This set of photos and letters come from the seven months I spent working and living in East Timor (or Timor-Leste). I was down there running a shelter program on the eastern end of the island for the United Nations. For tons more details abput the job, my life, and little bit about the history of East Timor, please check out the letters.
Again, I don't expect that anyone will want to read through all this, but at least the letters are here if someone wants to check them out. If you just want to see the pictures, scroll down to the slide show link at the very end of the post.
Ita diak kai lay? (How are you?) Hau diak! (I am Fine!) Well, here I am trying to start letter #1. I've got a blank page in front of me and a lot of gobbly-gook in my head. That should equate to a pretty good letter. However, it has been some time since I've written one of these things and I'm feeling somewhat rusty. Oh, well! I've got to start sometime so here goes ....
Where am I? (Those of you who already know can skip to the next section).
I know I kind of left in a bit of a rush, and a few people reading this might not know where exactly it is that I ended up. There may even be a few folks out there that don't even know that I'm gone. I'll give you folks a few hints (those of you who already know the answer - Keep Quiet!)
Hint #1: I'm not in San Francisco anymore.
Hint #2: I'm not in Kosovo, as originally planned.
Hint #3: It's not cold here.
(Actually it's damn hot and I haven't really stopped sweating since I got here.)
Hint #4: I'm on an island.
Hint #5: Some very bad stuff happened here real recently.
Hint #6: The country has only been independent for about three months now.
Got it yet? Anyway, to cut to the heart of the matter, I got rerouted and ended up here in East Timor, formerly a piece of Indonesia. Here is what happened...
I was supposed to fly to New York on Sunday, November 14th for a one day training session before boarding a plane to Rome, Skopje, and eventually Pristina, Kosovo. I had a full compliment of winter clothes all but packed on Friday the 12th. My plane ticket arrived in the mail as planned and I was just heading out the door to finish up a few more errands before my going away party, when the phone rang. It was IRC (International Rescue Committee), New York. They proceeded to inform me that they had just received a sort of cryptic phone call from Kosovo, stating that there may or may not be a problem with the shelter program funding. The folks in Kosovo were using a satellite phone and the connection was not very good, but the folks in New York were pretty sure that they were asking if I had left yet. Then they got cut off. Anyway, they felt the need to call and inform me that my position may or may not be in jeopardy and by the way, "How do you feel about Indonesia?". What!??
It turns out that they also need someone to help build shelters in East Timor (an off-shoot of IRC's Indonesian Program) to keep the rain off the heads of approximately 70% of the population who got their houses burnt down in their recent bid for independence. But, they aren't sure. They may or may not want me to go there or maybe Kosovo, or then again maybe not. They then suggest that I get on the plane to New York on Sunday and when I get into the office on Monday morning, they will tell me what direction I'm flying. Hmmm? The mountains of Kosovo in winter, or a tropical island in the middle of the hot season? How the hell do you pack for that? I suggested that they figure it out and give me a call. I'll wait in SF until I know whether to bring thermals or Tevas. That's when I left for my party.
Monday rolled around and I learned I was heading off for the South Pacific via Los Angles, Sydney, and Darwin. I was given a few extra days to repack and for them to get me another ticket. I left Friday, November 19th.
I was met at the airport in Darwin, Australia, by a gentleman named Squirrel. His name is Mark Squirrel, but goes by just Squirrel. Squirrel is our Security man. He is in charge of monitoring the situation in the country, hiring guards, maintaining an evacuation plan and a whole lot of other gofer activities. He was in Darwin doing some purchasing for the Dili office when I arrived.
I spent two days in Darwin waiting for a booking on the WFP (World Food Program) flight to Dili. This flight is operated by the UN and is the only non military aircraft flying into East Timor at the moment. It goes every day and is free to the NGOs (Non Government Organizations - like IRC). However, it's a small plane and a lot of folks are going back and forth to Darwin right now, so it's tough to get on. The only problem with this flight is that you are limited to only 15kg of baggage (Which is about the weight of a full daypack).
I spent my time in Darwin getting a few necessary shots, running folks out to the airport, and shopping at K-mart. Because the program just started up about a month ago, and the house in Dili was acquired only a few weeks ago, there are a lot of things that we still don't have. So, all new arrivees get to a bit of shopping as a sort of an initiation. This time it was Greg's and my turn to procure all those items necessary for just such a political emergency (extension cords, lawn chairs, soap, book shelves, phone cards, tea towels, etc.)
Greg is the other shelter Engineer. He is from Australia, but has been moving around the world in one way or another for about seven years now. He flew in from Thailand a day after I arrived. He has worked for IRC once before in their Rwanda program a few years back. Nice guy and a kind of jack of all trades. Greg got to do an extra day of shopping, and I got on the hour and a half WFP flight to Dili.
Dili is the Capitol of East Timor and is located on the northern side of the Island. The first thing you see on the way in is the mountainous center of the island, then the deep blue of the water and the islands to the north. The image of some midget yelling "de plane, de plane!" is quickly shattered when you see the Australian destroyers floating in the harbor, and the tanks lining the runway come into full view. The airport is heavily guarded by Australian, Italian, Thai, and American troops representing the UN. There is a lot of camouflaged netting hiding sand bag bunkers full of camouflaged troops sitting by with machine guns on tripods. It's definitely an impressive display.
I grabbed my 15 kg day pack full of necessities, a five gallon jug of potable water (which we managed to convince the flight crew to take), and a small ice chest with the rest of my vaccinations, and made my way through the nets, and bunkers, and machine guns to the car where Squirrel was waiting to bring us into town.
The ride into Dili was like a strange Malawian homecoming. It is eerie how similar to Malawi this place is; folks sitting under tiny wooden shack-like structures selling soap and cigarettes, bicycles zipping one way and mini-buses crammed so full that people are hanging out of the doors and windows and sitting on the roof zipping the other way. There are chickens and dogs and shacks, and old women with buckets on their heads, and men with fish and bananas slung over their shoulders and all I could think was "I've been here before."
Then you starting getting into town and you start to see the burnt out buildings, the shattered glass, the piles of tin, and the smoldering rubbish. It's then that you start to realize how bad things got here. We passed tanks and troops from all over the world, barbed-wire-surrounded compounds guarded by more bunkers and machine guns, blown up hotels, and a downtown without a single shop left untouched by fire and graffiti. It is estimated that as much as 70% to 80% of the country's infrastructure has been completely destroyed.
I had about a half an hour at the IRC house in Dili to meet the country director and a few of the other IRC folks, grab some lunch, a small supply of food and a mosquito net, before hopping on a truck loaded up with corn nuts for the medical mission in Los Palos. It's a five-hour drive by truck to Los Palos, and Carlito (the driver) and I did the whole thing in something fairly close to silence. His first and pretty much only words to me the entire trip were, "I no speak English." Since my knowledge of Tetum and Indonesian are still somewhat limited, conversation was kept to a minimum.
The road to Los Palos follows the northern coast of the island and is in fair shape. There are a few spots where the sea, or gravity or falling rock, seem to be winning the battle, but over all it's not too bad. We made only one stop, outside of Bacau, for a quick snack of tuna on a stick. Bacau is approximately half way to Los Palos. There you will find a lively market, Philippine troops in bunkers with machine guns guarding another airport, and about 25 UN land rovers stacked on the side of the road after being having been stoned and shot up in the mayhem last September.
All along the road, however, you still see hundreds of smiling, laughing children waving and yelling "Hello Mister!" People, old and young alike, stop whatever they are doing to smile and wave as you pass though village after village. Some villages are nothing but a few shacks made of tin sheeting or bamboo or mud, and all too many of the villages have nothing left but a few slabs of cement with the burnt carcasses of huts past. These folks didn't have much to start with, but what little they had, they lost. However, I get the since that most of the folks here now are happy. I'm sure it's because they truly believe things are going to get better.
A brief history of East Timor for those of you who, like me, didn't really pay that much attention to the news last September:
East Timor became a Portuguese colony way back when, when that sort of thing happened all the time. Around 1975, the Portuguese departed and left East Timor as an Independent state - essentially. That is, until the Indonesian army invaded and declared sovereignty over East Timor. So it goes, and the East Timorese people have been fighting for their independence for the last 24 years, while the Indonesians have tried everything to keep East Timor as part of Indonesia. They improved the infrastructure to try to win them over, they sent Indonesians over by the thousands to try to breed their way in, they used military might and torture to try to beat them into submission, but the East Timorese would have none of it. They have always wanted to be independent, or at the very least, be a colony of Portugal again.
So you ask yourself WHY? Why would Indonesia want to go through all the heartache to hold on to this rocky chunk of land so far from Jakarta? What makes the East Timorese people think they can make it out in the cold hard world of international finance, when all they have is a load of illiterate farmers trying to grow what little food they can to subsist? Oil my friend! Same ol' story. The area between East Timor and Australia is called the Timor Gap, and it's chock full of oil. Right now, Indonesia and Australia have it all divvied up and neither one of them really feels like giving up their portion of the pie. So Indonesia violates all kinds of human rights laws to pull good old East Timor into the fold, while Australia turns a blind eye to keep the peace with Indonesia, and keep their portion of the oil flowing. Simple enough... until the election.
I'm not sure if it was by international pressure, or if Indonesia just folded, but in September East Timor held a vote on the issue of independence. The election was monitored by UNEMET (United Nations Election Monitors for East Timor.) The results sided with the movement for independence by a landslide and the East Timorese people partied for two or three days straight in celebration. Then came the resounding "Oh Sh*t!", as the people started to realize that the Indonesian forces still in the country might not like their decision. They didn't. The Indonesians with all their guns and their torches and other weapons of destruction went on a rampage, and the East Timorese people ran for the hills. The UN got caught up in the middle of it and ended up running to Darwin, Australia. About three weeks later, when people started slowly heading home, it quickly became apparent that whole country had been destroyed. At that time the UN was still in Australia, but it was becoming apparent that there would be a huge refugee problem on the horizon.
The UN was out of the picture about 4 weeks. They quickly transformed UNEMET into the temporary governing body (UNTAET) which will essentially be the government, the police, and the justice system in East Timor for the next two or three years. They will work with East Timorese leaders to start a new government from scratch. That's a hefty task for three years. The local power structure being formed is called the CNRT. I don't know what it stands for, but they will most likely be the ruling party when the UN pulls out.
In mid October, the NGOs start flowing into the country. Mid November - I show up. So the history goes.
In Los Palos I met up with Jennifer, the shelter coordinator, also from the USA. She had just found a house for us, and was working on reaching an agreement with the owner about leasing it. The house is wired for electricity, but we had no power, because no one was able to get enough diesel to run the single functioning generator in town. With the UN's help we now have diesel and power (from 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.) in Los Palos, but it shorts out when it rains. The electric people are also unwilling to share their diesel with the water people.
Water is a problem. There is a spigot out back that doesn't work because we are above the point where gravity feed is possible. There is a pump to add pressure to the lines to feed the houses farther up the hill, but the pump is electric, and, well, that brings us back to the diesel problem. So, we get most of our water from the roof. We have a barrel out back with a long piece of corrugated metal sticking out of it to collect the rain during our daily deluge. A good afternoon rain can fill a 50-gallon drum in about 20 minutes.
We also need to make a few other improvements like hasps and locks on the doors to keep the thieves out, netting over the windows where the glass has been shattered to keep the bugs out, and some furniture so our guests feel like coming in. We are also really keen on getting some paint, at least for the insides. All supplies have to come from in from Darwin, as there is almost nothing for sale in East Timor (although that is changing quite rapidly). Our first shipment should be arriving next week (along with the rest of my gear) if all goes well with the military ferry service (It's been canceled twice since I've been here.)
The house is standard third world concrete block construction, with tin sheeting and timbers for roofing. We have a concrete squat loo out back that doubles as a wash room for my nightly bucket bath. I just hooked up one of those camping solar showers today and look forward to trying it out this evening. My bedroom looks more like a cell - I have one window about 1 ½ ft. x 1 ft., which is about 9 ft. off the ground. I've got a dome tent like mosquito net set on the floor to sleep in, and a therma-rest with a sheet over it to sleep on. There is a foot long gecko that lives in the hall and makes the most horrendous noise about 8:00 p.m. each evening. However, we forgive him for that because he really is the next best thing to a bug zapper.
