Saturday, September 10, 2005

Culture Shock!

Saturday 10 September 2005

In the three weeks since my last post I have been feeling quite depressed hence the lack of posts. Full blown culture shock has set in!

As a consequence I have been longing for all things English and Scottish, the home of my ancestors. I daydream about cold wind swept barren Scottish hills, and small quaint, pretty little English villages with beautiful gardens. I long for British television: the wonderful comedies, dramas and crime dramas that I regularly watched while rugging up and lying under a doona on the couch living in London and Melbourne. [Daniel and I are thinking that after our two years in Timor we might (if we can) go and live in Scotland or Scandinavia for a (long) while.] The irony is, I didn’t much enjoy living in Britain and yet now, I’m hankering for it!

On the 1 September I attended Daniel’s NGO’s Human Rights training in Ermera (62km south west of Dili), the main coffee-growing district of Timor. This time I was driven up by one of my NGO’s drivers along with two colleagues. It took about two hours and along the way we passed a well-known orphanage just outside Gleno which is the town before Ermera. I only caught a brief glimpse of the children but would like to return and visit if the orphanage allows this. On the drive up we came across many coffee beans on the road and we drove over them. They were put there deliberately and I had wondered if it was easier to have the cars crush them than to do so by manual labour. However, I was to discover later that the roads are some of the few places in Timor with a flat surface so the coffee farmers lay their beans on the road to dry in the sun. Just before we entered the town of Ermera, we came across a collapsed bridge and had to drive down into the running stream and up over the other side where the road started again. This episode was another example of why 4WD’s are so necessary in the districts of Timor (but [Note to UN] still not necessary in Dili!).

The Human Rights training was conducted in the District Administrator’s (DA) office (the highest public servant for a district). The PNTL (police force of Timor) district head office was also located in the building. Although the building seemed an appropriate place to hold the training I was soon to discover that there was no place to go to the toilet! The toilets in the building were not operating due to a lack of water which meant that 30 odd people attending the training (not to mention the DA staff and PNTL) had no place to go for the entire day! I was appalled! I actually offered to squat behind a tree as I am used to doing so while bushwalking and camping but my Timorese colleagues were shocked at such a thought and decided to find me a “proper” toilet. I do not think they were shocked by the idea of squatting in the open (many Timorese people have no toilet facilities) but more that it wasn’t right for a “malae” to do so. So I was taken to a little eating place up the main street and given the use of their roofless outhouse at the back: a squat toilet with a small drum of water and dirty washing all over the place and no toilet paper. Two very dirty pigs were caged in a small dirty stall adjacent to the outhouse.

I would have preferred to squat behind a tree! I truly have had to cultivate a carefree attitude since arriving in Timor as the sanitation facilities are woeful and it is no surprise to me that so many diseases proliferate here. I’m just thankful that I am a bush walking and camping kind of woman otherwise, I would have freaked out by now!

The outhouse was owned by a family who ran an eating house. If you had seen the conditions in which they went to the toilet and bathed, you’d never eat there! In fact, most eating establishments we frequent would never pass a health inspector’s visit in Australia; they would be closed down immediately. We know this, but try and forget about it otherwise we would have to cook at home all the time and even there, our kitchen isn’t up to our “malae” hygiene levels due to the way it was built.

Upon leaving the outhouse, I tried to talk to the pigs but they were frightened and got up and went to the corner of their small quarters. I love pigs and dogs and often try and talk to them in a very calm voice but I have noticed that all “free range” animals in Timor are incredibly timid. I’m sure it’s related to the fact that people throw things at them, constantly shoo them away or kick them. The other day I saw a car driver deliberately try to run over a dog! In Timor, if you kill a dog there are no consequences. However, if you kill a pig you have to compensate the owner $200! As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I think it more humane to euthanise most of the dogs and if I could I would.

I have included a couple of photos of Ermera here including some of the church, memorial and mural commemorating the life of the Ermera born priest from Suai who was massacred along with another priest, nuns and a couple of hundred refugees by the Indonesian military backed militia on 6 September 1999, the anniversary for which was commemorated this week. They were murdered in retaliation for the country voting overwhelmingly for independence 7 days before on 30 August.

