Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Hotel California

It’s been a long time but they say you either love it or hate it here and everyone that loves it will always be back.  Well hello, I’m back.

Never thought I would be, because leaving last time was so emotional, I didn’t want to leave but it was due, it was the right time and it was good to get back to ‘civilization’ again. That lasted a month until wearing hiking socks in the house was no longer a novelty, time to return to the tropics!

18 months in the Philippines and a year in Bali which was kind of civilization and some great friends, I decided my brain was turning to mush.  I can do low pay and loving my job.  I can do high pay and hating my job.  What I can’t do is hating my job and getting paid badly for it.  Bali is an incredible place to live but my brain needs exercising!

So back to Dili and much to many friends shock, not diving!  The job has potential and already I’m enjoying it, overseeing an Italian restaurant with loads of other projects underway.  I never in million years thought I would be in the food industry but I kind of adopted it in the Philippines (kicking and fighting as I was a dive centre assistant manager) to my advantage now.  They say you have 3 careers in your life, mine has been IT, diving now food, but I now have a passion for painting but neither will make me rich!

So Dili has not changed much, finally Timor Plaza has opened, (they had been building it or 2 years when I left, and it’s the same crappy shops but in a nice new fa├žade except for Gloria Jeans which is apparently Australia’s equivalent to Starbucks and Burger King, haven’t faced that yet but I’m wondering if the burger is served with rice as back in Bali KFC was with rice (that’s just wrong! Slaw and fries).  

They do have a nice place on the roof of the Plaza called the Sky Garden, the views over Dili are amazing accompanied by a very cheap glass of cold Australian Chardonnay at the Friday night happy hour.  My artist friend lives in the apartments there, so it’s a nice conclusion to a few hours painting.
As posh as the Plaza is (Dili Standards) you still can’t get shoes here (unless you want 5 inch glitzy wedges), I discovered this after breaking 4 pairs in two weeks due to the horrendous potholes which as before they are trying to fix all at the same time causing huge traffic problems.  And the dust, I had forgotten just how dusty this place is, especially as there are unseasonal winds at the moment which made for a very ‘interesting’ crossing to Atauro Island.  We had a couple of girls from Singapore on the journey with us who excitedly asked about whale and dolphin spotting! Not in waters as rough as this!  I actually averted my eyes as the waves filled the whole backdrop of Joanna who was sitting in the wet seat opposite me!  And I consider myself a hardened boat traveller.  One of the Singaporean girls was white knuckle gripping the side of the boat with her eyes closed the whole way and bless her, she managed to not throw up!

It was finally nice to stay over at Barry’s eco lodge and visit the cottage industry where I bought myself a small handbag after sporting a very loud 10L orange dry bag for the last 2 years.  We also caught a motorcycle taxi on the only road in Atauro, which promptly broke down on the way back due a flat tyre that had to be bicycle pumped.

It was also nice to dive with Joanna again although it was a shallow dive on the house reef due to the rough seas. Another question from the Singaporean girls ‘where’s the swimming beach?’ Answer, you are looking at it, what is normally a white sand beach was strewn with seaweed and rubbish and the crystal blue water a dirty brown, unlucky, but they were good sports and very nice company at dinner.

There were a lot more boats over at Atauro, this is all relative, I spotted six instead of the usual one! There are a few more private owners including Barry’s tinny which sports the XXXX beer logo (acquired from Gil after the demise of ‘One More Bar’). One of the boats was an Ambulance boat which Atauro sorely needed, but it’s only useful if it works! Plagued with engine problems from the start it’s a weather beaten ornament at the moment.  The good news is though, Atauro is getting an airport which means patients can be medivaced to Dili that is providing they have a helicopter, a pilot and the helicopter is working!

Talking of maintenance, there seems to be multiple daily power cuts, much more even than in 2006.  But I am one of the lucky ‘Malai’ that has generator facilities so I don’t have to put up with the stifling heat every time the power goes off, although the heat has not been a problem the last few days as the wind has been so high and we have had unseasonal downpours so it’s cold! Even had to put a jumper on one day, in the tropics!  Still I have a nice hot shower in my new bathroom and my room is finally taking shape, just need to get some reading lamps which have always been near on impossible to buy in Dili unless you want plastic ‘Hello Kitty’ style or something equally as tacky. They are on the shopping list for my next trip to Bali along with 10 pairs of shoes!

Monday, October 25, 2010

One Ton of Chooks – East Timor September 2010

After 4 and a half years in East Timor I still have seen very little of it. This is mainly due to my bolt to Bali every three months to be pampered and stock up on Marks and Spencers underwear, which in fact I will need to do soon due to cheap Indonesian towels, my white knickers are now shades of mottled red and blue!

