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

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.

Cousin Agapito and other stories

Agapito Martins leaned back in his blue plastic chair and proudly pointed to his shiny tin roof, a sign of his new prosperity. He and other villagers are doing well from a World Vision project which includes cultivating and selling mahogany, teak and citrus seedlings. Seventeen households have pitched in to set up a plant nursery outside Agapito’s home where the seedlings are planted out in black plastic bags full of rich earth.

Agapito with a small basket of orange seeds that will be transferred to the nursery behind him.

Agapito with a small basket of orange seeds that will be transferred to the nursery behind him.

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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.

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Tour de Timor speed wobbles

Last Monday  I got up early to watch the start of the Tour de Timor, ‘the world’s toughest bike race’ according to the Lonely Planet. As the sun rose over Dili harbour, a bunch of cyclists in bright lycra tops lined up in front of the Governor’s Palace. A small group of spectators, mostly malae (foreigners), gathered to send them on their way.

Start

Cyclists line up in Dili for the start of the Tour de Timor.

Chris Manson, the only Kiwi in this year's Tour de Timor

Chris Manson, the only Kiwi in this year’s race.

The first 60 or so competitors took off in a bunch, including the only New Zealander, VSA volunteer Chris Manson. Later, I was surprised to read that a third of the group rode under the Timor flag – there didn’t seem to be that many locals taking part.

When the last 30 cyclists, all Timorese, reached the start line, they got off their bikes, brandished them above their heads and placed them upside down on the ground, wheels in the air. One launched into an impassioned speech, then stood motionless, as if in a trance. Continue reading

Stand together. Support your country (Dili billboard)

Today Timor Leste is celebrating 11 years of independence in a blaze of red and yellow bandera (flags).  Yesterday I read that each of its 65 MPs has been given a US$50,000 luxury Toyota Prado, former Justice Minister Lucia Lobato is in jail for corruption and the government has earmarked only 10 per cent of its annual US$1.8 billion budget for health and education. This is in a country where half the children don’t go to school and malnutrition stunts the growth of more than half of all under-fives.

I feel sad and rather naive.  I want to believe this tiny nation of just over a million people who’ve fought so hard to be free can maintain their high ideals in peacetime. Continue reading