Tis my birthday today. I thought about just leaving it at that but it seemed a little self-indulgent. I’ve had so many things I wanted to write about that I’ve ended up just making a list over the last few weeks and not actually writing. They’ve piled up into a repository (not suppository) of moments. Several of them have to do with pigs! The most beloved of animals. Here are ten standouts:
Ben the pig appearing one day in my friend’s garden. He scratched his bottom on the rough trunk of a tree every two minutes. Due to some black pigmentation on his eyelids, his eyes looked much bigger from afar giving him an especially sentient look. Ben was clearly there to be eaten at some point. It is the first time in my life I have lived so close to an animal that would soon be slaughtered for food.
Some pigs get very big in Dili. One I saw had long legs and was the size of a little pony. It walked around high and elegant, a funny silver color making him/her look regal. Another one I see often is short, squat and warthoggish. She is bristly with a tough hide and very heavy with milk right now. When I was riding to work one day, she was crossing the road and came to one of the small canals that drain the muck and rain out of the city. She saw me, she saw the canal. Leaning back she then jumped clean over it in one incredibly dainty go, her full mammarys swaying from side to side as she landed. It was for some reason a very special thing to see. Turns out pigs do fly.
Today on my birthday, three little piglets squeezed out from under a gate just as I left home and stood in order of size peeping at me. I wasn’t sure what to do but I ended up saluting them.
When I arrived in Sydney for Christmas I was skinny and bug eyed. At the Henson Hotel on the night I arrived I felt cushioned like I was in some safe, spun cocoon in a thunderstorm. Everyone was bigger, safer, carefree, leaving their meals uneaten, their glasses always full and with coins falling tittering out of their pockets. I felt a little like oil in water that night, part of it but separate. By the next morning it had faded and I was re-absorbed into the pace and privilege of my lucky life. I was stunned at how quickly this happened.
At one of the second hand clothes stalls in Caicoli I saw a GAP jumper hung up on a pole. Faded grey, the letters ‘GAP’ hung back tiredly, the arms loose and empty by its side. I stopped and checked the tag-‘Made in Bangladesh’. I saw the strange circle that consumer goods complete, over and over, running rings around the world. Made in the global South in Dhaka in some malevolent warehouse, shipped to that other great warehouse of iniquity, the shopping mall somewhere in the North, only to return used and discarded to the South.
On the way back from visiting Big Jesus on the hill one Sunday, I rode past two police cars stopped beside a cart owner. I watched a butchy policeman curl his lips and arch his back advancing to his police car. As I passed by on the bike I saw a young man curled up terrified inside against the window just as a stick entered the car. I felt a sick hollow feeling. It wasn’t the stick. It was seeing the fear that comes from realizing another human being had done away with those safeguards of thought and conscience that prevent us from violence. The grasp that once that’s done anything could happen.
Every morning and afternoon I pass by the national police force gym blaring Eye of the Tiger. The gym is positioned by the roadside in plain view of all. You can smell the acrid sweat from the street and see the guys working out inside like shadow puppets. They are all bulking up. The biggest men in Timor are police. They have crew cuts and play Rocky songs while sporting RayBans. The NZ and Aus police force here to train them look exactly like them- or is it that the Timorese look exactly like the NZ and AUS police? I wonder if police brutality was in the manual.
Reading about the David and Goliath battle in the ICJ. Timor Leste is currently seeking a ruling in the International High Court of Justice to regain the documents the Australian Attorney General authorized to be seized in a raid on Timor Leste’s Canberra based lawyer. Despicability aside, the Australian Government’s justification is national security. A tiny nation with a tiny population where children scrabble around in the dirt poses a threat to national security? The ludicrousness of the claim is laughable except that it’s not funny.
The really excellent graffiti on the Australian Embassy wall of a kangaroo hopping away with a bucket of oil. Says it all really.
This is an everyday moment, though more like a constant questioning. What am I doing here? How much good or how much damage am I doing? How to make the little things count? How to persuade an organization that mimicking a Western INGO isn’t necessarily the answer? What about if it is because that’s how you get money to do good work as a local org? How to keep identity when pretty much all of development is about homogenization based on the IMF/WB/UN’s proformas for becoming-a-real-working-country? How to say I’m sorry and express solidarity in Tetun?
My birthday is sort of close to the beginning of a New Year. It brings all the usual reflection and questioning over life and who you want to be in it. I have an overwhelming feeling of having enough of everything I need and how fortunate I am because of it. Today on the 22nd of January there are reports of asylum seekers who during their tow back were allegedly burnt and beaten. We descended into Hades a long time ago with arguably some of the first steps down taken by the previous government. Petitions, protests, awareness campaigns while well-intentioned are missing the mark for me lately. Systems and structures create these conditions, not Cory Bernardi. He’s an idiot, but we know that. His own party knows that. They distract from the real threat- the structures, the history, the politics (shit it’s the ‘P’ WORD!). It’s about organizing so that it isn’t just the pure random luck of the draw where you are born that determines your opportunity and wellbeing. I guess at 29 I’ve kind of had enough of just a few having enough.
