Time for a break

It had to come but it is time for a rest away from Dili. In a way, I don’t want to miss anything but the way things are going at the moment, its hard to know when is a good time.

I guess most expats would have assumed that things would continue being a bit rough as long as the PM held on to his position. But many may have assumed that better times were coming if he resigned. But the longer the PM stayed on, the less comfortable I felt about that conclusion. The increased violence of this week is not a good sign and I (and many others) are back to wondering just where it will all go from here.

Lets see how many kilos I put on in a week.

Answered by Fire

Courtesy of one of the many Dili expats who have visited Australia on Air Hercules, I managed to get my hands on the recently broadcast “Answered by Fire” tele-movie.

I am certainly glad I did not see it 2 or 3 weeks ago as it might have made me feel quite nervous. But you can’t help seeing a few images of places that you recognise and comparing burnt-out dwellings because that’s what you face here right now.

When produced, no-one thought things would go the way they have in recent times. But if you think harder, you realise there are still quite a few bits of unfinished business to get worked through. And historically, there has been little record of the Timorese getting any recent practice at self-governance.

All up, I think it was well-done but surely there is another movie in recent events. We just don’t quite know the complete script yet and there are still some gaps in the storyline that have yet to come to light.

Out comes the dirty laundry finally

Well the dirt is finally coming out. I always wondered when it would hit the fan. The next couple of days should be interesting.

Then I will start marking some of those press and opinion pieces, some written by politically motivated drones who don’t know shite from clay.

Facts matter … opinions don’t.

No steps forward, 9 steps back

While doing my bit for gastronomic research (ie sampling a burger at the new Terrace Cafe) I got talking to an expat employee who works in the Ministry of Agriculture building. They were pretty much fully functioning back at work so my inquisitiveness got the better of me and I asked if I could come over and see what had happened.

It seems it was a bit of a mixed bag. Some offices completely cleaned out, others partially. The office where I had been invited seemed to be functioning but it was pointed out that a number of desks usually had computers on them. They had cleaned up everything except for one beaten up LCD monitor sitting on a desk. And the stationery etc. storeroom had been trimmed down quite a bit. They thought they were luckier than most.

One of the expat staff was there when looters were walking out with computer gear. He said they only took the newer better gear and left the older stuff. He suspected an inside job. The other feature that has been repeated by others elsewhere is that while the looting is going on, any expat in the vicinity is treated as invisible.

Although the building had been stripped of a lot of computer gear, I did get confirmation that backups of important data were safe and that many expats stored their own important data on laptops which they took with them.

After I left, I went to the Ministry of Education warehouses next door. There are about 4 warehouses about 20 metres wide and 60 metres long. Basically, they have have all been looted and trashed. People are still picking through the remains for printer paper and chalk. Kids are lighting fires in the many tons of paper littering the floors both inside and outside. There were computer parts smashed to bits and torched, a safe lying on its side with door mangled and many tens of thousands of primary school assessment books. And graffiti daubed on the doors.

I later learnt that the Delta coffee warehouse (&/or office) close-by was also looted over the weekend. Many sacks of high quality coffee went along with office gear.

I decided that if if this is what people will do in a country so desperately in need of more widespread education opportunities, then it may well be a long haul out of all this.

As for the burger, I give it a 6 out of 10 but a fail on the soggy chips.

From trash to crap

Over the last week, it seems that many of Dili’s expat residents have started returning. I’d say more than 50% of people I know are back.

Some will just pick up the pieces from where they left off and kick on from there. Some others may not be so fortunate. I know some contract professionals at the Ministry of Agriculture who returned to find their offices trashed, files gone, computers gone, obscene graffiti everywhere. One would hope they do have off-site backups. If not, its a complete start from scratch.

Imagine what you would think if you came back home (after being evacuated to Darwin for 10 days) to find your office trashed with nothing left, your children’s school closed indefinitely and your accommodation compulsorily acquired by foreign peacekeepers. I would take all that as a good hint to retire gracefully.

Not that Dili ever was a great place for expat kids, but it would appear it certainly is not now. The two international schools (that I know of) are closed indefinitely.

But I find some perverted irony in the fact that a country like Timor-Leste which is predominantly an agricultural society, should lose its Ministry of Agriculture almost entirely. Some other government departments have pressed on albeit with vastly reduced numbers.

Now you might think that with all this trouble that the electrical supply might be disrupted. Wrong. It feels like the electricity supply has been the best it has ever been since I have been here. It turns out that courtesy of the significant reduction in demand (now down to 30% of normal), the pressure on the diesel generation system makes it easier. And I am told that the supply system is very simple (no sun-stations or high voltage pylons etc.) and any repairs required are generally quite simple jobs involving wire replacement and perhaps re-erecting a pole.

