Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Help? Thoughts

Finishing out my blog series on help, I here copy - anonymously and slightly-altered - some of the feedback I received on my musings and questions. I appreciated so much everyone who shared anything - while I'm not sure it brought me closer to any answers, it helped me have a more compassionate and realistic perspective.

These are problematic situations of helping without any criterion at all: of wanting to give more than the beneficiary can receive.

I would say err on the side of generosity, knowing that you may never see the results of the hard work you do. On the one hand, we do need to be wise about funding good programs and channeling most of the charity into places that work, but Jesus does say to give to everyone in need, and doesn't say "only give if you're sure they will use it for good."

I think you need to satisfy yourself personally that you've done everything you can with the resources you have at hand. If you eat yourself up, you won't be much use to anybody.

You need to trust that your planting and watering (we don’t always know what we are doing) will bear fruit.

You can reconcile yourself to the fact that people will just take the coins and buy what they want, and you continue to try to help that way, or you can find another way to help which sits better with your conscience.

I have become a much more fervent pray-er as a result of my helplessness. I have learned not to withhold any necessary help or affection, while being lovingly, graciously and consistently honest with [her]. The result? It's like a favorite song of mine, "It's your kindness, Lord, that leads us to repentance." Her heart has softened, she has begun to exhibit a repentant heart, and she is seeking to find out what pleases the Lord.

Then also, the fact that 'helping hands' don't always consider the full impact of their helping hands. For example, a friend told me of a community where the women had to walk miles each day for water, so a charity installed a pump in the village, making life much easier for the women. However, they then had huge chunks of unoccupied time and nothing constructive to fill the freed-up time and many of them turned to alcohol.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. I think there is an extremely fine line between development and dependancy. It's hard to find the balance and sometimes no matter how hard we try we still tip to the wrong side.

The change / development comes with long long term projects. We do what we understand is best for local development, and we have faith that things are going to change,little by little.

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generation to meet their own needs"

"There is no rule that says you always have to act consistently." I applied that to my then development work with rural farmers. You are right in letting your heart lead you, but don't let your dear heart get too exhausted that you can't look on a situation with the compassion of Him who called you.

Good help is at times needed, but there have to structures to allow the locals own the projects and where the said donor can be happy about the use of the money.

There has to be local buy-in. Sometimes that's so hard because the people you see that need it the most, though you have tried to educate...

At the same time there is hope. In a situation where outside agencies are not allowed to enter, local Christians have stepped forward. They appreciate funding and help, but are not solely dependant on outside help. There is strong indigenous leadership, responsibility and accountability. In their case it wasn't a choice they, or foreigners made, it was forced upon them by the government.

I've always chosen to believe that even in the most egregious, trying, and evil circumstances, there is good to be found. The reality is that you're not going to succeed with all of the homeless, or maybe even most of the homeless. But you may succeed with some, and even if you only succeed with one, you will have made an extraordinary difference in that person's life.

I think it is a matter of deciding what God is calling/equipping/nudging you to do: serve him through your humanitarian job, which may involve pouring all of yourself into that work, or serve him by investing more in the relationships outside work. I don't think there is one right answer.

In the Bible, in the book of Deuteronomy chapter 30, God clearly says that the people will turn away after He brings them into the land of milk and honey. They will follow other gods and break his heart so that he turns away. But he will hear them when they call, in their horrible and awful exile, and he will hear them and bring them back into his care. It is all heartbreaking to read, yet God knows their future sin and loves them anyway. How could he? But, why shouldn't we do the same?

We don't help others; we live with others.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

a week like this probably shouldn't be forgotten

And so I will share here the events of the past 7 days in my life:

Saturday - housemate's birthday, purse and ipod stolen from inside my house, then my other housemate locked out of her room

Sunday - argument with landlord over whether our friends could be blamed for a robbery, security started its investigation

Monday - one of my housemates decided to move out, I was asked if I'm interested in a job transfer (or, long-term temporary duty) doing emergency relief with earthquake victims

Tuesday - learned for sure I would be leaving Timor within the next five days, and received harassing phone calls from the security guard suspected of robbing me and possibly from others

Wednesday - the ex-security guard now-suspect staked a stakeout at my house, pretending he'd been reinstated and scaring my housemates and landlord's family away from the house (I was out of town, dealing with this by phone)

Thursday - learned that the one project at work I cared about had been rejected internally so we can't even submit the proposal, spent hours looking for a plane ticket to Jakarta with no luck

Friday - confirmed my travel plans. This entailed a refund for an unused ticket, which the office administrator was to pick up for me. Somehow on the way back to the office, he "lost" the money. Was he robbed or was he trying to rob me? We don't know, but he did bring me the money later that night.

Saturday (today) - many theories posed and analysed as to what happened with the money from the ticket refund but no decision reached because the phone lines went down in the evening, and my other housemate got sick

Sunday (tomorrow) - depart for Indonesia. I'll be there for a week, followed by 5 days back in Timor wrapping things up before heading to Indonesia indefinitely

Can things get any worse? Oh yes, they can. Today, as I was running some errands in preparation for travelling tomorrow, I had two near-miss accidents in which I almost hit another car because space was tight and my vehicle was huge. But both times nothing happened. Then the word for a terribly horrid crime kept popping in my head, and I had to thank God that worse things have not happened to me.

Nonetheless, I'm not sure how many little things one can, or should, take before breaking down.

Monday, November 30, 2009

help? Hope.

After my last series of blogs, I got some very interesting feedback from a lot of you. I'll write more about those thoughts soon, but I did conclude that a lot of my frustration is with the particular situation in Timor Leste. Though a lot of you could relate to many of my frustrations, the particular set of disillusionments I've faced particularly reflect this country.

But, of course, I believe that as human beings we are all equal, and are in fact all created in the image of God. Which means there is good to be found in everyone... and in every context. So I decided to sit down and list ten encouraging things I have seen recently - things that give me hope for Timor.

1. The man dancing in front of the speaker store, and two days later the woman in front of another store, also dancing. Both of them were old, skinny and wearing traditional dress, and they looked so happy they might have been high. But they danced their hearts out, full of life.

2. Half of the runners and bikers at Cristo Rei, where I go jogging whenever I have time in the afternoons, are Timorese - and in the few other areas where people jog in Timor, even more than half the joggers are Timorese. For a country with an inordinately high number of expats, many of whom are military or police and so motivated to stay in touch, this seems significant.

3. The group of kids I saw jamming at the Cristo Rei parking lot. One guitar, lots of slapping and clapping, and all of them singing on and off. They totally had rhythm.

4. People here have a real sense of fashion. Everyone bathes before everything, even before exercising sometimes. And their outfits are FUNKY. Funky good, funky bad... I won't say anything about that, but it's clear thought goes in to what they wear.

5. The kids here are kids like anywhere else. They're not intimidated by the foreigners and they tease and make games like kids do. They aren't tainted by the eventful and traumatic, colourful, history of this country - at least not at too young an age. (Except for... no, I won't write it because I'm sticking with the good here.) How do we build on hope for a younger generation?

6. The family of my landlord took my loss personally, mobilised the whole neighbourhood in sympathy. Then they spent the next two days looking for ways to make it up to me, even if it wasn't their fault. Time will tell whether it was a cover or whether they truly have honour.

7. When you live surrounded by sea and mountains and beautiful weather, there is always some hope - right? People here have an ability to sit around and enjoy one another's company, to just walk across town in search of something interesting like a capoeira class. This culture is a master of just-do-it.

8. The country's politicians are dynamic personas and [mostly - relatively speaking] honest. They can be role models.

Sadly, I only made it to 8. I thought of some other glimmers of hope, but they were either repetitive or else they didn't seem very meaningful at all. I had hoped I'd get to ten and have barely scratched the surface. But nonetheless, eight signs of hope is still a lot of hope.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Help? Part III

So the other day, I was feeling very stressed out by a project on which I was working very hard, and with very little assistance from anyone else. I'm not officially connected to the project, but the staff who is employed specifically to work on that project seemed happy to let me do whatever I could. Some of it they didn't know how to do, fair enough. But other components they definitely could have contributed. But we were on a deadline so, frustrated though I was, hard hard I worked.

Meanwhile, this project had a budget problem: it had overbudgeted for the activity I was working on. Whatever wasn't spent would either be returned to the donor, or else be used for more community activities (see yesterday's post for why I thought that might be a bad idea).

So all things considered, it seemed prudent to ask my NGO to transfer me to the nicest hotel in that particular town. (By Western standards, still barely worth 3 stars, but it's an icon in that particular location, and is in fact quite lovely.) They were very willing to do so.

One evening, I was exhausted, but work ended at a reasonable hour due to a cancellation. So I called up a friend to come over and go for a walk together. She had never been in the posh hotel before, even though she lives very close by, and so she was curious to see my room and the location.

