Mobile phones and banking – just for Wade

In response to Wade who asks about mobile phones and the ANZ bank :

As far as I know, your foreign SIM chip will not do you any good here.  You can get a mobile phone on-contract or more commonly buy a pre-pay chip.  Right now, you can buy a phone plus pre-pay chip for US$30 including $5 worth of calls.

For more details on rates, go here :

There is one ANZ bank which has an ATM machine at the branch and ATMs at Leader supermarket and Tiger Fuel.  These days, the ATMs work fine – it was not always like this.  I don’t regularly open bank accounts but I found no significant difference in opening an account then anywhere else.  I didn’t need a buttock print like in some places.  It all works for me these days.

As long as people don’t beat up the ATM machine (happened once) or the phone lines are not stolen for the copper value, they seem to work.

Wade, is there anything else I can do for you ?  Laundry ?  Personal training ?

Foggy Glasses

My initial impressions of a daily wet season late afternoon rainstorm were a little off the mark. This has happened on about 3 days per week at most, but when the heavens decide to open up, its full on.

A few weeks back, the entire road surface as far as the eye could see (out of the hotel) was under water, perhaps up to 0.4 metres deep. As expected, this causes problems for smaller cars attempting the deeper parts, but it does not seem to deter local drivers at all.

Cyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians just plough on. I just couldn’t bring myself to walk barefoot through this lot at night but many locals do and seem to enjoy it.

I guess the best part is that the temperatures drop to the low-20s (Celsius) and conditions are actually quite pleasant. However, many parts of Dili will be under water and many people will be living in fairly rudimentary wood and palm leaf roofed structures with water flooded right through their living quarters. Many areas have stationary water which lies around for days. It is fairly clear why the mosquito risk is high around here.

But the usual day is around 30 to 35 degrees, high humidity and often the threat of rain that does not come. I have tested with my trusty hygrometer and humidity is at its highest in the morning (often over 90%) but lowers as the day wears on. Then at the end of the day, up it goes again.

And most of the time, there is not a breath of wind.

But the daily reminder that I am in Dili is the instantaneous fogging up of glasses as you walk out from an air-conditioned building to the outside. Although glasses recover quickly, many is the time that classic photo opportunities have been missed (particularly from a air-conditioned car) as it takes cameras over 5 minutes for lenses to clear.

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.

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.

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.

Coffee Shops – First Try

Coffee is Timor-Leste’s main export so you might think that coffee is sold everywhere and perhaps, there may be a number of worthwhile coffee shops.

It is fair to say that all restaurants and bars will offer some form of coffee, from espresso machine stuff through to standard Indonesian style (1 teaspoon ground coffee then pour on hot water then add lots of sugar).

One day when I have a kitchen to entertain myself in, I will get right into roasting and grinding my own. However, I have been told that all the good stuff is sewn up by the big operators and goes straight into the export trade. The implication was that the stuff sold on the roadside and in markets was the left-overs. This may be true.

However, I am talking coffee shops here and I am making a subtle distinction between coffee served in a restaurant to the (often alfresco) coffee shop experience. I am restricting myself to espresso machine output in a “coffee shop” atmosphere – that “feeling that I am somewhere else for 15 minutes” experience.

Cafe Timor (in the Hotel Timor) – For many foreigners, this is the best. Coffee is good, it is air-conditioned and it has a bright and breezy atmosphere. It also has some quite superb Portuguese pastries.

Tropical Bakery (near the UN barracks) – This has a very relaxed atmosphere but you are restricted to ceiling fans and no AC. Partly outside but with a strangely impeded view of the outside world thanks to some very heavy wood and bamboo decor. Again coffee is good, pastries are available and a full menu are available.

Sanan Rai (near the Central Garden Hotel) – Recently renovated, perhaps the cutest and OK if you can bear being sandwiched between a souvenir counter, dress shop and beauty shop. Good AC, coffee and a full menu available.

Cafe Brasil – The newest cafe with solid wood tables and cane chairs with a marquee out the front. Has AC and ceiling fans but hard to see how the AC can compete when the doors and windows are always open. Definitely feels like being somewhere else, plays cool background music and also has a wide ranging menu.

City Cafe – A long-standing favourite among the UN community. More a cafeteria/restaurant, but if you sit out the front, the Mediterranean style can feel like the real thing. No AC.

Some that don’t quite fit my definition of coffee shop but do have espresso machines are Vasco da Gamas restaurant, the Hotel Timor restaurant, Hotel Turismo, Castaway Bar, Esplanada Hotel restaurant and the Metro Cafe. I guess there will be more. I will keep hunting.

A Day Out of Town

I have already been on several Sunday afternoon drives – for about an hour out of town to the west, south and east.

I was fortunate to be able to add to this by tagging along with some others on some visits to a couple of schools and to a silk-worm manufacturing establishment about 3 or so hours drive from Dili.

It was my first real taste of Timorese roads and further confirmation that unless some money is found to put into road maintenance, there will be ever-increasing problems in this area. I would have to say that night driving would not be on my recommended list of desirable activities as there are many instances of wash-outs and ever-increasing potholes. It seems that quite a few drainage pipes under roads have failed and on several occasions, one has to leave the road entirely and drive around the offending collapsed section.

Nevertheless, it made for a refreshing break from Dili. Our first stop was a school in Venilale run by the Catholic Salesian brothers. I have to say that given the rather rustic nature of living in the area, it was a surprise to find an obviously very well run school with some (relatively) impressive facilities.

