Saturday, August 20, 2005

Feeling vulnerable

Tuesday 9 August 2005

I decided to go to our German American friend’s birthday party after receiving assurances about getting a lift home. I left work later than planned as rain threatened, particularly so when my attempts at eliciting a weather forecast from my colleagues became a mutually amusing game of charades mixed with equally limited versions of each other´s languages. The eventual answer, ¨La iha problema¨ (no problem) allowed me to begin the long walk with some confidence.

Unfortunately it gets dark quickly in Timor and soon after 7pm I was surrounded by a pitch-black sky with very few streetlights. My small pocket torch guided my every step. It would be very easy here to fall into a big hole and break a limb or two (or disapper completely!). I arrived at our friend’s house 50 minutes later full of adrenaline from both the exercise and the constant fear that some bloke might attack me.

Our friend had again cooked the most amazing food and the evening was an enjoyable one. One of the AVIers we came over with was to my surprise also there, but then again Dili is a very small town. A Chinese American woman studying at my other alma mater Berkeley, who is in Timor for six weeks gave me a lift home, which was completely out of her way. I was grateful for her generosity as I just didn’t feel up to calling the “safe” taxi driver. I think Daniel and I should call him and take a ride home together so that we can suss him out for future potential journeys on my own.

I arrived home just before midnight to find my neighbour across the road (the one who loves playing loud music) hammering away at god knows what and he continued to do so until way past midnight. Needless to say I had trouble sleeping. I simply cannot comprehend how his wife and children manage to remain sane with the amount of noise he generates. Then at 6:30am this morning, I was woken by the sound of metal hitting rock. It went on and on and on. I gave up sleeping and got up to peek through the blinds to see where the noise was coming from. Both houses on either side of us are in the process of being built - although since we moved in two weeks ago there has been no construction work.

However, both owners (one being our “family”) decided to resume building this morning and one team of workers were hammering away at rocks to break them down into smaller pieces. The problem with paying rent to a family who are in the process of building their house is that they build it while you’re living there! Ugghhh! I think I’ll go mad! Upon moaning about the lack of peace and quiet in Timor, a guest at last night’s party told me that sleeping tablets are widely and cheaply available at the many “farmasias” around town. I think I might need to quickly cultivate a cheap drug habit! At the moment I feel that I don’t belong here. It’s as if I’m intruding on other people´s society and lives. Perhaps I should be at “home” working for social change in my own society as it doesn’t feel right to be a “malae” working on similar issues in Timor. There is also the fact that the most pressing issues here are ones ¨we¨ in the West began to address at least thirty years ago. Timor as a nation has only recently begun its journey on the road to respect for human rights, particularly those of women and children. (Of course this is not to deny that there are problems with the application of human rights in Australia particularly concerning our indigenous peoples and asylum seekers.)

However, there are enough well educated Timorese to do the job themselves without assistance from me. Also, I feel completely at sea with the culture. It is patriarchal, hierarchical, class ridden, conservative, traditional and incredibly influenced by Catholicism. There are serious limits to women’s freedom and liberty, which I find difficult to accept. The taxi driver who drove me home tonight would not take the $1.50 I gave him and demanded $2. I could hardly argue given my lack of fluent Tetun and the recent case of the rape of an Australian woman by a taxi driver. Our Tetun teacher has told us that a Timorese would only pay $1 but because we are “malae” we are charged more. The couple who lived here before us said we should only pay $1.50. It may sound a trivial amount but Dili is not a cheap place to live and we are spending nearly as much as we did in Australia for things like housing, transport, food, telephone calls and electricity. I’m sure that most of the taxi drivers think that all “malae” are on UN salaries but the fact is, the UN drive around in 4WDs, and it is volunteers like us who use the taxis.

Moreover, this incident induced in me a sense of anger, frustration, powerlessness and vulnerability. I had no recourse with the driver. As a Western woman, I am not use to having my autonomy and freedom curtailed and it contributes to my not enjoying living here. Many of my rights have been taken away simply because I am a woman. I do not like being left on my own having to negotiate taking taxis to and from work. I have never thought twice about living on my own in the West (and I have spent five years living independently outside of Australia). Since Daniel left on Sunday, my stress levels have risen sharply. It is not something that Daniel as a man ever feels. (Daniel: Certainly not the gendered aspect of it, but similarly a feeling of confinement and lack of freedom is something I deal with also.)