Above: The main church in Ermera

The District Administrator´s office in Ermera.

Mary and baby Jesus

A mural commemorating one of the priests who was born in Ermera and who was murdered by the Indonesian backed militia in the Suai church massacre of 1999.

A colleague recently gave birth to her first baby. She is our NGO’s only lawyer and I would guess in her early 30s. She will be paid 3 months maternity leave but will then be expected to return to work. Female family members normally look after the baby. All public servants are entitled to 3 months paid maternity leave and any NGO’s and private companies who wish to offer paid maternity leave can do so but it is not obligatory. My NGO offers it. However, as generous as this is, this does not solve the issue of breastfeeding beyond 3 months. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends breastfeeding for up to 2 years and exclusively for 6 months. A colleague who gave birth earlier in the year and returned to work after 3 months, returns home every lunch time to breastfeed but surely breastfeeding morning, lunch and evening is not enough for a 3 month old! Timor has a big problem with babies being introduced to food other than breast milk before 6 months of age, which contributes to malnutrition, water borne diseases and often death.

Another colleague is nearly 6 months pregnant with her second child and she is only 22! (Her first child is only a year old which makes me question the supposed wisdom of the Timorese spacing method, which is meant to result in a new child every 2 years!) This colleague was a university student studying English as her major but as a result of her pregnancy, she has not been able to complete the final semester of her degree. She met her husband a year and a half ago and with their first child born a year later you can probably guess it was caused by faulty or no contraception. I suspect it is probably the latter.

Our Director who is 38 years old is 2 months pregnant with her third child having begun her family when she was 28. Another colleague is also due soon. What’s very interesting is the fact that women in Timor appear to announce the pregnancy after a month. They do not wait the requisite 3 months as we do in the West given the high rate of miscarriage during the first trimester. I guess though that in Timor, children are very common (more than 7 children per woman and the highest fertility rate in the world) and considered very special (although in practice, there is no such thing as children’s rights so it does make me wonder). When women miscarry, there must be a lot of social support in particular from family. Moreover, the Timorese are very fatalistic about life and death and probably accept it more easily than we do.

Facilities for pregnant women are very basic. Most women give birth at home (which I am all in favour of if the pregnancy is low risk and attended by a skilled midwife and is certainly my preferred option for giving birth) but only 30% of women are attended to by skilled health staff (eg traditional birth attendant or midwife) during labour.* The Dili National Hospital now has ultrasound machines which can pick up physical defects or congenital malformations: eg Spina bifida and women are offered one or two screenings during their pregnancy. But there is no maternal serum sample (MSS) screening blood tests offered. Therefore women cannot ascertain their risks of having a baby with inherited genetic diseases: eg Cystic fibrosis or chromosome disorders: eg Down’s syndrome. And given MSS is not offered, neither are the diagnostic tests such as Amniocentesis or CVS. With a fertility rate of more than 7 children per woman and no MSS offered, this must result in many disabled children. Then again, with no abortion available either, what would be the point of offering a MSS to detect your risk of carrying a disabled child if you cannot go on to have a diagnostic test and if the result is positive, choose to terminate?

I have recently noticed three young men in the neighbourhood where I work with Down’s. All live in different homes in one small suburb so if this is any indication of the level of disability in the country, I would guess that it is very high. Also in the neighbourhood is a young man in a wheelchair with no legs from his torso down. I’m not sure if he was born this way or something happened later in life but with his total lack of legs, I would have thought the former. Recently I passed a young woman whose entire face and arms were melted away. She had either been involved in a fire (accidental or otherwise) or acid was thrown on her face, which is not uncommon in Bangladesh and India. I suspect it was a result of a fire. I felt deep sadness for her.

I have found two studies, which report on the use of contraception in Timor. One comes from the United Nations Development Program and the other by UNICEF. The former says that 5.6% of women of child bearing age (15-49) use contraception* and the latter finds that 7% do so.# Although during the Indonesian period, it may have been as high as 20%.*# According to UNICEF, only 6% of women know that a condom can prevent HIV and 70% of men when surveyed could not name one form of contraception. There is an understandable fear that HIV is a ticking time bomb waiting to happen in Timor. These grim statistics indicate the lack of education around safe sex and reproductive health; the lack of scientific rational explanations based on evidence, the low status of women and the strong influence of the Catholic Church.

