Melo and Mark

Mark’s mother Maureen has asked why we don’t hear from him and so, because mothers are important this blog is completely dedicated to my two favourite males, in which I record and transcribe their chat.

Introducing Mark, the husband

And Melo the dog.

Melo: Mark, Mark, Mark, hey Mark, Mark, over here Mark, Mark

Mark: Grrrrr yes Melo, what is it?

Melo: Ruth says we can talk Mark, we never talk, can we, can we?

Mark: Spose

Melo: Every day you open the gate. In the morning. I don’t like the gate being opened, bad dogs are on the other side of the gate, where do you go? 

Mark: well Melo, unlike you, I have a job. My assignment is to work as a business skills trainer for IADE Instituto De Apoio ao Dezenvoliment Emprearial which is the Timor-Leste’s government owned and operated business training establishment.  IADE’s role is to provide training and support to people to start a business, develop an existing business and then to maintain the profitability of the business into the future…..Melo?  

Melo: Oh sorry, just chewing on this flea on my tail, you were saying….

Mark: My role is to support the IADE staff by providing mentoring and coaching to support IADE’s existing programmes and to seek out new opportunities to keep IADE at the fore front of business training in 2020 and beyond.

Melo: hmmm what? Flea. Is Ruth home yet? Is she? Is she? 

Mark: soon. I also…….. Melo, are you licking my leg?

Melo: Oops sorry.  

Mark: Basically Melo I’m there to support them to help others to help themselves.

Melo: Right. I have noticed you have changed colour. What has happened to your coat? It was white and now its brown. Like me.

Mark: What? Oh, that’ll be the the sun

Melo: and you’re skinnier? Do you have worms? I’ve had worms. Urgh worms. Itchy. Ruth fixed my worms, did she fix yours?

Mark: no Melo, no worms.

Melo: what do you love about Timor-Leste?

Mark: Oh Melo I love the heat and the sea and the people. And the chaos and colour.

Melo: me too. 

Mark: I don’t love the parties til 8am or that Rooster.

Melo: oh him, I don’t like him either.

Mark: or the traffic

Melo: Oh the scooters, the scooters, the scooters, I could chase them, I could, it’s too hot, I won’t chase them, but I could

Mark: what do you love about Timor-Leste Melo?

Melo: I love the freedom. There’re no chains, no kennels, no collars, no vets taking away my important boy parts. I can come and go as I please. I love my friends, except that evil one eyed dog down the road, I love the sun….sleeping on the gravel pile. I love the shade. 

And I love the food Ruth gives me and when she rubs my tummy, and scratches the bottom of my tail.

Mark: oh me too Melo, me too.

Small Island, Big Heart

Mark and I have been watching a Netflix series called Black Sails. Featuring all your favourite pirates, Black Beard, Long John Silver, Charles Vain and Anne Bonnie, it’s a swarthy mess of sex, violence, rum, palm trees, whores and dreadlocks. Every now and then the pirates leave the safety of the local brothel and head out in search of plunder, excitement and a punch up on the high seas. Once they’ve fought, flagellated and fornicated their way across the ocean, invariably they need to find shelter, fresh water and food that’s not infested by weevils.

I can almost guarantee that had the good ship Walrus captained by the very handsome but mostly BAD Charles Vain passed by Atauro Island they would have kept the sails hoisted and waited for somewhere a little more inviting to drop their anchor.

Our home for the weekend, Atauro Island sits 25k north of Dili. On a clear day you can see her tantalizingly close, on other days she remains shrouded in mist, a mystery off on the horizon.

25ks long, 9k wide, home to around 10,000 people Atauro clearly came into being through some violent forces of Mother Nature. Uplifted from the sea by submarine volcanoes the island features high peaks, a rugged landscape and areas of deforestation that leaves much of the hill side looking patchy and dry.

Currently you can get to Atauro by ferry, a steady plod of 2 hours or by fast boat, a bit more high spirited and salty in 1 hour. There’s an airstrip but like a lot of things In Timor-Leste its either reached and peaked its potential or hasn’t quite got there yet. 

We arrived in time for the Saturday market. I’d wondered why there were so many stalls and so much dried fish and lush vegetables, when clearly Mark and I and the other couple of malae could only be counted for very minor purchases, when the ferry from Dili arrived and like the classic clown car gag at the circus, opened her doors and spewed forth.

