I wrote my previous post – An inglorious ending – late in the evening on the eve of Easter Sunday, utterly oblivious to what was about to unfold. The rain that had persisted for several days and throughout my writing then intensified through the night. Around 4am, after perhaps an hour of lying awake under the thundering of the torrential downpour on our corrugated roof, I finally conceded that my pursuit of a peaceful repose was doomed, and so I got up to inspect the damage.
I’m no stranger to late night wanderings in our yard by torchlight. The two previous evenings I had donned my bathers and headed out to rescue our five rabbit kits, who lacked the good sense to ascend a ramp into their dry and secure upper level and instead preferred to huddle miserably under said ramp and take their chances in the rising floodwaters. On this the third night I was at least ahead of that problem – the bunnies were already safely tucked inside the house.
Heading out into the rain again, I quickly found that this time things were quite different. The low-lying parts of the yard often filled with water to ankle-height, but never the knee. Our rear apartments, accommodating our dear Timorese friends, were already inundated. They were all awake and watching haplessly as the water swamped their belongings.
Levi joined me and, taking cans of tinned food from our kitchen for stilts, we fruitlessly tried to elevate the wardrobes, but the chipboard was already so swollen and soft that the footings simply gave way.
We worked to clear gutters, to open drainage channels and to sandbag the doorways but it was all too late. Unsurprisingly the power went out – probably for the best – and we were left standing powerlessly in the torchlight, hoping the deluge would abate. As dawn approached the rain began to ease, but not before more than 300mm had fallen upon the city.
Daylight confirmed that own home had been spared, with only minor leaks through the ceiling. Photos came in from Maluk Timor’s office which showed that our building there remained largely unaffected, though surrounded by a newly formed lake. That was when the survivor-guilt began to mount. We already surmised that if our apartments, which had shown themselves to be flood-resistant for five years, had been inundated then many thousands of other homes in Dili would surely be worse off. Then the photos began to trickle in through social media…
It was shocking to see. Photos of friends and colleagues, of favourite places, and of partners we work with… all of it was confirming what we suspected. Almost all essential services were affected: the national hospital, the national laboratory, the national warehouse of medicines and medical consumables, the precious stores of COVID-19 supplies and PPE; it felt like a devastating blow on top of the rapid upswing of new COVID-19 cases we’d been seeing.
The ensuing days were very difficult, and we felt powerless to help. Our unfortunate successors in Maluk Timor, appointed to their roles only days earlier, were thrust into the spotlight and they responded admirably. They coordinated a command centre of emergency response, aiding our many staff whose homes had been badly damaged, and then throwing our resources into the relief effort. 43 people had lost their lives, and tens of thousands were displaced from their homes. In a country the size of Timor-Leste that meant that almost everyone had someone close to them who had been devastated.
The swell of support from Australia was inspiring and humbling as donors came forward with their eagerness to respond. With that help we were able to provide emergency supplies, support the clean-up of inundated sites (including our HIV Care Centre which had suffered its third major flood in as many years), and to support the nearby evacuation centres where thousands of displaced people were huddled.
Our own children pitched in, giving generously of their own clothes and toys to families that had lost everything.
We wondered what kind of impact such an event would have on our children. We were spared – our power was back on within two days and we lost almost nothing of consequence – yet the tale of destruction in Dili around us was extraordinarily confronting. It was an Easter Sunday they’ll never forget.
Strangely, the flood washed away all the COVID-19. Well, not really, but it seemed like it for a time. In reality COVID-19 was still marching steadily onward and was most likely further propelled by the destruction of property and the crowding of people into the relatively few dwellings in the city that were unaffected. An apparent ceasefire was negotiated with the feared virus, so the government was able to temporarily relax lockdown measures to allow people to get busy restoring and rebuilding the city. Perhaps as humans we only have the capacity to face one emergency at a time and the flood had clearly trumped any danger that a COVID-19 pandemic threatened to offer. Shops and restaurants reopened, crowds regathered, and masks were cast aside.
The Timorese people are incredibly resilient to such disasters. They are so accustomed to surviving with almost nothing, so willingly interdependent on their families and communities in times of crisis, and so quick to patch things back together so that life can continue. Within days Dili looked much like it used to, though obviously the unseen people who had lost their homes were not easily seen. And, a rapid and tenacious response by communities did not mean that old wounds of past traumas were not being painfully reopened.
