Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The mental health break from hell

As it was a long weekend we spent two days on Atauro Island which I hoped would provide me with a much needed mental health break but unfortunately events conspired to worsen my situation. Firstly, when we turned up at the ferry terminal our Timorese friend was nowhere to be found. (When we first visited Atauro back in August, our friend told us that the next time we went, she wanted to come with us. Ever since, I had been organising such a trip for the three of us plus another AVIer for the next available long weekend. We had decided to shout our friend most of the cost of staying at the Eco Village because we knew she couldn’t afford “malae” prices.) I asked Daniel to call her on my phone to ascertain her whereabouts. She was still at home and wasn’t coming as she said that she had been sick for three days.

One, she never bothered to ring us to tell us this and therefore I felt very guilty at not being able to inform the Eco Village beforehand knowing that they book out weeks and often months in advance and two, we did not believe her story but thought that she was “tauk” (afraid) of the ferry and even more so of the little boat that would return us to the mainland. A major shared belief that we have heard from innumerable Timorese regardless of their education and background concerns ferries and boats: they’re simply scared of them. I find this one hard to understand given that Timor is an island and that many people live on the coast not to mention the fact that fishing is a major source of subsistence farming and fish a regular item on the dinner plate. Timor is famed for its beautiful beaches and underwater sea life (in my estimation, the best thing it has going for it) and yet many of its people (presumably those who can’t swim) are collectively frightened of water and sea vessels.

The journey over was pleasant enough. The three of us went up on to the roof and sat under a shaded canopy by the fluttering Indonesian flag. Daniel had disembarked from the same ferry that very morning at the ungodly hour of 3:30am after returning from Oecusse, and he said that they changed the flag to a Timorese one en route to the enclave and perhaps they do the same to Atauro. Still, we were in Dili harbour but the ferry is owned and operated by Indonesians and whenever it breaks down (which is frequent) it has to return to Indonesia (we suspect Kupang in West Timor) for repairs.

About two and half hours later we docked at the wharf on Atauro. Until recently, all ferry trips to and from the Island had been temporarily suspended while the wharf was repaired and upgraded but I was stunned to see that the wharf was still in disrepair. Disembarking was a little challenging as we had to climb up a rock/cement embankment and then down again over a wooden platform before we were able to walk on the wharf that led us to shore.

We sat in the back of a pick up truck along with other people and were driven on the bumpy road to the Eco Village. My face felt very hot and I was worried that I was sunburnt but was perplexed as to how that had happened as we sat on the ferry in the shade and I was wearing a hat and sunglasses. When we arrived at our destination we were shown to our hut which I was disappointed to see was much smaller than the one we had previously, and it was back from the beach somewhat. I promptly went and had a “mandi” and upon looking in the mirror was horrified to discover that indeed I was very sunburnt including my face and nose, arms, feet and ankles. Likewise Daniel was too. I deduced that it must have happened towards the end of the ferry trip around midday when the sun was directly overhead and the shade had disappeared without us being aware that it had.

I was disappointed to discover that the Australian woman who consults to the NGO that runs the Eco Village had returned to Australia temporarily and so we were not to enjoy her company this weekend. Instead, we had to endure a group of seven (five women and two men) loud and insensitive Portuguese who grew irritatingly worse as the weekend progressed. Firstly, they didn’t or couldn’t read the guidelines in English on Eco Village etiquette and persisted in walking around the grounds, the beach and on the boat that took them to and from dive spots in the most revealing skimpy two piece bathers without also wearing a sarong or t-shirt and shorts. Two of the women were corporally well endowed and the sight of them wobbling to and from the toilet and “mandi” put me off my food (as a similarly corporally well endowed woman, I believe it my duty not to inflict such a sight on others and therefore wear a very modest one piece bathing suit). They were completely oblivious to the fact that they were being culturally insensitive and had attracted a barrage of male onlookers.

At dinner, the Portuguese insisted on drinking alcohol, singing and smoking and by the second night, everything was done in excess. They didn’t get to bed until close on 1am but in the intervening hours since I retired, I had to put up with their noise. But worse was to come, I sat down on the composting toilet we all shared and discovered I was sitting in something wet so got up and shined by torch on the toilet and discovered that one of the men in a drunken stupor had peed all over the seat and on the floor. I was so angry! I had to go and have a “mandi” to wash of his piss.

This unfortunate incident with this group of Portuguese just reinforces my incredible dislike for them. There are two very distinct “malae” groups in Timor: one Portuguese and one Australian and I have yet to see any evidence that they mingle. There is justifiably a lot of animosity towards the Portuguese by both Timorese and Australians alike, for abandoning the Timorese to the Indonesians in 1975, and now for recolonising the tiny island with their language and government advisers. This particular group comprised of six Portuguese language instructors and one military bloke. We have heard from a number of sources (but have no proof) that unemployable teachers in Portugal are paid very handsomely to come to Timor to teach Timorese teachers Portuguese so that they can instruct the poor little children in a foreign language. They are also provided with a car and driver and a direct line to the Portuguese Embassy. This was my first exposure to Portuguese people and I was not impressed. They showed absolutely no cultural sensitivity to the Timorese, nor respected the values of the Eco Village which is to live in harmony with the environment and conservative culture of Atauro.

