Counting Down

2011 Tour de Timor: Bruno and the Manatuto team

The Flying Turtles: Beth, Dan, Katerina, Rob, Brian

The tour is President Ramos-Horta's idea and personal project. This year's race was the third.

Part of the send-off crowd in Dili

95% of Timor's budget comes from oil revenues, but students like these from IPDC are the real hope for the future

We will be in Dili for 5 more weeks.  I realize how much I have adapted to this strange place and am a little nervous about adjusting back to life in the wealth and comforts of the USA. I remember clearly that I thought I could NEVER make it for even one year when I first arrived.  Countless adaptations have been made, most imperceptible, but constant. I have  been reformed, and now, that form has to be remolded again.  Harder than you might think.

What is most helpful for me to consider here, is that poverty has no social stigma attached to it.  The land is hard, the country is new, the people are uneducated and history has not been kind.  Being poor is the normal state of being:  poor people, poor schools, poor roads. Poverty leads to hunger, malnourishment, stunted children, ignorance, domestic abuse, nepotism and corruption. No tropical paradise.

And yet.  The people exude a joie-de-vivre, an openness to the possibilities, a warmth, a love of children, a respect for education (with a very broken system) and a general contentment, qualities that are difficult to find in the States.

This strange mixture of horror at the ugliness, the trash, the bombed out buildings and the chaos with the growing realization that these people are far happier, that mixture is what has turned my world upside-down.

Yet again, the more I learn about the internal workings of the government and the cultural acceptance of abuse towards women and girls, this makes me want to run.  With so few people trained to lead, to educate, to run businesses, leadership has been based almost exclusively on established hierarchy.  This group, which speaks Portuguese, has established that language as the official lingua franca of Timor-Leste. And, that is a very long blog discussion, to be sure.

Suffice it to say that Timor-Leste does work itself into your heart, rather like that mangy, flea-bitten stray who just keeps hanging around, then you fed it out of pity and somehow it becomes part of your family, outside of any thought or plan.

Posted in Daily life, Dili, Timor-Leste | 1 Comment

Who Am I?

No, this is not a knock-knock joke. I have found myself thinking a great deal about who I am in Timor-Leste compared to the person I am in the USA. The persons are startingly different, hardly recognizable to each other.

In Timor-Leste, I am a malae (foreigner) and continually reminded of that fact with the shout of every child I pass, almost every time I pass. So, that means I am a minor celebrity, along with all malaes. As English is my first language, I am also in a higher subset of malaes, as all up and coming Timorese want to talk with English speakers. And, I am a native speaker of American English, which puts me in a higher set yet, as there are very few Americans in this far away land. American English is preferred because, quite frankly, Americans speak slowly enough to be understood, a trait not present in many Aussies and Kiwis.

I am a middle-aged woman who rides a purple one-speed bike all around Dili, my purchases limited by the size of the front basket. This puts me in a very small subset (myself as far as I can see). There are numerous bike riders, young, muscular xtreme-types who ride up many mountains maintaining fitness. There are even a few women in this category, but none that ride about town buying eggs and vegetables. And now that I have a blue cowgirl hat shadowing my face and neck, I really am more distinct than ever (and quite stylish, I must say.)

I am “teach-a” to many of my college-aged students, someone who demands timeliness, discipline, and a straight back, and who fails those who fall below 50%. This shocking behavior is having a positive effect, however temporary, and my passionate outbursts against laziness have been most entertaining for those outside of the target group.

And, most notably, I am a woman of privilege, who brings to this very poor country a background of education, culture, travel and support which puts me in the stratosphere of high flyers. Regardless of my volunteer status, I am rich beyond compare when it comes to “available options”. And, my Catholic connections that have brought me here continue to support me in every way through the Canossians.

