Thursday, August 20, 2009

Been to a good funeral?

We backtrack to Kupang in West Timor and catch a flight to Makassar. It's delayed five hours and we arrive in the capital of Sulawesi at midnight. It's a huge city with a clutch of cheap hotels in the Chinatown. We find a room with air-con and fairly reasonable pancakes for breakfast. So far so good. There are a few old Dutch buildings still in good nick in the city centre near the port, but otherwise not much to distinguish it from any other Indonesian city. We are hard to impress.

Our escape route out to a not-so-far beach place recommended by others is thwarted when we find that after a two-hour wait at the bus terminal no vehicle is actually going where we want to. We return to our hotel to find our room has been taken. Thus we end up in a newer, nicer and cheaper hotel run by a garrulous Chinese Indonesian. We tell him of our plans to visit China, stopping in Bangkok for the visa. His eyes light up and he begins to wax lyrical about the joys and sights of Bangkok. "Ahh, Bangkok! So much to see there! Woman and Woman. Man and Man. Half and Half." (Half and half???) All of this is said with the requisite but unnecessary hand gestures. Funny though, he failed to mention the other infamous sex-show standard which is the ping-pong ball trick. I thought the Chinese are big on Table Tennis.

Our next escape plan almost fails too, when we take a bemo out to the bus terminal to buy onward tickets. After nearly an hour riding out of the city, we begin to think we might already be on our way to Tana Toraja, but then realise that there is some debate amonst the other punters and the driver. They laugh a lot and then finally explain that we have passed our terminal way back, but not to worry as the minibus will eventually return the same way. But Makassar's a big city, so we jump off and hop on another going back into town. Our little detour takes about an hour and a half. However, we do secure tickets for the air-conditioned 'luxury' night bus to Rantepao in central Sulawesi.

Rantepao is a breath of fresh air after the big city. It's a small place up in the hills and a popular destination for all tourists in Sulawesi. But it doesn't feel too touristy. The drawcard here is the local culture and funerary traditions of the people of the Tana Toraja region. Despite being nominally Christian (all Indonesians must officially have a religion), the Torajans have proudly continued to follow many of their traditional customs and beliefs. The most famous is the funeral season of July and August which is after harvest time. Should anyone in the family have died during the year, there is a quick small ceremony but the deceased is kept in the house, fed and watered and spoken too as if they were still ill. Then, when money has been saved and the harvest completed, a bigger public ceremony is held. Buffaloes are bought and offered by guests, slaughtered and cooked at the event, which can last a few days. To witness one of these events it's recommended you hire a local guide, which puts us in a quandary. We absolutely do not like to hire guides. We discuss this with Nacho and Adri at our guesthouse. Nacho too has a dislike of guides who like to point at a flight of stairs, for instance, and say "Here is a flight of stairs for going upstairs!" In the end they find a small group to join, whilst we decide to go for a walk and just enjoy the surroundings. The scenery is lovely - hilly,green, full of rice-paddies and small villages. The traditional building style has just about survived in some places - there are houses and big rice barns that are built in wood on stilts with long curving thatched roofs. The thatch is oftern replaced with corrugated tin these days. There's plenty to see - in other villages there are still tau tau which are graves cut into cliff faces. A wooden effigy of the deceased is carved and placed outside the grave. Every six days there is a big market nearby - busy with seasonal buffalo sales. The buffs can be expensive and are shipped in from other parts of Indonesia. The local albino breed fetch the best prices. We're surprised to find many groups of tourists here with guides. Who needs a guide to look round a market??

