Saturday, January 14, 2006

Conversations with an Austrian

We did manage to befriend an interesting couple from Austria who made it very clear that they were not German (and seemingly had little time for them full stop). I said to them that I detected a degree of animosity towards the Germans which was similar to the Australia/New Zealand (or the Canada/USA) relationship. True to form however, he did all the talking and she barely said a word although she claimed this was due to her poor English. He was a Leo in his early 40s, a university educated engineer and “entrepreneur” who had recently sold his heating/cooling business at great profit and was looking around for another venture (in addition to meaning), but this time, one with more of a New Age focus. She was a 34 year old Sagittarian marketing manager for a hospital and was expecting their first child in late June; however she was also a gifted artist (although we have yet to see her work) and specialised in oil based painting (she had originally attended Fine Arts school). They had met over the Internet about a year and a half beforehand (in private I commented to Daniel that perhaps she was at the baby hunger stage). We spent most meals with them (although not lunch as they only ate two meals a day in order to control their weight: he was very thin and she was just right. When I said that I liked food too much to do that, he said “yes, I can tell!” I was slightly offended but was relieved that I was 35 and not 25 because I have become less touchy about my weight as I age).

They (really he) had decided to open a healing centre in Austria which particularly focused on alternative forms of health as they were both very disparaging about modern Western medicine. To a point we agreed with them (it is allopathic and crisis based) but having lived in Timor, we can see an urgent need for good evidenced based modern Western medical treatment and more importantly, preventative health care education. There is no doubt that the Timorese have a variety of traditional medicines at their disposal, but this clearly does not work for all medical problems and all people all the time; it certainly does not enable women to control their fertility!

Most of Timor’s health problems stem from poverty and dangerous traditional cultural beliefs and practices (eg wrapping of babies and mothers). We challenged him on his total disregard for Western medicine and the fact that the Third World does not have the luxury to dismiss it let alone can they afford its services when they need it (if in fact it is even available which usually it is not). He took our challenges well and seemed to consider what we said, as we did to his views. Another ‘clash’ came about after he said that people deserve the governments they get and therefore by extension, if that government is corrupt or evil, the people are also (he was using the example of China here as he was rather a Tibet and Dalai Lama worshipper and couldn’t understand our interest/empathy in China and for the Chinese).

Our friend appeared to have not analysed history particularly deeply and lacked an appreciation of the effects of colonialism and accidents of fortune (that some countries have been blessed with crops, animals, climates and natural resources that have allowed them easier human development, a lá Jarred Diamond’s arguments) that have often influenced it. Also, how can you blame a whole society such as China or Cuba for the totalitarian dictatorships they must endure? Not everyone wanted a communist dictatorship and even if they did at the time, they may, due to the brutality of the regime, have subsequently changed their minds and now wish they could vote them out and replace them with someone else. Unfortunately, in both countries that is simply not possible and anyone working for democracy is routinely harassed, imprisoned and even tortured and/or murdered.

The most memorable comment however was that individuals must take responsibility for their lives and their health and not expect others to do it for them; otherwise they only have themselves to blame for their predicament. This was such an individualistic Western thing to say that failed to acknowledge that he was lucky to be born into a good family in an affluent society, which afforded him with many opportunities in life including a good education and Western health care system. The same cannot be said for the average Timorese; they are not to be blamed for the misery in which they live!

His thoughts were clearly framed within classic meritocratic ideas that have so firmly gripped the Western conscience; that you make your life, in effect you are “self made” without any leg ups from the country and family you are born into, the quality of education and health you receive, or the people you meet along life’s journey who assist you including those with whom you have intimate relationships. Individuals do not exist in a vacuum; they are born of other individuals, families and societies who can make or break them. Our friend seemed not to acknowledge the assistance he had received throughout his life from his family, his society and his government. Maybe this was predictable and part of the entrepreneurial worldview.

We had many long and interesting conversations with our Austrian friends until on the third night, he was struck down with a severe stomach complaint and had to be rushed to the hospital in Singaraja (he has a “weak” stomach normally and something he ate had set it off). Unfortunately we were not able to say farewell as we left the resort on the morning of the sixth day and he was due to return from hospital in the afternoon. They had booked their entire three week holiday at the resort while we had planned to only spend half of our ten day holiday there, and despite our fondness for them, they weren’t enough (alone) to keep us at the resort any longer. As good fortune would have it, he had given us his business card before he fell ill, so we will be able to stay in touch. He was very insistent that we come and visit them in Austria and was hoping that we would do so within the next six months! We tried to explain that this was just impossible given our volunteer status for the next 18 months and that if we visited, it would be in the future. He told us that we were the only authentic people at the resort (it wasn’t hard given who he was comparing us with!) It was funny really, because he did appear to be quite besotted with us!

Daniel spent considerable time getting to know the staff at the resort, and upon leaving they seemed genuinely upset. They said that we (really Daniel) were among the few guests that took the time to get to know them as people which they really appreciated (not surprising really given the degree of navel gazing that went on amongst the guests; I’m surprised they even noticed that it was Balinese who waited on them hand and foot). One young man in particular was hoping that we would stay until he had a day off so that he could spend his one day a week off taking us around to the “real” Tejakula! Daniel, being the natural linguist that he is, started speaking Bahasa Indonesia with the Balinese which of course, impressed them greatly and they proceeded to talk to him as if he were fluent! However, I found them all very sweet if at times a little too attentive for my liking.

The food at the resort was easily the highlight of our stay. They served sumptuous wholefoods (white rice excepted) including black German bread made from specially imported grain and bread making machines from Germany! (I do love German bread, it’s just so hearty.) The food was mostly vegan (albeit with the inclusion of fish which Daniel felt revealed health as the main motive behind their not eating meat rather than any thought for the animals involved) with lots of yummy salads. I felt like I had just about died and gone to heaven after six months of repetitive boring subsistence Timorese food and canned imports from Australia and Singapore. My bowel movements even returned to normal, which made me happy (this indicates how serious a problem my health has been since arriving in Timor).

While at the resort I read Mumbo Jumbo by Ismael Reed, a writer and professor at my former alma mater, Berkeley. It is supposedly one of the greatest books of all time but I have to confess that I found it very difficult to get into, understand or enjoy. And this book is not to be confused with How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World by Francis Wheen which I read a year or so ago. This book is a scathing critique of all things post modern, New Age and irrational; parts of which I wholeheartedly agreed with and then others I just thought, nup, this guy is too rational for my liking (he criticised astrology and homeopathy both of which I support). Funnily enough, Wheen was interviewed on the ABC’s Radio National’s Late Night Live program with Philip Adams and which I listened to on Radio Australia in Timor. I thoroughly enjoyed the interview, more so than I probably would have done from Australia simply because I was absolutely sick to death of reading and hearing about Timorese traditional cultural beliefs and practices which to my mind are mostly irrational and often life threatening!

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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