The list is very short indeed when I consider who I am back in the good old USA. I am a middle-aged Italian-American woman, married with three children and two grandchildren (hurray!), with an MA in Adult Education and some unique living experiences in various Asian countries. I will be unemployed in a state with one of the highest unemployment rates and an educator in a state which is laying off educators as fast as the union will allow. My single most satisfying achievement is the raising of three amazing children, which will not get me anywhere in the job market. But, my Catholic faith and the knowledge acquired in Timor-Leste, will continue to provide a solid perspective and hope about the future. God is good. The future is our apple.   [posted by Rory]

Posted in Daily life, Dili, Timor-Leste | 4 Comments

Midterm Examination

Students are required to sign that they took the exam.

This week we are doing midterm exams. As every teacher knows, exams not only measure  student achievement. They can tell us something about a teacher.  If students haven’t learned, then whatever else they may have done, teachers haven’t taught. Any definition of teaching is inextricably bound up with learning.

 I’m not sure that we have mentioned this here, but things are going much better in our classrooms this semester. We are sure that we learned as much as our students did last semester. (I shudder when I look back at our earliest lessons.)

 It is quite apparent that our students learned something as well. The contrast between the students we have for the first time and those we had last semester underlines that fact. A large part of their learning was in getting to know our strange ways. We care whether they come to class on time or not. (Rory has begun providing snacks for those who are there on time.) We ask them to turn off their cell phones. We give them a notebook for their vocabulary lists and translations. We have weekly assignments and quizzes. We work hard to prevent them from “collaborating” during quizzes. We track their scores in a spreadsheet which we post. Sometimes it has felt like we are swimming upstream. But with only a little reflection, we realize that there have been noticeable changes for the better.

 The students have learned some English as well. I have been pleased by how well students have done with oral drills compared with their performance last semester. If you asked Rory, she would also give you the names of several students who have undergone major improvements in both attitude and achievement. If you see her, tell her that it is her advanced teaching methods. <grin>

We’ve grown fond of these students. We talk a lot about them between ourselves, both about them as individuals and as a group. It’s complicated trying to figure them out, parsing cultural and character factors.  Still, for all of their faults and weaknesses as students and mine as a teacher, my experience has been sooo much more positive here. I will save my EJ war stories for another time, but contrasting both sets of experiences has been helpful in making sense of the larger cultures.

In the US, public school teachers are confronted with an incredibly complex task. It  should not come as a surprise to anyone that more and more schools are failing. They are symptomatic of the large-scale disorders that plague our families and communities. To expect schools to succeed when these problems continue inadequately addressed and unabated is naïve.

Timorese students are dealing with a distinctly different set of issues. They are trying to bridge a huge gap in the space of one life. Many of our students are from small, rural settings in which there is much more in common with feudalism than with the post-industrial, post-Christian west. They remember the Indonesian times and the experience of being ruled and “educated” by a sometimes ruthless colonial power. They are finding their way now in the early years of a newly-liberated nation. For them, it is about enduring the impoverishment and sufferings of Timorese student life and going through the motions for the sake of a credential. For us, as their teachers, and from what we can tell by talking to others, it is all about capacity-building. We have both noted that the Timorese are quite hopeful, even in the midst of diminished and challenging circumstances, a virtue that we can struggle to hang on to in the States. [posted by David]

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A Room With a Loo

Up, Up, and Away.... Leaving Dili behind

We’ve just returned from an overnight in Maubisse, the sweet spot of TL’s coffee area, still savoring the chill and the pleasure of sleeping under a blanket. Our adventure began when Katerina invited us to tag along with the Flying Turtles on a training ride for the upcoming Tour de Timor. You may stifle a laugh reading that last bit, but let me tell you that we were totally impressed. And not just with their team polo shirts.