One night we eat in a crap restaurant. I have fried chicken and rice. Gayle thinks she does too, but hers looks like a fried rat to me. Still, it's all protein. Afterwards we find a better restaurant, so naturally we order a pudding - grilled banana with chocolate and cashews. At first the waitress will only let us order chocolate
or cashews, but not together. But we insist we have them mixed and eventually she says okay. This is all in Indonesian by the way. We sometimes feel a bit smug because we speak enough words to get by and feel we get better treatment than other tourists who don't bother. Anyway, the bananas turn up, with chocolate sauce and, not cashews, but grated cheese. So much for our grasp of Indonesian. Mind, we eat it all up.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Malae Part Two

The other side of Ruben's work is being involved in a community-run project up in the hills of Emera. His enthusiasm is infectious and we go along with him to take a look. On our way we stop off at an orphanage run by Izza, an Aussie, and his Timorese wife Ina. Over a cup of local coffee we discover that Izza is an old traveller who settled here many years before. A local priest approached them with the idea of running the orphanage at an old school site. With limited resources they have built a dormitory for about 30 kids, with a dining room and outdoor kitchen. They have no regular funding but have somehow managed to keep the place running and the children fed for several years. It's a remarkable story of commitment. Whilst some of the children were orphaned through conflict, the majority of their parents died from TB. Some of the children have grown too old now for school, but there are few opportunities to leave.

Out of the city most of the people are subsistence farmers. Whilst the population had fallen, the average family now has about 7 and a half children - a frightening number, and it's no surprise to learn that Timor Leste has some of the worst rates of maternal and infant mortality in the world. The majority of the population are Catholic and the local church has agreed to support a policy of "birth-spacing" to help improve the health of mothers. Up at Bakhita Ruben takes us to the health clinic set up and run by a local committee and team of staff. Anders, a young American volunteer enthusiastically shows us around. Originally the clinic was staffed by volunteer doctors from Australia, but the government now provides some staff and training for the mid-wife. Field clinics are also delivered in more remote areas. Whilst we are there, two Cuban doctors appear from the nearest settlement. The Cubans have 300 doctors working out across the country. We are a three hour rough drive from Dili but it feels quite remote. The community have developed a second project to improve farming output, particularly coffee cultivation, with a nursery programme and planting of shade trees.

The first Malae we actually met was riding in the minibus with us when we crossed the border. Her name is Crystell, an Englishwoman working in the department of education to develop a teacher training programme. We read about her experience after we met her. The teaching she observed was quite basic. The only teaching tool used is the blackboard, and even then some teachers write too small for children at the back of the class. Most learning is by rote and often kids are sent out to play whilst the teachers chat amongst themselves. School hours are short. All of this reflects our impressions from state schools in Indonesia. One of the big problems is the lack of materials and understanding the need for literacy. Izza confirmed that hardly anyone has anything to read in Timor Leste and the kids have only a notebook for copying off the blackboard. If materials are provided they are locked away in the headteachers office to prevent them being spoiled! A new free magazine, produced in cartoon format primarily to spread public health messages, is very popular and read by everyone in the home - if they can read. But there's an even bigger issue to affect the education of the children and that is the government's decision to use Portugese as the national language. This is seen as folly by some. For a start Tetun is the majority local language. Then there is a large percentage of the population who learnt Bahasa Indonesia at school during 25 years of rule from Jakarta. Everyone watches television from Indonesia. But many of the ruling politicians are the rare few who received an education under Portugese rule. It's an interesting decision to say the least. All the teaching staff will have to learn Portugese before they can teach the children.

Our time here flies by in the sweltering daytime heat. At the weekend we head down to the Dili beach where people go to relax. There are locals and malae, with an almost imperceptible divide down the middle. Perhaps this is to do with the location of restaurants and parking? Beefy Portugese soldiers play games on the beach. A Timorese man splashes in the shallows with a whole class of schoolkids - except, wait, there's eight of 'em - they are probably all his children. Hundreds of malea jog along the esplande to the headland point where a statue of Jesus sits atop.
(The bay behind this one is known as 'Jesus Backside Beach'.) In the evening the beachside restaurants are busy. Should peace and stability continue here then Dili at least will have the infrastructure for tourism that might just mitigate the effects on the local economy of the eventual withdrawal of the foreign workers.