We went for our walk, which was lovely, then came back to my room to drink some water. I was so tired from the busy day at work followed by an invigorating walk, that I asked her if I could take her home immediately. I was concerned I wouldn't have enough energy to take her later. She too was tired from the walk, so I took her home to sleep and then returned to my room alone.

But I felt a bit sad. I would love to share the relative wealth of this hotel with my friend. This would be a nice thing to do. I could take her to the restaurant, who knows even have her spend the night. But I was too tired from work to do any of this!

Isn't there something wrong with the world when we're supposed to be helping others through our work but feel we aren't - then because of our work we find we don't have any inner resources left to share with our friends?

Addendum: Just to clarify, this isn't a shout-out for help because I'm stressed out. It's meant to be understood in the context of my two recent blogs in which I point out the various reasons why I don't feel I'm helping anyone with my job in humanitarian aid (i.e. helping people). - It's not about knowing my limits, it's about keeping my priorities straight. And figuring out how to do that when I've already accepted the job handing out coins on a street corner.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Help? Part II

When an NGO applies to a big donor (like the US government or the United Nations) for funds, usually it's important to demonstrate that as much of that money as possible is reaching the community we want to help. So a good portion of our budgets include activities in the community. For community development and empowerment projects, that often means we are budgeting money to host meetings or trainings, feed the participants, rent meeting venues, pay the transportation of people to attend the meetings, etc. Sometimes people are even given a bit of cash to thank them for their time.

What I've seen, though, is that when everything is perfectly provided for by the donor via the NGO, members of the community start to appreciate and even take advantage of the perks. They may or may not be interested in the topic of the meeting, but the food's good! In very poor countries, what the NGO project provides may be much nicer than anything they could get on their own. Perhaps they are interested in the topic of the meeting, but the food and transport money becomes their real reason for attending. Then, after 2 years or so, the project ends. The NGO and the donor pull out, having taught and shared everything they could. The community may still be interested and is now very well trained to carry it on alone - but with no food?! The meetings cease and the cause is lost.

Example: A Health Education project, training community health assistants. Everyone in the village is concerned about how far away the nearest doctor is, so is eager to learn everything they can about how to care for each other. The NGO finds a government agency who is willing to send health trainers to this remote village - at the government's expense. The NGO, however, contributes by paying the community leader for use of the town hall, providing snacks and lunches during the training, paying for a bus to bring villagers to the town centre. The training is on-going for a year, and at the end of the year, everyone has learned something but there's still a lot more to learn. The NGO leaves because they have done their part. The government agency is willing to keep sending its trainers, but the villagers have grown accustomed to a bus picking them up and to being provided with snacks and meals. It just doesn't seem worth it anymore.

I'm seeing a lot of similar situations, and find myself increasingly considering the option of staying at a fancy hotel when working on a given project, for example, because then I know the money is being spent on something that doesn't do harm. If the money goes to the community, it could ruin the community forever!

Meanwhile, I am working very hard to organise the activities but am noticing that the staff and the community members are willing to let me just do it. They aren't really helping at all, and even though it was their idea and it is for their community, they've gotten so used to the outsider doing it that they don't help at all. It makes me wonder if perhaps the cause I am trying to support wouldn't be aided if I stepped out and they were able to (forced to) take over again?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Help? Part I

My recent tweet generated some interesting questions. Here is what I said, following a couple of twitter updates about how frustrations of work: "Here's what it's boiling down to: If in all our attempts to help we only see a mess being made, should we focus on protecting ourselves?"

This started some interesting discussions with a few different people, so I'd like to clarify here what I meant, in the hope that I can get more interesting input from more different people.

Here's an illustration a friend helped me come up with:

- If you're on a street corner and a homeless man comes and asks you for a coin, but you suspect he might use it to buy drink, do you give it to him?

- Now, let's say you decided to give it to him because it's the nicer thing to do. And you watched him walk straight to the corner store, buy a bottle of booze, and drink it. Now he has come back and is asking you for another coin. Do you give it to him?

- What if you came to the street corner, knowing there were homeless people here, and you brought a bunch of coins with the express intention of handing them out to homeless people. Do you keep giving them out?

- And what if, actually, someone gave you a job to do exactly this: they hired you to go to the street corner and hand out coins to homeless people. So you came with your bag of coins, handed some out, watched the recipients buy drinks... What do you do now?

Enough for now... further thoughts coming later!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

living versus observing

I'm an observer. Here in Dili, parties are the social event of choice. Some weekends there are several back-to-back, and other weekends people are bored so go out looking for any party they can find. It's a small city, so I see pretty much the same assortment of people at all the big parties.

I'm not a partier. The parties here are full of dancing, hooking up, drinking and staring. While the dancing, hooking up and drinking have never been my greatest passions in love, I do love the staring. At the parties here, I have often managed to find a perch from which I can sit and watch the different types of people - and there are quite a few to choose from - and different behaviour patterns. Everyone is usually so busy focusing on themselves, their own pleasure, and their goal of forgetting their fears of boredom on this Pacific Island, that I'm left to freely observe.

But in the last few social events I've attended, that hasn't been an option. Too many of my friends are there, or distant acquaintances have engaged me in conversation - or dancing. I've had to actually live a bit, and it's fun! But it's also very, very hard.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Patrianoceu: Heaven's my home!

A few weeks ago, I watched the film The Secret Life of Bees, a lovely tale about the relationships that matter and learning how to love. (It's based on a book of the same title but I haven't read the book.)

In addition to beautiful scenery and pristine character development, the film brings together an amazing soundtrack. I'd watch the film again specifically to listen to the music, because the compilation soundtrack is not available for sale - at least not on iTunes, my only source of royalty-paying music. I did buy some of the source albums, though, and am loving them.

One song has touched me deeply, as much for its title as anything else: Heaven's my Home (by an amazing duo Sam and Ruby). If you read my tagline above, you will see that this is the meaning of my screen name patrianoceu: nationhood in heaven.

The song speaks of a reality different from my own in just about every way imaginable, but the conclusion is the same: my home is in heaven.

Heaven's my Home

When I was born my daddy said I was broken:
beginning of the end of a life I hadn't chosen.
He taught me how to give up, he taught me how to work the system.
But I never had the time and never had the luxury

Life's hard, I've always known that, never been handed no welcome mat.
When I die, please don't cry - 'cause heaven's my home anyhow

Shinin' my shoes seems like time for wasting, 'cause this bright sun is the only shine I need.
They say you only live once, that the light you get's for keeping.
But glory's gonna come and make a new man outta me.

Life's hard, I've always known that, never been handed no welcome mat.
When I die, please don't cry - 'cause heaven's my home anyhow.

When I was born, my face was like the angels that took my father by the hand and said "Life won't be hard now."

Life's hard, I've always known that, never been handed no welcome mat.
When I die, please don't cry 'cause haven's my home anyhow.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009



Recently, I have felt a wave of these emotions. I want to listen to music that aches my spirit to the depths, or makes my spirit soars. Or even better, both. Sit and look at the beach or watch the neighbourhood children play. Write beautiful prose. Make music. I wonder if it's a reaction to the very practical nature of my job, or to the intensity of this new culture in which I live.

Today I realised that these emotions can obscure what is most important: loving people. That always has been and always will be the most beautiful art form.

Friday, October 23, 2009


An anonymous commenter recently asked me to write about corruption. S/he is apparently quite dismayed by his/her government's lack of accountability, their lack of fiscal responsibility, failure to make decisions based on what is best for the country.

Dear anonymous, I'm afraid I'm a bit too tolerant of corruption to critique it in the manner that you'd like. I tend to see government corruption as something we assume will happen, and we just do the best we can to improve the situation. Sometimes this means campaigning for the government to clean up its act. But usually, I see the solution in citizens taking responsibility for their own life and desires. For example, as you yourself suggested, start a private international investment enterprise in Kosovo. I think we'll all be happier if we don't wait for our government to live up to our expectations. We should either fight for it, or just do our own thing. Or, even better, do both.

However, your comments are timely as I've been pondering the concept of honesty. I am now living in a country of broken promises. On the macro scale, rural communities report that International NGOs or their government have promised them irrigation assistance, but never delivered. Without apologies.

In my own life, a contractor promised to send a bulldozer to clear out my future parking area (for a fee) but didn't show up. A young lady promised to clean our house three times a week but didn't show up. My landlord fired the contractor who was building my bathroom, but told me that the contractor asked to leave because his father was ill. The printing company we dealt with at work committed to making 2000 glossy postcards for 35 cents each, but instead made them matte and charged more - taking an extra month to deliver them. I could go on.

Lying is so endemic here, and so obvious. But people get offended when I call them on their lie. When the tel-com company wouldn't install my internet, they got defensive after I reminded them. When no one at work failed to follow up on the construction at my house, those responsible just ignored me when I reminded them. If they can pass the blame, they do. If not, they ignore the problem or blatantly deny it happened.

