June 21, 2011 § 1 Comment
Expats in any country are often want to gather things distinctly representative of their time in foreign countries. The special purchase afforded by residing in an arena of cultural or environmental displacement bestows upon expats access to a myriad of foreign objects otherwise unavailable that may act as evidence of time spent integrating oneself in a unique cultural context. To other expats or to friends back home such collections may demonstrate an experience of something inimitably indefinable to those who have not lived so deeply embedded in the community. In Timor collections can often include local woodcarvings, tais, photos of kids, T shirts with strange English translations or a staggeringly large amount of pirated HOUSE DVDs.
No matter what the preferences for their (post) colonial personal museum, something that most malai enthusiastically enjoy building a collection of, are strange tropical diseases. Malai love to talk about the myriad of exotic pathogens that they have contracted at some point in the past that have wrought destruction upon their immune system.
For many malai, little conveys real hardship and core development values like being struck down by a tropical disease. To come away from a year living in timor without getting malaria or dengue fever leaves little by way of bragging rights and in some cases betrays an overt sensitivity and fear of entangling oneself in day to day rituals of local community life. In general most long-term expats consider dengue a right of passage, demonstrating a fearless zeal to “get one’s hands dirty”.
As the first defense against ill health, the malai’s medi-kit is an interesting signposting device that betrays a host of enmeshed expat ideologies. In some malai circles the larger and more extensive the medi-kit, the greater the stature commanded as it signals a person with extensive need for a wide variety of medical emergency equipment in areas remote from proper medical facilities. Amusingly, many people who seem to have such kits live in Dili no less than 20 min drive from the Australian or Portuguese doctor and the kits look more appropriate for conditions resembling a late 19th century remote Congo ivory outpost over run by the plague.
This is in stark contrast to those malai that swear by local remedies and advice such as papaya leaves or 2 bottles of tua sabu to keep the malaria at bay. Such malai may tend to chastise their dili brethren visiting them in their remote community for not drinking the water from the pump. As much as these malai like to extol the virtues of pristine mountain spring water in the districts, they often seem unaware of the high rate of dysentery amongst the local children living near them.
One of the interesting aspects of health in Timor is how full disclosure of personal health details become much more accepted amongst malai. Groin fungal rash, severe yeast infections, cripplingly unpleasant diarrhoea – such things become much more commonplace as discussion pieces amongst friends. Inevitably such re-occurrences will lead to competitive boasting about how much one’s immune system has endured. Interestingly such conversation seem to regularly commence about the time one is going to begin dinner and often leads to topics akin to the experience of their worst case of amoebic dysentery narrated in alarming detail.
Once the conversation turns to experiences of ill health, hardened malai will revel in the opportunity afforded them to demonstrate their “life experience”. It is not uncommon for such malai to cut other people off mid–story to explain that while malaria is distressing “you probably haven’t experienced Japanese encephalitis and bilharzia at the same time while stuck in a remote camp 2 days walk to the nearest humanitarian clinic.”
It is such competitiveness amongst such groups that establishes pervading sentiments regarding where one has sought health assistance. To wait out an emergency room at the local hospital shows mettle. But to really show your development credibility one needs to have been Medivacced out of country for life saving surgery. This is the pinnacle of reverence in regards to suffering for the betterment of those less fortunate.
Though not quite as exotic, motorcycle accidents are also well used to flaunt “extensive life experience” in a developing nation. Encountering a malai who has endured a road accident entails a fair chance they will soon indulge in an exhibition of their scars. Newly arrived malai are sometimes puzzled that people who are marked permanently by bad driving will so readily display such skin disfigurement like a trophy. However over time new expats will begin to fathom an accident on a motorbike as being attributed to the wild road conditions, erratic Dili drivers or the unpredictability of weather and not reckless self endangerment through drink driving or sheer incompetence.
May 12, 2011 § Leave a comment
Often what isn’t acknowledged is that life as an expat is a competition. A competition for occupying a space of cultural authenticity of which every other expat is a challenger. New usurpers to a malai’s mantle of detailed understanding of the complexities and pitfalls of living in Timor Leste arrive everyday. It can be important to a malai to demonstrate they are embedded deep in the cultural context of working in a foreign landscape through the establishment of a number of Timorese friends, access and comprehension of cultural practices, where to get the most sort after second hand clothes, or even the ability to reel off a dozen Tetum words for “dick head driver”. More often than not, the greater the insecurity felt about their position of importance in their workplace or in the wider development hierarchy, the greater the need to legitimise the decision to work in Timor through a lens that emphasizes cultural or soci-political interest with the Povu. This can be done foremost by upon arriving in Timor Leste through the choice of where to live.
