More eating

“Jack’s PSE Club” (ie bar/restaurant) now operates from inside the “Palm Springs” estate which is just near the OZ Embassy. If you dream hard enough, you could almost think you are in Bali. It is in the Dili more upmarket decor category and probably a better spot for parties or functions as it is not exactly in a great spot to catch passing trade. Extensive menu.

“Hotel Vila Verde” is now actively advertising its restaurant but have not been yet. “Cafe Brasil” seems to have spun off a new classy restaurant adjacent to the current premises called “Keci Keca” – have not been there either.

“Hotel Dili 2001” down at Metiaut (ie the eating strip towards Christo Rei) has now been re-named the “Nova Horizente” which finally removes any confusion over the Hotel Dili name (ie Hotel Dili, Hotel Dili 2000, Hotel Dili 2001).

“Hotel California” seems to have completed its accommodation area and seems to be fully occupied these days. It has about a dozen rooms and a neat looking garden area. No pool but a 100m to a quiet swimmable beach.

Over the last year, the “Ocean View Hotel” and “Dili Beach Hotel” have completed the fit-out of additional accommodation out the back, including a pool at “Dili Beach Hotel”.

There is no doubt there is a general move towards quality in both eating and accommodation these days – for the well-heeled foreigner.  Check out the “Guide Post” magazine which will give you the idea.

Power problems

Us foreigners will often live where backup power generation is available.  This means life goes on and if you can’t hear the generator, it has little effect.  At work, it may be different or it may not.

The current power problems are definitely at the severe end.  I reckon the power cuts over the last 24 hours to be at 11 hours where I live.  So a good generator should cover for that you would think.  Then the AC problems start … a few computer problems as well.  I try to find out what is going on.  I get my lecture after my 10,000 questions.

I am no electrician but it goes something like this.  Even when the power is there (from the grid – did I just use the word grid for here ?)  it still may be ratshit.  So the voltage drops way down from the standard 220Volts.  It may fluctuate a hell of a lot and the little UPSes give up and go onto battery.  The lights, fridge and everything else still run but the UPS may switch to battery.  And when the power finally gets bad enough to require the generator, the UPS battery doesn’t enough guts left to do its job.

Step up AirCon unit.  When on street power, it goes through periods when no cooling comes out of the thing.  Then it comes good again.  When this happens in the middle of the night, you don’t sleep too good.  Then it is explained.  When the voltage drops too low, the compressor (ie the bit that provides the cooling grunt) can’t hack the pace and eventually fails to perform any useful function.  The fan may still run but further power drops lead to strange grinding noises as the fan tries to cope with the crap power.  Eventually, if the gods be willing, the power drops out completely and the generator can take over.

Electricians please correct me where I got this wrong but the UPS thing and the AC thing have been driving me crazy.   Now that I understand, it is not so bad.

Power struggles

There has always been power cuts – like x number of times over the weekend.  Its the way it is here.  If you are an expat and you do not have a generator servicing your work or home, it would be driving you crazy at the moment.

If you do have a generator and it is well-silenced or a distance away, you may not even hear it and only notice a couple of seconds cut before it kicks in.  Or you could have a noisy generator that constantly reminds you of its operation.

Lately, the power cuts have become highly aggravating for those without generator access.  The cuts have been pretty much daily (and usually in prime time of evening) of late and this weekend the worst I have known since my arrival.

My understanding is that sometimes the electrical authority runs out of fuel.   Generation is by 6 diesel generators located at 2 sites (I think) and if they lose one, power cuts are a certainty.  I believe they are one down at the moment but I also thought demand was still only 50% of what it was a year ago.  Questions, questions …

During the troubles of May/June, the streets may have been deserted and security a problem but electricity supply was pretty good.  Demand was down to 30% which I guess made maintenance much easier.

But I know a guy (a long-term expat) who recently had his first child and the nightly cuts drove him insane.  He acquired his own generator but nevertheless complained about paying for an electricity supply that lately has been pretty unreliable.

Some tips :

  • Invest in uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) if you have a computer
  • If re-setting your TV and recording settings on your VCR drives you insane, get a UPS for that too
  • Curse anyone who gives you an electronic clock/radio for your birthday
  • Forget about ever setting the clock on a microwave

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.

Please Explain

For the last couple of weeks, there has definitely been an increase in Blackhawk activity (ie helicopters), particularly at night. Apparently, there has been an increase in gang activity and the lads have been getting a bit more belligerent and have been testing the foreign troops and police.

The Comorro/FatuHada area (on the west of town towards the airport) seems to be the main problem spot. But I don’t know much more than that, and little is reported about it in the foreign press. There is a rumour that someone is slipping the lads a few bucks to stir up trouble. If this is true, no-one seems to have any idea what the purpose is but to constantly create an insecure environment and ensure that “refugees” (IDPs) stay in the camps, which is exactly what they are doing.

As far as I can tell, there has been no general movement away from the camps. It is almost the new normality. There are concerns that the secure camps which provide free water, (certainly not the greatest) sanitation, some degree of medical service and free food are far too attractive for a number of people.

There has been talk of stopping the free food in the camps and moving food distribution points to the suburbs but I have seen no evidence of this myself (not that I would even recognise it occuring anyway).

But a couple of nights ago, 10 houses were burnt in the FatuHada area. I think there were a couple of arrests but who knows if that will put anyone off. But yes, the security situation at night-time has definitely deteriorated in certain parts of town, even right next to the OZ defence HQ at the Dili port.

Many think things will bumble along like this until the general election scheduled for May 2007 – that’s 8 more months of bumbling. That is unless some political revelation occurs first.