People. Lots and lots of people. And motorbikes. And carts loaded with plastic bowls and brushes. And mums and dads with their handful of kids, they kept coming out of the guts of the ferry. We saw people laden with stuff, 2 guys carrying a washing machine between them. And then just when you thought there could be nothing left, she squeezed out a couple of trucks and a few more motorbikes.

People come from Dili for a picnic, to see family, to come home after a working week. They come for the dried fish, squid and octopus, for the chickens, the tomatoes, and I suspect for the feeling of joy at being away from the city. There is perfect sense in leaving one island for another island.

We sat and watched people come and go and found ourselves chatting to a young guy who wanted to practice his English. Sit still long enough and it seems to happen everywhere we go.

We stayed at Beloi Beach Resort. It’s tucked up on the hill, has a pool, a tiki bar, a high staff to guest ratio, pleasant rooms, flushing toilets and food. I find myself searching for words. I guess a tourism brochure would say, natural, untouched, authentic. Bits are rumpty. Slightly faded. A bit uneven.  I guess it’s like loving your girlfriend’s crooked tooth or your baby’s big ears, the imperfections are the things that feel worthy of love.

The power goes out several times while we are there, but it makes little difference to the temperature of the pool or the beer. In fact, sitting in the dusk listening to the singing from the Church below is magical.

There are 3 other groups here. 2 very young American guys, here with the Navy building a school, a Portuguese couple, he’s a captain in the army about to leave Timor-Leste for good, he’s happy to be going back but sad too, and an American couple who have been out of the states for 10 years teaching in International schools, she’s American Korean, he’s all Iowa. We circle around each other, passing pleasantries at the pool, saying hi on our way to our rooms and then over dinner there’s a merging of our plates and cutlery to one large table and we sit and eat and talk. It’s wonderful. We touch on politics, compare our worlds, grow a little closer to each other over shared and different experiences. When Nate says you guys should come to Korea, we say yes, of course. And then laugh when we explain that it’s a New Zealand thing to actually turn up. With bags. And family. For weeks! 

When they all leave on Sunday morning Mark and I rattle around as the only quests and it feels a bit like the end of school camp.

I am cheered though by a visit to Boneca de Atauro, a women’s collective who make dolls. We get there in the back of a tuk-tuk, bouncing over the limestone roads, I think if I hadn’t been in Timor-Leste for 4 months and wasn’t an old hand at this, I’d be shocked by the time it takes to go 5 k and the rickety, bone jostling it takes to get there.

The factory is opened for us by a woman across the road and I fossick about in cupboards whispering…  “I’d take you all home if I could”, and settle on the lovers, and a revolutionary. We throw in a crocodile hand puppet for good measure.

We realise quickly that our life in Dili must be more out of the sun than in it when we notice each other’s red noses and cheeks and that little sting you get on your legs when you step into the sea. 

There’re things you should know about Atauro. Things like bring cash, there are no ATM’s or credit cards.  And bring coins for the markets and to pay your drivers. No one has change for that big tenner you’re waving around. Bring battery packs to charge devices and a torch. Bring sunblock and maybe some snacks if you’re the hungry type.

Bring your snorkel and dive gear. I read that Atauro has the highest diversity of reef fish and coral species of anywhere in the world.

Bring your few Tetum phrases and your tolerance for a slower pace.

Bring your appetite, there’s plenty of food but some of it won’t be familiar and some of it won’t be flash.  Breakfast could be omelets and those little chicken sausages I’ve mentioned before (like Sizzlers you get in NZ but with less meat). I’m sure they’re addictive. At 75cents for 8, they’re certainly cheap. There is also the high possibility of banana fritters (not quite as good as Grandma Philomena’s).

Bring your sore body, I had an AMAZING massage, 25 bucks for an hour, after which I went back to my room and promptly fell asleep.

Bring your sense of adventure and your curiosity and some extra room in your bags for at least a handful of dolls from Boneca de Atauro.

But mostly don’t bring the desire for a sanitized, easily consumed, mass produced experience. If you wanted constant hot water you could have stayed at your hotel in town.