Los Palos itself is not much of a metropolis. Size-wise, the town is smaller than most parking lots in the states. Greater Los Palos takes about 5 minutes to drive across, and that is only because one must dodge the dogs, chickens, children, nuns, carts, bikes, and people who aren't used to moving for cars, and aren't about to change their ways now. There is a central market that doesn't really have much in it except on weekends and even then it still doesn't really have all that much. Goods are slowly returning to Los Palos but it's taking some time. There is a row of shops on the main drag, however most have the typical scorch marks and missing roofs from the fires.
Only one shop has managed to reopen since September and it only has washing powder, soap, warm soda, and warm beer along with a few other items coming in from Dili. Next to the market is the village's traditional house, and next to that is the hospital (with only an untrained part-time staff). Across from the hospital are the church and its school, which doubles as the civic offices because the civic offices have all been burnt to the ground. It is also the warehouse for the first wave of emergency goods that the ICRC (Red Cross) is distributing with IRC, (us) and Concern, (another NGO.) The town hall has been converted into a grain warehouse by the WFP and is guarded by the Korean troops (part of INTERFET, International Force of East Timor). Our house is down the street from the town hall, across the street from the burnt building that used to be the police station, and just around the corner from UNTAET (United Nations Transitional Authority for East Timor). To summarize: Los Palos is small, the people are very nice, and there are more foreigners here than anyone can ever remember.
What am I doing here?
Damn good question! I'm glad you asked. The title I've been given is "Shelter Manager." So my job is to manage the shelter program for IRC. Jennifer is the "Shelter Coordinator," so she coordinates the shelter managers. Which would be, well…me. Then there is Greg, who got the title "Shelter Officer." He and the local staff are supposedly whom I'm supposed to manage. In reality we are all pretty much doing the same thing - trying to get the shelter program off the ground.
On our local staff right now we have one translator, Mr. Adilio Lopes. Adilio taught himself English a year ago, and although he is no master of the prose, he is holding his own and we are working with him. Example: "What is it mean - umm - head out?"
We also have a cook, Ms. Alsina Ornay. She's good with rice of course, and her stewed greens have an extra zing to them from some local spices (mostly garlic, hot peppers, ginger, and onion). She has also cooked some pretty good spiced beef. The challenge is to keep her out of our emergency rations of canned tuna, canned fruit, pasta, and biscuits from Australia. As the program gets going the staff will grow. We are starting at the very bottom.
The shelter program, the shelter program, hmmm? Where to start? Let's start with UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). They are sponsoring the shelter program in East Timor. There are eight NGOs, including IRC, working with and funded by the UNHCR to distribute "shelter kits" to East Timor's 35,000 most needy families. The UN will ship these kits in three phases to four ports around the country. A "kit" contains enough cement, timbers, corrugated tin sheeting and tools to build a modest home (5 meters by 7 meters), with local construction techniques. IRC is taking responsibility for 3,500 of those kits. We will be distributing materials for and monitoring the building of 1500 houses in Los Palos District, 1000 houses in and around Dili, and another 1000 in Oekusi (a small East Timorese enclave in West Timor - Kind of like the Gaza Strip.) We have 9 months to complete the project (my contract is still for only six months). So… there in lies the challenge.
In the last two weeks the three of us have been primarily focused on Los Palos. We will not become involved in Dili or Oekusi, until the Phase II materials arrive. To sum up my last few weeks; I've been whiling away the time trying to meet with local leaders, visiting all the "desas" (villages) I'll be working in, obtaining warehousing space, hiring local staff, and finalizing our budget.
Meeting with local leaders has been difficult because no one seems to know who they are. There has been a major changing of the guard within the CNRT and folks here don’t know who is out and who is in. The Church and UNTAET have been very helpful and as soon as the local political chaos subsides a bit, we should be able to move forward.
As for visiting the villages, the only challenge right now seems to be the road conditions. It is getting wet, and I've had to wade out in the mud to lock the hubs of the Hilux a few times. However, I've only been stopped once so far. A few days ago we tried to get out to the Lero I desa, but a nice size tree lay in the way. Due to the slope I couldn't get around it, its girth made it impossible to get over, and its weight kept me from pushing it out of the way. So, I backtracked to Chai and asked if they could remove it. I'll have to check it out again in a day or two.
For warehousing I found a government gymnasium just outside of town. All the doors and windows have been destroyed and removed and parts of the roof are missing. However, I did manage to find a carpenter in town that can do the repairs if I am able to obtain the materials (this work has to be done before my building materials arrive in port and there are almost no materials available locally.) The building is controlled by UNTAET, so leasing it should not be a problem.
Finding local staff is a real problem. A good majority of folks out this way live by subsistence farming. It is a real challenge to find bookkeepers to track warehouse stores, drivers that can actually drive, translators that know English, and anyone with any skills in the trades. At least laborers and guards are easy to find. We may have to recruit people from Dili.
Jennifer and I are working to make our original budget fit within the parameters dictated by the UNHCR. A big problem right now is that all eight NGOs in the program are attempting to do the same thing and no money is to be released until all eight budgets are just right. The first phase of materials are due to arrive in two or three weeks and we are still unable to put in a purchase order for trucks (with a lead time of up to 12 weeks) until everyone's budget is approved. Not good!
I've only taken two days off since I've been here. I've used both days to make my way to the coast to take a dip in the ocean. Last week I took the truck south past Illiapa, down a small track through a tiny coastal village till I hit the water (literally). I shifted into 4-wheel drive, turned right, and took off down the white sand beach for about a mile or so to lose the hordes of children that followed me out of the village. I stopped where the sand turned inland to form a rocky cove lined with cliffs and palms.
I was almost able to finish my lunch before the first group of die-hard children found me by following the tracks down the beach. I spent the afternoon swimming, reading, sunning, sleeping, and entertaining the ever growing crowd of village kids that hung around to watch and laugh at my every move. They were completely fascinated by the truck, so I let about fifteen of them climb in the back and gave them a wild ride back to the village. A damn nice way to spend a day!
The other day I saw a mini-bus crammed full of people with the word "CONCURE" painted in large letters across the windscreen. I think they meant "conquer." I tried to explain to Adilio why I found this so funny.
How to Find Me:
Right now, I'm feeling a little bit isolated. It's been over three weeks since I left now and I still have not figured out a decent way to communicate with folks back home. The main problem is that when the Indonesians left, they took the postal system, all the phone lines and just about everything else with them. The Australian army has set up a temporary postal system, but they are not yet ready to deliver the mail. At our office in Dili we have a satellite phone and a mobile phone that are able to reach the outside world.
If I'm in Dili, I'm able to send e-mails with the daily batch they send out, but since the cost is so high they are not yet allowing us to receive messages. In Los Palos I have nothing. If there is an emergency I can use the satellite phone at UNTAET, but otherwise it's a five hour drive to Dili in order to get in contact with the rest of the world. For the time being, I think the best way for me to receive mail is for people to send it to the IRC office in Darwin. The Address there is:
90 Mitchell Street
Darwin, NT 0800
From Darwin, mail and faxes will be hand carried to the office in Dili, and I can pick it up there or have someone bring it out this way when they come. It will be a slow process, but I hope folks can deal with it. It's been over three weeks now and the last word I heard from home was spoken to me at the airport when I left. I don't even know if folks have been receiving the little e-mail that I've been able to send. So, please write and let's test the system. There is word of the possibility of land lines in Dili before the end of the year. If that is truly the case, then our office in Dili will be able to access the Internet and therefore I will be able to use my Hotmail account again. I will definitely let folks know if this happens.
Well, that's about it for letter #1. Like in Malawi, it's taken me a few days to type all this out and I've already forgotten what I wrote in the first few pages. I tend to be a bit long winded. I hope this first time out I wasn't too rusty, and that some of it actually makes sense.
I also hope that everyone back home is doing well and enjoying the holiday season.
Till Next Month...
Ok, it’s Sunday afternoon on the ninth day of the new millennium. I’ve just taken a bucket bath to wash off the sand and salt from yet another perfect day at the beach, and I’m feeling pretty good. So good in fact that I’ve decided to start my second letter from East Timor and try to tell you about it.
Today I headed south. I grabbed a book and some sunscreen, packed a lunch, and hopped into a Land Cruiser with a few folks from MDM Portugal (Medicine of the World). We bounced down the hill past the villages of Illiapa and Chai, past the fallen tree that had blocked my way the first time I tried to head out this way, past Lore I, and finally down to a small village next to the water. We stopped just long enough for the MDM’s driver and translator to stock up on some nasty tasting palm wine and some even nastier tasting, down right brutal, palm whiskey. This village isn’t on the map and folks here completely survive on the sea and the palm trees that surround it.
We ended up driving to one end of the village where the water came in close to the beach (most of the island is surrounded with a shallow reef that is exposed at low tide). I waded out to where the reef drops off into the deep and swam until I was thoroughly saturated. I spent the rest of the afternoon laying on the beach listening to Portuguese guitar music coming from the cruiser’s tape deck, munching down fresh coconuts brought to us by the village children and watching the tide work it’s way back the beach. I could get used to this.
The Dawning of a New Millennium:
I realize that you folks back home are probably sick to death of all the millennium crap. I was before I left. Here however, it kind of came and went without saying a word. It’s hard to fear Y2K when the entire country has already been burnt to the ground, when every home and shop has already been thoroughly looted, and where almost nothing relies on any convenience more modern than a Bic pen.
That’s not to say that the New Year has not brought any changes. Things are happening fast around here. New businesses are popping up everyday. The East Timorese have erected more roadside shacks selling everything from washing powder to diesel fuel and the market is getting bigger and bigger every weekend. The Australians have also begun to filter in and open shop. There are shippers, restaurateurs, plumbers, carpenters, barmen and fuel men. They are all in Dili at the moment, but there is talk (especially among the shippers) of starting up service at a few of the other port towns.
Other changes I’ve noticed in the last month include: the decrease in the INTERFET forces and an increase in the number of UN representatives. The military forces are beginning the long slow process of pulling out while the new temporary UN government is flowing in. That means less sand bagged machine gung bunker road blocks and more speed bumps (however, these are not your average suburban speed bumps. To get over these puppies you need the clearance of a 4x4 and a high roof or a soft hat). It also means more rules around town. In Dili the Australian patrols have been issued speed guns to go with their machine guns in order to enforce the new town speed limit of 45 km/hr. They are a bit more effective than the arrival of what I call the “human pylons.” These guys are completely useless. They are local men stationed in teams of two at all major intersections. They have been hired by UNTAET to replace all the streetlights that have been looted. Their job is to direct traffic. They have been supplied with bright orange neon vests and bright orange neon traffic pointer light sticks that they wave around with reckless abandon. They only thing they don’t actually do, is direct the traffic. Basically, they stand in the middle of the road and wave their traffic pointer sticks in whatever direction you’ve already taken. If there is a car coming the other direction, the human pylons watch it slow down and watch it turn whatever way the driver wants to turn, then they wave their neon traffic wands at it as if to confirm that whatever choice the drive made was a good one because, yet again, no one crashed. Job well done guys! Keep up the good work!
Other changes include the disappearance of a few of the smoldering piles of burnt tin and shattered glass. The Australian and Italian troops have started doing a little bit of trash pick-up around town. Although that has slowed since they have begun lightening the force size.
