The great egg shortage

It took two visits to supermarkets plus one trip to a local market to convince me that something was wrong with egg supplies. There are none. A whole city without eggs.

I asked two locals and both said that there had been a huge buy-up for Christmas feasting. One (with a wicked smile on her face) blamed the Portuguese for baking too many cakes.

Basically, the majority of egg demand is supplied from imports as there seems to be no egg farming of sufficient volume in TL. When I asked some expats about their own egg supplies, a common response was disbelief that an agricultural economy had not wound up this sort of egg farming.

Anyway, one of the locals said the next shipment from Singapore or Malaysia (I think), is two weeks away. In general, these imports are significantly cheaper than the OZ equivalent.

A city without eggs for 3 weeks. That first omelette will be a monster.

UPDATE : See my comment below for an update on the egg situation.

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.

Domestic Supply Situation

Central Dili is becoming much safer and I expect the expat supermarkets to resume normal operation shortly. However, if they do not, it is not because it is inherently unsafe, it is because their staff have safety problems back at their homes. These supermarkets are built like Fort Knox anyway.

There is no problem with beer or gin supply or in fact, bogroll supply. The bogroll situation at home has been rectified. The gin bottle is nearly empty and we are back to beer and courtesy of astute planning, there are 2 slabs in reserve.

The Dili Club has been open at least since last Wednesday. Phil has no problem and he feels (as I do) expats are not a target at all. He is limiting his hours and pizza home deliveries not for safety reasons, but because he does not have enough staff. Most have headed for the hills.

I now have no problem regarding access to supply of stuff. The Cool Storage supermarket has been open throughout, even though one has had to knock on the front gate. Until the local markets get going again, fruit and veg are the main issue, but paradoxically, over the last few days, street-side stalls have popped up in suburban areas outside houses, so it is actually easier now to buy fruit & veg.

With the mass exodus of so many expats, I would guess the supermarkets are struggling to move stock and are concerned about perishable items.

The general expat safety problem has passed, although I would limit night-time activities when there may be more likelihood of not seeing my skin colour. However, I guess it is a bit like “riots in Redfern … 3 course dinner in Neutral Bay” – parties in both areas are oblivious to the activities in the other. (Note : this is a Sydney thing. For Melbourne, try Springvale and Carlton.)

At the moment, moving about in the daytime in central Dili is OK. But in the current political climate, one has to be aware that things can spiral out of control extremely quickly. The gossip mill is lightning fast and the spread of information amazes me even though the details are often exaggerated.

Freshly Ground

I finally managed to obtain freshly ground coffee beans today. I suspect this is the first time I have achieved one of my main caffeine-induced aims. I am hooking into the first brew right now and instantly notice several things compared to previous batches of beans.

Firstly, this time, I supposedly have premium grade arabica beans from a medium roast. The consistency of the beans is noticeable compared to previous batches. There is also a distinct difference in the operation of the grinder and the final result. The colour and size of the grind is much more consistent. And most significant of all, a huge crema (ie the frothy bit floating on top). And the taste is noticeably different also.

These beans are “Cafe Timor” beans from the “Cooperativa Cafe Timor” and are certified organic arabica beans made from the uniquely Timorese “Hibrido de Timor”, a hybrid bean found only in Timor.

Having established the supply chain, freshly roasted and ground is the only way now.

Bali Break

After a few months of domestic hell with water problems and almost daily trooping in and out of “tradesmen” (I use that term quite loosely), an opportunity came up to get away for a breather, courtesy of the other half’s employer.

I imparted the USD284 for a return flight to Bali on Merpati. One hour and forty minutes later, one is in Bali and although I have been to Bali a couple of times before, the feeling this time was quite different. It really felt like the “boy from the bush” returning to the big city. It felt cosmopolitan, the traffic was awful, the shopping opportunities endless (by comparison), the normality gob-smacking. And cheap. Most things are 1/3 of the price of Dili.

We stayed with a hybrid Indonesian/western family and ate fabulous Indonesian home-cooked meals morning, noon and night. I gutsed myself. I did no exercise. And I came back to Dili weighing another 3kgs lighter. I guess it was the sambal* morning, noon and night.

I went with an empty suitcase as one of the main missions was to buy a few household items sadly missing from our house. We came back with plumbing fittings, telephones, cables, bedspreads, shower curtains, cushions, cushion covers, kitchenware and I nabbed a new LCD monitor as my poor old 11-year old monitor seemed to lose focus and intensity after 5 months in a hot, humid shipping container.

The LCD monitor savings over Dili prices effectively paid for my airfare. I could get used to this.

* sambal equals crushed chili often mixed with shrimp paste or lime juice but almost always hair-raising.

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.

Street Commerce

Now that I am on my bike and romping around town quite unlike the typical expat (who usually drives a Toyota 4WD), I am seeing and experiencing a little bit more of the face-to-face street issues.

