Thursday, August 28, 2008

Expat Maxims 2.0

The length of time spent abroad is directly proportionate to the number of buttons undone on an expat man's shirt.

The toughter the job, the stiffer the drink, the more it helps.

The smaller the community, the more likely you are to become instant friends. (Hi Lucy!)

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Other Foot

Yesterday, I went out to lunch with Luisa, the portuguese livestock specialist who works in our office. We talked about getting adjusted to new places, new faces and East Timor in general. She said something that I thought was both wise and sweet:

"The other foot lands after your first week."

Certainly, my second foot has landed. In fact, I think it may have shown up to kick my ass.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Jesus' Frontside

Here's what I learned at the beach today:

- SPF 45. Still not enough.

- Peeing in the ocean is always cleaner than the alternative.

- Perhaps one should not refer to wet swimsuit runoff as "butt juice"

- Jesus frontside is not nearly as nice as his back.

- The peaches comment was not really accurate.

- Walks along the beach are enhanced by old friends.

- Don't laugh at that 36 oz bottle of leftover aloe in the office. You might need it.

- Even cloudy sunsets are beautiful.

- If stuck in a transportation jam, ask a Norweigan.

- Always, always, always bring a towel.

- Beaches, even in non-developing countries, are really, really dirty. And that dirt gets
everywhere. I'm pretty sure I'm halfway to producing a pearl somewhere.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Jesus' Backside

Yesterday, Asha and her two friends from the UN took me to the outskirts of the city for a beach party. East Timor is an incredibly mountainous country, currently in the middle of the dry season, making it an ideal time to head to the water. Dili, the capital, is surrounded by an enormous reef, beyond which is the second deepest trench in the world (behind the Marinana trench) and diving/snorkeling/water sports here are a big deal.

Our drive took us down beach road, past the President's palace (since the assassination attempt on President Ramos-Hortas' life in February, it's been guarded by Pakistani UN soldiers, but because we were in a UN car they didn't give us any trouble) and through brown, craggy, dry mountains. The road, surprisingly, was paved, but quite narrow and there are no guardrails to be had. We drove past some burned out houses, left over from what I could only guess was either the 24 years under brutal Indonesia rule, the 1999 violence or the most recent riots in 2006. At any rate, we kept driving.

At the very end of a peninsula on the east side of Dili is a very large statue of Jesus, with his outstretched hands towards the sea. (East Timor is 90% Roman Catholic). This statue is pretty much the only landmark along the ocean, and there's quite a nice beach behind known locally as (you guessed it) Jesus' Backside Beach.

As Lucy, one of Asha's friends noted, "It looks like two peaches in a sack".

I can neither confirm nor deny this. JC's bottom was really high on the hill while we were at the beach, so I'll just have to take her word for it. Perhaps someday before I leave I'll take the trail up to the top to see his front-side, but for now I'll just let it be.

But it was a looovely beach. Fine sand, almost deserted, blue-green bottom (filled with sharp rocks though!) and we had more than enough food/alcohol to sustain us until dark. I arrived home dirty, exhausted and funned-over.

Today, I'm working a bit in the morning and then ... off to another beach!

Photos to come soon, I promise. I'm just too lazy (and the internet too slow) for me to post them every day.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Bar Scene

Last night, I went out with our DCOP, Asha, who is leaving on Sunday. She had organized an outing with several of her friends to try "Lobster paella" (which turned out to be 'arroz con mariscos - rice with seafood) at a Portuguese restaurant. The food was good, the wine was better and we were soon out of there for a local nightclub, Motions.

As in Malawi, there's really only one nightclub and on Thursday's, it's packed. We showed up around 10:30 pm to find two large rooms (an enclosed outdoor patio and a sweaty block room filled with pulsing portuguese dance music) packed to the gills with beefy, brawny, relatively short Portuguese policemen. I have never seen so many decidedly straight muscley men in one bar since......gosh, forever. Too bad they kept stepping on my flip-flopped feet (yeeowch!) and non were really interesting, just..muscley.

We stuck around for a few hours - I ran into Emily again, and her friend Andrew - and then we left for karaoke. It was on the other side of town, run by two tiny Chinese women. We were the only folks in the place, and man did we party down. The only song I didn't sing was "Dancing Queen" but I'll get it next time.

I didn't get home until 2am.
Now, back to work.

Cultural Lesson

People have often asked me what the hardest part about traveling overseas is- the long flights, the strange food, the inevitable diarrhea, etc. But easily the most frustrating aspects of international work travel are the different ideas regarding time-management. This trickles down into enormous inefficiencies that make tiny tasks two- or three- day affairs. Just trying to finalize the number of graduates, for example, is like being nibbled to death by a thousand sluggish minnows.

Me, I'd rather die quickly, decisively.