As for us, we had little choice but to push on. Bethany’s work with the Family Medicine Program took a momentary hiatus with many of the doctors having to clean up the inflows of mud from their own homes. The newly-instituted online teaching continued about as well as such an imperfect combination of half-lockdown, positive COVID-19 cases among medical staff, disastrous floods and typically dreadful Timorese internet could possibly allow. With the weeks running down we were anxious to get the final examinations completed before leaving, and sure enough this was achieved in the first week of May. A tumultuous 18 months of training came to a conclusion. Twice interrupted by COVID-19 lockdowns, reprogrammed after our flagship training site was commandeered as the national COVID-19 treatment centre, reprogrammed again to an online model after lockdowns tightened (and every other university course was suspended), and then finally harried by floods and pestilence… it was miraculous that we got there at all.
Bethany made it to the finish line and then turned her remaining energy to packing up five years of our life. Unfortunately I was still out on the track: the pilot of our five-day infectious diseases training package had been repeatedly delayed and was only just allowed to commence in what was supposed to be our last full week in the country.
The pack up then was in full swing. We had to jettison our many beloved pets (and one or two not-so-beloved ones), a couple of cars, a house full of furniture, and five years of the kids’ accumulated artwork and school projects. We painstakingly photographed hundreds of pieces for posterity.
It was a difficult time to be saying farewell to friends: the COVID-19 ceasefire was broken and lockdown was back, tighter than ever. We did what we could to create opportunities for the kids to say goodbye, ever mindful of the risks. With 12% of the Dili population testing positive, we knew that any one of us could light up as a COVID-19 case on our preflight PCR swab and lay waste to our plans for a return to Australia.
The kids knew it was important to keep a low profile, so they took their own precautions:
Actually our kids were very courageous and generous throughout. They had decisions to make about what to keep, and gave most of their toys, books and clothes away with the oft-heard refrain, “I think they need it more than I do.”
And so the final three days were upon us. Bethany beavered away tirelessly at the house, while I spent a morning in a bank queue trying to pay for our COVID tests. Then the farewells really went up a notch.
The first one caught me by surprise. On the final day of our ASTEROID pilot, which I missed almost entirely due to the difficulties at the bank, I hurried back for the closing ceremony only to be ambushed by an hour of speeches, videos and singing to thank Bethany and I for our work. I shifted uncomfortably in my chair as the praise was lavished upon us. I had hoped to slip away without too much of this sort of thing.
I think it’s difficult to endure such veneration when I feel that we really just played our part like any other. As the leader you end up being singled out as though all the good work was somehow your own, but you know full well that there were countless others who worked just as faithfully behind the scenes. I find it difficult to be gracious and accept such acclaim when I feel like we have been as much the beneficiaries from this experience as anyone else. However, in this culture it would be disrespectful to refuse it. Thankfully my mask largely concealed what must have been a pained grimace.
The farewells and adulation continued the following day. Sr José Ramos Horta was effusive in his thanks to us, bestowing a beautiful gift of a model Timorese outrigger upon us. He has particularly treasured our children whom we doubt can truly comprehend in whose company they sit.
At Maluk Timor the farewell was a little more subdued, with limits on the number of participants being rightly enforced. Nonetheless, we were humbled to share in the moment with people who have become like family to us. Some of the staff have shared this journey with us from our beginning at Bairo Pite Clinic, following us to Maluk Timor. They were particularly stirred by the occasion and honoured us with a truly unique and personalised gift…
We accrued an enormous collection of final photos with our Maluk Timor colleagues, and almost as many gifts of tais and other traditional Timorese artefacts and handicrafts.
The melange of emotions I’ve felt throughout the experience of saying goodbye has given me cause for reflection. My first surprise was that I didn’t feel sad. I usually find myself in tears at the emotional denouement of even a B-grade animated children’s movie, so it’s not as though tears don’t come easily to me. To my surprise there were no tears from me as I farewelled our people at Maluk Timor (though I would have to confess to a few sniffles watching the kids farewell their school friends).
I explained this to our young team, who have often joked that Bethany and I have been Mum and Dad to them all. They’re not wrong: leading Maluk Timor has been like watching a child grow from the humblest of beginnings, gaining skills, balance and confidence over time. Walking, talking, running, playing… even behaving badly… we’ve been there to nurture the organisation along the way, and like every parent we’ve lost our temper and we’ve made our share of mistakes. But Maluk Timor now feels fully grown: admittedly still more a pimply adolescent than a mature adult, but nonetheless ready to stand and face the world. I feel pride and satisfaction rather than sadness or loss in having watched that happen, and knowing that they really don’t need Mum and Dad in the same way anymore.
