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.

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!].


I can’t believe I live in a country where:

-Ash Wednesday is a public holiday.

-Dogs sleep for hours in the middle of the street.

-It’s perfectly acceptable to say to a woman in a job interview, “We heard that you’re pregnant. Are you? How far along are you? Will you work up until you deliver?”

-Flowers grow like weeds. In fact some of them are weeds. Anyhow, the most ordinary yard is like a botanical garden. [The header photo is a collage of common snapshots from our yard.]

-There’s lots of violence, and more than a few machetes, but no guns. The strongest gang graffiti is things like “Piss” and “Asshole” and “Black Spider” – twice.

-The word for “a lot” in Tetum, the local language, is “barak” which is the same as the Arabic root for “blessing.”

-When it rains, the foreigners run inside and the Timorese run outside. For Timorese, rain = time to swim, play on the beach, and go for a run in flip-flops or barefoot.

-The waitress says “I haven’t seen you in such a long time” when it’s Tuesday and you saw her on Friday. And she means it. And she’s right. It is a long time between Friday and Tuesday. At least in Dili.

Wheels down

The descent to Dili was very strange, because I recognized everything. There’s the main government buildings, there’s the mosque, there’s the church, there’s the big statue of Jesus welcoming us all. I knew the layout from studying satellite photos of Dili on Google Earth. I landed in a place I’d never been to but already knew.

The wind was so strong, when I got off the plane, that I could barely see for the hair in front of my face. And hot – 30 degrees plus, Celsius. (For my American readers, here’s the Easy Scale of Celsius conversions: 0 is freezing, 10 is cold, 20 is perfect, 30 is hot, and 40 is damn hot. Anything above that is “don’t leave the air-conditioned house.”)

A typical small island airport: the visa issuance was in a trailer outside, the luggage offloading was slow, there were about eight trolleys for a hundred passengers, but the duty free store was well-stocked. The other passengers ranged from Chinese women in the type of tacky revealing clothes favored by low-priced sex workers, to the Aussies with their perpetual tans wearing jeans who apparently think that 30 C is a cool day.

And there was my honey Tom, standing outside gabbing with some other expat contractor, also looking tan and relaxed albeit sweaty, and in one hug-and-kiss swoop I forgot that he’d abandoned me to pack up the household….

We were assaulted by the skinny Timorese urchins before we got out from under the front awning, but turns out Continue reading

Interlude: Mogadishu in Denpasar

Where I go, Mogadishu goes.mog_bathroom.jpg

I let him stick his head out of my carry-on for the whole trip, and he loved it. Other travelers tried very hard to ignore me when I sat him on the table guarding the salt shaker. But who wants to talk to them anyhow?

Why “Mogadishu”? Rhymes with Machu Pichu and tiramisu, that’s why.

Why Denpasar? [That’s in Bali, an island in Indonesia.] Because it’s the normal routing to get to Dili. Don’t ya know?

So we’ve been enjoying Bali together. We’ve been to the pool, mog-pool.jpg Continue reading

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