So when a friend of mine said she was going on a road trip around Timor I asked if she needed a passenger. She is the catering manager for PDL Toll and she was heading up the catering for this year’s Tour De Timor, which meant she had to visit the 4 sites where the cyclists would stay, Balibo, Suai, Ainaro and Alieu. I’d been to Balibo and Alieu before but not the other locations or the route between them. For her it was a bit of company on some long drives.

Day 1 5.30 am – It’s still dark when we arrived at the heliport and no-one else is there yet, but it doesn’t stop Cath clambering on board a fork lift truck and unloading the containers by a mixture of car headlights and my torch. By 6 some of the rest of the crew had arrived but not the forklift operator, best laid plans and all that. Only ½ an hour behind schedule and a hearty breakfast inside us we formed a convoy following the huge army Mack and the landrover with trailer that was transporting copious amounts of food, ovens and gas bottles to our first location of Balibo.

We had only got 8k out of town when the Ozzy army boys (actually the driver of the huge Mack was a girl!) pulled over for their first radio check, it was going to be a long day. Several radio checks later and never in a convenient location with a bush (well a girl has got to pee), we arrive in Balibo after taking in some gorgeous costal and mountainous scenery. Only problem was, we were the only people there, not an organiser in sight.

Half an hour or so later Tony arrives and shows us our kitchen. Well actually what he shows us is two classrooms full of miniature chairs and desks, a single light bulb (installed the day before) and wire mesh for windows. Not a problem says Cath, grabbing the first of many, many desks that we chain ganged out of there onto the playing field outside. Once the classroom was emptied and swept (a long time since that happened), the shell started to form into a kitchen, tables, cookers, BBQ, hand washing station, plus mega caterings packs of cereal, t-bags, orange juice etc.
As the chefs prepared the kitchen the rest of us prepared the living quarters, i.e. the classroom next door when the key was eventually located, more desks and chairs on the playing field forming a rather nice looking outdoor restaurant. Eventually the UN arrived with the water, the Generator arrived (as most districts have very sporadic town power) and the Portaloos arrived along with what seemed like the whole of Balibos dogs and kids, including a nasty little imp with a home-made pea shooter made from a plastic bottle neck and a piece of balloon, that had an amazing range, right into the eye of one of the Timorese helpers.

By mid afternoon the whole town was transformed, a finish line, streamers everywhere, kids clutching Tour De Timor flags and sporting t-shirts, it was all coming together, except for the garbage collection. Now if you are going to create rubbish, you must be responsible and take it with you or dispose of it properly, the organizers had planned for this but the truck hadn’t turned up on time, so where we were dumping rubbish at the back of the school turned into a rag pickers paradise. Every bag we put there was immediately raided by kids and dogs, both being very hungry. Luckily the next day the trucks disposed of the trash.

Day 2 – According to the official brochure, lunch would be served from 11 until 2 and dinner from 5 until 7. Whoever wrote the brochure obviously hadn’t ridden the grueling 126km in East Timor’s blazing heat! The first rider came in at 4hrs 11mins which is about the time it took us to drive! Many of the riders ended up on the ‘Sad Wagon’ which picks up the riders that haven’t completed the course in 8 hours. So the whole day was a production line of food with only a ½ an hour break between lunch and dinner. I found one poor guy in that break sitting dazed and confused outside the kitchen, a fruit bar revived him and stopped his shakes. The amount of energy these guys burn up and the amount of fluid they lose, one guy had to be choppered out that night due to heat stroke.

Every rider and volunteer had a wrist band which we checked when they came up for food, but what the organizers hadn’t counted on is the local volunteers coming up two or more times for food or sharing their wrist band amongst their friends, so instead of feeding 500 people at lunch we counted 850 plates!

Day 3 – Cath and the crew were up at 3am to prepare breakfast for 5am, which is the time I woke up, brushed my teeth, dismantled my tent and grabbed a cup of tea, ready to set off in the dark to Suai. Every location had Mack truck and LandRover delivering supplies the day before, so Tony had already set up the kitchen in Suai. We had to leave with the advance party to get to the next location ahead of the riders following an army escort. Setting off in the dark, Cath did a grand job keeping up with the army who seemed to treat the roads like some extreme rally race. As soon as you got out of Bobinaro the went up and up and up, twisting and turning with hairpin bends, fantastic scenery but so hard on the riders.

Ainaro was a bit more organised, the school was a bit more modern and had electricity and toilets but the kitchen was still in a classroom, as was the first aid station and the physio room. The kitchen was also helped out by some local volunteers and a great bunch of army guys including Jabber, a giant of an American who insisted on having his photo taken with two of the local female volunteers perched on each shoulder. After much giggling and shyness we got the shot.