On a personal note, I must include the disappearance of my facial hair and most of that on my head. I shaved my goatee after the realization that it was quickly becoming an itchy tangled mess without the help of an electric shaver or a pair of scissors. As for the hair on the top of my head… I had hoped to get it cut in Darwin, but that didn’t happen. I had hoped to find some kind of local barber who may have set up shop in town, but that didn’t happen. I then hoped to find someone among the NGOs or the UN who knew how to cut hair and would be willing to shorten mine, but that didn’t happen either. I found one local guys that wanted to charge me 10 bucks to go at my head with a pair of scissors that looked as if they were used to cut up cardboard boxes. I finally ended up at the Australian airborne camp sitting on a stool in front of a bad Australian B movie about the sexual habits of a modern day band of cavemen, having my head shaved by a shirtless soldier smoking a cigarette. And so it goes…
Back in Los Palos… Adilio, our translator is getting much better with his English, our cook’s cooking is getting somewhat monotonous, and our guard is still getting a good night’s sleep. We have also picked up a few new employees. Custodio J. Lopes and Joquim Amaral have hired on as Field Coordinators. Custodio will be working here in Los Palos and Joquim (if he ever comes back from Christmas Vacation) will probably be working in Dili. I’ve just hired two more Field Coordinators and they will be starting a trial run tomorrow. I’m still desperately looking for a warehouse storeman.
But let’s back up a bit….
The Dengi Mystery
Another day, another story. This one is about sickness and disease. I hope you enjoy it. A few days after my last letter, Greg (the other shelter engineer) got sick. We were supposed to go down to the beach to while away yet another Sunday. However, Greg was not feeling too well that morning and felt he should hang back and just rest up at home. So I went down to the beach alone and had a really nice day, thank you. When I came back that afternoon, Greg was lying in the middle of the living room moaning. It seems that a pretty bad fever had set in. He was not taking any anti-malaria drugs, and we both kind of assumed that malaria is what he probably had. I went to find one of the MDM Portugal doctors to take a look at him. It was a bit after 5:00pm before they were able to get away from the hospital. They took one look at him and said he looked pretty bad. They took a malarial slide and contacted the Korean medics about evacuation.
The Koreans showed up about 7:00pm with an IV drip for re-hydration and told us that was all they could do until the morning. The MDM doctors then got mad at the Koreans. MDM insisted that he be hospitalized, but the Koreans refused to take civilians into their hospital if there is an operational hospital in the vicinity. The problem is the hospital in Los Palos has no trained staff after 5:00pm, no electricity after 10:00pm, and like most third world hospitals can be more dangerous than staying at home. So that is exactly what Greg ended up doing. It was decided that he would stay in his room, they would hook up the IV to his mosquito net, and I would stay up all night and would make sure that he did not fall asleep! So, I spent the entire evening burning through the last of my computer's battery, burning through the last of my flashlight batteries, playing solitaire by candle light, and trying to maintain a conversation with a half delirious invalid. At 6:00am, just as I was deciding if I should kill Greg and get some sleep, the Korean medics showed up. They changed the IV, threw him into the ambulance, got him out to the airstrip and onto a special medical evacuation flight to Dili. I went back to bed.
Greg was held in Dili for a day before he was able to catch a flight out to Darwin, Australia. There he was taken to a hospital and re-tested. It turns out that he tested negative for malaria, which immediately makes those folks who are educated in these matter think "Dengi." It's this wonderful one-two punch! The night mosquitoes give you malaria and the day shift gives you Dengi. Both diseases can be deadly and both definitely make you feel like hell. Dengi however, is harder to test for and is sometimes called "break bone disease". (You can imagine why).
As it turns out, he also tested negative for Dengi, which brings us to the mystery! When I got back to Dili I heard that quite a few people were also falling ill to a very Dengi like disease. Some of those folks tested negative for Dengi and some would test positive, but the symptoms were always the same. They would get a very high fever with intermittent chills, and they would feel like someone shattered each bone in their body, tossed them all in a sack and backed over the sack with a truck. They would get a nasty full body rash, and they would sleep for as much as twenty hours at a time. No one said it was a pleasant experience.
Here is the scary thing! After Greg got better and came back to Los Palos, Jesse (our health coordinator) fell ill with the Dengi-like mystery disease. That same week we got a call from Judith, our country director who was home in Ireland for the holidays. She had to push back her return date, because she was in the hospital with what they thought might be Dengi. Then Anika, our grants coordinator, didn't show up before the New Year as planned. It turned out she could not fly back from her home in Helsinki because she too was sick. Then just last week Greg got sick again, and people started to freak out. This week we've lost Susan, the education coordinator, and Peter, the assistant country director.
Here are some interesting facts: Over 40% of our staff have been medically evacuated in the past month. In 1998 the hospital in Darwin reported 1 case of confirmed Dengi. In all of 1999 there were 15 cases. In the first four days of the year 2000 there were 18 cases reported, and that's only counting those cases that tested positive for Dengi. Yikes! I'm figuring it's just a matter of time, and frankly I don't have the time right now to lay in bed for two weeks. I've got shelter materials arriving!
Oh, by the way - I feel fine! (Knock on wood!). It's funny though; if you're in Dili and you've just woken up from a nap, and you've got that morning face kind of look - everyone around you becomes immediately concerned, and you must either wake up quickly or explain to five people that you are indeed fine and that frankly you just look like crap.
Alberto De Costa, Dominges Francisco, Carlos Da Silviera, Valencio Rodrigues, Pedro Mendes, Filimena De Jesus, Albino Lopes, Dama Ilario, Hermanegilda Da Costa (Yikes, what a name), Maria Montenegro Lopes de Silva Caetano Ximense Francisco. I’ve got these names running trough my head and I can’t stop thinking of them. I’ve spent the last three days assessing the first two villages to receive our shelter materials. I’ve been busy making list upon lists of these names and checking them twice. It’s all part of the initial assessment to see who gets a shelter kit and who does not. I’ll write more about that later, I just had to get it off my chest before I broach the next subject.
Kylie Kicks off the Holiday Season:
Have you ever heard of Kylie Minogue? I hadn't until she and a bunch of other bands famous in Australia showed up in Dili to perform for the INTERFET troops. I'm not even sure if that is how you spell her name. The reason I ask is that a lot of folks here were surprised that I was so ill-informed. For those of you who are as much in dark as I am, she was a big star on that most famous of Australian soaps, Neighbors. If that doesn't help you out, she later made it big as a pop star. She's like the Australian Madonna. I guess she was really big in Europe as well. My point being: folks here were really surprised when they heard she was playing a concert in Dili of all places.
Greg, being Australian and all, was so excited that he insisted we pack up shop in Los Palos and start our Christmas Holiday a few days early (Dec. 22nd), so that we could get up to Dili and check out the concert. I'm glad we did! The whole thing was as grand as it was surreal, and I love the surreal.
Greg and I took off a bit late and stopped to take pictures of a herd of buffalo wallowing in the mud. Anyway, we got into Dili about 3:00pm, somewhere around an hour or so after the event had begun. We didn't have tickets, and we were told they weren't letting any more people in anyway. So we wandered around the outside of the stadium (spelled "stadian" in Dili) and watched the hordes of people that had gathered in the street, on the tops of the surrounding buildings, and in all the trees. There was also one guy sitting at the top of a telecommunications tower waving a Bob Marley flag. Greg was very excited that the Angels were playing. Again, I had no idea who they were. On the far side of the stadium, we found a gate where a few soldiers were letting in locals in controlled bursts. Greg and I squeezed in during one of the not-so-very-controlled bursts.
Once inside, I began to realize the enormity of what I was seeing. They had shipped in an entire stage, loads of lights, an amazing sound system, two huge video screens, a bunch of aging Australian rock stars, a young starlet in a very short yellow mini skirt, and television crews for a live broadcast to the folks back home in OZ. The concert was primarily for the benefit of the Australian troops stuck in Dili for the holidays, so far away from home. But all of INTERFET were invited, NGOs were given tickets and they were letting the East Timorese flow in under some kind of system. So it was a mixed crowd. The Australians were loving it, the young ones were down in front pushed up against the stage with East Timorese children on their shoulders, and the older ones were in back tapping their feet and trying to keep their machine out of the mud. There was a group of Italians up in the stands swaying back and forth in unison. Later they tried to start a wave! A pair of Kenyan soldiers got some strange looks from the Australians as they walked through the crowd holding hands. The East Timorese, for the most part, just stared in bewildered amusement.
Then it started to rain. I've seen film clips of Woodstock and the 90's Woodstock II reenactment a few years back where it poured again and left the soaked concert goers wallowing in the mud (like buffalo). But I've never seen it rain like this at a concert. Of course it had to happen. It's the rainy season for god's sake. But hoo-boy did it come down that day. Obviously, the stage was covered, but the water coming off the canopy formed a sort of waterfall that almost completely obscured the performers. At first the umbrellas and ponchos came out, but it soon became apparent that trying to keep dry would be about as futile as walking on water. Speaking of walking on water; mud was not a problem here. There was too much water for mud. The field in the center of the stadium quickly turned into one big lake. Those who still had dry socks were crowded in clumps on the islands formed from the field's high spots. Most of the others hardly took notice and just kept on dancing.
In the end Kylie was actually dwarfed by the superior talent of the aging rockers. She sang a few Christmas carols and did a real good job of looking sexy for the troops, but little more. She did get some cheers from the crowd when she broke away from her clean cut teeny-bopper image to belt out some colorful expletives that were a big part of the refrain of a traditional Aussie chant. I had a great time, although I don't think it would have been as good on television.
It's Saturday now. After taking a late lunch, I decided to knock off work early. It really was out of pure exhaustion. I took a serious afternoon nap, and woke up only after a bolt of lightening hit so close to the house that the clap of thunder made it sound as if my roof was being blown off. Then it started to rain. A good thing too, because I was down to only one or two more baths in the ol' rain barrel. Which
brings me to Christmas...
O Silent Night:
Under the influence of the Portuguese, East Timor gave up most of their animalistic beliefs and became a predominately Christian society. This remained true through 24 years of control by the predominately Muslim but religiously tolerant Indonesian government. So the East Timorese take Christmas pretty seriously.
The first signs of Christmas came in the form of singing emanating from the churches. It seems as if almost every church has an orphanage and the orphans began practicing their hymns and carols about a week early. The next was the erection of the Nativity scenes. In this country where shelter is supposedly such a problem, folks have managed to construct hugely elaborate nativity scenes all over town, sometimes two or three to a block. The nativity scenes are full size mangers or caves constructed from bamboo, tin, plastic sheeting (mostly from UNHCR and the Red Cross), and just about anything else they can find. They then add Christmas lights, painted wood cut-outs of Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus, cows and sheep made of paper, lighted stars, wise men, you name it.
Some of them were so nice that the people who built them just decided to move in after a while (probably because they used up most of the materials that should have been keeping the rain out of their own homes). It is just as well, because as the big day approached, more and more folks would gather around the structures. They would begin to gather at sunset and if someone had a guitar they would play and sing songs. Later the younger ones would move out into the streets, break out the cassette players and dance until the wee hours of the morning. Christmas Eve everyone came out of the nativity scenes, put on their best duds, and wandered down to the destroyed governor's house for a midnight mass that started at 10:00pm.
My Christmas was not so wild. I was still in Dili Christmas Eve, so I spent the evening with a few other IRC folks at the canteen in the UNTAET compound wolfing down meat pies and mashed potatoes. That was about it. I spent the rest of the evening with a good book.
Christmas day we packed one of the trucks up with food and headed East in search of the perfect beach. We passed through a number of villages before the road started to rise up away from the water. We found a spot where we were able to hack our way back down to the water. It took awhile, but when we finally made it out of the jungle and onto the sand, we knew we had found our spot. The beach was unmarked and had been so for quite some time. The only sign of civilization was an abandoned shack and a traditional carved boat tethered to a tree and guarded by an army of red ants.
At one end of the cove there was a small jetty of rock with a single tree at the highest point. I spent most of the day lying on the beach, floating in the boat (or at least attempting to float in the boat - it was none too steady and had a good size hole in the front), or climbing around the rocks of the jetty and watching the crabs. We had chips, salsa, and tuna from Australia for snacks. It was such a nice spot we decided to come back for New Years.
An Entertainment Guide to East Timor:
First thing to know: if going out at night is your thing, East Timor is not your place. It can get very quiet here at night. Out in Los Palos, I can usually be found at home either sleeping or reading a book. If I feel the need for company, I walk a few houses down to the CONCERN office and have a beer with Brian. CONCERN is an Irish NGO doing the same thing we are in the other half of Lautem District. Brian is the Irish guy doing for them what I'm doing for IRC.