This will be only the third year for the national bike ride which extends throughout the entire country and occurs over six days. Katerina and her husband, Rob, have ridden in the previous two and are quite earnest about their preparation this time around. Our friend, Joachim rode the first year, and his stories had already convinced us that this is one challenge that we would not take up. Our job on this ride to Maubisse, a distance of about 70 kilometers, was to ride in the support vehicle with Alfonse and the luggage. The other members of The Flying Turtles are Dan, a fit thirty-something Aussie, their best rider, and Brian, a relatively new arrival from England who is on the far side of his fiftieth birthday and who would concede that he is struggling. He ended up in the truck with us both days and we had a wide-ranging conversation that included British politics (he ran for Parliament) and riding horses in the Sudan. The Turtles’ goal is simply to finish the grueling course, a formidable task in and of itself, preferably in better shape than last year.

Brian, Rob, and Dan

The ride has attracted international attention and there are seriously good riders who show up for it. If you have a mind to join them, you will need to wait until next year as registration is now closed. In the meantime, you will have to come up with the $500 registration fee (!) and a credible mountain bike. The Turtles’ bikes all have disc brakes and 27+ gears. Brian was able to acquire one from the organizers for less than $600, discounted from the +$800 list price. Oh, and it would be a good idea to get in the best shape of your life.

Alfonse stopped for fast food - bananas!

Maubisse lies south of Dili in the highest region of Timor. The jumping off point to walk up Mt. Ramelau, the tallest peak, is just 10 km away. To get there by car from Dili, one has to travel about three hours of twisting one-lane mountain roads, pocked with all manner of hazards. These ranged from your garden-variety pothole to fifty meter wash-outs that may well have been impassable in the rainy season. I don’t think there was a straight stretch that exceeded two hundred meters. Maubisse is about 1400 meters in elevation, but one gets to that height only be undergoing many series of knee-busting climbs followed by despairing returns to river valleys. The route passes into the coffee-growing areas, characterized by huge acacia trees which are necessary to shadow the coffee plants beneath. Coffee was introduced by the Portuguese nearly one hundred years ago, and Timor’s arabica beans are now recognized as some of the world’s best.

Some serious views along the way...

Destination: a Timorese chalet

Sunday morning market in Maubisse

A room with a view... and a loo!

Moonlight over Maubisse

Vendors at the Sunday market in Maubisse

Our destination was a quiet mountain village in a spectacular setting. Brian, who had visited at Easter, had characterized our target accomodations as a Swiss chalet. We were understandably skeptical but were quite appreciative when we arrived. Though not Swiss, by Timorese standards the arrangements were more than acceptable, and even included toilet paper if you required that. Our rooms were situated across from the local church, a kilometer or so above the village center. We enjoyed seeing what was to be seen, walking down to the village center in search of a cup of coffee. Later we made our way to the posada for dinner after stopping to buy firewood to bring with us. The fare was not all that exciting – a replay of lunch, chicken, rice, and vegetables. Katerina had phoned ahead to order something more exotic, but mystifyingly, none of what she ordered appeared and then they ran out! A situation not calculated to satisfy hungry cyclists! They made the best of a bad deal and we heard no grumbling. We were humbled to see their responses.

Acacia trees provide a canopy to shade the coffee beneath

Our return was accomplished the following day and featured making the acquaintance of several other expats, including an American Maryknoll sister who has been in Aileu since the 1970s. The twisting roads nearly did in Rory and Brian, and helped them appreciate our eventual arrival in Dili. Even though our front porch was amazingly covered in dust and there was trash to be picked up, we were happy to be back. If ever you find yourself here, we heartily recommend the entire experience as a “must-do”. Katerina had not oversold it when she said it was the best that Timor has to offer. For us, it was a great escape from Dili’s heat, noise, and dust. [posted by David]

*Note: “Loo” is British slang for a toilet.

Posted in Friends, Timor-Leste, Travel | Leave a comment

Moving On

It seems time to make public to our readers what many know privately. After much prayer and many discussions, some with heat and some with light, David and I have decided that we will not be returning to Timor-Leste for a second year. I do believe it very important to state that this decision comes at my instigation, and not David’s.