There was also a Kiwi Padre who turned our bed camp into a holy place to say prayers with the local volunteers before bed.

Given the experience in Balibo we tried to ration the fruit and energy bars to the riders as they needed it the most, there was mountains of other food to be had and today lunch rolled into dinner without a break. So I became the fruit Nazi, much to the distain of some non rider volunteers. The sad wagon picked up even more riders today so the queue at dinner seemed to go on for miles. The first aid the physio stations were packed as the terrain was very hard and many people took a tumble.

They were not the only ones in pain, I’m used to being horizontal in water, not on my feet all day, everything was aching, what a wimp!

Day 4 – The journey seemed shorter and relatively flat compared to previous days. It didn’t seem that long before we were in Ainaro. Ainaro is a pretty little town and I had the pleasure of watching the local school band performing for the president. One thing I really have noticed travelling through the districts is how clean they are compared to Dili. The people living here may have very little in terms of running water and electricity but they have a pride in their homes, unlike Dili where rubbish is discarded from car windows at frightening regularity.

This time the kitchen and dining room were combined which had its own drawbacks especially when it bucketed it down and everyone sought refuge in the kitchen because there was no other dry space. This led to very slippery floors and people milling around in the walkways when you are trying to carry bucket loads of potato salad. I helped out in the kitchen in the morning by cracking chooks (Australian for chicken!) Whenever I didn’t do it quite right, the Timorese kitchen staff would subtly take my finished chook and correct it with a little smile.

Because we have had really weird weather this year and unseasonal downpours, the mozzy dome tents provided for the cyclists would obviously not protect them from the torrent of rain we were experiencing, so the community of Ainaro pulled together and offered verandas and rooms for the cyclists and volunteers to sleep, we ended up sleeping in the kitchen.

Day 5 – Leaving at 6am we set off for Alieu winding our way up the mountains again through incredible scenery. At the highest point of 1500ft above sea level, it seemed to level off into lush grassy plains. In the distance we could see the water station, bright red coca-cola flags billowing in the wind, offset against lush bright green hills with a crystal blue sky. We stopped and got out of the car, the chill of the mountain air, crisp in the morning with the warmth of the sun on our backs, overlooking the valleys and clouds below us with Dave Stewart instrumental playing on the car CD. It was one of life’s magic moments.

Alieu was the worst kitchen yet, it was actually the schools tiny kitchen, the only advantage to which it had a tap inside the kitchen which meant the mud floors got sodden and became slippery as hell, which is not good when you are dealing with heavy, hot buckets of chicken etc. We set the lunch tables up on the playground but soon had to move them to the verandas of the classrooms as rain was threatening again.

Now although East Timor is the land of the crocodile, in the 4 plus years I’ve been here I have (luckily) never seen one (in this country). Today was my first chance, 2 hours inland there was a 3 meter saltwater crock in a pond (with a fence around). Cath decided the adorable little thing was hungry so fed it a couple of chooks, boy crocks can really move fast when there is food around.

Today I managed to see the first of the riders cross the finish line and get to have a look around as Dean was so organized in the kitchen (plus it was so small I’d just get in the way), so I visited the local markets and took some photos. The last time I was in Alieu the whole of the main street was flooded.

I also took some photos of ‘The Guru’, a local eccentric that decided to bless us all with his rosary beads and bible while trying to snaffle some food under his multiple layers of colorful but filthy clothing.

I was the pasta Nazi that evening as we had a bit of a repeat of Balibo, many more mouths to feed than were originally estimated. Buy 8pm things were starting to run out, plenty of meat but veg was getting low so we rationed the pasta for veggies only. One particular non rider vegetarian had been bugging the hell out of us for the last 5 days with his incessant whining about vegetarian food. Every meal there had been plenty of salad, bread, potato salad, eggs for breakfast, veg and veggy pasta in the evening, no-one went hungry and any leftover food was given to the local community. However, every lunchtime he would always come in late and say ‘Can I possibly trouble you for some eggs as we vegetarians need our protein you know’, to which Cath would always answer ‘Of course you may, like I said before you just have to ask and we would be happy to cook you some eggs’. Bear in mind this guy was not a rider so was expending very little energy apart from making himself a pain in the arse. Of course it was just gone 8 pm when this guy rocked up for his veggy food, and thank goodness I had been pasta Nazi otherwise I would have got it in the ear from him. As he got his food a colleague of mine said ‘You know what mate you are a w****r! You have been giving us shit for the last 5 days, now take your f*****g food and eat it! ‘ The guy looked shell shocked, but it made us all laugh and wish we had said it ourselves. I mean come on, you’re in a country that struggles for drinking water, meat is an absolute luxury that you may get once a month, there are kids running around with yellow streaks in their hair due to malnutrition, and you are worried about 5 days without an egg! Pompus arse.