On Saturdays things get a bit crazy around here. The Koreans set up a big white screen out in the field next to their compound and show Karate movies dubbed into Korean. The Timorese don't seem to mind; practically the entire town flocks out there each week. As they gather, the Koreans show a nice propaganda film depicting them saving East Timor. I usually end up either at the MDM (Medico De Mundo??- Medicine of the World) having a beer and trying to understand Portuguese, or I wander over to the UNTAET offices to have a beer and try to understand their English.
Our first restaurant in Los Palos opened two days ago. For 5000 Rupiah (US $0.80) you can get some rice, some greens and a bit of meat - probably buffalo or goat. I haven't been there yet, but my field coordinators tell me it is OK.
Well, darn it! This letter sure got slowed up. I went and got sick. The Dengi finally got me. I’m feeling a whole lot better now, but I’ve been slow getting into the swing of things. I’ll tell you about it later
Well how is that for slow? That’s all I could write before I got too tired to go on. You see, I’m back at work, I’m way behind, and it’s been hard to find time to write. At least that is my excuse. Well, I’m well into letter #3 experiences wise, so it’s about time I get writing again. But first a bit about dinner….
This evening I was busy gnawing on the oily hunk of buffalo that was my dinner. At one point during the fight, the slab of meat finally gave. One piece managed to stay in my mouth while the remainder recoiled with such force that it was flung out of my hand. I had to stand up, step around the table and walk half way across the room to retrieve it from the floor. I don’t know why I felt like telling you all this. I guess I just found it funny.
Anyway, if you really want to go out you've got to go to Dili. Every Saturday some NGO is throwing some kind of party. Last weekend there was a pretty good one over at the IOM compound (lots of locals and a decent keyboardist, but the beer never had a chance to get cold.) If it isn't Saturday, or if no one could think of a reason to throw a party, there are a few other options. Well, two actually. There is either the Dili Hotel or the Boat. The Dili Hotel is comprised of a few tables with umbrellas outside the hotel next to a shack that sells cold beer and a few spirits. The Boat on the other hand is a whole different story.
The Boat is also a hotel, and was ordered here by the UN. Most of the hotels, rest houses, etc. in East Timor have been destroyed along with the rest of the city. Now, when you have all your hotels, rest houses, and the rest of your city destroyed, you find yourself in the middle of an international incident, and with an international incident comes reporters, photographers, UN representatives, donors, etc. who all need a place to sleep at night. So the UN ordered two of these big container ships that have been converted into hotels. Most of the time these ships are used by the oil companies to house the employees of their oilrigs. Anyway, both boats have a bar on them. One, the Heli-Bar, is a heli-pad toward the back of the ship that has been converted into a fairly decent bar. You can get pretty much anything you like, the beers are really cold, and for food they have a cheese burger and chips combo for $10 Australian.
They have a good sound system that can even be heard over the massive roar of the generators used to power the ship. They were showing movies on a big screen TV for a while, but it didn't go over very well because you couldn't hear the film over the music that was trying to drown out the roar of the generators. The bar on the second ship is not so nice. It is down towards the bottom of the boat and hasn't a single window. As you walk into the lobby of the hotel, if you take a left past the toilets there is a heavy metal porthole type door marked "Bar."
When you heave that door open, you step into a dive bar with two pool tables and a couple of neon beer signs that could be any dive bar in any city in the world. Very strange. Anyway, the problem with both these bars is that they don't let locals in unescorted. Besides not liking the racism behind that, the bars are usually filled with Australian tradesmen who drink way too much and UN diplomats in transit who keep to themselves. Not a real fun crowd. I prefer the Dili hotel where you are more likely to run into someone you know, and if you can keep him or her from talking about work you can have a pretty good time.
For those of you who care about such things, the beer of choice in East Timor is Victoria Bitters. Australians call it their best beer; I call it a competent lager.
It's beer in a can - what do you expect?
New Years Eve!!!!
I had a fantastic New Years Eve. Besides having a great time, in the end I felt it was a most appropriate way to issue in the New Millennium. Let me tell you about it.
The party started about 5:00 p.m. at the IRC offices. We dubbed it the sunset party, although you can't actually see the sunset from our office. It didn't matter, as quite a few people showed up to share the salsa and prime themselves with a few spirits or a cold beer (VB of course). Unfortunately Jen's boom box decided to stop working earlier that afternoon, so for music we ended up having to hook up one of the laptop computers to some Walkman speakers to play CD's. It worked pretty good and party kept growing until about 9:00 pm.
As agreed, at 9:00 p.m. the IOM people showed up with a bus they usually use for transporting returning refugees. The whole party piled into the bus and two land rovers and we headed out to CARE's party for Stage Two. CARE's party sucked! They were half-asleep and it took about 5 minutes of wandering around their compound to even find them. We showed up, took over the music and danced for about 15 to 20 minutes before growing bored. We ended up grabbing all the booze, a good deal of the beer and the sleepy CARE people and we piled back into the IOM bus and moved off to the next party.
Stage Three was the UNHCR party. Again we doubled the size of the party with our arrival. They had good coffee and chocolates under a canopy of standard issue UNHCR tarps. Johanna and Helen, also from IRC, created quite a stir by provocatively dancing in a spotlight shining atop a shipping container holding up one corner of the canopy. I was having a good time and really enjoying the chocolates, when the word went out that we were on the move again. It turns out that one of the UNHCR people told us to leave because we had local staff with us. The guy said we could stay, but they had to leave. I was shocked, and we quickly pulled out and took half the UNHCR people with us (the half that didn't mind partying with local staff). By this time we had about five land rovers following the packed bus, and I was sitting on the roof enjoying the fresh air.
We were like a swarm of locusts. We would descend on a party, take over the music, eat all the food, drink all the booze, steal half the people and move on.
Stage Four was a Toga party. East Timor Fuel, a private, temporary, Australian company providing fuel and logistics services, were out in their sheets, and well on their way to the new millennium. When we arrived there were about 20 huge, half-naked guys chatting up two well-covered females. However, they did have a good spread of food, which we quickly devoured. It was approaching midnight, so we loaded up a few of the ETF Goliaths and the two girls and took off for the big celebration UNTAET had planned for the local population in front of the Government Building down by the sea.
When we got to the government building, down by the sea, we were surprised by how quiet it was. They had built a big stage (also covered by the blue UNHCR tarps) and had it all lit up with colorful lights. But at 11:30 p.m. there were just a few teenagers siting on the stage and few people milling about in the parking lot out front. It turns out that the bishop had made a visit earlier and told everyone to go home and go to sleep so that they could get up and go to church in the morning. So they did.
Our party wasn't big enough to liven up the quiet parking lot so we walked over to the Boat to ring in the New Year. The funny thing was that folks didn't know what bar they should go to and no one really knew exactly what time it really was. So I spent my trip into the next millennium somewhere between the Heli-bar and the anywhere lounge shouting over the roar of the generators trying to find which way the majority of the mobile party went. They actually ended taking over both bars and most of the places in between. About 12:30 a.m. we did an official countdown, popped many a bottle of champagne, and danced till morning.
I got home at 6:00 a.m., slept for 45 minutes, and still a bit drunk I stumbled back down to the government building, down by the sea, to run a 6 km race. The Portuguese Mission had the bright idea of having a race first thing New Year's Day, and I was stupid enough to think that it was a bright idea. Actually, it was a lot of fun. There were quite a few local folks running (as they were sent home early and got plenty of sleep). It didn't hurt that the Portuguese Mission were also giving out free T-shirts to those folks who finished the race. I did OK considering I had only received my running shoes from Darwin three days before, and spent only two of those days training for the event. You may also consider the fact that I was still drunk and had slept for less than an hour. I should have been happy that I even made it to the finish. I really felt good that I beat this one crazy man with no shoes whose left leg was significantly shorter than his right leg, and who was keeping pace with me for a good portion of the race.
I met a few folks with high expectations of the party of the century who were a bit upset at the confusion, but for me I thought it was a perfect way to start the year.
OK, OK, OK, I'll Talk About Work
I can sum things up in five words: "We are ready to go!" What that should tell you is that I still have no materials to distribute, but first things first.
Staff Changes: I am now officially in charge of Los Palos. Greg is working the Dili side of things, and a new guy Jeff or Steve or something like that is working in Oekusi (I haven't actually met him yet, and really haven't heard anything about him.) Jennifer is working in Dili to coordinate the whole crew, and Johanna has switched from the bed net program to shelter to help coordinate the work in Oekusi. Greg's contract is ending at the end of February and IRC has decided not to let him extend or renew in East Timor because of his bad track record with Dengi. So Jennifer is busy looking for someone to replace him.
On the local side: The Los Palos crew has changed a few times since I wrote. I fired Custodio and Joquim because they tended to disappear for long periods of time. I've since hired Jose and Pedro and they are doing great; however Jennifer is transferring both of them to Dili to be closer to their immediate families. Jose left on Monday and Pedro is going to stay on in Los Palos until I find a few more replacements. Greg is supposedly sending me a few good folks this week. We also have two new three-ton trucks here in Los Palos driven by two new drivers Paulus and Edmundo. We are expecting a five-ton truck to arrive next week and Profilio, who right now just washes my truck and watches the house when I'm away, will drive that. They also gave me a new truck with a back seat so that all these guys don't have to sit in the bed with a tarp over their head whenever we go anywhere. Nice of them, huh!
Budget: The budget has been approved at least up until June. Since I'm supposed to go home in May that means I'm pretty much set. It also means that we were able to order all the trucks listed above. It also means that we should be "ready to go," which we are.
CNRT Switch-up: The CNRT (the local leadership group working in coordination with UNTAET) has got itself sorted out and organized and has been very helpful in getting us "ready to go." This week, however, they are electing new village heads. So far it seems to be going rather smoothly except for the no show by the new Kepala Desa for Rasa at a meeting we were supposed to have today.
Warehousing: UNHCR has finally got the beginnings of a warehouse built at Com. Com port is where the ships will arrive to drop the materials. Com port is little more than a deep-water pier. Actually besides the pier there was nothing in Com port but a few rotting shacks. So UNHCR planned on throwing up a few rub halls (a rub hall is essentially a big tent that can be used for temporary warehouse). What they ended up ordering, however, were semi-permanent pre-fab like structures which no one knew how to put together (the correct bolts for the things were just delivered last week.) They ended up hiring some Australian logistics company to come and put the whole thing together. Right now one is complete, the second will be done before the end of the week and who knows when number three will be done. What is important is that we have a place for the cement when it arrives, which we do.
As for our warehouse here in Los Palos - you remember the gymnasium that I was trying to fix up? The one that should have been no problem to occupy because it was controlled by UNTAET, and UNTAET said it should be no problem? Well, it was a problem. The UNTAET office in Los Palos said we should just go ahead and occupy the space, but when UNTAET national finally gets it's act together we would be changed rent. We said "fine, we have warehouse rent in our budget. How much will they charge us? We can't begin repairs, move in, or do anything until we know if the rent will fit in our budget. If it doesn't fit the budget we can't use it." They had no idea. Here is the deal: to find out how much they will charge us, UNTAET national figured it would have to hire an independent agency to conduct an assessment of all the public buildings in East Timor. That agency would have to look at the size and condition of all these buildings, compare them to what is available in Indonesia, factor in the needs of the East Timorese people, set up a trust fund, do a safety inspection of every building, and then pull a number out of their a** that they feel is fair and appropriate.
I asked them if they felt they could do that in one month, because that is when I would need to use that warehouse. "Sure," they said "that should be no problem." I didn't believe them for a moment. So, I began the repairs anyway. I also worked out a "Plan B" to bypass the need for a warehouse facility in Los Palos all together. Right now I've got all the materials needed except the roofing bolts to keep the rest of the roof from blowing away, I've got the door frames all constructed and ready to put up, I've got photographs of the original condition of the structure just in case UNTAET's guys ever do come around to do an assessment, and I've got yet another problem. The problem is that they started talking about backdating the rent to the point of occupation. If I start the repairs on the actual building, I have to hire guards to guard the new materials I'm using to upgrade the building. If I hire guards, I'm now occupying the building, which I can't do because I still don't know how much the rent is going to be. Confused yet?
