Dienstag, 27. November 2007

on the more serene side...

there is of course much more to yogya than the social darwinism of jalan kaliurang at 4 in the afternoon described below.

i have the good fortune of being able to stay once again in the wonderful house i used to live in for the past few years (now with the added luxury of w-lan!) and am once again able to enjoy a cup of coffee while watching the sun set beyond the mango trees and sugarcane fields, listening to the gentle splashing of the stream and the maghrib-calls of the muezzin wafting over from the village...

get your motor running...

our engines sound like a swarm of mechanical wasps, buzzing and waiting for action. the sun beats down on our skins. the heat is reflected off the hot asphalt. our number grows by the second as more and more motorbikes edge their way to the front of the column.

we are students and farmers, accountants and soldiers. girls with headscarves, girls with piercings. young men in suits, young men in black t-shirts. old men in batik, old ladies in batik. singles on their motorbike. young couples on their motorbike. families of five on their motorbike.

the bikes and helmets display an eclectic melange of stickers: scatological messages, religious texts, anarchist slogans. heavy metal bands, nightclubs, spongebob squarepants.

some of us are gazing around. some are smoking. some are fixing their make-up. some are sending smses. all are waiting for the signal.

then it comes: GREEN!!! simultaneously, we all twist our right wrists and turn our accelerators south. those who react half a nanosecond too slow are mercilessly honked down.

its now a dog-eat-dog race. bikes overtaking you on the left, bikes overtaking you on the right. oncoming traffic on both sides of you. the sidewalks become auxiliary lanes for overtaking the slow. dust, exhaust fumes, noise...

...until we reach the next stoplight.

Samstag, 24. November 2007

mungkin bila nanti kita akan bertemu lagi...

so its time now to say good-bye to timor-leste, good-bye to friends and acquaintances, good-bye to extraordinary people in an extraordinary place, good-bye to the mad dogs who try to run in front of my motorbike at night and to the squealing suicidal piglets who try the same during the day, good-bye to aussie blackhawks waking me up in the morning with their low altitude flights, good-bye to the gang leaders i've been meeting and to the idps who've been pushed out of their homes, good-bye to excellent coffee and breath-taking mountains, good-bye to fording rivers with a bust-up jeep in the moonlight when the bridge has been washed away. its "ate logo" to all of that.

and a special, heartfelt good-bye goes out to one mr alan jackson, hailing from "way down yonder on the chattahoochee, where it gets hotter than a hootchie-cootchie." alan has accompanied across the breadth and width of this country and been on my mind a lot. alan, i hope by the time we meet again you will no longer be "up to your ears in tears," no longer "in a tropical depression," that eventhough your "hair is still a little too long, got a big harley and listen to a country song," and your girlfriend has left you again (you know, the one who's got the rhythm while you got the blues), in spite of all i hope you'll be ok enough with all of that to not need to sing about it again. or if you do feel the compelling need to sing about it, that i don't need to listen to it. you know, maybe you really should buy yourself that "mercury '49 and go cruisin' up the roooooo-hoooooo-ad." if you need a bit of extra cash, i might even send you some just so that i won't need to hear about it again.

so now its off to indonesia. the calls of "malea, malae!!!" will be replaced with "bule masuk kampung," or, more embarrasingly, shouts of "bon jovi, bon jovi..."

p.s.: i suspect that dili intl airport is perhaps the only one on the planet where the shopping and dining facilities are located inside an idp camp...

Montag, 19. November 2007

here is something i can't understand

i've spent the past four weeks or so here studying violence and i'm still at the point encapsulated in cypress hill's lyrics:

"here is something you can't understand:
how i could just kill a man."

a case in point is a murder on sunday in downtown dili. it made the international news as a beheading, but based on the grainy photo of the corpse on the front page of timor post, that isn't quite true. it was a brutal, nasty murder but technically not quite a beheading.

asking around, it seems that it was either a gangland revenge murder and/or had something to do with a girl. having looked at the gangs here for my research, both seem quite plausible reasons. which is where i come to my "disconnect point:" i just don't see the connection between the reason (heartache) and the deed (attempting to chop someone's head off). or burning your neighbours house when there is no rice in the shop, as was happening during the rice crisis earlier this year. or attempting to chop someone's leg off because someone from his posse apparently disrespected someone from your posse in the neighbouring country 3 weeks ago as happened in baucau last week.

of course, irrational violence is an issue the world over, not just in timor. half of rome goes up in flames because of a game in which 22 millionaires in shorts kick a ball on a grass field and even finland has had its own high-school massacre...

