Dark clouds have begun to gather in the increasingly humid afternoons around the mountains behind Dili. Evidence that we’re moving from the blustery dry season to the sticky wet season. An outsider like me could easily be fooled by the increasingly humidity and the dark clouds. It’s only September 20, it could be months before the first real downpour.
My temperate imagination goes wild in this equatorial setting. I want to know “when.” When will this amazing change occur. When do the hills turn green? When will I need to maintain a second skin of mosquito repellent? Who knows anything about seasons? About months? The change to the wet season is to these people like the turning of the leaves, it will happen in some appropriate time. There is no date or month. They just turn.
Never have I felt the urge so much to “stay” inside here. Being in outdoors here I associate with freezing or sweating. Freezing in air conditioned offices, or sweating in an unventilated room. But today, somehow, I feel this tired fear of leaving, and inability to prioritize what it is that needs to be done. What should I do? There are heaps of things to choose from. I myself have many ideas.
But knowing how everything is after four weeks has this effect of slowing you down, of silencing you. I know how my stomach is, what café serves what sandwich. Where should I go for a fruit smoothie or an elegant cup of tea, or a good gado-gado or the best indian food. Where the movies are shown on Sunday night. Where the beaches are, and when to go and who with. I know where I want to live, who I want to work for, and why I want to do it. I know I should take an hour nap in the late afternoon everyday. And yet I feel this incapacity to act, this fatigue with the way things work. With transportation, with food, with the derision of people around me towards my whitewomanhood.
I know strategically how much time I have here to achieve what I want. I know how much money (or how little money) I have to do it. I know how the money will disappear, on what and approximately what rate. And yet I have the distinct feeling that maybe I just want to stay here and watch, observe with no commitments, to write and to try to battle constantly the big questions. Why am I here? Because it’s interesting? Because I’m useful? Because I feel a certain fateful solidarity with these people who are tired of white people and tired of uppity women? Maybe there is a part of me that likes the excessive reserve of Timorese culture. I like that they wait for you to make your own mistakes. I like that they let you figure things out yourself. I am learning to become more respectful and to withhold comment myself.
After all, what is known in present company at any given moment that goes unsaid? Did you know that my father was beheaded in front of my eyes? Need I tell you that? You can figure out the depth of things here yourself, level by level, piece by piece. That café, it was a torture center. That street corner, that is where they took my brother away. That church, that is where Xanana hid when he came down from the mountains to communicate with the world more easily.
It’s not stoicism, this Timorese way of never offering seemingly important information. It’s just an acknowledgement that there is too much important information, and that maybe to offer one piece would be to open oneself up to a long and arduous release of information. Perhaps this is why the UN’s control of information here is so complete, offering tid-bit by tid-bit from a propaganda-spewing press office. Because people here understand the mentality of not offering information. It is their way. Investigation, inquiry, and challenge are not “foreign” concepts, but they are clearly a non-socialized way of operating, a way of operating far – perhaps too far from the social sphere.
Aside from its complex and guarded people, how do I begin to describe this place? For one, it is dusty. There is a three inch layer of grey dust here along the gutters in the streets. Walking in sandals is to tint one’s feet a mole-brown color only half an hour into the day. The sidewalks, where not completely destroyed (and where they exist in the first place), follow a strange design, with huge holes every twenty yards into a non-moving sewage system. The effects of this, during the day, are to cause an odd, s-curve like trajectory. At night the effects are slightly more dramatic, because with no street lamps, a walk on the sidewalk is to invite a natsy-not-so Wonderlandish tumble into one of these aforementioned holes.
The streets, I must stay, are bustling with life. More so than 8 months ago. Buildings that were boarded up and beginning to be occupied by mostly Timorese tenants. Rennovations are going on at what I consider a break-neck pace on my street, which was the headquarters of the Aitarak militia, and hence one of the most dramatically destroyed. But there are still whole neighborhoods of public buildings and tracts full of private residences that are mere wreckage. The UN did not bother to fix up the majority of public buildings here, instead bringing these portable box-offices with airconditioning built-in. In fact, the best — and quickest — renovations of public buildings were done at the East Timorese university UNTIM, sponsored by Portugal.
The hills above Dili, which form a ubiquitous part of the “urban” landscape, are dry, almost outback-red. There are whole swaths with sinewy white gums hanging on, holding together the parched hills until the rainy season. There is no water in any of the city’s riverbeds, so they serve as motorbike conduits and gravel sources for construction. The beachfront has been “cleaned out” of hut-like dwellings that assembled around the fishmarket, in the shadow of the floating hotel, which remains. Apparently drugs and sex were bought and sold in these desperate corrugated shacks.
The central marketplace has likewise been shutdown, and I must say there probably isn’t a foreign women that is shedding a tear about that. Walking through there was like walking the gauntlet. People would openly call out insults to you, rub up against you just for the sake of “touching” you or exacting some power over you. People would ruthlessly rip you off and laugh about it. There was an extremely sinister feel to the place. Two markets have been formed in the fission of the Mercadu Sentral: each on opposing outlying neighborhoods. To me they seem less sinister, but I hear that drugs are available there and that the same trades that brought the negative ambience to the Central market have just moved there.