Blame it on Protestant Work Ethic or whatever, but I really hate wasting time when there's lots to be done in a short period. I am punctual, to a fault. It annoys me when people don't come to meetings on times, or worse yet - don't come prepared. (I'm also annoyed when people don't read the attachments, but that's another blog post).


I understand that my views on time and time management are not universal - I really do. It makes honest-to-God-good-hard - sense to me that getting things done in a country that doesn't have a working postal system, stable electricity grid (power went off three times today), and operates on a cash only basis will take more time than usual. In fact, it's nice to slow down.

But what drives me bonkers are local cultural sensitivities that - as the malai (foreigner, in Tetum) I will never ever understand, and yet, must carefully tip-toe around. As you would imagine, it's virtually impossible not to trip those cultural landmines and splatter stupid expat everywhere.

Yesterday, our office manager was putting together some invitations to Ministers at the Department of Agriculture. Seriously, their names and titles were listed on a sheet of paper and although I don't speak Portuguese, I am fairly certain that the word "Secretario d'Agricultura" means Secretary of Agriculture. The honorific title in this case would be (ta-DA!) Secretary.

Stupid malai, trix aren't for kids! You know it's not that simple.

Noooooo no no no no no no no. The office manager, the COP and I had a long discussion, at which time the DCOP got involved, then the native Portuguese speaker, then the communications specialist, then finally, the drivers. We settled the matter by emailing a third-party affiliate (local) who confirmed the next morning that the honorific title was not "Secretario" but "Excellency".

As I was making a joke about it this afternoon, the DCOP said, "But you don't get it. This is a big deal. If we address him wrong, we could be FINED. It's a common practice."

Life saved, but only by a hair.

I am taught, yet again, that nothing - ohhhhhhh nothing - is ever as simple as it seems. It's a good lesson to be reminded of, but boy, is it going to be a long three weeks.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Tais Market

Today, Asha took me toe the Tais Market, which are traditional woven cloths. According to one website I found :

Tais are traditionally made for ceremonial occasions and/or given as tribute in traditional ceremonies so there is no traditional custom of selling or buying which is why at local markets you rarely see them for sale. There are two main types Male or Mane and Female or Feto, The Mane Tais are usually quite large piece of woven cloth with tassles at each end, These are tied around the waist and worn like a sarong, The Feto Tais have the ends sown together to form a tube that you can step into and wear like a dress.

The strange thing about this market was its tiny size. The way I'd heard it talked about from other expats is that it is _THE_ spot to go for tais., but it was small and relatively out of the way. It was clearly marked with roadsigns to lead the way (a rarity here!) and evidently erected in cooperation with USAID and the Ministry of Tourism. Yet, it wasn't very impressive. The best thing it had going for it was mass - atleast 20 shops piled together in "traditional" corregated metal huts. I guess USAID provided the metal? I dunno. While certainly handy for "tourists" (in this country, its mostly development/UN folks), it kind of sucks for the vendors. I always felt a bit bad for vendors in this situation, because unless they all agree on a bottom price, there's no incentive for shoppers to buy from them and not go to a neighbor.

I also bought a moon-shaped crown, on which I can't find anything but this picture to help me explain it. It's the thing on the woman's head in the top picture. Cloth, you can get anywhere in the world, but a half moon/horn crown is something else entirely. Will search around tomorrow when I have more time to discover what on earth it does...

After leaning my pant leg on some wet table varnish (which is now a permanent part of my wardrobe), we left. The work days are going fast, but soon I will be left to my own devices to organize an entire graduation in a language I don't speak - so I'm doing my best not to panic.
Tonight, I'm going out with my colleague who is leaving and will hopefully drink my cares away, wake up and the entire graduation will be over.

Wish me luck!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Smallest of Small Towns

I can't believe it's only been two days since I last wrote - it feels like forever. I've put in two eleven hour days at the office and have also been pulling 22-hour days, thanks to jet-lag (yeah, thanks) and the roosters that play call and response outside my door.

Dili is a tiny, dusty backwater with, as far as I can tell, two main roads: airport road and beach road (I'm not kidding, they're really referred to by these names). It's not that much different from any other tiny, dusty, backwater town, save the inordinate amount of UN cars around and the correspondingly high expat community.

My hotel is quite nice - it would be a three star hotel in the States, but it's definitely a 5 here, by virtue of having ice cold air conditioning and free in-house internet (although it's DSL, not wireless but hey, I'm not fickle). It helps that it is literally right behind our project office, so I can easily walk to work.

There's alot of dirt and trash and random barbed wire on the street on the awy - plus, I walk by two "massage parlors" which are exactly what you think they are. For the most part though, it's not too bad. Plus, it always helps to be about 50 lbs heavier than even the biggest thug- that always gives me comfort.

