Celebrating Independence Day May 20th

Yesterday was a holiday in Timor Leste. A big one. It’s been 17 years since Timor Leste was formally recognized as an independent state.

Time then for a bit of a history lesson and some background for those of you who like me had a fairly blurry idea of the place.

After nearly 400 years of Portuguese colonial rule and a brief civil war, East Timor declared independence on the 28 November 1975. 9 days later it was invaded by Indonesian forces and incorporated into Indonesia in 1976 as the province of Timor Timur.

The next 24 years saw a brutal campaign against resistance fighters during which the occupiers killed, starved, sterilised and executed between 104,000 to 183,000 Timorese citizens (from a population of around 800,000).

Until 1988 East Timor remained closed within rigid control of the Indonesian military. When President Suharto resigned in 1998 the ensuing economic and political crisis in Indonesian gave a renewed push for independence. In 1999 talks began at the United Nations to hold a referendum to decide on Indonesia’s offer of an autonomous status within its territory.

98% of registered voters went to the polls in 1999 and they voted by a margin of over 78% to reject the proposed autonomy.

Between August and September pro-Indonesian Timorese militias and the military commenced a scorched earth campaign of retribution. They killed approximately 2000 Timorese, forced nearly 300 000 into West Timor and displaced over 2/3rds of the population. The rampage destroyed the bulk of the country’s infrastructure, homes, irrigation, water supplies, schools, government buildings and nearly 100% of the country’s electrical grid were all ruined. Formal institutions and government structures disappeared literally overnight.

September 1999 saw the Australian-led peacekeeping forces deployed…INTERFET (International Force in East Timor). On May 20 2002 after 3 years of United Nations administration East Timor was formally recognised as an independent state.

From 2002 until 2012 various security crisis’s including assignation attempts on the President and Prime Minister, concerns around elections and a variety of other challenges saw the ongoing presence of the UN and various humanitarian groups.

As a young nation Timor Leste faces many challenges; employment generation, poverty reduction and the rebuilding of infrastructure being amongst the most important. 

There are issues with gender inequalities with extremely high infant and maternal mortality rates, a demographic explosion with average fertility rates of 7.8, one of the highest in the world, 40 % of the population live below the national poverty line set at 55 cents (usd) per person per day each year. Life expectancy is short and education levels are low. Children attend school for a half day because of lack of resources. Enrolment in primary education in 2015 was 88%, secondary education was 29% in the same year.

The total population of approximately 1.5 million is made up of over 62% under 25 year olds. About 75% live in rural areas and rely on subsistence farming for their livelihoods. Large numbers of children face malnutrition and stunting. There is a high prevalence of childhood illnesses with under-nutrition contributing to 33% of child mortality.

Dates, stats, facts. Things that you now know. What I would most like to share with you though is the experience of children EVERYWHERE, so many pregnant women, and babies and young people. They swarm out of the schools and work in the markets and hang about on the streets, the Mall in Dili is heaving with them at the mobile phone shops. And in the village this weekend a huddle of 10 very small boys traipsed us through the bush to a waterfall where they promptly stripped naked and swam with us in the pool at its base. One offered to carry a bag, another held my hand over the roughest bits. We asked how old they were…10, 12, 14. Not one of them was as big as our 5-year-old grandson. Genetics yes, malnutrition, definitely.

Today and every day while we are here I’m flying my flag for Independence.

The yellow represents the traces of colonialism, the black, the obscurantism that needs to be overcome, the red, the struggle for liberation, and the star, white to represent peace.

Two F words

I’ve been thinking a lot about food…the finding of it (is all the meat frozen?), the cooking of it (can it be steamed or fried?), the eating of it (is this actually safe?), the disposal of the by-products of it later (is that even a toilet?!). It feels like the most basic of human functions, and I’m unfamiliar with the tight and fixated focus.

You’ll hear people say you can pretty much get anything you want in Dili. Relief should be short lived however because the next statement is, just not in the one place and not all the time.

So, I wake in the morning and I think, what shall we eat tonight. And before in our lush life I could’ve opened the fridge, the pantry, the freezer and thought, just one more ingredient I’ll grab on the way home and we’ll have this, or that.

