We were attacked tonight! It’s late on New Years’ Day as I write this. I’ve driven home this evening with Bethany and the kids in the car and have been pelted by large rocks from unseen assailants in the roadside bushes, causing some significant damage to the car. Disenfranchised youth in Dili are often known to hurl rocks at passing cars under cover of darkness. There isn’t a lot of other entertainment to be had. There are certain roads best avoided at night.
However, on this occasion it was the youth of a far more dangerous place – Geraldton – who have had their fun at our expense. I am thankful that we spend most of the year in the relative safety of Timor-Leste.
We arrived back in Australia just before Christmas, after some airport difficulties.
Have you ever missed an international flight? Probably… many of us have. We missed a flight out of Heathrow in the winter of 2014 with three very sick kids and 150kg of luggage despite having made it to Check-In with what seemed like plenty of time. That’s a story all of its own, ending with us arriving into the wrong Swiss city in the middle of the night without our luggage. Actually I was somewhat relieved when it didn’t arrive – I could carry it no further anyway.
I was having flashbacks of that memorable evening as we were trying to fly out of Dili before Christmas. Again we had arrived at Check-In with plenty of time, many kids and much luggage. I was expecting trouble with Passport Control as I had knowingly overstayed my visa by three days and would surely be taken aside to pay a fine. What I hadn’t predicted was that we would be denied Boarding Passes because my two sons both had passports with only five months of remaining validity. I protested of course – we were flying to Australia, why did we need six months validity to go home? Ahhhh… because we were flying through Bali and, due to the quirks of the Denpasar Airport, would be forced to go through Passport Control before checking in again for our flight to Perth. Indonesia would deny us entry and we would be stuck. I explained that we were only in Bali for three hours and showed them the itinerary to prove it.
Hmmmm… the previously impassive airline attendant now looked perplexed. She decided to phone Denpasar Airport for clarification, so told us to wait. And wait we did, as every other passenger passed us by and proceeded to the departure lounge. Still we waited. I anxiously searched for alternative flights on my phone. Yes, potentially I could stay back with my two offending sons, aged nine and five, and send Bethany ahead with the girls. Those of us remaining in Dili could take a later flight through Darwin but there were none available for two more days and we would be facing additional costs of $3,000-4,000 all told. Bethany and I, parked with our luggage and four bewildered children next to Check In, formulated strategies about which suitcases would go and which would stay. Every few minutes I checked in with our impassive airline attendant, who shrugged and asked us to keep waiting.
An hour passed. Check In was closing. There were no more passengers, only us. It was now likely that our entire party would miss the flight and that those costs would rise higher still. Just as it seemed all was lost the impassive airline attendant broke into an enthusiastic smile and said we had been approved. We loaded the luggage on to the conveyor and waited for our Boarding Passes. The remaining airline staff looked delighted to see our relief and we weren’t surprised when they began taking photos of us. We’re quite accustomed to this, being something of a novelty here.
I sent the other five through Passport Control and, with my heart in my mouth, placed my own passport on the counter. The clerk spent what felt like ten minutes flicking through the many pages, decorated with years of Timorese visas and stamps, trying to confirm his suspicions that I had indeed overstayed. Nonchalantly he reached his eventual verdict and directed me away with another attendant. I was led through the airport to a remote office and asked to wait. I had expected this. What I hadn’t expected was that I would already be so late, and that from my particular vantage point at the office entrance I would be able to view my wife and four young children walking out on to the tarmac and boarding the plane without me. They had been hurried through by the stewards.
For several minutes it wasn’t clear what I was meant to do. The attendant had disappeared down a corridor with my passport and I had been left standing unattended in a doorway. I paced about, looking this way and that for any clue as to whether I would be processed in time. I couldn’t see anyone, nor any activity. Actually from there I could have run on to the tarmac and climbed on to the plane, but it would have been madness without my passport. The minutes passed and I widened my search, wandering into a few different corridors and offices desperately hoping to see someone – anyone – who might be processing my passport. Finally, through a heavily tinted window I caught a glimpse of an older man with a painfully slow hand scratching out details on to a carbon copy sheet. It was the receipt for my fine. Moments later he was done, and I took the receipt as briskly as I could without succumbing to the almost irresistible desire to snatch it out of his tremulous hand. Turning to run back through the airport I found the clerk at Passport Control and he quickIy stamped my passport. Beyond that I could see everything was now closed. The X-Ray machine in security had been turned off. I thought I could sneak through but a security guard with his back turned swung his head around and noticed me, and insisted on restarting the machine to scan my shoulder bag. Precious moments lost. Departure lounge was also empty, so I ran straight through it and out on to the tarmac.
The front door of the plane was already closed. The rear door was ajar, and Bethany was standing in the doorway with a broad smile on her face and a phone in her hand, recording the moment for posterity.
It was upon arrival in Denpasar that the photos taken earlier made sense. The staff in Dili had sent photos of our family ahead to Denpasar where we were intercepted by airport staff and whisked straight through transit to avoid Passport Control altogether. Sweet relief.
Running across an empty tarmac in a sweaty fury is not really suitable behaviour for a man of my standing. After all, I am a dignified gentleman in Dili. Not only am I one of the tallest men in the country, at almost six feet, but I have a very smart oiled leather shoulder-bag and distinctly silver hair to prove my exceeding wisdom.
My staff at Maluk Timor treat me with great deference: they insist that I speak first at formal events, that I eat first at meals, and they never allow me to carry anything heavy. They don’t like me riding a moped because it is unbecoming. Even sweating is beneath me.
