Last of the first days

I think that all blogs have a natural life-span. This blog’s life is over.

I designed it to be about the last days I spent in Dubai, and the first days in Dili. After seven weeks in Timor, I think my “first days” are finished.

But more than that, I have realized that I really just can’t write freely here. I am connected to a project, and am part of the NGO community. I don’t want to unwittingly cause problems for this project by something I write on the blog.

There are dozens of stories I didn’t write here, and that makes me sad.

I’ve enjoyed blogging. Maybe I’ll start another one someday.

Thanks for reading.

This site is NOT censored

 Many apologies and much embarassment here…. It appears it was the local server blocking me (though I have yet to understand why…)

Have removed the post in order to minimize damage from unfair lashing at TT. Not that they don’t deserve it for other reasons!

Thanks to readers in Timor for pointing me in the right direction.

Another angle

I do still miss Dubai, for sure. But, I have to admit, it’s good to live in a country where:

+When you walk down the street, people actually smile back at you and say “Bon dia, Senora.”

+A polo shirt, camp pants and sandals are acceptable business attire.

+It rains every day for about four months. But not a little piss like in the UAE, or an all-day drizzle like Seattle – it’s an afternoon downpour that soaks everything and makes it smell good.


+There is greenery on every single corner. It isn’t watered with expensively desalinated water, but with rainwater.

+You don’t have to pay extra for organic food. No one uses chemicals. Anything you buy on the street is organic. All the chickens are “free-range.”

+Fresh fish. Everywhere, every day.

+You can buy pork and alcohol in ANY store, without you or the store having a special license.

+The locally grown coffee is good enough for Starbucks and definitely good enough for me – and it costs $5 per 500 gr, instead of $7 for 250 gr.

+No one drives 160 kph, ever. The highest speed never exceeds 60 kph [that’s about 40 mph for my American readers]. Taxi drivers average about 20 kph.

+You are never stuck in traffic for more than 15 seconds.

+It’s perfectly safe to take your eyes off the road long enough to have a good restful gaze at the sea. And almost anywhere you drive in Dili can be gotten to from the beach road.


+When I look out the window of our apartment, I see misty green hills and hear children laughing. My neighborhood is populated with people who have gorgeous smiles and young men who sit on the wall and play guitar.

+My neighborhood also has dogs, chickens, pigs and goats. My house has geckos. I adore geckos – not only because they eat insects but because they are impossibly flat.

+A host of amazing tropical insects just perch on flowers and wait to be photographed. [I will, one of these days.]


Ze’sopol Carlito Caminha/TiLPA

+The spiders and cockroaches are so big that they are like pets, and you can just chase them outside when they are in the way.

+Mangos seem to be in season every six weeks.

+There are amazing photographers like Carlito and Jonny, whose work is featured in this post [and more to come soon!].

Faithless love

By the time I got on the flight to Singapore, I was completely fried. For two weeks I’ve been getting no more than six hours of sleep a night, and the last few nights it’s been about three. I settled in my seat at 2:30 a.m., put on my noise-cancelling headphones, and fell asleep.


I woke with a jolt when the plane lurched away from the earth. As the wheels went up, I looked out the window just in time to see my last view of Dubai disappearing in a blaze of lights. And I gave out a sob, pressed my hand to the window the way that wives do when they visit their husbands in prison.

And then I fell asleep again.

Off and on, over the 6 and a half hours, I was vaguely aware of the adorable kid sitting next to me. His father kept trying to wake him up and make him eat, but the kid just kept falling over into sleep. When he was briefly awake, I asked him his name in a couple languages, but he just stared at me like I was some kind of dream / nightmare. I could relate…

But then, when the plane started its descent, I lifted the shade and saw — Southeast Asia. Sea, palms, boats, fields, old Chinese-style buildings. It all came back in a rush – 1991, 1993, 1995, 1999, 2002…..

Oh! I forgot. I love Asia, too. As soon as the plane doors open I can smell Asia, my love, my first love.

That heat, which even at its worst feels less cruel than Arabia’s desert-fueled furnace. The air that smells like rice and fish and charcoal. I love the smell of her….

I am such an unfaithful lover. It takes just those seconds to forget my love of the Middle East and fall in love with Asia again.

The Hawala

I tried to go the legal route first.

I just needed to send $3000 to Afghanistan, a contribution to the news agency that Tom and I started. They have a bank account, I have a bank account, neither bank account is in the US, both deal with multiple currencies.

However, when I tried to use the online wire transfer, my bank in Dubai sent me a message which I did not get for many days, saying that they needed the info for the intermediary bank. By the time I got and sent this info, my bank had already started the process to credit the money back to my account. The upshot: I paid $18 in bank fees plus $28 in loss via exchange rate differences, two weeks had passed, and the money still wasn’t in Afghanistan.

My bank said try again. I said Hawala.

Centuries ago, before there were banks, before “america” was “discovered” and before “Europe” was doing much of anything serious, there was trade in the Middle East and Asia. And those traders had to have a way of getting money from one place to another. That was the hawala.


