Attempt at coherence on the incoherent

dsc_10751I am fearful of beginning to write anything about this place. Where to start? But more importantly, where to end? East Timor’s — Timor Leste’s — future is a quandary.

Just sitting in this internet cafe is enough reminder: “To Our Valued Customer, in case of electricity cut offs, kindly wait for the power to come back on and don’t press anything.”

All of the nation’s electricity is powered by oil from old Indonesian generators. But no one pays for it.

Demand is exploding, the lines system cannot cope and generating capacity is near collapse. Hence I must be careful not to touch anything if it does.

This August will mark 10 years since Timor Leste was able to vote on its independence.

Amid violence, torture and death, as Indonesian-backed insurgents fought a brutal campaign against the move, the price was paid.

But it was not until 2002 that this independence was recognised. In that time, the nation has not managed to ensure water, power or sanitation for its small capital.

As Wing Commander Rory Paddock, commanding officer for the New Zealand division of the International Stabilisation Force tells me, “This is not a fledgling nation. That is too generous. This is an embryonic nation. It is yet to have a vision to really grow.” krakatau-027

Its lack of effective infrastructure is reflective of much larger problems faced by Timor’s inexperienced officials and systems. But for them, help is at hand. A lot of it.

Timor Leste has the feel of a backward holiday resort. Thousands of ex-pats litter the streets. Although actually, it is the Timorese that litter.

So ex-colonels of international armies, analysts working for one of the hundreds of NGOs and diplomats from dozens of embassies negotiate a mess of plastic bottles, cardboard packaging and miscellaneous waste.

Amid the confusion, things seem to be slowly improving.

Bombardier Steve Hoskins has been here since November. He leads me through the streets. “That wasn’t there when we got here,” he says, looking at concrete market stalls lining Dili’s esplanade. They are green, new and sterile.

“Look at that, the cleaners have uniforms,” he says, turning to me. “Sorry, this must seem all very boring to you.”

I try to tell him that walking on patrol with the New Zealand Defence Force in Dili is never going to be boring.

Small, tangible and visible steps are being taken to at least make the city look more appealing.

Paddock is somewhat sceptical of such moves.

“They repave the roads. You know the government has said 2009 is the `year of infrastructure’ but what they do is pour tarmac directly over potholes.

“They don’t know how to do things. That won’t last one month.”

What do you see high on the hills overlooking Dili, I ask Jil, the 21-year-old interpreter for Section 2 of this platoon.

“I live over there,” he says. “You can’t see my house but it is over there.”

Do you remember 1999?dsc_1109

“Yes, I was young but I remember. We fled up here,” he says, looking over his shoulder to the dense green surrounding us.

I ask how long he was there for.

“Two months. But when we went back, our house, it was burned down. So we had to rebuild.”

In 2006, conflicts between the police and the military broke out, triggering other violent episodes.

“Before then, we thought everything had died down,” Commander Paddock says. “We literally had … four New Zealanders here. And they were here for training the Timorese army.”

Now there are 148 New Zealand troops and 25 New Zealand police officers working for the UN.dsc_11621

When those Timorese who fled into the hills returned to the city, they found their houses had been destroyed.

So began the problem of IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps. There are still nine across the city. The one I visit is not as bad as others.

“Here at least they have been donated running water and toilets,” Hoskins tells me.

Armenio has been here two years. He tries to make a living out of buying wood off the locals and chopping it up to sell to other IDP residents.

I ask him if it is any different here to two years ago. “It is pretty much the same. Not much changes here. But it’s fine.”

On our circle back round the camp, we see a crowd gathered.

The government recently announced a plan to get people out of here, offering US$4500 to go back to their villages and rebuild their lives.

“That is a lot of money,” says Lucio, another interpreter.

“But right now, many people are waiting for the approval of the official budget in government so it can be paid.”

Lucio has been learning English for 10 years and is now a teacher.

