I can recall moments in my past when, caught in a mood of whimsical distraction, I’ve wondered whether I could tell dawn from dusk purely by observation. I assume the mathematics of the solar movement and light must be close to identical, so how is it that we feel we somehow know the twilight of morning to be so different from that of the evening?
Back in Australia there are many telltale signs that betray the answer. The stillness of the crisp morning air with its blanket of glistening dew is quite unmistakable. Yet in the tropics the differences can be far less pronounced: there is no dew at this time of year and certainly no chill of morning. The evening can be just as still as the dawn.
It is a disorientation of this nature that accompanies me now. In these strange days it feels like time is measured primarily by the progression of the COVID-19 pandemic and the many restrictions that stalk in its shadow. In Timor-Leste we have thus far been spared: just 24 confirmed cases, and none for several months. From March to June we skittered furiously like flies in a bottle, yet now there is relative calm and our fatigue has caught up with us. It feels like the release at the end of a pressured day. Surely it is dusk.
Yet we brace ourselves for worse: with hundreds now entering from Indonesia, where the virus has a solid foothold, it feels inevitable that the real trouble lies yet ahead of us. Perhaps this stillness we’re experiencing is actually the quiet of dawn.
Returning to an earlier unfinished story, you may recall my car accident of April: A motorcyclist and his female passenger flew headlong over my bonnet and landed dreadfully on the road in front of me. The young man clearly fractured his femur (thigh bone) but I was most concerned about the young woman who at first appeared to have suffered a critical head injury.
It took some weeks for this whole matter to be resolved. A visit to the family of the injured parties was arranged to settle the matter of reparations. It was a typically Timorese affair and I felt very much out of my depth. Several of my colleagues agreed to attend the house with me, and I felt every bit as useless as a colonist being led to meet the village chieftain.
Street addresses aren’t yet a functional concept in Dili, so we arranged a rendezvous on a main road in town, and trailed a silver hatchback to a distant part of town that I’d never visited. We pulled the car into their driveway which served several modestly prosperous homes. A young woman was jigging an infant in her arms, watching us arrive with a curious scowl. Was she a family member? Did she know who I was? That I was the one?
Stepping hesitantly forward with my two colleagues we were greeted warmly by several muscular men in their thirties and forties. I didn’t recognise anyone yet from the accident. Pulling plastic chairs around a low table set at the front of the house, they gestured for us to sit and barked orders to someone in the house to hurry out with refreshments.
We sat in a loose circle. The plastic chair was heavily reclined and I was unsure of the most fitting posture for this occasion. To sit forward might look overly anxious, but to recline right back would be disrespectful. Forwards it was. I was trying my best to look friendly yet solemn, sympathetic yet not necessarily ashamed or guilty. After all, by my reckoning the fault of the accident lay far more with the distracted speeding motorcyclist, but I assumed they weren’t going to see it that way. I can only imagine that in trying to exhibit all of those conflicting feelings simultaneously my face probably came off looking just pained and twisted, like a man who has inadvertently sat on a very wet chair and is torn between the discomfort of wallowing in it and the humiliation of standing up with a thoroughly soaked posterior.
Thankfully my Timorese friends did most of the talking. First it was the salutations and introductions, followed by the all-important fishing for mutual relatives or contacts. This hunt never takes long in Timor-Leste: there were three or four close connections or mutual acquaintances rapidly identified, and soon there was slightly-exaggerated laughter and the exchange of smirks and anecdotes. This is standard business practice in Timor: first find out who you’re dealing with, and who they’re connected to.
I asked about the wellbeing of the two riders – a mystery that had bothered me for weeks. Not long after the accident I had heard that the young woman ‘was fine’, but I found that very hard to believe. To my great reassurance they insisted that she had not suffered any lasting effects, and she featured no further in the conversation. The focus was on the young man with the broken femur. The X-rays were displayed for me to view and I served up my finest salad of furrowed brow, nods of concern and knowing looks.
Our hosts regaled us with an anthology of stories detailing their previous motorcycle mishaps. They shared one tale of a family member who, after an accident, had insisted that the other party purchase him a brand new motorbike. That motorbike was then involved in another crash several days later and the family judged this to mean that the young man had been greedy and brought the bad luck upon himself. The stories went on and I was forced to utterly discard any thought of applying a no-claim bonus to this family of recurrent motor-vehicle victimhood.