You went to the hawala in Medina and you gave him 100 currency-units and a fee, and you said to send 100 currency-units to your family in Fez, and they got the 100-currency units through a sophisticated system of communications and trust that did not rely on phones, the Internet, or any such nonsense.

The hawala system gives a different meaning to the term “personal banker.” It grew up on family ties, that became trading ties, that became somebody who knows somebody and whose reputation will be ruined if they violate this trust.

Unfortunately, the US government learned about hawalas after 9/11, because some of the money used to set up the attack went via hawala. Well, duh.

But because of this bad use of a good system, the US went crazy on hawalas and for awhile tried to get them all shut down. One of many examples of sheer arrogant ignorance. Hawalas are used by poor workers everywhere in the region to send money home to their family in the villages, because it’s cheaper and frankly more reliable and comprehensible than banks.

So tonight I walked to the water-taxi dock on the south shore of Continue reading

Thunder and rain


They say the next real war will be over water. I wondered about it, as I sat in the bathtub. 30 litres of water probably?

The New Yorker article said Americans use more water per capita than anyone, but I read in the Gulf News that it’s the residents of the UAE who take that award.

When I was watching Al Jazeera International the other night, I saw that rain was likely in the Gulf, according to the chirpy blonde weather girl (sorry fellow feminists, her whole persona is deliberately “girl”).

Sure enough, when I went out today, it was gray and cloudy and raining. How about that – Al Jazeera doesn’t lie ALL the time, Mr. Bush.

Then I heard a vaguely familiar rumbling noise that made me think, for a moment, of guns or bombs going off. Damn, World War III has finally started, and me without insurance on my storage…

Later, listening to Al Jazeera while I pack, I look up to the screen when I hear “Gaza” and the sounds of thunder. It wasn’t raining there, though.

And the residents of Tuvalu, in the South Pacific, have no more than 40 to 60 years before their country is underwater, due to global warming. New Zealand accepts 75 “climate change refugees” a year.

The US accepts none Continue reading


i went up to watch the fireworks for the Dubai Shopping Festival. from the roof. and

i noticed that on the highest floor of this fancy building

in the office that has the best views of the fireworks, [that would be the H floor, used to be Health Club, now I guess it means Hip or Hot or High Rents]:

five of the six windows to the roof (the world really, since anyone can come in the lobby, take the elevator to the H floor, and wander at will)

ARE UNLOCKED [and so, by the way, is my front door… it’s Dubai]


I know, because I open every one of the windows of this office.

In one of them, some heavy-set guy in Western clothes is chattering in Arabic. An Arab. Working too hard. I want to run in and save him, as from a burning building.

It’s THURSDAY NIGHT, buddy! Juice night! The night that Continue reading



There are five men. It feels like a battallion.

The sounds. The tape coming off the roll makes a noise like skin being ripped from flesh. The beating of cardboard boxes as they’re set up is like drums against my bones. The drill runs constantly, pulling the screws from the walls, the artwork shunted aside.

The intricate wall hangings from Pakistan fall with silent screams. I don’t want them in boxes! It’s like shutting up a person alive in a coffin! They have souls, these tapestries, the fingers of the women who stitched them for weeks and weeks. They should never ever be in the dark.

I rescue one and sneak it into the pile for shipment to Dili.



And the books – it feels worse than burning them. For all they mean to me, and to Tom – our intellectual life, and our life together. After only a year to breathe, again they will be in storage.

A few days ago I found myself thinking that I would rather just throw it all out the window than to see my things all made prisoners once more. It seems better to have nothing than to go through this process of assembly and disassembly over and over again.

The speed at which the movers pack terrifies me. It is demonic. They work like robots – efficient, unsmiling, at a steady pace – but fast, so fast. In a little more than two days, they will take apart an apartment that took us months to get into shape Continue reading

Passing through

“A visitor is the greatest blessing.” – Proverb of the Afghans Georgians Chinese Arabs ???

I really can’t remember which country I heard that in, but it was somewhere in this part of the world. Over-the-top hospitality is considered characteristic in the Caucasus, Middle East, China, and Afghanistan (at least).

I used to puzzle over how such a tradition would evolve in these regions. When you are poor, as so many have been, why would you welcome a guest – another mouth to feed, another person consuming your scarce water, taking up one of your beds?

Then I realized that these countries are all on major trade routes – the Silk Road and the Arabian Gulf. And when you live on a trade route, you learn the value of all kinds of commodities.

In Dubai, we’ve had lots and lots of visitors. It’s one of the things Continue reading

Identity theft

I am sobbing over credit card receipts.

I am still in Dubai, so I don’t have to take such care with all those numbers that add up to some kind of identity. If anyone took the trouble to fish it out of the garbage here, and then tried to actually use the information, they’d be given 1000 lashes, jailed for 10 years, then deported.

But still. I rip those pieces of paper into bits. I separate the first three digits from the last six digits of my social security number and put the two pieces of paper into separate garbage bags. It feels like I am ripping my soul into two.

Who am I?

Am I the equal of my bank balance? In which currency?

Am I the translation of Lisa into “Liza”? Or just the SSL encryption of my father’s name?

I am having to put myself into Continue reading