Apart from the battles with cars, 4WDs and potholes, one confronts a little bit more of the street-level issues. Absolutely no-one is immune to the phone card boys. The major street commerce item for sale is the pre-pay mobile phone top-up card. Clearly, this is the first port of call for anyone (male only it would seem) seeking income. The lads stake out their spot and visually present their wares (a handful of phone cards) and thrust them in your direction. Five different guys will be doing the same thing. And no matter how much disdain one presents in response, the cards remain thrust in your face.

Saying no once is not good enough – 5 times and you might be getting somewhere.

I know most of these guys are pretty poor, but I only need a phone card when I “need” one. And having a handful of phone cards thrust in my face is just not going to encourage me to make the purchase. After that, there is not much hassle at all. There is the odd guy (yes, it is always a guy) trying to sell his souvenirs, but for some reason, they don’t get up my skin like the phone card boys. I think it’s because selling phone cards involves no work from the seller. At least the souvenir sellers have to source the stuff and actually tell you what it is they are selling.

There is a reasonable number of hand-pushed wagons parked by the side of the road. They sell a pretty standard set of stuff from soft drinks to cigarettes, sweets and to my delight, cold beer. Funny how they adopt a completely passive attitude to their sales compared to the phone card boys. I’d prefer to buy my phone cards from these guys if only they offered them.

There is surprisingly little else on the streets available for sale (ie of the kerb hustler variety). Yes, there is the street fish “markets” but that is 20 metres back from the main esplanade. There is the occasional footpath food seller but it is not that common. The rest is in the markets or your typical shop.

But the phone card boys are everywhere – like flies around a carcass.

Head work

Haircuts share an enormous number of similarities across the Asian region. Something which does not usually come in the package back in my real world, is the scalp massage.

Years ago, I lived in Turkey for a couple of years. I recall affectionately, the reaction when one of my work colleagues returned from his first haircut to inform everyone that not only do you get a head massage, but an ear clean and optional manicure and/or pedicure. And to top it off, a cold beer was provided on-request – all done from the central haircutting cockpit. From then on, we were hooked, although I admit I never did take up the manicure or pedicure options.

Having completed my 2nd cut here, I can report that the head massage is alive and well, with a wash and head massage both before and after the cut. As for the hairstyle, there is a certain coiffed look that seems “in”. The 2nd cut was US$5 and I rate it 50% better than the 1st cut which cost me US$10.

I went in looking like Bruce the jackaroo from Darwin and came out looking like Eugene, the chopper pilot. Fortunately, it was raining when I left, and by the time I got back to my world again, I had reverted back to George, the fashion victim.

Pedals, pedals, wherefore art thy pedals

Now that we have been backpacking for over 4 months, certain aspects of life are getting a tad boring. A couple of days ago, we had a chance to correct this.

For reasons which slightly escape me, the shipping container company (with our belongings plus furniture for our house) wanted their container back. This meant transferring all of our belongings from one container to another. This gave us an opportunity to grab a few packing boxes, even if we had nowhere to put them.

We grabbed our wine as we were concerned about storage conditions inside a sealed container sitting outside in the hot sun all day. The next thing we chose was our bicycles. Although cycling is not big in Dili, the city itself is flat and all of it can be covered by bicycle with ease – potholes aside.

I borrowed some tools and proceeded to open the wrapped bikes with an immense feeling of satisfaction. Within 5 minutes, I was muttering and cursing. Yep, the packing boys had failed “bicycle packing 101” and rather than tape the pedals to the frame, they were obviously packed away in one of the other boxes. Defeated again.

However, a chance meeting with the Australian owner of a local security company led to him organising one of his fellow company directors (an ex-Fretilin guerilla) to obtain bike pedals, which was done with great efficiency. I now know there are about 2 or 3 bicycle shops in Dili, although I have seen very few bikes and none of what I have seen were exactly new. A big win.

Now its off on bike with brand-spanking new pedals to buy the new lock and chain as I failed common-sense 101 by not leaving my lock and chain locked to the bike as I always do.


It has already been driven home that Dili is a small town from an expat point of view. The reality is that most expats operate at significantly higher standards of living and incomes than do local Timorese. As a natural consequence, one tends to share similar experiences with accommodation, restaurants, shopping locations etc.

There seem to be about 10 restaurants frequented by expats on a regular basis. And although there are a number of others, food safety concerns tend to limit the patronage outside these ten.

As for your typical supermarket shopping, if you are after the one stop food shopping experience, you are limited to a handful of supermarkets which stock Australian, Indonesian or Chinese sourced stuff.

So whenever you go out to do any of this stuff, one invariably meets someone you know or will know sometime in the future.

And I can now say that I know 2 people (of the 20 on board) who were on our incoming flight from Darwin.

But perhaps the scariest moment was when someone who I met for the first time yesterday said “I hear that you are having problems with your house … I heard that the shower cubicle is so small, you can’t bend down to pick up the soap”.

I was speechless. I had made the (sarcastic but true) soap comment to someone quite far removed from the speaker above. Note to file : don’t gossip in Dili.