Sonntag, 18. November 2007

candlelight flashback

the other night i was taking a candlelight mandi in a small timorese village close to the south coast. for those of you who are not familiar with the term,its indonesian for washing oneself in the traditional way by scooping cold water out of a basin and pouring i onto oneself.

as i was washing myself in the candlelight i was reminded of a mandi which i took a few years back in aceh, in ujong muloh, a small fishing village on the west coast, down the road from lamno. the village was completely destroyed by the 2004 tsunami and about two-thirds of the population had been killed. i was staying in the idp camp with our project workers there and in order to wash, you had to go to where the village had been before it was wiped away by the waves.

there, in between the ruins of the houses and the odd palm tree, we went to one of the wells and washed ourselves in the moonlight. washing myself under the stars in the ruins of what was once a house, taking water from the well of a dead man was a calm, surreal, almost mythical experience. it felt almost like an epiphany, though i don't know of what.

Dienstag, 13. November 2007

a simple case of arithmetics

the other night, a man was shot dead with an arrow up the road from where i am staying. this was duly reported by reuters news agency who also put the killing into a bit of a context by stating that since the start of the crisis here in april/may 2006, at least 37 people have been killed and 150 000 are internally displaced.

the trouble with those figures is that they reflect the situation as it was 1,5 years (!) ago, but still almost every single news item on the timorese crisis uses those completely outdated figures. is it too much to ask of professional journalists to do a bit of background research or, at the very least, to add the casualty they are reporting in their piece to this total figure? to say that by now there's at least 37 + 1 = 38 dead?

as far as i can tell no-one has collected the total number of casualties since the beginning of the crisis. my own estimate is at least 50 (tallying up the cases i remember hearing about) have died, perhaps closer to 100. as far as the idps are concerned, the current official figure is down to approximately 100 000 from 150 000, though some would dispute that number.

and as always, each of those figures consist of individuals whose stories and fates will in all probability remain unreported by the local or the international media... but the very least they could do is get their numbers straight.

Montag, 12. November 2007

striking poses

travelling across the country i've been getting a chance to see a lot of men in uniforms and brandishing weapons. on occasion, you might see the occasional woman in unifrom, but their numbers are far smaller, so i'll concentrate on the men here.

you've got the local police (pntl) with its various sub-units, the local armed forces (f-fdtl), the un police (unpol) and the international stabilisation force (isf) just to give you the main categories. many of their number, though by far not all, do seem to enjoy showing off their military gear, especially the ones who are in the more "special" units, such as the unpol's formed police units (fpu) or the pntl's rapid reaction force (uir). the average street cops tend to be the least intrusive of the lot.

each one of these units tends to have its own way of showing off its militarised masculinity. while the average pntl cop walks around in a simple uniform with a handgun, the uir riot squad members seem to take a special delight in wearing as much body armour as possible even when there are only little kids and old ladies around. compared to the street cops, they also have a lot more gadgets attached to their webbing - pepper spray, torches, a baton, handcuffs, etc. a further step up from this in terms of displaying muscular machismo and military gadgetry is the special "bodyguard" unit of the pntl. their uniform consists of black t-shirts, black combat trousers, a black bandana, shades and headsets. they carry numerous gadgets which i could not figure out the purpose of on their webbing gear, have a handgun plus a brand new steyr assault rifle and often a jungle knife on their belt.

in comparison, the f-fdtl members look like the poor rural cousins of these decked out cops. no extra gadgets, baggy unifroms and assault rifles from the 1970s. some of them don't even have designer shades, a faux pas unheard of in the cooler units.

the international forces tend to also have their own sub-cultures of displaying their military masculinity. the aussies tend to go for the "matey"-look (baggy uniforms, floppy hats, slouch, designer shades) mixed in with military gadgetry (headsets, techy assault rifles with all sorts of stuff on them). the portuguese gnr, on the other hand, tend to prefer the buff mediterranean macho look: biceps bulging from beneath tight t-shirts, designer shades (of course), swagger. the malaysian fpu is more into the "malaysian idol"-pop star type of look: fingerless gloves, bandanas, black t-shirts, the occasional necklace and yes, designer shades. sporting a more old-school approach are some of the older south asian officers: moustaches, ram-rod straight backs, even the occasional british colonial-style baton, though i havent seen them around here this time...