People like to reaffirm their salary (or lack thereof) and chosen location of habitation as a means to substantiate the genuineness of their participation working and living in a foreign country. In this regard expats often like to claim they live in the community. For malai their inclusiveness in their community provides the evidence that they are adept at challenging a myriad of cultural hurdles and assists in the idea of superior mettle.
Expats particularly guilty of this way of thinking often like to indulge in self propagated visions of themselves as the centrifugal force of a community with much of the local activity revolving around them. The fantastic reparte they have with the local kiosk owner…. the high 5s they are giving to the local kids…..the warm bondia they give to the paun man when they are exiting their driveway in their large 4wd drive…. – These are all actions that evoke images of a person tightly interconnected to their community and accepted by them. In a word that makes a malai swoon with self satisfaction, they are ENGAGED.
Many malai living in Timor feel they are individuals who live ethically with a strong critical grasp on their moral compass and will make decisions less based on money and more on what is equitable. This often tends to complicate individual challenges to other expats cultural integration or justifications for their own socio-economic positionality as the vast majority of the Timorese belong to political-economic strata far below the one they occupy. Therefore such challenges are often (but not always) invalidated if directed at malai earning less or whom operate greater grass-roots participation, as often these malai are perceived as occupying a cultural space of greater community interaction.
Instead scorn regarding housing or lack of local engagement travels upward through the malai class hierarchy. This means that those in the districts claim a greater community experience than those renting a nice house in Farol owned by one of the Gusmao family. To these malai the thought of buying your vegetables anywhere else than the market seems down right ludicrous and they might proudly boast that the local bengkel only charges them half as much mark-up compared to other expats because they talked about the world cup once last year. These are the malai that like to inform those in Dili that real Timor is out in the districts.
Often an expat living in Dili seeking to replicate the authenticity of their district living brethren, will not hesitate to describe their community as a centre point of crisis violence and current gang presence. However, their deep-seated understanding of Timor politics and dexterity to navigate the tangled cultural pathways that so many other malai get lost in, endows them with the prowess to harmoniously receive acceptance in their neighbourhood and opens doors of greater possibilities.
Those Farol living malai can in turn pass judgment on how removed from REAL Timor the Australian Compound residents are, possibly because they don’t have access to a local kiosk. These malai are baffled by the short-sightedness of the medium-term civil service consultant paying an astronomical $3000 per month for their gated community apartment when their $1800/month Bebonuk house by the beach is a steal and commands far better community interactions while assisting the struggling local land owner / govt elite. The adept bargaining of the local security guard’s salary down to $80 a month cements how well integrated they are and aware of how inflated incomes can cause bubble effects with local economies and sow jealousy and discontent in the neighbourhood.
The only place Australian Compound or Palm Springs residents can turn to for veridicating their choice of living arrangements are consultants staying in Hotel Timor, who in the expats mind couldn’t possibly properly engage with their work trapped behind the security of room service, wifi and pool. Further more, these rich development tourists could never comprehend the special “always smile when I see him” relationship the Palm Springs resident has with the night guard.
April 20, 2011 § 1 Comment
Timor Leste is by comparison a small country, but nestled within its varied geography lie a host of diverse micro-climates that provide a plethora of temperatures for the expat to adjust to. Timor is unique in that traversing a small distance one is able to shift from scorching heat to mild temperate alpine climes that may become surprisingly cool at night. One particular luxury that most in such areas are not privy too, is access to warm water for washing. For the vast majority of malai who do not live in such temperatures but instead in the fetid tropical blanket known as Dili, hot water sits remarkably high on the list of attributes they would like their habitation to be endowed with.