In a world where travel can be a bit beige, where the biggest thing you can do is tick a box, Eiffel Tower Tick, Colosseum Tick, London Eye Tick, Atauro Island brings the colour, the experience that’s hard to describe, in a place that remains untouched enough to be considered actually authentic.

It’s not all beer and skittles.

Or whatever that means. Maybe it’s not all sunsets and snorkeling.

People talk about living in Dili as “challenging”. It always sounds like it’s in CAPITALS…you know CHALLENGING. And I guess I haven’t really felt that.

Until the slightest hint of it this week.

First on Thursday when we received a fairly regular WhatsApp message from UN Security via VSA. Often, it’s about a group of youth biffing stones at each other and to avoid the area, it’s usually pretty simple, we’re not really frequenting some of these places after dark anyway.

This time however it was to notify a serious incident, 2 dead, 3 in a serious condition in hospital, 6 houses burned down (turns out in the end it was 13!). At a village out of town and part of some reasonably regular violence from one of the martial arts gangs (MAGS)

As many as 90,000 people belong to martial arts groups or gangs. Set up by Jakarta to foster patriotism and then as cells of resistance, these gangs see their roles as mostly about welfare and protection and it’s suggested that only a small number are involved in violence and criminal activity.

Unlike gangs in New Zealand who are easily recognizable by their patches, it’s relatively hard to see the difference between a group of guys hanging out on the corner by the Mall, and an active MAG spoiling for trouble.

About 40 minutes away is just far enough away to not be considered beyond a sense of “god, that’s a bit of a worry.” But then the next couple of messages came over the weekend. “Police released tear gas for warning shots.” “Convoys carrying the body of the late Mr X…traffic congestion and delays may occur” “Take alternate routes”.  Disruptions and potential violence around the moving of bodies and the holding of funerals in Dili. In places we go frequently, places we recognise. In our local streets.

It all passed. Everything was fine. It was a prod though to not get too comfortable, too soft in the middle.

Then Mark went to bed in pain on Sunday. His usual robust stillness gave way to silence and fidgeting. I resisted making too many jokes. I seem to have this perverse thing about trying to ease the situation by making completely inappropriate comments. My children tell me that if there was such a thing, then I would have the opposite of “Munchausen’s by proxy”. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s just that I’d rather you made less FUSS. Secretly I think I’d most admire the person who, dangling severed leg gushing blood, says oh this, just a scrape.

He looked at me with his big brown pain filled eyes and said “don’t be cruel”. Stabbed through my seemingly uncaring heart!! I ratcheted up my inner nurse (and not the one in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and soothed him as best I can. I’m actually pretty good at the old bedside manner, plenty of fluids, the gently cluck clucking while plumping pillows, the cool hand on the fevered brow. When he started to vomit I thought, now that’s something he can do on his own and left him to it. I muttered so quietly he couldn’t hear above the retching,” good thing men don’t have babies” as I closed the toilet door behind me.

Things didn’t improve. We had a slightly heated discussion that went something like this.

Him “It’s just a kidney stone”

Me “you’ve got a medical degree then, could be an infection”

Him “I know my body”

Me “you’re not in Guatemala now Dr Ropata”

Essentially in his weakened state he had to bow to my greater nagging…threats mainly that if I had to go with him to be medevac’d out cos he was too stubborn to get something sorted then there would be some serious consequences…aka I would throw my toys.

You see it’s not that easy. At about 3am when things always look their grimmest I got to thinking about what we’d do next. There’s no real ambulance service. We’ve been told to avoid the hospital at all costs. 50% of people who go in, never come out! There’re no taxis after dark. I imagined poking him onto the back of my scooter and tying his limp body on with bungies. There is a 24hour clinic, frequented by malae and endorsed for use. You ring them, and they meet you at the door. You hope that what’s on the other side of the door resembles modern medicine. And there is support through VSA with a vehicle and experience and a wealth of knowledge. But nothing EASY. Nothing straightforward. I had sent a txt one of our friends earlier and said don’t turn your phone off, I may need you. I felt slightly disoriented by my need to do that. I’ve always taken care of everything, all the emergencies, all the time.

He suffered through the night, mainly in silence (with the odd plaintive whimper) and topped up and stupefied by a liberal handful of drugs that I had brought with me from New Zealand. Some eye wateringly strong voltaren and some codeine.