I guess there are always market opportunities when circumstances like these crop up. I have this feeling that with the influx of foreign peacekeepers, the demand for emptying of septic tanks has increased. Twice in the last week, I have seen full tankers sloshing their way down the street.

Note to file : do not cycle behind a full tanker literally sloshing its way down the street – once was enough.

Conspiracy Theory 101

I don’t do politics. For the life of me, I can’t think like a politician so just can’t come to grips with political blustering and double-speak.

I am doing no better here, but at the moment, it would appear all the action is happening in the political arena – or more accurately, not in the arena at all.

Of late, (courtesy of Google News) I have read quite a few “propositions”. I have heard most of them mentioned here but I have little feel at all for which one or ones may be closer to the mark. I have heard this mentioned a number of times here and can concur : “you just can’t use western logic and assumptions to make conclusions about what has or may happen here”.

Lets try some of the “propositions” (in no particular order) :

  • Prime Minister Alkatiri, either directly or indirectly through the ex-Minister of the Interior Lobato, hired hitmen to rough up and perhaps incapacitate political rivals.
  • The Dili Chamber of Commerce stand to gain an enormous amount from the huge windfall in foreign income from the foreign military presence.
  • The “rebels” are being co-ordinated by President Xanana Gusmao for his own political ends.
  • Australia is stirring up trouble in order to de-stabilise the current government.
  • Prime Minister Alkatiri is using the foreign forces to bolster his position by quelling some of his opposition.
  • Indonesia is stirring up trouble to de-stabilise the current government.
  • Prime Minister Alkatiri is hugely unpopular but will never give up his position based on this unpopularity.
  • The imminent departure of the UN and the associated UN economy was going to leave a huge financial hole which is miraculously now filled again.
  • Recently, I had to explain to an acquaintance that I think it is one thing to say a certain party benefits from a certain course of events but a huge leap to saying they orchestrated it. Similarly, don’t assume malevolent intentions when good old fashioned incompetence and ineptitude is just as valid a factor.

    I am collecting some of the press reports which propose some of these theories (and in some cases, present them as fact) and will mark them out of 10 when the air clears.

    But I got 8 out of 8 in a football tipping pool last week and while I could claim a high degree of prescience, basically it was a week of good guessing. Oh, I forgot … I had no political agendas guiding my football selections.

    Why stay ?

    More than one person whether it be friend or relative has said to me “why stay? … you must be mad”.

    Good question. I am an expat. I am here as a short to medium term foreigner doing their stuff then moving on. While doing this stuff, I have no home to go back to. This is my home. This is where my slippers are ! If I leave, I either stay in a hotel somewhere or bludge off friends or relatives.

    I sat around a couple of days ago with a group of mates shooting the breeze and consuming a few lagers. An attempt was made to solve the world’s problems but we failed. Not one person would rather be anywhere else. We regard we are now safe. We all looked at the setting sun and agreed that it was absolutely bloody fantastic.

    We also agreed the current situation was an absolute bloody shambles.

    I went to a BBQ on the weekend and there certainly was a sense of having been through a very tense period but maybe the worst was over.

    That may be true for the expats, who at the end of the day will always have a free flight out of here, but there is certainly a feeling amongst the locals that it is far from finished and that there are quite a few moves to be made yet. On the weekend, the rumour mill was active again and there was an expectation of an “attack” on Dili on Monday.

    You don’t need to be Einstein to work out that over 1,000 well-trained, well-equipped and well-fed foreign troops supported by choppers, laser-guided weaponry, APCs and a couple of warships are going to make mincemeat of even a few hundred “rebels”. If they really want a stoush, they will want it up in the hills on their turf.

    So a few more people left Dili, the shops are even quieter than last week and nothing happened.

    More bustle

    As far as I can tell, both Landmark and Lita supermarkets are now operating at normal stock levels. Opening times are restricted to daylight hours, but apart from yogurt, it all seems normal to me inside the stores themselves.

    Landmark seems to have the added benefit of Malaysian troops using their front carpark as secure parking for their military vehicles. Lita store has no more fruit and veg operators across the road. The tell-tale signs of some torched stalls remain as a reminder.

    The Colmera shops have rebounded into action over the last couple of days and perhaps a key indicator, the first computer shop (Mr.Bram) is now open.

    The Sanan Rai restaurant/cafe opened again on Friday and in that general area on the eastern side of the Palacio do Governo, there is almost a bustle again. Bali Sunrise’s new incarnation as Terrace Cafe now actively promotes $6 burgers. The nearby Temptations restaurant/bar features $4 burgers. Is there an assumption that all the new troops in town are burger connoisseurs ? Misplaced for the moment as the boys are all operating dry at the moment and I think are not permitted to eat in local eateries. For the moment, it looks like consumption is restricted to soft drinks only.

