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.

Melo and Mark

Mark’s mother Maureen has asked why we don’t hear from him and so, because mothers are important this blog is completely dedicated to my two favourite males, in which I record and transcribe their chat.

Introducing Mark, the husband

And Melo the dog.

Melo: Mark, Mark, Mark, hey Mark, Mark, over here Mark, Mark

Mark: Grrrrr yes Melo, what is it?

Melo: Ruth says we can talk Mark, we never talk, can we, can we?

Mark: Spose


Melo: Every day you open the gate. In the morning. I don’t like the gate being opened, bad dogs are on the other side of the gate, where do you go? 

Mark: well Melo, unlike you, I have a job. My assignment is to work as a business skills trainer for IADE Instituto De Apoio ao Dezenvoliment Emprearial which is the Timor-Leste’s government owned and operated business training establishment.  IADE’s role is to provide training and support to people to start a business, develop an existing business and then to maintain the profitability of the business into the future…..Melo?  

Melo: Oh sorry, just chewing on this flea on my tail, you were saying….

Mark: My role is to support the IADE staff by providing mentoring and coaching to support IADE’s existing programmes and to seek out new opportunities to keep IADE at the fore front of business training in 2020 and beyond.

Melo: hmmm what? Flea. Is Ruth home yet? Is she? Is she? 

Mark: soon. I also…….. Melo, are you licking my leg?

Melo: Oops sorry.  

Mark: Basically Melo I’m there to support them to help others to help themselves.

Melo: Right. I have noticed you have changed colour. What has happened to your coat? It was white and now its brown. Like me.

Mark: What? Oh, that’ll be the the sun

Melo: and you’re skinnier? Do you have worms? I’ve had worms. Urgh worms. Itchy. Ruth fixed my worms, did she fix yours?

Mark: no Melo, no worms.

Melo: what do you love about Timor-Leste?

Mark: Oh Melo I love the heat and the sea and the people. And the chaos and colour.

Melo: me too. 

Mark: I don’t love the parties til 8am or that Rooster.

Melo: oh him, I don’t like him either.

Mark: or the traffic

Melo: Oh the scooters, the scooters, the scooters, I could chase them, I could, it’s too hot, I won’t chase them, but I could

Mark: what do you love about Timor-Leste Melo?

Melo: I love the freedom. There’re no chains, no kennels, no collars, no vets taking away my important boy parts. I can come and go as I please. I love my friends, except that evil one eyed dog down the road, I love the sun….sleeping on the gravel pile. I love the shade. 

And I love the food Ruth gives me and when she rubs my tummy, and scratches the bottom of my tail.

Mark: oh me too Melo, me too.

Small Island, Big Heart

Mark and I have been watching a Netflix series called Black Sails. Featuring all your favourite pirates, Black Beard, Long John Silver, Charles Vain and Anne Bonnie, it’s a swarthy mess of sex, violence, rum, palm trees, whores and dreadlocks. Every now and then the pirates leave the safety of the local brothel and head out in search of plunder, excitement and a punch up on the high seas. Once they’ve fought, flagellated and fornicated their way across the ocean, invariably they need to find shelter, fresh water and food that’s not infested by weevils.

I can almost guarantee that had the good ship Walrus captained by the very handsome but mostly BAD Charles Vain passed by Atauro Island they would have kept the sails hoisted and waited for somewhere a little more inviting to drop their anchor.

Our home for the weekend, Atauro Island sits 25k north of Dili. On a clear day you can see her tantalizingly close, on other days she remains shrouded in mist, a mystery off on the horizon.

25ks long, 9k wide, home to around 10,000 people Atauro clearly came into being through some violent forces of Mother Nature. Uplifted from the sea by submarine volcanoes the island features high peaks, a rugged landscape and areas of deforestation that leaves much of the hill side looking patchy and dry.

Currently you can get to Atauro by ferry, a steady plod of 2 hours or by fast boat, a bit more high spirited and salty in 1 hour. There’s an airstrip but like a lot of things In Timor-Leste its either reached and peaked its potential or hasn’t quite got there yet. 

