Back Again

Well, the theory goes that a break away recharges batteries and provides renewed enthusiasm.  Then I try to rationalise my emails (by modem) after the break.  Apparently my biggest friend I have in the world is called “Junk” and to top off my 97% of all emails from “Junk”, the spam farms have successfully found dili-gence.  (I curse the “real money up-front” ISP who “claims” to have spam filters on my incoming mail.)
I may be forced to insist on registration for those keen enough to want to post to dili-gence.  I may even have to study up on how to reduce spam on blog sites.  Maybe I’ll get over it.
Some mates have already told me that everything has pretty much been business as usual – the odd fire, the odd rock fight, the odd canister of tear gas.  It seems I didn’t miss a thing.

The Disenchanted

Before I arrived in Dili, I had a healthy dose of sympathy for the Timorese who had been serially shafted by the Portuguese then the Indonesians.  It didn’t really give them much of a chance to get their house in order.  I never did quite believe the head of the World Bank praising TL as a shining example of how a country could pull itself together.  Nor that the UN was the vehicle bringing on that success.

Then it all came crashing down.  After a few weeks then a few months of continual turmoil, I certainly started losing that sympathetic edge.  Then I noticed the same disenchantment coming from others, then for me it was a definite trend.  A few people mentioned how they noticed that “earnest” edge was being knocked off some of those more dedicated aid/volunteer workers.

Then what convinced me it was no longer to be ignored, was the chat I had with an acquaintance who was seriously questioning with “what’s the point anymore?  … everything I have done here is back to square one … do I just re-start everything again … it will take 10 years before it will feel like progress is being made and I can’t wait that long”.

All I could say was “how was it different to before? … you were always pushing against negative forces … where would it be if you weren’t here at all?”.

Hardly inspirational but this is what holidays to Bali are for.

Holidays, tourism & why ?

Yeah, I did briefly sneak out of Dili a few weeks back to complete my dental stuff, but am now genuinely on a break with no other reason than to do something different and try a new set of batteries.

Bali sounds great but it has fascinated me just how different it feels from earlier in the year when compared to Dili, Bali was like going to the big city.  This time it felt stranger to be going to another Asian country, with similar (perhaps cooler) weather and seaside nearby.  The food and beer is cheaper, the shopping options infinitely greater and no security issues (that I am aware of).

The Bali beaches are wider (but darker and finer sand) and it struck me as curious that one would even want to hire a deck chair and umbrella to go to the beach.  And spend all day turning away watch vendors, wood carving vendors, pedicurists, manicurists, foot massagers, fruit sellers, bracelet floggers and the odd beggar.

You get none of this on a Dili beach (or I don’t).  I can cycle down to the Christo Rei area in Dili, park myself outside “Sol e Mar”, order my fruit juice and camp on the beach with barely a soul to bother me.  I once thought the same thing about beaches on the New South Wales coast of Australia where I used to be almost offended if I (& accompanying group) did not have an entire beach to oneself.

I noticed a few brave souls daring to pooh-pooh convention and stretch out on their own towels – such reactionaries.

Anyway, Dili can do similar things if it tried.  The city beaches are no good but over the other side of Christo Rei, the beaches are better, cleaner and there is no-one around.  But I hope I never see deck chairs on the beach – leave that to hotel pools.

The Banners

Actually, I have been meaning to mention this one for weeks but keep forgetting. For the last month or so, huge banners have been strung across roads around town. The gist of all of them is pretty much “only one Timor” or “Timor ida deit” (in tetun).

They are strung across the road in front of the Palacio do Governu and are now adorning the building itself. They are also adorning the Comorro Bridge and a few other spots around town. I have also seen quite a few fences being used for organised adornment along similar lines – better known as graffiti.

I don’t know who has organised all of this but there is some skilful artwork on display. I should point out that there is an active arts community and “Arte Moris” is probably the best known of the arts based organisations. Arte Moris (Living Art) is based near the airport and has a reasonable gallery of works which are available for sale.

Lick finger, point upwards

Apart from confronting the outskirts of a rock fight last week, I have seen little of the riotous behaviour that has almost become the nightly norm.