We have our new Indonesia visa and it's time to depart. Once again we are sorry to say goodbye to good friends and kind hosts after only a short visit. But our brief time here has left a lasting impression on us, I am sure, for which we are very grateful to Val and Ruben and all the other Timorese and malae that we have met here.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Malae Part One

It's a wonderful feeling to be staying with friends again and Val and Ruben make us feel at home straight away. We last saw Val the day before we left home as she kindly offered to look after our car. Then last year she got a posting to Dili and so we're very happy to see her so far from home. She and Ruben are living in a service appartment block, along with other foreign workers, in the centre of the city - it's a comfortable place with a kitchen (two fridges - one for the drinks!) and a lounge-cum-office. There's a buffet breakfast provided and a laundry service. For the first time in two and a half years we don't do our own laundry. Almost as good as the G&Ts we are offered by our hosts.

Apart from seeing Val we also need to get a new Indonesia visa and so we plan to stay just over a week. Because there are many foreigners, or Malae as they known locally, working here and the country is using the dollar, prices are generally higher than Indonesia. The UK government advises against all but essential travel to East Timor, presumably because of the fragile state of things, but on the surface there's no discernable difference between here and West Timor. We are quickly drawn into an enjoyable social whirl of evenings by Val and Ruben and meet many of the other malae working here. Unsurprisingly there are few tourists around and we inevitably spend most of our days in the company of these malae. It's an unusual but informative experience.

Ruben has been working here for nearly five years for an Australian charity equipping and modernising the hospital laboratory facilities. There's a national lab, the main hospital in Dili and five regional hospitals. He's off on an overnight trip to Bacau for a training session so we take the opportunity to go with him. The journey along the coast is magnificent in the early light. We appreciate for once the need for all these large 4WDs - the road is in appalling condition, pot-holed and rutted - as we wind our way in and out of several coves and sandy bays. Bacau feels small compared to Dili and after Ruben drops us at a guesthouse we go for a walk around the old town. The focal point is the covered market, an abandoned ruin still awaiting reconstruction. Along the street are makeshift stalls with small collections of vegetables, second hand clothes and the ubiquitous assortment of Chinese-produced odds and sods. A fisherman walks door to door with fish bunched at either end of a pole slung on his shoulder. After lunch we walk the 4 kilometres down to one of the beaches below the town. The walk takes us through several sleepy hamlets. On the way back up we're glad of a ride in a bemo, serendaed by Rod Stewart on the sound system. He doesn't want to talk about it, is the jist of it. The next day we return to the coast, to another deserted beach. At the end of the road there's a small sign with a picture of a crocodile. Even we can translate the Portugese warning. However, the only unusual thing we do sight is the arrival of a bunch of Australian squaddies, with guns and backpacks. Some of them strip off to swim in the clear blue waters. It's very peaceful and they seem incongruous here.

At our guesthouse we talk with Lita, the owner. She and her husband both studied economics at university in Indonesia but only her husband has a job - with the government in Dili. We learn that her brother is living in Manchester with his wife, working at a supermarket for the past four years. She says they're happy there. We wonder what it must be like for them. Another relative is jobless - he shrugs with resignation - the only big employer is the government. Despite Timor Leste's oil reserves, unemployment remains a serious problem.

Back in Dili Val takes us out to a bar where a band of trendy young dudes try gamely to cover a few rock classics. Is that a Nirvana song? With us is Manuela, a local woman who works in the department of health with Val. Val's work is in Medical Stores, seconded to the government, advising on best practice and governance in the procurement, storage and distribution of medicines. Her experience has been frustrating at times. Her manager is young and inexperienced, her colleague a bit work-shy. Just before we arrived she handed in her resignation and Manuela wants the dirt. Val's cagey. Poor management. Office politics. It's a good reminder for us if we think we're tired of travelling.

