Around six oclock the kids living in the shacks across from the shiny UN Agency building come out with their military action figures, cars on leads, and make-shift soccer balls and take over the streets. The sun starts to go down over the hills behind the UN building. Men lean against the food stall, smoking, drinking and watching the foreigners trickle out of the building like the condensation off of their beers. There is a feeling of ease, of relaxation to this time of day. Nighttime is either pious or raucous. The day is just too hot to breathe, to think about anything but shade. 6pm is the hour when it is cool enough and light enough to do whatever you want. A girl was reading today, intently, unmolested on her front porch, as the neighborhood kids streamed by. What might seem a common sight, but inspired such a feeling of tranquility.
Finding a taxi, not surprisingly, at this hour is quite difficult. Everybody is headed home to enjoy the delicious interval between work and darkness. I often stand for 5 minutes waiting for an empty taxi to pass. Drivers are more talkative at this hour, always testing my Tetum, wanting to know where I’m from and what I think of Osama Bin Laden. If I had my way I would lose myself in the blur of rust and banana leaves, and breathe in the cool air.
I often find myself most incredulous that I live in East Timor during these taxi rides. Walking I’m too busy balancing fight or flight instincts. On a bicycle it’s just constant reflex following. Nothing more. But in a car going 20 miles per hour where communication with the driver is exhausted 2 minutes into a 15 minute ride, there’s time to look up, notice the range of blues the sky or look down and see the inescapable brown of poverty.
Certain moments I recognize how desensitized to poverty I’ve become. Brown kids playing in dirt, half-naked, surrounded by mangy animals. The only clean part of their landscape are the arching waxy banana tree leaves, that channel water down their long spines every afternoon. The walls, the floors, the clothes, the food stay dirty. Clean means impermanent – bleach whitens, but it destroys. These kids may be clean, but only once every other day or once a week. Their legs are covered with intermittent sores, their mouths occasionally fully of dry ramen noodles or steamed rice.
Walls are going up everywhere in Dili. The most shocking – at least to the foreign eye – is one across the street from the “best” restaurant in Dili, Delicious Blue, known for its Mediterranean ambience. We sit eating french toast drizzled in maple syrup tapped in Vermont, remarking at the ugly face of inequality: walls. This particular wall, about a foot deep and four meters high, currently a cement color, now surrounds a weed-filled yard, formerly grazing grounds for goats and horses, right in the middle of town.
The first thing somebody does now when they resolve a land claim, it seems, is to put up a wall. Now the whole Dili beach-front road from the Port to the Christ-statue road is just one fence after another. Some chain-link, some just below eye level, and some iron bars. Security and fence building seem to be the biggest growth area in Dili.
More and more in the local population, we see wealth accumulation in the form of nice shoes, cars, motorbikes, and various house improvements including paint, and windows. Timorese with fancy mobile phones, eating at overpriced restaurants. Slightly poorer people accumulate wealth and buy heaps of household and universally needed items like crackers, candles, shampoos, and drinks to sell outside of their houses. But those who can do even this are very small in number. Most carry what the have to sell tied hanging from a bamboo rod. Usually fish, greens and fruits.