I was waiting for the crucial negotiation on payment: how much was I going to have to pay? Evidently such a sensitive topic is very difficult to raise, and neither party was prepared to break the deadlock. I had long finished my drink and sun was getting low. We adjourned into the house to meet the young man, who sat miserably on a mattress on the floor, legs outstretched in front of him. The operation appeared to have gone well, but it would still be sometime before he was back up and walking again. Again, I mustered my best looks of sympathy and concern, trying not to appear pathetic.
Eventually we were able to leave but still without clarity on reparations. The mood had been warm throughout but the sting was in the tail: their eventual demand, received later that evening, was far higher than any of our party had expected. I was advised to pay it nonetheless, and I relented. Another meeting followed at the police station the following day, a hefty wad of cash exchanged hands and the matter was settled.
However frustrating it was to have carried the fault for something that was (at worst) a shared responsibility I reminded myself very often throughout the experience that I could have been visiting a cemetery with the family rather than merely a grumpy lad on a mattress. That thought was enough to soften any bruising sense of loss.
If you spend time wallowing in self-pity here you’ve either been here far too long or you’re simply blind to your surroundings. There’s not a Timorese family spared from the ravages of history, poverty, violence or illness. Though the number of COVID-19 cases here has remained low the impact of the State of Emergency – the loss of livelihoods and the interruption of essential services – has been predictably acute.
That’s to say nothing of the fear of the unknown. Mythological beliefs about the virus abound, in spite of our best efforts through training and social media. Increasingly people seem to believe that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is either a hoax, or that it doesn’t affect Timorese people: they’re impervious. I hope that’s true – it remains an untested hypothesis. If this is only the dawn then we’ll surely find out.
It has proven challenging to maintain momentum in our COVID-19 projects as the pressing sense of urgency from March and April has clearly dissipated. The upside of this lull is that it has allowed us to resume a lot of our regular program work: our TB team launched a new project on multidrug-resistant TB this week, the Family Medicine Program has resumed, and most of our staff are back on regular duties.
Meanwhile I’ve been undertaking a series of interviews with senior health figures to help determine our Maluk Timor strategy for the coming years. I’ve been fortunate enough to sit with a former Prime Minister, as well as almost every Health Minister that Timor-Leste has ever had. It’s been like the realisation of a dream to meet one on one with some of the best minds in the country, to hear of their hopes and fears for the future of health, and to explore with each of them the role that Maluk Timor may have to play in that future.
It all feels unfamiliar. I remember very clearly, not so long ago, sitting in the main hall at the National Institute of Health feeling bitterly frustrated, watching all the people that mattered laughing and backslapping while Maluk Timor remained relatively shunned. It could take us many months to find our way into a single meeting with even one of those people. We were doing everything we knew how to but someone it wasn’t enough. Well, those days are long gone.
Now our kids are taking joyrides in Sr José Ramos Horta’s Mini Moke.
Or checking out his collection of vintage motors.
Or we’re being profiled by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (DFAT) on their Facebook page. But if one ever gets a little too big for one’s boots there is always homeschooling to deliver a crushing fall back to earth.
COVID-19 has spawned innumerable tales of homeschooling troubles and has doubtless elevated the status of teachers more spectacularly than any event in human history. Our stories will be familiar to many: travails of technology failures, realisations of how much schooling has moved on in the last thirty years, and epiphanies about our own children that might have otherwise gone undiscovered for years to come. It wasn’t all bad, but the need to push so much of our own work into the evenings took a heavy toll, particularly on Bethany who carried more than her share of the homeschooling load. Daddy’s Homeschool involved a greater-than-usual inclusion of Nerf Gun-related activities in the curriculum.
Perhaps what differentiates dawn from dusk is more experiential. My foggy-headed stupor of an early morning feels very little like the bone-weary fatigue of the late afternoon. By the end of the June it was that fatigue that was upon us. After months of sustained and relentless tempo – at work and at home – we collapsed into school holidays and took some dedicated time off. Well, almost: the laptops and smartphones went with us and we didn’t quite disconnect, but it was definitely a release.
First it was our usual haven of Atauro Island with a few other families whose children were also socially-starved and ready to explode. The ferry trip over was somewhat confronting: it felt more like a refugee boat as social distancing gave way to a crowded deck of seasick voyagers, many of whom paraded their semi-digested breakfasts in spectacular displays of iridescent colour.