I am trying to ponder now how this culture applies to the government, to policy, to corruption. There is no accountability in the culture: when the bulldozers never came, my landlord's family quickly resigned itself to clearing the land themselves. We're actually still waiting for the postcards at work, and we'll just keep waiting and hoping that eventually they'll be ready. I'm very glad I only paid a 5 dollar downpayment on my bedroom dresser, because three weeks later it's still not ready and the carpenter's phone is out of range. I could have lost much more.

Instead, accountability takes the form of moving on. I suppose I shall count my relatively small losses, and find someone else to make me a dresser. I eventually talked to a friend of a friend who was higher up at the Internet company, and they started the process over again for me. The bathroom contractor was sent on his way and someone else stepped in. He's the one who will get paid.

What there is not a lack of here is other options. There may be only one way to do most things, but there are lots of people doing things that way. Many UN agencies, many NGOs, many levels of government administration - try another group within the system and if that doesn't work, choose another system. Just don't accuse anyone. Let the lies slide. Don't try to interpret them, they really are just lies.

I don't know... all of a sudden a culture in which government officials are clearly taken to accountability, and their fiscal responsibility openly discussed... a culture in which we can scrutinise the private sector's integrity... it's looking pretty good right about now.

Anonymous, or anyone else, if you're so inclined, please let me know how you see the connection between honesty and culture and corruption.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Portrait #96: Māe (other than you, Mom)

In celebration of having my Internet working at home and hence feeling a tad more connected to the ones I love, here is a portrait of the person who is tirelessly dedicated to making sure my home is truly home.

The first thing you must know about her is that she is a professional baker. She specialises in wedding cakes and other cakes for special occasions. She is very talented at what she does, producing enormous bits of sweet deliciousness in huge wood-burning and other traditional-style ovens (she has three ovens). Then she meticulously ices and decorates them to perfection.

This is not a bad quality to have in a landlady, not at all! In fact, she made my birthday cake for me. We ordered it from her but she refused to accept any money.
Besides being a baker, she is a mother of seven: 6 boys and a girl. But she is called "māe" - "mom" - by many more people than that. Several of her nieces who are from villages several hours away from the capital live with her so they can study and work here in the city. They help her cook and bake, and she looks out for them.

She also runs the "kiosk", a small shop which provides the basics for the houses in our community. We get our water and eggs at the kiosk, where she can often be seen sitting behind the counter or serving customers. At other hours she assigns one of her sons or nieces to the kiosk.

On top of this, her husband is a politician. Well, an old-school politician: he's the "xefe suco", which is roughly translated into English as "village chief". So at any hour of the day, random guests may show up at her house with a query or a request. She leaves the visitors to chat with her husband while making sure one of the girls serves them water or juice or biscuits.

Finally, even though she has never lived in my house, it is her glory. She picked out the dining room set, a beautiful but simple wooden table with six matching chairs. She chose the doors and the window frames of matching wood. These furnishings were not cheap, but she chose them because she loves them. She has been involved in every step of constructing our bathroom: choice of tiles, choice of shower stall... She lets me choose, but then she gently suggests if there is something she likes better. She told me she bought a very expensive hot water heater, because my shower had to be good.

The house is hers, it's her home, but I live in it.

When things have started to go wrong with the construction process of my parking area, or the bathroom, or the fence, she has stepped in and expressed her frustration and made things right.

I asked her one day how old she is. She's 44 years old, and has a career and a good family. She told me that she is happy: she simply smiled and nodded and said she's content.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

something a bit out of the ordinary

I'm watching a feather. It's a gray-brown colour and very soft and tender. Surely it sprouted on the most tender part of a great bird's body, perhaps under its wings in the ticklish spot. When the feather was born, it was sheltered in a nest of other soft fluffy gray-brown feathers, nurtured all snuggly and cuddly, barely feeling the wind that rustled its bigger aunts and uncles as the great bird swept through the sky on a great voyage or two.

Snuggled tight in with hundreds of its relatives, this feather could relax and stay warm, and confidently enjoy knowing that it kept the great bird's body warm, too. Because the great bird was warm, it could go high high in the air, to the coldest layers of the atmosphere. Or it could sweep low over the sea, where water sprayed back up. The team of feathers kept the great bird from reeling in the shock of those water droplets. As a team, the feathers shared the impact and none felt too cold either.

Eventually, this bit of fluff became the biggest most prominent gray-brown feather of the clan. When the great bird lifted its great wings to swoop down from a tree or a mountain, my feather could stick its head out from among the other feathers and feel the wind rustling through each of its soft downy plumes. It loved the feeling of freedom as it held hands with the other feathers, pushing up with all its might to catch the full weight of the wind.

Up and higher it pushed, leaning on the support of its tight and plumy family, unable to get enough of the fresh air. It became addicted to the wind: whenever the great bird would take off, the feather would stand tall, sticking out as far as possible past the other feathers.

Then one day, it was pushing, straining, leaning its highest plumes back and laughing in the beauty of the wind and the sun. It shook its head to feel even more wind, and - pluck! - it too was flying. The feather was flying, just like the bird. It never knew the wind could be so powerful and frigid, yet absolutely invigorating. It leaned back on the wind as if it was an easy chair and floated for a bit. Then it plucked up and pretended to surf. After practising windsurfing a bit, it started twirling like an ice skater, around and around and around, twirling faster with each turn.

The feather was so joyous in its pure enjoyment of the purest expression of nature that it didn't even notice that the great bird continued its flight, taking the feather's entire family with it. By the time the excitement of the feather's first flight began to fade, the great bird was nowhere in sight.

Swish! The feather had been sitting up peering in the direction it last remembered the great bird going, when it was jerked by the wind in the opposite direction. This was fun! Like a roller-coaster, the wind whisked the feather off down towards the ground, faster than the feather ever remembered moving. Even though the great bird moved very fast, the feather had never before felt such speed because fluffy feathers always stayed sheltered under the bird's great wings.

Then whoosh! The roller-coaster ride ended as abruptly as it started, and the wind started to lift the feather slowly higher, higher, higher, to the sky. As it floated up, the feather peered to the horizon in each direction. Still no sign of the great bird or its fellow feathery family.

Soon the feather was being rushed along, parallel to the ground, so hard it felt like it was going to be pound against a wall, but the wall never came. This was fun! But where was the great bird?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Portrait #95: Dili seen through my eyes

Since I choose to blame the lack of internet access at my house for my ongoing blog silence, it seemed appropriate to appear here today with a pictoral essay of where I live. One day, as I was walking to my house from my work, I took some photos along the way.

Please note, I work in an upscale-ish, quasi-downtown neighbourhood. And I live in a neighbourhood known as an inner-city ghetto. But somehow, it upscale and ghetto urban living are not what comes to mind when I walk this way.

1. Our office compound's wall was painted by some local youth, which is nice. It's the loveliest outer wall in town. So to head home, I came out of that gate on the left and headed down the road, to the end up ahead.

2. When I got to the end, I turned left again. Walking up along the river. On the other side of the river is the recently-inaugurated Palácio do Presidente (presidential palace, i.e. office building)

3. Heading up along the river for a few minutes... then a bridge comes into view. I'll be crossing that bridge into Bairro Pité, my neighbourhood (the one some think of as an inner-city ghetto - but I like it. My landlord is the like the mayor of the neighbourhood so no one is messing with us anyway).
Eventually, once I get to my house, I'll be by those palm trees in the background, the ones right in the middle of the photo.

4. Crossing the bridge. Just after that white wall on the left is the entrance to the village-esque section of the neighbourhood where I live.

5. Not captured in this photo is a little kiosk, a type of corner store. That is the next door to the left of this photo, and is owned and run by my landlord's family. I get my water and my eggs there, as well as the odd sweet treat. My landlord's wife is a wedding cake baker, and she made my birthday cake. It's always a special day to get something from her.
Anyway, right after the blue and white building is the somewhat hidden entrance to my street.

6. Heading up my street, I pass a few houses, a car wash, some cars and trucks, and a LOT of dogs. At this point there's a bend in the road and I'm almost home! That white house is the local gas company, so I can always count on being able to cook.

7. At the end of the road there are two green houses. My house is behind the second green house, but I park my car in front of the second green house. Yup, that's my big white NGO vehicle. Not mine, but I get to use it on evenings and weekends.
Soon, probably in the next day or two, the brown house in the background will be torn down. Then that will be my parking lot.

8. So I walk past the second green house, and as I'm entering the brown house (the one that's about to be torn down), my pinky house comes into view. An oasis tucked in the back of the village compound that is my home.