Sonntag, 11. November 2007

morning impressions

the other morning, taking a night bus from viqueque on the south coast to baucau on the north coast i had the good fortune of watching dawn break over the beautifully-named "mundo perdido" mountains. the sun rose slowly over the crest of mt. matebian, the sacred mountain of the timorese, bathing the landscape in a soft light. groups of people wrapped in blankets against the cold were making their way to the market, carrying bundles of vegetables and other produce. the lush vegetation of the highlands was a welcome change to the dry coastal strip which is now more reminiscient of dry african savannahs than of the equatorial tropics.

its on mornings like these when i think i really should make more of an effort to enjoy them more often. as jim morrison put it, "no eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn."

Donnerstag, 8. November 2007

add-on to the previous one

after 5 relentless hours of driving on winding roads with one country music tape repeated over and over again, four hours spent in the midday sun listening to a town-hall style village meeting with el presidente, a chat with a gang leader and only one cup of coffee later, i am not sure if i am any more lucid than at 5 am this morning.

i did however remember a few more things about The Man, that repository of dreams and hopes of a better, more just world, that i had wanted to jot down as well. eventhough timorese society apparently does not have a similar messianic myth of its own, the two societies which have arguably influenced timor the most over the centuries do: the portuguese and the javanese (who exerted their influence more indirectly through the indonesian "new order" system which arguably did have many javanese elements in it).

the portuguese version of The Man is king sebastian I., who was killed at a young age when he decided to mess around with the north african moors in 1578. legend, of course, has it that he never died and will come to the rescue of the portuguese nation in a time of crisis and establish the fifth empire. meanwhile, the javanese have the ratu adil, the just king, who will reveal himself at the appropriate time, put an end to the times of chaos and establish universal peace and justice. another messianic figure is of course jesus christ, who is omnipresent in timor leste, from the big rio-style statue in dili to tacky plastic clocks you can find in houses in the remotest of villages (big plastic pink things with a garish picture of the last supper as a background). so there area number of outside influences to draw upon and it certainly does not do any harm to further bolster your image by looking like two modern day icons which are very popular here: che guevara and bob marley.

Mittwoch, 7. November 2007

when the man comes around

since i will be overexposed to country music over the next few days (timor leste, like some other parts of eastern indonesia, is country country), its perhaps only apt to start this one with a quote from the man in black himself:

"the wise men will bow down
before the throne
and at his feet
will cast their golden crowns
when The Man comes around

whoever is unjust
let Him be unjust to
and whoever is righteous
let Him be righteous to

whoever is filthy
let him be filthy still
listen to the words
long written down
when The Man comes around


its alpha and omega's kingdom come...
when The Man comes around."

(J. Cash, When The Man Comes Around)

like many other societies, timorese society seems to have a longing for The Man to come around in times of crisis. and one of the words i hear most when discussing the current situation with the educated elite, farmers, taxi drivers, bar staff, gang members, etc. is Justice. when i have try to unpack this notion of justice (i.e. is it legal, social or economic justice they long for) i have gotten nowhere. what people seem to be looking for is a millennerian, a higher kind of justice, one that will undo all the wrongs, punish the wrongdoers, reward the righteous and finally fulfill all the dreams of a better life people had when they struggled for this country's independence.

and many societies, the all-knowing wikipedia places them at 766, have myths pertaining to just this kind of a situation, when in times of a crisis a figure (usually male, usually bearded, usually hiding up in the mountains till the time is right) will come and save the day. interestingly, according to a man i spoke to who is well versed in timorese mythology, timorese society did not traditionally have this myth. now, however, there are multiple contestants for it.

for one, you have timor leste's most wanted (or least wanted, depending on your stance) fugitive, major alfredo reinado, hiding up in the hills in the west (and apparently occasionally in dili's seedier clubs) with his group of armed supporters, casting himself as a defender of justice and righter of all wrongs, defying all attempts to capture him. and secondly, the country is now awash with rumours that some of the most charismatic guerrilla fighters of the struggle against indonesia, such as vicente reis (aka sahe) or nino konis santana had not actually been killed in battle in 1979 and 1998, respectively, but had been living incognito in the hills and had now revealed themselves in this time of crisis. unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case and the dead remain dead, but the hope for The Man to come around and make it all right remains.