Besides the complement of OZ and NZ police at the Timor Lodge Hotel, there are still some longer term residents. They have lost their regular bar as the blue shirts have commandeered that. But they have also lost a bit of relaxed lifestyle. Security experts have deemed that the establishment required twin 5m high wire fences topped with razor wire and sun-like security lighting. It looks awful. The banana trees were chopped down too. I do know the blue shirts are not allowed out so is this really what is required to keep the boys inside ? Or have I got this wrong ?

And now for something completely different

Recent events have pushed a few other events into the background.

Possibly my favourite restaurant in town has been the “Beach Cafe”. The food is Burmese and it is run by Burmese. Or was. In January/February, the lads renovated the establishment and it was really looking good. Everything (except the power pole out the front) hit the sweet spot with me. But now, it has been closed for a month. Some say the cook left; some say there was a fire in the kitchen; same say the owner raised the rent ferociously after the renovations. One day I will find out why.

On the Saturday following the initial riots, the Central Maritime Hotel left Dili. Normally, this would be a momentous event but it passed by with little comment.

The Central Maritime Hotel was a floating hotel (ie a converted ship) seemingly a permanent fixture down at the waterfront. It arrived from Rangoon to provide accommodation when the UN presence was at its peak here. It had 127 rooms and bars etc. but as the UN numbers fell, so did the bottom line and it has remained unused for a couple of years now.

It has gone off to Singapore for a minor re-fit prior to heading off to the Black Sea for oil workers accommodation. But the waterfront sure feels kind of nude now.

A House at Last

After 165 days, we have finally seen the contents of the stuff we shipped here. It has been sitting in a container here in Dili since October, waiting for somewhere to put it. Just smouldering away. By accident, I left a high/low thermometer in a bag (with batteries in it) and it recorded a high of 40 degrees buried deep within.

So it arrived at our newly renovated house. It will be great when everything is in place but boy, it has been a saga riddled with balls-ups from start to finish. I have steadfastly tried to avoid hurling mud online – you never know who might be reading. But I would certainly like to give a few people a good spray.

I am in a spare bedroom looking at the mango tree, sitting at an old wooden table and chair wondering what I do next so I can send this bloody thing. But we do have 2 more days in the hotel, while the furniture is cleaned and everything is washed (that’s us, no paid slaves here). The boys (house builders ?) left the house in a bit of a mess. I think I must have been speaking Egyptian when I said the house needed a clean. Cleaning crew ? What cleaning crew !

So I have done a bit of hands and knees cleaning, 10 rounds with the washing machine, nabbed a few cockroaches, got Handy Andy hands. I have noted down the bubbling paintwork, holes in the grouting between the tiles, fans that don’t work, bath that doesn’t drain properly, etc. etc. And I really wished they hadn’t used the white plastic basin plugs to stub out their cigarettes.

I guess I’ll get used to it. But what I haven’t said is that I have been living this renovation ever since arrival. Up front in my face every day : “don’t do that ! … why are you putting that there ? … you don’t do it like that ! … who told you to do that … that doesn’t even fit ! … that won’t last 6 months … could you clean up that paint ! … but yesterday you told me … you mean we have to pay more for that … …”

Just How Expensive is it ?

Dili can get mighty expensive for the typical expat. Unlike many other major cities in Asia, Dili does not really have a thriving local economy that drives provision of goods and services at competitive prices.

Virtually all packaged goods are imported. A lot comes from Indonesia and China but for the usual expat needs, it mostly comes from Australia. And the expat market is pretty small, just like the number of well-heeled Timorese who could regularly afford this stuff.

The astute expat shopper can find plenty of substitute goods from Chinese and Indonesian sources if you try hard, and it can take a lot of time so most expats stick to a couple of reasonably reliable expat oriented supermarkets.

Housing runs the same way. If you really want air-conditioning, satellite TV, 24 hour electricity (ie have a generator), it will cost.

ECA International did a survey in August 2005 and produced expat cost-of-living rankings for Asian cities. Their top 10 went like this :

1 Tokyo
2 Yokohama
3 Kobe
4 Seoul
5 Macau
6 HongKong
7 Osaka
8 Dili
9 Singapore
10 Beijing

And for all that, you get no traffic lights (in the whole country), no cinema, no theatre, no library (of any significance), little sporting infrastructure, no fine dining at all, little to buy in the shops and crap Guinness.

But you also get “slow living”, less spending, perhaps more interacting, a 20 minute cycle trip east to west and NO western suburbia.

Moving hotels

It was the earthquake that did it. We finally found somewhere else that was reasonable, so we moved from Hotel Timor to Hotel Dili.

Hotel Timor (HT) fits into the normal definition of an accommodation-based hotel, with foyer, front desk, restaurant, cafe, business centre, room service, bar fridge stocked with miniature spirits etc. etc. It has room service, a pool, tea and coffee-making facilities in the room – the usual stuff. And it is of the monolithic style.

Once you leave HT, the word “hotel” is used in a completely different fashion. Although there are a couple of others in the monolithic style, most are little more than a collection of pre-fab or demountable rooms, ranging from backpacker style to serviced apartment in style. Many of these were put together for the massive influx of highly-paid aid workers and defence personnel moved in here along with the UN 5 or so years back. I include Hotel Dili, Hotel Dili 2001, Hotel Esplanada and Timor Lodge Hotel in this latter category. I suspect most of these would be in the 1.5 to 2.5 star category.

Of course, I may be a little unfair, but they do in general, provide solid accommodation with the essentials. The essentials being bathrooms, toilets, a restaurant and air-conditioning.

After a couple of days, I have to admit that giving up the Hotel Timor business centre was pretty easy. And parking my bicycle 3 metres outside the front door feels nicer than 200 metres away in the Hotel Timor storeroom out the back.

And the almost invisible Hotel Dili restaurant is actually not too bad at all. Virtually all the long-term residents eat here every night and life is good … except for the mosquitos.