9. I walk up the stairs to my house, and voilá! My veranda furniture is there waiting for me. I bought it so that I could enjoy the evenings with my landlord's family and the neighbours. About a half-hour drive out of Dili is a town where they make the stuff. I just drove there in my big white NGOmobile, negotiated a price and the guys spent half an hour trying different arrangements before it would all fit in the car. It was so worth it.
What you didn't see in this photo were animals and children. I think it's because I took them in the middle of the afternoon, when it was hot and people were either sleeping or beaching. Usually, for an authentic scene, you would add a few dozen kids, plus pigs and dogs of varying sizes, chickens and a cat or two.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

View from afar: things that make me want to bang my head against a wall

I'm supposed to be using this blog to draw a worded portrait of interesting places, currently the lovely island-baby-nation of Timor Leste. But allow me one more moment of frustration in my sojourn, seeing America from the other side of the world.

I follow several publishing blogs, and in the last week two of them, by agents whom I generally greatly respect, have recent posts that make me want to cry in frustration.

The first
, which I actually only read today, was on the occasion of September 11. It's been 8 years since that day that changed the world, already!

In the blog, she asked her readers to share memories of that day. The comments were mostly very bittersweet memories of how difficult that day and the days that followed were. It was a good reminder of the emotions that Americans went through surrounding the events of 9/11/01. For me, it was life-changing, since I moved to the Arab world one week after it happened. The Middle East has now become my home, but of course my roots are back in America, and relations between those two regions were forever altered after that day. To me, though, remembering 9/11 is about thinking of all the death and hatred that has run amok since then, how many families have lost loved ones, how many broken relationships have become irreparable. That day was difficult for the U.S., I well know, but it was a heart-wrenching tragedy for the world at large.

What disturbed me about the comments on the blog, though, was that anything other than 100% support for America drew fierce and bitter criticism. One person's comment was deleted because it conjured ideas that maybe America wasn't perfect - I didn't get to read his comment, but I did think it odd that the responses criticising his criticism were left intact. The comment that saddened me the most, though, was by someone who was abroad when it happened. She talked about how pained she was that the lives of the people around her went on, how it was little more than a media event to the citizens of the country where she was on that day - couldn't they see how tragic this was?

She makes a good point, but we all do this every day. And perhaps Americans are more guilty than others of not suffering in solidarity with humanity. How many of us gave pause during the last year when Georgians, residents of Gaza, or Congolese were killed in the thousands?

Moving on to the second blog, which I read last week: this blog was about piracy of books, through the easy sharing of ebooks on the Internet. There was a fiery and emotional debate in the comments section, largely related to money and industry protection strategies (Digital Rights Management). We all believe a writer deserves his/her fair pay, but how much inconvenience should the average consumer have to put up with in order for this to happen?

I commented, trying to bring the conversation to a new focus, but was disappointed that my perspective didn't even get a nod from any of the other commentors. In fact, I think my comment was deleted by the moderator!

It's probably because I said that I have a really hard time accepting a debate about who makes money when that debate doesn't acknowledge that the largest number of people who pirate books/movies/music in this world simply do not have access to originals. The U.S. industries are so busy limiting opportunities to buy electronic media in a legal way, that those of us who live outside the U.S. (and sometimes, but not always, Europe) find ourselves having the choice between piracy or not-at-all. And, when this means getting more information into the hands of the less-privileged, then I am all for it, and yes, I do think that people who dismiss that way of thinking (which apparently were the readers, or at least the moderator, of that blog) are practising a modern form of imperialism.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

politics of fear

I guess this is my platform for ranting if I so choose, so here goes:

Why is it that there is so much pressure on the current US government to not raise the budget "one dime" in order to extend healthcare to dying Americans, but there was little more than a barely audible whisper when the defense budget skyrocketed after 9-11 (and remains high)?

All I can think of is that it's strategic use of a politics of fear, but what I can't figure out is why we are letting them get away with it.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Know this guy? I saw him last week.

(from http://bellum.stanfordreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/che-guevara-lg.jpg)

Yes, I did! Same hair, same goatee, same hat, same jacket (but the jacket I saw had this same photo imprinted on the back). There's not even any point describing him, because the man in the photo is the man I saw.

Well, actually he was more of a boy, around 17 years old. And the look on his face was much less angry. In fact, he seemed really sweet, handing out peanuts and biscuits to all his friends, making sure everyone was well-cared for. Like a good communist.

Apparently here in Timor, fake Ché's are a common sight. I saw another lookalike, not quite as accurate but close, just two days ago. And I've been told there are more.

What captured me about this youth, though, was that he was from a village in the far southeast of Timor-Leste, about an 8 hour drive from the capital, where mobile phone signal is hard to pick up and internet signal pointless to even attempt. He's likely never traveled, maybe as far as the capital but probably no further. But he's not been isolated from this symbol of progressive revolution. In fact, all of his friends had a sense of style and carried themselves like youth who cared and who had already seen the world. Somehow, that experience seems to have made it to their villages already, even a long time ago.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


I've moved into a new house, which I absolutely love. But there's no internet installed there yet, and I find myself falling shamefully behind on all things digital. This will hopefully be rectified soon.

In the meantime, here are some highlights of my new accommodations:

- It's on a huge compound belonging to an extended Timorese family. Most compounds here in Timor are specifically for "malay" (foreigners), so this is a fun anomaly.

- In fact, the compound is more like a village. There are pigs, chickens and roosters, dogs and cats, a water bison or two...

- The landlord lives in a house barely better than a shack, right in front of me. I walk down my beautiful tiled front steps and land on his shack-y porch.

- The landlord is the "xefe suco" - which translates to mayor of the neighbourhood. So interesting characters are always wandering around the property waiting to talk to him. This also means that I am very safe, because people don't really want to mess with him or his house.

- His 19-year old son is actually managing my house, and is happy to have a new friend around. So now I have a window into life as a Timorese teenage boy.

- Every other night, at least, the electricity goes out in our village-compound. So we all sit on our porches or balconies and entertain ourselves, chatting with each other or playing on our mobile phones. It's too hot to wait inside, and plus, I'd not want to give up the opportunity to stare out at the stars in the sky overlooking palm trees sticking framed by the lights of neighbourhoods that do have electricity.

- The most telling moments, however, were when - two days in a row - I awoke in the morning and went to make my morning coffee. Looking out the kitchen window I saw a boy, one of the landlord's sons, squatting on a rock, playing on a mobile phone. He was carefully positioned over the rock so his behind was hanging out. As he sat there playing on his mobile phone, the poop slowly came out. And there was a pig hovering around, anxiously waiting his chance!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Working for an INGO in Southeast Asia


On any given day, I may be be driving any one of these:

This is what most everyone else is driving:

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Scenario #28: Children smiling

Yesterday I showed up at a beauty salon to see what they could do for me, but it was closed. In front stood a man with a baby. The baby was probably about six months old or maybe a bit older. Dressed like a boy, except for the earrings so probably a girl.

In my extremely broken Tetum I asked the man if he knew when the salon would open. He didn't seem to understand my question, just kept informing me that it's closed. Maybe he meant closed for good.

But during our frustrated non-communicative conversation, the baby looked at me and giggled. Then turned her (his) head in to her (his) dad's shoulder, then quickly looked at me and reached both hands out to me. I put my hands out and we played handsie for a minute and giggled at each other. So happy, so friendly.

The other day, when I was viewing a flat for a potential home, I had a similar experience. Such a nice baby, so communicative.

This evening, I went for a walk along the beach, as one does when one is holed up in a posh hotel by the sea in a poverty-ridden city. The walk along the beach isn't as quiet and idyllic as it may sound because the sand is dirty and the sidewalk is narrow and bordering a busy road. Guys on motorbikes riding by and staring. Salesmen taking up the whole sidewalk as they walk along with a pole strong across their shoulders that has bananas hanging from both ends. Timorese families who live nearby enjoying the breathtaking sunset.

This time, though, as I walked, a little boy of three or four years old crossed my path on the sidewalk, said "botarde" (good afternoon), and gave me the biggest grin ever.

The younger generation here is so outgoing, so fearless, so joyful. In too many ways different from the older generation. What will they be when they grow up?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Chinese economy

The other day I needed to replenish my stash of passport photos, but was in no mood to pose for a photography session. So I asked the admin officer at work to take me to a photo shop where we could scan my old passport photos and print out a new batch.

He took me to a computer supplies and printing store that also offered a small selection of textbooks. Sure enough, they could do the job.

As we waited for my pictures, I observed the spacious one-room store. Two things struck me. First, it was filled with a nearly uninhalable odour combining cigarette smoke with printing fluids. Second, while most of the staff was Timorese, everyone in the important seats were Chinese. The girl at the cash register, the older woman at the manager's desk, the middle-aged man walking around checking up on everyone else's performance. All Chinese.

Then I thought back to my lunch that day. It was Indonesian food at a restaurant that catered mainly to Timorese. Some of the girls who served the food were Timorese, but the guy at the cash register - clearly the guy in charge - was Chinese.

That evening I decided it was time for me to start settling in. Settling in for me is greatly expedited by obtaining one or both of two items: an electric kettle and/or speakers for my ipod. That evening I bought both. At two stores owned by Chinese.