The last supper over we sat down with a well earned beer and did the calculations, over 5 days, 3 meals a day, over 7500 plates of food were served. One ton of chicken was served, imagine going through a ton of chooks!

That night the fog came in and you could hardly see a couple of meters in front of you, chilly as well. My bed for the night was the car, which I think was the best night’s sleep I had all week.
Day 6 – Cath didn’t fancy the off road style driving following the army through the fog, so we packed up after breakfast, watched the medal ceremony from the previous day (delayed because of the rain the day before) and actually managed to see the start of the final leg of the race.

A slow journey down as we were following the riders, but a pretty one never the less. Finally getting into Dili all the roads were closed, but we managed to sneak through the back way. I was relieved to get home as I had run out of clean clothes, only managed a cats lick that morning due to the cold and my brain doesn’t seem to like squat toilets, the bunged up feeling was getting a little uncomfortable. So seeing my own hot shower and western style loo was bliss.
My first ‘holiday’ since February, wasn’t really a holiday but it was great fun and experience and a wonderful way to see some of this extremely beautiful country. And well done to all the riders.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Fried Kitten - East Timor 23rd May 2010

I haven’t updated this blog for a long time, but recent funny events have inspired me to. Because we are always saying.....Only in Timor.

Every day something breaks, sometimes multiple things break, it’s a fact of life out here. Sometimes they can be simple things such as the cheap Chinese plastic toilet plunger (you can’t buy quality, so you buy in bulk!) to very complex and expensive things like the compressor.
Well this year has been a marathon of things breaking. I’m not allowed to go on holiday because I’m jinxed. Every time I go on holiday something major breaks the very next day. The Jan 09 trip to Bali, we had a lightning strike that blew up the office laptop. September’s trip to Bali ended up with a wrecked Landcruiser. And Dim’s parting words to me when I set off for Perth in April was ‘What can go wrong?’ the very next day the boat sunk!

So I no longer get surprised when something gets broken, it only irritates me when I get told ‘Already broken long time’, because that’s the time you really need the item in question. Anyway yesterday was no exception; the first broken thing was the minibus.

Unfortunately, having a busy restaurant above us invites the families of stray cats to hang out near the bins. The kittens are cute when they are tiny but soon grow up into pests. However being a soppy animal lover I would never harm them. The weather has been cooler at night due to the amazing torrents of rain we have been having. So as animals do, little kitten sought out warmth and nestled into the engine of the minibus unbeknown to us.

Of course in the morning Antonio moved the minibus a few foot before the noise made him stop. All I could see of little kitty was a tiny tail hanging down out of the bottom of the car. It took about 2 hours before they could get it out and then I was asked for 20c so they could give it a decent burial. Unfortunately it then took another 2 hours to get the 2 fan belts back on. Poor kitty definitely didn’t have 9 lives.

Yesterday the rain was horrendous, we have been having huge downpours daily for the last couple of weeks, but yesterday we had two downpours. One of the units had been flooded recently so Greg and I donned swimming togs and ran round to assist only to find the swimming pool was brimming. We couldn’t drain it as the tank for the overflow was already overflowing. There was only one thing for it, jump in the pool with buckets and bail it out. That was until one bright spark bystander suggested we siphoned it off with the pool cleaner hose, much easier and quicker.

Other amusing ditties that have happened in East Timor recently is the new immigration Laws(?) You can no longer get a visa on arrival at the border with Indonesia. The only way you can get a visa on arrival is to fly in because the consulates in Kupang and Bali can’t issue visas. However some tourists were getting through on a 7 day visa while others were turned away completely. One of our tourists coming from Italy flew into Kupang, then had to fly to Bali and then to Dili as he didn’t want to waste the time and risk being turned away. Another tourist was stuck here because of the volcanic ash in Europe. Still, there are worse places to be.

Now the ports authority is another thing. We were expecting a shipment of mattresses from Indonesia. Our man that can went to get the container on the Thursday but the port was having a power cut and the backup generator could not power their computers, so they couldn’t release the container. Same thing on Friday. Then it’s the weekend and they don’t work on the weekend. Monday the National Police decided due to traffic problems that the container trucks could not go on the road until after 6pm. Unfortunately the Ports Authority finish work at 5pm. So again no containers were moving and boats were backing up unable to unload. Eventually after a huge fight between the Police and the Ports Authority, containers started to move again. We eventually got our shipment a week later. One poor bugger was in the same situation as us and the Ports Authority tried to charge him for storage!