We arrived in time for the Saturday market. I’d wondered why there were so many stalls and so much dried fish and lush vegetables, when clearly Mark and I and the other couple of malae could only be counted for very minor purchases, when the ferry from Dili arrived and like the classic clown car gag at the circus, opened her doors and spewed forth.

People. Lots and lots of people. And motorbikes. And carts loaded with plastic bowls and brushes. And mums and dads with their handful of kids, they kept coming out of the guts of the ferry. We saw people laden with stuff, 2 guys carrying a washing machine between them. And then just when you thought there could be nothing left, she squeezed out a couple of trucks and a few more motorbikes.

People come from Dili for a picnic, to see family, to come home after a working week. They come for the dried fish, squid and octopus, for the chickens, the tomatoes, and I suspect for the feeling of joy at being away from the city. There is perfect sense in leaving one island for another island.

We sat and watched people come and go and found ourselves chatting to a young guy who wanted to practice his English. Sit still long enough and it seems to happen everywhere we go.

We stayed at Beloi Beach Resort. It’s tucked up on the hill, has a pool, a tiki bar, a high staff to guest ratio, pleasant rooms, flushing toilets and food. I find myself searching for words. I guess a tourism brochure would say, natural, untouched, authentic. Bits are rumpty. Slightly faded. A bit uneven.  I guess it’s like loving your girlfriend’s crooked tooth or your baby’s big ears, the imperfections are the things that feel worthy of love.

The power goes out several times while we are there, but it makes little difference to the temperature of the pool or the beer. In fact, sitting in the dusk listening to the singing from the Church below is magical.

There are 3 other groups here. 2 very young American guys, here with the Navy building a school, a Portuguese couple, he’s a captain in the army about to leave Timor-Leste for good, he’s happy to be going back but sad too, and an American couple who have been out of the states for 10 years teaching in International schools, she’s American Korean, he’s all Iowa. We circle around each other, passing pleasantries at the pool, saying hi on our way to our rooms and then over dinner there’s a merging of our plates and cutlery to one large table and we sit and eat and talk. It’s wonderful. We touch on politics, compare our worlds, grow a little closer to each other over shared and different experiences. When Nate says you guys should come to Korea, we say yes, of course. And then laugh when we explain that it’s a New Zealand thing to actually turn up. With bags. And family. For weeks! 

When they all leave on Sunday morning Mark and I rattle around as the only quests and it feels a bit like the end of school camp.

I am cheered though by a visit to Boneca de Atauro, a women’s collective who make dolls. We get there in the back of a tuk-tuk, bouncing over the limestone roads, I think if I hadn’t been in Timor-Leste for 4 months and wasn’t an old hand at this, I’d be shocked by the time it takes to go 5 k and the rickety, bone jostling it takes to get there.

The factory is opened for us by a woman across the road and I fossick about in cupboards whispering…  “I’d take you all home if I could”, and settle on the lovers, and a revolutionary. We throw in a crocodile hand puppet for good measure.

We realise quickly that our life in Dili must be more out of the sun than in it when we notice each other’s red noses and cheeks and that little sting you get on your legs when you step into the sea. 

There’re things you should know about Atauro. Things like bring cash, there are no ATM’s or credit cards.  And bring coins for the markets and to pay your drivers. No one has change for that big tenner you’re waving around. Bring battery packs to charge devices and a torch. Bring sunblock and maybe some snacks if you’re the hungry type.

Bring your snorkel and dive gear. I read that Atauro has the highest diversity of reef fish and coral species of anywhere in the world.

Bring your few Tetum phrases and your tolerance for a slower pace.

Bring your appetite, there’s plenty of food but some of it won’t be familiar and some of it won’t be flash.  Breakfast could be omelets and those little chicken sausages I’ve mentioned before (like Sizzlers you get in NZ but with less meat). I’m sure they’re addictive. At 75cents for 8, they’re certainly cheap. There is also the high possibility of banana fritters (not quite as good as Grandma Philomena’s).

