Birthday pigs

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.




Full Moon Express

I write this from atop the wooden beamed balcony of the Dili beach hotel. Naked children fresh from a rough tide cluster among the beach weed like Eve. Anchored freight vessels hover around the port and taxis crawl past on the road below. Atauro Island watches me from across the strait. Again, an overwhelming sense of home tugs on my heart as I watch Dili go by. I’m startled as I write this when a floating child in the sea seems not to surface until pop! There he is. A man waves to me with his helmet.  Ah Dili. How do I love thee, let me count the ways.

I have been here for just over one month now. If the next eleven pass as quickly I am in real trouble. I can’t help but feel a sadness already about leaving though I am still eleven months out. I am taking that to be a good sign. Having said that I have had some rough days lately, heck I had a rough ten days a few weeks ago. They were sort of a meld of missing my partner, adjusting to things on my own, acclimatizing to the heat and a dense isolation that comes from living in a compound. Cutoff and quietly sheltered, my apartment has all the mod cons like air-conditioning and a bathtub. What it lacks is humanness. I found myself timing my own bedtime to that of the Nepalese family next door’s child so that I wouldn’t have to sleep in the silence. Realizing this lifestyle wasn’t for me I have found a place through a friend that is a lot more real. I move in nine days into the top floor of a Timorese family’s house and I can hardly wait. In a lane full of children, tamarind trees and avocado vines, pigs scrabbling around in the dust and dogs nipping at one another’s tails is where I will be. This is the way that I want to be here in Dili.

Timor has been elusive and inconsistent. Incredible highs and then torturous lows. Sometimes all in one day. You wake up never knowing what to expect and you get better at expecting not too much and going with the moment to moment flow. Something that’s given me some excellent moments has been riding my bicycle. It’s a cheap creaky import from Indonesia but oh how she rides like the wind. I’ve had a deep and abiding love for cycling since I was a kid and Dili provides all sorts of challenges and twists for a rider. It’s also the best way to catch a breeze and shake off a bad mood.

A highlight has been fulfilling one of my adult dreams-to join a choir. I popped into the Dili choir several weeks ago when I was feeling blue after my beloved bossman’s departure, and what singing collectively with a bunch of over 55’s Timorese and malae did for my heart and spirit is best described as expansive. I felt open and buoyant singing at the top of my confused alto/soprano-back-to-alto voice. Tomorrow is once again choir night and you can bet I’ll be doing my throat exercises before bed this evening.

There’s always so much going on in Dili and it is up to you how much or how little you want to be involved. I’ve also joined a hash group here that does runs and walks around different parts of town. Last week the hash route was through Becora up in the hills where much of the trouble in 2006 was concentrated. It’s a very poor area with a lot of vulnerable communities perched precariously on hills made entirely of dust. The kids around there have these amazing sinewy legs that propel them up and down the hillsides. It was so amusing for them to see these large, oafish malae teeter along the dusty ridges. One kid told me we were so slow he couldn’t believe it. I agreed with him.

Work has been an interesting insight into development practice with a local community based organization. Figuring out cultural semiotics and all the densely intricate networks and connections that come with a different workplace culture, gender roles and interactions, how all of these things interact with age and hierarchy has been amazing. Being here I feel as though all my senses are on fire, my ears especially. I can almost feel my ears twisting and yearning outwards trying to pick up conversation. My eyes feel wide and my pupils dilated taking everything in, reading and understanding, connecting and comparing. My brain is full of sparks.

I’ve got the privilege of working with a local host organization working on child and housing rights in Timor Leste. I’ve been engaging in a slow and beautiful process of forming relationships with all of my colleagues. Making clunky jokes with my Tetun, then laughing about my clunky Tetun together has been pretty good. But a recent trip to the district of Baucau was a turning point. Speaking, and listening only to Tetun for three days laid a good foundation in my brain and I found myself thinking about Tetun all the time especially before bed. Sitting with my dictionary figuring out different sentences before the power ran out. I have never before appreciated communication and all its attendant gifts before. Each sentence understood is a delicious reward. Another thin silver chord that seems to reach out tying you a little more to the person you are speaking with. I returned on a high from beautiful and cool Baucau. The temperature cooled my body and mind and the quiet of the district brought us all a little closer together. We shared fish on a stick and Portugese wine from a box and in amongst it all I felt something shift. I look forward to all the tiny shifts.

*A quick note before I sign off to say how sad it has been to watch the fires in Sydney from here. Springwood was my first home and I am thinking of all my friends and family who are in the mountains. All things crossed that it fizzles to whisper of smoke tomorrow.