Human beings are incredibly adaptable to their circumstances and surroundings. Things that are at first surprising and unfamiliar are soon taken to be normal. I suspect our lives in Dili are not nearly as remarkable as some of you imagine them to be but nonetheless it is strange how one’s perception of things can change so much.
Very often it’s incremental, creeping up unnoticed. It’s hot here much of the time so the drinking of hot coffee becomes far less appealing. I tend to let it sit. Daily distractions ensure that the coffee cools to ambient temperature anyway so, just as many of you surely are, I am accustomed to swilling down my coffee cold. Time passes and the foul bitterness of cold coffee becomes part of its charm. Giving in to defeat I have taken to brewing my coffee cold and I now rather like it that way.
It’s also evident in our adaptation to speed, or lack thereof. We become very used to things moving slowly here so when they don’t it can be both surprising and exhilarating. You recognise that a change in perception has occurred because the occasional sensation of hurtling along a Dili street at 45km/h provides an adrenaline surge normally reserved for F1 racing. Hard to believe I know, but I’m quite serious.
The children of course adapt faster than any of us due to their highly plastic brains that adjust to almost any situation. You know your kids are different from their cousins when you see them point at four stationary cars queued up at intersection and hear them exclaim, “Look! Traffic!”
I’ve noticed now that I neither flinch nor pause when the power goes out: I simply finish my sentence as though nothing unusual has happened. I’ve also appropriated the local habit of trying to catch mosquitos in a single hand – the trouble being that it’s very hard to tell if you’ve crushed the pest or only interned it within the hollow of your fist. Very often the opening of the fist in hope and anticipation yields great frustration as the savage creature free once again, but at least then the sport can continue.
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It’s been harder and harder to get back to this blog in recent months. As if life wasn’t busy enough, I’ve started studying a Master of Health Administration and it has chewed into my evenings and creative opportunities. I’m still not entirely sure why I started such a thing but it seemed the logical approach. One day I’m going to return to Australia and look for a job in some kind of health leadership and my mysterious adventures in Timor-Leste will make little sense to someone reading my lightweight CV. I hope that bolstering it with an MHA will make sense of what I’ve been doing, undergirding my experiences with some theoretical basis. Perhaps it will help me do a better job here in Timor-Leste? It’s too early to know.
As I write this section I am travelling again, viewing Dili from the air. And it’s a picture – colourful roofs sprinkled among the verdant green of a landscape washed and revitalised by six months of regular heavy rain. Not visible from this height is the damage wrought by that rain: the destruction of mudslides, the washing away of roads and the flooding of homes. I lay in bed one night in February listening to the rain pounding upon our roof. It was unusually heavy and, unlike the typical pattern of the late afternoon downpour that quickly passes by, it was very much sustained. It was 3am and I told myself that if it didn’t ease off in the next five minutes I would get up. It didn’t, so I did.
Heading outside with a torch and a Dora the Explorer umbrella that wasn’t quite up to the task I found the entire yard in at least 15cm of water. The water was just lapping at the doorstep of our rear apartment. The tarpaulin awkwardly slung over our pool was burdened like an overripe pregnancy, with perhaps 100kg of water in it. One of our electrical cords was running through a pool of water. I worked in the dark to remedy some of these problems and though the rain didn’t abate for another half hour, during which time our power understandably went out, major flooding was averted.
Our HIV care centre at Vera Cruz was not so fortunate. A thick coat of mud inundated the building. How many other homes in low-lying Dili, with its blind-ended city drains that don’t always lead to the sea, must have been flooded that night? Beds are a luxury in Dili: for many people it’s a floor mattress or a bamboo mat, on a concrete or earthen floor. You can imagine how well that fares when the rain comes.
The heavy rains bring sickness too: I see my Timorese colleagues sharing knowing smiles about the inevitable stomach complaints that accompany the overflowing of city drains. The rains give the mosquito populations a sizeable boost too.
Over the summer one of Miriam’s Timorese classmates had suffered a terrible bout of encephalitis and was hospitalised with seizures and coma for many weeks. She was not expected to survive and Miriam was understandably distressed. Against all hope she began to recover and Miriam was the first student from the class to visit her in hospital. It was pitiful to behold her emaciated little body, down to perhaps half its healthy weight, but to see her smile as she recognised Miriam and then on the next visit get out of bed and walk, was truly heart-rending.
In early 2017, our first wet season, our entire family contracted dengue so we’ve had to be careful about mosquitoes. A second bout of dengue can occasionally be much more serious, presenting as either shock (with generalised swelling due to leakage of vascular fluid into the tissues) or haemorrhage (due to falling platelet counts).
During school holidays, after fixing the play-pool and building a chicken coup, we took the family back to Atauro Island and had a much-needed break for a few days. Micah, aged five, went for his first snorkelling venture at ‘the drop off’, where the stunning coral reef plunges sharply into the depths. Levi played with his school mates who were also there, including an unusual game involving a partially submerged fibreglass dinghy and a competition to see who could remain in the boat longest while it was rocked from side-to-side by the inimitable Barry (of Barry’s Place, the Atauro eco-resort).
We took a surreal boat trip to the remote northern-most beach (Akrema), notable for its clean white sand, but we were overtaken by a surprising turn in the weather. After a hair-raising 90-minute voyage in a motorised fishing canoe in decent swell we ended up huddled near the beach trying to find cover from the unexpected heavy winds and drizzle, and roasting marshmallows on a fire.
