Saturday, 17 November 2012

Just Desserts

Apart from disarray, confusion and a complete lack of infrastructure one of the few things that the Portuguese left behind in East Timor was the recipe for a perfect crème caramel and how to make a memorable cappuccino.

This is about all there is now that shows they were ever there.
East Timor is another of those places I know about through news headlines. I’m not sure what happened, just that during the 80s and 90s it was bad there and a lot of people suffered. It is one of the poorest countries in the world
Presidente Nicolau Lobato International airport in Dili should be a museum.  It has its charm, such as the 200-metre sun baked walk from the aircraft to the visa hut, the huts's complete lack of shade and the buffet approach to the baggage reclaims area.
Outside the arrivals shed, the gravelly potholed surface of the car park looks like it is being resurfaced but it is actually the complete opposite and has taken decades to get into that state. The sight of dozens of us trying to push, pull and drag our baggage across it must be the highlight of most porters' days.

I often think that the efficiency of an airport reflects the state of a country and this airport feels neglected but somehow still functioning.

Emma from ALOLA and driver Paulo meet me.
They are another amazing in country organization that works in the education of women and children in East Timor which massive problems amongst them with malnutrition in the countryside and an unemployment rate of 48% in the cities. Poor education and the lack of continuity in their lives means many mothers have not been passed on mothering skills and infant mother mortality rate is high. 

 Immediately the quality if the light, the heat and the unhurried approach to life in this country remind me more of Africa than Asia.

It is hot and humid but the coastal plain where Dili lies is dry and dusty with dried riverbeds dissecting it. Behind the city, rising steeply are hills with darker mountains beyond them, there are baked brown and leafless trees struggling to form barren forests on them.  It is the end of the dry season. Rain is imminent and anticipated.
A short and frustratingly slow drive down tarmaced roads takes me to my hotel, which is on the seafront. Tankers and warships are harbored out to sea and fishing boats move freely amongst them like flies around a chained dog.

I don't like swimming in cities and though a hundred metres out the sea is the kind of expensive blue that you don't see in Britain, nearer the shore the water is silty and uninviting.
 On the other side of the bay I can make out a white strip of sand fringing a Peninsular and decide to make a dash for it before dark.
But I hadn't accounted for the aptly named and astonishingly camp duty manager; Romeo. He shows me to my room and shutting the door behind him proceeds to show me in too much detail the light switches, shower and safe before progressing to ask me about the size of my penis.
Naturally outraged, I was compromised, as I didn't want to assault him because he was sorting me out a taxi to the beach.  I settled on suggesting he shouldn't talk like that to guests to which he replied " Well me I am Mr. Little"
Bloomin idiot.

So leaving just their milky desserts a good coffee tradition and a helpless nation the Portuguese left East Timor in a hurry as their all their foreign interests collapsed in the 1974 after a coup. 
East Timor is the stubbed, blackened toe at the end of the Indonesian Archipelago and is only 500 miles from Darwin in Australia
 There is a West Timor that is part of Indonesia - the biggest Muslim Country in the world and two weeks after the Portuguese left the Indonesian army crossed over the imaginary line in the island and invaded East Timor. There followed. 40 years of occupation, insurrection, fighting, strife, torture and atrocities for hundreds of thousands of people. A war that that divided the country as allegiances to occupier and freedom fighters developed.   As East Timor had nothing the West needed they did nothing until 1999 when Indonesia finally withdrew and East Timor was invaded for a second time by the benign forces of the UN and aid agencies.
Consequently when I arrive at the white-sanded Christo Rei beach it is heaving with UN vehicles who's owners were on the beach barbequing the entire contents of Noah's ark.

The sea was clear and warm and it absolved me of Manila's grime and sweat.  
It wasn't hard to meet some people, we sat for a while and I quizzed them on life in Dili. They gave me a lift back to town and I said goodbye to them and set off to find my way back to my hotel.

Dili is part bombsite and part warehouse, any new buildings are government, ministry, NGO or UN. There are areas of housing too but on the outskirts of town. Low level unsanitary and powerless they appear temporary more like slums.   As I meander my way towards where I think I should be Dili feels like a city that has just woken up. Laid back, unhurried, an African outpost in Asia it is not yet running at full speed and is waiting for things to happen.
I come across the city cafe with a fridge cabinet full of crème caramels I order one and a cappuccino from the surly Portuguese descendant owner who replies in a Portuguese Australian accent "obrigado mate"

