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.

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