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.


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.