The hotel I almost stayed in, the apartment I almost rented, the supermarket that has the best prices... all owned or managed by Chinese. What's not owned by Chinese seems to be owned by Portuguese.

There are a few establishments here owned by Timorese. The posh residence in which I am sitting out my homeless days is owned by a very rich Timorese family who doesn't live in Timor-Leste. The smaller restaurant where I sometimes go for lunch is owned by a Timorese family. And of course most of the houses I have visited in my search a home have been owned by Timorese. But considering the population composition of this country, Timorese seem to be strangely missing from the economy of capitalism or entrepreneurship. They've all been hired by the Chinese.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Portrait #94: GNR: Guarda Nacional Republicana, or The Portuguese Duuuudes

I've been told quite a few stories about them by my new Brazilian friends in Timor Leste. Before I share those stories I should point out that Brazilians don't have a track record for speaking very highly of Portuguese in general. Portuguese are to Brazilians what Polocks are to Americans.

Nonetheless, what I've seemed to confirm the stories, so maybe they're true: They think everyone is in awe of them. They rub each other's sunscreen whenever they go to the beach, which is often. They regularly do full body waxing. Most of them are gay. They are not very dignified drunks, and are actually the local troublemakers on Friday and Saturday nights (most recently at the hotel where I'm staying, as a matter of fact).

Sure enough, when they are not patrolling, you can see them jogging, stretching or sunbathing. They are immediately identifiable when not in uniform, because they're the topless guys who look like they've just come out of a two-year stint in a body building gym.

These are the Portuguese GNR, one of three police forces keeping the peace in Timor Leste. The other two forces are UNPOL, an international effort that falls under the umbrella of the United Nations, and the PNTL. PNTL are the actual Timorese police.

What with their fancy uniforms and fancy cars, and their role as the elite guards for the President and other such dignitaries, and their reputation for disrupting otherwise-peaceful partying on a weekend night... well, they are not held in very high esteem by most of the internationals I've met in Timor Leste. Are they really doing more good than harm, everyone seems to ask under his breath without actually voicing it.

Today, I sat on the beach with some friends facing a beautiful calm sea, when the two metres of space between us and the water were taken up by three GNR's. They were joined by two more, then a few more. Soon there were a dozen. They didn't seem to think we'd mind - after all, they are so beautiful to look at that that even the men in our group would rather observe them than the sea. Obviously. Well, if you go for the waxed, buzz-cut, upside-down triangle look, then you probably would agree with them. I won't reveal an opinion of my own here - but I will say that I was fascinated by the sociological phenomenon of this squad of 200 men who had managed to create an entire stereotype just for themselves, in such a little corner of the world at that.

As my friends and I joked about each new GNR arrival who started sunbathing in front of us, the sounds of chatting and passing cars behind us grew louder. Eventually our attention turned to the street behind us when we heard the distinct sound of shouting. We looked, and right behind us there were men and women shouting. A man sat behind the steering wheel of a silver jeep and was shouting at a man in the street who was close to blows. Meanwhile the woman in the passenger's seat received a few socks to the head from someone I couldn't see.

We stood up and joined the growing multitude of Timorese beachgoers who had come to watch the fight. It was getting bad. Someone pulled the woman out of the car, by her hair, and it became clear that she was the focus of the quarrel. There was another woman, and neither one was exempt from the violence that was erupting. But the worst was saved for the men who grabbed wooden posts off the street and started trying to hit each other and the car.

I started to shake when I realised that women were being targeted in a fight, in the middle of the street on the busiest beach strip in town. Then I looked around. Weren't there a dozen oversized cops here on the beach? Desperately, I wondered if I could do any good by going to help, and one of my friends almost jumped in to protect the women. But we knew it would do no good because emotions were clearly flaring stronger than our natural strength. I looked around again, desperately: what were the GNR for if not for this?

And then they came. They rose up from their sandy beds and ran in their speedos and shiny torsoes to the scene of the fight. They jumped right in between the quarreling parties and lockheld the men who were screaming and punching the most. Timorese are generally short and slim in general, and that includes the ones in this fight. So the tall and extremely muscular GNRs didn't need to use that much of their brute force to control the worst of the violence.

They got the perpetrators into a local café and the dozen of them split off. Half continued to restrain both men and women. The other half guarded the café so no one else could join in.

Meanwhile another little fight, seemingly unrelated, broke out 20 metres to the right. And I saw a group of people arguing loudly a bit to the left. I started shaking a bit more. This one domestic disturbance could rapidly escalate into a full-fledged venting of all beachgoers! But as the quasi-naked GNRs worked the crowd, the anger dissipated. Only the original quarrel went on, though at least now under control. Women were no longer being hit.

All of a sudden I was very grateful for their hobbies of jogging, weightlifting and sunbathing. All three of those hobbies meant that I was safe this afternoon, and, much more importantly, that one family's fight didn't unfold into another civil war.

GNRs in uniform soon showed up and took over, looking calm and powerful. Then some Malaysian UNPOLs. And a truckload of local PNTL. The GNRs managed to scare the crowd into dispersion, and, together, the three police forces tried to reason the fight to an end. After half an hour of trying, they gave up and arrested both the women and the men. And a middle-aged woman who had joined the fighting at the end with bloody-looking beetlenut (a local aphrodisiac) juice dripping down her chin.

I guess Timor isn't ready for cops its own size yet.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Portrait #93: The Lebanese guy

He showed up here on a UN contract - as did most of the expats currently living in Timor Leste - and stayed on to run a Thai/Lebanese restaurant. A marriage born in heaven I say.

This restaurant is part of a strip of cafés and bars, right on the beachfront near Areia Branca - or White Sand - which is the beach where all the internationals hang out. Everyone has told me it's the place to be in the hours between getting out of work and sundown, or anytime on the weekends. The thing to do, apparently, is to show up there between 5:00 and 5:30 each evening and watch the sunset over the other side of the bay. Then spend all weekend there. And spend every night partying there. This ritual is so enjoyable, I hear, that many have extended their contracts to enjoy the beach a bit longer. Then extended again. Then again.

I guess the story of this particular restaurant is that is has served Thai food for years, but a couple of years the Lebanese guy showed up and took over, adding a bit of his own flair to the mix, adding a Levantine menu to the existing Thai list. Works for me.

Before Timor Leste, he lived in Africa for seven years, then got a job with the UN that brought him here. Then he decided he wanted to stay, he told me matter-of-factly. In other words, isn't it obvious that no one who comes here would ever want to leave?

For me, it was a grand opportunity to speak a bit of Arabic. My friends informed me that there are other Arabs around town, so I will be on the lookout for them.

But as we left the restaurant, we got to speculating... why would a Lebanese feel so at home here in Timor? It has nothing in common with his home at all! Well, nothing, that is, except for beaches and war.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


I just opened a link sent to me courtesy of my parents. It was an amazing display of video poetry, on a topic that is near to my heart:

As I am now embarking on my first full-time placement with a humanitarian aid organisation, I saw myself so much in this video. A good reminder of why I'm here. And yet, I sit under an airconditioner on a comfy bed with a soft comforter, looking out past the swimming pool of my temporary residence to the sea beyond. I just ate a lovely Portuguese seafood meal with fresh-squeezed orange juice served in one of those hourglass-shaped cocktail glasses. Out front is parked a big white SUV, next to a dozen other big-and-buff vehicles, which is mine to use however I choose - as long as I pay for the diesel.

And I have to keep reminding myself not to feel guilty about living it up, and in fact to demand more if I feel more is in order, for two main reasons: First, common wisdom is that there is a direct correlation between my lifestyle and my longevity out "in the field." and Second, it is very hard to figure out high-impact ways of spending money that has been donated, so it might as well go to paying for my lifestyle, right?

I am one of the few who has truly been sent out to where the needs are great, but do I really think that I am here for them, or for me?

Friday, August 28, 2009

Portrait #92: First hotel receptionist

The first thing that I noticed about her was her enormous smile - it occupied a good 2/3 of her face. But then again, that may be a function of the size of her face than the size of her smile. Because the second thing I noticed about her was her tinyness. She may weigh all of ninety pounds, or forty kilos? That's half the total weight of my luggage coming over here. You know when we joke about putting someone in our bags and taking them with us when we leave a place? Well, she may actually have fit. Her knee-length straight lined skirt and black short heels only accentuated the slim person they contained.

Her English was limited, but she used every nugget of linguistic knowledge that she could dig up, all in order to communicate with me. But then she found out I speak Portuguese and eagerly switched.

(editorial interlude: Even though Portuguese is an official language in Timor Leste, it's not at all commonly spoken. It's most likely found in government documents, or else spoken in the bars where Portuguese military-police types chill. That being said, I'm also finding more and more people who can by in Portuguese if they must, for one reason or another - it's like their secret code weapon, and I'm lucky enough to be in the know.)

