A Big Weekend

I needed it. Although it was meant to be the day we moved into our house after 5 1/2 months, being the caring and sharing guy that I am, I opted for a weekend away where alcohol played a major part in proceedings.

So I headed off on the weekend away, taking my bicycle and sleeping gear for a weekend away with the hash house harriers. The group of about 30 went to Gleno which is a village about 50 kms from Dili. The roads are not that great so it took about an hour and a half to get there.

Despite the “hash’s” dubious reputation, we stayed at an orphanage in Gleno run by an Australian in his spare time. You have to be in awe of these people who set out to do this. There are tons of kids here parentless, courtesy of the turmoil over the last 25 years, famine or just plain old poor health.

So the hash goes there, sleeps rough, brings tons of food and other stuff, consumes what they need and leaves the rest. This feeds these kids for weeks. The guy who runs the place is extremely grateful. We have a great time and feel good about the whole thing.

On the Saturday afternoon, we did a ~10km run in the mountains which was absolutely magnificent. To be honest, only about 10 people did the run with the rest opting for a more casual walk.

At dusk I decided to have a wash in the mandi (Indonesian style bathroom – lots of tiles and lots of water splashed around the place). I slipped big time and landed flat on my back on the tiles. I curled up into a fetal position for 5 minutes while I got my shite together. I have massive bruising of the lower back and arms, but I survived without critical damage. No, I was not drunk, but who will believe me ?

For a reason that escapes me, Fretilin had a big party in Gleno on the Saturday and graciously allowed the electricity to run all night instead of stopping at midnight. The locals took advantage of this and partied until dawn. After a 10 km run and a number of beers, and wishing to remain compus for the following day’s bike ride, being kept awake all night with (to my tastes anyway) music to die by playing all night, and dogs fighting, and the early morning roosters crowing and the door creaking every time some one went to the toilet. Well, I was knackered when I got up.

On the Sunday, I was part of a group of 7 who rode bicycles back to Dili. It took us around 3 hours with plenty of ups and some cheek-flapping downhill runs of awesome proportions. It was a blast. And absolutely magnificent for 50 kms.

The perfect introduction to a week of full-time box unpacking, swearing and house problems.

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.

Crossing the blockade by bicycle

Of all the Presidential visits to TL, perhaps one of the biggest has to be for the Portuguese. They may not have been here first, and may not have even been the most recent colonial masters, but they still hold big sway.

So the Man is here all week and you know about it. As there is no other alternative, he and his entourage are staked out at my old digs at the Hotel Timor, except the Prez is in the Presidential suite at the other end of the corridor.

The lads decided that it was a good idea to blockade off the streets around the Hotel and also around the government buildings. Now for the car driver, this is a pain in the ring.

However, for the ageing cyclist (with a bomb-shaped backpack on his back), it is not a problem. I tried my luck and bowled past the military guys with their Uzzis or Kalashnikovs or whatever. I tested the water … not a problem.

For several days, this has been great. For once, hoovering down past the Hotel Timor on my own, with not a car in sight and not a security man even winked. I guess white faces are a valuable ticket. I even parked my bicycle at the front door of the hotel (unlocked) had lunch and headed of again 1 hour later. Nope, no bomb squads checking my cogs or my derailleur.

A short sweet moment of cycling victory … even if the blockade only consisted of traffic cones.

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.

No doctor … not again

Well, it seems to be happening all over again. I seem to have acquired a bad throat infection and by the time I decided that this was no normal sore throat, the doctor is on holidays again.

Getting a sore throat is no surprise. In an obviously new environment, there are bound to be whole new strains of germs etc. that the body has never seen before. Maybe I compound respiratory woes by cycling daily. The big surprise is even after 3 days of heavy rain, the city streets are quite dusty.

The dust at street level is not that much different to the stuff I breathed in Beijing at street level, although I am certain nowhere near as noxious.

So I call the OZ doctor and he has just gone on holidays and due back in 2 weeks. Yes, there are some local doctors, some Cuban doctors and probably an American doctor hidden away somewhere but that’s a whole new ball-game for me.

So I go down to the pharmacy and self-prescribe amoxicillin. I get a whole course for US$1 – no prescription necessary. I note the complete arsenal of drugs for all manner of gastric and colonic difficulties. I feel satisfied … I hope.

The Dili Club finally closes

It’s finally happened. The Dili Club premises on Avenida de Portugal have closed and the site reduced to a blank space within days.

It has been an institution on the esplanade for 5 or so years and while stories from the peak of the UN days suggest the place was a bit rough, a certain gentrification has obviously occurred, although probably little in decor.

Dili Club before

Last drinks were on Friday 17 February, after having called last drinks at least 4 times over the last month or two.

Phil should be re-opening as Phil’s Grille by next Saturday directly cross the road from Timor Toyota on Comorro road (ie also across from Leader supermarket).

The last I heard was that Phil was building some fancier premises back on Avenida de Portugal west of the Esplanada Hotel – elevated sea views etc. More later.

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.

The Truth and Reconcilation Report

The “Truth and Reconcilation Report” (commonly referred to as CAVR – the Portuguese abbreviation) was released on 2 February on the internet (www.ictj.com).

In the words of the report itself, the intention of the report is :
“to establish the truth about the human rights violations which occurred in Timor-Leste throughout the 25-year period between 1974 and 1999”.

Unless you have been living under a rock, you would know that East Timor achieved independence in 2002 after a popular referendum in 2000, gave 74% support for full independence. This came after some fairly turbulent times when Indonesian-backed “militias” ransacked the country when the Indonesians withdrew in 1999.

The 25 years refers to the period when the Indonesian ruled the country after the withdrawal of the Portuguese in 1974.

I’ll leave the 2500 page report (actually 2664 pages in downloadable PDF format) for you to read at your leisure and summarise by the weekend, but lets just say some pretty nasty stuff went on.

From this end, one of the fascinating features of this nasty period of world history, is the reaction of the Timorese people themselves. In general, there is no enduring desire for vengeance. I guess most people have their own battles to fight just to survive, but basically, the people come across as very peaceful and calm. Most foreigners comment on this.

Of course, there are some people who are genuinely seeking some sort of redress.

President Xanana Gusmao, who himself spent 10 years in a Jakarta prison, seems genuinely insistent that seeking revenge is not the way to go and things will be better if the terms of engagement with the quite different current Indonesian government are best served by moving on.

However, looking at it from a world perspective, it is probably best that the truth come out and the bad bits are not just swept under the carpet. But who knows what will happen from here.