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

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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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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

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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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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