Life after Timor

Three months after arriving home in New Zealand:

  • We’ve been surprised at how many people continue to read Dili dally: the number of views is around 30,000 and climbing. Thank you, whoever you are. Obrigada barak.
  • We’ve revived  our communications business, 2Write. Our door is open again for writing, editing and design work, oral histories, publications and workshops.
  • Pat’s building on his Timor experience in a part-time role with VSA, working with returned volunteers.
  • Pip talked at TEDx Wellington Women about the importance of both truth and compassion when we tell stories about real people.

Yes, as much as we miss it, there is life after Timor.

Good-bye, malae

We wrapped up our VSA assignment and left Dili on 1 April. There was no time for a final coffee at Padaria, a snorkel at Back Beach, a spend-up at the tais market, as I’d imagined. Instead, it was a mad rush to finish my Tetun guide to creative writing. Matadalan Hakerek Kreativu evolved into a 140-page book, including four of my students’ stories about women in the Timorese resistance movement, thanks to journalist Nuno Rodriguez who trusted me to teach creative writing in a language I could barely speak. It was the highlight of my time in Timor, a reminder that if you keep the space open, your passion will find you. Here’s more about the guide and the classes.

Giving my first formal speech in Tetun at the launch of the guide was nerve-wracking. The guide was inspired by Nuno on my left. The banner behind us reads, 'I write, I live'.

Launching my Tetun guide to creative writing just before we left Timor was a thrill. Nuno, who inspired me to write the guide, is on my left. The banner behind us reads, ‘I write, I live’.

Guests at the launch check out my Tetun creative writing guide.

Guests at the launch check out the guide, the first of its kind in Tetun.

For me, it was worth the last-minute frenzy to see the guide launched at the Xanana Reading Room two days before we left. But it was tough on Pat who had to lay it out in between handing over two years of work at World Vision, and ferry 150 copies home from the printer on his scooter an hour before our farewell party.

Some people we’ve met while we’ve been away will be lifelong friends, others we may never see again. Development workers are a transitory lot, trundling through Timor like an escalator before scattering around the globe.

World Vision boss Samaresh (left) looks on as Pat cuts his farewell cake, draped in a beautiful tais cloth given him by his co-workers.

Pat, draped in a traditional woven tais from his colleagues, cuts his farewell cake at World Vision. His boss, Samaresh, looks on.

The Timorese must be weary of saying good-bye to malae (foreigners, pronounced ma-lie), but they do it with grace. At Pat’s farewell lunch at World Vision, his boss Samaresh and co-workers praised his softly, softly approach. He gets alongside people and makes them believe in themselves. He has transformed the organisation’s communications. They’ve signed up more Kiwi volunteers.

Monik presents me with a tais at my farewell as coordinator of free English evening classes.

Monik, who recently won a scholarship to the Dili International School, presents me with a farewell tais.

A hundred students from the English evening classes I’ve coordinated put on a farewell party for me. One had written a song, another a poem. There were speeches and food. I got so many tais they had to start hanging them around Pat’s neck.

Some of the students who

Free English evening classes are a hit with Timorese students, pictured here at my farewell.

Leaving these bright young folk was a wrench, aggravated by the nagging question, will we ever return? Family, friends and familiarity pull you home. But what takes you back to a place that’s not your own?

Already, Timor’s fading. I can picture myself walking along the river road past kids in fluoro school uniforms, pigs rooting in rubbish, palm fronds splayed against the sky like tarantulas. But the sounds and smells are elusive and it’s hard to conjure up the stickiness in the face of Wellington’s autumn chill.

I miss the warmth of Timor, both her climate and people. I miss the babble of languages and the thrill of speaking strange sounds that other people understand. I miss the sense of purpose. It takes a long time to make a difference but the need is clear and the locals are remarkably tolerant of our attempts.

I miss the simplicity. VSA found us an apartment and provided an instant community. Our motor scooter cost $2.50 a week to run. We cooked on a two-ring gas burner. There’s nothing to buy. For Pat and me, it was like a second honeymoon, free of the ties that have tugged us this way and that for as long as I can remember.

Oh, and I miss being tall.

On our way home, we stopped in Oz for a couple of weeks to visit friends and re-adjust to credit cards and motorways. It was great to debrief with fellow volunteer and Dili neighbour Julia who has gone on to work in Alice Springs. Sharing resettlement qualms with those who haven’t been there is harder.

Former VSA volunteer Julia and I reunite in the Aussie outback.

Julia and I reunite in the Aussie outback.

People ask, are you pleased to be home?  It feels like a test, my ‘yes’ or ‘no’ a judgement  on their choices as much as my own. I don’t want to turn it into a competition. There’s so much to love about New Zealand. Sausages cooked over an open fire with the grandkids. Sisters. Crisp salads. Rinsing my toothbrush under the tap. DKNY perfume, not Dili DEET.

Pat dispenses sausages and grandfatherly nonsense at Kaitoke River on a beautiful autumn day.

Pat dispenses sausages and tales of Timor at Kaitoke River to a rapt audience of grandchildren.

But the First World doesn’t have all the answers. It’s taken over a month for our unaccompanied luggage to get from Auckland to Wellington, and nearly three weeks to get internet connected. No one just sits. And  I’ve passed more homeless people begging in central Wellington than I ever saw in Asia’s poorest country.

Would we volunteer again? Another two-year stint’s unlikely. Our youngest grandchild was three when we left; he’s just started school. That’s a lot of cuddles to miss out on. But if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that the line between staying and going is not as rigid as I thought. After 30 years in the same house, you can pack up, head off, return, and the sky stays put. More scary, in fact, is how little changes. You’re not even sure if you have.