Bring your sore body, I had an AMAZING massage, 25 bucks for an hour, after which I went back to my room and promptly fell asleep.

Bring your sense of adventure and your curiosity and some extra room in your bags for at least a handful of dolls from Boneca de Atauro.

But mostly don’t bring the desire for a sanitized, easily consumed, mass produced experience. If you wanted constant hot water you could have stayed at your hotel in town.

In a world where travel can be a bit beige, where the biggest thing you can do is tick a box, Eiffel Tower Tick, Colosseum Tick, London Eye Tick, Atauro Island brings the colour, the experience that’s hard to describe, in a place that remains untouched enough to be considered actually authentic.

It’s not all beer and skittles.

Or whatever that means. Maybe it’s not all sunsets and snorkeling.

People talk about living in Dili as “challenging”. It always sounds like it’s in CAPITALS…you know CHALLENGING. And I guess I haven’t really felt that.

Until the slightest hint of it this week.

First on Thursday when we received a fairly regular WhatsApp message from UN Security via VSA. Often, it’s about a group of youth biffing stones at each other and to avoid the area, it’s usually pretty simple, we’re not really frequenting some of these places after dark anyway.

This time however it was to notify a serious incident, 2 dead, 3 in a serious condition in hospital, 6 houses burned down (turns out in the end it was 13!). At a village out of town and part of some reasonably regular violence from one of the martial arts gangs (MAGS)

As many as 90,000 people belong to martial arts groups or gangs. Set up by Jakarta to foster patriotism and then as cells of resistance, these gangs see their roles as mostly about welfare and protection and it’s suggested that only a small number are involved in violence and criminal activity.

Unlike gangs in New Zealand who are easily recognizable by their patches, it’s relatively hard to see the difference between a group of guys hanging out on the corner by the Mall, and an active MAG spoiling for trouble.

About 40 minutes away is just far enough away to not be considered beyond a sense of “god, that’s a bit of a worry.” But then the next couple of messages came over the weekend. “Police released tear gas for warning shots.” “Convoys carrying the body of the late Mr X…traffic congestion and delays may occur” “Take alternate routes”.  Disruptions and potential violence around the moving of bodies and the holding of funerals in Dili. In places we go frequently, places we recognise. In our local streets.

It all passed. Everything was fine. It was a prod though to not get too comfortable, too soft in the middle.

Then Mark went to bed in pain on Sunday. His usual robust stillness gave way to silence and fidgeting. I resisted making too many jokes. I seem to have this perverse thing about trying to ease the situation by making completely inappropriate comments. My children tell me that if there was such a thing, then I would have the opposite of “Munchausen’s by proxy”. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s just that I’d rather you made less FUSS. Secretly I think I’d most admire the person who, dangling severed leg gushing blood, says oh this, just a scrape.

He looked at me with his big brown pain filled eyes and said “don’t be cruel”. Stabbed through my seemingly uncaring heart!! I ratcheted up my inner nurse (and not the one in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and soothed him as best I can. I’m actually pretty good at the old bedside manner, plenty of fluids, the gently cluck clucking while plumping pillows, the cool hand on the fevered brow. When he started to vomit I thought, now that’s something he can do on his own and left him to it. I muttered so quietly he couldn’t hear above the retching,” good thing men don’t have babies” as I closed the toilet door behind me.

Things didn’t improve. We had a slightly heated discussion that went something like this.

Him “It’s just a kidney stone”

Me “you’ve got a medical degree then, could be an infection”

Him “I know my body”

Me “you’re not in Guatemala now Dr Ropata”

Essentially in his weakened state he had to bow to my greater nagging…threats mainly that if I had to go with him to be medevac’d out cos he was too stubborn to get something sorted then there would be some serious consequences…aka I would throw my toys.