There’s an abundance of supermarkets in Dili, big ones that stock everything from Johnny Walker Black Label to plastic NicNacs from China, there are kiosks and stores everywhere, and vegetable markets large and small down just about every street. There’s fish to be brought along the water front and there are at least two butchers that I have found so far.

An abundance of opportunity to stock your fridge or pantry it would seem. But here’s where it gets complicated. Depending on your list, you may have to go to half a dozen to get it all. Everyone has pork belly, but only one has bacon. Everyone has butter in a can, but only some have cheese. Want chicken stock? There only one place that sells that. And maybe not this week. One of the butchers last week had mince and chuck steak. And something else I didn’t recognise.

And so, we eat accordingly. The excitement is in the creativity. You never know quite what you’re going to end up with.

Last weekend we took the bikes out of town to a place called Dollar Beach. As you crest the top of the hill and look down towards the ocean, on the left spread out below you appears a manmade recreational area complete with toilet blocks, concrete bench seats and tables, shaded pagodas and two above ground swimming pools. And yet. Somehow it resembles a post-apocalyptic film set. I can’t decide whether it looks like a place that hope has abandoned or a place waiting for hope to arrive. There’s tagging on the walls and 5 of the 6 toilets are locked. There’s no water in the one that remains open. The pools are half full of green water with a hose lying half in, half out of one. You wonder if the chap filling it was plucked away by a zombie horde. It feels abandoned, or half lived in. It could be new and unfinished, or old and derelict. There are cows and goats sheltering under the trees. 

And yet. The sea is warm and turquoise blue and calm. If you swim out 200 metres you’ll find staghead coral, another few metres, bright blue star fish, further yet a reef with plenty of fish and the ubiquitous nemos. All this right off the beach and 40 minutes out of the dust and heat of Dili.

A drive another five minutes down the road leads you to several roadside stalls selling lunch. We pick the one distinguished by the most interesting decorations (street appeal exists everywhere) and are greeted by two girls who can’t help giggling while we try to work out how to order our food. It shouldn’t be hard. The choice is: fish with teeth, on a stick; fish without teeth, on a stick; octopus tentacles, on a stick; squid, on a stick and rice. The rice is served wrapped in intricate parcels made from leaves and the fish has been coated in chili oil and fried on the smoking wood bar-b-ques. 

I am sticky from the sea, tired and hungry. I pick a big fish, refuse to look it in the eye while I pick the flesh from the bones and lick my fingers clean. I buy a can of Sprite for the sweet to the salty and pay $2.50 for the meal.

When we get home, I spend thirty minutes doing the detailed calculations about what to cook for dinner. It’s not just the what but also the how…two gas rings, only two heats, hot and smoking hot. Hardly any bench space, no drinkable running water which means washing vegetables with bottled water, no oven, no microwave. It’s a bit like living in a student flat, there’s a LOT of stir-fry’s and I’ve even made a couple of spagbols.

Here’s the thing though, there’s something incredibly satisfying about turning out a half way decent meal particularly when you’ve had to be inventive. There’s also something deeply gratifying about the hunting/gathering element required when there’s no lavish supermarket and what you do buy has to be stuffed into your back pack and carried home on the scooter.

It’s not all about food though. There’s that other F word. Feelings! I’ve been thinking a lot about whether I could fall in love with Timor Leste. It’s early in the relationship, 7 weeks, we haven’t had our first falling out yet, there hasn’t been an argument about money, we are still getting to know each other and on our best behavior.

I think when I am riding home in the warm still night, with the air on my bare skin and the smell of cooking on the wood fires lit all along the street, and when I am coming out of the sea and there’s a bunch of kids running along the sand, I think when I am sitting at home and there’s singing at the catholic school that goes on for hours, and when I am stopped at the lights and there’s a mum and dad on a scooter with 3 little ones jammed in between them and the baby sees me and her eyes go wide and she just STARES. Then I think, oh yes, you’d be very easy to love.

And yet.

When the children are climbing into the rubbish that someone else has pulled out of the bins, and the smallest one is naked and playing in the puddles and the roosters are tied by their legs to the cart waiting to be sold for cockfights, when the power goes off for the 4thtime this week and the madness of an intersection where no one gives way, or everyone gives way, when there’s another pregnant skinny dog wandering the street and round the corner there’s a multistory gilded mansion surrounded by shacks, and when you hear about another birth that’s gone wrong and a baby that isn’t going home. Then I think, let’s just wait and see. Plenty of time to use the L word.