There are many traditional Timorese customs (taboos) surrounding women’s bodies, pregnancy, childbirth, babies and breastfeeding that stem from their animist beliefs. When my colleagues tell me with utter conviction about them, I have to bite my tongue very hard. For example, women are not meant to bathe when it is dark and must do so in daylight hours. After giving birth both the mother and the baby must be wrapped up in many clothes and kept very hot so that they sweat out any possible infections that might have occurred during the birth process, which is, considered an illness. New mothers must bath in scalding hot water and drink only hot drinks. Traditionally both mother and baby will be kept in a closed room by a fire. Women are kept this way for 30 days but babies are completely rugged up including hats on their heads for an indefinite period of time in a country that is mostly very hot. Rugging up the babies, particularly their heads, raises their body temperature, and can result in permanent brain damage. Even when the mothers visit the Dili National Hospital when the child has become sick and are told not to do it, when they return home their mothers and grandmothers reinstall the traditional ways of doing things. Most of this information comes from friend working on a maternal and child nutrition project here.

One of my colleagues who is breastfeeding will not eat any dairy products (eg ice cream) because it is somehow bad for the baby. My Tetun teacher’s wife will not eat fish while she is breastfeeding their child because it is likewise bad for the baby. When I question this practice and ask whether it is a Timorese custom (taboo) or something based in scientific evidence they claim the latter and insist this is the way it is done everywhere. When I point out that this is not the case in Australia, they do not how to respond. And these are all university-educated people! It is really no surprise that Timor has the highest maternal and child mortality rate in the world. I’m all for preserving traditional ways when there is a clear benefit or the tradition has no negative impact, but when it does have an identifiable negative consequence it should be challenged through evidence based education. If I had a baby in Timor, it would spend most of its time naked sleeping close to my chest inside a tais slung around my body and I’d eat whatever I wanted while I breastfed!

The other night when walking home down my street I came across a baby (with a hat on) and its mother (there are many in my street but I just happened to pass close by). I asked the mother how old the baby was and she said eight months, the same age as my niece Riley. But this baby was so incredibly small, very thin and I would guess malnourished. It looked nothing like the photos of my very healthy niece at the same age (photo below).

I was recently moved to a closed office (with a door) because I was making my colleagues sick in the open plan section of the building. How you might ask did I do this: by using a fan to keep me cool! Apparently the dust, which is caked on the fan’s blades, was blowing around the office making them all sick! It certainly wasn’t making me sick and I was sitting right in front of it! Regardless, no one even thought to wash the blades! I was mortified and as a consequence, sunk into a mild depression for days. I am now OK as I am in an office with air-conditioning (one of only three in the building) so I no longer mind although I am separated from my team.

My colleague above who won’t eat dairy products while she is breastfeeding, came to work sick the other day because she had eaten tough food (corn) that made her ovaries ache! She was in incredible pain but insisted it was due to eating tough food! She then went on to say that she and her husband had had a motorbike accident (not uncommon here) a year ago when she was three months pregnant with her sixth child and as a result she miscarried (although she initially said abortion until I queried her about this). She has since suffered from gynaecological problems but still insisted it was the corn that made her ache! Goddess give me patience!

One colleague will not eat certain fruit (staples in Timor) because of a traditional belief specific to his family that eating these fruits will cause death! I suspect that one member of his family way back in the past was perhaps allergic, but then ever since, all members of this family now believe they will die if they eat paw paw or banana! Also, believing this kind of thing diminishes the amount of food people can eat and with a very limited and subsistence diet, this is far more serious than at first it may appear.

I find all of this utterly depressing. The only consolation for me is that part of my role at my NGO is to write a training manual on women’s and children’s rights, which includes sex education, and which I hope will have a positive effect on some Timorese women’s lives. And on a personal level, I feel so blessed to be a secular Western educated woman. I have so many more options in life than my Timorese colleagues do.

