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.

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