Well it is now one month later, and UNTAET national has come to the realization that it will be a cold day in hell before they ever get their assessments completed. So they have given the responsibility back to the local UNTAET offices, which brings us right back to where we started. I'm now trying to work out a contract with the Los Palos office in which a rental amount that fits within our budget will be agreed upon, in which we will be able to deduct from the rent the cost of any repairs made to the building, and finally in which we will agree to put the money back into rehabilitation of the building so that the East Timorese will have a fully functional basket ball gymnasium when we pull out. I think it will be a good thing all around. That is if I can convince our office in Dili that my "Plan B" is not the better plan. They really liked "Plan B."
Materials: I saved the big one till the end. It is now February 7th and the materials still have not arrived. As I write this, the latest estimate says that the ship will arrive in Com on the 10th of February. I will believe it when I see it. When I got here in November they were saying that materials would arrive in Dili for sure on the 18th of December and would be getting into Com no more than a week after that. Since that time the arrival date has changed too many times to remember. It's so bad now that if these materials do not arrive in three days time, I'm contemplating taking off for Dili for fear of my safety. The only thing that worries me about that plan is that I would have to drive through Rasa (one of the two villages expecting materials) to get there. I am serious, however, when I say that I will not return to either Rasa or Assaliano until I have something to show for myself.
As always, wish me luck!
Dengi, Dengi Whose got the Dengi?
Well, in Mid January I got it. On Sunday the 16th of January I was, of course, on the beach again. This time I was at the far eastern tip of the Island at Tutuala. There was a crowd of expatriates out at the beach that particular day (Tutuala has been claimed as a favorite beach by both UNTAET and CIVPOL (UN Civil Police)). I spent pretty much the whole day swimming, snorkeling, wallowing, soaking, floating, and just sitting in the water.
It was later that afternoon when one of the UN folks (John Marie from France) and I got to talking about how lazy we had actually been all day. We then decided to burn off the remainder of our energy with a fairly intense exercise routine that John Marie has been attempting to follow. It was also around this time when someone noticed that Angel, on of the MDM Portugual folks wasn’t feeling too weel. He had a high fever with intermittent chills and didn’t look too hot. You guessed it! Dengi. They packed him up in the truck and got him out of there. I heard later that he was really bad off for quite some time. So bad in fact, that the doctors in Australia would not let him return to the country, or any country for that matter with a history of Dengi.
But that has very little to do with me.
It was actually later that night that I woke up with a strange sensation. I was cold. Actually, I was really cold. So cold in fact, that I was shaking. I really didn’t think about it much until the next morning when I woke feeling extremely hot and a bit achy. I thought it could just be a reaction to pushing myself hard physically the day before, but then again, I could just be fooling myself.
I was supposed to go to Dili that day anyway, so I quickly packed up my gear and Adilio and headed out. On the way out of town I saw John Marie. He agreed that it was probably just the work out and said that he didn’t feel too well either, but by this time the heat behind my eyes was getting more intense and I was beginning to doubt both of us.
I made one more stop in Rasa to speak with the village leader or Kepala Desa, about finalizing matters and agreeing on the final list of beneficiaries. There were a few sticking points that I would have to take care of when I returned. Not time now, I’ve got to move.
By the time I got to Dili, I was on Fire! Folks could fee the heat coming off me. I walked into the office and put my stuff down and they told me to walk right back out, get a driver, and get to the ICRC (The Red Cross). I’m guessing I didn’t look too bad off because the folks at the Red Cross kept asking what I wanted. When I told them I wanted a malaria slide, they just looked at me with a questioning look as to why in the world I would I want something like that. That is until they took my temperature and vitals. They were very nice after that.
Jesse, our health coordinator, stopped by while I was waiting for the results of the slide. She is infatuated with one of the French doctors there and spent quite some time with him discussing my condition. That’s when I leaned that my temp was around 39.6 C, which is over 103 F. Also, my malaria slide came up negative, but they treated me with Fansidar anyway, because I had a swollen spleen and swollen spleens usually mean malaria. However, I also had a pretty good rash forming on my back, which made then think it might be Dengi. At that point I didn’t care. I just wanted to pass out and sleep through the next couple days, partially because my body felt like it was going to collapse and partially because I knew the next couple of days were not going to be all that much fun. Jesse thanked me for getting sick and giving her the opportunity to speak to her doctor friend. I told her, “anytime”, not really meaning it.
I was shipped off to Darwin for a week’s worth of recovery. After about four days of being trapped in an apartment with Susan (who was still sick after 3 weeks) and Geoff (who had just arrived from England to work with the Indonesia program), sleeping, watching really bad Australian TV, and begging those who felt up to it to go and get me some food, I was ready to get out. So I did. I was already beginning to feel better and the fever was only hitting me in the afternoons. So, I spent the next five days wandering around town looking for good food, a haircut and a snorkel. I felt pretty rough, but I couldn’t stand to watch one more documentary on the plight of the aborigines. I preferred the air-conditioned theater and a few good flicks.
All told it took me about ten days to get back to Dili (a record recovery around these parts). All I could think of the whole time I was down was, “I’ve been much worse off than this before.”
I wasn’t sure I how I was supposed to get back to Dili, as my flight out had been the last of the freebies offered by the WFP, and I knew IRC had no intention of paying the $400 for the new commercial service. The Australian military was still running a ferry service, but I had heard that the UN were now taking NGOs on their biweekly supply flights. Through a mix up in the paper work, I got a seat and Susan was left behind for yet another day.
The UN has a convenient, but mandatory shuttle out to the airport from their downtown Darwin office. It would be convenient, that is, if you didn’t have to wait in the heat outside the Darwin office for an hour an a half after the mandatory meeting time to catch it. I also thought the bucket of ear plugs in the makeshift custom’s trailer at the edge of the runway was a bad sign. After another hour or so in the heat outside the custom’s shed, earplugs and a good book in hand, we were herded into another bus and driven out to the plane. The plane was military (I think it was a C-130), painted white with a big “UN” in black. Towards the front of the cargo hold inside, were a few ancient airline type seats attached to a large metal sled. There were two signs that I remember reading while putting on my earplugs. One read “Sit down, shut up, and hang on.” The other read, “Caution this vehicle may become airborne.” The sled shimmied and the pipe above me sweat and dripped with condensation, but I slept and read and the next thing you know, I’m back in Dili queuing up to talk to the new custom’s man.
Ok, this is getting a little ridiculous. I’ve gotten slowed up on this letter too many times and I’ve babbled on long enough. Just one more excuse….
My ship has come in. It arrived a week ago and I’ve been working from sun up to sun down trying to make a dent in its inventory. We got 1000 houses in this load to be split up between CONCERN and us. But, that I’ll save for the next letter, which should be finished somewhere around the next millennium.
Because my materials are finally here and I don’t have to yell and scream at UNHCR anymore, my trips to Dili are becoming few and far between. That means even slower mail. The mail is reliable, but it has a long way to go before it reaches me. There is still no way to deliver mail in Los Palos, so the responses will be slow as well. I do enjoy hearing from you people; so don’t let the slow up stop you. If you have an e-mail address, include that in your letter because I can e-mail folks when I’m in Dili. Oh, and if it just so happen that you have any mixed tapes, throw them in too. I’m doing a lot of driving still and the ones I’ve got, although really good, are getting a bit old.
Also… the big news. I’ve actually got a phone now in Los Palos. They gave me a Satellite phone to communicate with the folks in Dili. It costs a small fortune to call out, and I have not idea how much it would cost someone to call in, but for those who are interested the number is 872.762.344.270. You may have to ask for dialing directions (you aren’t calling East Timor, but rater a satellite somewhere over the Pacific Ocean). I’m usually home after six in the evening and hit the sack somewhere around 9:30, but there is a 16 hour time difference which puts the call in the wee hours of the morning west coast time. However, I worked out that the best time to call me is while I’m taking lunch at the house, which happens about 8:00 pm in California.
The Last Note:
One of the more observant folks at home pointed out to me that Los Palos in Spanish translates to “The Sticks.” I thought it apt.
Till next time,
Letter # 3
April 8, 2000
Well things are letting up here a bit and I’m figuring (actually I’m being told) that I’m way behind on my letter writing. In Los Palos we have just finished doling out the second shipload of materials, I just got back from a two-week holiday, and IRC has officially moved to a five-day workweek. What that means is that the workload has lightened, I’m rested, I’ve got no more excuses and it’s time to start blathering on again.
So here goes……
This is the big story for this letter because in the last month or so I’ve actually been doing quite a bit of it.
Things really kicked into gear when our ship arrived. It finally showed up on February 12th, only about two months late. There was a tinge of fear among the expatriate community when the ship sidled up to Com port waving an Indonesian flag, but the Koreans troops were dispatched, the goods were unloaded and the warehouses (all four of them completed) were filled with no problems. We began moving material around the clock to prove that we were ready and that all delays were the fault of UNHCR. Within the first week we managed to deliver over one hundred houses.
Now here is what we “do”: We have 11 Desas or Villages in Los Palos and Tutuala Sub-districts that we (IRC) are responsible for providing shelter materials to. Now, although the translation of Desa is Village, it is not completely accurate description. Each Desa is divided up into a number of Kampongs. The translation for Kampong, I’m told, is Hamlet. These hamlets or kampongs are more like what I picture when I hear the word “village.” Anyway….We have 1500 house kits containing wood, roofing tin, cement, tool kits, nails, wheelbarrows and what not. Enough stuff to put together a decent shelter and get you and your family out of the rain (or at least out of your relative’s or neighbor’s house). According to the initial assessments done by the Church and the CNRT (national government structure) there were approximately 1,900 destroyed houses in our two districts. So…the first thing we had to do is to decide who gets these kits and who does not.
This is where Jennifer, Greg and I disagreed. Time to back up a bit. Way back in October, UNHCR, GOAL and a few other folks sat down and created a typical Timorese house. They then figured out what materials and how much of each material they would have to order to build this concept house. Then they took the initial estimates of destroyed houses and came up with the number 35,000. This number was supposed to be the number of kits needed to combat the fact that 70% of the country was burnt to the ground. This is the start of problem number one. UNHCR picked that number based on the concept that we, the implementing partners, would be able to address each house on an individual basis. What I mean by that is that if a house only lost its roof in the fire, we would only replace the roof. If the cement slab was unharmed we would not give that family cement. The “kit” would be modified to fit an individual household’s needs. That way we could make the materials go farther and help more people, maybe even have enough to do some community projects such as school repair etc. It was a good concept, BUT! Always the but….. But they did not take into account the thought process of the East Timorese.
The East Timorese have a different since of what “fair” is. UNHCR among other folks felt that is was “fair” to give everyone what they needed to get them back on track and get a decent roof over their head. The person who lost everything would get a full kit, and those who suffered less would get what they needed. Sounds fair. The Timorese thought however, is that everyone has suffered and everyone should get the same thing. It doesn’t matter if they get less, just as long as they all get the same. Thus the problem. Jennifer and Greg and the rest of the folks at UNHCR felt that they were just being greedy and they were reasonable people and that they would come around to the right and logical way of thinking and that it would just take a little more diplomacy and it should all work out. Well, none of them had stood up in front of a village and tried to convince the masses of this. This is what I was trying to do in Los Palos and it just wasn’t working.
Well, as it happened, the field managers from every other implementing partner around the country and I all came up with the same result. The Timorese will have none of it. From the top of there governing structure to those farmers expecting materials it was unanimous….Everyone was to get the same thing or nothing at all. One kit per household….No partial kits. This posed problem number two. We didn’t have enough kits. Now we had to define who “everyone” was. Is it everyone who has a completely destroyed house? Is it everyone who sustained damage to their house during the troubles? Is it everyone who lost a house, but doesn’t have the resources to repair their own house? What if they have already built a new house? What if that new house is nothing but a shack constructed from the materials salvaged from their burnt home? What happens if they lost a traditional house (which is nothing more than bamboo and grass)? What if their kitchen burnt down? Everyone has suffered and everyone wants materials it just comes down to where you draw the line. This was left up to each individual NGO.
