I’ve done fish and apart from the weather, I guess there is no getting away from the fact that there is a presidential election campaign underway. Now before your brain immediately starts comparing it to a US-style presidential election, remember that the president here appears to have very little real power and is more ceremonial than anything else. I am not sure the people here have really fully come to terms with the power differences of the roles of president, prime minister and parliament.

As to who would make the best Timorese president and the impact that party affiliation has on the operations of the position, I don’t know. I am no student of politics and most of the time, shake my head in amazement (and often disgust) at the antics of politicians – the double speak, the evasion of hard questions, the bagging of opponents and the cliched nature of election campaigns. The sudden urge to kiss babies one month before an election campaign …well mothers, better wash them afterwards.

Keep in mind that my observations are from an English speaking visitor’s perspective and I am not part of the target audience for any electioneering so I don’t expect to know much at all about what is happening behind the scenes and at street level.

Compared to OZ elections (for example), there appear to be similarities and there are certainly differences. Basically, apart from the Fretilin party, there appears to be nowhere near the same level of campaign funding (as you should expect here). We are still 11 days out and I have only seen minimal street advertising and no handing out of campaign literature. All I can say is I have read about campaign rallies but not seen one myself yet. There has been the odd scuffle at these rallies.

I have seen one of the common campaigning methods used here and that is the convoy of trucks with chanting supporters flying flags. I have seen this before with supporters of Rogerio Lobato when he went on trial in the courts, on peace rallies and just before Fretilin held their internal leadership vote last year. It should be noted that (based on my guess) these truck convoys contain 98+% males and in the age group 15 to 25 – not exactly fully representative of the voting population. Yesterday’s convoy that I saw, seemed to be only 3 trucks (with UNPol escort) with supporters chanting “Lu’Olo” (ie the Fretilin presidential candidate).

One of the local newspapers ran a mobile phone text message poll recently. Initially, the Fretilin candidate was well down in the results but after a couple of days, there was a big surge in the Fretilin numbers. Again, in this country, a mobile phone poll is probably not going to be representative either.

In web space, I have really only been able to find material from the Fretilin party. Again, I wonder just how targeted this can be in this country – for Dili residents only and only a small proportion at that. There is no doubt that Fretilin have the resources which the other parties do not seem to have.

I am expecting things to wind up over the next week and hopefully, I will have something more useful to say. I have been told that it is probably not a good idea to go to a campaign rally but I wonder if curiosity will get the better of me. I like to watch.

Note : It took me a week to write this. Drafted it once, threw it away, did it again, computer crashed, lost it. Its actually quite different from the first go. Depends on which side of bed you get out of.

Buying fish

I admit that I have been very gutless when it comes to purchasing fish. Ages ago, a Timorese gave me instruction on the fish inspection and purchase process.

Always in the morning as the fish sit out in 30+ degrees heat all day. Check the eye colour and the colour of the gills. I forgot the details and have never been brave enough to purchase myself. Any thoughts of me becoming a doctor went out the window based on my dislike of the fish gutting and filleting process. Yet I like eating fish but don’t like getting really crook like I did early last year.

The result is I buy all meat and fish frozen from one of the supermarkets. (I don’t like butchering an oxe either !)

Maybe I have been asleep for a while, but I noticed the fish vendors near the Lita supermarket are now using ice. These guys have only been selling from here for a month or so (or 3) and join the fruit and veg merchants who finally returned here after a long break courtesy of the events of last year.

Maybe it is time to reconsider fresh fish purchasing. A lot of the time, the fish are quite small (about 150mm in length) and probably not what most expats look for. Fresh squid hanging from a tree is not exactly the greatest look either. But if the boys provide a good selection (say 200 to 400mm length), put it on ice and offer a gutting service, I’m in.

Minor hotel/restaurant changes

The Bangkok Thai down at Metiaut (on the way to Christo Rei) now has an Indian menu.  I haven’t tried it yet.

The new hotel next to City Cafe has now put up its sign.  It is called the “Discovery Inn”.  I may stick my nose in soon, as accommodation around town is said to be tight, courtesy of many UN Police nabbing anything with a bed in it.

Now that the wet season is bringing rain down more regularly, Cafe Brasil has (a couple of weeks ago) retired the outdoor gazebo in the front.

Aaron has retired from the kitchen at Castaways, leaving Simon pretty stretched these days.

Heads up : should you come ? Yes/No

I will try to give a bit of current background to anyone thinking of coming or returning at the moment. This is targeted at returnees who may have left with a 10kg travel bag and left a household here. Also to short-term workers and anyone who really wants to visit as a tourist.

Most countries with a significant presence here have had government travel warnings advising against coming here and recommending that non-essential residents consider leaving. These have been in place at their current level for about 2 weeks now and remain in place. The major effect these advisories have is on travel insurance for private travellers and employer-based insurance for employees. The insurance companies do not want to carry the risk which is based almost entirely on these government travel warnings.