It’s my birthday today and coincidentally exactly 4 weeks since we arrived in Dili.

It’s been an action packed last 2 weeks and I understand now that leaving the blog for this long is a mistake given my advancing old age and a brain that’s becoming increasingly full of additional “stuff”.

Since last I wrote we have had Easter. A pretty big deal in a country that most people fact check as 95 percent Catholic. You’ll hear the odd dissent about that number, something to do with the independence troubles and the registration of religious numbers compared to the actual attendees at Mass. From where I sat it certainly looked like every man, woman and child had their assorted finery on and were heading to church, several times, over Holy Week. There were processions, much singing, the quiet chaos of one-way roads being closed and the general familiar confusion of who’s open, when.

Our landlady arrived on Easter Sunday with 2 huge containers of food…chorizo, chicken and spiced rice and crumbed fish. One of the younger girls in the extended family knocked quietly at our door, quickly wished us a Happy Easter, thrust the food into our hands and disappeared back around to her side of the house.

Our place sits behind a large grey gate, locked at night, and topped by shards of broken glass to prevent any one climbing over. The buildings are joined up and share walls and look like they started as one single structure and then just grew additional lumps and bumps as more people needed to fit in. We are sure that there is a grandma (Philomena) an eldest daughter (Adelaide), another daughter, a variety of husbands and sons and maybe, at last count around 6 or 7 children. They live beside us, behind us, around us. 

There’s a red dog, Melo, a cat who gave birth under our bedroom window at 3 am one morning whose kitten cried through the night and a rooster who possesses an almost perfectly set snooze button. He starts at 5.30am and crows every half hour till 8am.

Easter provided us respite from language classes and Mark and I and our new buddy Adrian took to the hills. Literally. It’s 120 kms from Dili to Bacau, it took us 6 HOURS! Imagine if you will the worst New Zealand road you’ve ever been on, now travel on that road by scooter, in 32-degree heat. Now imagine that road designed by the Devil (you know, the old school fire and brimstone, suffering, circles of hell dude), 30 minutes of hot sticky black tar, an hour of corrugations so tough your wrists and shoulders are aching, then an hour of potholes and gravel, interspersed with great long stretches of perfect road to lull you into a false sense of security. Now, imagine road works, and trucks and buses that rumble past you with no real sense of the space they take on the road, and don’t forget the other scooters zipping in and out in front and around you. Now finally just when you think you’re done add in wandering water buffalo, goats, pigs and dogs. Oh, and the odd village kid who on seeing you runs out shouting “Malae, Malae “(translated as, what are you doing crazy white woman riding through here, ha ha ha Bacau is miles away and you look knackered already!)

We stopped hourly to get the blood back into my arse, those scooter seats are HARD, and to shake off the trauma of the road. The shower at the guest house in Bacau was the best thing I’ve felt in years.

We had a sleep, a swim and then turned around and came home. About 4 hours in I fell elegantly, slowly and embarrassingly off my scooter coming round a bend down a long sweeping patch of gravel. I was going so slowly it looked like I almost stepped off (or so Mark told me as he lifted my bike off my bruised ego). We washed off the gravel and my graze in the ocean when we found a great snorkeling spot and I travelled the final 2 hours in my salty drying togs with a stinging knee, a sunburnt chest and an amazingly perverse sense of achievement. 

Anzac Day saw us invited by the NZ Embassy to a dawn service with the Australians (they brought a boatload of people in, I sense some irony in that), local Timorese Veterans and the sole representative from Turkey, the guy who runs the local kebab restaurant. It felt strangely familiar, the Last Post, the Ode, the NZ National anthem, yet completely different, the dawn service in a summer frock and sandals unheard of in New Zealand, the smell of Deet on my skin, the Timorese anthem and the Presidential address in Portuguese.

Which raises an interesting point. Language here is tough. Most people speak Tetun, a combination of loan words from Portuguese and Bahasa. Some people speak only Bahasa, the government officials and the language of the elite is Portuguese, the villagers speak their own dialect (there’re hundreds of those) and the young guys desperately want to be learning English. Formal written documents are in Portuguese (we got stopped at a check point, we had limited documents, I was very quiet!) yet many Timorese can’t read that language. Street signs can be in a mix of any or all of the above. 