Well the only things that have broken today is the wires on the water fountain shorted and the light over the BBQ has broken and the waterproof coating we put on the truck has disintegrated, but it is only 5pm......what next?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Bureaucracy gone mad – East Timor June 5th 2009

In a previous life back in the UK, I used to sell software to government bodies and departments. One of the strap lines for the product I sold was ‘Business Process Reengineering’, in other words, look at all the manual inefficient processes, weed out the redundant ones and automate the rest, the paperless office. This never completely happened of course because government being government still needed rubber stamps and paperwork, but it went a long way to streamline the processes and make the department more efficient.

Part of the sales process was to analyse the existing processes and try and understand why it took 4 departments, 2 sign offs and a minimum of 6 weeks just to pay an invoice, then come up with an automated solution that would achieve the same thing in a week. Never in all the years of doing this did I suggest taking a match to the existing paperwork and completely starting again, until I got to East Timor!

A month ago Zelia our office assistant said Antonio has had a car accident. After establishing that he wasn’t hurt and where the accident was, I set off with the car registration documents, my driving licence, $100 and Zelia in tow.

The accident was just around the corner and already the UNPol were there (a lovely Philippine cop that I had taught to dive two years before). A Portuguese woman had run up the back of our Ute and caved the back tray in whilst completely demolishing the front of her car, obviously going too fast to stop in time. The woman’s husband, a Timorese cop, had arrived in his car and as we departed for the police station the woman managed to smash into his car too!

At the police station I discovered that Antonio had lost his driving licence and in fact the one he had had was Indonesian not Timorese. The woman also had no driving licence so they were both issued fines. With the fine in hand I took Antonio down to the ministry of transport to pay it and get Antonio a new application for a driving licence but discovered the ministry was closed. As is common here, most places have a 2 hours lunch break, but this place takes even more. The opening hours are 9-11.45 then 2-3.30, and if you want to apply for driving licence then you can only do that in the morning.

So we returned at 2pm to pay the fine. After queuing at the main window for some time we were told to go to building 40. Now these buildings as such are portacabins with very tiny numbers on them, where the officials inside (like many govt departments worldwide) have one person serving at the window and the rest playing patience on their computers. I know because I accidently went in the door and saw the screens rather than stand on a bit of breezeblock at the window as I was supposed to do.

They gave us a new document and told us to go to the photocopy window, where I had to get two copies at 10c a copy, which was a pleasant surprise as last time when I tried to register one of our cars, it was 8 copies. Then back to building 40, and then back to the original window to hopefully pay. But, no, the police administrator had written the case number down as our car registration number so of course it was back to the police station!

Registration number typexed and rewritten we went back to the ministry of transport at 3.20. By 3.45 and several windows later we managed to pay but it looked like our Mitsubishi Ute was registered as a 10 person microlet. Back to the police station and I realised that we have two Mitsubishi’s and the police assistant had written down the details and registration of our Pajero which didn’t match with the Ute, and of course the police assistant had by then gone home. Finally I managed to convince the policeman in charge that it was a mistake and we had actually paid the fine. I got the call at nine thirty a.m. and finally walked out of the police station at four thirty p.m.!

Meanwhile back to Antonio’s driving licence. The next day in the morning, he returned to the ministry only to be told they had run out of forms! The day after he got a form and was told he needed a medical at Dili hospital. So, he went to Dili hospital and was told they only do medicals on Tuesday mornings, so the next Tuesday he went to the hospital for his medical, the results of which could only be collected the next Tuesday! The next Tuesday he managed to pick up the results but only in the afternoon which meant the test centre was closed. On Thursday the 28th he finally took his test and was told he could pick up his licence on the 12th of June! Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh! Crazy! So I’m still down one driver.

Many things are lost in translation, even though you think that something has been translated, it doesn’t actually mean it is understood. Rita our cook normally buys this processed plastic Kraft cheese which is horrible, so I asked her to buy Australian Black and Gold cheddar which at least has some taste, I even drew the packet. What she came back with was Kraft cheese and two packets of frozen chips. Huh!!!!

As Rita only works Saturday morning and not on Sunday we found we sometimes ran out of the basic essentials on a weekend, milk, bread, loo roll etc. So I devised a system for Rita to check the minimum levels 3 times a week and if we fell below those levels she was to buy more. After a couple of weeks of trialling I realised that something wasn’t understood so I tried explaining it again. Thinking we had finally cracked it, Rita came proudly back from shopping yesterday. I had to hug her because we are now owners of no less than 6 boxes of cornflakes that were not even on the list! We are going to be eating cornflakes for months!

Names are another stumbling block; I often come back from diving and find messages in the book from people I have never heard of. It’s usually a misspelling of the name and I can work it out, but the name Nim puzzled me. On phoning the number I found it was one of our regular clients, Ian! Now we call him Nim as a nickname.