Expats are adroit at developing somewhat paradoxical temperature regulating body systems. Although tropical heat is insufferable to them causing profuse sweating (and swearing), they seem to thrive in hot aquatic environments. Dili is a city where the temperature rarely falls below 27 C at night, yet a large number of malai take great comfort in their bathroom’s hot water system or at least excited at the prospect of using one. Although the majority of these hot water systems are instant electrical boilers that barely spray anything more forceful than a small child urinating, it does nothing to dampen their use or expat’s enthusiasm for them. Because of their design and Dili’s water bore system tapped by electrically powered pumps, they give the discerning malai two temperature options: weak and tepid or volcanic hot dribble. To the average expat nothing is quite like the exhilarated sensation of morning refreshment that comes with scalding themselves with a dribble of lava like hot water while the temperature outside has already climbed close to 30 C.
Often this is accompanied by a ritual of uncomfortable squirming so as to rinse shampoo out of the eyes, while tip toeing dangerously around the shower area attempting only to expose parts of the skin yet accustomed to the sting of liquid fire. Recent power outs have made the act of showering more interesting as the hot shower more often than not lacks the accompaniment of a mandi.
The hot shower as a positioning feature in the expat landscape, really becomes worthy of note once examined through a framework that allows the understanding of it as an integral part of socio-political sign-posting of the malai class hierarchy
Nothing denotes class politics within the malai world better than the strata exemplified by the access to a hot water system. For the average volunteer the mandi usually proves sufficient for their community development fantasies and in some cases may be deemed to clean for the adequate levels of 3rd world suffering desired. Though it may at first require some adaption, the mandi represents to the expat part of the quintessential every-dayness of Timor life, and hence their participation in a daily washing ritual that is shared by their local community demonstrates to the malai the ease of their adaptation to local customs and challenging environments. This strata of malai are not adverse to the careful placing of a snide brusque remark about the excesses of hot water showers, and verbosely pronounce their preference for the invigoration of a cold water mandi visit upon returning from using the bathroom at another malai’s home.
The expat bourgeois are distinguished by their access to the previously mentioned household electrical water system. Usually its output is sufficiently inept to assist the bourgeois malai in framing their development experience through a lens of selfless giving and endurance under trying conditions, yet it also provides the expat with notions of comfort “civilization”. Indeed regularly in the afternoon, the sweat, dirt, fatigue and humidity of blisteringly hot 10 hour mountain bike ride are washed firmly away for the bourgeois malai by a scalding yet weak dripping showerhead. They emerge from such cleansing fresh and ready to take development challenges full on, or stop at Castaways for a pizza.
However, the true upper tier of the expat echelons are those that lay claim to a hot water boiler that is usually supported by a generator in times of power outs. These are usually confined to compound lodgings where the excessive use of air-conditioning may warrant the need for hot water lest the expat suffer pneumonia of similar health impacts post-bathing. Competition over bathroom bragging rights may be fierce at upper tier level and the addition of a bath may cement the malai as inhabiting a greater political space in the development environment.
On occasion, malai from this strata may indulge in a justifying their hot water ownership to critical, lower tier malai through an argument such as:
“My one indulgence, the one thing I can’t live without is a hot water.”
Such an argument rarely holds up to objective scrutiny as the greater majority of Dili residents demonstrate, by indeed living without hot water. More so upper tier malai often have many indulgences including cheese, frequent trips to bali, massages and a flash 4wd perhaps even with driver who can take them to Street Burger King when cooking seems to much effort to muster.
The amazement that lower tier malai will show having turned on a kitchen tap in an upper tier compound house and found hot water streaming furiously is a true wonder to behold. It is at times such as this the expat begins to question the giddy heights of malai excess and assessing the development class system now laid bare before them.
Despite their polemics to the contrary, many malai without access to such bathroom amenities over time see the opportunity of their use as a vestige of the comforts and familiarity of their home life. Therefore the lower tier malai may slyly begin turning up at their colleagues’ houses after excessive bouts of exercise with claims of power outage in their neighbourhood and their mandi out of water, so as to gain access for a brief period to the privilege of a hot water system and fleetingly dream of class escape.
April 15, 2011 § Leave a comment
Timor is blessed with prominent, valiant individuals who persevered against incalculable odds during the Indoneisan occupation, working for the freedom of their nation from foreign tyranny. Their efforts merit historic residency amongst the realms of those that can be truly described as heroic. Few other nations in SE Asia have as many individuals as charismatic or international renown. Of these individuals, foreigners are predominantly aware of the current Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao and President Jose Ramos Horta. Whether malai think fancifully or critically about their actions in their current roles as state leaders, many expats arriving in Timor are excited at the prospect of meeting or at least operating within a space that may be proximate to these heads of state.
