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.