Monday, August 3, 2009

East is East

It's only a thirty minute flight from Maumere on Flores to Kupang in West Timor (we chickened out of the 13-hour ferry boat ride). From the airport we have to walk about one kilometre to catch a bemo on the main road. It is sunny, of course, and hot and dry. Luckily there's a bemo waiting and we are soon on the long ride into town. After a short while in Kupang we conclude that all the bemos are full of 18 year-olds and are being driven by 14 year-olds. As with Maumere, there are huge speakers underneath the bench seats in the back blasting out Indo pop or hip-hop. The minibuses are all decorated with stickers, windows obliterated with kitsch images and, in one case, the scene of the Last Supper. As we vibrate towards town it feels like we're joyriding with the local kids. Kupang is the capital of the region East Nusa Tenggara, which includes Flores, and numerous other smaller islands. We learn later that this is in fact Indonesia's poorest province. The town is full of students and sprawls outwards from the old waterfront and market area. It's nothing special, but in the evening one of the streets is closed to traffic and springs to life with food stalls and tables - it's a very sociable scene and reminds us of Malaysia. In one space there's a crowd gathering around a man with a microphone. Beside him stands a man tied up inside a sack, a large tin trunk awaits. An escapologist! We wait for a while but nothing happens. Next day there is an empty sack on the ground, so we guess he got out.

The minibus to Dili collects us at 5.30am. We then trawl the streets for the other pick-ups. It's Sunday morning and there is a football match taking place before the sun has even risen. We're half asleep as we head eastwards to the border with East Timor. In Bahasa Indonesia Timor means east. So East Timor may be the only country in the world with a tautology for a name. The Indonesians call it Timor Timur or Tim Tim, but it's official name is now Timor Leste. The roads are noticeably poorer once we have crossed the border, and one town has a few derelict buildings, otherwise there's little to indicate we've entered a new country. The British government currently advises against travel to East Timor unless it is "essential", but our friend Val has been working over a year here and we are sure it will be fine. We've been told that the UN presence is still large and we take a bet on how many of the big white vehicles with those famous initials we will see before arriving at Val's. Gayle guesses 20 and I go for 30. We stop counting when we pass 40.

There's a good reason for the UN presence. (Here's the contemporary history bit, folks!) In 1974 after the Portuguese had abandoned their colony and local political parties proclaimed independence, the Indonesian army turned up uninvited. The invasion plan was known to the U.S., Malaysian, Singaporean and Australian governments, none of whom made any objections, as long as it was quick. It was, but it was not painless and a guerilla force continued fighting the Indonesians in the mountains for the next 25 years. It is thought that over 100,000 died during this period, directly from the conflict but mostly indirectly from malnutrition and disease. When Soeharto's reign ended in Indonesia, the new leader allowed for a referendum on independence in 1999. It took place after a campaign of intimidation by a pro-Indonesian militia backed by the Indonesian army. 79% voted for independence and this same militia, with the army, went on a rampage, destroying Dili and other towns killing and displacing 200,000 people. Our guidebook describes the Indonesian's withdrawal as "scorched earth", and peace was only restored when a UN peacekeeping force of mainly Australians arrived.

When the Portuguese left East Timor after 400 years of rule there was less than 20km of road and no bridges. There were only about 50 schools. Most lived by subsistence farming and coffee growing. Ironically the Indonesian government invested heavily in their new province, building a large road network and providing education across the board. Coffee output did fall, partly due to neglect but also because of the ongoing guerilla war. Sadly on departure they destroyed almost everything positive they did, and many Indonesians who had come to work in government jobs also fled when the trouble flared up. The UN finally handed over administration in May 2002 to the new independent government, but only 6 months later there were riots in Dili. The government faced huge problems trying to build new institutions, and provide the basics of running water, electricity, employment, health care and education (most secondary school teachers had been Indonesians and had left.) This is in a country with no industry, but with off-shore oil and gas reserves. In 2006 the new government was cracking up. The Prime Minister sacked one-third of the army, which lead to more disturbances and fighting and instantly created an armed rebel group. Many UN and NGO workers left the country. But in 2007 there were peaceful elections, a new government formed, and the rebuilding process restarted. Assassination attempts on both President and Prime Minister on the same day in 2008 by the rebels were foiled, and both survived. More importantly the country remained surprisingly calm. The UN still maintains a peacekeeping force and is in the process of handing over policing, region by region. There is also a large presence of NGO workers and government advisers from outside who are all trying to help with the rebuilding process. Meanwhile the East Timorese have struck a deal with the Australians over developing the oil and gas reserves that they share, despite the Australians' best attempts not to, and despite being one of the most messed-up countries, it remarkably has no debt.