It’s not long after arriving in Timor that malais get their first taste of eminent politician spotting. Having recognised Ramos Horta driving incredibly slowly in his mini moke while a trail of security guards lament the task of protecting conceivably one of the easiest head of state targets… or observed Xanana charging through a crowded event surrounded by a security detachment of 6 muscled agents that resemble DJs at a GNR party, the average expat gets somewhat titillated that high level politics is so close at hand and so thoroughly visible. Even after a year living in Dili malai will excitedly start a conversation with one another reflecting on their latest Gusmao sighting or how they overtook President Horta’s motorcade on their mountain bike.
If the expat is fortunate (particularly if they are working for a high-profile international NGO) their organisation may host or be invited to a function where Jose or Kay Rala maybe present. Their attendance highlights for the malai the importance and stature of the program the malai is working with… even if the President or Prime Minister ad libs an unprepared address (or worst case falls asleep). Being invited to a presidential dinner may be height of the expat timor experience and reassure sentiments of self importance, assisting the malai in the suspicion they are accomplishing more than what may actually be taking place in their work environment. Rather than the structural integration of impressive system checks or the re-vamping of program implementation so that twice as many households have access to adequate sanitation, meeting the president is most probably the one accomplishment that malai will communicate to their friends once returned home. Nothing says development pro or mission accomplished than a facebook profile with an arm round the president.
Indeed, the Horta dinner invitation is particularly coveted amongst malais for what they percieve as the provision of ample material for especially witty cracks about their presence at Horta’s house or being privy to the opportunity to see his bedroom.
Even if the Malai is heavily critical of government policy or corruption issues, these expats secretly enjoy the thrill of meeting the head of state. This may be especially true if the Malai is engaged with development in a grassroots activist capacity whereby their program’s aims directly conflict with government actions. Such a meeting legitimises the expats secretly held idea that they are important and of high standing, and possibly a development force to be reckoned with. It’s not often one obtains bragging rights about meeting a Nobel Prize Laureate and sticking it to them, even if it is only at a Tour De Timor after race function.
Often before a planned meeting or soiree with the President or Prime minister, malai will jovially discuss with each other the seriousness of framing and unpacking of the challenging issues that they will raise with the esteemed guest. Once the first firm handshake is made the malai will begin to babble about the most mundane pleasantries until the President tires of the uncomfortable awkwardness and 2 min later will attempt to move off to engage someone else who he hopes won’t be another malai working in development. Needless to say, such actions are prematurely in vain, as the malai finds it imperative that this landmark moment is recorded for posterity with their camera so that evidence of the encounter can be delivered assuredly to colleagues or parents back home who unfortunately may not have even heard of the man. An uncomfortable, apathetic hug and two flash mis-fires later and the president departs to ignominiously repeat the ritual again.
Whether the malai has sat for an hour long critical discussion or been endowed with a perfunctory casual greeting consisting of the malai commenting solely upon the uniqueness of the presidents wardrobe, malai are deft at subtly inserting the occasion into later conversations in a somewhat flippant/off hand manner. This is done to impress upon other malai that meeting the President or Prime Minister of a nation is something of an everyday affair for the expat whose work is evidently of the highest concern that it demands extensive attention and engagement on exactly how their program assistance of HIV awareness delivery through mime theatre is progressing.
April 11, 2011 § 1 Comment
Reggae is a ground breaking musical movement whose inception began in the 60s largely through Jamaican artists experimenting with ska and rocksteady. The musicians and social conditions present in Kingston coalesced into a movement and ideology that promoted Rastafarianism, liberation from oppression and later, a lot of college dorm posters with psychedelically themed marijuana leaves. Although shaped into a fully-fledged style and musical genre in the late 1960s, the Timorese expat seems to have received word of this revolutionary take on conventional rock rhythms sometime around 2004. And like a born again Christian, expats seem keen to communicate their new found wonder as widely as possible through background music at malai restaurants or dinner parties, conversations with Timorese or even wall hangings.