My initial reaction to Dili truly shocked me. I was very motivated to come and, although I thought there would be some culture shock, I was not prepared for my extreme negative reaction to our life here. The initial two months was not the best start to our adaptation, particularly mine. We were not teaching, and having nothing in particular to do during November and December made it much more difficult. Once we began teaching and our life opened up to friends and some variation of activities, things improved. But the thought of living here for two years was unpalatable.

I prayed daily for the Lord to give me a heart to stay, as it surely was beyond my strength. I made many adjustments, and saw many advantages to our life. Our teaching had meaning in it, even as it could be frustrating in the extreme. We have written before about that. David believed that our commitment to two years was decisive. I did not see things that way and we had many disagreements. My experience of following the Lord has always brought peace, even as it was difficult. I had no peace in the thought of a second year. I could not find peace in this, no matter how long I prayed and reflected. I could not make that decision and longed to return to the States (and our grandsons and children) with all of my heart.

Our ethical standoff was resolved when we agreed to ask Sr. Angela, the head of VOICA in Rome, to release us from our second year. Sr. Angela was unexpectedly supportive. I was, of course, relieved and happy. I experienced a deep peace with this decision and it has remained. David has made his peace with it as well. He has been actively looking at real estate in South Bend, something he finds therapeutic. We are seriously considering a move to the South Bend area.

In the meantime, we pray about our future work lives. We are in no position to retire and need an income.

We realize that this decision is not just about us. Many of you have supported us faithfully from the beginning and must have thoughts about this development. Please share them with us. [posted by Rory]

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Children of Timor, Children of God

Timor's most underdeveloped resources are not petroleum and natural gas, but her children. Girls are different, aren't they?

On any given day in the US, one can read or hear about the declining state of families, particularly children, in our country.  I do not need to remind anyone of the dismal statistics about child suicide, drug use, and depression, all on the rise, seemingly affecting all regions and demographics. With that in mind, I have been compelled to write of the children of Dili, who I see, hear and wonder at each day.

Our Delta 3 neighbors

Action at our local soccer field

A lone kite-flyer.

We live our lives here in the midst of children, and I can’t help but notice how markedly different and joyful these children are.  At any time of the day, or early evening, large groups of boys in particular, are at the neighborhood soccer court, kicking a heavily abused,semi-inflated soccer ball with worn seams unraveling,  screaming at the top of their lungs in delight. They race across the cement, all of them shoeless all of the time, across the dirt and stones, in the middle of the street, with looks of such total joy, I am always brought to an interior posture of reverence,  kneeling before the grace of God working here.  He is surely touching me each time this happens, He is surely telling me, wake up, look at what I have done!  Open your eyes and see.  Be at peace and be like these children.

If the rains come in torrents, the streets fill with screaming children, jumping about, splashing, oblivious to the garbage now afloat, having far more fun that any child I ever saw at Disney World. Far more fun.  No whining, no sour looks, no temper tantrums, just delight in the rain and the joy of being alive.  

For many, their toys are acquired from the local garbage pile, two houses from ours, where they compete with the dogs for anything of value, edible and otherwise. Their ingenuity is amazing. Empty water bottles are cut open and become scoopers to throw things at each other. Or stylish footwear made by crushing the bottle and sliding your foot under the blue plastic label. Sometimes they are used to manuever an old tire down the street.  An elastic apple protector becomes a pink bracelet, and bits of shiny paper are wadded up and thrown at any target that isn’t too large to fight back.  Nylon nets for fruit become hairnets. Pools of muddy water in the middle of the street provide as much satisfaction as any water park back home.

A young lady in church


The local "recycling center" is the focus of considerable interest

Kids along the school road.

And, most striking of all, the foreign woman on the purple bike always elicits cries of malae, malae (foreigner), with full body waves and squeals of delight when I wave back.  I will never, ever understand why my acknowledgment of their cries brings so much delight. A simple raising of my arm and “eeehhhh!”  Who could imagine I could bring such cheap thrills by my mere presence? (and how in the world will I return to  being a nobody inEast Lansing?)