Dawn saw us awake and pacing. At 9 am we went to the clinic. Checked in, we’d already registered and almost immediately he was triaged through a couple of nurses, blood pressure, pulse, height, weight etc. Back out to the waiting area, barely sat down and called to the doctor.

She ordered bloods, urine, poked around on his tummy and his back. Asked all the questions. Thorough. Quick.

Back out to waiting area, called again. To the lab tech who took all samples and said mā te wā as we left. We noticed her pounamu and asked, she’d been in New Zealand for 3 months finishing some training.

“Come back at 2pm. Results in then.”

It seems we can both be right (who knew? This could be the answer to a long and happy marriage). Likely a kidney stone AND an infection.

There’s one antibiotic he can take. It’s strong. A sledgehammer. And no codeine in the country, anywhere. Maybe Tramadol or an antispasmodic. But that’s it. The choices appear to be, take these, or take nothing.

The clinic is also the dispensing pharmacy and we leave with 2 little plastic bags of pills. I get him home and caution him to actually do as he’s told, take the pills, drink the water, rest. I think the pills in his hand have sobered him. He knows it’s not so easy to just take another type of antibiotic, or get an urgent scan, or see a specialist. He knows it’s not so easy to be sick in this country.

Post Script (5 days later)

In which I eat my words.

Things don’t quite go to plan. By Friday he is no better, he’s in bed and I’m sneakily googling clinic open hours so come Saturday morning when I ask what’s up and he says “I’ll go see the Dr on Monday” I say, oh how about we go this morning, I think they’re open.

We leave with a new antibiotic, tramadol and a letter of referral for a scan and an appointment if necessary with a urologist. I’m prepared to say I was wrong on all 3 of the counts above.

The other clinic is just up the road. The receptionist reads the letter, looking worried she says, oh I am very sorry you’ll have to come back later. I imagine getting a scan in New Zealand, I anticipate a long wait. She says, 8.30 tonight you come, I will ring the doctor now.

 A member of staff sits with us in the waiting room, it’s very comforting. She uses a translation app on her phone to tell us one patient has taken very long but we will be seen soon.

The scan itself is thorough, the doctor explains everything, shows us everything, takes his time. It’s so unlike anything I’ve had at home. He encourages us to sit beside him while he writes up his notes, which he reads aloud and asks for questions. He pops the images onto a data stick and shakes Mark’s hand with a final “may God bless you” as we leave.

It’s $55.00.

Monday, he is much improved. The trip to Darwin and “better” medicine fades into the distance.

Reflections and other R words

Is it something about the heat that makes me so reflective? Those sweaty afternoons lying on the couch like a panting dog, cursing the fact that the power is out again, but not really minding because it means you can curl up and snooze through the hottest part of the day. 

Yesterday the power went out for 6 hours. I made dinner wearing a head torch. My childlike inner hippy loved the fact that I could turn all the fairy lights on and light all the candles. Even the ones with Jesus on them. Sitting outside in the embrace of a warm night we both wondered at the same time what that smell was.

Seems those really cheap plastic candleholders melt under extreme conditions and we escaped setting the house on fire by about 3 minutes. For the rest of the night and most of the following morning I was still finding sooty footprints throughout the living area. Thank god for tile floors.

At times it reminds me of my flatting days. Uncomfortable furniture, our couch is both bright orange and made from polyester, sheets that don’t get washed every week, we abandoned the expensive white linen ones weeks ago, mince meals, with hidden veges, miss-matched plates and cutlery, there’s never enough teaspoons is there? and posters held up with blue tack, art prints brought from home not band posters like the old days.

It makes me grateful for all those things I learnt when money was tight and conditions mighty grim at times. It’s amazing what you can do with a throw, a bunch of cushions and a few pot plants.

The first of the R’s.

Resourcefulness. Wearing a headlamp to cook dinner. Remembering all those mince recipes. Using number 8 wire to fix the hole in the mosquito netting in the door. Creating a concoction of coconut oil and deet so you don’t burn your skin off. Making banana loaf in the breadmaker. Changing the bottom sheet and swapping it for the top one (I’m not sure anyone younger than 50 will know about that). Buying cans of beans when they’re on special, even when no one really likes beans. Card games cos there’s no TV.  Shopping for the cheapest toilet paper and in bulk even when you have nowhere to put it. Using an old box as storage (doubles as a bookcase) and the end of the table covered in a ratty old towel to iron your work clothes on.