The rock fights appear to be gangs targetting selective IDP camps. The chosen weapon is the rock, but there are a few slingshots and lately, the bow and arrow. So from a security point of view, as long as you are 50+ metres from the action, you are unlikely to be involved.

I believe the foreign police have adopted a slightly different strategy now. Rather than hoe in and try to stop it, they are tending to let it run its course until ammunition is exhausted before moving in. I think this is proving a more effective approach for them.

The locations for these fracas is usually IDP camps which include the one across from the Hotel Timor near the port, the one across the road from the Obrigado Barracks, the one at the airport, near the main hospital and near the catholic church in Balide. The fracas 2 nights ago was near the Presidential Palace which I presume is one not that far from the Obrigado Barracks. (If it is indeed the President’s office, then the word palace gives an entirely incorrect impression.)

The point is that one is highly unlikely to come across one of these fights and in general, it will be ringed by foreign police. However, it has slowed the desire to go out at night-time somewhat and the streets are pretty much deserted after dark. And the streets are dark !

So yes, it is probably a good idea that someone has suggested re-instating street lighting as a security measure.

Over the last week, the security forces seem to have put a lid on the nightly fights. Things were deteriorating around a month ago but have improved again over the last week.

At night, the tell-tale sounds of the Blackhawk helicopters are a sure sign of trouble somewhere. They were out for the last 2 nights so I am expecting to found out what was the story for last night.

But as for how to determine whether it is a good time to be going out at night, its pretty much lick your finger, point it upwards and test the air.


I was whizzing down “banana road” yesterday and realised that something was missing.

“Banana Road” is the very expat name for the back road that parallels Comorro Road out the west of town. It starts from around the Vila Verde cathedral, out past Care International and hits semi-rural stuff with lots of bananas by the side of the road until it hits the Comorro River.

But I realised that one of those things that I found very quaint had gone – Mr. Download. Imagine a banana tree lined rough bitumen road with dirt verges and numerous twig huts with banana tree roofs and the sign to Mr.Download’s little computer shop.

Alas, it is no more. No shop and the sign has also gone. Burnt to the ground courtesy of recent events. I have a picture somewhere along with a number of other “computer shops” that I was going to pull together into a photo album. (Note to file : must do !)

Anyway, thats my rambling introduction into computer shops around Dili. Firstly, computer shops DO exist and you can buy computers, printers, paper, printer cartridges, hard disks, network cards, USB mice, external hard drives, cabling etc. I am not sure that it is even possible to buy legal software but you can always buy that over the internet and get it shipped to your … well, if you have an address that is.

Network gear is available with hubs and switches being no problem. Fancier routers are scarce. I imagine big hulking servers with fancy RAID disk arrays may be harder to find. But in general, it is all here. BUT, it is expensive by world standards. Apart from small items and emergencies, most people who can, will get stuff shipped in or bring it in. Bali is cheap enough (eg Rimo Bali Computer Centre in Jalan Diponegoro, Denpasar has 4 floors of computer shops) and probably a better bet than Darwin.

You do have to watch out for warranties, because most of the time, if you buy locally, warranties will not exist. And some of the stuff is clearly older stuff passed on from the rest of the world or I suspect, stuff with a dodgy reliability. I know as I bought a UPS (uninterruptible power supply) locally and it lasted 3 weeks. No warranty, no-one to repair it and no money back. (You will not survive without a UPS if you have a desktop PC and note that you probably only need a voltage regulator for laptops.) I also have my suspicions about the genuine-ness of inkjet cartridges.

In general, Lorosae Computers is said to be the most clueful, Mr. Bram may have the best range (& the surliest staff), Global Computer has often been cheaper if they have what you want and ???? (temporarily forgot) can be cheaper than the others as well. There are a few smaller shops with limited stuff and other general electrical shops that all seem to sell USB keys which must be everyone’s fashion accessory.

My take on security issues

Personal Security

Over the last couple of weeks, there have been instances of expats being targets for projectiles. I think in most cases, the projectile throwers would not have even known the nationality of the target in the dark and behind motorcycle helmets or in 4WDs.

