On getting a driver’s license.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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