It adds a layer of complexity to a place that’s already mired in the complex.

I got a mop for my birthday, I was pretty excited about that. The power went off today for 4 hours. No power means no water means no mopping! 

I finally got to do it just before dinner time.

It’s the simple things that make the complex bearable.

Familiar and different

We feel like locals. Actually we don’t, but there is something to be said for finding yourself familiar with the route to town.

We have found, in no particular order of importance: a great beachside café, a butcher, a supermarket that stocks literally everything (except meat…hence the butcher), a Bunnings…well not really a branded Bunnings but a hardware shop that’s masquerading as one, a pharmacy, a vege market, a fabric shop and a dress maker.

I’ve realized I haven’t got enough clothes with me, not enough depth in the wardrobe. We popped into the New Zealand Embassy on Friday for choir practice for Anzac Day and I don’t think the rumpty dress and jandals will “do” for future visits.

So I found a neighbourhood dressmaker. She’s tiny, I’m not, we shared some jokes about the size of my chest…none of them in a language either of us understood apart from the widening of her eyes at the numbers on the tape measure and the international gesture for big boobs…you know the one you make with your hands out in front of you.

We’ve been going to language classes all week, from 8.30 til 12.30 and I can actually feel my brain stretching,expanding. It’s quite uncomfortable. Some days I wonder if my motorbike helmet will fit on my big head as we leave. We have a rotating threesome of teachers, Mana Marta, Maun Alex and Mana Nina. They each have different styles but patience in common. We’ve covered off greetings, introductions, time, asking questions and how not to ask to be suckled when you’re actually just wanting milk in your coffee. Most importantly we’ve learnt how to say “I don’t know…Hau la hatene” and also “can you speak more slowly, Ita bele koalia neineik ka?”

After class we come home and nap. It’s very hot in the middle of the day and most people avoid doing anything too strenuous. Mark starts work after Easter and 2 more weeks of language classes and by then I think we will both be ready for the routine.

At night we go to bed reasonably early and we lie in our room and listen to the family directly through the flimsy wall. It’s just a steady hum of kids and grownups, we’ve been warned to expect late night karaoke on special occasions. We feel connected and disconnected. It’s a strange sensation of both belonging, they know we are there, we know they are there, and separation, we won’t intrude. Our landlady comes into the house and takes away our rubbish, she turned the outside light on for us when we were away after dark on Friday night. I imagine this is what it’s like to be a teenage boy with an attentive mother. 

It’s not all embassy visits and naps. There’re reminders everywhere that life is tough. There’re the broken bottles imbedded in the wall that circles our compound, a makeshift razor wire barrier. A padlock on the gate for after dark. We took a wrong turn coming home the other evening and wound up in a street blocked off by a burnout car. People sat in the shadows and watched us while we turned around and headed back the way we came. 

Earlier in the night, we waited for our dinner in a beachside restaurant and I watched a very small boy playing in the sand. He squatted in the dark, popping stones and sand into a discarded plastic bottle and emptying it and filling it, while his dad threw out a line to catch a fish for dinner. We were fed and ready to leave, and they were still there, still casting out a line. You can’t guess the ages of the kids, malnutrition has made them small. His back pack was almost as big as him. He had trouble putting it on. 

I guess that feeling in my chest is my heart stretching, expanding. It’s quite uncomfortable.

Week One

I’ve been overwhelmed. I’d like to think of a better word, but I can’t seem to find one that does this justice, and the fact that I can’t sums up the last week in Dili.

It’s been just a week, it feels like so much longer than that. 

There’s that usual shock of the heat as you leave the plane, the confusion at border control, the fear you may have packed something you shouldn’t (in fact Australia customs had already had their sneaky hands in Marks bag) then a couple of forms and a temporary VISA and we’re popped out the other side into the carpark.

We’re met by our VSA buddy, luggage into a variety of vehicles and our first stop is the Mall to get sim cards and phones so we’re contactable. The Dili Plaza is LOUD! 

