of sorts.

We’d naively said oh yeah 6 months in we’re acclimatised to the weather, oh no, we don’t need the aircon on at night, don’t worry about us we’re sleeping well, finding it all so so doable. Smug bastards.

That was right up until last week when Mother Nature decided to rachet up the temperatures and we are once again literally sweating in our jocks. I find myself leaving the cool of my office and walking into the sun, and no matter how often I steel myself, still saying under my breath, “jeez it’s hot”. And guess what, it’s only going to get worse.

It’s a steady climb now through to the beginning of the rainy season. Word has it, the next 6 weeks are the time you’re most likely to go troppo. I can’t wait!

Given this state of affairs, what better time to get out of Dodge than right now, before the rain and away from the heat, so that’s just what we did last week.

Carefully planned by our friend Adrian, and with his wife joining from New Zealand we upgraded from 2 wheels to 4 and rented a blessedly airconditioned Toyota Prada. Packed her up with snacks, water, snorkeling gear, multiple changes of clothes (including a jersey…more on that later), toilet paper, battery packs, torches, and a bit of a first aid kit, we headed out of dusty Dili on Monday.

When we first arrived, people were surprised to hear that on the first weekend we rode to Black Rock for a bit of a look see… a great example of a “when you don’t know what you don’t know” false sense of security. In our newbie state that road then was SHOCKING. Now, and after a fair amount of work from the Chinese road crews, it’s almost pristine and undeserving of mention. Except here I am mentioning it. There’s much being made of Chinese investment in the Pacific and further afield. It’s hard to argue against the impact of opening up roads within a country where access is one the biggest issues facing the 60 percent of people who live outside of Dili. When you’re 3.5 hours away from the nearest clinic is it any wonder that Timor-Leste has shocking rates of maternal mortality?

On the road we head West via Tibar, to our first official pin on the map, Maubisse. 70k’s south of Dili in the central highlands Maubisse is 1300 meters above sea level and the main coffee growing region of the district. It’s also positively chilly with temperatures at this time of year around 16 degrees (hence the jersey).

But first a couple of stops at a bamboo factory, funded by the Peace Corp and making some exceptionally lovely stuff. Employing locals in the factory and buying bamboo off local farmers this is a good news story and a great way to start our journey.

A quick hop up the road and we’ve got a bit of a tour planned at coffee producers Timor Global. Bet you didn’t know that 90 percent of the coffee drunk world- wide can be traced back to Timor-Leste coffee plants, in fact one of the three original trees is right over there and still producing.

We get to be part of a “cupping” event…very ritualistic, temperature of water just so, crust left on cup for this long, broken this way, slurped that way and swirled around on your tongue in this direction. I know we were hopeful we’d find words like mellow and fruity and hints of chocolate and nutty, herbal or intensely briny. What we said was “that Robusta’s a bit strong” and “oh I don’t think I like that one”. We are such a disappointment to the Timorese guy who has a world recognized certificate in being a “nose” or whatever they call it in the coffee biz. I’d stopped listening by then…all that caffeine.

Lunch on the road in Aileu at your pretty standard restaurante, chicken curry and a Bintang and back in the car for the final leg to Maubisse.

The scenery changes and the weather changes. There’s a light breeze and a welcome coolness in the air as we go for a quick look around the Posada (another piece of architecture we can thank the Portuguese for) and then dinner downstairs consisting of cooling cabinet food…fish, chicken or beef, rice and vegetables. $2,25 per person. Coffee is an extra buck each and brought upstairs to our balcony. The first of the prepacked snacks are unpacked and a welcome addition.

It feels like 10pm, its actually 7.30pm. Off to our rooms for some reading and relaxation and 30 minutes later the power’s out. A quiet lisensa, lisensa (excuse me, excuse me) from outside the door, and a lamp passed through sees us cope with the next hour or so.

Eggs and bread rolls for breakfast, oh and warm round doughnut thingies with strong coffee fortify us for the next leg to Suai. 

The roads average, nothing unexpected until like a mirage in the desert and looming out of the heat you come to a 4-lane expressway. Punctuated with signs… “4-wheel vehicles only”, “no external passengers”, “no motorbikes”, we race up along its tarmacked glory for about 10k until we notice the two vehicles in front slowing and turning. Seems this perfect feat of engineering ain’t that perfect and the road’s collapsed. I suggest out loud that one of the more useful signs could have been a “no access” one right at the beginning. We turn round and drive back 10k’s on the wrong side of the 2 lanes. Cos of course you can’t turn around when there’s a giant median barrier in the middle. Newly planted with trees as part of a beautification plan, the goats are making light work of the tender shoots as they make their way up it.