One of Daniel’s colleagues, who is a Timorese women’s rights lawyer, says that women are incredibly vulnerable in Timor and that she’s not surprised that I feel vulnerable living here. Her only consolation is that Timorese women are even more vulnerable than “malae” women are.

I think we may have to move closer to town and perhaps even into a “malae” apartment or unit. This is sad because we like our “family” but I cannot continue feeling so vulnerable when Daniel is working in the districts. It is regrettable but I need to limit the amount of exposure I have to male Timorese strangers and unfortunately, I have yet to meet a female taxi driver: I don’t think they exist. Daniel and I had decided that a way to contribute to the economy and support Timorese trying to make a living was to catch taxis and to eat out at local Timorese frequented restaurants. I think we will have to think again about this.

I have begun reading John Martinkus’ A Dirty Little War. In the opening pages it describes how in 1997 three bodies with their heads, hands and feet cut off were found dumped in Tasitolu, the suburb next to where we live. As mentioned in a previous post, the site of the now renamed Tasitolu Peace Park is where the Indonesian military used to dump the bodies of Timorese they had murdered. It is hard to fathom this level of brutality let alone it having occurred where you now live.

There are two women at work who wear black every day. I suspected it might be a sign of mourning or “lutu” and this was confirmed to me by a colleague. If one of your parents dies, as a sign of respect you have to wear black or “metan” for a year. (In this heat that must be difficult, not to mention the fact that one of the women is pregnant.) During this time they can attend festivities but must not dance. The end of “lutu” is “kore metan” or untying the black band and is celebrated with a big party.* There is also one young woman (our cleaner) who wears a swatch of black cloth pinned to her breast. I have also seen this on a number of people around town. Again, it is a sign of respect for relatives other than your parents who have died. The length of time you have to wear it is determined by the proximity of the relationship (eg aunt, cousin, grandparent). However, it appears to apply only to women, as I have not seen any men performing this custom. (This reminds me of the older female Italian immigrants in Australia, who do a similar thing out of respect for their dead.) I am now curious as to whether this is a “traditional” custom or whether the Portuguese and their Catholicism introduced it.

One of our happy discoveries was that we can pick up Radio Australia (RA). It has most of the programs I listen to on Radio National with one glaring exception, Life Matters. Without RA we wouldn’t have a clue what was going on in Timor or the world. It provides a much-needed lifeline and only increases my respect for our ABC.

The programs we regularly listen to include: News, current affairs and in depth analysis: AM, Asia Pacific, The Health Report, The Law Report, The Media Report, The National Interest, Background Briefing, The Europeans, Saturday Breakfast, All in the Mind, Verbatim. Commentary and interviews: Talking Point (which comprises one or two interviews done that morning on Breakfast), Perspective, Australia Talks Back, Late Night Live, In Conversation. Religion and ethics: The Spirit of Things, Encounter, The Religion Report. Arts: Movie Time, Books and Writing.

I can continue to hear Tony Eastley, Norman Swan, Damien Carrick, Richard Aedy, Terry Lane, Kirsten Garrett, Geraldine Doogue, Alan Saunders, Natasha Mitchell, Fran Kelly, Sandy McCutcheon, Phillip Adams, Robyn Williams, Rachael Kohn, Stephen Crittenden, Julie Rigg and Ramona Kovel. I just wish I could also hear Julie McCrossin on Life Matters! As my access to the Internet is limited, I am not able to go online and listen to previous stories.

I am looking forward to our long weekend on the island of Atauro (Monday is a public holiday as it is Asunsaun or Assumption which marks the day the virgin Mary was taken up in bodily form to heaven). Our German American friend is now coming with us, as she wanted to visit Atauro before she leaves Timor at the end of the month. We will share a cabin together at the eco village.

Daniel will return from Ainaro tomorrow afternoon and has to go back again next week from Tuesday through to Friday. I am hoping to go with him to see how public education on women’s rights is done by his NGO, as this will help me in my work. Therefore I might be celebrating my 35th birthday in a small, beautiful and with any luck, peaceful and quiet mountain village.

* ‘Death’ in East Timor Phrasebook, Lonely Planet, 2001, p.147

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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