It is people.

It’s my last two weeks in Timor-Leste before we head back to New Zealand for Christmas and for me to return to work in the New Year and it’s got me thinking about all the things I’ll miss.

So, here’s a list, in no particular order.

I’ll miss the heat. That lush, moist 34 degrees that saturates right through to your bones. All those aches and pains of tight tired joints disappears into a mass of sweat and I end up feeling wet right through. The sweat, salty on my upper lip, rivulets of moisture running down my back and into my undies. Getting onto my scooter after a swim and the seats so hot my togs dry instantly; I imagine the steam rising off around me.

The ground so hot on my bare feet that I can’t stand on the concrete for too long and I have to hop across patches of grass to my jandals.

I’ll miss my jandals. My sandals. Not wearing shoes for nearly a year. Sitting at beachside with my toes in the sand, a stray dog leaning against my ankles. Feet so black after a day out they need scrubbed before I head to bed.

I’ll miss the animals. Even the rooster starting at 4.30 and crowing most of the day. The pigs and goats on the street out in the villages. The monkey who looks at me with disdain down by the massage place, the baby deer and chickens. The dogs, all the dogs. And the lizards who skitter up the wall and into the cracks in the roof. The cats genetically strange, born with only half a tail. The pig on the beach during the screening of Babe. So many baby animals. The water buffalo and the wild horses. The cattle. Even the cockroaches who duck out from under the loo when I’m on my  4th visit through the night, I’ll even miss those bloody parasites that make my guts dangerously temperamental.

Ill miss the bum washer. How Western cultures cope without one seems frankly unsanitary and a bit mental. Serving not only as a handheld bidet it comes in super handy for filling a bucket to wash your smalls and reef shoes after a snorkel.

I’ll miss the sea. A constant daily reminder of a small island paradise. The water warm as blood, holding me aloft as I float in its wave less arms. And then sometimes crashing against the shore, tossing up sand and stones, too fierce to even paddle in.  All the kids in the afternoon playing in the shallows, mothers walking amongst the receding tide looking for small fish and crabs, the fishermen on the streets, holding their spears in one hand, a tangle of octopus in the other. The small boats and drying nets along the esplanada.

I’ll miss the legend of grandfather crocodile, the shape of Timor-Leste his back as he rose out of the sea, his image in art and crafts everywhere. 

I’ll miss the iconography of a country that embraces Catholicism and animism in equal measure. The churches, grand and grander, right next to the uma lulik (the spirit houses). The conflict of modern religion and ancient mysticism where the greatest deterrent to bad behavior is the idea of a generational curse.  The conflict and contrast of a huge youth population in the city with access to the world via the internet and mobile phones, and the bigger majority out in villages where water and food are a constant issue and traditional values continue to hold sway. 

Where marriage is consecrated in the village, the combining of families tied to the amount of cattle provided as a dowry by the husband’s family, with numbers sometimes so great the families remain linked in a sort of cattle debt for generations. And then married later in the church, with your children in tow.

I’ll miss the children. So many children. 6 per family makes sense when viewed against a post-conflict backdrop when so many were lost and like any post war baby boom it’s not just about replenishing numbers but also about a real and very deeply felt hope for the future. So many children, so many under 30’s. 

I’ll miss the rarity of seeing our lovely grandma. Elegant and quiet as she moves around the compound, sweeping up the leaves, making things just so. 

I’ll miss the cemeteries where ancestors and more recent family members are treated to lavish grave sites, some costing as much as the house the family currently live in. Where folk gather on mass during high days and light candles and clean graves. Our almost daily ride past the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili which saw the massacre of at least 250 pro-independence demonstrators on the 12 November 1991, during the Indonesian occupation.

I’ll miss the flags and what they represent. The sense of a new country rising  from its colonial past, covered in no small amount of blood, hopeful for a brighter future. 