Best idea is to follow that truck with the aviation fuel on board, there’s only one place he’s going and that’s the airport in Suai.

We end up there too. It’s another location tagged for my dystopian movie I’m planning to shoot in Timor-Leste…an international airport, completely empty except for the guard and the cleaners. There’re no planes flying in or out of Suai. Inaugurated in 2017 and complete with a 1,500m runway, a terminal building, a control tower, a fire station, a meteorological station and a helipad the airport sits shiny, clean, looming large in the landscape, waiting. Waiting.

We try and blag our way through the doors, the guard shoos us away. I’m slightly worried about his gun and then notice he’s wearing socks and jandals. I’d outrun him.

There’s a broken bridge down towards the sea…word has it the crocodiles hang out there. We stop by. We find out later the trick is to tie a frozen chicken to a string and call Boy Boy and one will appear. Local knowledge is a great thing. I note there’s no “no swimming” signs.

Then it’s a visit  to the concrete kiwi marking the old site of the New Zealand Defence base. A monkey runs across the road and we try to lure it out with peanuts. No chance. We aren’t doing great with the wildlife.

A final trip to a fantastic market…a classic example of not judging a book by its cover. The corrugated tin shacks that sit around the outside hide a wealth of treasures from locally grown tobacco and betel nut, fruit, vegetables and nicnacs of all varieties. The boys hover around the buckets of nails and screws and engine parts and I find a tais (a cloth woven locally) to take home to NZ.

Dinner is served at another hidden treasure. The Chinese hardware store housed in a giant tin shed along a lonely road you’d never notice shares a space right next door with a non-descript restaurant. I don’t think there’s even a sign. The food is awesome although in typical Timor fashion you have to go through a few options first. “Don’t have”. “No, don’t have”.

We’re a little worried about the trip tomorrow…the road is unknown, so Adrian talks to the Timorese guys at our guesthouse. The carpark is full of trucks carrying NGO signage and we’ll hear the drivers talking through the night, quietly until about 11pm when they’ll go to bed, 4 per room, saving their per diems. They say the road is a bit difficult, they do the 100k’s in about 4.5-5 hours. I go to bed without doing the maths. I wake at 3am having done it. That’s 15ks an hour!

The road is awful.

We arrive in Maliana and it’s 37 degrees and blowing, stepping out of the car into a fan forced oven. We find a restaurant and eat with the locals. Fried chicken and rice. And ice-cold sweet tea. I have decided to watch and see what they order and just say…that, please? There are never any menus. 

Our last stop at the Balibo Fort Hotel is the climax we’ve been working towards. Luxury accommodation, perfect temperature, food and cocktails as the sun sets.  We’d originally planned the trip to go A to C, but we’ve done C to A and it’s worked out perfectly.

A stop off for a swim and lunch and we are back in Dili on Thursday at about 3pm.

The snack bag is empty of snacks and now full of other treasures. A blue, teal and purple tais, a giant clam shell rescued from the beach, bamboo placemats, bags of coffee, intricately made flax bird mobiles, a woven bag, a few trinkets to share when we get home. Animals seen: horses, monkeys, calves, goats, pigs, chickens, water buffalo…and unseen: crocodiles.  Accommodation $35 a night to $95. Villages hanging onto hills, buildings traditional and modern. Children walking to school, walking back from school, playing in the streets outside their homes, carrying water, bags of rice, unhappy chickens, waving, calling malae, malae. Simple meals with locals and lavish ones alone. And the roads…oh the roads, tarmacked state of the art to dirt tracks hyphenated by potholes.

We got out of Dodge, escaped the heat, found the peace, the chaos, the kids, the mountains, the roads. We’ll get to that crocodile next time.

Oh Grandma

It’s often purely by accident that you stumble upon a great café, or fantastic restaurant or even a supermarket that stocks ALL the dairy. There’s a network of chit chat that mutters some tips but if you’re not listening to the right conversation it’s often less hit and more miss.

But early on in our Timor-Leste adventures we found a great little Thai place, Timor Thai, tucked down by the New Zealand Embassy and with the promise of good, tasty, cheap as anything Thai favourites it has quickly become one of our “crap, I don’t want to cook tonight” places.