You see it’s not that easy. At about 3am when things always look their grimmest I got to thinking about what we’d do next. There’s no real ambulance service. We’ve been told to avoid the hospital at all costs. 50% of people who go in, never come out! There’re no taxis after dark. I imagined poking him onto the back of my scooter and tying his limp body on with bungies. There is a 24hour clinic, frequented by malae and endorsed for use. You ring them, and they meet you at the door. You hope that what’s on the other side of the door resembles modern medicine. And there is support through VSA with a vehicle and experience and a wealth of knowledge. But nothing EASY. Nothing straightforward. I had sent a txt one of our friends earlier and said don’t turn your phone off, I may need you. I felt slightly disoriented by my need to do that. I’ve always taken care of everything, all the emergencies, all the time.

He suffered through the night, mainly in silence (with the odd plaintive whimper) and topped up and stupefied by a liberal handful of drugs that I had brought with me from New Zealand. Some eye wateringly strong voltaren and some codeine.

Dawn saw us awake and pacing. At 9 am we went to the clinic. Checked in, we’d already registered and almost immediately he was triaged through a couple of nurses, blood pressure, pulse, height, weight etc. Back out to the waiting area, barely sat down and called to the doctor.

She ordered bloods, urine, poked around on his tummy and his back. Asked all the questions. Thorough. Quick.

Back out to waiting area, called again. To the lab tech who took all samples and said mā te wā as we left. We noticed her pounamu and asked, she’d been in New Zealand for 3 months finishing some training.

“Come back at 2pm. Results in then.”

It seems we can both be right (who knew? This could be the answer to a long and happy marriage). Likely a kidney stone AND an infection.

There’s one antibiotic he can take. It’s strong. A sledgehammer. And no codeine in the country, anywhere. Maybe Tramadol or an antispasmodic. But that’s it. The choices appear to be, take these, or take nothing.

The clinic is also the dispensing pharmacy and we leave with 2 little plastic bags of pills. I get him home and caution him to actually do as he’s told, take the pills, drink the water, rest. I think the pills in his hand have sobered him. He knows it’s not so easy to just take another type of antibiotic, or get an urgent scan, or see a specialist. He knows it’s not so easy to be sick in this country.

Post Script (5 days later)

In which I eat my words.

Things don’t quite go to plan. By Friday he is no better, he’s in bed and I’m sneakily googling clinic open hours so come Saturday morning when I ask what’s up and he says “I’ll go see the Dr on Monday” I say, oh how about we go this morning, I think they’re open.

We leave with a new antibiotic, tramadol and a letter of referral for a scan and an appointment if necessary with a urologist. I’m prepared to say I was wrong on all 3 of the counts above.

The other clinic is just up the road. The receptionist reads the letter, looking worried she says, oh I am very sorry you’ll have to come back later. I imagine getting a scan in New Zealand, I anticipate a long wait. She says, 8.30 tonight you come, I will ring the doctor now.

 A member of staff sits with us in the waiting room, it’s very comforting. She uses a translation app on her phone to tell us one patient has taken very long but we will be seen soon.

The scan itself is thorough, the doctor explains everything, shows us everything, takes his time. It’s so unlike anything I’ve had at home. He encourages us to sit beside him while he writes up his notes, which he reads aloud and asks for questions. He pops the images onto a data stick and shakes Mark’s hand with a final “may God bless you” as we leave.

It’s $55.00.

Monday, he is much improved. The trip to Darwin and “better” medicine fades into the distance.

Reflections and other R words

Is it something about the heat that makes me so reflective? Those sweaty afternoons lying on the couch like a panting dog, cursing the fact that the power is out again, but not really minding because it means you can curl up and snooze through the hottest part of the day. 

Yesterday the power went out for 6 hours. I made dinner wearing a head torch. My childlike inner hippy loved the fact that I could turn all the fairy lights on and light all the candles. Even the ones with Jesus on them. Sitting outside in the embrace of a warm night we both wondered at the same time what that smell was.

Seems those really cheap plastic candleholders melt under extreme conditions and we escaped setting the house on fire by about 3 minutes. For the rest of the night and most of the following morning I was still finding sooty footprints throughout the living area. Thank god for tile floors.