“Do we have to go on the Vomit Boat again, Dad?”
But once we were there, we basked in the ocean breeze, took afternoon naps, and snorkelled offshore… we even had time to complete a 997-piece jigsaw puzzle.
It’s funny how much those last three pieces can mean to you when you don’t have them.
We were treated to our own episode of Blue Planet as a huge school of juvenile dolphins cruised right in front of our snorkelling boat.
A few days later we ventured to the farthest eastern tip of Timor-Leste, the legendary Jaco Island. Staying with friends in Lautem, we undertook the customary day-trip to Jaco. After almost two hours on the road, our journey was interrupted:
It had happened only minutes earlier, and thankfully no one was injured. But the gathering crowd were excited to see our Prado arrive with the winch readily visible. I’d never used the winch before but I couldn’t let my hesitancy deny the expectations of the onlookers. Bethany seemed to have some idea of what was involved, so we gave it a shot.
Feeling cheerful after our success we soon arrived at the beach and took the short boat-trip across the strait to the uninhabited sanctuary that is Jaco Island. Having heard so much about it since our arrival in Timor four years ago I was wary of being disappointed… but it was everything they said it was.
Lautem, Timor’s eastern-most municipality, was a surprising change from Dili and well worth the many hours of winding roads.
Near Parlamentu we swam in the crystal clear waters of a natural spring, and we enjoyed some peaceful days away from the pressures of Dili. But the break was short-lived (and much interrupted by intrusions from work), and we were soon back at our posts at Maluk Timor with our team.
Whilst we’ve continued to build our excellent crew of local staff – now almost 70 in number – we’ve continued to draw heavily on the generosity of international volunteers.
Through the frantic months gone by we had retained most of that team, but their other life commitments were now drawing them away and with little opportunity to recruit new people our team of mentors was shrinking.
We recently farewelled our dear friends Drs Dianne and Lindsay who served so faithfully with us for two years.
Today we farewelled two more of our brightest and best, Drs Chris and Rosie:
And there are others who have either just left or very soon will. Dawn or dusk? It certainly feels like nightfall in this respect with so many of our trusted colleagues moving on.
But perhaps we should view this as a dawn instead. We’re definitely experiencing a new beginning in Maluk Timor, with so many excellent and capable new Timorese staff joining our ranks in recent months. We’re less reliant on internationals than ever we were.
We’ve got new projects launching all around us: just this week we launched our smartphone app called Haroman. The word (ha-ROH-man) means to bring light or enlighten, and we’ve chosen to use it instead of ASTEROID. I was proud of the ASTEROID acronym but it is a word that means nothing in Timor, and most inconveniently it appears to have no direct translation. The new Minister of Health just shook her head ruefully, “Such a strange name…”. We had to run a competition to muster up a new name, and with Tetun having such a limited vocabulary it’s rather more difficult than you might imagine. The word for ‘light bulb’ also means ‘pustule’ (pimple), which makes perfect sense when you think about it, so you have to be careful what you choose.
Haroman was the winner, and we were delighted to kick things off with a rocking ceremony on Monday featuring the Australian Ambassador (ASTEROID is funded by the Australian Government, and the app developed by Catalpa International), senior figures from the Ministry of Health, and local band The Kraken.
And we ended up on TV again…
This app is part of our three-year infectious diseases training project (ASTEROID) that will deliver core training to all 13 municipalities, helping to identify and resist infectious threats. The international situation on COVID-19 only underscores the importance of this work, so ASTEROID is getting all the support it needs.
Without our usual winter trip back to Australia this year is already beginning to feel like an endurance event, but we mustn’t be overcome. There are new beginnings all around us and, though we’re sad to see some of our best people leaving us, we have many more coming in to join us soon. There will be renewal, and the trajectory is most definitely sharply upward.
A few months ago Bethany had a significant birthday and we had what seemed a fairly typical afternoon tea at work. But actually there was nothing typical about it. I was really moved to read the emotion on the faces of our staff who sung with such affection to celebrate the occasion. Sometimes you suffer niggling doubts in your mind, as directors, as to the allegiance of your staff. Any such doubts were dispelled that afternoon and it was a great encouragement to us that what we’re doing here does seem to matter – to our staff if no one else.