Then there’s my next R. 

Resilience. This is when you don’t cry when someone knocks you off your scooter (even though it really hurt!) and you dust yourself off and get back on it and ride it home. Or when the toilet is blocked AGAIN and you really really need to go, cos, well maybe that chicken wasn’t so good. And when the water is off and the power is on, or the power is off and the water is on. When you open the fridge and find a pile of dead ants that must have made it in somehow on a bowl of leftovers, and sadly they all look like they were making a break for the door…and nearly made it! Or when you’ve done everything right and still you get bitten by a mossie and it’s right in the join where your bum meets your leg and it’s driving you crazy.

The final R is respect. 

Respect that your way isn’t the only way, that just because you think something SHOULD be a certain way doesn’t make it so. That difference in all its forms is a beautiful, challenging, confronting, exciting thing and really our experiences, when put into the context of everyone, everywhere and throughout time are just tiny and often inconsequential. Respect that maybe working to ‘island time” is actually healthy. Respect that putting family relationships and the desire to celebrate someone’s birthday long and hard through the night instead of being sensible and tucked up in bed before 10pm could actually be right and proper. 

Oh, and one more R. 

Romance.  Make sure you’re getting some. Life is way easier if you are.

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.


This week I went to a meeting to discuss the opportunity to do some volunteer work for a really great NGO here in Dili. I was excited. I put on a decent work shirt (with a collar), a skirt, a pair of sandals that aren’t jandals and even a bit of lipstick and mascara. I’d had a good read about what they do, checked out the GPS about where they are. All pretty standard behavior.

And then I was late.

I am never late. 

Unless I intend to be, which has more to do with my antisocial nature and general avoidance of certain gatherings, and less to do with my breeding. My sisters, my children, we are all early. Chronically, habitually, without fail, early. Blame our dad. He’d have us at family events hours early. We once flew back from the UK and checked in so promptly that we managed to get on a completely different flight…4 hours before check in had even opened. He once took a visitors’ bag and put it at the door 45 minutes before her taxi came cos he didn’t want her to be late. We used to lie to him about what time things were so he’d cut us some slack. We were still always early.

Here’s the thing you eventually work out about having a “thing” about time. It’s not comfortable. It’s not serene or calm. It’s actually a quite troubling and fairly painful indicator of anxiety. We all laugh about it, but really having that burning pit in your stomach  cos you’re worried you’ll be late, or they’ll be late, or you’ll be late cos you can’t find the place, or there’ll be an accident you can’t avoid and you’ll be late, or I don’t know, aliens may take you away for some anal probing and you’ll be late….whatever scenarios surge in your head about being late, the whole thing just isn’t that much fun.

And then, I’m on my scooter, the sun’s shining and I’m riding along the water front, it smells of salt and heat, and that young guy on his scooter in front of me who smells a lot like Bulgari! There’re a few things in my head, but nothing like the usual cacophony of a million scenarios. I can see the scooters in front of me, I can smell the air, I’m hearing the rumble of trucks coming way too close, I can taste the little beads of sweat on my lips. I’m very conscious. Very awake.

And I arrive at the office 5 minutes late and I don’t care! There’s no panic. No heart beating too fast. No over thinking about how I should have left earlier…or travelled faster.

I am late. And it’s ok.

This is the lesson.

I’m washing the dishes and it takes 20 minutes and that’s ok. I get to look out the window at the dusk and the sun racing its way to the horizon. And I’m rinsing out my undies and t-shirts and I get water all over myself and the floor and that’s ok. The water feels cool against my hot skin and you can never wash a bathroom floor too much. And there’s a street parade that’s blocked off the road to our place when we’re trying to get home and that’s ok too. There’s nothing predictable about the journey from x to y in Dili, and there’s so much joy in a parade.

We went to get our Timor Leste drivers’ licenses today. A complex business that included specific colour folders (yellow), special ID photos on a specific background (red), a form that wanted to know eye colour (black or brown) and a 90 minute wait at Hera (20 minutes over the hill from DilI). My number is called, 30, we started at 16, and I go to the counter to be told that the boss who does the translation for foreigner licenses is away today and come back tomorrow, or really any other time but just not now.