Daniel said something very funny the other day. Back in Australia he was considered a bit of a spiritual and esoteric person but in Timor, he feels like the supreme scientific rationalist!

On Monday evening after work I decided to catch a “mikrolet” (minibus) home as Daniel had returned home early, and I don’t like catching taxis on my own. We have caught a mikrolet or two together on the weekends, but never during the week. Mikrolets are privately owned but are the only equivalent of public transport in Timor. They are much cheaper than taxis at 10c a ride no matter how far or what time of day. Taxis cost $1 but more for longer journeys and in the evenings, prices double. In the back of the mikrolet are two seats running horizontal which seat 10-12 people; up to 2 people can sit in the front passenger seat next to the driver along with up to 5 men (never women) hanging out the open door. They are so small that you have to bend double to enter and exit and when seated my head just touches the roof while Daniel has to sit with his head bent forward. There are ten different routes in Dili and our route is number 10.

I had to wait for about 20 minutes or so because every mikrolet that passed was packed like a sardine tin including up to 5 young men standing in the doorway holding on for dear life. At least a dozen passed me before I could see a spare seat. So I got on a mikrolet and took my seat and felt uncomfortable as everyone stared at me but they soon got over the novelty of a “malae” in a mikrolet (most “malae” appear to have use of a private vehicle often given to them by the organisation they work for). We got to the roundabout at the turn off to the airport, which is about 1km from the stop closest to our house, and the mikrolet stopped and everyone got off. I was the only person left with three men and felt very uncomfortable. I didn’t understand what they were telling me but perhaps it was that they were going to get petrol or perhaps weren’t going all the way to Tasitolu, which they should have done. So I paid them my 10c got off and got on to another number 10 mikrolet that was going my way. Approaching my stop, I tapped my 10c coin on the rail above my head to indicate I wanted to get off, and as soon as I was standing on the side of the road and had paid my 10c fare, the passenger in the front seat next to the driver opened his door hard and right into my side. It bloody well hurt. He didn't say anything and just stared so I glared at him and said "deskulpa?" (sorry) and he parroted the words back to me. Everyone on the mikrolet laughed at me instead of asking if I was okay. I was so angry! I had to limp home down my street passing many little children who are all enthralled by the "malae" and just want me to say something to them. It was very difficult because I was in pain and very very angry. I managed however to say a few "botardes" (good afternoon). I am still bruised and sore. I have included a photo here of the bruise on my upper right thigh.


On Tuesday Daniel went to the Dili National Hospital and had a blood test to check for dengue fever. He had been feeling quite unwell during the day’s preceding and we thought it best to have it checked out. He received the results of the test the same afternoon. They did not show any dengue antibodies but there were other indications such as low platelet levels, which suggest a compromised immune system. On Thursday Daniel visited the Aussie doctor at the Australian Embassy compound. He thinks given Daniel’s blood test results, he probably either has a mild case of dengue fever (even though it did not show up in the results) or another mosquito borne disease we’d never heard of called chicken gania (sp?) which can only be confirmed by a lab in Australia. This morning on Radio Australia we heard about a dengue outbreak in Singapore that has already killed 8 people. Dengue is an emerging disease with no cure or medication to reduce symptoms. It has already arrived in the northern parts of Australia and is expected to move slowly southward as the country warms (thanks to global warming).

On Thursday night Daniel walked from his work to mine to meet me after my Tetun lesson. As he approached my work place, a female “asu” (dog) bit him on the ankle! He had noticed the dog but had passed it some way before it attacked. Our Tetun teacher went with us to the house where the dog lived to talk to the owner who turned out to be a very large man (physically and politically) (they do exist in Timor but tend to be confined to the upper echelons of society) and the Vice President of the Parliament of Timor! (similar to a Deputy Speaker in the Australian context). He asked what we wanted, probably expecting some form of compensation as is the norm in Timor, but our teacher explained that we just wanted an apology, and to inform him in case it had been a problem in the past and given there is a primary school opposite his house. So he said sorry in English and we left it at that. Of course there is no animal authority to report this incident to so the only ethical thing we could do was to report it to the owner. Thank goodness there is no rabies in Timor although Daniel has been vaccinated due to his previous stint in China where it is a problem. Daniel was very upset as he grew up around dogs, loves them and thinks himself a good judge of dog character.

