Wednesday, July 27, 2005

A domestic life once more

Sunday 24 July 2005

We moved into our beach house in Rai Kotu on Saturday 23 July. The house is about 8km west from the centre of Dili; 1km west of the airport and about 1.5km from the western edge of the city. We are living on the beach and next to the Dili Nicolau Lobato International Airport. The airport was named after Timor’s first Prime Minister, elected in 1975 after Fretilin claimed independence from the Portuguese. A couple of month’s later when the Indonesian military invaded, his wife, Isobel along with the Australian journalist Roger East were executed on Dili warf and their bodies thrown into the sea. Lobato was murdered by the Indonesian military three years later.

From our home we can see and hear the international flights land and depart: one 737 Merpati flight from Bali at around 1pm; and two Air North flights a day from Darwin: morning and evening; along with the odd UN or other helicopter or plane. That’s it! (Although Daniel tells me that there are now flights to/from Kupang in West Timor). You can only enter Timor by air from two countries (Indonesia) and via Australia it is in an Embraer Brasilia Turboprop (ie a very small aircraft!) The airport has no radar and therefore flights can only operate during daylight hours.

Unfortunately after we moved into our house, and en route to do some food shopping, I lost my purse in a taxi which contained $200 cash plus my Visa card, Drivers Licence, Medicare card, Health Insurance card etc. We were stranded at the Landmark Plaza supermarket without a cent and no way of getting home. I cried and cried and cried at my carelessness and the inconvenience it would now cause me. I wasn’t worried about the money, as I’m sure most Timorese need it more than I but more about the hassle of having to replace my cards. I called my Aunt in Melbourne and asked her to cancel my Visa card. I then called a fellow AVIer and asked if she would come and pick us up, lend us some money, and take us to the police station. Thankfully she obliged.

After our first restless night due to dogs barking, goats bellowing, ducks quacking, the power cutting out which left us with no fan to cool our bodies while we slept, the sound of the waves crashing on the shore, the landlord arriving home at 10pm in his very large construction vehicle, the roosters crowing from 4am, the landlord moving his large vehicle at 5am and then proceeding to work on his unfinished house next door, the kids chopping firewood from 6am, we decided to get up and go for a walk along the beach to Dili Rock, a snorkelling dive spot about 1.5km west from our house. About 1km along the beach and across the road we found Tasitolu Altar: the traditional thatched roof house built in commemoration of Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1989, and walked behind it to find the Tasitolu Peace Park as discussed in the previous post. We found two of the three lakes (but possibly there were three as it was hard to make out the boundary of one of the lakes that could have contained two) and a number of birds including pelicans, cormorants and many other unidentified species. The area becomes a haven for birds during the wet season when we suspect the three lakes join together to form one big lake. It was lovely to hear all the bird calls and to enjoy the tranquillity of the place after our disturbed sleep. We looked around for trees that we might be able to sit under for a picnic in the future where we could take in the ambience of the place and read a book. Unfortunately there were not that many trees and those that were growing near the lakes were stunted. We will return again next weekend and endeavour to find a suitable spot as we imagine it will be even more filled with life during the wet season when it presumably floods. The area indeed provides a lovely respite from Dili and even our (noisy) home.

The lack of privacy and space is a real issue in Timor. Australians are accustomed to both and a lot of it. The Timorese however being a communitarian society and with very large families don’t have the luxury of it nor the appreciation for it. Our landlord and his family live less than a metre from the back of our house in a “shed”. We can hear them talking, watching TV, and listening to the radio, all of which they do at normal decibels. I am used to walking around the house naked but unfortunately, most of our windows look onto someone else’s house and therefore, Daniel is concerned I might frighten the neighbours! The previous occupants of the house said that the house is much quieter than most in Dili as there is much more space between the neighbours (except our landlord’s family). We’ll have to wait and see about that. My tolerance for noise is very low and I’m not able to endure much sleep deprivation without turning into a gibbering mess.

Every Timorese family has a rooster and they are prized possessions for the many cockfights that take place here. Unfortunately, roosters have no concept of when dawn is and once one gets it wrong, the whole bloody neighbourhood is one big rooster talkfest.

Electricity for our home will cost us about $1 a day, which is roughly the same price as we paid in Australia. It is hard to imagine how the Timorese afford it but it does go towards explaining why so many cut down the trees so they can cook their meals.

The water is hard (as opposed to soft) and just dreadful. Timor has so little of it but what they do have they cannot drink and it is, quite frankly, disgusting. It is difficult to work up a lather, particularly when washing your hair, and afterwards, it feels like straw. Your face feels like someone has tried to peel the top layer of skin off it. If you collect it for the “mandi” after a day or so it turns a revolting brown colour. We have to purchase drinking water from the supermarket, which costs $1 for a 19-litre bottle or 50c for a 1.5 litre bottle. Now that we’re settled, we can purchase the former and much cheaper and environmentally friendly option (the empty 19 litre bottles are exchanged for full ones as opposed to throwing away the 1.5 litre bottles, which are subsequently burnt by the locals).

I should clarify that when I mention dollars, they are US dollars, which is Timor’s currency. Thus to convert the amounts I quote to say Australian dollars, add 25%.

Radio Australia (RA) has been off air since we arrived due to a malfunction with their transmitter. However, last night we managed to pick it up on our wind up radio, generously given to me by a colleague at my previous place of work in Melbourne. Unfortunately they were about to cross over to the Ashes test series (cricket) which was of no interest to me. So I turned over to short wave and found the BBC World Service, which was airing their arts program. This morning we tuned into RA again and found they were playing The Spirit of Things from Radio National. The topic for discussion was Atheism, which we both enjoyed listening to.