At times it reminds me of my flatting days. Uncomfortable furniture, our couch is both bright orange and made from polyester, sheets that don’t get washed every week, we abandoned the expensive white linen ones weeks ago, mince meals, with hidden veges, miss-matched plates and cutlery, there’s never enough teaspoons is there? and posters held up with blue tack, art prints brought from home not band posters like the old days.

It makes me grateful for all those things I learnt when money was tight and conditions mighty grim at times. It’s amazing what you can do with a throw, a bunch of cushions and a few pot plants.

The first of the R’s.

Resourcefulness. Wearing a headlamp to cook dinner. Remembering all those mince recipes. Using number 8 wire to fix the hole in the mosquito netting in the door. Creating a concoction of coconut oil and deet so you don’t burn your skin off. Making banana loaf in the breadmaker. Changing the bottom sheet and swapping it for the top one (I’m not sure anyone younger than 50 will know about that). Buying cans of beans when they’re on special, even when no one really likes beans. Card games cos there’s no TV.  Shopping for the cheapest toilet paper and in bulk even when you have nowhere to put it. Using an old box as storage (doubles as a bookcase) and the end of the table covered in a ratty old towel to iron your work clothes on.

Then there’s my next R. 

Resilience. This is when you don’t cry when someone knocks you off your scooter (even though it really hurt!) and you dust yourself off and get back on it and ride it home. Or when the toilet is blocked AGAIN and you really really need to go, cos, well maybe that chicken wasn’t so good. And when the water is off and the power is on, or the power is off and the water is on. When you open the fridge and find a pile of dead ants that must have made it in somehow on a bowl of leftovers, and sadly they all look like they were making a break for the door…and nearly made it! Or when you’ve done everything right and still you get bitten by a mossie and it’s right in the join where your bum meets your leg and it’s driving you crazy.

The final R is respect. 

Respect that your way isn’t the only way, that just because you think something SHOULD be a certain way doesn’t make it so. That difference in all its forms is a beautiful, challenging, confronting, exciting thing and really our experiences, when put into the context of everyone, everywhere and throughout time are just tiny and often inconsequential. Respect that maybe working to ‘island time” is actually healthy. Respect that putting family relationships and the desire to celebrate someone’s birthday long and hard through the night instead of being sensible and tucked up in bed before 10pm could actually be right and proper. 

Oh, and one more R. 

Romance.  Make sure you’re getting some. Life is way easier if you are.

On getting a driver’s license.

You’d wonder if anyone in Dili had a driver’s license if you spent more than a little time on the roads. It’s been a constant amazement to me that through the chaos and the seemingly lawless way the traffic works that there’s actually what passes for anything remotely like a system to getting from A to B.

There’re scooters everywhere. They’re my favourite. Operated like extensions of a running body these manage to zip in and out of traffic or dribble down the side of the road, the fast ones always seeming to carry a youngish man, the slow and steady ones, carrying a mum, dad and a couple of kids (plus a babe in a sling). When I arrive at an intersection and stop for the lights (which isn’t a given for half of the scooters behind me) I find myself sitting amongst a thrumming, throbbing, breathing bunch of machines, I try to look ahead, keeping my eyes on the red light but invariably I find myself looking around at the gathered crowd and their bemused stares. I’ve worked out pretty quickly, 1. Not many solo women ride scooters. 2. Not many older solo women ride scooters and 3. Not many malae women ride scooters. I’ve learnt to manage the staring, it’s not malicious, just curious, and it usually gives me an advantage in the pack to get off first at the green light. “She’s a woman, she’s old, she’s white…and she’s fast!”

Then there’re the cars. Apparently a relatively newish thing to Dili, the favoured vehicle of what must be a rising middle class is a 4-wheel drive, a Pajero most often. These behemoths are either driven at speed, damn the rest of you, or slow slow slow. The Timorese, new to driving these monsters seem to have varying degrees of spatial awareness and given the fact that no one seems to conform to any rules around sticking in your own lane, these vehicles are a menace for anyone who doesn’t have the nipping in and out down pat. 