When we arrived home, Daniel called our medical insurance company in Australia (which AVI pays for) to confirm that there is still no rabies in Timor, and to seek advice as to what to do about the two shallow puncture wounds in his left leg. They have a 24-hour customer care number, which we can call reverse charge and speak to a nurse or doctor. Daniel was transferred to nurse Tiffany whom he had spoken to previously in the day about his blood test and possible dengue diagnosis. Daniel was worried she might think he was a hypochondriac but she kept saying, “oh no, because of your ¨location¨ every incident carries a high risk and we take these matters very seriously!” She told him she would call him every day to check he was doing okay. (Daniel thinks this is a little over the top, despite liking the attention) My sister is also called Tiffany and we don’t often come across the name so Daniel finds it a little strange to be having a daily health update with nurse Tiffany!

There are so many young men on the streets of Dili that I find it quite intimidating. Women it would seem venture outside primarily in order to get from A to B. Men however, use the public sphere for their enjoyment. Half the population is under the age of 15 which for a “malae” from a country with an ageing population, is quite extraordinary. And you notice this fact everywhere you go: so many young people! Many many young men have peroxided hair and even little boy children. I was intrigued why this was so as I have yet to see a woman with peroxided hair and wondered the reason for the gender swap. My tetun teacher explained that a famous Japanese soccer player peroxided his hair, which started a trend in Timor, a soccer-loving nation, for men (and boys) to do the same.

There is rubbish everywhere with no recycling facilities and a limited garbage collection system. As a consequence, the ground water is often polluted which people rely on for drinking water and which then makes them sick. People are burning off leaves and rubbish en masse at the moment, which results in thick clouds of smoke across Dili. We have even started to notice the smell in our home as the people in our community (although not our immediate neighbours) are now burning off. There is absolutely no need for this but slash and burn polices both in urban and rural areas prevail. We endure the worst of it when being driven to and from work, as we have to drive on a major road, which is heavy with traffic, smog and smoke. The wet season is still about two months away and the burning off is only set to get worse.

Timor is not well endowed with natural resources and due to deforestation, 80% of the country is now shrubland. It is an incredibly degraded environment, which compromises people’s health and livelihoods, as 80% of the population are subsistence farmers. Most of the country has only a thin layer of unproductive soil, which is washed away during the wet season. Mostly, traditional land practices have degraded and continue to degrade the environment, and like those traditional practices concerning women and children, need to be challenged through evidenced based education (some farmers have implemented ingenious soil conservation methods but they are in the minority).^ [There has been an ongoing government campaign to reduce burning off and chopping down of trees but it appears not to be working.]

As there is so little native wildlife in Timor, I latch onto any bird calls I hear. In Ermera in the late afternoon I heard the call of a bird that sounded very similar to Australia’s whip bird which is one of my favourites. And when we’re at home, we sometimes hear the calls of birds and whenever I hear them, I stop whatever I’m doing so I can listen. It is a sign of the paucity of nature. When I think about it long enough, it induces in me a great sadness and my spirit sinks. No wonder the Timorese need their Catholicism! There is nothing left in nature to raise their spirits.

I have been shocked to see and learn how deleterious the traditional practices of this country are. I thought that the Timorese would have great wisdom and knowledge about many issues concerning their environment but this is mostly not the case. Which makes me think more about the work of Jarred Diamond who wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive the latter of which Daniel is currently reading. Diamond has been criticised for being a racist as he does not believe that all indigenous communities knew or know how to preserve their environments better than modern peoples. He gives numerous examples in his books to show how many traditional societies ruined their environments and in this I would place the Timorese. Of course, saying this I do not deny the impact of colonialism, particularly the Portuguese who decimated the country of its sandalwood but much of the degradation is due to traditional practices.

