It was really hard to build a picture in my mind of Dili. Everyone I knew who had been here contributed descriptions, but some of these would conflict with each other, and some were so extreme it made it difficult to even begin to imagine the situation…
But now I am here, and I can report my own perceptions and discoveries, based purely on my own experiences. I suspect Timor Leste experiences are by their nature inconsistent – while there are lots of foreigners here, travel systems here are still somewhat figured out on a case-by-case basis, I think. In other words, people are figuring things out as they go along!
Oh yes, it is hot and humid. But there is also a cool breeze that comes along every now and then – like a fleeting mini version of Melbourne’s fabled ‘cool change’. And the last two days have been comparatively comfortable – even cool. My bike rides each morning to the Dili Institute of Technology for my Tetun classes have perhaps acclimatised me to the temperature. Or perhaps the temperature at DIT is more intense than elsewhere in Dili, given its location on the edge of an apparent jungle.
The susuk (mosquitos)
It is not as if the air is swimming with them in Dili. We sit outside on the patio for breakfast and dinner, and it is pretty evident when the mozzies are out in full force. We go back inside on those occasions.
At the same time, despite all my precautions to wear long-sleeved, long-legged garments, and put repellent on exposed skin, I have 4 little bites on me. I don’t know if these are from mosquitos or other little bugs that might be around. What could I get from mosquitos? Dengue is the big one, as there is no vaccination, and no treatment. You just have to suffer through it with the help of paracetamol. Then there are the various strains of malaria. I am taking anti-malaria tablets but these only protect me from four different strains – there are many others, apparently. Then there is Japanese Encephalitis, which I’ve been vaccinated against. So, don’t get the idea that I am feeling complacent about mozzies. There are lots of reasons to remain on guard. But the mental image I had before coming here of an environment thick with them was definitely on the exaggerated side of things.
My dear Tiny gave me a double-sized, DEET-impregnated mosquito net before coming here, but when I unpacked it on my first night it was barely wide enough for a single bed. Luckily my colleague Kim had had the kindness to leave her mosquito net for me in Dili and I collected it the next day, and this one proved to be a more robust and practical size. Honestly, Kathmandu – what is your concept of ‘double’?
Meanwhile, Sarah, our resident UN intern arrived on Saturday and was minus a mosquito net. My host SH found one for her in the local shop – $5! So if you are planning a trip to East Timor and have missed buying your mosquito net in the camping shop sales for $50, you may like to plan to buy one here for $5.
Everyone who arrives in Dili can get a 30 day tourist visa at the airport. You fill in a form, it gets the most cursory of glances, pay US$30, and voila! A visa is yours. For those of us intending to stay longer than 30 days, you then have to apply for an extension, which is apparently a long, drawn-out, Dili-based process.
In theory, if you apply for a visa online before arrival, you can get an authority for a longer visa. I tried to do this. I filled out the form, and sent off all the necessary additional forms and scanned documents including a doctor’s certificate, a police check, copies of my professional affiliations, such as the Victorian Institute of Teaching, and so on. I sent it all off in good time, but the visa never eventuated. A contact in the Ministry confided that he didn’t know of anyone who had managed to get one of these visas ahead of time. I leave Dili at the end of this week, so hopefully the extension process can be ticking over while I’m out in the ‘the Districts’ (as all parts of Timor-Leste that are not Dili are known).
I was told by lots of people that people drive really slowly in Dili. That’s not true – in my experience, cycling around the city every day, I’d say people drive pretty fast. Perhaps they have given up trying to model good behaviour to the drivers of UN vehicles, who by the reports of many might be considered to be contemptuous of driving behaviour that would support general road safety, as they charge around town in their big white 4WDs. (Still, I rode in one of these today, so I can’t be too critical).
I am loving my Tetun classes at the Dili Institute of Technology. Firstly, there is the setting. DIT is set back off the road, not far from where I am living in Comoro. To get there, I ride on a series of nice, sealed roads, but then turn into a dirt track that at a critical point is currently overwhelmed by a large, deep puddle. Each day it seems to get a little harder to traverse. When I get to the school, I cycle up the entrance drive (also unsealed), past grazing goats, fossicking chooks, and the occasional cow. All around, the landscape is lush and green. The mountains that ring Dili loom in the distance, and below them appear to be thick jungles of coconut palms that come all the way up to the edge of the school grounds. It is pretty stunning.
The classrooms are simple, equipped with a white board, a ceiling fan, a rotating fan and desks for all the students. There are five students in my class – four of us are returning next week. The power goes off every day (‘ahi mate’ – ‘the electricity is dead’ – we say knowingly, when this happens, rolling our eyes) for at least part of the class, so it can get pretty steamy. But the breeze still comes in through the slatted louvre windows. Every hour or so we take a five-minute break (‘deskansa’), wandering outside to sit on the edge of the verandah; and midway through we stop for morning tea where we can drink tea or coffee and eat sweet biscuits and chat among the students and staff. I love it.