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.

Sunday drive

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It’s been many a year since I’ve done a regular Sunday drive – since childhood, I guess. But we have a car, and a day off, and an open road.

Although we’re a bit cautious because of the security problems, we find that as soon as we get to the outskirts of Dili everyone is smiling and waving back at us. The day is cloudy, but the hills are a tartly bright green in three shades of velvet, the sea is the blue of a well-worn baby blanket, and the road winds through it all like a path through a madman’s garden.

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I am gritting my teeth and clutching the door handle as soon as the road starts to climb. The roads here are almost never a full two lanes; vehicles negotiate the space in a slow-speed version of Chicken. There are huge potholes and sharp drop-offs at the edge where the rains have washed away the pavement. The road follows the curtain-like folds of the hillside, so most of the curves are very, very blind. The buses and mini-buses, overloaded with passengers clinging to the roofs, trundle along in surprising numbers. Because we drive on the left here, heading east means we are on the outside edge of the road with a sheer dropoff to oblivion – and of course there are no guard rails.

Tom drives slowly and he’s a very good driver, so I do manage to enjoy the views – though mostly when we pull over.

Mogadishu likes the views too.

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He climbs on the rocks, admires the sea, and finds treasures on the beach.

Mogadishu makes friends wherever he goes. He waves at passing cars and buses and trucks, or poses prominently where they can see him. Without fail, the Timorese smile broadly or burst into laughter, and wave back. Even the teenage boys, who invest quite a bit of energy in looking tough and fierce, can’t help themselves.

The sight of me grinning and holding a little yellow dog is of course more evidence that foreigners are crazy, but Mogadishu is adorable all by himself.

We are on a quest for straw mats to cover the floor under the dining table. [They’re not sold in Dili; the city folk use the plastic ones from China.] I’ve been told the mats can be found about 45 minutes out of Dili, and sure enough, we come to a village lined with stands where baskets and mats bob from poles.

Although we only can speak a few words of Tetum, the women selling the goods know how to say “five dollar” and “ten dollar.” The labor of the hand-woven baskets and mats is so apparent, and the women and children are so thin, we do not even consider bargaining on the price. We buy five mats, two large baskets for laundry, and one smaller one for kitchen miscellania. The women chatter, clearly trying to figure out what the total bill is; I hand them $50 and ask, Is it OK? They smile widely and say Thanks.

Then I ask if I can take photos, and the children clamber to show off their gorgeous smiles. The best part, of course, is showing them the photos on my LCD display of my digital camera. They squeal with delight and point at themselves, and giggle.

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It’s the loveliest scene on the whole drive.

Bloodlines

9:35 a.m.: There is a live chicken in my kitchen.
Regina has bought it, at our request, and will butcher it and bring the pieces to us. I didn’t think she’d bring it to me before then, though… so now I have the distressing thought of having to eat an animal tomorrow which is clucking softly in a box in my kitchen today.
 

I get attached easily. Whenever a gecko flits into the house, I immediately greet it: “Hi gecko! What’s up?” There was a huge spider, the size of mouse, crouched in a corner near the office door last week, and I named it Pepito and spoke to it whenever I passed it. Most people have little sausage pillows that they stuff in front of the doors to keep out such creatures, but we don’t. I rather like animals of the tropics, even the insects.  

The other night there was a butterfly (or maybe just a colorful moth; I’m no biologist) sitting next to our stairway, right outside the front door. In the high wind, it just clung to the white post, swaying, as though it had been caught out after curfew and had nowhere else to go. Even when I approached it, even when I zoomed the supermacro lens just a few centimeters from it, the creature stayed put, as though waiting for me to take the photo.  

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9:48 a.m.: While I am editing the photos of the butterfly,
Regina goes into the kitchen. I hear the chicken scratching and beating its wings and clucking as she takes it from the box. Then I hear a soft whack. Then a lot of wings flapping furiously and scratching frantically, and I think, Jesus, is she killing that chicken right here, in my apartment? Somehow I figured she’d take it outside to cut its head off. But I’m afraid to look, imagining the white tiles of the kitchen splattered across with blood from the headless chicken running around in it. I concentrate on the photos, trying to bring out the color and texture of the butterfly’s wings.
 

