Friday, July 15, 2005

Sam checks in after nearly checking out

Thursday 14 July 2005

My two weeks in Dili have proved memorable on many levels.

First there was the slight (but persistant) cold that turned feral on arrival, progressively getting worse and eventually culminating in delirium, vomiting and incapacity. Before that however a friend took me to the Dili National Hospital (Ospital Nationale if you ever need to get there in a taxi) emergency department where I shared a stretcher with a little girl of about two years. She had fallen, cut her forehead and was looking very despondent and lethargic. Her father stood patiently by her side as they waited for a doctor to attend to her. On the next stretcher a young teenage boy looked as if the energy had been drained from his body. His mother waited with him. Two stretchers over lay an old man with a number of tubes protruding from his body, including one from his stomach. Alongside was his wife. Furthest away in our small room was a woman holding her young baby while the doctor injected something into the child. All their facial expressions were blank; no animation or emotion from anyone. I wondered if it was the heat or simple resignation to their situations. Needless to say, conditions in the emergency room were basic - especially considering this was the leading medical institution in the country.

I found it difficult not to cough. A really awful sound emanating from my throat every time I did, drawing extra attention to myself, as the only vocal patient (apart from the baby screaming when being injected). The fact I was the only white patient there was also a factor in this. After a reasonably short wait a young woman doctor from Indonesia attended to me. Her English being considerably better than my Bahasa, we managed to converse about my problem. She wrote in my newly acquired hospital card (I am now in the Timor health system) and sent me off to the ´specialist´.

We went off to find the specialist and after walking around the interior perimeter of the different specialties, we discovered that the specialist was not on duty that day. We had walked past many people waiting to see a doctor of some persuasion and again, the facial expressions were blank.

My Timorese guide returned to the Indonesian doctor to tell her the situation and to ask if she could prescribe something in the interim. She duly returned with a list of drugs to be filled by the onsite pharmacist; three drugs: paracetamol, amoxycillin and buscopan at no charge. I wanted to pay but couldn´t as they were not set up to take money. It felt unfair for me a rich ´Malae´* not to pay for prescription drugs not otherwise easily obtained in Timor. But there was nothing I could do. The final drug had to be obtained from a chemist outside the hospital and it turned out to be throat lozenges at a cost of $2.

We then went to get something to eat so that I could begin taking the drugs. Later on we ate lunch and I took the second course of drugs. We returned to the hotel where early in the evening I again had a coughing fit and couldn´t stop. This time I threw up. I reluctantly ate another meal so as to take the drugs and again, had a coughing fit and threw up again. I started to panic slightly (Daniel more than slightly). I asked Daniel to go and get our fellow AVIer who once worked as an ambulance paramedic. She was very calm and we talked through what we thought the problem might be. She deduced that the buscopan was wrongly prescribed as it was an antispasmodic but I didn´t have abdominal cramps. We decided to eliminate this drug from the regime starting immediately. I stopped throwing up and we both stopped panicking.

I would have liked to have seen Timor prior to the Indonesia backed militia led carnage that occurred in the lead up to the independence referendum in 1999 and immediately after the carnage to compare it with what I see now. It is hard for me to imagine it any worse than it is now. It is clear that peace has been secured and buildings are no longer burning. However, the consequences of the carnage on the infrastructure of Timor in terms of roads, sewers and drains remains. The open sewers where I see childrenmosquitoesand mosquitos breeding is shocking. (Remember that Timor has a high incidence of Malaria and other insect borne diseases)

Why hasn´t more of the millions of dollars that has poured into Timor gone towards closing up the sewers and drains? It is a major health hazard, particularly for children. The roads and footpaths are in terrible condition with potholes and various larger sized chasms that drop straight into the drains. It is impossible to walk without looking down and at night, you must carry a torch to see where you are going in case you fall into a drain.