    But it is slightly deceptive. Maybe the expat oriented market is normalising but there is a long way to go for the local market. Most of the shop owners in central Dili have reasonably secure premises with metal shuttered doors. Very few domestic residences have this sort of security and I am still seeing the odd fully-laden truck of people and possessions leave town. The refugee camps show little sign of thinning out.

    There has been a light thinning in the ranks of the press. There have been fewer incidents of late, more filler stories but given recent stories of political manipulation of the situation, an expectation that something may happen soon. Or maybe not.

    Nevertheless, the body has flabbed up a bit over the last few weeks and a bit of tweaking was required. Despite advice to the contrary, I resumed my exercise regime down by the statue at Cristo Rei. If you want solitude, its the place to be. Of the 6 to 8 seaside restaurants on the way out, only the Paradise restaurant (Balinese) was open and operating as per normal. I couldn’t help noting that they are located right across the road from the Hotel Dili 2001 where the Portuguese military police have accommodated themselves. Heaven help anyone who causes any trouble down there.

    Getting better

    I tripped out to see what has become of Becora on the eastern outskirts of Dili. It was the scene of gunfighting between the FDTL and Major Alfredo’s break-away military police and also a lot of east vs. west clashes. Supposedly, it has settled down while Comorro to the west seems to be taking the heat right now.

    Most of Becora is a ghost town and the area around the Becora market (and bus station) is a total mess similar to the destruction at Taibessi market a week or so ago. People are moving around but the hustle and bustle that once existed in the area is gone. It seems almost peaceful, only broken by the existence of a roadblock manned by NZ military looking for weapons in vehicles.

    The Audian shops were more active than Saturday with perhaps 15 to 20% of shops now open. Cool Storage is operating normally but Lita and Leader remain closed. Someone told me Landmark supermarket is open if you knock. The ANZ bank was operating but little else in Avenida Nicolau Lobato.

    I noted that it was the first day in a long time that I did not see plumes of smoke rising from the work of arsonists.

    The Taibessi, Becora, Caicoli and Comorro markets are not operating in any normal way but with Taibessi market at least having some operation amongst the ashes. In recent days, fruit and veg sellers have appeared at numerous locations outside houses and in fact, this makes it easier for the shopper as I can buy this stuff much closer to home.

    As for accommodation, the exit of residents has been replaced by an influx of the press and foreign military. Naturally, Hotel Timor is full, as is Hotel Dili and presumably Hotel Esplanada. Hotel Dili 2001 down towards Christo Rei has been compulsorily acquired by the Portuguese military police and the Australian Federal Police have taken over most of Timor Lodge Hotel, only leaving some of the long-term residents who are no longer permitted to eat in the hotel restaurant.

    On the eating front, the Cafe Brasil and City Cafe are both open, joining the One More Bar and the Crazy Sandwich as the available eateries in that part of town. The Monkey Bar appears to be open based on the blackboard menu out by the roadside. Of course, the secluded Hotel Dili remains the institution that it is and along with the Monkey Bar, 2 of my preferred eateries.

    On the esplanade to the west of town, the Castaway Bar is open as usual. The Beach Cafe remains closed but unaffected by any trouble. A smaller restaurant between Castaways and the Dili Beach Hotel was destroyed, suggesting to me specific targetting as no other place has been affected on that stretch of road. I had never been there and can not even remember its name now. The Esplanada Hotel remains open.

    The Bali Sunrise is no more. It has now been dismantled and a new Bali Sunrise is now located behind the Palacio do Governo near Alfa Omega next to the University. The old location is finally making way for a new Chinese embassy.

    As for the beach road on the eastern side of town, I have not been down there for weeks.

    Should you come back ?

    I have had a number of requests from evacuees to comment on whether it is safe to return. All I can do is comment on what I see.

    It really depends on where you work, where you live, do you have work (or a role to play) anymore or did you leave stuff in the fridge and your pre-pay electricity is about to run out.

    I know some people who do not have a workplace to return to. Others where the entire objective of their original job will now have changed. In the case of many who work in “capacity building”, it may well be a “start again” with years of work down the drain.

    For many, the decision is out of their hands and in the hands of the employer.

    For those involved in work outside of Dili (perhaps Aileu, Gleno, Ermera and Maubisse excluded), things will barely have changed except for an influx of ITDs from Dili. I am unaware of any trouble elsewhere, however I have heard stories of groups consolidating themselves in the more far-flung places in preparation to assist their brethren in Dili.

    It really is a mixed bag. There is no one answer, but I would suggest that anyone thinking that they can just come to “help” to think again. Right now, one more spare prick at a wedding is not what is needed.