9:55 a.m.:
Regina goes out to the porch and gets an empty box from the pile and takes it into the kitchen. I haven’t heard any more chicken sounds. I am still afraid to walk past the kitchen.
 

Hypocrite that I am, I do not want to see the middle part – the stage where it goes from being a bird to being a pile of meat. It’s not like I don’t know how these things happen. I have reported on factory farming and assembly-line butchering, which is why I won’t eat veal and almost never eat beef when in the
US. But I find it hard to be vegetarian. I like pork and chicken, would find it a real trial to give up fish or shrimp, although I cook happily without them and many of my meals are meatless.
 

10:08 a.m.:
Regina shows me the plucked corpse. The kitchen is perfectly clean. It’s kind of a shock to see this naked bird lying there, but it bears no resemblance to the feathered creature that was in the box a few minutes ago. How did she do that? She asks whether I want it cut into pieces, what parts I don’t want, whether she can take the scraps home, and I pantomime my answers.
 

I go downstairs to the office to talk to the staff about the security situation, and a team member offers me a piece of deep-fried tofu. I eat it gratefully. It’s delicious.     

Estadu de Sitio

(Lest you think that I’m oblivious to what is going on in
East Timor, with all my pretty photos and prose, here’s a personal update….)
 

The news update in my team meeting is tense. The president has declared a state of emergency and essentially imposed martial law. One candidate for the presidency has said that the election should be cancelled because of the security problems (though maybe he’s just afraid of losing, a staff member jokes). The Timorese soldiers are patrolling, doing random house checks, alongside some 1,500 UN troops and 1,300 Australian and New Zealand soldiers and an unknown number of additional outside forces that arrived this week. 

Our deputy director’s house was attacked by stone-throwing teenagers for no reason other than that the assailants had been thwarted when they tried to attack a rival’s house next door. One teammate, who’s Indonesian, had to move over the weekend after just a week in a new place, because there were gangs shooting outside his house.  Another teammate, American, had stones thrown at him while he was taking a friend home on his motorbike Friday night. The third team member, who’s Australian, is worried about whether we’ll cover her evacuation if she stays now, because all the other Australians are being evacuated today and tomorrow.  

We all think the Australian evacuation is a terrible overreaction, especially with several thousand police and soldiers bolstering the security from now to elections April 9. In Afghanistan, when the rocket attacks increased and the random grenades started, we tightened security and kept working. Here, people are jumpy, the UN mission is disorganized, and the rumors are running wild. We hear that the fugitive Alfredo has lined up hundreds of the sacked soldiers (known as the “petitioners”) who were the source of last year’s crisis, and that on his word they will burn down the city. We hear that criminals are setting traps to ambush cars: boards with nails on the road, or sending children to run out into traffic. When I tried to order pizza Sunday night from the one place in town that delivers, the young man at the other end of the line said in a shaky voice that they were closed because they’d been shot at. 

Meanwhile, we are still working on getting fire extinguishers and Internet for our office, which has taken longer than scheduled to set up (the reasons too many to list here). Tom is still trying to get the staff in the habit of keeping fuel stocked for the generator and keeping credits stocked on the phone line and the city power.   In the midst of this, I am relaxed.

It seems that the more extreme the situation grows, the more peaceful I feel. It reminds me of what happens when I’m very very angry: Everything slows down, and I speak One. Word. At. A. Time. I don’t recall actually learning to control my temper this way; it’s something that happened to me as I got older, and faced more extreme situations. It was a bodily reaction that synced with my acceptance of a risky life. Here, I see and hear the anxiety on my colleague’s faces and voices, and I reflexively want to make them slow down, too. I feel an immense patience with them and with the tension here. The bigger the problem gets, the further out my perspective goes, the longer view I have of the situation. It’s an instinctive counter-balance – as the seesaw falls heavily on the side of fear and anger, I am buoyed by a lightness and calm perspective. 

I tell my teammates that, although it may seem preposterous to make detailed plans for a nationwide voter survey in the midst of all this, we have to go on. That the situation could stabilize, and we have to be ready to take the opportunity to help. That our planning and our belief in the future can be an important influence on the Timorese. They fall silent. We walk through the lesson plan for Friday and talk out the logistics of conducting the survey. 

