In early December I received an unexpected message from a friend alerting me that I was going to be on Channel Nine News in the subsequent moments, ‘after the ad break’. This timely advice was very much appreciated, not that we have TV at our home in Dili, nor a live feed of Australian news channels. Over the following minutes more messages came in from other well-wishers, friends and family from across a number of different timezones.
This was followed by a familiar feeling of slight queasiness and dysphoria. Knowing that my family had been profiled on national television without having seen the piece myself was disconcerting. Though my anxiety was almost certainly groundless – it was unlikely to be “a shocking exposé of a conniving Australian family exploiting the impoverished people of Timor-Leste, keeping alive a proud Australian tradition dating back to the 1970’s” – it was still an uneasy feeling knowing that so many people had seen what I hadn’t.
I was eventually able to view the news piece myself online – I’m hoping you’ll be able to view it https://web.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fweb.facebook.com%2Fjeremy.beckett.10%2Fvideos%2F543219156459221%2F&show_text=0&width=560“>here.
Unsurprisingly it was utterly benign and the glare of the Timor sun even gave my thinning grey-blonde hair an almost angelic halo. I needn’t have worried. The footage had been filmed months earlier when a news crew (and Prime Minister Scott Morrison) visited for the 20th Anniversary celebrations but we’d heard nothing further as to when it might be aired, if ever. I’d forgotten about it entirely and was initially confused when the alert first arrived. The truth was that my mind had been rather occupied with other matters.
The signing of the historic Maluk Timor MoU with the Ministry of Health along with the simultaneous expansion of a couple of key programs had triggered an avalanche of activity for Bethany and I. Our days were long and filled with meetings and foul scheming of all kinds, and our evenings even longer as we ploughed through administration, budget proposals and project design documents.
We hosted our international Maluk team for a Focus Weekend and farewelled our much-esteemed Chair of the Board, Ross Taylor, celebrating his ten years at the helm of a ship that experienced the full range of maritime calamities: being tossed about in wild storms, being becalmed in the sweaty doldrums of tropical bureaucracy, and even a shipwreck in 2017. He was always a steady hand and we thank him for steering us through to much better waters.
Amongst all this we managed to escape for two nights to the small city of Baucau, Timor-Leste’s second largest metropolitan centre.
Baucau was a verdant oasis even though much of the nation was still awaiting the first rains of the summer. Elevated in the hills, it is much cooler and quieter than the noise and dust of Dili. It’s hard to call it a city at all as one has the sense that there are only a few winding streets converging at a single intersection. The hills and lush tropical foliage ensure that only see a handful of buildings can be seen from any single vantage point. A short walk from the Pousada is the public swimming pool which is being constantly refreshed by a flowing spring – no chlorine required.
Returning from Baucau we plunged back into a final frenzy of labours, such as leading our intrepid gang of international volunteers…
…training and supporting our Timorese colleagues…
…and making Christmas play-dough. I’m not even going to attempt to explain that.
And then it was time to hurry back to Australia for Christmas.
Christmas is both the best and the worst time to return to Australia. Obviously our children love being in Australia for Christmas and it’s a rare and treasured opportunity to see (almost) all their extended family in a single day. But it’s also a time when reverse culture shock can be most pronounced.
If culture shock is what happens to you when you go to live in a radically different culture with four small children in tow, reverse culture shock is what happens when you come home again. You know the experience yourself: when you walk into an excessively air-conditioned room it can feel like a blast of arctic wind at first, yet within minutes your body adjusts and it feels altogether normal. In fact it feels like all is as it should be. And then you step outside of that room again and what had felt a totally comfortable ambient temperature before now feels like a Saharan summer. Reverse culture shock is somehow similar.
When we return to Australia it is exhilarating but also confronting. The extent of our acclimatisation to life in Dili is only truly revealed upon re-entry to Australia.
Our first encounter this time was the QANTAS lounge. We happened to be travelling with eminent dignitaries of far higher standing than our own, and by a quirk of good fortune we found ourselves being invited into the uncharted realm of the Darwin QANTAS lounge for our four-hour connection. Our children were overcome. Micah dove headlong into the fridge of eternal fruit juice. Annika ravaged the fruit-bowl of perpetual harvest. Levi dispatched 14 slices of champagne ham. It was a kind of wonderland that belonged in an Enid Blyton fantasy story. I don’t think any of us were bothered about reverse culture shock at that particular moment.
But the supermarket was quite a different proposition. In Dili it’s essentially a binary matter whether Weetbix can be found at better than A$15/kg, in which case it should be purchased in vast quantities. In Australia we stand overwhelmed in the breakfast cereal aisle wondering just how many different superfoods a breakfast cereal should really contain. Is it safe to have so many? Don’t the quinoa and açai eventually come to blows in their bid for nutritional supremacy?
My complete lack of mastery of how to place my purchased items into the automated check-out bagging area is also a source of much infuriation.
Choosing a wine is equally perplexing. In Timor it is fairly simple: stay away from anything you can’t read the label of, and try not to buy yellow wines. (The white wines don’t perform so well after a few months in ambient temperatures of almost 30 degrees, and often look more like a specimen than a beverage.) In Australia it is altogether more complicated.
At Christmas time it is the sheer volume of everything that is overwhelming. To give a point of comparison, the blurred photo below was taken in the home of our dear friend Estela in the distant town of Same. This is one of the two rooms of a house that accommodates eight family members, and in this photo it boasts the first Christmas tree they have ever erected. They would have far fewer possessions in their entire home than I have in one of my children’s wardrobes.