Another reflection of mine was that some of the smallest farewells meant the most. It was nice to be acknowledged in front of a crowd but the most meaningful farewell I shared was with our much-loved Director of Health Services in Dili, Señora Agostinha. Our shared history over five years is hard to describe, but she was the one who took a risk on us and vouched for Maluk Timor when no one else even knew our name, and when Ministry of Health doors seemed otherwise closed to us. We have supported her work in kind, doing whatever we could to work collaboratively to respond to the many crises we’ve shared along the way. She remains a a tireless warrior for the health of the people of Dili and I respect her as much as anyone else I’ve ever worked with.
I surprised her with a gift on the day before our flight, and she was clearly apologetic to have nothing to give me in return. We stood alone in her office, and she clasped my hands and spoke to me in Tetun with tears in her eyes, pouring out her gratitude and affection. She spoke of the name we chose, Maluk Timor, which is filled with significance for the Timorese people. It speaks of trusted kin and family, and on this day she made it very clear that she counted me as exactly that. It meant so much: there was no audience, no grand presentation, just the sincere appreciation of a trusted and respected colleague who has given as much of herself to the cause as anyone could. I will never forget it.
It’s interesting to think upon what people actually say when they thank you at such a time as this. The words of acclaim are often repetitive and predictable, but there are surprises that really make you think. What is not surprising is that no one thanks you for winning a grant nor writing a stellar annual report, as those are not the things that really matter. They thanked us for something else.
They thanked us for staying. Staying when our dreams at Bairo Pite Clinic collapsed under us and it looked as though all was lost. Staying when COVID-19 threatened in March 2020 and so many others were repatriated to their countries of origin. Staying to help kickstart INS into action to deliver COVID-19 training across the country, even though we did not deliver that training ourselves. I sometimes look back and wonder what my personal achievements in Timor-Leste amount to, but somehow just our persisting and unrelenting presence seems to have provided a little patch of dry ground upon which others could stand when the sea was heaving around them. Perhaps that’s been our greatest contribution: Bethany and I are both pretty steady and consistent, and it might just be that we provided a centre of gravity around which other brighter stars could orbit.
They also thanked us for being willing to trust. This was a surprise. Some months ago I was asked as part of a team-building game to come up with a proverb to capture my experiences in Timor. I went with “Before you ascend the throne, always make sure your paperwork is in order,” a thinly-veiled double entendre about some of my more unfortunate toileting experiences over the past five years, paired with my frustrations with being hobbled by bureaucracy in our pursuit of greatness. But it seems we’ve become known for the reverse: being prepared to take a risk on someone without knowing how the situation will play out in the end. It’s not something we’ve often reflected upon, though Bethany is frequently noted for seeing the potential in people long before such potential has been realised.
It’s been painful to live this way at times, as the path is littered with disappointments. Not everyone you invest your faith in lives up to the hopes you share together. But I suppose Bethany and I live with a willingness to risk being disappointed, and for some people that has made all the difference. Even some of our most senior and respected staff, themselves accomplished professionals, thanked us tearfully for believing in them and trusting them with the responsibilities that we did. It was not something I expected to be thanked for, but I feel pleased to have now understood it.
Ultimately all this commendation is humbling, particularly when Bethany and I are all too familiar with our many flaws and failings. These past five years have often felt like a blind stumble through the darkness, running into every conceivable error and pitfall imaginable. Thankfully it is customary during a farewell in Timor-Leste to apologise for your mistakes and ask forgiveness – something we felt more than ready to do, and somewhat lighter for having done so.
But ultimately this is not really a farewell, but more of an ate logu. Bethany and I remain very much a part of Maluk Timor and anticipate being frequent return visitors to Dili in future years. For our children too this place will remain very much a part of their formative story and we hope to build on that narrative in the coming years by bringing them back to consolidate their hazy memories.
And so our final chapter closes. We tested negative on PCR, and we made it to the flight to Darwin…
…and collapsed into the comfort of 14 days of Howard Springs quarantine. I don’t use the word ‘comfort’ facetiously: anyone who has lived in Dili knows that super-fast internet, an abundance of Australian food and a shower that blasts you like a hot firehose is about all it takes to feel like you’re in palatial luxury. “We’re really living the life!”, as Levi put it.
We don’t yet know whether this story will have a sequel. For now at least, Bethany will resume her GP and Obstetrics in Geraldton. I will try to find my way into some kind of hospital management role there and see where that takes me. Our kids will plunge back into Australian schools and find out just how different their lives have been.
I may yet need to write an Epilogue to this story, as I don’t think the full depth and breadth of this experience has fully dawned on me yet. It has been profoundly life-changing for each of us, though I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to quite articulate the ways in which it has shaped us both as individuals and as a family. Suffice it to say that we are enormously grateful to God, and to those who befriended us, inspired us, comforted us, and so generously supported us along the way. We’ll never really know what difference it has made in Timor-Leste, but it has made all the difference to us.