Since there are a lot of Portuguese and Brazilian expats in Timor Leste, this resourceful receptionist decided to attend Portuguese lessons, along with the obligatory English lessons (English is the international language, after all, and there are many internationals here). And she told me that Portuguese was a lot easier to learn, because her teacher was so good. And of course it doesn't hurt that it shares a lot of vocabulary with her native Tetun.

So, all in all, I had the impression that hers was an impressively entrepreneurial spirit. Except for the moments when she would just stare at me. These moments generally happened when I did anything out of the ordinary: asked her how the Internet service worked without thinking to ask how much it would cost me; confessed that she'd undercharged me for my meals in the hotel; asked about leaving my bags in the reception area instead of lugging them around when I changed rooms for a night. She didn't have a ready answer for these queries. Instead, she'd break out half of that smile and gaze at me, then down at her pad of paper, then say nothing for a bit more, then wordlessly resolve the problem with no explanation to me.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Another link

Just to say I'm still alive and the blog will be returning shortly... I'd like to share with you my favourite Internet find of the week:


(The whole blog is classic, but I linked you to the one that made me laugh the loudest.)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Swine Flu Mania

Apologies for blog silence. I have several blogs drafted from a few weeks ago that I may or may not post, but it didn't happen before I left for holiday/vacation! Which was great but of course did set me back on some things...

Anyway, though, as I have been catching up on some things, I found this photo in my inbox. Titled: "fear of the swine flu"

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Portrait #91: Justice served

Continuing in, and possibly ending, this impromptu series on dubious encounters with Syrian men, I must share what may be yet the most amusing one.

Yesterday, my friend and I were riding in a taxi and got stuck in a traffic jam for nearly half an hour. As our taxi inched forward, we chatted and caught up with each other's news. A few minutes in, my friend pointed at my window and said, "What's with that guy?" I looked out and saw a big old silver SUV inching along next to our taxi, deliberately maintaining the same speed as us. The driver was a big greasy man with long gray hair: he was leering out of his window and peering into ours.

I shrugged and we continued the conversation, but we were aware that the leering and the peering continued, albeit ignored.

Until, that is, we finally were nearing the end of the backed up street. My friend looked past me to my window with a strange look on her face. I turned around and saw his hand reaching into my window holding out a business card. "Try to call me", he said to my friend in broken English. She is from here, though, so she replied in Arabic. He didn't catch on to the fact she was Arab, though, and instead he repeated: "Try to call me." So she rolled her eyes and said back to him, "I don't want to call you." In English.

Surprisingly, it worked. He withdrew his hand and his business card and pulled a little bit ahead.

As we approached the traffic light that caused the accident, he went through the intersection ahead of us and veered right. Then, BAM, an old Mercedes rammed into his back bumper!

My friend and I and our taxi driver, who had respectfully listened to but not joined in the entire conversation, laughed and laughed and laughed. We all turned back to wave at him as he lugged his heavy frame, suspenders and greasy gray hair and all, out of his seat to inspect the damage to his sleazobile.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Portrait #90: He called me fat, but not very fat

Last night we - that is, a big group of internationals - were sitting at an upscale restaurant in Old Damascus, on the rooftop overlooking the Roman arches marking the middle of the old city and the ancient Greek Orthodox Church to the side.

Over the last month, we have had many such evenings, so as idyllic and lovely as it was, we were somewhat uninspired by the view and absolutely uninspired by the menu: kebab, hummos and fattoush are good, but they do lose their lustre over time.

So when my roommate and I noticed that there was a "snacks" menu in addition to the dinner menu, we took a look, hoping to find something different. What caught our eyes was, of all things, home-churned butter with sugar. We've had every dip imaginable for bread during the last month, but butter has been quietly and rather tragically forgotten. So we decided to order a dish of butter and sugar to share.

Here is what happened:

I turned to the waiter and asked him if the butter and sugar is good.

He stared at me, then looked down at the notepad into which he was writing the orders, then furrowed his brow and went "hmmm."

So I asked again.

He then spoke: "So one order of butter and sugar for the two of you, hmmm", as he wrote it down hesitantly.

So I queried, "Is it not good? Do you recommend something else?" After all, we were looking forward to our butter but we weren't yet fully sold on it.

He glanced up and peered over his notepad, pen tapping on paper, and replied, "Are you on a diet at all? Because, you know... butter is..."

I let out a little giggle and replied, "Why? Do you think either one of us is fat?" Please note, neither one of us is fat, nor concerned about being mistaken as fat.

And he replied, I kid you not: "Well, not too much."

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Scenario #27: A real, respect-filled proposal

As foreign girls, we often swap stories about random guys in the Middle East who propose to us. I have friends who have been offered thousands of camels or sheep in exchange for their hand. Sometimes they feel like the proposal is a joke, sometimes they are scared by the propositioner and run.

My favourite proposal story until yesterday was the scarf salesman who, in the course of bargaining over a purchase, told me he had four wives but always wanted a Brasilian wife so would divorce one to marry me. I asked him if he'd give me a good price on scarves if I married him and he said I could have them for free. My friends took a photo of him so I could remember that momentous evening forever.

to encourage thoughtful ways...

Well, yesterday I had another proposal, and this is how it went down:

At a major intersection, I got off one bus and needed to catch another bus the rest of the way home, but first I stopped to get myself a bananas and strawberries and milk smoothie at a juice shop. Then I crossed to where my bus would come and waited, demurely sipping my juice. My bus was taking a long time to come, so I was soon halfway done my drink.

A man came up to me at this point and I smelled trouble. All I remember about his appearance was that he was dark and not too tall nor too short, and that his beard was going gray. He may have carried prayer beads, but I'm not sure. He stood rather close to me and said, "Excuse me." I took a step back.

Then he continued: "Do you have anyone for engagement?"

I replied, "What?"

He repeated his question, then said, "You know, engagement... like as in marriage?"

A bit suspicious, I was also a bit intrigued. I immediately remembered the wedding I attended last year in which the groom met the bride one day on the street. He saw her walking home from school, approached her, and asked her if she was engaged or married at all. When she said no, he asked for her number and said she'd be hearing from his mother. And the rest is history: they are apparently a very cute and happy couple. But still, I was mostly suspicious: "What do you care?"

Then it was his turn to reply, "What?"

So I said, "I mean, like, why are you asking me?"

Then he replied, "Oh, are you a foreigner?"

To which I responded in a rather indignant voice, "Oh, I'm sorry, sorry." And he walked away.

Strangely enough, I felt extremely flattered after this. Clearly this was a serious proposition, with all levels of respect, and as soon as he realised it wasn't an option he stepped back. When I finally caught my bus, my heart was rather sprightly.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Portrait #89: Two is better than one

Yesterday I was reminded of one of the most fundamental values of many Syrian girls: two is better than one. In fact, anything is better than one.

I was walking on the side of a highway that connected the President's Bridge, a major intersection connecting the different central parts of Damascus, with the neighbourhood where the University is located. With cars whizzing past, I was wandering up along the site of the old Fairgrounds, which is now an abandoned lot. The sidewalk was brick-tiled and smooth and wide. But it was also rather isolated.

A girl a few metres in front of me glanced back and stopped, with her hand up to shield her eyes from the sun as she peered back at me. Was she looking at someone behind me, or did she think she recognised me? Did she recognise me? I was afraid I didn't know her.

I kept walking and as I came near to me, she turned and started walking alongside me. "Are you going to the Administration Building as well?" she asked.

"No," I replied. "I'm headed to the Higher Institute for Arts at the University."

"Oh, do you study there?"

"No, my friend works there. I'm going to visit her."

We got to chatting, and I learned that she is from Mezze, the neighbhourhood beyond the university, that she studies Agricultural Engineering, teaches high school level science, and is 25 years old. She learned that I'm not Syrian (I was excited that I had to inform her of this fact!) and have been in Syria since about 8 years ago.

When we arrived at the gate I was to entered, I bode her farewell, we agreed it was good to meet, and we exchanged names.

A bit later, when I passed the Administration Building, I saw her walking out in the company of another young woman. I presumed that this was a new acquaintaince of hers as well.

How clever, I thought, to befriend a strange woman. On an isolated wide sidewalk like that, even if it was noontime, men might think anything of this girl walking along. Walking with someone else would trick them: now she's a respectable girl. And why would anyone want to walk by herself in the first place?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Portrait #88: Transitions

Sitting on a sofa on a balcony overlooking a room full of dignitaries listening to heart-wrenching Iraqi instrumental music, written and performed by three refugees living in Syria, with lovely and thought-provoking paintings on the walls.

Transitions is the name of their album.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Portrait #87: Mudeiraj Bridge

This bridge, on the road between Beirut and Damascus, crosses a steep gorge in the Lebanese mountains. It's extremely tall and has been destroyed and rebuilt often during Lebanan's tumultuous history. It's still not operational after the war with Israel in summer 2006. Right now, it's almost complete, and there is a big sign at its entrance informing the world that the US government (US Agency for International Development) is paying for its current rehabilitation.

