Everyday I’m reminded that my experience in Timor is so different than your ‘classic’ expat experience. I suppose it’s the geography, the strange intermediate location that we occupy, close to Singapore, Jakarta, and Darwin, Australia (which as far as I can tell is like the tropic equivalent of Anchorage, Alaska). For example, playing on the beach Sunday with a group of orphans, we pulled out about half a dozen packets of cookies for snack time. Some were from Indonesia, most were from Singapore, and some were from Australia. My Australian friends were eating the same brands of cookies (“biscuits”) that they grew up with at home. The sheer variety of cookies. I can even get very legit tasting Oreos here, from Jakarta.
Timor is a recycling point for all of Asia. Aside from taxis from Ulaan Battor and Shanghai, the island has been inundated with “charity” from Christian and philanthropic organizations across the region. During the emergency, the clothes being shipped in by the ton were from Australia mostly. But now most all clothes come from Hong Kong or Singapore. Perhaps they are not donated. Who knows. Anyways, they are sold on the street in the district towns and on the side streets in Dili at great profit. Needless to say, I will stock up on Cantonese boy scout uniforms before returning.
Another strange thing as an expat here is the closeness you can feel to the “outside,” watching satellite TV, recycling the Dunkin Donuts plastic bag over a million times (and eating pretty good imitations at the Lucky Cake House), and corresponding over email. But some seemingly small things help foster a sense of deprivation and isolation. For example, having to scavenge newspapers – reading the Guardian weekly over two weeks late (and it is like a gem in any case!). And the telecommunications situation at the moment is atrocious. It costs more to call Timor from Australia than any other place in the world. And Timor is not yet “reachable” from the U.S. Try your operator and ask if +67 is working yet!
On top of all of this is the bizarre everyday reality of being surrounded by military and police from all around the world. Mostly I run into them on the weekend mornings, especially the Balkan guys, sitting and drinking coffee for three hours. Sometimes they nearly run into me on my bike, with their enormous troop carriers, buses, and jeeps. Most are armed at all times. The military men are pretty obvious even when rarely in civilian clothes. And the Australians are forced to carry handguns with them even when not on duty. One night we saw two Australian women dancing with their guns slung on their hip like some kind of accessory. Needless to say, Timorese men find women on bikes a turn on, so I’m sure those ladies got a lot of attention.
One thing I can’t help but notice is that a lot of the military observers, not the peacekeepers, but the observers attached to the peacekeeping mission… guys paid big bucks to go and smoke cigarettes with village heads and ask about disturbances… these guys come from places of extreme turmoil. Here they all have pot-bellies and save up money to take their families to Disneyworld.
One table last week of big-bellied coffee drinking military consisted of the following nationalities: Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Philippines. All countries recently experienced extreme unrest or long bloody civil wars. For these men, I can only assume, East Timor is like dying and going to heaven.