I’ll miss the food. The supermarkets with their startling array of weird and wonderful products shipped in from just about everywhere. The frozen meat from New Zealand, the Brazilian chickens, the Chinese fish, the ice cream from Thailand, the vegemite from Australia, the huge number of beauty products with extra “whitening”. Including some for your nether regions, from Indonesia. Fresh vegetables and fruit from the markets, avocados, passionfruit, tomatoes, chili, peppers, sweet potato and sweet bananas.  Oh, those sweet bananas. 

I’ll miss knowing that I can find dairy here this week, but not next. That I won’t see any more paper until the next container comes in. That if there’s something I might want sometime then the time to purchase is right now cos there’s no guarantee I’ll see it for another 2 months. 

I’ll miss all the places we eat, the “Not Have”, when you ask for the same thing you’ve eaten every time you come. Sweet and Sour chicken? Not have. What? Not have chicken. The fish, rice and vegetables for 3 bucks. I’ll miss the best fish curry I’ve ever eaten anywhere. Mark will miss the cheap Bintang.

I’ll miss the chaos of a busy run to work in the morning on my scooter, and the quiet quiet streets on a Sunday when everyone is at Mass. Riding home at 9.30pm when the streets are dark, and the air is warm on my bare skin. The streets sparkling with open fires of barbeques, groups of people sitting, smoking, talking quietly in the dark. Karaoke pumping out from behind gates, food smells and a life being well lived after dark.

I’ll miss riding my scooter. The 6-hour adventures in the saddle, when my arse is so sore, I whimper when I finally get off the seat. The terrible, good, terrible, great, terrible road where I inch along at 15kph. The great swaths of potholes and loose gravel, the steamy melting black oily tar which makes my eyes water, the 4 lane Chinese built highways to nowhere. The kids calling out greetings as I ride through the smaller villages. Taking a pee on the side of the road, there’s no public bathrooms, eating in the warangs and learning quickly to order what the locals are having. Finding the local market, staying in the guesthouse. Power out at midnight and no diesel for the generator, a knock at the door and a lantern passed through to light my way. Discovering a waterfall with a bunch of kids who strip off and encourage me into the water, laughing at my age, my white skin, my otherness?

The cooler hills, the change of scenery as I go inland, trees and birds and mist as I climb up and over the crocodiles back. Street stalls on the coast laden with chili oiled fish hot off the grill and woven flax bags of steamed rice, bananas from the mountains. Salt for sale, or pineapples. 

I’ll miss unlimited internet for $30 a month with coverage even in the remotest area, $40 a month for power and gas. I’ll miss a bag of 8 chicken sausages (not sure about whether it’s actual chicken) for $1. $3 a fortnight to fill my scooter with petrol, 20 litres of water for $1. I’ll miss the car wash where the guys spend half an hour on my bike and charge me $1 (I always give them 2). Where they’ll check your tire for a flat and turn down any money you offer. I’ll miss my washing being done and coming back folded so well I never need to iron, for $5.

I’ll miss my tiny Thai grandma’s energetic massages, her strong fingers rubbing away the knots and her laughing as I groan when she folds me in two. 

I’ll miss my newfound friendships forged in the trenches and around conversations about discomfort, the heat, the strangeness of a day, the long sometimes sleepless nights. I’ll miss making space in my life to let newcomers in and the joy in finding friends like I did as a kid.

What is the most important thing in the world? He Tangata, He Tangata, He Tangata. It is the people, the people, the people.

And oh how I shall miss the people. Battered by a bloodied past and working so hard towards a brighter future. The idea that we are only better off because of an accident of birth that delivered us into our lives in the Western developed world. Where riding past the casket maker I reflect on the thin line here between life and death, and that idea that life is hard but joy and family and love still seem ever present.

I’ll miss being stared at and spoken to at the lights, in the shops, while I stand outside the café. The constant greetings from everyone and last week when I was shocked by a terrible accident witnessed on the road, the small girl who threw her arms around me and squeezed my hips,” botarde mana botarde” she said.