As I drove under it, through the gorge it transverses, it struck me that this bridge is a symbol of courage, of refusal to give up. Anyone can destroy it but it will always be rebuilt, no matter how long it takes. Even though it's the last thing to be rebiult and the first thing to go in any new conflict.

It's also a symbol of power: an ongoing standoff between two worlds, and the stakes are getting higher. USAID funding helps to raise the stakes, somehow. The bridge itself is excessively big... as if the time and effort for building it will makes imminent destruction more significant. Build a bigger bridge so they can destroy a bigger bridge and then can be accused of a greater offense.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Portrait #86: An Ethiopian working in Lebanon

A house in the mountains overlooking the sea - gorgeous interior, exterior, breathtaking view: steppe, baby cedar trees, olive trees... shrub and dry.

As we walk through the mountains together walking the dog, I try to picture her view of the world. She arrives on a flight from Addis Adaba in the middle of the night and is taken to this house: 12+ rooms, not counting bathrooms. It will be her job to keep this clean and to cook for the family, and to do their laundry.

Then she looks out the front balcony window and sees the city laid out before her and the sea beyond. She wanders up the path and discovers that behind the house are some standy footpaths in the hills. Look up to the mountains and down to sparkling blue sea.

But she rarely leaves the house. There's no time and no excuse to go for a walk.

She misses home - her family is there. But it's not this nice, even if life is easier. There is much less work for her to do there. She can't get paid well there. How conflicted she must feel.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Portrait #85: Snapshots from Serbia

Since there is a certain, understated shall we say, animosity between Kosovo and Serbia - this, of course, assuming that they they are not one and the same, which is naturally a topic that inspires further discomfort... anyway, considering this context, I felt that my stay in Kosovo would not do justice to the world if I didn't put a little bit of effort into acquainting myself with Serbia. So on my last weekend in the Balkans, a friend and I journeyed up to Belgrade.

Belgrade, currently the capital of Serbia, was the capital of Yugoslavia in its day, and is a beautifully developed city with a lovely river and magnificent architecture. It's clean, organised, and sprawling. It looks dignified enough to be the capital of the largest country (federation) of Europe.

The thing is, though, that my experience of Belgrade was full of rather strange people. This was the picture I left with. For example:

- I came across a Western-style coffee shop in a posh mall and was excited by the prospect of an iced coffee. I eagerly ordered an iced coffee with a bit of vanilla flavouring, but instead got a hot latte with two huge scoops of vanilla ice cream in it. I commented on this, and the servers very apologetically prepared me a hot coffee served in a plastic cup. Upon seeing my confusion, ten waiters gathered around me to try to interpret what I meant by "iced coffee" - please note, we're standing inches from McDonalds, Burger King and everything else that's Western. They were so helpful, yet so confused. So I faced a barista who appeared to be in charge and gave him the recipe: lots of ice, a double shot of espresso, a pump of vanilla syrup, and cold milk for the rest. He kind of understood, but still only put a few ice cubes in the cup, producing a not-hot but not-iced, overly syruppy coffee. As I walked away shrugging my shoulders, they all stood staring after me, shrugging their shoulders.

- We heard that there are lots of Chinese in Serbia, and so went on a hunt for some good Chinese food. Upon failing to uncover the real deal, we decided to settle for the fusion Asian restaurant in the Grand Casino. The casino is in the same facility as Hotel Yugoslavia, an imposing building on the riverside which appears to be abandoned, except for its gambling facility. We entered the casino and asked to see the restaurant's menu. The guard at the reception desk informed us that, in order to see the menu we would have to be members of the casino, but that's it's easy to join. So we agreed and grabbed the one-page registration form to fill out. But before we started another guard came up and whispered something in Serbian to our guard, who then informed us - quite apologetically - that there is a dress code at the Casino, and flip-flops are not a part of it. So we couldn't see the menu, much less eat Asian food, because we were wearing flip-flops.

- If you're a girl, you may be familiar with the phenomenon of a car-full of guys pulling over as you are waiting for a taxi or bus on the side of the road. If you're a guy, perhaps you have pulled over for some girls standing on the side of the road. Well, my friend and I were getting tired of waiting for a taxi, so when a car pulled over we actually considered accepting a lift from them and responded to their shouts and waves by asking for directions. The guy in the passenger seat got out and pored over the map with us while the driver shouted out suggestions from his seat. Glancing into the car it appeared that the driver was actually disabled. Eventually, as other cars whizzed by, they pointed out to us exactly how to reach our destination. Then they left. No offer of a lift. My friend and I shrugged as they pulled away, thinking that that's not usually how these encounters go down.

Lovely country nonetheless.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Scenario #26: Alla Verdera

Kosovo has a lot of Albanians. Albania is just about a lake away from Italy. And therefore Kosovo is proud of its Italian food offerings.

So when we went to a restaurant in Peja, near the Montenegro border, and saw two pages of different pasta dishes in the menu, we went ahead and ordered something that looked interesting, slightly exotic, and very Italian. For my friend it was pizza. For me, it was Alla Verdera, which was described as pasta with 'seasonal vegetables', with either cream sauce or tomato sauce. So I asked for an Alla Verdera "me sos krem" - with cream sauce.

The waiter scurried away, and we sat back to look at the photos we'd taken that day. The next time the waiter passed by, I decided to point out that we were running late and in a bit of a rush: "Deshirojne Shpejt" - we want it fast (this was very rustic Albanian, but I thought he got the point).

Ten minutes later, he came back, hands empty. He stared at me a bit with a questioning look. I stared back. Finally, he asked, "Biftek?" Did I order a steak?

"No. Jo." I looked at him a bit confused, jaw gaping. And then I repeated "Alla Verdera me sos krem." He stared at me. So I pointed at the entry in the menu. He nodded and skipped away.

Five minutes later he came back, once again empty-handed. What part of "shpejt" did I pronounce wrong? He asked me if I wanted spaghetti or macaroni noodles. I rolled my eyes as I considered how much I did not care, and asked for macaroni; and I tried to take advantage of this opportunity to remind him of the rush we were in. He wandered back towards the kitchen - or, as I later found out - in the opposite direction away from the kitchen.

Ten full minutes after this, our appetizers appeared. And immediately, before we had time to down our soup, a waiter appeared with my friend's pizza. Still no pasta with veggies. She offered to share her pizza with me, but I said I was happy with my very delicious fish soup.

Just as I was scraping the bottom of my soup bowl, finally a new waiter placed in front of me a plate of macaroni noodles with meat and tomato sauce. I stared at the bowl. Took a bite. It was delicious. But I really wanted the vegetables, wanted something a bit healthier. And I was really craving cream sauce. So when a man who looked like a senior waiter glanced our way, I asked him to come over. I explained that I'd ordered "Alla Verdera me sos krem" and this was quite different from that. In fact, the only thing they'd gotten right was the macaroni noodles. But I was running late so maybe they could just cancel my order. But he apologised and promised it in three minutes, so I agreed to wait. As he was walking away, I called out and asked him to make it "takeaway."

So about ten minutes later, after munching on one of my friend's pieces of pizza and after she'd finished downing the rest, three waiters showed up together, bearing an aluminum foil covered plastic plate of pasta. I glanced in. This time they got the veggies right, but there was still no cream sauce! There was no sauce at all, in fact.

Where did this particular cultural miscommunication break down?

Friday, June 19, 2009

fading away

The Balkans are fading away. I've been gone a week now.

I see a photo of Prishtina on the Internet and it looks oddly familiar. Something written in Cyrillic alphabet evokes vague memories. Emails and skype chats from my friends in Kosovo are so homey yet so distant.

The reality of the problems embodied in NGO work in Kosovo is still stark and real. It will be a lesson that re-teaches itself in new incarnations for years to come.

My co-workers were smart to give me a silver necklace that I can wear everyday to remember Kosovo, because it actually is possible I might forget everything else.

Somehow, being in the Middle East, and the intensity of experiences, sights, smells and emotions that surrounds me here... it almost invalidates the very deep fears and divisions of the Balkans region.

Today I came across a random phrase in my journal: "Crossing the border - no green (plains) to forested". On my last weekend there, as we ventured on the bus from Kosovo into Serbia we crossed from light green fields into dark green forests. This cannot be a sudden shift in the natural geography of the land. It tells about centuries of history that have preserved the forests in Serbia and destroyed their cousin trees in Kosovo, replacing them with unused fields and with farmland. God be with that land, even if it is a world away.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Portrait #84: The Serbian Nuns

Everywhere I go, I now carry with me a most inspiring journal. It's an exquisite hardbound volume that's about the size of the palm of my hand. The maroon-coloured binding has three flowers inscribed along the spine. Most of the cover is a bland burnt-brown colour, but it also has intricate flowers etched into the front corners, and one simple flower on the back. On the front cover, the maroon binding and the brown cover are separated by a thin ribbon and a strip of pale pink lace. The pages are made of thick unbleached parchment paper.