I had a moment then, new country, new culture, and old favorite

It was a long way home but a great way to savor a place. I felt no threat, and largely passed unnoticed. It is the greatest advantage of traveling alone that you can make snap decisions without asking. Swing into a roadside bar and just walk around it asking questions about the food or where to go on a Saturday night. One fool is less intrusive and less threatening than two or more.  From a seemingly derelict roofless building I hear the sound of a drum kit being played badly. Like a lost soul I head towards it and find two teenagers in a room sharing the elements of several drum kits one has a bass pedal and toms the other a snare and cymbals it is some kind of youth club but held in the wreck of a group of buildings. No one talks to me as I then seek the source of a voice and keyboard I can hear. Framed in a blown out doorway is a dreadlocked youth singing a barely recognisable version of "No Woman no cry" some chords and a rhythm coming from a keyboard with a mind of its own that a boy was prodding randomly. We nod and smile and with a proffered mic we sang together for a while, it must have sounded terrible but in that bomb blasted ruin it didn't matter, we were just sharing a moment. I moved away the sound faded   and it all felt unreal, dreamlike. Maybe East Timor hasn't just woken up maybe it's just living the dream.

ALOLA are an in country organization run by and for East Timorians, in fact they were founded by Kirsty Sword Gusmao now wife of the Rebel leader Xanana Gusmao.
It’s a fantastic story worthy of a film – she was an Australian Human Rights activist by day but became Ruby Blade by night committed to the Rebel cause and lover of Xanana Gusmao the Rebel leader who until his capture was working Che Guevara style in the hills. Even when he was captured she smuggled English Grammar lessons and documents into his Jakarta jail. From there he and her continued their struggle for Independence from Indonesia
In 1999 when the Indonesian troops left the country they ransacked it destroying buildings and homes.
Xanana was released from prison and after serving as the country’s first president became elected Prime Minister in 2007.He never had an easy task but it could have been made easier if he was offered assistance on how to run a country. It is a big leap from freedom fighter to peacekeeper and Government in power. 
I interview Kirsty at a school where a mobile library has been set up. She is passionate about education and totally devoted to her adopted country. She is cool and composed in front of camera telling me that she is not happy with the way things are and is not impressed with the results of ten years of UN Aid. 
Apparently there is more aid spent per head in East Timor than any other country. For ten years the UN has been busy here but it is hard to quantify their work.  Along with dozens of Aid agencies from all over the world that all have their own agendas and funding wars they are all busy doing their own projects with little cohesion. They have their prime location housing and nice lives sorted but meanwhile the nation of 1.1 million people faces problems of only 2 in 5 homes having electricity, 40 % of the population live on less than a dollar a day and and youth unemployment is 70 %, 45%of children under five are underweight. It occurred to me that the sum total of UN Aid money could have been spent on giving every young person of school leaving age a practical trade training lasting a year almost like a national Service. East Timor had the chance to start again. A nation of enabled artisans rather than Aid addicts with hand out habit. The Aid givers and UN had a chance to learn from all mankind’s mistakes ever and try something new, state of the art country building. There is most need in teaching how to run a country. Advising a new Government how to govern. Admittedly few governments in the world have got it right but but a large proportion of the present Government were part of the resistance movement that and once in power they were given jobs in Government. They have no idea what to and have no experience in their new jobs.  Wouldn’t it have been great if someone just said – great work thanks for the sacrifice in the revolution here is a house and a pension enjoy your life? Now with all this confusion and inexplicable madness going on East Timor has now found Oil off its coast and is being courted by Russia, USA, Australia and China? As I was told in Uganda, when prosperity come through the front door. Peace slips out the backdoor
And the UN officially moves out in December Poverty, Hunger Unemployment – our work here is done…

ALOLA are loved and respected by everyone and they are addressing loads of endemic issues; they have a mobile Library. Many teachers are not good readers themselves and they are shown how to inspire kids and excite them in the learning place. They have breast feeding programmes -culturally Breast feeding died out and a tradition of giving new born babies the water used to boil rice emerged this leads to serous malnutrition. I spend a long hot afternoon in a maternity ward working with the Alola team and I am treated to filming the natural birth of baby boy. It filled me with awe and respect for the woman who pants, pushes and finally delivers new life   into the world and she is encouraged to feed him immediately by breast, providing him with the vital colostrum a newborn needs. Women I love you for what you go through and marvel at the wonder of it all. 

Up in the cool cloud veiled mountaintops, life is less sweaty but there is no work and not much food, everyone has forgotten how to farm since the civil war. Alola with its partners teach kitchen gardening and how to supplement the children’s meager diet with vegetables. I meet a young boy with excellent English who just appears out the rainforest and engages me in conversation. He is desperate to leave the country he has amazing self taught skills but no future.
I can sense his frustration and felt frustrated myself as I drove away unable to help him or a nation.

I left East Timor with the feeling that it had not been helped to the best of the West’s ability. We as a civilization have achieved so much from test tube babies to Space Travel – surely through the combined learning of all the agencies present a formula or a recipe for how to rebuild a country can be perfected. By January 2013 the UN will have left the country I wonder what they will leave behind them that will still be there in twenty years time guaranteed crème caramels will be.  

Tim Tyson Short