Up until a couple of weeks ago, there were good reasons for travel warnings but for about 10 or 12 days, there have been no security incidents of note affecting the expat community. The wide ranging rock fighting and general danger seemed to evaporate. However, the numbers in the IDP camps have increased. (There has been the odd localised incident in the Taibesse, Bairo Pite and Delta areas but nothing like the previous weeks.)

If you ask a few questions, you will find that the current warning state is based on recent history and threats which are assumed to be related to the forthcoming elections. So I can’t see the warnings lifted before the presidential elections scheduled for 9 April at the earliest.

Yet, right now, the streets seem as safe as they have ever been in the last 10 months. I dusted off the bicycle last week and felt perfectly fine. At night, the streets remain fairly deserted although it is debatable whether this is much different to “normal” anyway. The numbers in the bars and restaurants are down but not woefully low. A survey of home delivered pizza volumes would probably be a better indicator of expat activity.

The rice shortage situation is not over and living next to a rice warehouse is a highly undesirable activity. Chez Squatter has acquired a sack of rice at US$1-20 per kg which should last the rest of the year. Nevertheless, supplies to IDP camps are still limited.

Returnees would find it all quite OK but I think the main problem with first-time arrivals is that you just don’t know where to go or where not to go and when to do it. And knowing people who can tell you when something is “going down” is also important.

Despite all this, some people who left a week or so ago are returning, but not the international volunteer community for the moment.

On Friday, the presidential candidates all signed a declaration to play the election campaign fairly and to accept the results when they are known. Major Alfredo has gone quiet so maybe he has been closed down in the hills and is not in a position to get his mobile phone batteries re-charged.

Shopping supplies are fine. Coral reef snorkeling down the coast to the east was fine. I have heard rumours of a couple of expat businesses considering “pulling up stumps” but for the moment, it just seems a bit of a waiting game.

Hope this helps.  Just don’t sue me if everything goes bad again.  All the above applied 5 minutes ago.

Note for non-cricket playing nationals : “pulling up stumps” is a term based on the act of removing (at the end of play) some of the equipment used in the game of cricket. So it effectively means closing down for a significant period.

Price check till #7

I wake every morning at 6:59am as I have done for the last 7 years, grunt an inaudible good morning to good lady on my left, pass wind on schedule, attend to bodily functions in ablutions area, spend 2.69 minutes (on average) on the conveniences, shower with wheat germ soap as is the custom, select fresh underwear and remainder of white/black/grey apparel for another day of servitude.

Arrive at work, sit in car for 4.27 minutes in order to schedule arrival at desk at culturally acceptable 8:28am. Open briefcase, remove lunch carefully wrapped in wax paper and place in desk drawer so briefcase does not smell like I am so cheap that I bring my lunch to work ….

Then because I have nothing else to do, I ponder yesterday’s supermarket receipt which falls out of my wallet (plus that never-ending lint) and decide to compare prices with typical OZ supermarket prices. So I use the website of one of OZ’s 2 major supermarket chains and do some price comparisons. Prices are shown below. (Statistical correctness suspended !)

Item OZ price in USD
Dili price in USD % increase in Dili
Kellogs 850g Sultana Bran 5.87 9.45 61%
Pauls 1l Trim milk 1.36 1.50 11%
Pauls 250g Thickened Cream 0.91 0.85 -7%
JustJuice 1l Pineapple juice 1.42 1.60 13%
Berri 2l Tomato juice 2.17 3.75 73%
Homebrand 500g spaghetti 0.51 1.40 172%
RyVita crispbread 1.84 2.30 25%
Mainland 250g Vintage cheese 3.35 4.95 48%
Heinz 420g baked beans (NZ) 1.22 1.00 -18%
tomatos (per kg) 2.34 1.30 -44%
eggplant (per kg) 2.34 0.50 -79%

The results support my feeling that breakfast cereal is priced fairly ferociously (large volume, light weight ?). Milk is not bad (its all long-life except on the odd occasion). Juice variable. Spaghetti pretty ferocious. Cheese ferocious.

I admit I didn’t have a current OZ price for tomatos or eggplant but used AUD3 just for fun. So fruit and veg is a big winner here. Cereal and cheese losers.

The clear and obvious conclusion is that I should convert to a diet of baked beans and cream. Lots of wind and artery hardening.

Have you ever had one of those mornings when you wake up feeling like a chartered accountant ? And then I woke up …

Tomorrow … Bond … James Bond.

Lao Hamutuk is back

The Lao Hamutuk (Walking Together) journal is back after a break of 12 months. You can download the latest version (Vol. 8 No. 1) from : http://www.laohamutuk.org/Bulletin/2007/Mar/bulletinv8n1.html

There is quite a detailed report on the Timor-Leste Petroleum Fund and also a bit of a spray for the proposed government pension plan.

And the printed form is available at Lita Supermarket and probably a few other places around town.

Tricia and Women’s Woven Art

Yesterday, the Radio Australia “Connect Asia” programme did a piece on the work of Tricia Johns who has organised “Women’s Woven Art” to provide jobs for Timorese women.

Women’s Woven Art specialises in traditional and contemporary handicrafts, bags and homewares. The main selling point is that the material used is traditional Timorese “tais”.