In Los Palos it was just a matter of some fancy guesswork. We had a list of 1,900 people with “Destroyed” houses. Our line had to be drawn in such a way that at least 400 households would be eliminated from our list. Here is where we drew it: If your house is “totally” destroyed then you get a kit. Totally destroyed means that you can no longer live in your house. This means that folks with burnt roofs get a kit, but those sustained fire damage but did not loose their roof do not get a kit. Those who did not loose their roof but sustained structural damage do get a kit. Those who lost a kitchen out back (even if their aged mother slept there) do not get a kit. Those who lost a traditional house out back with an aged mother or children living in it get a kit, if they kept chickens or pigs in it then they do not get a kit. Those who have replaced their burnt house with materials salvaged from the old house get a kit, those who built again with new materials do not get a kit. Widows, the disabled, & large families with lots of young children or aged mothers get priority.
As you can see the whole thing gets very complicated and the lines are very often blurred, but we seem to be making it work. Right now we are about halfway done with our assessments and our list of destroyed homes is down to 1,630 households. 130 more to go and we are golden. The only wrench in the works is the fact that there are still many refugees that are returning to the area. That means that the number of people needing houses may actually start going back up. It also means that we need to have a surplus of houses in the end to address the needs of the refugees who have returned since we last assessed the villages or desas or kampongs or whatever.
So… What I do is I meet with the leaders in the CNRT and let them decide which kampong I am to work in next. I meet with the kampong and desa leaders to introduce the program, my staff, and myself. I ask them to regenerate their list of destroyed houses making sure they include the recently returned refugees. We then call a general meeting with the whole village and I do the same thing….Introductions and explanations. I then open myself up to any questions they might have. Some typical questions: What if my destroyed house is in Dili and now I want to live here? What if my destroyed house is here but I want to live in Dili? What if my house is only damaged, do I get a kit? What if I have two wives and they refuse to live in one house…do I get two kits? What if my son is now married, can he get another kit? What if I had two aged widows living in my kitchen? What if my house is only damaged do I get a kit? What about sand? What about walls? Why the heck would you give kits to pro Indonesian refugees? Why would you give kits to people who can’t build their own houses? What if I just want to build my own house and don’t feel like helping any aged widows? Does IRC pay us for the labor we provide? Does IRC pay us for the sand you are taking from our beaches? What if my house is only damaged, do I get a kit? What if my house is only damaged, do I get a kit? When are the materials coming?
These meetings can last up to three or four hours and are never less than two. Sometimes they can get quite heated. I was in Assaliano fielding questions in front of a group of about 400 men and women. The arguments between elders, younger leaders, and most importantly…men with money and power, were getting louder, angrier, and more verbose. I stood up and announced that the IRC program was not here to cause problems or friction and if this village could not come to agreements with each other, I would just have to take our trucks, our kits, and our sand and go to a village without so many problems. This shut them up for about twenty seconds before another man stood up and went off on another tirade about how he should get a kit and asking why wasn’t he on the list. I tried to quiet him, the Kepala Desa tried to quiet him, and about 10 people in the crowd were shouting at him to shut up. I had had it. I grabbed my papers, thanked the crowd, and headed for the car. The man was still shouting at me, the whole crowd was slack jawed and staring at me, my staff had no idea what to do so they just sat there and stared. When I got to the car the Kepala Desa had chased me down and was apologizing. I told him to drop me a line when they got it all worked out among themselves and I left. What a mess! In the end they got it all smoothed out, we delivered the kits and everyone was happy, but it still shook me to the core.
April 17, 2000
Thanks to modern technology and the advent of the lap top computer, I am now writing to you from the cab of one of our 5-ton trucks as we trundle along from Dili to Los Palos with 100 sacks of cement and some office furniture for MERLIN, an NGO moving into the area to set up a new field office. I’ve got four hours to kill and a fully charged battery, so I thought I might write out another excuse for the most recent letter writing delay. However, I don’t think I picked the best time to start this. We have just started climbing up and away from the beach on what the folks here call the defile. The road is very steep and windy and the left edge is slowly crumbling away as the cliff drops off to the rocky beach below. There is no guard rail except for a few black and white stripped concrete posts about half of which have already tumbled down the cliff with the rest of the road’s edge. The driver is honking at every twist in the road to warn approaching vehicles that we are coming, he’s swerving around the chunks of rock and mud that have fallen onto the road from the cliffs above and he’s mouthing a prayer and using his non-steering hand to form a cross on his chest at every roadside shrine (of which there are quite a few). I’m not sure if it makes me feel better.
Anyway, the reason I was in Dili and my excuse for neglecting this letter for a week, was that I got Malaria again. That’s right, I said again. Since for this particular episode I tested positive for malaria, they assume that the last bout I had back in January was also malaria and not dengue as I had originally thought (but then what do I know?). It hit me last Monday right after my morning workout and right before breakfast. I got that “something ain’t right” feeling and thought “uh oh, here we go again.” Sure enough two hours later I was in the Los Palos hospital with a positive malarial slide. The Dili office then insisted that I ride five hours in the back of a troop carrier to get back to Dili, so that they could watch me suffer. Luckily, this was a fairly minor bout and besides a throbbing head I was feeling pretty OK by Wednesday. However, the folks in Dili insisted that I stay at least a week, so I figured that as long as they figured I was sick I might as well take advantage of it and enjoy the holiday. I slept and read and read and slept and generally stayed away from the Dili madness. I did, however, make it to Judith’s (our country director) going away party.
So, I’m all better (except for the car sickness that is welling up in me now) and I’m going home again. I’ll write more when I get there. If I keep it typing now I’m going to puke.
April 20, 2000
I’ve been back to work now for two days and it’s time to take another holiday. In fact that is just what I’m doing right now. We’ve got two days off to celebrate Easter and I’m using it to (bet you can’t guess) read, write, sleep and eat. The usual. I’m not saying that I’m bored; it’s just that there really isn’t much to do here. So….I’ll write a bit more about work…
Where was I…. Assessments. Once we’ve met with the villagers, walked around the villages and looked at all the potentially destroyed houses, once we’ve compiled the list of folks who will get kits, checked the list twice, and added those people we missed the first time, once we’ve checked the list again and argued with those whom we crossed off the list, once we’ve actually agreed with the Kepala Desa and all the Kepala Kampongs about each and every name on the list and once we have gotten everyone together and everyone has signed the final list THEN and only THEN……do we sit and wait for materials to come.
First come the rumors. Then come the confirmed reports. Then comes the delay notification. Then come the trucks and crews and forklifts and UNHCR representatives. Then comes another notification of further delays. Then comes the rain, the sun, the tide, the moon and eventually comes the ship. With the ship comes activity. Cranes are craning, forklifts are lifting, trucks are trucking, the warehouse fills up, the grass turns into a muddy quagmire, the wood is stacked, the cement is sacked and we are READY TO RUMBLE!
I’ve got three Drivers and 11 tons of trucking capacity to move 2000 tons of material. We have a Logistician and a Field Monitor to make sure the trucks keep moving, to track the material being moved and to make sure all mistakes are discovered before we do any real damage. We have three Field Coordinators to continue assessing new villages, to record the progress of construction in the old villages, to assist with any technical building advice anyone might need, and to record any problems that folks might have that might be keeping those folks from building their new home. We have one Program Assistant because we can’t call him a Translator or an Interpreter or even a Right Hand Man due to some silly budgetary rules. We have three Guards to keep all our stuff from going missing. One Cook to keep me fed and to wash my smelly clothes…..and then there is me. I’m the Program Manager who has his nose in everything and makes sure the whole thing keeps working and that no one gets hurt in the process.
And there you have it. At this point in time we have delivered close to 700 housing kits. We’ve witnessed, recorded, and generally looked on with awe as the people here have knocked together close to 450 of these “typical” Timorese houses. Talk about job satisfaction. If I need a lift all I have to do is take a nice slow drive through any of the villages we are working and watch the people hammering nails and sawing wood and setting posts and laying concrete, and nailing on roofs, and even hooking up electricity and getting their lights working. The best part is watching their burnt roofing material shacks coming down and watching them move into their new house.
On the flip side of the coin….the frustrating part of the job is the waiting. It’s frustrating to sit and stare at an empty warehouse knowing that more people could be hammering and sawing and moving their families into new homes if only UNHCR could get off it’s duff and get us another ship. The first ship was over two months late. Thanks to a stroke of luck, labor disputes and the threat of possible violence at the port in Dili, the second shipment full of kits and cement meant for the folks there was rerouted and deposited here at Com. We got those materials out to the people here in about three weeks. It’s been about three weeks since our last delivery. We have been using that time to deliver sand, do more assessments and to get more villages ready to receive materials. UNHCR can’t even give us an estimated date when we might be expected to see materials in port again. They have also asked us to prepare a budget to extend the project to the end of December as they don’t think they can complete their end of the bargain before the year 2001. I’m half done and it’s taken me only a month and a half. In another month and a half I could finish if I only had the materials & that’s frustrating.
April 25, 2000
Splooopfff….Shit! That’s the sound of me falling into a river and skewering my foot and the reason for the latest delay in the completion of this letter. But, I’m off and writing again so let me tell you the whole story.
I had four days off for Easter Holiday. I got a bit bored sitting around reading, sleeping and writing this letter. So… over a beer and a map, Joao and I decided it would be a good idea to explore the southern part of the island and see if the roads are still good enough to make a circuit through Bacau, Viqueque up the southern coast to Los Palos via Illiomar. I know that means nothing to you folks at home but we had heard that two guys from CIVPOL were able to do it a few months back and it sounded like a fun challenge.
The next day Joao got dengue and was sent to Dili. So I decided to go it alone. The road to Bacau I know very well. It’s a really nice drive along the north coast of the Island. A straight-ish road in good shape with beach and palms on one side rice paddies and buffalo on the other and a banana grove or village every now and then to make it that much more interesting. From Bacau you turn south over a beautiful mountain pass with tiny villages tucked away into foggy niches scattered here and there. The road has been washed away in a few spots, but somebody has been holding it together with a little chicken wire, some creative drainage and a lot of luck. Once you’ve worked your way down the other side of the pass and through another sleepy Los Palos-ish town named Viqueque, you’ll hit the beach. This is where things get tricky. The road gets a lot iffier. There are larger chunks of it missing and a whole lot mud to replace those missing spots. There are rivers to forge, ravines to skirt, beaches to cross, and mud galore. About 3:30 pm. I came upon a beach I couldn’t pass up. I set up my tent, went for a swim, cooked myself a bit of dinner, and crashed.
The next morning the road only got worse. We the help of a few locals I managed to get the truck unstuck from a boulder strewn creek bed. I made it over two semi-collapsed bridges. I made it through a mud pit half buried with jungle and got stopped one river short of the turn north to Illiomar. I crossed the river by foot. It was a little muddy on one side, only about thigh deep with a nice solid rock exit. I figured I could make it. I just wanted to check out how I was going to get the car back up onto the road, so I walked on. That’s when I saw the other river. Between the road and I lay a river 80 feet wide, waist deep and moving at a good clip. Not something you want to try by yourself in the middle of nowhere without a radio. So I turned around went back through the overgrown mud pit, over the broken bridges, through the other creeks and rivers, and went back to Viqueque. I did take one side trip up a little trail into a fantastically beautiful valley.
But all that has very little to do with the delay in my writing. It was later that same day while looking for a nice beach on the north coast near Bacau where I ran into my first and only real problem. I had found an interesting track that lead east along the coast that was still in pretty good shape except for the missing bridges. The first stream I came to was right near the beach and I could see that it was crossable so I did just that. The second look similar to the first, but I wasn’t so sure so I got out to take a look. I could see where the track went into the water and I could see were it came back out, about 20 feet away. However the water was a bit murky and I couldn’t see how deep it was so I started to cross by foot. My first step I was in up to my calves. That’s ok. Second step brought me up to my knees. The water’s not moving fast so that should be fine. The third step I fall in over my head and feel something go right through my shoe and halfway through my foot. I stumble out of the water half cursing and half laughing at myself. I pull off my shoe and see a keyhole size opening spurting blood from the bottom of my foot. I take off my wet shirt, wrap it around my foot, turn the truck around again and drive the two hours back to Los Palos and straight to the MDM house to see the Doc.