After some consideration, we have decided to forgo cable television as it was going to cost us $66 a month (initial set up costs divided over two years plus monthly subscription fee) and for that, we didn’t get all that many channels that interested us. Of the 38 channels we would be forced to subscribe to due to the restrictive nature of cable packages, only half a dozen of the channels really interested us (BBC World News, ABC Asia Pacific, HBO, HBO Signature, Hallmark and Star). And of these, only a handful of programs were desired. So after some debate we decided instead to spend our money buying books and DVDs from Readings in Carlton, Melbourne and have them posted to us every couple of months. (As discussed in a previous post, there are very few English language books available for borrowing or purchase in Timor, hence our need to purchase the items from Australia.) We decided it would be better for our intellect and our relationship to read voraciously than sit watching TV that didn’t much interest us anyway. We are now looking forward to choosing titles online and look forward to them arriving in the mail. It will feel like we’re real adventurers awaiting our care packages from home!

The only TV station we are able to pick up is RTTL (Radio & Television Timor Leste). All programs appear to be in either Tetun or Portuguese, which provides us with more opportunities to learn the former and maybe a bit of the latter. However, very few of the programs appear to be of high quality. Programs from the BBC World News and ABC Asia Pacific were aired on TVTL but (we believe) as a result of a new directive from the Communications Minister, all English programs were removed as English is not an official but a working language of Timor Leste. Last night we watched the news from Portugal which to be honest felt a little weird, and then the Timor Leste news. This was followed by a number of very boring variety programs which were clearly cheap to make as they were of Timorese performing music in the station’s studio. There is a one-hour program about women aired once a week and people from both our NGOs have recently been on it. We have yet to see the program and look forward to watching it and seeing our colleagues.

At about 5:30pm this evening (an hour or so before sunset) we left our house and walked up the street (a dirt road that come the wet season will be a mud road) to catch a taxi into town. This was the third time we had walked down the street and the attention we garner has not abated. Given that we are the only “malae” in the neighbourhood, this is to be expected. There are lots of kids about all staring and saying “malae” or “hello mister” or “hello missus” or they’re too embarrassed to say anything. It feels like China where we were also a novelty. We have made it a policy that wherever we walk we always smile and greet people with the appropriate greeting of the time of day (“bondia”, “botardi” or “bonoiti”).

We went to the Roo Bar for dinner tonight because every Sunday night they have a roast and lots of veggies. We pay a little less to eat just the veggies: roasted carrot and potatoes, boiled peas and corn and mashed potato; along with a glass of Australian red or white wine. While we were there an oldish (50s) skinny white man, his very young Asian wife and their two or three year old child turned up for a meal. She ate only salad while he piled his plate with mainly meat and a small serving of peas and corn. I quipped to Daniel that it was so typical of a bloke to mainly eat meat and for a woman to eat just a salad. Behind us was an overweight Australian woman having dinner with a man (perhaps Portuguese?) and after the meal, she lit up a cigarette. I had to think twice where I was because I nearly turned around and told her to put it out!

There was also a group of Aussie blokes eating and when they left two more Aussie blokes and two prostitutes turned up and this group had a yarn with the first group outside the bar. The two women were Asian (not Timorese) but I wasn’t sure from which country. Many women from China, the Philippines and Thailand are trafficked to Timor to “service” the many foreign men here. Apparently very few, if any, Timorese women work as prostitutes. (The Alola Foundation based in Dili recently did a report on the issue of trafficking of women in Timor, which I have seen referenced in reports I am currently reading for work.) The two women entered the bar from the rear and the men the front door. I wasn’t sure why they did this. The two men were 50ish, overweight and bald; the two women younger and thinner. We were nearing the end of our meal but Daniel couldn’t finish his because he felt “sick”. My blood pressure rose a few notches. We promptly left.

Men are everywhere; and women are hidden. Public places are full of men whether on the beach, on the street, driving taxis. It is not often that you see a woman. If you do, it is because they are selling their produce from the market or on the side of a street. The women seem to appear in greater numbers just before sunset, never alone, always with other women or their children. Combine this with the fact that most of the “malae” are also men, it is very noticeable how “male” Timor is.

When we were looking for a place to live, one place we looked at was up in the hills overlooking Dili. On our drive up we came across the President’s Official Residence. It’s a great big house, in what architectural style I do not know, and painted bright pink with sweeping views down over Dili and Fatucama Bay. However, the President, First Lady and their three sons do not live there preferring to live further up in the hills in a more modest home. So the house sits vacant and is guarded by a number of very bored looking men.

We have booked one night’s accommodation in the low-key eco resort on Atauro Island for the weekend of 13-14 August. The Island is 30km across the Wetar Strait directly in front of Dili; 140-sq-km in size and stretches 25km north to south; the population 8000. The underwater life around the Island is reported to be spectacular, along with fine beaches and warm ocean swimming. The ferry departs Dili on Saturday morning and takes about two hours. We will return on Sunday afternoon. Dolphins and pilot wales are a common sight along the way. There are only three ferry trips a week (Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday) so until we are entitled to take annual leave (after 12 months service), we can only visit the Island for one night. However, apparently we can hire a local boat to take us back to Dili, which is cheaper than the ferry. We are looking forward to the trip as we have read quite a bit about the eco resort, which was initiated and currently run by a former AVI woman. As water is scarce (a huge problem in Timor), we have to take our own drinking water but we will be provided with meals (at an additional cost). The charge for accommodation and meals on a Saturday night is $30 per head and $25 every other night. This will be my first excursion outside of Dili and Daniel’s second (he has previously spent two days in Maubara, west of Dili along the coast, attending a planning workshop for the NGO he works for).

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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