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

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

The trouble with travel

Every day in Dili is hotter than the last. The wind gets up in the afternoon and clouds gather over the burnt hills, only to disperse. It’s late in the dry season, no rain for months. My skirt sticks to my legs like gladwrap. Dust coats the trees, the furniture, my feet. Even the sky looks like it could do with a mop.

A shack perched on the burnt hills of Dili at the end of the dry season

A hut perched on a barren Dili hillside late in the dry season.

And yet, after four weeks in the United States visiting our son Liam and his fiancée Aurora, it’s good to be back. No high-rise buildings or the roar of six-lane freeways. No designer clothes stores. No neon lights. Just streets full of people, beat-up taxis, skinny dogs, kids galore. Good-natured chaos interspersed with pockets of progress and, sometimes, desperation. Continue reading

A day dallying in Dili

6am: It’s dark when Pat and I leave home to walk up the hill behind our house. The roosters are already in full throttle and there’s a welcome coolness to the air. We scramble up a rocky path, past silent shacks, in time to see the sky turn orange above the hills of Cristo Rei. In the harbour below, container ships wait to unload almost everything Timor consumes, including rice from Vietnam, eggs from Singapore and clean water from Indonesia. Not much goes the other way.

Sunrise over Dili harbour

Sunrise over Dili harbour

Continue reading

Times are a-changin’

I was looking forward to getting back to Timor third time round. I’d met family I never knew at a reunion in New Zealand and hugged my grandkids till they couldn’t stand it. It was time to see Pat and friends, pick up my English teaching and Tetun learning, start writing again. Instead I got off the plane with a First World stomach bug and spent the first week in a disoriented fug.

Ants join forces to carry off bits of our house.

Ants join forces to carry off bits of our house to make one of their own.

As I lay on the couch feeling sorry for myself, two welts appeared on my stomach, souvenirs of an adventurous ant. In his Jitters from the Critters post last year, Pat described ants as ‘tolerable’. That must have been before the invasion. Continue reading

Follow the money

Soon after Pat and I arrived in Timor, we travelled to Aileu, about three hours out of Dili. After lunch at one of the town’s two restaurants, I handed the waitress a $20 note. She pointed to the year and gave it back. ‘La diak,’ she said. No good. Bewildered, I pulled out another $20. Same year, same response.

We rustled up enough change to pay for the meal but that took all our cash. To be honest, we hadn’t really thought about funds for the trip. Our accommodation and transport were covered and food was the only cost.

Then it dawned on me. There’s no way to get money in Aileu. No ATM machines. No banks. No cheque facilities. No postal service for that matter. Fortunately the local World Vision office swapped our suspect notes for ones we could use. If we’d been tourists, I don’t know what we’d have done.

Pulsa boys on a Dili street corner.

Pulsa boys on a Dili street corner.

Timor’s a strictly cash economy. The implications of this are hard to comprehend if you’re used to flashing the plastic. Here, you need real money for everything, from a 50 cent pile of garlic to an $80 doctor’s visit.

There’s no billing or internet banking. We buy cellphone top-up cards from the pulsa boys who occupy every street corner, purchase  pre-paid electricity vouchers and refill the gas bottle we use for cooking when it’s empty. All these transactions require cash. In a city of 200,000 people, only a handful of top retailers have EFTPOS or credit card facilities.

Our monthly volunteer allowance gets paid into an ANZ bank account. We have a card to withdraw money from one of the four ATM machines in Dili. It’s not unusual for three to be out of action, a poor show for a bank making record profits of A$500 million a month in the Asia-Pacific region.

Continue reading