Thursday, September 29, 2005

Lihu, Railaco, Ermera

On Sunday, we went to Areia Branca Beach for breakfast (banana smoothie, baked beans on toast and scrambled eggs) and a swim. While eating our breakfast we listened to Radio National’s Background Briefing on my portable radio. The story was on China: a taped lecture given by Dr Paul Monk, an academic expert on China from the University of Melbourne’s Asialink. He has just published a book called Thunder From the Silent Zone which we are keen to read. At 11am, I went for a swim in the warm water. It was lovely and refreshing but unfortunately, I got sunburnt after only 30 minutes. I must remember to wear sunscreen next time.

That afternoon, we went for our regular walk to Tasitolu Peace Park. It was a pleasant way to finish a wonderfully relaxing day. Unfortunately our peaceful day came to a screeching halt at 10pm when our neighbours across the road (you know the ones) began band practice with their newly purchased amplifier! It went on way past midnight and as a result, we could not sleep. I woke (from what sleep I eventually got) exhausted and extremely angry. We decided we would have to speak to Senyora Domingas about it, which we did later that evening. She was very sympathetic and said she could not sleep either and woke with a headache. She said she would talk to her brother about it the following day. We haven’t heard a peep out of them since but we’re not holding our breath that this will keep up indefinitely.

On Wednesday, I attended my first public education training with my NGO. It took place in a village called Lihu (population estimate: a couple of thousand) in the sub district of Railaco in the district of Ermera, a 35km or 50 minute trip southwest of Dili. Upon arrival, tens of people greeted us. It turned out that more than 100 villagers had come along. What a number! All the women sat at the front, and the men at the back with many more sitting on the floor. Most of the women had dressed up for the occasion and were wearing their finest clothes. The older women wore sarongs for a skirt and a shirt or jacket on top. Colour coordination wasn’t a major consideration. There were two small children in attendance, one of whom I played eye games with which resulted in many smiles from us both. I was the only “malae” and quite an oddity.

A colleague from my team spoke for the first hour during which she elicited much laughter. I have noticed this tendency of Timorese to laugh a lot. They think many things are funny and even when meeting people for the first time, much laughing takes place. A colleague from Daniel’s NGO (who once worked for my NGO) then talked for half an hour about the legal process to follow in cases of sexual assault and domestic violence. Questions from the floor were then taken for nearly one and a half hours. Questions from the older men always occur in a very humble fashion. The man with his arms hanging in front of him places one hand over the other and does what looks like a little bow before speaking as if to say, “please sir, may I humbly ask”. When someone keeps asking questions, some of the audience tends to tsk tsk as a sign of disapproval. In this case, they did it to a middle-aged woman.

Following question time, we then all gathered for lunch and a young man from the village led a prayer. All I could eat was white rice, noodles, a green leafy vegetable carefully extracted from around the tinned Spam, and a lettuce leaf and slice of tomato. This is standard fare for a vegetarian in the districts and simply not enough to survive on (even for just one meal). Most of the dishes were meat (a luxury for the Timorese). However, as I have become familiar with the food offered at such trainings, I came prepared with a small packet of sunflower seeds imported from Singapore (with the ingredients originating in China). For dessert, we had watermelon from Suai and local bananas. (When I returned to work the following day, the coordinator of my team told me that it is often the case that so many people come to such trainings in the villages simply for the food on offer. It is probably one of the heartiest meals they get in a year and this was demonstrated in how high people piled their plates. I would easily have been the heaviest person there, an indication of how well fed I am compared to the Timorese.)

After the meal, I sat with my colleagues and witnessed a very funny moment. Two of them proceeded to paint their finger and toe nails with pink nail polish. For me, this was incredibly funny. The organisation I work for is ostensibly feminist and some (not all) of the women are. To give a public education session on sexual assault and domestic violence and then decorate yourself with nail polish is not what I expected. I very much doubt that most women in the same field in Australia would do such a thing but here, the cultural norms are somewhat different.

After lunch, the “xefi suco” (village chief or mayor) gave a little speech and led us in another prayer before we departed. The villagers later on would watch a film about women and violence but without our presence. I also remembered to bring with me toilet paper and my small bottle of liquid soap and as expected, I needed them. At least this time there was a functioning squat toilet and “mandi”!

It was a very enjoyable day; I really take pleasure in observing such training and watching the local people listening intently and asking questions about a topic that is quite confronting and usually a first in terms of informal education (let alone formal education of which most would have had very little). However, I was feeling unwell due to the trip up where I had to sit in the back of the 4WD on a vertical running seat with no seat belt along those windy roads. I managed to persuade Daniel’s colleague to swap seats on the return journey and I sat in the front passenger seat. When dropped off at home, I immediately lay down.

Sister Michelle Reid of the Good Samaritan order has spent five years living in Dili. Most of this time she worked at the Becora Prison, which houses those militia successfully tried under the UN’s Serious Crimes Panel. We met her when we heard she was moving out of her house. We didn’t take the house but had a wonderful conversation about her work at the Prison. On Wednesday, Radio Australia aired the Religion Report from Radio National, which included an interview Sian Prior from the Age newspaper did with Sr Michelle on Prior’s recent trip to Timor. She talked about her work at the Prison. It’s well worth reading.

The same evening I listened to the interview with Sr Michelle, Australia Talks Back discussed diaries and blogs (web diaries). I was most interested as I write my personal thoughts in our blog and often think about my audience, wondering who is going to disagree with me about my take on things, particularly where it concerns the social and political. However, I have yet to read any negative comments. In repressive regimes such as China, blog providers such as ours (blogger) have colluded with the totalitarian regime to disallow any Chinese bloggers to mention words such as human rights, or democracy. If you try to post such words, blogger simply rejects your post!

This week we watched Ladies in Lavender with Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. We both love Dench as an actor (one of our favourite television series was As Time Goes By with Geoffrey Palmer). We both very much enjoyed this lovely little English film.

Daniel was initiated into the secret world of the elite “malae” during the week. With Dili being such a small town full of such a diverse group of foreigners - many in powerful positions - there is a definite feeling that a lot happens in restaurants and backroom invite-only get-togethers. It reminds me of high school and its cliques. Unfortunately a big negative on my list of reasons for continuing in the 'development industry'.

Princess Anne arrived in Timor on Wednesday for a one-day visit before departing for Papua New Guinea and their thirty-year’s of independence celebrations. While I was eating lunch at my favourite (Indian) restaurant, a cavalcade of 4WDs and motorbikes and police headed out on the road to the airport. Two Australian women visiting Timor as part of the group Friends of Ainaro I was lunching with told me the cavalcade was going out to collect Anne. I had no idea. This was just another example of how out of the loop you can be in Timor. Perhaps I should consider being initiated into the “in” crowd? (Not!)

I had another flash of insight this week as to why I do not like catching taxis. They constantly harass you by beeping their horns and slowing down as they approach hoping you’ll need their services (and as there are so many, you cannot escape a short walk without at least one (usually more) harassing you). I feel like a streetwalker (prostitute) and they’re the johns. It makes me really angry.

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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