Reggae is noticeably popular in many third world nations, particularly in Africa and SE Asia. To the Timorese reggae speaks of the global oppressed’s resistance to western hegemony yet a communal understanding of a greater “one love”. To the expat, reggae speaks of imagined contact with counter-culture and a past era of youthful dalliance with not washing and playing hacky sack. The average expat is either too old or too invested in their conservative development appearance to truly embrace their longstanding Rasta image desires… but none the less they will throw themselves full force into a stirring Castaways’ rendition of obscure reggae artist Bob Marley’s No Woman No Cry.
Inside the expat cultural sphere, a musical reference to reggae is the equivalent of a CD of the Best of Bob Marley. This limitation in the cultural history of a vibrant and varied musical genre unaware of important musical milestone achievements made by Derrick Morgan, the Maytals, Prince Buster, The Pioneers or Bunny Lee doesn’t stop the malai listing “Reggae” as one of their favourite artists on their Facebook info page.
Although identifying important reggae artists might not be something that Malais are acquainted with, the expat can readily detect a reggae beat when they hear it. And therefore hunched over a badly cooked breakfast at Esplanada, while entertaining thoughts on activities that are conducive to hangovers, the expat isn’t above nodding their head to UB40 mutilating a classic song into another horrific version of easy listening reggae.
Because of Reggae’s popularity within the Timorese community, it serves as a convenient cultural bridge over which the malai can attempt greater integration and connectedness to their Timorese peers. This in the malai’s eyes assists with feelings of greater facilitation of community integration as well as edifying superiority over those malais with less contact with their Timorese colleagues. Therefore, the average malai believes no guitar sing-a-long at the beach is considered complete without drunkenly mumbling the verse of a Wailers’ song and then screaming the chorus, or the Monday morning off-hand bragging about the event as an example of the effortless linkages the expat has with the Timorese community.
Although neither weed, rebellion nor dreadlocks are easily accessible cultural accessories in the Timorese expat environment, bongo drums are, and they provide the entry point for the musically amateur malai into the phantasmal sonic landscape known as Reggae. Nothing quite fills an expat with ephemeral ecstasy as expropriating the djembe from a competent drummer during a recital at a party and connecting with Timorese musicians through a pronounced and emphatic unrhythmic bongo performance. If the malai is particularly taken up with the experience, the purchase of a Timorese djembe (made in Indonesia) and the joining of drum circles once back in their country of origin may occur. Such happenstance may lead to pronounced tirades about their drum circles’ lack of comprehension of the superior musical energy generated in Timor where the expat’s experience of poverty and struggle makes the music more authentic.
April 5, 2011 § Leave a comment
Expats in Timor will freely admit that they take a lot for granted back home…broad band internet, 24 hour power, convenient access to developments in fast food indulgence that cross the line between merely inedible and new levels of disgusting obesity (link)… A few weeks in Timor puts in perspective the trials and tribulations that residents deal with on a daily basis. One thing that drives expats to prolonged bouts of ranting and contemplation, is the condition of roads.
Expats love talking about the conditions of roads in Timor. Their deteriorating form emphasizes the challenges of accessing development programs or re-enforces the lack of government culpability depending on the expat’s outlook. The attention demanded by them because of their ever-changing nature through paths of least resistance, give the malai access to a view of the malleability of environments and provide avenues for contemplation at the contstant interruption of an expected continuous free-flow of movement. It also gives the malai reason to swear venomously at the Avril Lavigne microlet that won’t let them pass at the Cathedral road works.
Although the expat enjoys the ever changing nature of Dili’s road work, the real thrill experienced by expats, is in the districts. Most journeys out into the districts with a car exhausted of conversation or Bon Jovi CDs will be broken by a passing comment on the current state of the road. The road becomes all encompassing and dominates the enjoyment of the trip. Smoothness, speed, safety… even time restricted in a car with a snoring workmate are all at the whims of THE ROAD. In fact, one of the first phrases a malai learns after arriving in Timor Leste is “Estrada at”. Whole 5 hour journeys will be made with a Timorese driver that consist of nothing but this phrase and a grave shaking of the head. The driver will respond by affirming this strikingly insightful observation before the expat sinks back into the uncomfortable hum of the bitumen beneath the tires.