Pat’s going to build on the experience by working part-time for VSA, connecting returned volunteers. I’m not sure what the future holds for me. Before we set off, my big bro Matt, who’s helped out in Asia for 25 years, said living in a new culture would renew our feeling of awe: both awe-some and awe-ful. He was right. The challenge is to maintain the same sense of wonder here, at home, in the awe-dinary .

This is our last Dili Dally blog. A big thank-you to all our readers for your interest and support. You can still find us at 2Write, our communications business.

If you live in Wellington and want to know more about Timor, please come along to Exploring Timor-Leste, an exhibition of craft, photographs, paintings, music and stories. It’s running at the Thistle Hall at the top of Cuba Street until Sunday 10 May.

Obrigada barak


Fish on a stick

Last Sunday, Pat and I went snorkelling at Back Beach behind the Jesus statue, as we’ve done on many a Sunday morning in the last two years. Later, we wandered around to the next bay. A high stone wall has appeared on the cliff edge. It won’t be long before the view of Atauro Island is commandeered by whichever ema boot (big-wig) is building a house on that beautiful spot.

The beaches and hills of Dili have soothed our souls during our two-year stint.

The beaches and hills of Dili have sustained us during our two-year stint. You can see the Jesus statue (Cristo Rei) at the end of the point, and Atauro Island in the distance.

Behind us work had begun on a five-star tourist resort; across the water, new dirt roads zigzagged over the hills, heralding more exclusive development. We agreed that we’ve been lucky to be in Timor at this time. A time of optimism, in spite of all its problems. A peaceful time, sandwiched between the turmoil of the past and the creeping inequality that casts a shadow over the future. Continue reading

Down among the women

‘How old are you?’ asked the hairdresser. She was Indonesian, like nearly all hairdressers in Dili. I was the only customer. The power had gone out which meant a cold wash and no blow dry. Never mind. A young Timorese assistant hovered nearby with an older Chinese woman, perhaps the owner.

Still working: our landlord's mother sweeps our yard with a traditional broom.

Still working: our landlord’s mother sweeps the yard with a traditional broom.

‘Fifty-nine,’ I said, although the $10 haircut had made me look much younger – like about six. There were small gasps. ‘You are very healthy,’ the young Timorese woman said, as if it was a miracle that I was still out and about. And to her it may have been. Older women are rarely seen on the streets of Dili. They age before their time; by their late sixties, most are dead.

I hope these women – who wear sarongs, chew betel nuts that stain their mouths red, and have survived two and sometimes three occupations of their country – are treated well. I know I am. As an older malae woman, I’ve received nothing but respect in Timor. It starts with hello, which is big in these parts. ’Mana’ – the usual female greeting – is often upgraded to ‘Senora’ or ‘Avo’ (grandmother) in my case. The white hair probably helps.

It’s harder for young malae women, who get pestered and groped, even on their motorbikes. Their freedom seems to bedazzle local boys who are used to girls staying home and doing as they’re told. Continue reading

Wait your patience

After 10 days in the seductive tourist bubble of Bali, I was determined not to succumb to post-holiday blues. We were heading back to Dili for a final three-month fling before life in New Zealand swallows us up again. There wasn’t a moment to waste.

My good intentions lasted as far as the luggage carousel at Presidente Nicolau Lobato airport, named after one of Timor’s resistance heroes. Think Hokitika airport, only shabbier. ‘Finis’, said the airport attendant as I peered hopefully at the empty conveyer belt which had delivered Pat’s bag – and everyone else’s on our flight – but not my little blue suitcase.

Presidente Nicolau Lobato international airport in Dili.

Presidente Nicolau Lobato international airport in Dili: think Hokitika, only shabbier.

We made our way inside the terminal to the office of Sriwijaya Air, an Indonesian airline. A smiley young Timorese man sat behind a glass wall. At the height of his desk, a small semi-circle had been cut out of the glass. To explain my problem, I had to bend down, twist my head and project my voice through this opening. To decipher his muffled reply, I put my ear where my mouth had been, all the time trying to maintain eye contact. It was hard to feel that Sriwijaya wanted to hear from me. Continue reading

Write for Timor

I never expected to end up teaching creative writing in Timor, least of all in the national language, Tetun. But every Wednesday morning for the last six months, I’ve sat in a windowless room in the former Balide prison in Dili doing exactly that with a team of social researchers.

My four male and two female students have interviewed 800 Timorese women about their roles in the 25-year resistance movement. An academic book is in the pipeline. Now their boss, Nuno, a journalist, wants to share the women’s personal stories. When he discovered my oral history and writing background, he asked me to give them a hand.

Members of my creative writing class. From left, clockwise: Nuno, Justin, Alito, Este and Polan.

Members of my creative writing class. From left, clockwise: Nuno, Justin, Alito, Este and Polan.

Enlisting my help was a big leap of faith on Nuno’s part. I have no teaching experience, and running a class in a language I couldn’t speak 20 months ago is, frankly, a challenge. So how does it work?

Continue reading

South to Suai

In mid-November, before the rains came, we set out from Dili over the mountains through Gleno, Ermera, Letefoho, Atsabe, Bobonaro, Zumalai and down to Suai on Timor’s south coast, then back home via Same (pronounced Sah-may), Maubisse and Aileu. With Pat at the wheel of our rented Toyota Landcruiser 4WD, and Kiwi volunteers Del and Tony by our side, we hurtled 500km in four days at an average speed of 20km an hour. Along the way, we encountered dire roads, a harsh landscape, grandiose churches, hardy people, exuberant kids. Not a typical tourist jaunt but another fascinating glimpse into the rural lives of two-thirds of Timor’s people.

Click on the photo gallery below for the full story.