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.

Riding the Waves in Bed

Saturday 28 Jan 2006 2:02am – all quiet.
Saturday 28 Jan 2006 2:03am – woken by someone shaking the bed. Hey wait a minute … the whole building is shaking in the breeze. Whoa … (expletive deleted).

For about 30 seconds, I rode the wave while lying in bed speaking in mono-syllabic expletives. Swaying in the breeze was just right, but we are only on the 1st floor of a 3 level building.

The knowledge that the Hotel Timor would fail any structural integrity tests elsewhere in the world did not sit well in the guts as we rode out the wave. Having lived in known earthquake zones before, I don’t recall feeling quite so unsafe. One can only thank that this building is no taller than 3 levels.

The thought of finding alternative accommodation suddenly rose to the surface again. Even one of the larger banks in town had to move at great expense because of the imminent collapse of its new foreigner built premises. This does not inspire confidence with alternatives either.

The distinct lack of independent certification of building works is already high on our agenda as we seek clarification on the completely new electrical wiring in our soon to be completed residence. When you have the acknowledged best electrician in town, I am told you have to accept his own self-certification. Because the alternatives are not worth it.

Saturday 28 Jan 2:37am. I think I can go try to go back to sleep now. Maybe I just might pop a little sleeping pill.

Postscript : This quake which was reported widely in the media, turned out to be a 7.7 Richter scale one some 440kms away. As far as I can tell, everyone seems to have woken up during this one.

The Humble Dimma

A few weeks back, I had my nirvana-like experience. However, for 99.9999% of the world’s population, going into raptures over “Marathon dimsims” is a rather pathetic thing to do.

Roll back a couple of days … I bumped into a fellow Australian who mentioned he was going to the informal Australia Day function organised by the embassy for all OZ passport holders. Initially, I was aggrieved as I knew nothing about it, but it turns out that there are advantages in registering oneself with the embassy. (Later in the day, I did in fact receive an invitation, indirectly.)

I met this guy about 3 hours drive from Dili and he mentioned he was on his way to Dili for the OZ Day BBQ and he was looking forward to some OZ food. I casually mentioned my Marathon dimsim nirvana experience and (saints be praised) not only was he from the State of Victoria (home of the Marathon article) but he too was a Marathon dimsim-eating gastronome.

As soon as I mentioned that Phil (another Marathon gastronome) at the Dili Club was a potential supplier, his eyes lit up and he was on the case. The Dili Club has arguably the best pizzas in town and Phil has a home delivery service, but due to the government wanting to take over his bit of land, he was asked to move. There was a bit of umming and ahhing as Phil decided whether to carry on at all and a couple of weeks ago, the future of the Dili Club was up in the air.

But my new mate has confirmed already that a new Dili Club site has been signed, sealed and delivered. Its now up to Phil to supply. You see, I am not so unique after all.

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.

A Few Days of Fun

Living in the hotel is certainly becoming a drag, so any alternative suggestions are met with great glee. On Friday, an invite to after-work drinks seemed a good way to start the night.

So I started off with gin and tonics. The group decided to move onto the Audian Hotel for Chinese food. I switched to beer. The food was variable ranging from as authentic as I know to very average.

The group decided to move onto Carlo’s (?) Bar for more gin and tonic and some beer. At 1am, what was left of the group decided to move onto the Coolspot nightclub. I had passed this place many times but was oblivious to the fact that this place only rages after midnight. As it turns out, I must have been tired and emotional and when I walked in without paying (there was no sign !) was met by a surly security guy who instructed me to pay. When I saw that women went in for free, I complained and standing on my principles refused to go in under such sexist conditions.

I was to later find out that the entry fee was redeemed in beer and was designed to keep out locals who went in for nothing and spent nothing all night. Next time, I hope they don’t remember that surly white man’s face !

Next day, I was going to a hash house harriers run with some military guys. I told them the (incorrect) location. We got to the wrong place and found that none of us had brought a mobile phone, so we rushed back to pick a phone. Fortunately, “Jack Brabham” was driving and even more fortunately, he tailed an ambulance with all sirens going. Lets just say you couldn’t do this in any other part of the world and keep your licence ! And we weren’t late either.

Next day, I had some mail to be sent to Australia. A military acquaintance was spending a 1 week R&R in Darwin, so I asked him to hand-carry my mail and post it there. (The Timorese mail service is said to be woefully slow as mail goes via Portugal, or at least seems to.) So I had to deliver to aforementioned military guy who was having his last drinks at a bar. USD66 of drinks later (3 of us), we left the bar, leaving my mail behind.

Having corrected the mail error, my courier was too drunk to come to dinner later and next day, his military flight was cancelled and delayed for another week. But it’s still the fastest way to deliver my mail !

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.

Gong Bao Ji Ding

In deference to my gong bao ji ding (henceforth known as gong bao) loving fellow blogger in Beijing, Wanbro, I feel I must report on the local supplies of the essential gong bao in Dili.

For those unfamiliar, gong bao is chicken cooked in peanuts with a dash of chilis. The variations are enormous in the amount of peanuts, heat of the chilis, added sweetness and the oft-suspected use of fake chicken (ie soy chicken).

Wanbro has achieved stellar heights in his quest for the perfect gong bao and when attained, his ramblings on the subject are legendary.

The China Town restaurant here in Dili is known to have several Beijingers in the kitchen and this is evident in a number of items on the menu. The jiaozi are an exact replica of what can be found in Beijing, and for us Marathon dim sim loving konnoyzers from Melbourne, jiaozi are an adequate substitute for the real thing. (jiaozi are known as dumplings which may contain a number of ingredients but my own favourite is the pork and cabbage, which emulates the Marathon reasonably well).

As for the gong bao, a bit light on for chicken, a bit heavy on the peanuts and a bit light on for chili. Surprisingly low on sweetness and perhaps lacking that satisfying well-balanced finish. Nevertheless, it came across to an essentially gong bao neutral audience as the pick of the courses.

I tried the other signature dish in my own repertoir (the shredded pork or “zhu rou si”) but it was pale imitation of the genuine article. When I finally get a kitchen, I feel like cooking up a batch of “zhu rou si” and giving the boys a few lessons.

The bill came in at US$7 per head for the banquet-style meal – about 30% less than your typical expat oriented eatery. As for decor, the ever-present white tiles and minimalist furnishings woud give a Salvation Army soup kitchen a run for its money.

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.

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.

More trouble in the guts

Unfortunately, I have had a relapse of my earlier gastric difficulties. The doctor had warned that this particular stomach bug had proved to be a tough one to defeat. And so it proved to be.

The result was similar to last time. The hotel room bathroom copped a huge spray and like last time, I seemed to lose consciousness again. I am not sure I have ever been as sick as this. I couldn’t scratch myself for many hours.

The medical result was a move to drug number 3 and paternal advice re. eating simply etc. etc. As it turns out, for the last couple of days, any food seems to disagree with my digestive system. Normally, you pay big bucks for this sort of dietary control.

Besides the positive weight reducing properties of this gastronomic regime, it turns out that I have no trouble processing alcohol. I got bitten by a mosquito yesterday and have been “forced” to move onto the gin and tonic. Someone pointed out that in order to get any anti-malarial effect from the tonic, you would need to drink quite a few bottles of gin. So !!