But then Levi burned his foot on a hot coal and I was stung by a scorpion. I was cursing our decision to leave the idyllic beach at Beloi. It felt like one of those bad nights out when you’ve found a perfectly good nightspot but there’s some restless fool among the group who convinces you all to leave it and line up outside some other seedy overcrowded club that turns out to smell of urine and vomit, with music loud enough to make your ears bleed. That’s probably a little unfair to the picturesque beach at Akrema, but we definitely didn’t see it at its best. It might be the scorpion bite talking, which along with a perforated eardrum was making me more than a little irritable. With the high headwinds and mounting swell we were dreading the voyage back down to Beloi in our rickety canoe. Thankfully the winds dropped away as we prepared to leave and by the time we were back at Barry’s Place we were once again bathed in warm tropical sunshine and my foot no longer hurt: it was as though it had all been some kind of strange dream.
Miriam was having strange dreams of her own, having developed a fever on the first evening on Atauro. She was clearly not herself and upon returning to Dili we were pleased to find the explanation with what appeared to be a positive test for a urinary tract infection. It was not her first, and we were confident that a course of antibiotics would mop it up quickly as usual. However, the fever remained and she developed a rash the following evening. She was tested for dengue and to our dismay it was positive. Her platelet count was down to about half of the lower limit of normal but she was not yet into serious danger. Specialist advice suggested we could wait and repeat the test the following day but we had the insurance company on standby for a medevac to Darwin just the same. Ironically, by this time Levi and I were both in Darwin for other reasons and it was left to Bethany to help Miriam through the daily blood tests. Thankfully the fever abated, her platelet count stabilised and recovered, and the trip to Darwin was rendered unnecessary.
Bethany and I both had our birthdays, either side of Easter. I turned 41, which seems to be a very large number in the minds of our children. Micah drew me a lovely picture for my birthday: I’m a hulking bald blob of a man with a monobrow.
The picture shows him jumping on my enormous shapeless belly. He assured me that the very large protuberance from the left side of my head was a good thing, it is my ‘lucky ear’. If by that he meant that in a couple of weeks’ time that same ear would be so full of fluid that it would burst the drum then he was truly prophetic.
Meanwhile Levi created a Minecraft ‘skin’ for me, though why he had to go to such detail to include ‘lots of sun damage’ and my bald spot (complete with a mole on top) is a little unclear to me. He then proceeded to create me a character in FIFA Street soccer: a 41-year-old grey-haired man weighing 209 pounds, attired in a polo shirt and baggy tracksuit pants (while everyone else in his team was a chiselled athlete in slick sportswear). I guess there’s no hiding from the realities of advancing age. My children see it how it is.
Birthdays aren’t really all that spectacular in Dili, it has to be said. It’s close to impossible to buy a decent birthday present, though Bethany has certainly crafted some fine gifts for me since we’ve been here. The kids know that birthdays are less exciting than homecomings: that time when one of Mum or Dad returns from a trip to Australia. We’ve had several this year for various training courses and conferences and the kids’ excitement about seeing us on return is quickly overshadowed by the question bursting from their lips: “can we open the suitcase?”
The suitcase contains all kinds of wonders. Cheerios. Gingernut biscuits. Packets for making yoghurt. Socks! “Hallelujah praise the Lord! I’ve been waiting for this day!” exclaimed Levi, overcome with delight that he would no longer have to go ransacking the dirty clothes basket each morning looking for socks. New bathers. Colouring in books. Easter eggs. Sometimes a few gifts and toys. It’s like Christmas. The kids are usually a bit disappointed that half of the space is filled with medical donations or laptops but they’re used to that now.
I’ll have to bring home the goods when I return from this visit. I’m on my way to Sydney to speak at the IMPACT Christian Medical & Dental Fellowship conference.
For me it’s like a homecoming: 17 years ago this annual conference connected Bethany and I with a community of Christian doctors and dentists who have become our lifelong friends, and who played no small part in the trajectory our lives have taken since that time. Before coming to Timor we were inspired and mentored by others who had gone before us, having undertaken similar ventures in Africa, Asia, or the Pacific. It’s a privilege to be going back to see old friends and to meet the next group of students and recent graduates embarking on their careers.
This photo above is from last weekend when we had the chance to meet with the leadership of the Medical Association of Timor-Leste. It was a great opportunity to hear their objectives for the next three years in developing a Medical Council, a membership database and a structured program of CME (Continuing Medical Education) to support the 950 doctors scattered across the country. They’ve asked us to help support them in these aims, which is very pleasing because these are exactly the kinds of things we’ve come here to do.
Above is a photo of a colleague of ours training Timorese doctors in ECG and another of Bethany assisting Timorese doctors in learning ultrasound. It’s a really exciting time for us as the opportunities continue to open up: there’s so much to do and we now just need to be wise in how much we attempt all at once. Thankfully we’re not alone, with a great team of internationals (a dozen in Dili, and many more outside of Timor) and 46 Timorese staff that make Maluk Timor what it is.
I have been delaying the publishing of this blog, in part because I had really hoped that I would be in a position to announce at least one of the following:
(i) we have signed our much-awaited MoU with the Timorese government (we haven’t, though there’s possible movement coming up this week); or
(ii) my car with the dismantled engine stuffed in the back of it is finally repaired and back on the road (it isn’t, but I remain hopeful); or
(iii) my TEDx talk is finally posted online (it’s not).
So, with no big finale up my sleeve, I’m just going to have to distract you with a cute photo from the Mothers’ Day morning tea at Annika’s school.