In the spirit of why only be one thing when you can be many, Timor Thai supplements its great wee restaurant with back room massage. Before you clutch your pearls and phone the authorities and the sex trafficking hotline, the only happy endings you’re likely to get here are the ones where you hand over 25 bucks for a job well done.

We’ve been several times. I’m lucky that when Mark comes with me I can push him on to the younger woman while I take Grandma all to myself.

She’s tiny. I know I say that a lot about the people here. I said to Mark she’d be half my size, he said, keep going…and while that may be a rude dig at my ampleness I don’t think he’s wrong. Literally her head comes up to just below my boobs.

But don’t let size fool you. She’s fierce. And more than a little terrifying. I’m both filled with excitement and dread at the thought of the next hour with her.

It’s got to the stage now where I help her get the table ready and whip my clothes off while she stands in the room. The table’s wide and low and she’s on it with me from the get go.

I guess there’s a slight easing into proceedings, washing my feet and giving my toes a wiggle but after that it’s all on.

Her thumbs are like steel and she’s got them into my calf muscles before my brain can even register the impending pain. I remain stoic. And silent.

Her English is as good as my Thai, so non-existent, although she can say “relax, relax” which just makes me giggle through the pain.

I want to tell her when she’s got my leg bent at all angles and she’s pushing my hip into the table, I’m sorry grandma, I’m sorry I’m just not bendy enough for you. I want to say us Celts aren’t renowned for our ability to stretch and squat and we’ve become stiff from not enough use. Has she seen us dancing? There’s no hope.

There’s also no music, no whale noise, no sounds of the forest volume 3, for which I am grateful. I can only imagine the distress to my psyche being tortured to the calls of whales would do for my future relationship with these gorgeous creatures.

And torture it is. There’s arms pulled to fit more snuggly into sockets and thighs kneaded like pudgy dough, there’s fingers snapped into popping and there’s a weird manipulation of joints that at some stage as I am hovering above my body I imagine now resembling a discarded wooden puppet. All angles and disjoined joints.

There’s a moment when she’s between my thighs with her foot wedged into my groin, pulling on my leg. The relief as she finishes this particular move is short lived as I remember I’ve got TWO LEGS. Dear God.

At one stage as I lie on my back, Grandma appears to be standing on my guts. I say appears to be because while I am ok imagining that’s what she’s doing, I really don’t want to see her doing it.

She pokes and prods me til I move to lie in her lap and she rubs my head like an overly affectionate pet owner. I am not sure whether I hate her or love her.

When finally she gets me into a sitting position and lies the full weight of her body up along my back, bending me in the middle like a rusted hinge  I can’t bare it any longer , she says relax, relax and I just collapse into hysterical laughter. Are they tears? She’s laughing with me and stroking my arm.

A final hot small brown hand on my shoulder and an admonishment to “drink water” and I’m floppy, drained, and goodness what is this feeling, supple.

She walks me to the door holding my hand. We smile like old trench mates, we’ve been in the wars eh Grandma, we’ve seen some things…well mainly you cos I’ve had my eyes closed the whole time.

After the vote, and after the party

There’s a certain rhythm to life in Dili 6 months on, and although most times we aren’t sure what’s going on, we can be sure that there’s something.

On a Sunday this mostly Catholic nation can be guaranteed to be either on their way to church, lots of traffic, at church, no traffic, or on their way home from church, more traffic. We avoid the roads if we can on weekdays about 12noon, and on the first Monday of the month when flag raising ceremonies stop all traffic dead we try and head in to work before 8am or after 9.

We wonder what the new banners being put up are about reveal and we know when the kids start practicing their drumming (for up to 6 hours a day) that there’s some festival coming up.

So, it’s not without precedent that today after brunch and before a massage that our trip to the pool (posh place, $180 a year membership) gave us something to ponder. And yes I know, the list of todays activity, so far so bourgeoise.

Walking through the glass doors (members enter from the rear) we found our usually abandoned spot resembling a watering hole in Darwin. Hearing them before we saw them, aren’t they really just like their native birds, all squawking and bright colours, the pool was crowded with Australians.

That in itself isn’t unusual. There’s plenty of Aussies here, volunteers and contractors, and you can usually tell the former by their lean and hungry look, they’re a little threadbare and the latter by their natural habitation of the only real sports bar in town. Today’s visitors lounging about had a more well healed appearance. Most were in-house guests.