“Before then, I wasn’t allowed to learn. The Indonesians wouldn’t let me. They would think I was a spy. Most likely I would be imprisoned or killed for learning. So I had to wait until independence.”dsc_1090

The Timorese waited a long time for that to happen. They had 400 years of Portuguese occupation, then 25 years of Indonesian brutality.

And the road is long.

About 80 per cent of the population of Timor Leste lives on less that US$1 a day. Most of these are children.

Paddock believes there will be a New Zealand presence here for another 50 years.

“Security builds confidence, neither of which many of these people think they have. Not yet.”


Thoughts on a wet Dili night on a quarter of a computer screen

“Dili is international”, says the checkout lady. My taxi driver has dropped me at the domestic terminal. I tell him I am on Merpati airlines and i guess that is International. “No usually Merpati is domestic,” he tells me. Usually, however, Timor Leste is not part of Indonesia. Up until a few years ago at least.
The encounter followed a particularly unexpectedly large night in the haven of consumerist hell that is Kuta Beach Bali. This place was perhaps one of the biggest culture shocks ever. Worse traffic that Jakarta and more white people with their shirts off than I have ever seen. It was a little disturbing. Not quite as disturbing as looking over in a tacky night spot to see what could only be a 17 year old boy pashing up a 50 year old…woman. That was double take material. All you could do is turn to your colleagues, raise an eyebrow, take another swig of your arak cocktail (served out of a fish bowl) and continue boogying.
That continued well into the early hours. Thus the wakeup for the flight, the flight and the aftermath of the flight were not the greatest for me.

I passed out on the plane before it had taken off. Woke up to see an American taking photos of his in-flight meal. “For the memories?” I asked.
“No I always take photos of my in-flight meals.” Right, that’s explained. I then looked over to see that he had systematically written down every country he had ever been to. 108 I later learned. He was a motivational speaker apparently and had been in Burma, Bosnia in 96, Albania in 95. All of this went someway to explaining that he was a nutbar.
Landing in Dili. Perhaps the efficient airport I have ever seen. Rock up, pay 30 US for a visa, get a stamp in the p-port, get your bag and rock into town. Disapointingly easy.
I am staying with a British expat who owns a nice house just out of town. So after a nap to recover, I wandered just in to town. Its a sleepy place. It was a Sunday, it was raining.
The first thing you notice before you even get out of the plane are unimaginativly painted helicopters. White with the black letters UN painted on the side. All through town, 4wd, white, UN.  An unfortunate prefix for many tags they have here. (I would later learn that the UN are not particularly respected here by certain segments of society).

They are here and you cant miss them. An arab with a UNICEF name tag shoved me as I was getting my bag out of the over head locker. Cant miss them.
Tomorow I wont be able to. Spending the day with the International Stablisation Force. Can’t wait. But before then…sleep. With no aircon. Sweaty dreams of Dili.

Has this been a blog?

 I’m not so sure but hey it’s words on a page and I suppose it documents something. A log. A web log. I am in the process of logging. I have now been here almost 6 weeks. That is pretty weird. And although I didn’t have a shower this morning and smell vaguely like six day old shaved ham, I must admit I am feeling good.

It has been the experience I was looking for. I was not sure at the time what that was, or what I even wanted it to be. But looking back, things have happened. Things have been learned, people met. Things broadened, in all manner of senses.

I suppose one of the most rewarding things has been realising that doing things is not that hard. It is kinda a matter of, well…doing them? It might not be Nike’s next tagline but it does mean something.

It has also been worthwile because I remember months ago, I would be hearing about friends deciding to spend their last “uni” summers away in faraway lands in the away. And to be honest I was a bit like…”fuck”. In every manner of the word. This oppurtunity came along and it felt like, “hey i can be in lands far..ish away and do somthing productive/positive.” And yes I do often talk to myself in the third person.

So now I am 24 (ewww old), the age I found myself becoming in a strange land, with people I didn’t really know. And I found myself bloody loving it.