So here is this week’s excuse. My foot hurt and I didn’t feel much like writing.
My Minor Victory
This is a nice little story about overcoming adversity. Actually I was just so happy that the whole thing worked out that I thought I’d write about it.
Here is the problem: We have one Desa, Lore I, that is extremely hard to get to and extremely bad off in terms of degrees of destruction. Actually it is the hardest of our Desas to get to and is the most destroyed, and to top it off there is no way to get a loaded truck up to them. Between the warehouse in Com and Lore I there are approximately 60 Km of good road, 40 km of bad road, one collapsed culvert and four ravines with a few cut trees laid across them to act as bridges. These ravines range from around 25 feet across to 10 feet across and are each about 20 feet deep. Not something you really want to drop a truck into. The logs they used to span the ravines were now half rotted, many had already broken and lay at the bottom of the ravine, some were replaced by palm trees that flex quite a bit even when crossing in the pickup truck.
I told the Kepala Desa of Lore I that I needed to have the villagers repair the bridges before I would be able to bring the materials in to replace their 190 destroyed houses. He agreed but said they would need some help. To build a bridge to support a fully loaded three-ton truck you need very strong trees (palm trees just don’t hack it). To chop down a very strong tree (say teak) with a dull homemade hatchet takes a lot of time. When you estimate that you will need about 10 of these trees and add in the factor that the nearest teak grove is about 2km from the closest bridge, and figure that you can get maybe 20 guys to work on it every day, the number we came up with was 40 days for completion. That just wasn’t good enough. So I needed to look for an alternative.
Not trusting that I would find one, I encouraged the Kepala Desa to apply for a food for work program through CARE. The way this works is you give them a brief description of the project, the number of man-hours needed for completion, and a list the names of the people to work on the project. If everything in the proposal is completed by the pre-arranged completion date, CARE will then give 50 kg of rice to each person for each day worked. A nice arrangement, but it still meant that I could not deliver the materials for at least another month.
That’s when I looked to the Koreans. The Korean INTERFET (International Force in East Timor) now PKF (Peace Keeping Forces) have a whole battalion of men and equipment who do nothing but tool around in their jeeps, guard stuff (like the CARE warehouse), and play soccer. I thought that with their engineers and their back hoes and their trucks, and all the time they spend standing around waiting to guard stuff, that they might be able to help a poor secluded village fix their bridges and get some relief. But my hopes still were not too high as I was told that Korean commanders don’t like to think outside the box. They have been notorious in these parts for turning down almost every humanitarian project thrown their way. They are the Korean Special Forces and have never had a mission remotely like this one, and humanitarian efforts are definitely outside their box.
I started with a letter to our DA (District Administrator – The UNTAET leader for Lautem District) requesting help from the Koreans. He doesn’t have the authority to tell them what to do, but a request by the DA carries a little more weight than one from your typical NGO lackey. However, the DA told me that it is all taken care of, the Koreans have already submitted a report of the road conditions and that the four bridges on the way to Lore I are included. He even let me read through the report.
Sure enough they had already designed four really nice concrete spans and had even come up with a solution for the crushed culvert. The equipment was purchased and delivered already and they were ready to go. All they needed now was materials. Great! “Who is responsible for purchasing materials?” I ask. “UNTAET,” says the DA. “And when does UNTAET plan on purchasing these materials?” I ask. He proceeds to tell me that UNTAET has not yet set a date for the purchase of materials because that purchase has not yet been approved. “When do you suppose that might happen?” I ask. “I don’t know,” was his oh so predictable answer. “Could you just send the letter?” I asked. “Thanks!”
The next day the DA got malaria and was sent to Australia. The letter was still sitting in his in box. Time for plan B. I’m forced to use Billie, an irritating American lawyer who is working for UNTAET as a volunteer correcting property issues. The reason I chose her is that she is rumored to be “very friendly” with many of the Korean upper brass. As we are entering the Korean compound she is telling me how she likes to take this particular route because you can watch the younger soldiers bathing in their open air showers. “Thanks Billie! Didn’t need to know that.” Anyway, we find our way past the showers to headquarters and a Major Woo. After big hugs all around, Billie presents our case. Woo calls up a Captain Sung, and we go through the whole thing again. The Captain whips out the very same report that the DA showed me and proceeds to explain the plan. It came down to one question…when do you think UNTAET is going to get their act together and purchase the materials?” Billie: “I don’t know, not for a while I imagine.” To the Koreans “honestly when do you think this may happen?” They said I had a good point and they would look into it.
Luckily, later that very same day, a jeep carrying two UN Military Observers broke through one of the logs on the second bridge. The M.O.s were stuck and had to call in for backup. They were afraid that if they tried to move the vehicle it would drop the rest of the way into the ravine. The next day, Captain Sung and I were up in Lore inspecting the bridges. Two days later we were staking out teak groves, and a day after that they had the backhoe out creating a road to one of those groves. They figured that with the villager’s help, they could complete the bridges in about four days.
My part in all this was to coordinate between the Korean engineers, the Timorese laborers, and the CARE rules and restrictions. There were a few problems….At one point through an error in translation, the Timorese thought they were going to get money from UNTAET over and above the rice from CARE. Hardly surprising considering all discussions involved a mix of Tetum, English, Korean, Bahasa Indonesian, and Fetaluka. Even more surprising was the fact that we worked it out. Then the Koreans figured out that the two chainsaws they brought to do the job were also grossly inadequate for teak. It ended up taking them two weeks longer than they predicted to cut the trees down. However, in the end the bridges did get built and were beefier than us or any of the villagers could ever imagine (thanks to Korean over-engineering), the Timorese laborers got their rice, Lore I got their materials, and was able to take a two week holiday in Australia.
May 4, 2000
I feel like I have to come with another excuse for yet another delay in this never-ending letter, but all I can come up with is that I’m tired and I haven’t felt like writing. Fortunately it is a good tired. My foot has healed and I’m running in the mornings again (5:30 am. Right after the chickens wake me up and right before the bread boy comes by…”Pang, Pang, Pang!”) There still are no materials in Com, so I’ve begun doing assessments in Los Palos Town. That means that I’ve got close to 800 burnt houses to find and inspect. Its keeping me busy and keeping me out in the sun or the rain most of the day. Lately it’s been mostly sun and my neck feels a bit like some of the houses I’m looking at. (Note to self: use sunscreen.)
In other words….I really don’t have an excuse and should just get on with it.
IRC in New York considers Timor to be a conflict zone and an area of extremely high stress. Therefore, after three months of employment they are kind enough to bestow you with 5 days of R&R and throw in a $300 US travel expense bonus to make sure you leave the country causing the stress. That combined with a few compensation days and a bit of annual leave gave me a nice little chunk of holiday. I decided to spend it in Australia, tooling around the Top End (Northern Territory) and checking out their national parks.
Many of the folks back in Dili questioned my decision. Flights to Bali were cheap and the Northern Territory was suffering from floods. Word was that most of the parks were shut down due to excessive water. It was the middle of what the aborigines call the “knock down storm season”, due to the powerful storms that blow through the region and knock down the reeds that have grow during the “wet.” It was about as far off season as one could get. It was perfect. After visiting pristine tropical beaches almost every weekend for the last 4 months, I just wasn’t ready for the crowded touristy beaches of Bali. (I’ll go at the end of my contract). Some backcountry camping and a bit of bush walking just felt a little better. So I ignored them all, rented a little fiesta (most 4-wheel drive tracks were closed due to flooding, so there was no need to blow any extra cash on that option), loaded it with food and camping gear and headed out to Kakadu National Park.
Just outside Kakadu was a 20-foot plaster statue of a dancing crocodile guarding a trailer park that was under about a foot and a half of water. I felt like I had just entered Florida. Actually it served as the first of many landmarks that told me I had made the right decision. Kakadu is a beautiful park. It is a large national wetland and world heritage site (because of the aborigine cave paintings) and it is also one of Australia’s most famous and most popular parks. Each time I rolled up to a trailhead or to a cave painting site or to a waterfall or to whatever, I first had to roll through a huge empty parking lot, usually with another whole lot for buses nearby. What I’m getting at is that I found Kakadu fantastically beautiful and fascinating, but I fear that I probably wouldn’t feel the same way if those lots were even half way full or if the trails I had to myself were packed with bus tours. As it was, it was perfect. My first day out the sky cleared up, the rain stopped and I two weeks of non-stop sun and tourist free trails.
Just one more thing about Kakadu….I was impressed with the wetlands, the wildlife, the rock outcrops, waterfalls and history of the area, however I was decidedly un-impressed with what most people go there to see. That is the world famous aborigine paintings. This is going to be hard to explain, so please bear with me. What I did like was that even with the steel stairs and elevated wood plank walkways that kept you up and away from the cave floor and walls, you could kind of tweak your head an see how these people could have long ago made a home of these grottos and caves. What I didn’t like was the big deal they made of the few scribbles these “ancient” peoples had made on the walls. First of all they tell you that these paintings were a way of handing down their history to the younger members of the tribe. If a few sketches of some turtles and kangaroos encompass their entire history then I’m afraid I find it a bit dull. They make a real big deal about one sketch of a boat that is supposed to represent the arrival of the “white man”. What they don’t tell you on those little sign posts in front of each work, is that it is an aborigine tradition to paint over old paintings instead of starting new ones. So most of the paintings you see in the park were done in the late 60’s when the preservationists put a halt to the traditional repainting. The really old works are usually nothing more than a few handprints on rock (ancient finger painting?). Anyway, I thought it was all a bit contrived. I took a really nice early morning boat trip up the yellow river to make up for it.
After Kakadu I headed south to Katherine, Katherine Gorge, and Edith Falls. Katherine is an interesting little mining town on the edge of the outback. I liked it. It made me want to venture out further, but the next stop really is Alice Springs and that is over 1400 kilometers south. With the amount of time I had and the cost of taking a rental car that far (Joao, a friend who did it said it cost him an extra $500 AUS to get out there), I thought it best to stay on the outer edge. I did a day hike up to some nice swimming holes/plunge pools at the Gorge and did some backpacking/bush walking at Edith Falls with a few Dutch guys and a girl from Germany. After that, I steered the Fiesta north to Leitchfield National Park to visit more waterfalls, plunge pools, and these really huge, strange, magnetic termite mounds that work as some sort of natural compass.
For the sake of actually one day finishing this letter I won’t go into too much more detail. I just wanted to try to share two surreal images that remain firmly imbedded in my brain a month after my trip. Although the images are very different they both are from memories of Northern Territory drinking establishments (I’m sure that part of the reason why they seem surreal.)
Snap shot # 1 is from a hotel bar in Katherine: It seems that drinking and your average aborigine doesn’t mix very well. This is especially evident in Katherine because of the large aborigine population. Bottle stores only sell booze and beer from 2:30 to 8:00 pm and the bars only stay open till 11:00. The bar I’m in is typical. It’s very large with plenty of room to move around in (no bumping shoulders here). It is very well lit and looks more like a hotel lobby than a bar. I’m at a table to one side of the room with three Swiss travelers arguing about neutrality and the US involvement in Bosnia. “Scar Tissue”, by the Red Hot Chili Peppers is playing on the jute box and an old and very drunk redneck outbackie in a big hat and cowboy boots is dancing around us pounding out the chorus with two large spoons that he has brought to the bar for this specific purpose. During the musical interludes he adds his own lyrics about shelias and billabongs or roos or something like that. I can’t understand most of what he is saying because he is slurring too much. Behind him, however, an aborigine woman is trying to kill a man with a pool cue for knocking her beer over. The man is trying to defend himself by stabbing her with his cue as the bouncer tries to wrestle both of them to the ground. The rest of the room just keeps on dancing to the peppers, putting coins in the slot machines and pouring beer down their necks. The folks out front keep throwing beer bottles at each other.