This journal is small and slight, and holding it feels like holding a poem. It whispers urgently to the person holding it that someone put a lot of intimate love and care into its creation.

It was crafted by a nun in a monastery in Gracanica, the largest Serbian town in Kosovo. In this town, the writing on signs is Cyrillic (instead of the Latin script used elsewhere in Kosovo), the prices are all in Serbian Dinar (as opposed to Euros), cars have Serbian tags or no tags at all (except for the occasional visitor's Kosovar tags). It's a ten-minute drive from Kosovo's capital, but entering this town means crossing a symbolic national border.

Right in the heart of Gracanica is a compound which houses a church and monastery. It is surrounded by a tall brick wall, and guarded by a squadron of Finnish soldiers. Only foreigners have the gall to enter this fortress to tour the historical Orthodox building, but local townspeople continue to pray regularly in the church.

Living in the monastery are 19 nuns and 3 priests. We met 2 of the nuns, both of whom were born and raised in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia and a six-hour drive from Gracanica. They now serve their God in the heart of an unending political stand-off, between Kosovar Albanian (everything surrounding Gracanica) and Serbian hegemony.

But these women cared nothing for politics. They both had perfectly deep blue eyes, spoke pristine English, and dressed modestly in all black, including headscarves and long skirts. They spoke with big smiles and soft voices. As my friend and I explored their tiny shop full of precious wares, they told us that they felt like rebels in their Orthodox order of nuns because they went against the will of the older nuns to sell their homemade books, as well as honey and needlework and home-brewed wine, to tourists visiting the monastery, to raise money for a soup kitchen in a nearby city.

Monday, June 15, 2009


I've left Kosovo for the foreseeable future! For the last few days I've been stranded in a Lebanese paradise where I got to indulge in beautiful views, Starbucks and friends. I'll take that kind of stranding anytime. And am now back in the place where I always seem to land... Syria.

With Kosovo behind me, I am determined to return to my discipline of blog writing. I've a nice pile of portraits from my last few weeks in the Balkans, and already so many beautiful Middle Eastern images to share.

So... I write this as a promise to myself and to you that tomorrow I will be a blogger once again.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

there's something magic about

This afternoon I crowded in with hundreds of daily commuters to take the ferry across the Bosphoros, from Europe to Asia. Then, an hour later, back to Europe again. It's a fifteen minute ride on a good sized but bare bones boat. Thousands and thousands of Turks do this trip at least once a day, since the river cuts the city right in half. Maybe you live in Europe and work in Asia. Maybe you live in Asia and work in Europe.

For me, of course, this was a monumental pair of quarter-hours in my life. The bright and penetrating blue river, chopped into white pieces by the rudder of my ferry. The wind and the sun on my face just long enough to feel revived but not long enough to get burnt. Hopping back and forth between continents. I've been to Istanbul before, and I've done the ferry trip before, but I couldn't wait for the chance to do it again.

What fascinated me, though, was that all those commuters seemed to be just as enthralled as me. We all crowded the gates to get onto the ferry, then people ran - yes, RAN - to get the outdoor seats overlooking the river. Guys climbed up on the rails to sit right over the splashes of water spewed up by the engine, children stood peering through the rails with their hands gripping the iron tightly, and friends crowded together on the benches that lined the sides of the boat. All faces seemed to be overcome by a look of wonderment.

How can it be that something so beautiful really doesn't ever get old?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Twide and Twejudice

Apologies for my silence the last several weeks, I've been carried away by the flood of work! But today I had a little while to catch up on my blog reading, and from my favourite blog, today, I got the funniest link ever: Pride and Prejudice in the Twittersphere

If your sense of humour is at all like mine, you must read to the end, you'll laugh all the way!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Portrait #83: Driving in Kosovo

I had a lot of good ideas of people to portrait this week, but they have all been erased by the stress of the last three hours, driving back to town after a day in the field. Since the logistics man at our office seems to have become personal driver to myself and my assessment teams, I suggested that everyone in the office would breathe easier if they just let me drive. So I did the World Vision driving test and had the mayor or someone sign a sheet of paper, and am now zipping along...

...and getting myself summarily frustrated. Driving through the mountains I got stuck in a typical "turtle race" - sharing the roads with a number of big slow trucks. Everyone around me kept passing me and entering the space between myself and the truck in front of me. As if I were the one keeping them back. So I realised I needed to do some passing as well or else I'd never make my destination because of all the cars pushing me further back down the road. We got nowhere any faster, just did more dangerous passing.

Then I got pulled over by a kindly gentleman of a cop for not having my headlights on when the sun was shining. Not a cloud in the sky. No one told me about that law. Good thing I'm a foreigner and a girl and was driving a clearly-marked NGO vehicle.

Next, I got stuck in a traffic jam during which we moved not an inch for fifteen minutes, then slowly made our way through a busy intersection. Then it was over. Not sure what that was about.

But none of that really bothered me. I was fine until we got back into town. Kosovo has a dangerous combination of ruthless drivers and pedestrians who expect vehicles to stop for them at crosswalks. I appreciate cars stopping for people in crosswalks, but not when half the cars stop and the other half zooms through. I did a lot of slamming on the breaks: I'd be driving along at normal speed and then all of a sudden a pedestrian would appear in front of the car next to me. Usually at crosswalks, but not always.

Or there was the time I was in a right-turn only lane, with a dedicated light to right turns. So I pulled slowly forward and almost ran over a pedestrian, who stared at me angrily, pointing out that he too had a green light for crossing the street!

Another good moment was when the car behind me started honking madly, just after I'd pulled into the stream of moving traffic - on a small residential street. I thought my light was out or my door was open, so I slowed down and looked back. He kept honking and tapping his left wrist with his right hand. I asked a taxi driver lingering nearby what that meant. He shrugged. So I glanced back to ask him, and he looked really angry. He slammed the gas pedal and zipped around me. Apparently all that honking had been because I was going slower than he wanted. Oops on him - I just slowed even more!

My wits ended, though, when I went through an intersection in the right lane, marked with arrows for straight or right-turn. So I went straight, and - of course - there was a crosswalk right after the intersection. And people in the crosswalk. So I stopped in the small space between the crossroad and the crosswalk. So... the big enormous white SUV to my left almost drove right into me. Not only did the driver of that vehicle think she had the right to move straight into my space in the right lane, but she also could care less about those particular pedestrians.


Friday, May 1, 2009

Scenario #25: Please, ma'am, all I want is some bread!

I'm sitting in a café writing. The café has a large beautiful window looking out on a somewhat busy road. In fact, this establishment is more of a porch than a room in its own right.

Two girls just came in through the rickety glass door and walked up to me, currently the only patron. They both had golden dyed hair and wore dirty dresses and brown jackets. The first was very small, five years old perhaps? The second one could have been ten or twelve.

The little girl came up to me, leaned her left arm on my purse and computer case, and reached out her right hand to me, palm held up. She mumbled something very quietly, probably in Albanian so I wouldn't have understood even if she had spoken clearly. I've been told that I shouldn't engage beggars here in conversation, and that it's not rude here to ignore them. So I looked at her and shook my head no, ever so briefly, and went back to my typing.

She left, and two minutes later the older girl entered. She leaned her body over my purse and computer case and her upturned hand was practically in my face. With her left hand she gestured to her mouth while she nodded her head toward the food counter. Clearly she wanted me to buy her a muffin or some cake. How could I say no? But I did. And she insisted. And I dutifully kept staring at my screen, feeling like Scrooge's evil stepsister.

Two little boys have already been by begging since I've been sitting here, and I see a few other kids out on the street. If I start saying yes, where will that rabbit trail end?

But there was another reason I said no.

The second girl insisted and insisted, but she finally gave up. So she walked straight up to the shopkeeper and asked him for some food. He gave it to her. While she was waiting for her muffin, the younger girl came back, with a friend. They stood by the door waiting, then the three left together.

Just yesterday I sat in a meeting about organised crime here in Kosovo and child labour. These children were probably Roma (gypsy) children, and are probably under obligation to report back to their employer on their gains for the day. They are a gang of babies working for a gang of big scary dudes. I just can't find it in myself to participate in that process in any way.

But who does that to a child? Who can make a five year old and a ten year old spend their days on the streets begging? Who makes sure they are dirty and hungry? As awful as I felt denying them their simple request for some bread, it is still beyond the pales of my imagination to conceive of someone who forces them to beg and beats them and sexually abuses them... yes, there are reports - lots of them - that these things happen. How can a person live with him/herself and do these things?

What hope is there for those children, essentially no different from the two sisters dressed in matching pink outfits who just skipped by the café, with their loving parents following arm-in-arm?