Diamond writes of such facts not to give more credence to racists, but to show that it isn’t such a black and white issue, and as a critique of those in the West who have romanticised indigenous peoples land practices. He believes we need to learn from our past mistakes if our societies are to prosper. One only has to look at the incredible damage wreaked on New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina to see how modern peoples likewise are capable of such stupidity when it comes to their environment. For a deeply moving and compelling account of the environmental problems that the Americans have instituted in New Orleans and the ramifications due to global warming for other low lying cities around the world see Phillip Adams’ interview on Late Night Live.

There is a major river (the Cormoro) in Dili, which begins in the mountains of Timor and flows out to the sea. We cross this river to and from work every day and we are always greeted by the sight of hundreds of men mining the riverbed for construction materials. They take advantage during the dry season, as during the wet, it becomes a torrent of water. Even though I pass over this riverbed twice a day, I still think the scene is very Third World and reminds me of a poster a former manager I had while working in London had hanging in his office. It was a photo of South American (perhaps Brazilian?) men hauling up huge rocks from a quarry. The men were jam packed together climbing up out of the pit. My manager kept this framed print on his wall to remind him of how lucky he was and how many people around the world lead very tough lives. Moreover, that when things were getting difficult at work or he was taking things too seriously, he would look at the print and this would bring him back to a more calm space.

This morning we went for a 1.5 hour walk to Tasitolu Peace Park. Just before we left the beach to cross the road to the park, I caught sight of the most beautiful turquoise coloured kingfisher sitting on a reef. It was just stunning. I tried to get closer but it kept flying off and settling further away. I followed it for a while until it was clear that I was not going to get any closer. It was so beautiful. I had seen a kingfisher previously on Atauro Island upon leaving when we were driven in a truck back to the boat and we passed a small marshy area where one was sitting on a rock. That sighting was very brief. At the park we saw the usual goats, kids, pigs, and piglets and cattle and also four adult water buffalo and a juvenile. We’ve never seen buffalo at the park before so it was quite a sight. There are still not that many birds around although there was a small flock of pelicans. It’s amazing how spending time in nature (no matter how degraded) can lift one’s spirits. I have included a photo of the Park here.

Above: Tasitolu Peace Park - Tasi (sea) tolu (3) refers to the three large lakes and is also the name of the ¨suburb¨ nearby, the last you pass through when leaving Dili to the west. We expect the park to be far more alive during the wet season when it becomes home to migratory birds from many far flung places.

We’ve managed to watch a number of the DVD’s we purchased last month although we have experienced quite a few technical difficulties in the process. I struggled to enjoy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy but Daniel liked it. I Heart Huckabees was a really quirky and funny film but the DVD packed up on us about 20 minutes from the end and no matter how many other computers we try and play it in, it just won’t work! We may have to purchase another copy. Team America: World Police, by the makers of South Park, which I love, was a big disappointment although it had some funny moments. Just a Question of Love, a French film about a young gay man which wasn’t that great and was compounded by the fact that the sound followed the actual mouthing of the words so that the next person ended up saying the lines of the previous person! Suffice to say, at times it was very hard to follow. The Upside of Anger an American mainstream film that was surprisingly good. The Manchurian Candidate, a remake of the original, starring Meryl Streep and Denzel Washington was well made and acted, very unnerving, even creepy and a little concerning given we may already be headed down the road of the president of the most powerful nation being owned and controlled by a transnational corporation. The current one just doesn’t have a computer chip in his brain controlling his every action, although it might help with his reading skills! The best DVDs we have watched continue to be our weekly dose of The L Word. We are tempted to watch more than one episode a week but as there are only 13 episodes, we want to prolong the pleasure for as long as possible.

I’m now reading Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, which won her the Booker Prize. Admittedly I got one third of the way through a couple of years ago but gave up on it. It’s a bit easier to read the second time around as I’m not so confused and I’m now enjoying it.

According to our Travelling Well handbook, we are in the second stage of Culture Shock: disappointment (I don’t think I ever went through the first stage of excitement). I think it will take us a long time to get to the third and final stage of adjustment.


^ United Nations Development Program, East Timor Human Development Report 2002, p.19
* ibid., p.78
# RDTL, ADB, JICA, UNDP, UNICEF, UNMISET, WB, Timor-Leste: Poverty in a New Nation, Analysis for Action, p. xv
> ibid., p. xiii

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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