Once you’ve managed the cars, the microlets are next. Small gaudily painted vans packed full of people. 25 cents will get you anywhere. There are routes but no regular stops. A microlet will pick you up anywhere with a wave of a hand and will stop when you tap your coin on the roof. I have yet to travel in one. My friend Maggie does. She is a compact woman. I am not. Even she struggles with the space, being able to actually see out the window to know where you are and the press of so many bodies. Teenage boys hang out the doors and there’s usually some sort of loud drum and bass to match the Fluro toys hanging inside. The thing with microlets is that you should never ever ride your scooter along their left side. Indicating their intention to stop is haphazard at best, non-existent usually and very simply an opportunity for you and your scooter to end up squished against the side of the road.

Then yellow cabs. Literally held together with duct tape and prayers, yellow cabs proliferate, a bit like gorse in the hill country in NZ. The last one I got into had no handles on the passenger doors, no lights, no seatbelts, many many stuffed toys (maybe they work like airbags to protect you in a crash?) a GREAT sound system, and possibly 3 of the 5 gears it arrived in the country with. We’ve been advised to avoid them, or at least to select the least rumpty ones. A couple of weekends ago we managed to flag one down after dark and travelled home in subsequent stunned silence. It had what appeared to be a single gear, travelled mainly by the sheer will power of the driver. At one stage while travelling up a slight hill everyone aboard held their breath and wished it forward ( ala the little engine that could “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can”). It had lights but they were so dim as to be almost non-existent, a bit like candlelight without the romance. We inched through the dark night like misplaced bats. With no aircon and no opening windows it was dark, hot, terrifying. But very very funny. I spent the ride home trying hard not to laugh. Hysteria maybe?

There’re trucks and buses and random carts wheeled down the roads. In fact one tipped over last week and spewed its firebox out onto the road. Many people gathered, a few threw pots of water onto the flames. There’re dogs asleep in the intersection. Roundabouts with no rules. Traffic lights that go out when the power does. Up our way there’re hundreds and hundreds of kids surging out of the school, 3 or 4 times a day. There’s the odd chicken who decides to cross the road.

The drivers licensing place is out at Hera, about 20 minutes from the centre of Dili. It’s a big purpose-built building, surrounded by fields, a place to sit Part One of your scooter license by riding around an almost smooth dirt track spotted with road cones. Next door a bank and across the road a corrugated iron shed with a sign that says Foto Copy.

As systems go it’s all pretty straight forward. Bring your already prepared folder (yellow) containing two I.D photos taken on a specific background (red), the form filled out indicating height and eye colour (black OR brown), a copy of your NZ drivers’ license, your passport, some coins and 20 bucks.

Take a number from the machine at the door. Take a seat. 35 minutes later take your form to Window Number One. Realise that the message about wearing a shirt with a collar actually meant you too. Go to stall outside where water and soft drinks are sold. Work out very quickly that your colleague (a tiny woman) will fit into the hired shirt. Press husband into vehicle and remove (in a none sexy way) his shirt. Leave him sitting in the car semi naked. Squeeze into his business shirt. Pray buttons don’t pop open. Try not to breath. Say to yourself, “it’s not a fashion parade”. Note that you’re wearing a red, blue and yellow floral print dress and that the shirt is blue and purple stripes.

Return to door one. Enter, sit while person completes details on a computer. Realise you are now wearing 3 layers of clothes, recognise sweat gathering in the middle of your back, pooling into your undies. Try not to breath heavily. Feel buttons straining. Have picture taken (god, imagine what THAT will look like). Resist urge to rip shirt off.

Receive a printed document, follow instructions to walk across the road to Foto Copy shed, get 4 copies. Return to building with copies (shirt is now back on husband). Give copies to Window Number Two. Have some copies returned. Stand in long line at bank window. Watch the guard, a very handsome man, albeit in miniature. Pay 20 bucks. Receive stamped copies. Return to Window Number Two, hand over copies, receive one back. This is your temporary license. Someone may ring you some time to say your real one is ready, it could be 3 months.

My license is now in my wallet nestled up against my BNU bank card. With each passing week and with every regulatory task ticked off I’m beginning to feel like I belong here. It helps too that I’ve finally brought indoor plants.