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

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

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

Endangered dream

Tensions in Dili have risen lately. Around 9pm on 24 September two guys on a motorbike went mad with machetes. They slashed several people. One died. Police commander Longhuinos Monteiro put up a message on Facebook, warning everyone in Timor to stay home after dark. He signed it ‘Big hugs and good night’. Somehow this made me feel more vulnerable.

Timor Police Commander Longhuinos Monteiro dances with Prosecutor General Ana Pessoa.

Timor Police Commander Longhuinos Monteiro on the dance floor with Prosecutor General Ana Pessoa.

UN security warnings came out daily. Our landlord added a chain to the padlock on the gate of our family compound. Police set up checkpoints all over the city. They confiscated dodgy motorbikes on the spot and jailed their owners for up to 72 hours if they couldn’t produce the right documents. One VSA volunteer had his bike seized because its exhaust was too noisy. Continue reading

A night at the movies

When I first met Irim Tolentino, I had no idea she was the star of Timor-Leste’s first feature film, A Guerra da Beatriz (Beatriz’s War).

Soon after we arrived here, Pip and I travelled to the town of Maliana, 5 km from the Indonesian border, to look at World Vision’s aid projects. Irim is the associate area manager, managing seven projects and 55 staff, and we arrived just as she was welcoming her new boss.

Irim welcomes World Vision's new area manager in Maliana with a cake.

Irim welcomes World Vision’s new area manager in Maliana with a cake.

She jumped in a ute with us and we drove for miles along a bumpy road next to a concrete-block fence. Continue reading