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

The mysteries of mikrolets

Head down, I clamber into the mikrolet, one of the owner-operated mini-vans that trawl Dili all day for passengers. The only spare seat’s at the far end of a thin bench, one of two that run down either side. Clutching my day pack to my chest, I aim my toe at a sliver of floor between 12 pairs of shoes and push my way through a thicket of knees. The bench stops inches from the back wall. When I finally sit down, a bit of me hangs over the edge, my hair brushes the ceiling and my feet are propped on the spare tyre lying in the aisle.

It’s midday and I feel like I’ve walked into a crowded sauna. Workers are heading home for lunch and the afternoon shift of students is replacing the morning one. The air freshener sachets hanging from the ceiling look as wilted as the passengers. No one’s talking although we’re close enough for a group hug.

The trusty No 10 mikrolet

The trusty No 10 mikrolets get me from A to B.

The mikrolets are the closest thing Dili has to a public transport system. Continue reading