...and now its off to the hills again....

p.s.: i'm posting this at 5 am so my apologies if there are gaps in my argumentation, havent had any coffee yet...

Dienstag, 6. November 2007

rumours revisited

no sooner had i posted my rumour-thing yesterday that i coincidentally had three separate discussions on the topic with three very astute, long-term observers of timorese society. once again, we discussed the power and pervasiveness of rumours here and how both the national and international media have a tendency to amplify them without double-checking the facts first. the end result of this climate of rumours and insinuations is a society permeated by fear, a fear that in a sense is disproportionate to the actual level of violence - but not to the rumoured level of violence which is of course much higher.

all these discussions got the puritan in me thinking whether or not participating in this national pasttime through my blog was in a way reprehensible or not, even if i do it tongue in cheek for a very limited audience. well, i have a long overland journey again tomorrow to think about that one.

but before i leave for that trip, i'll post one last rumour piece later today, one which has some interesting implications.

Montag, 5. November 2007

rumours, the spice of life

given the very limited access most people (especially those living in rural areas) have to independent information about events and their limited ability to independently verify the information for themselves, rumours tend to abound here. and with the advent of the cell phone, these travel fast across the country by sms, in spite of timor telecom's best efforts at providing suboptimal phone services...

rumours, even the wildest ones, quickly become "fact," in the sense that people will shape their perceptions of reality according to the rumours, often for their own safety. if for example there is a rumour that there was a shooting with 3 dead in suburb X, people will act accordingly and avoid that area even if in actual fact there never was a shootout.

at times, this rumourmongering has been used to either mobilise crowds (e.g. when the aussies tried to capture major reinado in march this year) or to keep them off the streets (e.g. during the indonesian occupation when rumours of mysterious "ninja" sightings kept people inside while the special forces went about their dirty work).

of course not all rumours pertain to such serious issues, there's a lot of the "oh, did you hear so-and-so was seen with so-and-so at the beach last saturday"-chatter going around, not least in the small ex-pat community.

thus, following the maxim "when in rome, do as the romans do" i have decided to add a new column to my blog and call it 'malicious rumour of the day' in which i'll jot down the best rumour of the day. its all 100 % proof unverified and unverifiable grist to the rumour mill that is dili. take it with a grain of salt.

today's rumour: the increased helicopter activity by the austrailan defence force in the skies above timor leste is due to the fact that its november and they havent spent enough of their annual budget yet. like in any organisation, money's gotta burn so that the budget doesnt get cut next year.

Sonntag, 4. November 2007

homes away from home

i've often wondered what it feels like to be a citizen of an ex-colonial power visiting one of the former colonies. sitting in the lobby cafe of hotel timor the other day, i was surrounded by portuguese cops and teachers who addressed the local staff in portuguese; the coffee, wine, mineral water, beer, etc. were imported from portugal; the pastries were made locally but according to portuguese recipes and the tv in the corner was showing portuguese folk dances on rtp, the portuguese national tv channel. i wonder what i would feel if i'd come halfway across the globe to a dusty little city on a small island and would find cops, teachers, coffee, pastry, even folk dances from my country? would i feel that it was absurd? or would i feel warm and fuzzy all over? or would i think that its the most natural thing in the world?

mind you, you don't have to be a former colonial power to be in the business of carving up these little niches. at least both the australian and (mainland) chinese communities have also established similar homes away from home here...

Donnerstag, 1. November 2007

a hard rains a'gonna fall...

while i'm on the topic, i might as wll continue talikng about the weather.

the word from the un is that the early onset of the rains is due to the la nina-phenomenon, which promises to bring more and heavier rainfall this season.

like said, this is not exactly welcome news for the idps, especially since the governmentr and aid agencies are, for a number of reasons, behind schedule with getting new tents to replace the unuseable ones. so as soon as the rain started yesterday, stuff started happening. in the metinaro camp, the idps blocked the country's main road from dili to baucau and started stoning vehicles. the un responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and by arresting the camp manager. meanwhile, at the airport idp camp there was a shooting incident with one man wounded. as the un likes to put it, "the situation remains calm but tense." not that you could really tell that there was any tension if you stay in the better parts of town. all quiet on the beachfront, so to say...