However, the frequency of these events is rising. Perhaps the most disturbing event was a female expat who collected a “rama ambon” smashing through the driver’s window and into the dashboard. “rama ambons” are steel darts fired from a slingshot which are barbed, feathered and silent. One of these can pierce a skull. It appeared to be a random event and disturbingly in an area not seen as being one of the known troublespots.

I have been saying for some time that it is only a matter of time before an expat is seriously injured. I guess it is more likely it will be a foreign policeman. And when it happens, it will be front page news somewhere. Yet Timorese have been going through the local medical facilities with machete slashes and the like for ages.

It has also become clear that both organisations and individuals are taking security more seriously. It appears quite a number of foreign organisations have some form of security advisor who keeps tabs on the situation. Reading the foreign press is very misleading at the moment as the daily rock throwing and house burning is not really reported anymore.

Being a relatively small expat community, the information provided to staff tends to spread around. Eventually, any localised events are made known. For instance, a friend told me recently that during “Quiz Night” at the Dili Club, a number of people received either text messages or phone calls warning of trouble. This sort of more formal sharing of security information is new (to me anyway).

One of the general bits of advice is “avoid going out between 6:00pm and 8:30pm” as this period is the most dangerous period. There is no doubt there is talk of this stuff being organised to the point of being timetabled.

According to a local restaurant owner, business fell after the prison escape of Major Alfredo and plummeted after the shootings 2 Fridays ago. The Fatuhada/Comorro area remains a bad area but there has been a shift in emphasis to the IDP camp located in the park across from Hotel Timor and right outside the front gates of the port facility (ie the OZ defence force base).

The boys move north from the Colmera shopping area and commence their rock fights across the main thoroughfare. The road is often closed once this starts and when combined with the one-way road system, makes going places a bit difficult (particularly from west to east).

Just as I have fear that an expat will be seriously injured soon, it may only be a matter of time before the rock throwing includes some little extras like “rama ambons” which ought to scare anyone. Even bow and arrow would lift the tempo of these little outbreaks.

Postscript : Since I first started writing this, I think the foreign troops have done a little push in the Hotel Timor area and it has been quieter.

Major Alfredo Reinado

As for Major Alfredo Reinado, my understanding is that Becora prison does not operate like a typical western prison. I believe inmates “were” allowed to wander outside freely during the day and were pretty free to do what they liked inside. So the prison “breakout” was probably not as dramatic as reports would make out. More like storming out in a huff from a day care centre.

I would be surprised if the OZ military do not know exactly where the Major is right now, but may be perfectly happy to simply monitor the Major’s movements. I can see no sign right now that the Major intends to do anything dramatic but who knows the extent of his powers of patience.

I would be amazed if the Major was in any position to do anything to cause a security issue.

Postscript 11 Sept.

– What I meant was I didn’t think the Major could personally be involved in any major conflict. Recent reports suggest he will still cause a fair bit of trouble on the general stability side with calls to unseat the current government.

Throwing – rocks & other things

I have to admit I have been out of the loop for nearly a week. I copped a bad prawn or something late last week which dropped me for a couple of days. I thought I was coming good, went out to dinner on Saturday night, but de-generated again next day.

I have given the toilet bowl and basin a good old pounding and on Thursday when it first hit, barely got away without making a public disgrace of myself.

I only started coming good again on Wednesday and went out to dinner last night. Things have changed. At 6:30pm, our car met an OZ police checkpoint and we were strongly advised to turn around and go home. When the rock rolled past the front of the car, I could see what was going on. Yet another rock fight.

We went home and our eating partner elected to come to our place. We had another crack at 8:30pm and the rock fight had vanished and the streets were totally deserted. The restaurant owner was ecstatic to see customers and he told us that business had dropped sharply after Major Alfredo’s prison escape and plummeted to almost nothing after the shootings last Friday.

There have been a couple of other signs that now lead me to conclude that the security situation is definitely a lot worse than a month ago. But why ? In the absence of any analysis from any foreign press at the moment, I will have a go in my next post.

White 4WDs

It ends up being commented upon at regular intervals, but a recent article on the internet brought up 3 of the usual points.