I’ll miss the protective skin I have shed in the last year, but welcome the newness of my slightly brown flesh and the clarity of my ability to see the world through a different lens.

I hope I have given as much as I have taken.

I hope I am missed too.

Viva Timor-Leste, Viva.

Dogs of Dili

An account of the good dogs (asu diak) and the bad dogs (asu la diak) we have met.

With a caution. If you’re likely to pick up the hotline to PETA or come over all faint about the little doggies, then best skip ahead to something that doesn’t include a sentence about eating dogs.

The dogs of Dili are not your overly pampered pedigree, neutered literally, and figuratively by your desire to make them do tricks to be fed.  I suspect the dogs here are more akin to the wolves who came into the fireside, seeking warmth and companionship, than they are to your average chained up, off for walkies, shake hands and sit pooches you’ll find in New Zealand.

There’s no time for sentimental bullshit, although this may end up a love story.

When we arrived in Dili and even before we made it to our house, we’d heard about the dogs. Noisy, aggressive, roaming…. packs of wild beasts eating nappies out of the rubbish, scabby, feral. But the one we heard the most about was the dog we’d be living with. He’d left the previous tenant quaking in her lycra, they’d had plenty of falling outs and she’d called it quits and shifted down the road. I’d begun to imagine him as the dog from Stephen King’s Cujo, I’d be trapped inside while he slobbered and whined at the door waiting to eat me.

Turns out imagination is both a blessing and a curse depending on where it takes you.

I’m not sure if Melo was there for day one, it’s all a blur. Those first few days were bonkers, unpacking, shopping, sweating, not sleeping.

I imagine he was just doing his thing outside, maybe plotting my demise? We didn’t notice him.

Mark has a well perfected and often used “get away farm dog” tone, I was planning on utilising a local tip…if approached by an angry dog, remain calm (ha) and bend down, the dog will think you’re picking up a rock to throw at it. This technique seemed sort of lacking…surely, you’d be better to bend down and actually pick up a rock? Anywho, seems it works, the locals biff rocks at the dogs all the time.

I discovered Melo and his name (the kids call him, he ignores them) and set about a better constructed plan than the bending down pretend rock nonsense. I’d mostly ignore him and feed him occasionally.

He started out a pretty skinny boy. I figured he’d love to eat. Several trips to several supermarkets and I found some dog biscuits. They were eye wateringly expensive. There may be a hint to their popularity in that fact.

I shook some into a bowl and watched through the window. A very disdainful sniff and a turning of his skinny haunches said, nope, not hungry enough for THOSE.

I learnt he didn’t like cooked sausages, potato chips, potato, ALL varieties of dog biscuits, leftovers generally. I hand fed him cheese. 

I finally cracked and brought him plain pack mince from New Zealand. Trial and error led me to the perfect mix 3/5th mince, 2/5th dog biscuits and we had success.

I fed him under cover of darkness. It felt like I was having an affair. He is after all someone else’s dog. Although the concept of ownership seems unusual here. Sure the dogs live WITH people, but they’re not OWNED by them. Very very few are neutered, a trip to the vet would be almost unheard of. It seems to be a relationship built on common unspoken need…the dog says well I’ll hang around here cos there’s some food and you’re kinda alright and the human says I like having a dog round cos who doesn’t. The agreement doesn’t involve gushy displays of affection, humiliating training programmes, silly bandanas, slobbery dog kisses or chains and cages. I am dog. You are human. 

Melo’s health became an analogy of my overall outtake from the year in Timor-Leste. “Nothing is simple and just when you think you’ve got it sussed, you haven’t”. 

Skinny skinny became skinny…eating well, coming by for a pat, sleeping on the porch, skinny became sleek, following me inside to wait for food, leaning against my leg, then sleek became skinny, too many dog fights, too many wounds which led to skinny skinny and lying panting in the dust.