However, even the most respectable gentlemen are prone to mishaps. The cheap doorhandles in our office have caused their share of problems and just recently I spent an uneasy twenty minutes locked in the toilet at Maluk Timor. The staff were mortified at the indignity of it all and gathered around the door to try, one after the other, to open the door where others had failed. It was one of those great comedic moments, as I waited with a smirk on my face, sensing the extent to which they were all horrendously embarrassed on my behalf. The urgency in their efforts was quite palpable, and it ended with the complete destruction of the offending doorhandle (a fitting punishment for such impudence). As I eventually emerged it was smiles all round, though I can only imagine that my reputation has taken something of a trashing after such an event. I don’t walk quite as tall as I once did.
We celebrated our 18th Wedding Anniversary at the Hotel Ramelau. Some couples get matching tattoos, but we preferred to mark the occasion on our son’s forehead. He swam into the submerged pool ledge you can see in that photo.
The contrasts in Timor between the haves (who are very few) and the have-nots remain as confronting as ever they were. Sometimes I have to really stop and deliberately notice what I see all around me. As I drive each day along my street, from our relatively affluent home toward the premier shopping precinct in the country, I am struck that those contrasts are very much on view.
This is a photo I took from my car window while driving along our street. This is the intersection nearest our home where microlets (minibuses) very often stop to collect passengers before turning the corner. It’s a narrow, busy four-way crossroad that has been undergoing drainage works for the last two years: note the concrete drain at the bottom right.
It’s hard to tell from this photo but that large puddle you can see is more like a pit. I’ve walked past and peered into the murky water enough times to know that it is at least fifty centimetres deep. It’s been like that for approximately 18 months since it was dug up for the drainage work. The drains are being dug either side of our street, running toward the ocean, but this particular section remains a drain to nowhere, and the water that accumulates from farther up the road stops and make its home right here.
Timor-Leste is a tropical country with distinct wet and dry seasons. The dry season runs for six or seven months through the middle of the year. During this time a pool of water like this will stay stagnant, as a general hazard and breeding ground for mosquitos. During the wet season it frequently overflows, capturing the drainage from the street which includes whatever trash and detritus is gathered by the running water from a city with serious litter and sanitation problems. You can see that it wouldn’t take a lot for the rising water to create additional problems, and this photo was taken before the tropical rains arrived.
This particular corner is actually a shopfront. It sells fresh vegetables and a range of other foodstuffs. On a busy corner like this I expect it did a decent trade until someone dug a moat in front of it. Moats are not typically good for business. If you look closely you can see tubs of legumes and chilis on a table behind the moat – how exactly are the customers expected to access these? Who knows what effect this has had on the livelihood of this family, who may very well be squatters anyway.
Look at the green vegetables on display. These are sold for 25c a bunch. They are delivered several times a day by growers and the vendors splash them with water every few minutes to keep them moist and fresh. Water from where…? Clean drinking water is expensive, so it’s unlikely to be that. Very likely the water comes from somewhere very nearby, where it is pooled and easy to scoop up. You join the dots. It was unsurprising when in 2017 almost all of our Maluk Timor staff contracted cyclospora from eating salad greens such as these. At least I lost four kilos.
It’s easy to joke because I’ve got four kilos to lose. The children – and most of their mothers – most certainly don’t, and diarrhoea is still a major cause of preventable death in Timor-Leste.
Speaking of children, look again at the photo. Where do the little children play? A single roomed house squeezed in against a busy road has no yard to speak of, and this is the common predicament of many who live in Dili. The children spend much of their playtime in the roadside gutters. Timorese children typically can’t swim, especially these very little ones. Fifty centimetres of sludgy water is more than enough should one of them slip and fall, particularly in the darkness of night when they are still very often at play and the noise of the passing traffic obscures any sounds that might alert the family. Who knows how many Timorese children drown each year? No one does, but we know of at least two who died in our neighbourhood last year.
And then there is the man on his motorbike. Aside from being a hazard to the kids nearby, he is in danger himself. Not now, in the daylight, but at night when these streets are in darkness. Many motorcyclists ride without headlamps, even with their unhelmeted family aboard the bike, because they believe it saves fuel. At a busy crossroads like this a simple misjudgement in trying to avoid a pothole or stray dog could send a motorbike plunging off the road and into this water, potentially striking the partially submerged concrete drain in the process. The injuries being tended by Bethany in the first photo were those of a friend, sustained during a motorbike accident at night – he hit a stray dog. Thankfully he didn’t end up in this drain.
The point of all this is that life can be very marginal here for your average Timorese. A simple shopfront on a busy corner is not an exceptional example – I single it out because it is utterly unexceptional, so unexceptional that I almost don’t notice it myself in spite of driving past it each day. This is normal life here, where the poor are waging a constant battle against the uncertainty of low income, disease, injury and exposure to the elements.
We can respond with feelings of pity but that doesn’t get anyone anywhere. Bethany and I are still learning, but the only way we know how to help is to roll up our sleeves and get in alongside our Timorese healthcare colleagues and work with them, shoulder-to-shoulder. The responsibility is theirs and the solutions will need to be theirs too, but we can offer ourselves in support along the way. We’ve got another year of Maluk Timor beginning, and let’s hope we can help Timor-Leste provide the quality healthcare that her people so sorely need. Happy New Year!
Our Family Medicine trainees have graduated at last. Now they’ve been sent back to their district health centres to put their knowledge and experience to use.