Nafy joined as an office assistant a few months ago. On a Saturday she finishes at 5, so to give me a hint she subtly puts the cash box on the counter for me to lock away. One Saturday she did this just as I came in the shop followed by 20 US Navy, whose average height was over 6ft. At which point she put the cashbox back, stood up, looked up and grinned, as the top of her head would only be mid chest level on these guys. We spent the next hour grabbing as many L and XL boots and Fins as we could find and delivering them to a barrage of ‘Thank you Mamm!’, ‘Size 12 Mamm!’ and ‘I need a bigger size Mamm!’ When the shop finally emptied we sat back and giggled. I think Nafy had severe neck ache the next day.

Our pool is all but finished, just the paving around it needs to be done, but it’s filled and awesome. It’s 3 meters deep, which is fantastic for dive training and of course it’s just out the back and can be used at night as its lit inside. We spent the first couple of evenings partying in the pool, it’s so nice. Today is the first day it’s going to be used for students and we are going to have an opening party at the end of the month, should be fun!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

1 the new 18 – East Timor 22nd January 2009

Me and a couple of other colleagues were given an invitation to Antonio’s nephews 1st birthday party. We were given the invitation around 11am for the evening party starting at 7pm, so I thought it was probably an afterthought gesture. With this in mind I thought I’d go along with a present, smile my way through an hour of birthday cake and screaming tots, then make a hasty retreat........WRONG!

Apparently the 1st birthday is as important as we treat the 18th birthday, probably because there is such high infant mortality here. We arrived a little late about 7.45 and of course Carlos and I were the only Malai. There were chairs lined up everywhere and the guests just kept coming and coming. As soon as you thought the party was full, more chairs would be put out and more guests arrive. That’s the logic behind the last minute invitation; if you sent the invitation out too early then you wouldn’t be able to cope with the numbers!

As part of the Birthday Boys present I had bought shoes and socks for a one year old. I wish I had brought them for a 3 year old as the pile of presents was so high it would have been more useful to buy him something he would grow into.

Most of the parties I go to, as soon as you walk in you are offered a drink. This doesn’t happen with Timorese parties, you go in and greet the hosts, then you sit in rows until most of the guests have arrived, this was about 9.30, so some guests had been sitting there for 2 ½ hours! Then the speeches start, including the local policeman asking the boys not to get drunk and cause trouble with the girls, then the cake cutting, then finally the food was served. Once one person got up to eat it was like a stampede to the food table. At that point you were offered water and a choice of a beer or a soft drink. As I was driving I opted for a soft drink which upset the drinks server a bit, because he was almost insistent that I had beer. I suppose because beer is more expensive, he couldn’t understand why a Malai wouldn’t want it.

After dinner the dancing started, if you can imagine a very stiff waltz holding your partner at least a foot away from you, that’s how the Timorese dance. As soon the music stops they almost run away from each other back to their seats at opposite ends of the room. One little girl did make Zelia and I laugh though. She was about 2 ½ and her brother must have been 6, she was insistent she was going to dance with him, so her chubby little arm was wrapped around his legs gripping on to the bum seat of his trousers almost pulling them down and every time he tried to untangle himself she would increase her grip hanging on for dear life.

Carlos and I had only planned to be there for an hour, but when ’Achy Breaky Heart’ started playing I could take no more. I feigned a knee injury that prevented me from dancing and I had to work in the morning. We finally got home at 11pm, the party ended at 6am!

Talking of parties, I went to a friends Xmas party where he dressed up as Santa. Many of his local Timorese community were there and even the women had a drink. He had to teach them how to drink as they were knocking back wine as if it was orange juice. The next day he got a phone call from three of them saying they had to go to the hospital because they were very sick. He had to convince them that they didn’t need the hospital, they were just nursing their first ever hangover!

Christmas day was a bit more of a western affair. We did one dive in the morning where I finished the last dive of an Open Water Course, so my student was qualified on Christmas Day. Then we took our guests to join Tony and his friends on the beach where they had set up a great shaded structure and a big BBQ. Chilling out on a white sandy beach in the tropics on Christmas Day can’t be bad.

New Year I spent in Bali, in the cooler climate of Ubud with friends. On the 2nd I treated myself to a half day spa, a chakra massage where they dribble hot oil all over you, a very strange experience. This was followed by a body scrub and a flower bath. The nicest thing about the place was the setting; each room had a huge open window which overlooked lush greenery. As you relax in your bath surrounded by frangipanis, you feel the cool breeze from the window and watch geckos running along the sill.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Merpati Madness – East Timor 12th December 2008

We have 3 airlines that fly into East Timor: Air North from Darwin who gives you a ridiculously small luggage allowance for a ridiculously high airfare. Austasia who have recently started a route from Singapore which opens up that market, but also some Europeans who are banned from flying on any Indonesian airlines because of their bad safety record. And finally Merpati to Bali, who are Indonesia’s domestic carrier but charge an international price.

