Driving down the ‘main street’ of Dili, past the crossroads which to the right goes to the university and the parliament (fatefully facing each other), and to the left is the scorched hulk of Hello Mister. Looking through a 10 cm strip of non-tinted glass in the taxi windshield, between the dangling chain of unidentifiable stuffed-animals dangling from suction-cups, I spot two Chinese guys squatting on their heels in front of a tarp covered in two kinds of shoes. They are hawking shoes recently hauled across the border.

“Shoes,” I said, trying to gauge the driver’s reaction.

“They must have lots of shoes in America,” he said. “Good shoes, not like these.”

“Yeah,” I said, “They all come from Indonesia though!”

I just thought of how strange this was.  A pair of fairly rotten tennis shoes here will cost you $20. In America, if you go bargain shopping, you can find a quite good pair of tennis shoes for $30. They both come from Indonesia, right next door. Why doesn’t Timor get good shoes for a cheaper price?

I suppose it’s what the market will bear. Here there are not a lot of shoe buyers (more flip-flop buyers). The new-shoe buyers are most likely interested in image above all else here. Being the first shoe-wearer on the block. Customer satisfaction and quality just does not exist in a place like this. Everything is pirated, made as cheaply as possible and there is no such thing as brand loyalty.

In America there is a vast market for shoes. We demand quality, because we still remember when good shoes were made in Mexico, England and America. Image matters, but we would never accept the same rubber and plastic detritus that sells here. And we demand low prices. The race to the bottom.

In East Timor, we only have a couple of boats a week and a couple of smugglers on the streets a week. So we are getting the dregs from China and Surabaya, but not the rock bottom prices.  A cycle of misery and heaps of 3-month old, destroyed shoes.


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