I send out waves of soothing energy in any way that I can.   I watch my neighbors carefully from the second-story porch of our apartment, which has a tree-sheltered view of the main street and the corner (as well as three escape routes). Our block has been untouched in the past violence in Dili, and our neighbor says it’s because the house of a “founding father” of independence lived and was killed there, so it’s a kind of sacred space. I’m dubious that the rouges who roam these streets know their nation’s history that well, but nonetheless something or someone is clearly protecting these houses.

More likely, I think, it’s respect for Avo Du, our 90-something resident caretaker, a shrunken laughing little man who has lived in this house all his life. He stands at the gate morning and evening, and he is fed and cared for by all the neighborhood. I love Avo Du and try to evoke his mirth whenever possible, which is quite easy since he seems to find the mere sight of me and Tom quite funny. He thinks it is absolutely hilarious that I drive a car, his shoulders shaking with laughter whenever he sees me behind the wheel, as though he is saying, “Monkeys have wings! Never thought I’d see the day!!” 

I take care to greet the neighbors, smile at them, wave, make jokes with the little girls walking home from school and give a thumbs-up to the teenage boys playing guitar on the wall.  

Smiling is important. I don’t care if I look stupid or naïve. I’m 47, I’ve traveled in more than 40 countries, and I’ve never been hurt or robbed or attacked. Seems dumb to change my policy now.  It is also strategic in a situation like this one. A sincere smile means “I am not a threat.” It is hard (though not impossible, I know) to make an enemy of someone who smiles and waves and greets you each day. As Tom says, “So what if they think I’m an idiot? Nobody’s going to bother to attack an idiot.” But when you stop smiling, neither side is sure. Neither side knows whether to trust, or whether the other is an enemy. When angry and mob mentality arise, it’s easier to lash out at the unsmiling stranger.  So I smile and wave at the people who know where I live. It is not insurance. But it’s an investment that costs nothing. And it helps, I think, to keep the calm. commemoration-for-sitio-carlito.jpg

Ze’sopol Carlito Caminha/TiLPA
 

May your strength give us strength,

may your faith give us faith,

may your hope give us hope,

may your love give us love… – Bruce Springsteen 

How the day goes

It’s hard to say when this day actually began. I guess it was at 1:10 a.m., when I woke up, and Tom was awake, and my Bose headphones were still on my head but switched off so that the noise-canceling was not operating. So I could hear the generator quite plainly.

It was loud. Not loud the way that a small generator is, the ones that only put out 5 KV and look something like a stand-alone car engine. Those things rattle and roar and make noise in about 15 different ways. Our generator, which supposedly has capacity for the whole office and our apartment, is about the size of a washing machine and is the “quiet” model.

But this just means that, instead of roaring and rattling, it makes the steady whirring sound of an enormous fan, with a high-pitched overtone, something like an eighteen-wheeler semi truck or a 737 jet engine does when it is idling. So, although this generator does not rattle my bones, it penetrates my flesh like a flannel sheet with a steel wool underside, scraping on some cellular level, inescapably painful but with a deceptively smooth outer layer.  

Despair washed over me. I’m sensitive, it’s true, sensitive to all kinds of noise. The booming bass from a disco half a mile away can keep me awake – as it did in the countryside of
Sihanoukville, Cambodia, or countless other places where I have spent miserable nights stuffing various objects and padding in and around my ears to block the sound – always in vain, for the bass goes straight to my bone marrow.

But it’s just who I am. It’s my biochemistry, my blessing and my curse, to feel things so acutely. It’s the same physiology that makes me prone to depression, and that enables me to laugh loud enough to shake the windows, and that heightens my powers of observation in a way that helps me as a reporter and a photographer.  

People who say “Just ignore it” when I complain about noise elicit the same exasperation from me as those who say “Don’t be sad” to someone who is suicidally depressed. If you have never felt this way, you don’t get it. Only those few who have lived their entire lives with a depressive or with a Very Sensitive Person sometimes grasp the level of pain that we feel on a daily basis.  

Tom and I have just moved out of a hotel room, after an interminable month of trying to sleep under an air conditioner that was approximately as loud as a generator, except it was on top of us. I am so happy to be in an ordinary neighborhood, with the normal sounds of an underdeveloped country: roosters, straw brooms sweeping, children playing, motorbikes.

Our first night, we had Continue 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.

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+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.

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+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.]

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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!].