Some days you feel constantly under siege by young males. Particularly the ones trying in vain to sell you telephone cards or newspapers or mandarins or other items. Some appear not to take ´lae´# for an answer and follow you down the street trying to convince you to change your mind. The worst are the little boys, no more than ten years of age. If you won´t buy their wares, they ask for money for food because they´re hungry. I tell them ´lae´ but this does not deter them from following me and then saying something that sounds abusive but I can´t be sure as my Tetun is only rudimentary. We have been told by many people not to give children money as it encourages a culture of dependency and begging. Still, there´s a constant feeling of unease and unsureness of whether we´re doing the right thing. It makes me angry that we allow poverty to reduce children to marginal streetsellers and beggars. It is shameful.

Australians are everywhere and most of them I do not like (mostly the commercial entrepreneurial types. The federal public servants of various persuasions seem to conduct themselves in a proferespectful culturally respectfull manner). At our hotel, the guests are overwhelmingly older men and Australian. The hotel staff overwhelmingly young, female and Timorese. The older men being served by young females is enough to raise my blood pressure but to make things worse, many of the men are overweight and loud: ¨f*** this¨, ¨f***¨ that as they throw down their umpteenth VB while sitting in the spa. (The American war correspondent Martha Gellhorn felt a sense of revulsion at the gross, fleshy Western bodies she encountered in Vietnam during the war: ¨we are all big and sweaty¨, she noted in her diary.)

They take over the hotel´s public spaces as only men can, which is despairingly intimidating to women. Then there´s the Aussie travel agent who rents a place for only $20 US a month (prices are now anywhere from $250 to $1000 plus). He got in while it was good (ie before the UN descended en masse and prices rose to ridiculous levels). When we told him that a pretty shabby house was being offered to us for $600, he said and I quote, ¨the greedy bastards.¨ Seriously, he could have been back at home saying it about the Aborigines or non-Anglo immigrants. The intent behind his words was disturbing.

Then there´s the Aussie real estate agent who thought our desire to live amongst the community as opposed to a gated ´Malae´ community, amusing. He thought himself safe when telling us that the Timorese were ´different´ and not to expect them to deal fairly and honestly with us. Moreover, he told us that his Tetun wasn´t the best as he decided long ago that (as his employees couldn´t speak a word of English) he was doing them a favour by speaking English to them and thereby imparting a new skill! The arrogance! Both men came here in 2000 soon after the referendum for independence and once the INTERFET soldiers had arrived to secure the country. I didn´t dare ask what their motivations were for coming to Timor as I strongly suspected that I wouldn´t like the answer (Martha Gellhorn called them ´war tourists´: businessmen on the make, people she utterly despised.) The local bar/restaurant is run by Aussies who were formerly in the ´construction business´. My knowledge of this has now put me off frequenting the place.

And then, in contrast, there are the Aussie volunteers: three times as many women as men. Why is it that most of the ´war tourists´ are male while most of the capacity builders are female? (It´s a rhetorical question). We got to know the two women we originally flew over with. Wonderful, fantastic women who have now left the hotel for respective homes and we miss them terribly. Such fine company: committed, inspiring, generous women. If only the world ....

However, I had an unfortunate evening with a fellow volunteer, her friend who was just visiting and another volunteer from another country. All were white, middle class women in their 50s.

We got onto the subject of women as I was asked a question about my work and past experience. The evening was a disaster. These women were completely blinded by the gender order and truly believed that things had gone too far concerning women´s rights and feminism. I was gobsmacked, particularly as we were sitting in a country where women bear 8.3 children each, where less are literate or have basic education than men do, and where domestic violence is a major problem. Granted they were referring to things ´back home´ but even in our little privileged lives in the West, things have certainly not gone far enough. They argued with me and found me hostile, negative and probably completely and utterly insane. One woman said I was never going to change anything with my (negative) attitude and I should be more like her and put a positive slant on things.

