Talking to Attorney friend over a gin and tonic in my backyard Sunday evening, a gecko fell from the corrugated metal roofing above onto the ground next to me. A hollow “blap.” As geckos do, she sat there still for a while, probably trying to remember her name — “teki” in Tetum. I thought maybe she had died of fright. I didn’t want Attorney to know that I had lost the direction of the conversation over poor little Teki. But it was a moment of doubt, for I had never seen tekis fall like that before. They are ubiquitous. The silent witnesses to everything in Timor, stuck faithfully to every surface, irrespective of g-forces and slickness. They cling. They never fall. Moments later, after a couple of missed syllables from Attorney, she skittered off trying to orient herself on the new plane she found herself on.
Certain images I meant to share here from Saturday morning. First a disclaimer, no trip west, only a trip east to the grocery store. A disappointment, but it seems with no car or mobile phone, no escape from Dili was possible. Next week I’m renting a car if I have to. On the way to thrilling grocery store, I passed an old white Kijang (the third world equivalent of the SUV) passed. A serene nun in grey habit sitting in the passenger’s seat. And the green cross of an ambulance painted on the hood. Nun EMTs. Something about the thought of nuns handling crisis, working as EMTs seemed comical to me. Although I know its no joke. They were heading back to the Motael Clinic, the once famous spot offering medical care with no threat of interference by Indonesians. The famous footage of the bleeding victims of the November 12, massacre in Santa Cruz Cemetary was taken there. Now, no such adrenaline or call to action for the nuns, who now prescribe vitamins and tylenol to women in menopause and antibiotics for teenagers with the flu.
The large German ferry for Oecussi, Timor’s small enclave on the Western side of the island, was docked at the port. I couldn’t help but noticing how ‘first world’ the boat looked. A neat row of seats up on the second deck. A nice white, metal exterior. It was nicer than the ferry that crosses the Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro. The ferry was the first real “life-line” to natives of Oecussi who were literally stranded there after they became part of an independent nation surrounded by still-hostile Indonesia. The UN provides daily flights, but for those with the social literacy to be able to con their way onto the planes. Many Oecussians were cut off from their relatives for a year and a half, until the ferry service started. The East Timorese idea of subsidy for the boat involves charging foreigners over 10 times the local price. So a round-trip of maybe 100 miles costs $80 for ‘us.’
I’ve never been to Oecussi, but last week I came home and there was a fascinating conversation in between my Patron academic and a very energetic Yale PhD student in Forestry, who is living in the enclave, documenting the local resource-conservation practices. Not being an anthropologist, but all the same interested in humans and their relationship to trees, Forestry Student told some amazing tales about the Portuguese in Oecussi. Including stories of human slavery and 17th century labor practices used until the 1950s on palm tree plantations in the enclave. One particularly memorable tale was about the wife of the palm tree plantation manager, who apparently required 24-hr banana-leaf fanning, a la Cleopatra. There were two Oecussians dedicated to this duty until well into the 1950s.
The rest of Saturday was spent teaching orphans how to do can-openers and cannonballs in the Australian embassy pool, and afterwards drinking beer watching a poor VCD copy of Shanghai Knights with Queen of the Weekend and our outrageous Timorese friend who will go by Tzar of the Weekend. Tzar speaks an Australian English which is often spit out with such gusto and speed that I cannot understand a word. His gestures and dress could be described as more hip-hop than Euro. His wife and children (who are Timorese-Australian) are living in Darwin, and he is waiting for his permanent residence status. In the meantime, Tzar spends his time biking around Dili with us, playing with orphans, staying out late and generally living up to his title, Tzar. Queen of the Weekend recounted their trip to the western districts, where Tzar had never set foot before, but where people constantly stopped him to greet and honor him. It seems Tzar’s Cape Verdean patriarch is quite famous in those parts.
Sunday morning, while should have been spent nursing hangover from the night spent trying to escape bumbling Portuguese peacekeepers and sloppy-drunk Timorese men, was spent holding a “conversational english” class for the family of a driver at work. Commandante, the ex-guerilla driver (who has a lot of Indonesian connections for a resistance hero — another story), nagged me all week to speak English for an hour and a half with a group of youth from his neighborhood. Turns out ‘youth’ includes people well into their thirties, and two extremely juvenile, embarrassed young ladies. It was like high school French. First question: what did you do this weekend? Response: Sleep.
The graphic, truly repulsive graffiti on the filthy schoolroom walls brought me to the topic of manners and politeness, respect for authority, etc. Sounds like a boring topic, but I think the discussion revolving around “Are your parents strict or relaxed?” generated some interest. Then we moved into the universally important and amusing topic of in-laws. I come to the conclusion that I did “en francais” in high school, that some people have potential and others just don’t. I don’t want to be “mean” (word explained at length) but I just think others are better off trying to gain another skill. Maybe I’ll create varsity and junior varsity teams for next week.