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

balance

melancholy
beauty
weary
inspired

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

honesty

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.