Roads are also of course the conduit that ferries malais and their vehicles into the interior of Timor for recreation. Malai will frequently take weekend trips out to the districts, but scarcely a word will be uttered about the outstanding remote beauty of the area visited before a lengthy bragging session about the deplorable state of the remote road they traversed is begun. The nastier the road or the more perilous the river crossing, the greater the points scored in the expats mind. This is often linked to development worker subconious ideas of suffering in foreign landscape linked to a greater amount of good will achieved. Hence the expat over time will begin to embellish the state of a road driven by them until it reaches the equivalent of pakour obstacle course by the time they have returned to their own country.
Often malai do not feel that this can be conveyed adequately enough in words, and so evidence of how truly adventurous they are will be collected in the form of 100s of photos showing the state of road disrepair. This collection of photos will sometimes prove more numerous than photos of anything else from this journey but serve to prove to other malais how much more “engaged” they are with “real Timorese”.
March 31, 2011 § Leave a comment
In 1945, after the most deleterious, costly, and involved conflict ever seen on the planet, the countries of the world came together in unprecedented enthusiasm to create a new kind of international platform. A platform for the exchange of ideas, the deliberation of critical international issues and the facilitation of security, development, social progress and world peace…. The outcome was the international body of the UN. An institution unmoved by political leanings that uses its resources to ensure the universality of human rights, the equality of all men and women and the betterment of planet earth as a whole. Today in Timor the expat likes to think of the UN as the incompetent drunk uncle at a wedding. He’s trying to hold it together in front of camera, but it’s plain to see the egg salad on his crotch. His mumbles are unintelligible and with the inappropriateness of his advances he attracts the scorn of all of those around him.
Expats love to hate the UN in Timor. It is one of the favourite past-times of malai to discuss the inadequacies of progress made in certain UN sectors or lament the driving inexperience of a UN employee. It’s also an important social mechanism that brings Timorese and malai together. Both can equally agree that the UN has problems and will make something of a temporary unbreakable bond of friendship through the chastising of the UN. Such seemingly innocuously conversation will cross the cultural chasm and make political-economic disparities between Timorese and Malai disappear as both begin polemics about how overpaid UN staff are compared to local civil servants, even though the malai probably earns 50 times what the Timorese person does.
Hating on the UN has become so ubiquitous with the development hurdles encountered in Timor that it is now not unusual to hear the most removed issues outside of UN sphere of influence blamed upon the organization: Lack of NGO program co-ordination, inflated price of consumer goods, the absence of real cocoa butter in a chocolate croissant at tropical bakery, a Collingwood grand final victory, Horta’s large harem…. All these can be squarely attributed by the malai to something the UN has done. The birth of a tourism industry is credited to it, yet it is scorned for limiting it. It has become the climate change of Timor. Seemingly anything can be slammed on it and nothing is off limits. This also presents great opportunities for organizations with program failures who will present detailed reports hinting at UN policy or incompetence relating to their lack of success.
For all the criticism voiced by malai about a bubble economy, over paid Timorese stripped from local institutions, incompetent policing, a dependence on expensive imported goods rather than sourcing local produced -– what malai really like getting on their soap box about is UN drivers. Not a white landcruiser prado will pass painted with a thick back U and N without a snide remark about it’s speed or lack of road courtesy. Lack of parking, prevalence of potholes… even just being in the position to drive a new car will incur the wrath of the malai’s shaking fist of righteousness.
Because there is such pervading animosity to the UN, there are a number of UN employees who choose to privately curse the UN amongst other NGO friends, and like to justify their UN employment as the political force of change from within. Secretly however these people are nonetheless incredibly happy with the salary and ample perks provided by their choice of institution, and therefore wouldn’t trade their stipend for the dream position at their local struggling NGO of choice. Those unfortunately don’t let you ride to Oecusse enclave on a helicopter.
Many expats are aware of these perks and special purchase that being a UN employee affords. Secretly they would be quite excited to be privy to them… But to admit to this would show the expat to be less than engaged with “real development” and out of touch with the grassroots level players. To be seen in bed with big development, the malai believe they lose the cred they have earned dropping independence activist names, marching in local political protests or hanging out with Ego Lemos. The expat instead feels much more comfortable in there bubble of superficial moral superiority letting the jealousy of an air-conditioned house with pool, simmer sub-consciously below the surface.