The school had a pretty well set-up library with both English and Portuguese language sections. It even had 2 computer labs, but at this point, some of the problems of location surfaced. One of the labs had been kitted out with new gear in 2002, but it had never fired up as the building had no electricity. The 2nd lab appeared to have electricity but it was admitted that most of the computers did not work as they were riddled with viruses and no-one had the wherewithal to correct it. The school were dreaming of internet access but again, the issue of maintenance surfaces. And how to connect a total of 20 to 25 computers (including teachers computers now) via one very expensive dial-up line. I don’t know much about schooling, but my guess is that the local government run school does not have a computer lab at all.

Prior to leaving, we were shown the orphanage. On a good day with a bit of prepping, I could probably appear tough and macho, but not a chance in front of 120 orphans eating their rice and mashed vegetables for lunch. Many had lost their parents during the war where many were killed in conflict but in fact, many more by the famine associated with that conflict. Humility 100, macho-ness 0.

We moved onto a technical school at Fatumaca and again, I was surprised at the facilities that do exist. The Salesian Brothers are obviously very disciplined and have put together some surprisingly good stuff. We were shown large classrooms servicing metalwork, electrical and electronic teaching. I remember classrooms like this when I was a kid. Perhaps the only drawback is that they looked exactly like they looked like when I was a kid.

Next stop was a quick visit to a silk factory. It was the wrong time of the year to see much action, but it will be interesting to see how they fare. A small Timorese silk factory has a big job competing with the big boys (like Thailand and China) but I’ll keep my eye out as Timorese silk must be a pretty rare thing to have.

Beer glasses

The more western-oriented bars/restaurants around town know their stuff when it comes to looking after their beer glasses, but outside this relatively small group, it is the wild west.

I should point out that beer, soft drink and fruit juice are the only beverage options outside the more western-oriented bar/restaurants. And yes, I usually have fruit juice at lunch !

Now for a bit of theory. One of my old mates from years ago was a renowned destroyer of beer glasses. He knew it and everyone around him knew it. You could pour him a beer with a perfect head and within 1 minute of his first taste, the head would have disappeared and his beer looked like a ginger ale. And curiously, the effect was to destroy the glass’s ability to maintain a head for some weeks after this.

He had a problem of either curiously different body chemistry or was a really bad saliva dribbler into his glass.

The other well recognised method of destroying a beer is poor washing techniques. Not that I understand why, I never use any soap or detergent on my beer glasses and everything is fine. Any soap residue will destroy a glass.

But perhaps the biggest error is to wash beer glasses in water previously used to wash dinner plates, pots, pans etc.

I have no doubt this last error is the reason behind the almost total absence of a beer head in most establishments around town (apart from a select few who have separate beer glass washing machines).

So I made the ultimate decision yesterday – one of my faithful beer glasses will be drawn into daily duty and accompany me to all establishments. You gotta maintain your standards.

Tennis anyone ?

I have actually met a number of people here who have retired themselves from taking anti-malarial drugs. There are only 3 drugs that I have seen prescribed for malaria in this region – Doxycycline, Larium and Malarone.

I am no doctor of tropical medicine but it appears that doxycycline works well for short-term use but is not recommended for long-term use. It has an added advantage of being an anti-biotic so gives protection against a number of other nasty bugs as well. It is also not good for the skin.

Malarone is the newest and (to this point in time) appears to have the least side-effects, but has the disadvantage of being horrendously expensive compared to the other two.

Good old Larium tends to be the one used most – if you can tolerate it. It has a long history of side-effects ranging from nausea, to sleeplessness and in extreme cases, psychotic disturbances. It is not recommended for people with any history of mental illness. Initially I tried Larium. The doctor had warned that there was a 10% chance of noticeable disturbances to sleep patterns and dreams. The recommendation of avoiding alcohol was noted as was the observation that some people used alcohol to adjust the psychotic side-effects to their satisfaction. This sounded great.

Alas, I was extremely disappointed that I did not experience any psychotic wanderings but it did make me feel nauseous.

Back to tennis. Several people had said that if you do want to take a rest from anti-malarials, at least wait until you settle down and develop a pattern of behaviour designed to reduce the chances of being bitten. Using insect repellant as second nature is the first. Others include : wearing long sleeves or long trousers; covering the feet at night; sleeping with a mosquito net; having insect screens; regular spraying of house, car and office; minimising pools of water around the house; even eating Vegemite (Vitamin B is said to deter the little buggers).

Apart from the Vegemite, all these measures are a bit on the tedious side. But perhaps the most exciting response is the battery-powered “fly swat”. This little tennis racquet-like object (actually more like a racquet ball bat) has criss-crossing electrical wires which vapourise the little mosquito critters with a most satisfying ray-gun-like zap.

A word of warning – where I grew up, mosquitos were like Japanese Zeros. You could hear them screaming in on their bombing raids and usually felt them sticking their proboscus into you. But here, they seem to be much smaller and fly in silent-running mode and do their bit without you knowing. So there really are a lot more of the critters than I think. When I sat in a restaurant watching the barman waving his “racquet” about and obtaining full satisfaction every 5 seconds, I realised there is a life-long sporting vocation out there.

mosquito racquet

This provides many hours of fun if you are not a member of the Dili tennis club. Every house should have one.