The hotel is right around the corner from the beach, and there are many restaurants where you can sit and drink in the sunset (about 6:30 pm every day). My first night here, some project staff took me out to the beach where we had fresh barricuda and shrimp. Yum!

Being a girl from Minnesota, I have been surprised at the quantity and voracity of the mosquitos though. They just won't give up! I've got welts all over that won't go away. My first night here, in the brain fog of 3am, a mosquito bit me right in my PALM! I was in agony for hours. Luckily, the office has plenty of bug spray (and I packed my malaria meds).

But, the real surprise came tonight, as I was finishing up a meal in the hotel restaurant.

I don't know if this is a testament to what a small world it is, or if I've finally become a seasoned traveller, because I ran into someone I KNOW. As in, an old friend/co-worker whom I used to work closely with. And she was sitting at the table in the courtyard right in front of my room! She's been in East Timor for the past month, working on another project for my old company, but is leaving in a few days. I had heard she was here in July, so I just assumed that we missed each other, but there she was! I am truly psyched to see a friendly face. We're going to meet up later this week; she's going to be my entree into expat life here.

This is so random, I thought it deserved a blog-post. I mean, who travels across the world and runs into someone they KNOW?

And now I'm wondering...... who am I going to meet next?

Monday, August 18, 2008

East East = as far East at you can get

This afternoon I finally arrived in East Timor, which incidentally from Minnesota, takes two and a half days. I spent 24 hours in Japan, arriving at midnight to Bali where I spent all of 5 hours before taking off again. Thanks to my own inability to follow international date lines, I spent about three hours too long in the Bali airport this morning, awaiting my uneventful flight to Dili, the capital of East Timor.

After three days and two nights of relative solitude and sleep deprivation, I can very easily say that East Timor (Timor in Malay means East, meaning that the official name of the country is East East) is pretty much the farthest corner of the globe I've been to yet.

It's similar to Banda Aceh, in that it's remote, has a tenous relationship with Indonesia, and been through a devastating turn of events (in Timor's case, national violence instead of BA's tsunami). However, the scenery and attitude couldn't be more different. First of all, I arrived in early afteroon, in sweltering heat, to a mountainous island deep into the dry season. BA, last November by comparison, was lush and green with opportunity.

East Timor is 90% plus Roman Catholic - which means less strict dress codes than BA and more alcohol, always welcome to the Western woman's palate. If I were charged to make a guess, I'd also surmise that the standard of living here is much lower - and the population much much younger. In relation to the other countries I've visited, upon first impression, this feels like to poorest.

Granted, it's only been my first day - but so far so good. the hotel bed is comfortable and the internet accesible. My work colleagues are terrific - they took me for supper of cooked barricuda on the beach - and I'm sad of thinking that they are both leaving by the end of this week. But then, if they weren't leaving, why would I be here?

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Nardom Ctnoruy: Timor Leste

Because it's been a while, here is the next random country: East Timor!

Because I can see the collective puzzle of faces (literally and figuratively, since I had to explain this to a host of strangers this weekend), here's more information from your friend and mine, Wikipedia:
East Timor, also known as Timor-Leste (officially the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste) is a country in Southeast Asia. It comprises the eastern half of the island of Timor, the nearby islands of Atauro and Jaco, and Oecussi-Ambeno, an exclave on the northwestern side of the island, within Indonesian West Timor. The small country of 15,410 km²[1] (5,400 sq mi) is located about 640 km (400 mi) northwest of Darwin, Australia.
East Timor was colonized by
Portugal in the 16th century, and was known as Portuguese Timor until Portugal's decolonization of the country. In late 1975 East Timor declared its independence but was invaded and occupied by Indonesia later that year, and declared that country's 27th province the following year. In 1999, following the United Nations-sponsored act of self-determination, Indonesia relinquished control of the territory and East Timor became the first new sovereign state of the twenty-first century on May 20, 2002. East Timor is one of only two predominantly Roman Catholic countries in Asia, the other being the Philippines. At US$2,500,[2] the per capita GDP (purchasing power parity adjusted) of East Timor is one of the poorest nations in the world. Its Human Development Index (HDI), however, corresponds to a medium degree of human development and places East Timor 150th among the world's states.
Strangely enough, Lonely Planet DOES publish a guidebook..! (Which I haven't bought). I'm heading over later on this month to assist a project that's kind of stuck in limbo. And by limbo, I mean, all the staff are either going on vacation, quit, or have gotten mugged.
...Isn't it strange how challenges alternatively thrill and terrify you?
Lot's to do between now and then, not the least of which is recover from my 10 year HS reunion, stop my mail, go to Ikea, celebrate a 50th wedding anniversary - and update my blog.
One down.