As I closed the door behind me this evening I glimpsed a boy shaking the tree across the road from my watering hole. I looked closely expecting a cock to fall from it, fresh and quivering for a fight. Instead, it was opaque leaves that fell light and dead around his head. Not happy with one shower, he shook it again laughing to some invisible friend. I think he did it just to seem em all fall. Another gleeful flash of beautiful Dili town.
I have been here three weeks now yesterday. Writing this I sit under the cool beams of a local hotel, taking equal advantage of their happy hour and wifi to wind down for the day. Walking up the stairs to the balcony you never know what combination of malae you are going to get and add yourself to. Today, it is a father and his two sons sharing a beer and talking through another day in Timor Leste. Less benignly, a group of cufflinks and ties sit and discuss cognac, lobster and champagne. Seriously. They did that.
I’m choosing a blog format to keep in touch with y’all, near and dear and to document a portion of the dialogue that bounces around my head about my experience and where I am. Some of it is useful, some of it is not. I like the idea of seeing change in the way I think or feel about things here.
So having said that, the last three weeks have felt like a marathon. I’ve had numerous mitochondriae flood my body and my digestive system has had it’s back against the wall. I have met a lot of people, malae and Timorese and had many conversations about Timor Leste’s past, present and future. Less so the latter because there seems to be a general unknown about this country’s future. I don’t know what my next year is going to hold but no one in Timor knows what the next year will hold. For a small country, it holds a lot of big records-not in all the right areas. It is over represented in road accidents, child malnutrition and sexual and gender based violence. But I learnt today that Timor Leste also has one of the highest levels of maritime biodiversity in the world.
Timor Leste has also been a lot of things I wasn’t expecting. Living in Dili is wonderful. It is a small city, flat and excellent for biking around because the traffic though plentiful moves at a snails pace. Unlike Sydney, I find that there is a bucket-load of tolerance and acceptance of cyclists. You’re just seen as another road user. No BMW’s edging you into the kerb or dickheads in utes yelling obscenities at you along Marrickville road. Best of all, for the first time I am the fastest person on the road. Faster than microlets, faster than government vehicles, faster than motorcyclists. It is also the best way to catch a breeze in a city that is unrelentingly hot and dry.
The hills look as dry as tinder and I have heard several people compare it to the Flinders Ranges. I haven’t been but the comparison to Australia is apt. When I first landed I wasn’t able to shake the overwhelming feeling that Dili was home. Since then I’ve figured that this has something to do with the light. It’s clear and thin and stupendously bright. I don’t love wearing sunglasses but they haven’t left my face since I’ve been here. I’m also dirty. All of the time. Caked in dust and today engine oil from who knows where. Each night before I go to bed the last thing I do is sit on the edge of the bathtub and scrub my feet, working a face towel over and around my heels especially which are now permanently black. I am the filthiest malae around and I know it.
Tetun is a fairly easy language in the sense that it doesn’t have the tenses that we have in English. It is straightforward, (infuriatingly so when it comes to numbers and counting) and like much in this resilient country, is morphing and coming up with something new every day. I’ve been doing Tetun classes at an institute here and I am at the stage where I can confidently converse with most Timorese about basic things. Many a cab driver has been on the receiving end of my earnest and flawed attempts at conversation. Today I managed to thank Mana who cleans my room for me when I am out for ironing and folding my underpants. Yesterday she placed all my bobbypins which were scattered all over the house in an ashtray in an attempt to housetrain me. She also went through my drawers and took out the clothes she thought looked best hanging, washing and ironing them. All in all she is amazing and I am both humiliated and grateful every time I come home because I can’t tell her yet how amazing she is and how right she is to put my bras in the right hand side drawer.
Safety is a big issue here. Or it is not, depending on who you speak to. My initial bravado has worn a little thin with a recent and uncharacteristic spate of stabbings around Dili. A powder keg situation of a high youth population coupled with massive rates of unemployment in said population equal trouble so the recent incidents are no wonder. Getting home at night can be a bit of an issue but having said that I have made a point to walk a lot around my neighborhood and am as familiar with people and their habits as they are mine. I figure the best investment in safety I can make is being a part of community.
I leave you all now with a Tetun version of ‘Sexual Healing’ ringing in my ears. Dili is home but home is also home. Ain’t that a wiggy conundrum.