Then there are the road rules to contend with. It’s not that the rules are difficult to comprehend, no, it’s their very existence that feels unfamiliar: in Timor the highways and byways are as ungoverned as the prairies of the 18th-Century Midwest.
The roads in Western Australia are as smooth as the mirror-like surface of the Dili shallows on a still morning – it’s enough to put a driver to sleep – yet even the smoothest of Australian roads are inexplicably torn up and replaced. Never mind that the road at our front gate in Bebonuk is steadily subsiding into a drain – no one is going to come and fix that.
Then there are birthday cards. It’s simple enough in Dili: they don’t exist, or at least not in a form that any of us recognise. In Australia there are thousands of them to choose from. However, I’ve realised now that they only come in three distinct varieties. There are feminine cards with flowing script and the gratuitous adornment of floral emblems, there are cards without words that bear only pictures of animals wearing anthropomorphic facial expressions, and then there are cards about ageing that feature a fart joke. One store had what seemed like an entire wall of cards about farts. Is it any wonder that people’s far-fetched tales of alien abductions so often feature instances of rectal probing? The aliens are trying to work out what all the birthday cards are on about.
And lastly, there are the changing styles of the day. When I’m on holidays I quite often sport a salt-and-pepper beard that speaks more of homelessness than it does of fashion, but on this particular foray home I found myself to be thoroughly outbearded. Beards are rarely seen in Timor-Leste so I was surprised to find that in Australia there was scarcely a bare male chin to be found, and that the beards were of a terrifyingly impressive nature. Again, extraterrestrials comparing footage of our species from even five years ago would be very concerned about the possibility of either a malignant fungal pandemic or else the rising of a small but superior marsupial that has rather suddenly overthrown the dominion of men by clinging to their faces and domesticating them as beasts of burden.
But even the new overlords of mankind didn’t stop us enjoying our summer in Australia. Our children are developmentally delayed when it comes to riding bikes, with no flat territories upon which to practice, so the footpaths of the Geraldton foreshore were a fine opportunity to broaden the types of injuries they could sustain.
We visited the beach often, sometimes feeding expensive frozen seafood to the local marine life using our fishing rods. On one memorable morning I took all four kids with me and swam out to one of the floating pontoons only to find that a large banded sweep had claimed the ladder as his own territory. We named him Big Toby, and though his unexpected appearance immediately in front of Levi’s face had initially scared the boy half to death, we subsequently delighted in his company. He was strangely unperturbed by the presence of four enthralled children swimming close enough to very easily reach out and touch him. When he eventually became fed up with our capers and began swimming away I managed to swim after him and entreat him to return, promising not to be so intrusive thereafter. He reluctantly conceded and made his way serenely back to the ladder whereupon he resumed reside
Then Annika drew our attention to some newcomers behind us, as a couple of docile sea lions surfaced just a couple of metres away. They stayed and played for a while too – it was altogether idyllic. We enjoyed a number of fine days in the turquoise waters of our coast and I was at pains to remind the children that many people travel for hours to reach a crowded stony beach not half as impressive, and that they should not take such a pleasure for granted.
Thankfully our children are not generally in the habit of taking much for granted. It is the great paradox of their lives in Dili: what they miss out upon are the very same deprivations that makes them richer. They seem to view life through a different lens, highlighted by the travails of a beloved friend of theirs in Dili.
Almost a year ago I wrote of a young girl afflicted by encephalitis – a classmate of my daughter Miriam. It’s hard to describe how unwell she was: weeks of uncontrolled and relentless seizures (status epilepticus) that didn’t respond to therapy, and a subsequent coma. Remarkably she began to slowly wake but when we were visiting her in hospital it appeared that her prospects of any significant neurological recovery were close to zero. Several Australian paediatricians had reviewed her in hospital and agreed that her outlook was extremely poor. She was down to less than 14kg, a tragic and emaciated skeleton of a girl, and her only responses to our company were noted to be shrieking and drooling. Our kids prayed so earnestly for her that it almost broke our hearts, as we felt that what they were asking of God was simply too much to hope for. But on a subsequent visit she offered a faint smile of recognition when Miriam sung her a song that she recognised from school. At the next visit they had her up and out of bed, bearing some weight unsteadily on her misshapen legs of skin and bone. Then she walked. Then she was discharged from hospital to her family’s care. Sometime after that she returned to school.
The next time I can recall seeing her was the morning of the school family concert in December. She greeted me in the schoolyard with a warm smile that day, and though I returned the smile I couldn’t initially recall who she was. A moment after I had walked past it dawned on me who she was and I found it suddenly difficult to breathe. The same evening I watched her perform on stage with her classmates – she sang and danced with such spunk and timing that her complete recovery was fully on display. How could this be? As I remembered the face of her mother, smiling bravely at her daughter’s bedside for months… and remembered the family’s decision to re-enrol their severely impaired daughter into the same expensive international school in-spite of it costing the family’s entire earnings… to realise that they had never given up on her… and then to see that hope realised… people must have wondered why tears were streaming down my face at the school concert.
My kids have been part of her journey for this past year. They know how good they’ve got it and they don’t take it for granted.
A new year sprawls out before us and we approach it with a determination to hold some balance in our lives. Maluk Timor continues to grow and the future is bright, but it won’t do anyone any good for us to work ourselves into the ground. The challenge in front of us is to share the load more effectively by strengthening the team around us and ensuring that Maluk Timor well and truly outlives us.
It means a lot to us that people like you still follow our journey and read this blog, especially given the saturation of social media that all of us face. We hope that somewhere in these tales you find reasons for smiles, grimaces, misty eyes or perhaps even reflections on the beauty, comedy and tragedy of life – not just in Timor-Leste but everywhere on this earth.
Happy New Year.