This is soon to change as East Timor is setting up their own airline to fly to Darwin and Bali, which should stop the monopoly. But at the moment you have one airline depending on your destination.

The Merpati experience is one to be endured rather than enjoyed. Every 3 months the price seems to increase, but you don’t have a choice if you want to get to Bali. The flight is functional, you certainly don’t expect any frills, and if there is anything edible in the stone cold lunchbox they give you, it’s a surprise. It’s even more of a surprise if they manage to give you customs card on the plane, unfortunately they were the wrong ones and we had to repeat the form filling process again when arriving in Dili.

Because my working week is more weekend intensive I tend to fly weekdays, so have never encountered the mass exodus on a long weekend. Last weekend was a public holiday so the Merpati flight was full, or should I say overbooked by 10 people. Rather than addressing this at check-in, they waited until everyone was in the departure lounge which is not a pleasant place, with ineffectual air conditioning which had broken completely that day, gross toilets and no water available to buy (plenty of gin and whisky though). After 2 hours Merpati basically told their customers that they were overbooked and had to ‘cull’ themselves! You can imagine how this went down!

Eventually 10 people did give up their seats and the remaining passengers were herded towards the plane only to find their luggage had been unloaded, apparently the plane was too heavy. So one hundred people protested on the runway. This is supposed to be an International Airport!

I’m not sure how it all got resolved but the plane landed in Bali 4 hours late minus some poor sods luggage, and most of the passengers who had connecting flights of course had missed them. So the Customer Service award East Timor style has to go to Merpati this year.

Last week the Dive Centre gained PADI 5 Star status which we were all really pleased about and celebrated with a few bottles of fizzy plonk. To get 5 star status you need to satisfy certain criteria in continuing education, reef conservation and also have a generally nice dive centre with changing facilities, retail shop etc. In the lead up to our application the place had a distinct feel of building site at times, a new storeroom was built, the old storeroom was turned into a toilet and shower and just when we thought the rubble, cement and noise had finished, my boss decided we needed a huge wall sized water feature with our logo on it. It does look fab now it’s finished though.

This water feature is becoming a bit of a mystery though. First the pump worked intermittently which meant we had stagnant water which is breeding ground for mosquitoes. A couple of scientists who were doing research on dengue fever confirmed that we had the dengue larva in the water. An easy remedy is to put fish in the water that eat the larva, so Megan came round with some fish for us. The very next day the fish had disappeared.

We worked out the problem with the pump, due to a slow leak, the water level dropped and the pump works on water pressure, so by topping up the water, the pump works and gone is our dengue problem as the water is always moving. Two days ago one of my UNPOL customers presented me with a present of a terrapin that he had found in a puddle in the middle of the main road. So we stuck the strangely named terrapin, Felicity, into the pond at the bottom of the water feature and an upturned shell so she could sunbathe and hide under it. The next day the terrapin had disappeared!

This morning, John showed me a bucket of fish he had bought to put into the pond, these were more of the dengue larva eating type. This afternoon I returned after lunch and the fish were gone! Now I know we have a lot of stray cats round here but this is getting ridiculous.

We also had another visitor a few days ago, I turned around to see Rita shooing a huge crab through the house with a dustpan and brush, it made me giggle as it kept changing direction causing Rita to run around in circles.

Another mystery occurred on Tuesday when I walked into the office and found one of the security cameras facing the wall. We installed CCTV after the traditional method of the Lulic Man didn’t identify the thief and we decided a more modern approach may be needed. As the camera facing the wall was very suspicious, the whole nights footage was played, nothing at all went on until 8 a.m. when on screen came Zelia with her feather duster and knocked the camera round. Mystery solved.

We have already got into the Christmas spirit here; on the 2nd of December I gave Zelia a long list of shopping, paint, vinegar, pens, toilet roll and a Christmas tree. I was worth it just to see her face light up, she was so excited. I returned back in the afternoon to be presented with a garish, over decorated, multicoloured plastic tree, but the staff like it and that’s all that counts. So we are suitably decorated for our Xmas party and 5 Star celebration on the 16th. Although attendance may be a bit low as everyone is dropping like flies here due to a horrible stomach bug that’s going around. It lingers on and on and the weight loss in people has been dramatic.