She said it would be better to talk about human rather than women´s rights without recognising or understanding that hu(man) rights were seldom cognisant of women´s condition. I then tried to argue from her point of view about the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission´s recent postcard campaign which has a little boy and girl sitting together with the caption ¨prepare your daughter for work: pay her less pocket money than your son¨ (women in Australia continue to earn only 85% of what men do). The oh so positive woman said that she found that campaign appallingly negative and it wouldn´t get HREOC anywhere. Hello! Wake up to reality. It was as if the second wave of feminism had passed them by; that all the privileges they now had as women (to be working in a third world country for two years on their own without a husband) were completely taken for granted.

I despaired. I stopped talking for a considerable time because I was so mortified. However, I had to re-enter the debate because I simply couldn´t stand their ignorance. They said I was angry. I said that I was mostly passionate (but also angry) and rightly so (there is so much to be angry about in the world, so much terrible injustice particularly when it comes to women. I know my anger is justifiable). I did not direct any of my fury at them personally. I was simply talking about issues and ideas. It really unnerved them and clearly made them terribly uncomfortable. In the end it got me nowhere other than to have made my first group of ´enemies´. A couple of days later we went to eat at the Aussie run bar as mentioned above (before I discovered who it was run by), and as I walked up the stairs, I could see the heads of two of the women and made a hasty retreat. It was comical really. Dili is so small that you run into people you don´t want to very easily. Lucky for me that two of the women left the country this week so that only leaves one left to avoid.

A young woman befriended me while I was at the Xanana Gusmao Reading Room. She is a university student at the National University of Timor-Leste (UNTL) and located in the English Department. She wants to practise her English so we meet once a week. We share information about our families and where we come from. She wants to apply for an Australian Development Scholarship but her English would not pass the IELTS test. I am trying to help her fulfil her ambition, as the cards are stacked against her (last year there were 1000 applicants from Timor-Leste and 11 successful candidates). She is the youngest of eight children and the first to go to university. Her family does not support or understand her desire to seek an education. She can barely afford to pay the $30 fees per semester. She has no telephone and no mailing address but she does have an email address, which she can use, in public places. I feel conflicted in my desire to help her. On the one hand I want to help her, as she is a young woman trying to better herself in incredibly difficult circumstances, on the other hand, my western individual need for privacy, boundaries and distance from others is pretty strong. She on the other has been inculturated into a communitarian way of life and would find it difficult to understand my selfish needs. Of course I don´t tell her any of this but it is how I feel. I am committed however to trying my best to assist her in applying for a scholarship as I feel it would allow her to develop as a person and hopefully to contribute something positive to her country (as she so clearly wants to do) if the Timorese government can create for her the opportunity. However, her English is the thing that will determine her success in securing a scholarship and it needs improving greatly.

We are learning Tetun with a young Timorese man from the same university as my woman friend. We meet with him most days for one hour. The language is quite easy to learn and I think I will get better at it once I start work next week. Alex is already ahead of me as he practises with his colleagues. He also has a knack for languages as he easily picked up Mandarin during his time there. I´m a little jealous. (NOTE: Learning (the little I learnt of) Mandarin was anything BUT easy!!! -Alex)

I am reading ¨Martha Gellhorn: A Life¨ by Caroline Moorehead. It is a biography of one of the first white American, middle-upper class, heterosexual female war correspondents. Her journalism tracked many of the flashpoints of the twentieth century; as a young woman she witnessed the suffering of the Amerdispatchesssion and risked her life in the Spanish Civil War. Her despatches from the front made her a legend, yet her private life was often messy and volcanic. Her determination to be a war correspondent and her conspicuous success contributed to the breakdown of her infamously stormy marriage to Ernest Hemingway. It´s a fascinating account of a terribly flawed woman who passionately fought against injustice and who was determined to capture the human story. I´m coming to the end of its 500 odd pages and I have enjoyed the journey immensely.