For snap shot #2 we travel to Darwin and the hottest (re: only) nightclub in town, the Discovery. I was out on the town with Rob our logistician/purchasing agent in Darwin. We started our evening early at an English style pub (Rorke’s Drift – A South African reference I think) and were already well primed when a girl (I can’t remember her name) Rob knew from his heath club recognized him. We then moved to an Irish pub were this girl and her friend (can’t remember her name either) talked us into going to the Discovery and a weekly party called “Greed”, where all the cool kids go. Rob and I were both drunk by that time and decided to follow the girls. Here is the image: We are in a huge, multi floored dance club. The music is pumping, the lights are flashing, the kids are hip, the alcohol is flowing. But what it made me think of is the movie “Back to the Future II.” (Do you remember the future 80’s bar where things just weren’t quite right? Like the 80’s, but not really?) Well, this was like a dance club back home but not quite. First there is way too much room to move around. Second, the music was not techno, house, trance or actually anything remotely club like. No, the folks here are gyrating to Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go,” like it’s the hottest thing around. The two girls are moving into the all too sparse “crowd”, Rob and I are moving towards the bar. There are two skimpily dressed girls and two fat boy skater types dancing up on the front stage wearing tight “Greed” t-shirts and carrying microphones. The DJ stops the music every few seconds so that these four can yell “Oh yeaaaa!” or “Whoop, there it is!” into their microphones. The dance floor is missing every sense of ethnic diversity and the people are moving to the music like rooms full of white people usually do. Some guy is handing out flyers that look like good ol’ USA green backs, except they say “The United State of Music” & “In Greed We Trust.” A half hour later, I’ve managed to lose both girls and Rob in the vastness of this room. I give up looking, stumble back to the apartment and go to bed.
Three days latter I was back among the burned out buildings of Dili.
May 19, 2000
Some of you may recognize this date. It was the day I was supposed to be returning to San Francisco (I still have the plane ticket). However, due to funding, supplies, personnel problems, and an interest in what is happening here, I decided to stay for a bit longer. I’m going to stay on until June 30th. This is the end of the funded program. There is a proposal for an extension and it will most likely go through, but this means if it doesn’t, IRC doesn’t have to cut anyone’s contract short. It really is much more complicated than that but this is not the place to go into it.
Anyway here is how the week I was supposed to go home has gone: First think Niagara. No, better yet, think Noah! It seems that God is trying to do in one week what took him 40 Days before. It’s been pissing down rain like a banshee for the last four days. We have hardly seen the sun in two weeks and the ground was already saturated, so it didn’t take long for the town to start flooding. I gave my staff the day off today so that they could go home and protect their houses. Two of them have already been force out.
Yesterday, I tried to get out to the village of Sica, where it was rumored that a pretty good chunk of the only road between Dili and Los Palos was missing. It took me about an hour to hack up and haul away enough of a fallen tree to allow me to pass and get down to our warehouse in Com. Then I got the truck stuck in an ocean side creek trying to get around another section of road that collapsed last month. We had already created a detour, but that also washed away. The center of the truck was firmly planted on a large rock hidden in the mud. The tires had nothing but sludge to grab onto. As I was crawling around in the mud, strategically positioning rocks so that we could use the car’s jack to lift us up and over the monster, I noticed that the tide was coming in and the water was rapidly rising. Soon we were sitting in two feet of water and were still unable to get enough lift out of the jack. Then one of the trucks we use to move sand showed up with a crew of laborers. After a long period of discussion by the crew and another few inches of water, I finally convinced them that the best way out was brute force. We got about 10 guys on the front of the car and rocked it backwards, shoved some large rocks under the tires, and let the car roll forward onto them. Two more times like that and we were able to roll over the center rock and into the deepening creek. Once in the creak the truck did the rest of the work and we made it up and over the opposite bank without a problem. The sand truck had to turn around. We continued on to Sica mud spattered and soaking wet by this time.
Sica was not in good shape. The village was under about 3 feet of quickly moving water. Most of the villagers had gathered at the high spots in the road, their houses/shacks/huts underwater or floating away. One image that stuck me in particular, was that of one of our uncompleted shelter structures. It was still standing, but underneath there was a stack of cement sacks sitting atop a fuel barrel, just out of reach of the water. It was then that I realized that a lot of these folks who just started rebuilding their homes have probably lost most of their new materials if not the whole structure.
Anyway, we made it through the village and approached a line of minibuses waiting at a section of flooded road. It didn’t look too bad. We waded across to make sure. There was a hell of a lot of water moving across it but luckily the road was still intact. It wasn’t until we got to the other that we saw another slightly more serious problem. About a hundred yards away there was 30-meter section of road missing. What was there instead was a 10-foot deep crevasse with what looking like about 5 feet of raging brown water flowing through it. No way around this mess. And that is the only way back to Dili. So… In other words we are cut off and if it doesn’t stop raining soon we are going to be in trouble. Talk about bad luck.
Add to that the fact that we are out of fuel. We were supposed to get a delivery two days ago, but the truck couldn’t even make it half way. The bridges to Lore I that I got fixed are rumored to have washed away. I went to check on that today, but couldn’t even make it that far because a good section of the road has washed down the hillside. We still have not received any materials and UNHCR still refuses to give us a date when we might. There are rumors that UNHCR cannot fund the remainder of the program and is trying to hand the whole thing over to another organization. The UNTAET supply line has been cut, so there is not enough fuel to run the town’s generators and therefore the electricity is again quite sporadic. (I’ve got 31% of my battery left before I quit typing this evening.) Basically, I couldn’t leave if I wanted to and may not be able to for some time.
Do I sound homesick? I am a little. However, I think I’ll feel a lot better if I see the sun again.
And Now the News:
Jose Ramos Horta, the expected future El Presidente of East Timor, announced last week that he would like to renegotiate the East Timor Gap Oil Treaty. The treaty was originally an agreement between Indonesia and Australia to split the oil rights in the Timor gap fifty-fifty. Due to the referendum and pressure from abroad, Indonesia has agreed to cede its portion of the treaty to East Timor. Mr. Horta is now asking that the issue be reexamined stating that due to geography it seems only fair to split the rights 90% - 10% in favor of East Timor. He also stated that if Australia agreed to this request, they could cut off their supply of foreign aid to East Timor and let the country stand on it’s own. I don’t think Australia will go for it. Oil barons make poor humanitarians.
The house/office in Los Palos is looking up. About ¾ of the insides are covered with a thin layer of paint, which brightens up the place significantly. We have the generator hooked up which make the recent blackouts much more tolerable. I’ve redesigned the back porch/yard so that the house no longer floods when it rains. And I’ve got a Codan base station for contact with the outside word (a lot cheaper than the satellite phone.) I’ve put in a request for a refrigerator, but I don’t think I’ll see it before I leave.
UNTAET (Government) and CIVPOL (Police) have separated. CIVPOL pulled out of the UN offices and set up shop right across the street from our office in the old police station. This is good for us in that we now have a twenty four hour police presence in our front yard, and bad for UNTAET in that they were left with nothing to run the government but a half working desk top computer, a desk top, a refrigerator and a chair with a photocopier sitting on it. It’s now two months later and they are doing a little better, however they still have not got a phone.
Profilio, our driver, is quickly developing a reputation of being accident-prone. An accident-prone drive is not something that you would generally want on your payroll, but the guy has been given a warning and he is a good hard worker. Here is what has happened in the last month and a half: First he got the truck stuck in the mud in Trans. That wasn’t too bad. It only took us about a half hour to pull him out, but when we finally get back to the office around 8:00 pm, we find he has locked his keys in the car. It took us close to two hours to jimmy the door. Second he knocked the truck’s exhaust stack off with a low tree branch. Third he ripped loose the gas can and the rack that holds it. I don’t know how he pulled that one off. Well, last week he topped them all by collapsing the bridge into the Dili office and dumping his truck loaded with 5 tons of cement into a 5-foot drainage ditch. Luckily the truck was OK and there is still one bridge left to get into the office parking lot.
We have three; count them, three new restaurants in Los Palos. Two have cold beer and one actually serves halfway decent meals. It’s a good thing too, because Alsina, my cook, gets the weekends off, the supply of goods from Australia has stopped, and I don’t know any decent pumpkin or buffalo recipes.
Adilio, my translator, has been reunited with his family. His wife and two children fled for West Timor during the problems because she had worked with the Indonesian government as a secretary. She was staying with her brother in Kupang and was afraid to return due to rumors of retribution against former government employees. Adilio was able to find her and contract her through our office’s tracing program. It took almost two months, but eventually he was able to convince her that all is well and that it was safe to return home. She got back about three weeks ago.
The US $ was chosen to be the official currency for East Timor. It was selected over the Australia Dollar, the Portuguese Escudo, the Euro and the Indonesian Rupiah primarily due to Timor’s potential for coffee exportation. The problem locally is that there are no coins and therefore no US$ amount less than 1. Therefore the Timorese use the Rupiah for change…6000 Rupiah to 1 US$. For example: 1 beer costs 10,000 Rupiah (In Los Palos prices are not given in US$), you give them two bucks and they give you 2000 Rupiah back. The problem with this system is the banks in Dili are selling Rupiah at 6600R/$. The moneychangers are making a killing and the poor folks getting paid in US$ are getting ripped. Note: we are paying our staff in US$.
Last week 100 FM, radio Los Palos, went back on the air for the first time since the election. The equipment and training were donated by the Philippine Government. The entire workings of the station fits into an abandoned storage closet behind the UNTAET building and can only be received within the town limits (which if you remember is about as big as a good sized parking lot). When I visited the station on the third day of broadcast, they had no trained DJ (but they were working on it) they had one cassette with about 30 minutes of local electronic keyboard music that they kept turning over and over, and they had one CD lent by someone at UNTAET (I think it was the Gypsy Kings). Hey! It’s a start.
I got to play dental assistant last week. Adilio had a really bad tooth ache so we went searching for a dentist. There were rumors that there was a local dentist at the hospital, but when I asked MDM they said that the French Doctor, Jerome, had some dental experience and he would take a look at Adilio. After digging around the hospital for a few of those nasty looking dental/torture instruments and a mag light, Jerome went to it. The tooth as it turned out was badly infected and had a big ol’ hole in it. So Jerome decided it should come out. After a bit more searching for a bit of antiseptic, Jerome handed me the flashlight and asked me to hand him a few of the torture devices. It really was just like you see in the cartoons. He seriously adjusted his footing, got a good grip and yanked. The tooth popped and Jerome’s hand jerked back. “Well, got half of it!” he says, and dives back in. Adilio’s face is the very image of pain itself. I’m about to throw up. Jerome gets a hold of the other half and pulls it out. Adilio apologizes for having to spit a mouthful of blood into the trashcan in the corner of the room.
June 2, 2000
Well, I’m back in Dili for the first time in over a month and a half, I’m almost done with this letter and more than ready to send it out. But first a few more notes:
• We are getting a ship out to Los Palos on Monday, June 5th. It should have about 2000 kits on it, which should in turn keep me very busy for my last month here. Of course this load does not include cement, which is what we need more than anything.
• I’m still planning to leave on the 30th of June. Rob Sepia, our logistician in Darwin, will be coming out to Los Palos on the 15th to replace me.
• My e-mail address Kleco_ksk@hotmail.com is still active and someday soon (the end of this month??), I may even be able to read my mail. So that is probably the best way to contact me now. If you want to try to catch me before I leave Los Palos, you can still get me on the satellite phone at 872-762-344-270 (until June 25thish).
• Bad news for IRC: Adilio, my translator is rumored to be leaving the organization. Good news for Adilio: UNTAET is hiring him and will be paying him significantly more than we are able to. It will be hard for us to replace him.
• It’s stopped raining, the roads are passable again, I have twelve new tires for my trucks, and I’ve rented a fuel tank for extra capacity. I ready to roll again.
• My future plans are still a bit fuzzy, but will let folks know more as I become a little more focused.
And that is about all I have for this entry. Enough is enough. Its time to send. I promise to try to get a shorter, more prompt letter out next time. Maybe.
Take care and I wish everyone well.
Phew... I think that was my longest post yet. Did anyone read all this? If so, let me know and I'll email you a gold star.
Here is the link to the slide show:
|Timor-Leste (East Timor), November 1999 to June 2000|