It takes a couple of hours to do the phone, and lunch and to check in to our hotel. It was handy to the office, I knew it was the end of luxury.

The next 5 days were about orientation, moving into our house, buying bits and pieces, meetings at the NZ embassy, cultural awareness conversations, safety briefings, repetition of some of the key things I’m hoping we don’t forget. Take your passport everywhere until you get your special stay VISA, stay aware, stay in touch, don’t freak out, you’re not in Kansas now Dorothy.

We brought a scooter for me, a bigger motorbike for Mark, a wok with a lid, a variety of creature comforts and a 2 dollar chicken that came from Brazil but tasted ok when I cooked it.

Dili has a maze of one-way streets, traffic lights that may or may not work, scooters everywhere, yellow cabs (bad), blue cabs (good), dogs and chickens on the road, some sort of disorderly chaos that appears to work. I rode my scooter home the first afternoon and was in equal measure terrified and amused. I kept forgetting to turn my indicator off and every now and then a Timorese man would arrive at my side pointing. I think it was the indicator…it may have been at the malae (foreigner) laughing hysterically to herself. Fear does that to people.

We live in a house that’s part of a family compound and Grandma Philomena  waves and greets me in the morning. “Bondia, good morning” before lunch, in the late afternoon she says “botardi”. She sweeps the dead leaves away from under the trees at the front and off the steps and then the wind rushes past and drops another sprinkling at her feet. She calls the dog (Melo) over and he ignores her completely. On the first day he growled at me, yesterday he licked my salty calf. I think we may be friends.

Everything seems to take just a little longer and a little more effort in the planning. Because you can’t drink the water you need to have some prepared before you clean your teeth and you have to boil the kettle to wash the dishes. You can’t just dump your washing in the machine. We don’t have a washing machine. The power went off today for 3 hours, the same thing is expected tomorrow. The supermarkets stock things that are strange to me and I failed at making the purple sweet potatoes as edible as they should have been.

The coffee is fantastic. The kids are beautiful. 

Here’re some things we have learnt:

50 percent of all the children here have stunted growth and malnutrition.

Timor-Leste has the 2ndhighest maternal mortality rate in the world.

During the Indonesian occupation around 200,000 people died, many from famine.

The number 2 in Tetun is rua. I feel at home when I hear that.

It’s a long and winding road, and it’s starting in my top drawer.

I’ve been thinking a fair bit about beige undies. Strange as that may seem given the multitude of other more interesting, more pressing things one should be thinking about when life is about to significantly change.

There’s a list…well pages and pages of lists and instructions and power points and maps and language texts. And there’s been interviews and 4 day seminars and vaccinations and doctors visits and getting passport photos. It’s been a busy 5 months.

Heading off for a year with VSA to Timor Leste and all that might entail, the actual changes that are about to occur seem to be on my mind a fair bit. There will be no oven, no washing machine, no hot water. There will be high temperatures, high humidity, bugs that fly and bite. Crocodiles. Although the locals say it’s only the very bad who get eaten…not the unlucky.We’ll start not knowing the language, the food, the people. And yet there’s something more tangible that encapsulates how I’m feeling, and it’s the undies.

You see, my completely black Wellington wardrobe is being left behind in favour of “gasp” white dresses and floral prints.A fair few pale blue skirts and a handful of fawn t-shirts. Black’s the colour of mourning in Timor Leste and I’m preparing to leave it all behind.

Here’s the thing though, anyone who knows anything will know a white frock looks pretty nasty with visible black bloomers underneath. So there’s been a couple of trips to the local Farmers and half price sales and I’m well stocked now with grundies in all those great sexy shades…beige, off-white, pale pink…and frankly not only are they “meh” in colour but they’re also large and super practical. I think my 86 year old mum has EXACTLY the same ones…I’ve seen them on her clothesline.

We’re here for another week. In our lush apartment in central Wellington, with the oven, the hot water, surrounded by the people we know and love, walking distance to the best ice cream in the world and I’m wearing black everyday. Not in mourning, and not because I’m farewelling my home.

I’m wearing black because come Saturday the 30th March I’ll be shedding my protective skin and stepping out clean, pink, new. Vulnerable. But you can all be sure of one thing, there will be no black in any of my suitcases and I’ll be wearing my beige undies.