The interview can be heard at : http://www.abc.net.au/ra/connectasia/stories/m1365439.asx

It is also an interesting case in that she has battled to put together a business which provides jobs for Timorese. I am not even sure she takes an income from it herself but because it is classified as a business, she is not eligible for aid funding. My guess is that if she had understood the “system”, she may have structured things differently. But at the end of the day, the business is growing and it has done it without hand-outs (apart from her own).

Early last year, Tricia was organising the occasional one-off stall and also selling stuff from the back of her car. She was battling. But at the time, the Hotel Timor was also struggling to make anything of its own hotel shop. It had little to sell and was closed most of the time.

Around the middle of last year, Tricia managed to strike an arrangement with the hotel to take over the shop and it now looks very active. The quality of the product has steadily improved and the range of products continually expanding.

One day, I will bite the bullet and arrange for a custom-made tais laptop bag, which should raise eyebrows in any big city in the western world.

Gangs could be returning from vacation

For about 10 days, it has been relatively peaceful with no sign of the frenetic night-time rock fights.  I have’nt heard anybody mention it much in that time.  And I certainly have not heard anything to keep me awake at nights.  I believe the OZ travel warnings have not been downgraded during this time.

Apart from the weekend air traffic which FOS over at XananaRepublic can describe better than me and some sort of ground operation on Sunday in the area behind the Backpackers (in parts, known as Farol, Palo Paso and Mandarin), I have heard nothing until yesterday.  Again, FOS got an early inkling of things changing again with SMS warnings for the Bairo Pite, Banana Road and Comorro bridge areas.  And if the UN have upped their staff security warnings, then I will take it that things are warming up again.

The published UN security reports talk of an incident on Monday night where 6 houses were torched in the Kuluhun Atas area.  (I think this is just north of Taibesse.)  Although it does not say, other information suggests there was shooting involved in that incident.   And I heard yesterday of a shooting incident at the National Hospital IDP camp.  The shots were not fired by international security forces.

With an armed F-FDTL (army) now operating in a static capacity at government buildings, its hard to know if they or the PNTL (police) were involved in the firing of guns.  I have heard that F-FDTL do adopt a more flexible attitude to static security than UNPol prefer to be the case.  (Note that F-FDTL operate independently from international forces while PNTL work with UNPol officers.)

So I guess the usual night-time warnings should still be heeded in the Bairo Pite, Banana Road and Comorro River bridge areas and we will see how all this develops over the next few days.

Meanwhile, have a look at the pictures over at XananaRepublic where FOS clearly would prefer a return to “beer and skittles”.

Farnborough airshow comes to town

You would have had to be wired to your iPod all afternoon to miss yesterday’s chopper spectacular.    I would think it was the biggest chopper display I have seen here since their arrival last year.

I couldn’t make head or tail of where they came from or where they were going to.  If they were indeed circling, they must have been very big circles as they appeared from the east and disappeared towards the heliport then around by the hills.  It went on for about 1/2 an hour – maybe centred around the Vila Verde/Colmera area with the occasional sprint down the esplanade.  I counted 3 choppers but there could have been more.

I asked some Timorese if they knew of any trouble spot (they usually know) but no-one knew.  I am none the wiser but it certainly was a spectacle with a fair bit of swooping, coming to a halt then speeding off again.  Better than TV.

Otherwise, this last week has been very quiet and very wet.

Another really quiet day – what gives ?

Before de-stressing in the time honoured Friday evening fashion, another day seems to have (almost) passed without incident (of note).

If I had been compulsorily evacuated to Darwin, I would be wondering what gives.

Firstly, the heightening of security concerns was driven by :

  • weeks of daily rock throwing, broken glass and lots of sleeplessness
  • threats against Australian citizens
  • fear of a backlash after the failure to capture Major Alfredo
  • fear of a backlash after the Rogerio Lobato verdict
  • fear that the return of armed F-FDTL to the streets would lead to trouble (kiddies, I am going to add a glossary to the blog soon to explain why the first F does not mean procreate)
  • fear that things would get worse in the run-up to the election

So you shuffle off to Darwin with your 10kgs and wait … nothing.  So I go running this morning … nothing.  So I go cycling this afternoon … nothing.  The tension on people’s faces … gone.  What gives ?

Someone said one of today’s papers said whoever has been paying the gangs has run out of money.  Could be.

Maybe the Rogerio Lobato verdict did hit the sweet spot and convince people that the justice system actually does work in the end.  Although Lobato’s lawyer says the sentence is unfair (too long), another politician said it was also unfair (too short).

Maybe the return of armed F-FDTL to the streets has put the fear of god into people, because in the crunch, people believe they have weapons and will use them.  I also noted armed UIR (PNTL rapid reaction force police) on the streets today.  Keep all digits in rest position he tells himself … you are not at home.

Maybe the threat of a state of emergency and some interesting adjustments to police powers, threats of curfews and restrictions on civil liberties have done it.

Some think it is the calm before the storm.  Time to de-stress.  Tomorrow is a another day.