There are heaps of “western” and Asian supermarkets here, all with an astonishing diversity of products and prices for those products. You’ll find that in one supermarket artichoke hearts become comparatively cheaper than tunafish, or that buckwheat soba will be cheaper than lentil beans. Cooking is a crap-shoot. If you have a stove (which I do not at the moment), and the proper cooking equipment, it can be a quite satisfying experience. But to cook exactly what you want, or what you’re craving, will probably be more expensive than just going out for a cheap, simple meal.
I have an ATM card supposedly coming from Melbourne any day now, for use in one of two Australian machines in the city. Unfortunately, the ATM will not be receiving any deposits any time soon, and the novelty of taking money out and taking money out and taking money out may soon wear out.
Communications is still quite easy, but expensive. Mobile phones are the method, and most people have this new habit of text-messaging each other. Those who are new at it show a 7th-grade glee at being able to share whiticisms (or low, cliquish gossip) over an electronic screen. Internet access is difficult, and extremely expensive for non-NGO customers. Telstra, the Aussie Telcom provider here, provides internet access with some kind of bizarre satellite feed.
Transport is still quite a hassle, as I have yet to buy or find a bike which I can use, and distances on foot can be quite long especially in the midday sun. Taxis are ridiculous rat-traps blasting horrible Indonesian pop music or poorly-recorded reggae covers. Giving directions, even if I were fluent in Tetum would be a frustration, as nobody knows any street names.
People use landmarks to give directions. But everything has been burned and changed in the past two years, and the UN is constantly moving offices and hotels and restaurants are constantly opening or closing. Public parks or memorials, which are quite common here and would be easy landmarks to reference for taxi drivers, are mostly filled with ghastly Indonesian public art, proclaiming the liberation of the Timorese from Portugal, and people long ago stopped paying any note to them.
Security, meaning night-time security, is the biggest limiting factor to my movements. For example, if I want to meet somebody for dinner after dark, finding a taxi first of all becomes difficult. Secondly it’s just not recommended to hop into a taxi at night alone. Western women are the prey of frustrated or criminal East Timorese men, there is no nice way of putting it. What this means, then, is either stay in a friendly spot with the possibility of food, or have a coke at home for dinner.
There are pet-animals here everywhere, at in varying stages of disease and distress. Timorese people never feed pets, and most, even restaurant pets, suffer from malnutrition or bad infections. It’s quite sad. It is quite unique to see a healthy coat on a dog or a cat. There are goats and sheep everywhere. Interestingly, the distinction between goats and sheep is similar to the distinction between foreigners and locals. A goat, “bibi timor”, is a timorese goat. A sheep, an introduced species, with now hardly any resemblance to the wolly cousins in New Zealand, looks like a bibi timor, but has an up-turned tail. This distinction makes it a “bibi malay,” meaning a foreign goat. Pigs are everywhere, mostly sloughing around in the drainage canals along the main streets.
Chickens run wild in villages outside of Dili, and let me say that I never really understood the “Why did the chicken cross the road?” jokes until now. Driving the main thoroughfares of East Timor, one loses so much time dodging chickens in their passionate, last minute dives across the road. Here the rule is that if you run over it, you pay for it on the spot. Roosters, or cocks, are carried around by older men in the city from place to place with much respect, as a successful fighting cock can bring more fortune to a man than most day jobs.
My paranoia towards mosquitos seems to have been tamed by the dry season. I have no functioning mosquito defense shield for the nights, and find myself applying much less toxic deet-gel than I did last time I was here. I feel less under attack, and as I am staying in a fairly “dengue-free” neighborhood, I don’t worry about it so much. The phrase “cerebral malaria” entered my vocabulary today, not without some rethinking of how seriously I take the mosquito problem.
The water and sanitation situation is still the same. Most people try to keep a tank of water full in the washrooms. This serves as water to flush the toilet (however toilet-like that may be) and water to throw on yourself for a shower. Most neighborhoods who have reliable power are able to keep up water pressure.
It’s hard to categorize people into neat groups, but I think the first distinction to make is male-female. Walking down the street I rarely come into contact with women. They rarely say hi with any energy or intent. Little girls are likely to scream Hello Mrs, or Hello Mister with a shy smile or a wave.
Males, who are the constant company on the streets, are divided in to boys and men. Then they are further subdivided by attitude. Younger boys are probably going to be less nasty and teasing. Often they will scream Hello like their female counterparts, or just mercifully let me pass in peace. However, those hardened street kids who hustle their “security” services to car and motorbike owners or aggressively sell cartons of cigarettes late at night are bound to pick-up a vaguely sexually-inflected derision for white women. Boys in their early teens on, excepting a few stoic, honorable young men, tend to view me as a toy, available to ridicule or comment at their leisure.
I can feel myself hardening everyday, and am trying to take measures to prevent myself from walking around with a Robocop-ish countenance. I’ve taken strange solace in the indie-rocker/hip-hopper technique of walking around in a complete haze of headphones and internal observation. Today I recovered my minidisc man from my suitcase and was pleased to find it functioning, and that moreover, the electronic mix that I had made with drum and bass, apocolyptic dirges, Bjork and Blonde Redhead is unscathed. It is my only music for the moment, but enough to block out the boyish propositions around me on the streets.