Nothing happens. My head doesn’t explode. I don’t feel a rush of rage or even just a tiny tickle of annoyance. If “righty ho” was an emotion that’s what I feel.

I’ve been worried that I’ll hit the wall. There’s hushed talk about volunteers who go a bit troppo and can’t bear the heat and the dust and the NOISE (god, the noise) and that they seek out a quick trip home to refresh themselves some time during their assignment. They come back perky but possibly just counting down the days until it’s all over. And I guess the joy of writing this down means that if in fact I do go a bit bonkers and need respite you can all say we told you so. But right now, I’ve never felt calmer, never felt more serene, never felt more present and like some newly anointed acolyte to the concept of island time just really really grateful for the lesson.

Where’s home?

I’ve been back in New Zealand this week honouring a commitment I had to work. When we signed up to come to Timor Leste I knew I’d be going back in late May and I thought, great, I’ll be well and truly ready for home.

Turns out I wasn’t. I quite literally dragged my feet and my suitcase like a petulant child to the airport and the trip via Darwin and Sydney just seemed interminable. 

Don’t tag me as some heartless monster who feels nothing for home just yet. It’s been awesome being back and seeing the people I love and being at least a simple phone call closer to others, and heck even the cold weather hasn’t been too much of a downer, but leaving Dili felt like I was ripping up the very new, very tender roots I’d only just begun to lay down.

If you’ve been taking note you’ll know I’ve become overly interested in food, so it’s no surprise that one of the best moments in the last week was eating liver and bacon and creamy mashed potato for brunch. Every bite was a treat, the $71.00 bill for 3 of us, less so. I’ve yet to crack $70 for a weekly grocery shop back home. It doesn’t take long to get used to $2.00 frozen chickens from Brazil.

Speaking of food, Mark’s been conducting a little survey with the kids who are in doing work experience. I’ve spoken before about malnutrition being a real thing in Timor Leste but there’s nothing like a real example to hit it home. The WHO suggests 2200 calories is just about right for growth and development and health. Mark’s rough and ready survey had these kids at between 800-1200. He said what are you eating everyday? 2 slices of bread, rice and chicken for lunch, same again for dinner. Maybe a glass of milk. It’s no surprise then that the organisation he works for has identified the need for lunch and snacks during training courses. 

Which brings me to my greatest realisation since being back. I’ve always been a pretty grateful person. Absolutely conscious that things are much worse for other people in other places and that, by and large I was pretty lucky to be born when and where I was. But I’m not sure I’ve ever really grasped the idea of privilege the way I’m looking at it now.

All that paleo, keto, Weight Watchers, sugar free, fat lite, fasting, eat to your blood type, vegan, pescatarian bullshit is ONLY possible when you have a CHOICE about what you eat. I see giant bags of sugar in the supermarket, and I know I’ve got friends who would feel faint at the sight of all that “white death”. That choosing to be a vegetarian because you’re ethically opposed to farming and morally affronted at the thought of eating animal flesh is a luxury that a vast number of people in the world simply don’t have. 

And I’m not saying don’t do those things. Embrace any food fad you wish. Be passionate about eating less meat and dairy and be concerned about the state of our waterways. But consciously understand and value that having that choice is a privilege that doesn’t extend to everyone.

I went to Raglan last weekend and found a “terribly chic” little boutique (aren’t they all) that sold solid bar shampoo. I like it cos it smells good and takes up less room in my bag. The woman behind the counter gushed “oh well done, by buying this you’ll have saved 8 plastic bottles”. 

I may have said something like “where I’m currently living plastic bottles may be saving lives”. 

I was thinking about the 100 kids at the preschool up in the village where there’s no kitchen, no toilets, no running water. And the women I see in the culverts along the road doing their washing in the grimy run off. I was thinking about the children who die of diarrhea (world-widediarrhea kills 2,195 children every day—more than AIDS, malaria, and measles combined). And how we buy water, giant blue 5 litre bottles for a dollar. When the average daily wage is $1.50.

Later that night when I got back to my sister-in-law’s place I ran the tap in the bathroom and I cleaned my teeth and  wandered out to the kitchen and got a glass of water. And just cos I could I chose a chocolate bar over a carrot!

 I’ve never been more conscious of being privileged.

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.