It’s been a big few weeks in Timor-Leste with this unusual influx of visitors, with that familiar sense brought from home of putting out the good tablecloth and the family silver. Everyone on their best behavior and that slight tension bubbling under the surface (what will Uncle do?).

Streets were swept more frequently, flags hung, bits of road finished, a bridge opened. Everyone seemed to have at least one foreign dignitary on their welcome list and there were parties organised left, right and centre. We stood on the street for an hour watching the official bridge opening, shoulder to shoulder, snuggled up with the locals and caught bits of conversation about who was who. For even the most uninformed it became obvious who were the biggest of the bigwigs by their number plate and how close they got to the podium before they had to walk from their car. Nothing says look at me like a VVIP tag (Very Very Important Person).

You see it’s a big deal celebrating the birth of a nation. 20 years ago, the Timorese came out in droves to vote in a referendum that ended 24 years of Indonesian occupation. They were up before dawn in the villages, a turn out of nearly 98 percent at the makeshift voting polls and about 5 days later when the count came in, a massive 78.5% of the voter chose independence over autonomy within Indonesia.

Imagine the despair wrenched from joy when between August and September pro-Indonesian Timorese militias and the military commenced a scorched earth campaign of retribution. Killing approximately 2000 Timorese, they displaced over 2/3rds of the population and destroyed the bulk of the country’s infrastructure, homes, irrigation, water supplies, schools, government buildings and nearly 100% of the country’s electrical grid. This provides little comfort but at least a reason why the power is off a couple of hours 4 days a week. Formal institutions and government structures disappeared overnight.

In September the International Force East Timor (INTERFET) made up of 22 nations and led by the Australians arrived in Dili. Included were around 1200 New Zealand soldiers (NZ’s largest overseas military deployment since the Korean war), and the frigates Te Kaha and Canterbury and replenishment ship Endeavour. Their goal to restore order and independence was achieved when on May 20, 2002 the Timorese elected resistance leader Xanana Gusmao as president.

In Dili today, there’s a shadow of what was left behind when the UN left in 2012. Restaurants that once hosted staff now lie empty. Down by the waterfront towards Cristo Rei you’d not be surprised to find the odd tumbleweed rolling down the street as the doors flap open on their hinges.  2 or 3 staff sit around, waiting. High noon at the Not Ok Corral.

Apartments are closed.  The Australian hairdresser at the local spa still talks about the ‘boom’ times and there’re ghosts of drunken soldiers past lurking about in the corners of the Sky Bar at Timor Plaza. There’s even a massive concrete kiwi at the old New Zealand base in Suai.

Once buoyed by the presence of so many people with cash to burn, you can’t just suddenly take that away from such a fragile economy. Since 2012 Timor Leste’s gross domestic product has crashed by half to less than $3billion. The change in circumstances is ever present.

So that’ll be the Aussies at the pool. Friday will see a day programme including speeches and songs at the palace, a march and a football match between INTERFET forces and the local F-FDTL (Timor-Leste’s Defence Force).  New Zealand is sending Minister Ron Marks and others, there’ll be a matching set from Australia and there’s bound to be roadblocks, traffic issues and much flag waving.

Remembering the past is a critical part of Timorese culture, hoping for the future is mine.

A love song to Dili at Dusk

Sometimes you’re not kind

When the scrawny dog, skinny and scabby suckles her pups and nips at them to leave her alone. Then scatters, driven away by stones thrown by annoyed kids.

And sometimes you’re not gentle

When the traffic roars past and the dust fills your nose and eyes and the relentless heat finds every gap between the shade

And sometimes you’re not quiet

When the roosters crow from 5am and join the drummers and karaoke through the wall.

Discordant, too many songs with no conductor.

But tonight, I’ll slip into something less comfortable, abandoning the t-shirt and skirt

For a dress, with buttons and sleeves and shoes with a heel

And dab the perfume on my wrists and neck

Where it’ll last in the cool instead of sliding off with the sweat.

And I’ll ride my scooter through the quiet streets to watch the sunset

Wood smoke fragrant in the air. Bar-b-ques lining the street.

And a gentle breeze against my bare skin.

I’ll watch the boys in the retreating tide, picking through the sea washed coral

And as dark falls, be surprised by the man, walking along the road, wet footed, web footed, carrying his spear and fish, the sea still drying on his skin.

The traffic lights flashing orange, flashing orange, flashing orange,

Beating through the night til dawn

welcome me home.