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?

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Grandfather Ramelau

Timor’s highest mountain, Ramelau, stands at an impressive 2963m, higher than New Zealand’s Mount Ruapehu. It’s revered by the Timorese as shown by its local name Tatamailau, which means ‘grandfather of all’. Fortunately, you can get most of the way up in a grunty 4WD if you have a stomach for bad corners. In mid-August, we climbed to the top to see the sunrise with fellow VSAers Del, Tony and Julia. Click on the first photo for a slide show of our trip, including a shopping expedition at the Maubisse market on the way home.

PS Dili Dally will be on hold for a few weeks while we’re in Boston visiting our son Liam and his fiancee Aurora. We’ll be back in October.

Until then, haree dalan/take care


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.

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Banshees in Baucau

The Aussie girl’s arm was still swollen. A few days earlier, she’d been bitten by a giant centipede while she slept at the Pousada, the imposing pink hotel built during Portuguese times in Baucau. She’d woken screaming and seen it scuttle away. It was about 10 inches long, she said.

Baucau's pink Pousada built by the Portuguese in the 1950s

Baucau’s pink Pousada, built by the Portuguese in the 1950s, has a sad history as a place of Indonesian torture.

The young woman’s Timorese colleagues extracted some of the centipede’s venom, then took her to hospital. Continue reading

A room of my own

I landed back in Dili last week with the blues. New Zealand is to blame. Our grandkids were too beautiful, our families and friends too hospitable, the food too good, the colours too vibrant. Even Wellington’s lousy summer didn’t really get me down. I’ve had lots of hot. It was a novelty to put on jackets and jeans and not douse myself in insect repellent. I loved the wild beaches, the wind on my face, clean streets, plumbing that works, the comfort of belonging.

Three reasons why it was so hard leaving NZ: our grandchildren (from left) Avah, Rome and Jet.

Three reasons why it was so hard to leave New Zealand again: our grandchildren (from left) Avah, Rome and Jet at the gun emplacements on Matiu/Somes Island on a rare glorious Wellington day.

In the month we were home, Timor faded away. Continue reading

Christmas in Timor

Christmas is a big deal in Catholic Timor. On the side of the road In every village and neighbourhood, young people build Prezepiu (Nativity scenes) that include life-size religious figures, coloured lights and music. Once the Prezepiu is completed, they guard it round the clock until 6 January, proudly welcoming visitors, photographs and contributions.

Church, family, food, singing and dancing are the staple ingredients of Christmas Day here, with thousands of people travelling from Dili to their home districts on rickety buses and motorbikes.

Tomorrow we join the exodus home to family and friends in New Zealand. Thanks to all of you who have followed our blog this year. We greatly  appreciate your interest, comments and support. We’ll be spending a month recharging our batteries before returning to Timor towards the end of January 2014. In the meantime, click through these photos that capture the spirit of Christmas in Dili.

Feliz Natal/Happy Christmas

Pip and Pat