We hope to move into our home within a week or so, a lovely beachside one-bedroom house near the airport (west of the centre of Dili) and about 7kms from work. The house is part of the community (not gated. After looking at six houses ranging from $250 to $600 a month, and from ´Malae´ to Timorese standard, we settled on the first place we looked at. You can see the ocean from the house and it´s a short stroll to the beach for a walk and swim. There is hot water in the bathroom, a western shower head and western toilet, although as in China, there is no containing space in which to have a shower, you´re just expected to spray water all over the bathroom. However, this is considered a luxury in Timor, as most people have no running water or only cold, and a ´mandi´^ with which to bathe. The kitchen has cold water only. Our new landlord´s wife will do our washing (by hand), ironing and house cleaning. (I am considering whether to buy a washing machine (very rare in Timor) so as to reduce the burden on her and so that she too can use the machine to lighten her domestic load.) This provides some much-needed cash to her family of many children. Our rent is going towards building them a new house next door, which has stalled in recent months due to a lack of cash. In the meantime, the entire family live out the back in a kind of one room shed. This is very common in Timor as people jump at the chance to rent out their home so that they can either do it up or build another one from the money they earn on rent. During the huge UN presence, some Timorese (and many more Aussie ´war tourists´) made a lot of money as there was a shortage of accommodation on offer and therefore, prices soared.

I´ve decided that we need to wash our own dishes as I am concerned that we will, upon one day returning to the West, resent having to do our domestic chores, which neither of us enjoys anyway. We are going to invest in satellite or cable TV as the local Timorese station no longer airs any English language programs and I really love my television, particularly ABC and SBS TV. However, the cable TV we will get only broadcasts ABC TV Asia Pacific, which is not the same as the national one. HBO from the USA is available so we´ll be able to get our fix of the final season of ´Six Feet Under´ and today I discovered that Star TV is about to broadcast ´Little Britain´, which makes me happy. The hotel we are currently staying in also has many of the free-to-air stations from Australia which are picked up by an enormous satellite dish. The dish costs $10,000 new but second hand ones often go for $2,000. That´s still too expensive for us so we´ll have to forgo the pleasure of being able to watch ABC and SBS TV for the next two years. It wouldn´t be so bad if there were English language books available for reading, but in fact, there are hardly any. The only ones on sale or to borrow are overwhelmingly about the history and politics of Timor-Leste some of which I have already read and although I want to read more, I do not think that my psyche could take only reading for the next two years about the horrendous atrocities that have occurred here. There is also a book exchange but from a cursory look, most of the books are paperback airport novels, which are definitely not my thing. There is also a cinema in town but I have been told that it is currently closed.

(UPDATE: We have now decided not to get satellite TV, but instead to invest in books, CDs, DVDs and other cultural care packages from across the Timor Sea)

The American Ambassador´s residence is around the corner from our hotel on the beach road with magnificent views across the sea to Atauro Island. It is surrounded by an enormous fence, has a security guard or two, beautiful green grass and even has a tennis court with lights to allow a game in the evening. Funny thing though, when the power goes off in the neighbourhood like clockwork around 7pm every night, the Ambassador´s house is still lit up like a beacon in the darkness. The Timorese living in shanty huts on the opposite side of the road however, have to candles to allow themselves just a little light. Apparently too, the Embassy district never loses power. Now, tell me this: how is the power situation ever going to change if all the powerful people are never without power?

I start my job next week as a Women´s & Children´s Rights Advocate in a highly respected national (local) NGO. I will be working with local staff to develop resources and document the situation of women in Timor-Leste; and deliver public education activities around women´s and children´s human rights. I´m looking forward to it but also feeling a little daunted.

* Malae is used for any foreigners other than Indonesians. It is not really translatable, since (unlike foreigner) it is a term of respect, reflecting the high status, which is generally assigned to foreigners in East Timor. (Daniel: or so they say, I can´t help but feel the connotation is more ambiguous in practice.)
# Lae is No.
^ Mandi is an Indonesian washing facility consisting of a large (cold) water tank, from which you scoop water from a ladle, jug or what looks like a plastic saucepan. Once wet you soap yourself down and then rinse the soap off with more (cold) water from the mandi. You do not climb into the mandi.

All Tetun references taken from the Peace Corps East Timor Tetun Language Course, first edition, 2003 and the Lonely Planet Guide to East Timor, 2004.

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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