Taking photos of children for this post has increased my popularity, no doubt. You will notice that the boys almost always strike a rap pose.  Where in the world did they learn that?  Not from their grandmothers. Television and the Internet have brought a strange blending of cultures, a most mixed blessing for developing countries and their children. While the parents may well be illiterate, the children are increasingly fed a daily diet of commercials, music, and images conveying values of cynicism, violence, materialism, and worse.  And the parents have absolutely no idea what is going on and why should they be concerned anyway?

Pray for the children of Timor.  May the delight they take in life, in the simplest of pleasures, not be taken from them. May God help them and may they know the value of His blessings.  [posted by Rory]

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Freedom Day

The entrance to the US embassy in Dii. This is the guardhouse. If you pass muster, you are allowed inside and proceed through a metal detector and are escorted into the compound to the small business office, maybe 100 meters beyond the gate. Vehicles enter (and are inspected) and exit through this gate.

The Fourth of July is one of the more important days in the American calendar. Even for those us who find ourselves outside of the States we take note and think about its meaning. Our family has celebrated it in a variety of ways over the years, mostly with friends, usually ending with fireworks.

In recent years, it has been an occasion for me to reflect again on the nature of freedom. I remember having a long discussion with Ray on the way the idea of freedom was used in our national discourse. I thought it had been truncated and cheapened and politicized. Ray loved Mortimer Adler and we went through the chapter on freedom in his Six Great Ideas. This year, coincidentally, I have been reading in Interior Freedom by Jacques Philippe and I have again been thinking about freedom.

Philippe begins by remarking that the idea of freedom is one of those rare areas upon which there is unanimous agreement between Christians and secular culture. Modern states arose based on the pursuit of freedom. Freedom is a major theme in the NT. Who would be against freedom? The divergences begin when we identify what is meant. He points out that for modern man freedom is a matter of primarily external constraints and limitations. Freedom means being rid of these restrictions and limitations, using laws, institutions, technology, and cultural pressure as means to that end. The quest is to push back limits: farther, faster, more extreme. Philippe summarizes it as being able to choose from various possibilities, the more choices, the greater the freedom.

A view of the embassy entrance showing its relation to the waterfront. You are looking toward the Dili town center.

Inside the compound: a view of the business office (left) and the ambassador's residence (right), and fittingly, lots of grass, one of our biggest crops. <grin> The only lawn mower I have seen here was at the embassy.

There is an element of truth in that, but the refusal to recognize limits ignores reality. There are fundamental aspects of our lives that are not chosen: whether we are male or female, who our parents are, what culture and community we are born into, what language becomes our mother tongue,  the early formation that we receive, certain character traits. He notes that as we grow older, too, our range of choices grow increasingly narrower. The choices that we make limit the remaining possibilities: a particular course of education/training, marriage partner, children. And then there are those developments that we do not choose: health issues, the death of loved ones, the loss of a job, a divorce in the family, the apostasy of a friend or child.

The Christian understanding is that man is made in the image of God and that he is made for love, love of God and love of neighbor. There is a CS Lewis quote that I failed to track down that captures this: freedom is being able to love God and follow Him. As Christians we all desire greater freedom from fear, from guilt, from bondage to bad habits and sin that limit growing in our relationship with Him and with others.

Philippe provocatively points out that it also means consenting to what we did not choose. He notes three attitudes that we can adopt when we find things that are negative or unpleasant in ourselves or our situations, things that we may not have chosen. We can rebel (sometimes a positive!), we can resign ourselves to it (a sterile recognition of our powerlessness), or we can consent to it. He argues for  the latter because within it is a hope in God who specializes in transforming evil into good.

Understanding this idea is a lot to take on at once and I’m still working it through. It includes consenting to those undesireable elements in ourselves: this is what I have to work with, this is my starting point. It also includes consenting to those setbacks and difficulties and sufferings that we don’t choose. Philippe spends much of this small book elaborating on these two points. I haven’t gotten that far yet, either in carefully reading it or in living out its truth. I wish you greater freedom…    [posted by David]

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