Firstly, Timor-Leste is one of the poorest countries in the world. Secondly, (from a western consumer perspective), it is one of the most expensive countries in the world and thirdly, one can’t help but notice the number of white Japanese 4WDs (4-wheel drive vehicles) on the roads.

The usual assumption is they are driven by UN staff or NGOs. In the TL context, NGOs (non-government organisations) refer to aid organisations. Sometimes, there is an implication that white 4WD drivers are living the high life while the Timorese live a life of poverty.

I am not sure there is such a thing as the high life in Dili. The highest quality accommodation (excluding hotels and for example, the US ambassador) would be good quality middle class accommodation in most western countries. But there are issues of water, power, drainage etc. that may not be to that same standard. I may be being a bit unfair on the US ambassador but I am assuming that the entire internals of his residence have probably been imported and re-assembled. (I know this is not the case for many other embassy people.)

I suspect most do not live in the higher quality stuff. Most probably live in quite modest bottom-level middle class western class accommodation and many in lower than that. Many live in long-term “hotel” accommodation. Cooking facilities are often quite modest, poor or non-existent, so many 4WD drivers eat out a lot. So if eating out for US$10 is living the high life then I am sure that the alternative of cooking a can of baked beans (or instant noodles) on the single gas burner at home is not.

After a while, you start getting familiar with the astounding number of aid organisations working here. You find that the IDP camps (ie refugee camps) are dealt out to the aid organisations. So if we include UNHCR (the UN High Commission for Refugees), you have World Vision, CARE, Plan, Concern, CRS (Catholic Relief Services), Caritas, Oxfam and no doubt a few others. Plus you have the various foreign government aid agencies like Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Ireland, US etc.

I am told aid co-ordination meetings are real gabfests with a fair bit of competition over turf boundaries. I guess economists would say this sort of competition is good even in the aid world. I mentioned to an aid person once that I donated to an organisation that boasted an administrative overhead of 25%. Before I had drawn another breath, I was told that “our organisation is never any more than 20%”. Yep, competition is surely alive.

But one shouldn’t forget one other 4WD group. These are the “volunteers”. Most western countries have volunteer programs who provide “free” labour to target organisations – the case here, often government departments. The volunteer agency will usually pay for transportation to and from the target country and provide vehicle transport within the country. A modest expense allowance is provided to cover accommodation and basic living expenses. These guys live quite modestly.

However, there would seem to some imbalances there. I know one “western” country’s volunteer who discovered in conversation with another volunteer that the other “western” country paid their volunteers 4 times as much. My definition of volunteer has shifted after hearing this.

The UN Gravy Train

As of last week, yet another UN gravy train is about to hit TL. The UN acronym department has come up with UNMIT this time. This replaces UNOTIL (UN Office in Timor-Leste) which replaced UNMISET (UN Mission of Support in East Timor) which replaced UNTAET (UN Transitional Administration in East Timor) which replaced Interfet (International Force East Timor) which replaced …

UNMIT means “UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste” or as the wags are already calling it, “unmitigated …”. There are a lot of people in town who are either directly involved or at least partially involved in the new UN operation and who have to some extent had some input into the rules of engagement. Not surprisingly, there has been a lot of politicking about some of the rules.

Now I don’t exactly know who wants what but you have all sorts of players oaring in to establish their own position. The US, OZ and Portuguese seem to be major players. For the US, the bigger the UN operation, the more it costs the US which may partly explain why Australia has offered to retain the military component for as long as possible.

I do know that the position of head of the new operation is a very sensitive issue. I won’t beat around the bush – most would score the current incumbent no more than 4 out of 10. But as I have learnt, with the UN, many positions are political and skill level and performance are secondary to that.

It is possible that I broke my “no politics” rule but it is hard not to at the moment. A common theme that is mentioned by many about key decision-making entities here is “but when are they actually going to do something” rather than generate yet another policy document or conduct yet another gabfest.

However, if the forthcoming increase in UN numbers has a positive outcome, it certainly does lead to a huge injection into the local economy. It will revive the restaurant/bar scene, fill out the hotels and other accommodation, raise prices and increase availability of take-away burgers by a factor of 10. It should provide opportunities for Timorese to find avenues to generate income. But it will also make Dili even more remote from the rest of the country.