There has been a big clean up around town getting rid of the market stalls. The stalls were illegal and in some cases like the Pertamina market, a bit of a safety issue as people would park on a bend to use the market. Apparently the only stalls that are allowed outside official market places are those that are on wheels as they are considered vehicles. So now the vendors have to go back to the official market places if they want to trade. The place looks completely different.

East Timor had a big quake last week 6.3 and the bed moved for me again. I’m getting used to it now.

We have had a load of tourists in recently, real genuine ones that have come here solely to dive, not visa runs or visiting relatives. We had a couple from Holland who were both instructors and had been diving for 27 years and only had enough time to dive for one day here. In all the years of diving, neither had seen a dugong in the water. On their second dive my friendly dugong playmate from a couple of months ago came back to the same spot and repeated his playtime for 10 minutes. It must like visiting instructors.

We have also had loads of squid spawning and a few humpback whales. Although the rain has come early this year and the visibility is dropping. Time to teach search and recovery and navigation courses again.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Splash for Trash – East Timor 8th October 2008

On the 20th of September it was International Beach Clean Up day. All over the world volunteers were picking up rubbish from their beaches. So to join in the spirit of things I decided that our dive centre was going to take part and if possible get as many kids involved as I could.

The event was a great success. We held it at the Ocean View Hotel as we needed shade and toilet facilities. 50 people took part including some regular divers, snorkelers and kids from both international schools here in Dili. We managed to get some Timorese teenagers involved as well. They were at the hotel for an English lesson and when they had finished I invited them to join us. They thought it was a great idea and donned their rubber gloves and joined in with the rest of us.

What I didn’t know was the Portuguese television company that was filming the event was going to show the footage worldwide. So I’m now an international film star, even the USA! We managed to collect 48 big bags of rubbish in two hours which were disposed of by Anteater (thank you!) Prizes were given to the kids that collected the most unusual pieces of trash which were a car bumper, a radio and a welding helmet.

I had my first encounter with a Lulik man (witch doctor) recently. We had a robbery at the office and to eliminate any suspicion the traditional Timorese way of doing things is to visit the Lulik man and he will tell you who did it. A load of codswallop you may say but the Timorese are very superstitious and really believe in this stuff.

So I went to see the Lulik man who told me who the culprit was. He did this by wadding his mouth with betel nut and lime, and then every time we asked a question he would remove this muck from his mouth, inspect it and give us the answer. The thing is about betel nut is it a mild drug, so the guy was getting stoned and looking into his drugs for the answer!

I then had to go and buy a candle and all the staff had to hold the candle and swear that they did not steal anything and they didn’t know who did. The weird thing was when I took the candle back it sent shivers down my spine and I had goose bumps for a good 5 minutes. Once the ceremony was over I had to return the candle to the lulik man and tell him what kind of curse I wanted. Anything from death to disability! I opted for a head cold. Needless to say his description did not fit any one person and no-one has got sick. This is not something I want to repeat, ever!

We have had a whole band of tourists in from Australia, 10 of them! Wow we had a busy week, just the logistics alone. But I did some incredible diving over on Atauro, the walls there are amazing. The Timorese polices have been having a clamp down on car registrations, If you don’t have the original documents on you then the car gets impounded. The tourists were driving around in a minibus we hired and of course got stopped at a road block, bye-bye minibus!

Now this is typical of Dili. The major car hire company had two partners who fell out so they split and are now both trading in separate premises but under the same name. I phoned the company to get the papers for the minibus only to be told that the previous company illegally kept all the papers for the cars and they are now in the middle of a court battle to get the papers back. This doesn’t really help when your hire car has been impounded by the police! We managed to get the minibus back though.

I did a deep dive course this weekend with 3 of my regular customers. The course is 3 dives and each one of them was fabulous. The first at Dili Rock we got 26 nudibranches in an orgy plus a winged pipefish (well spotted Annabella!) The third at Marble Rock we had a Bumphead Parrotfish and 2 leaf scorpionfish. But the second dive at K41 was one of my best dives there yet. At 40metres we had 2 white tip reef shark just laying on the sand, when they moved off an huge Napoleon Wrasse swam past. Then a huge barracuda, 21 squid doing a fabulous line dance, a flying gurnard, 2 lionfish, a scorpionfish, a swiftly moving nudibranch and a flatworm. To top it all we had a manicure courtesy of the cleaner shrimp.

We have some guys over here that are trying to raise a shipwreck in the harbour. They are a great bunch and we have been trying to help them out with their unexpected problems. So they invited us on their boat for dinner. It was bliss sitting on the top deck in the cool night breeze looking over Dili. Really chilled out especially as I am in the middle of a very stressful course with 6 Filipino cops who cannot seem to make it on time, ever! I did get a word of warning though, when using the toilet, check the area first. They had a banded sea snake in there, eek!