In the middle of dinner on the second night, I had to excuse myself to the composting toilet where I had a bout of diarrhoea. Then when I went to bed, it happened again. And upon returning home I had my third and final incident. Our AVI colleague also had the same problem but Daniel started late, it didn’t happen until late yesterday afternoon once we had returned home to Dili.

The composting toilet was frequently out of toilet paper so I had to go and ask for more. This never happened on the first trip. Moreover, the instructions for using the toilet had disappeared and the Portuguese were putting their used toilet paper inside the bowl full of seaweed and saw dust all of which was meant to be thrown into the toilet after it had been used. I’m sure it was the first time they had encountered such a toilet as they didn’t strike me as ecological types.

The food was good (despite our upset stomachs and bowels) but disappointingly, we hadn’t been very well catered for despite advising six weeks in advance that we were all vegetarian. Our first trip to Atauro was fondly remembered for its good vegetarian offerings but this trip, we were given eggs, eggs, eggs. Only one meal contained a bean dish and there was no tempeh or tofu.

Then there were the pesky local little critters I had to contend with. I was constantly on the look out for ants which invaded my bed and I spent much time relishing squashing them between my fingers. At least one managed to climb under my breast and bite me before I killed it. I remembered the ant problem from my last visit but because I genuinely had such a relaxing time, I overlooked the problem but this time, there was no relaxation to be had. During our first night’s sleep, I heard some rustling through our things including a plastic bag and thought it was probably a “toke” (lizard). I couldn’t do much about it but my sleep was constantly interrupted by its late night prowls. Upon waking the following morning, I discovered that the creature had eaten a hole through the plastic bag and again through the plastic zip lock bags in which I had put nuts, seeds and prunes to relieve us from the monotony of the Timorese food on offer (as nice as it was). Mmmm I thought, how to deal with this one, so I put the bag inside a small back pack and zipped it up, hoping that would be too much for one little “toke” to eat through. The subsequent night, the same thing happened again, I could hear much rustling about and much frenetic jumping up and down on the floor and walls. I decided to turn the light on and see what was going on and just as I looked up I saw a medium sized “laho” (mouse/rat) bidding a hasty retreat. So it wasn’t a “toke” after all!

Sunday night I set my alarm on my mobile phone for 4:10am as we had to leave at 4:30am to walk to the boat which was to take us back to the mainland at 5am. It was such a drag to get out of bed at that hour but we did and then promptly lost our way in the dark (remember, there are no street lights). We were told to walk 500 metres along the road through the village where we would find the boat (supposedly the road ended at the beach). The road just kept going and going and going. Everywhere we looked for a path down to the beach all we could see were houses and vegetable gardens so we decided to turn back to the Eco Lodge and walk along the beach instead. En route we saw the light of a boat on the beach and guessed that it must be our boat so flashed our torch light in its direction to which it responded. The path from the road to the beach was in front of the boat and we like to think that the Timorese man flashing his torch from the boat at us was also trying to direct us down to the water. We waded into the water to climb aboard the boat in the dark and were soon off. The boat drove very slowly at first as it was trying to navigate itself over coral reefs (I flashed my torch down into the water and saw it very clearly). Unfortunately, the boat ran aground in the coral and much animation and shouting emanated from our Timorese boatmen. They managed to guide the boat off the reef and further down the coast we collected another “malae” this one a Peace Corps woman from Anchorage, Alaska! What a contrast for her living in Timor. She was a college graduate from Vassar in New York State but wanted to return home to Alaska to find work and settle down to raise kids. I told her that I had been eyeing off the travel brochure on Alaska, British Columbia and the Yukon in Harvey World Travel dreaming of escaping this oppressive place (in fact, I had to hold back tears just thinking about my memories of that part of the world). I think she thought that was a little weird. I told her that I had visited Alaska when I lived in Vancouver and absolutely loved it. However, once the boat’s engine was cranked up, it was so loud that it ceased all conversation between us so we sat together without saying a word for the entire two and a half hour journey back to Dili. As we approached the mainland, we could see a thick haze of pollution just lying over the capital. It made me sick just thinking about living in it.

All of yesterday I felt deaf; a consequence of the incredible noise of the boat’s engine and my stomach was in pain. Moreover, I felt I needed a holiday to recover from the holiday we supposedly just had! I was very happy to be home and spent most of the day sleeping and reading a new book (at least the weekend did allow me to complete reading Midwives). When I unpacked my bags I noticed that the empty zip lock bag that had contained my breakfast for the ferry trip (dry multigrain crackers from Germany and Arnotts Full o Fruit biscuits from Australia) and which had been kept in my regular day bag had a hole in it – the pesky little mouse had eaten his way through it. Then this morning, when I went to put on my sunglasses I noticed that they hurt behind my ears. I took them off to discover that the mouse had eaten away the rubbers tips of the protective handles as indicated by the teeth marks he had left behind.

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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