I’d watch him as he got over a fight, I let a sleeping dog lie. He’d take a few days and then limp over for food. Id pat him down very gently and find all the lumps and bumps of sores that began to heal.

I brought a toy and a worm and flea treatment back from New Zealand. He didn’t really like either.

He’s our good dog. He’s his own good dog.

There are other good dogs. A very sweet little ginger dog at Beachside whose hanging teats and sad face encourages me to hand feed her half my baked salmon and all the crispy skin. She sits under the table and leans on my feet. She’s curled up on my toes enough times now for me to think it’s not just accidental.

She runs along the sand, play fighting with the other dogs, she nips at them when she’s annoyed and they have a “gentlemen’s” agreement to not all come for food at once. One dog sits at my righthand, another at my left. Their tails are curled against their bodies, they appear like attentive waiters, quiet, discrete, waiting to take something from my table. Each morsel is held out and they gently gently take it from my hand with a soft mouth and hardly any teeth. 

The dog at Oe-Cusse escorted us across the road, lay beside our bags, growled at approaching strangers and walked us home. Such good dogs.

Down the road is a bad dog. Night after night he’ll pace outside our gate, barking, taunting Melo to come out for a scrap. Sometimes he brings his bully boy mates and they pounce, tooth and claw and Melo runs for home, whimpering and wounded.

Mark has made a stock whip out of broom handle and a length of rope, he runs outside in the dark in his jocks and cracks it over the bad dogs’ heads. They scarper for home but are back the next night.

The bad dog chases the kids going up to school, he snarls at scooters, he bites at feet and ankles. He made our neighbor drive into her gate. He causes havoc from dusk til dawn then sleeps in a patch of shade all day like nothing has happened.

It turns out that HE’S the dog we were warned about.

Another bad dog sits under a chair and bites the ankle of the man sitting in it. He’s flown to Darwin for a painful rabies shot. 

The dogs at Adrian’s house charge against their chain, snapping, growling, baring their teeth. At dusk they are let off their chains to prowl through the darkness guarding home. A later than normal night home sees him baled up against the gate, with the dogs roaring on the other side, barking, leaping, all teeth and terror. The homeowner beats them away and lets Adrian in.

Down the road by one of the supermarket street vendors sell puppies on the corner. Sometimes parrots. The odd piglet. Occasionally armed police arrive and sweep them away.  They’re back the next day with 2 love birds in a box, and bottles of honey.

We heard a story. When you die the family dog is killed, perhaps to escort you to heaven, your companion for life, and then is eaten at your funeral. There’s a premium on red dogs. If your family doesn’t have one, you buy one. 

I ask my Timorese friend Akito. He say’s maybe. Each village has its own traditions. He says just about everyone eats dog. I say when? For fun he replies. He means for events…gatherings, parties, ceremonial events, high days and holidays. 

He tells me that dogs are kept in villages to protect precious garden crops from pigs and goats, to protect your home from unwanted visitors, and just “because”.

He tells me that families may well love their dogs, may name them. He says the one at home is called “sacred fire” in the local dialect. This dog won’t be eaten. Naming it makes it special. I say we have the same thing with sheep in New Zealand, once you’ve named your pet lamb its unlikely to end up on the table.

We have learnt the names for meat.

Naan manu=chicken

Naan fahi =pork

Naan karoe =beef

Mark thinks we could buy the bad dog down the road and give it to a friend who specializes in meat for events. Naan asu (dog meat).

People have said won’t you bring Melo home.  He has a home. It’s not like his life would be in New Zealand. Sure he’d be fed and safe and loved but he wouldn’t be free to be the essential dog he is.  Free to choose to live with us. Free to walk the streets and lie in the dust. Free to come inside when he wants. Free to fight. Free to love.

I say he has a home. He has a family. He has a name. He is Melo. Red dog, real dog and I will miss him terribly.

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, Oecusse Amasat, 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.