It will be strange to head back to pronvicial NZ. The place where it seems I will be based for at least some time (I don’t like defintive figures, they are sharp enough to cut your finger on). Here in Jakarta, life teems. It Nelson perhaps it plods, in its own little way with its own soundtrack. Which is kinda cute.

Jakarta has a different sound track: Cars beeping, horns, “heeelloo meester”, “Ojek?” , the sound of thousands of feet on steel over passes. The sound of waiting for an elevator that never comes, the sound of impatience, sweat, beer, clove ciggarttes. They all have sounds; put them together and it makes you dance like candied up swedish raver wearing glow stick headbands sucking on a shared strawberry chupachup. Almost…

But this Sunday I will be in East-Timor. I guess the place where my interest in this field was first piqued but perhaps I didn’t know it then. So the idea of going there gets me a little moist. Sorry.  Unneeded. And then I will return to Aoteraroa. Refreshed? Perhaps. Invigorated? Yes in may respects yes. Itching to return? Most definately.

Batavia: The Queen of the East

dsc_0430By the sea in North Jakarta, Batavia stands as a decaying and neglected reminder of Jakarta’s colonial past. Just a few disintegrating facades speak to the memory of Holland’s Queen in the East.

It was a city bought at a cost. Thousands perished on the treacherous journey from Europe. Hundreds died in its defence. In Holland, schoolyard tales of the fantastical colonial outpost gave way to night terrors as Batavia became known as The Graveyard of the Europeans.

The rich, colourful and often brutal history of the old town has been buried by years of inaction on the part of successive provincial governments and a generational, prophetic desire to forget the past and forge a new history for Indonesia.

For Ro King, Chairwoman of the Indonesian Heritage Society the way a nation moves forward is understanding how all the disparate parts of its past fit together. “There are negative parts and there are positive parts but understanding it is part of the whole mix.”
And Batavia is a mix. Cloves, pepper, nutmeg; the holy trinity of the Asian spice trade. Upon these, the fortunes of Java’s colonizers were first founded. And it was these that brought the Dutch to the archipelago.
Soon a great gathering of Europeans made their way to Batavia. Small armies of Dutchmen working as traders, bankers, surveyors, soldiers, farmers, engineers and tax collectors. All dedicated to the one unerring mission: making money.
So Batavia grew to great heights in the 17th and 18th centuries, only fall unspectacularly. Disease, corruption and war spelt the end of this place.
Now Batavia has little to offer visitors. When the famous Café Batavia opened 15 years ago it was the only commercial enterprise in the Batavia’s square, Taman Fatahillah. Fifteen years on, it still is. Graham James is the Australian owner who purchased the property in the early 90s. “After all that time, I’m the only one doing business here and I must say after that amount of time it does get a little lonely.”
In 1975 the Indonesian Government made Taman Fatahillah an Indonesian Heritage site. Looking at crumbling rooftops, broken pavestones and museums with water seeping through walls, one wonders how concerned Jakartans really are about this heritage.
Unlike other old-cities throughout Asia, Batavia has never had a development action plan. There are no building codes. Most of the property is owned by government which is somewhat unwilling to let them go. Even if they are rotting.
Efforts to preserve the area highlight the eclectic nature of the Indonesian bureaucratic nightmare. Four years ago a project was started to repave the entire square and surrounding alleyways.
With no consultation with locals the venture began. In 2007 it was completed. But instead of digging down and then repaving they built directly on top. “You see here,” says Ella, a businesswoman with property in Batavia. “See the stones are above the doors. Now they cannot even open them, and because the ground is higher than the door, these places all flood. They have to pump out the water.”
Jakarta’s colonial history has been, for the most part, swept under the carpet by an administration desperate to forget that the history of Jakarta was, for the most part, a Dutch one.

But now there could be some hope. The most recent mayor of West Jakarta has made it his private project to develop a long term plan for the area. Clean the greasy slow flowing canals. Renovate the buildings and consult with private business to make Batavia at least somewhat reminiscent of its former glory. The site is significant, even beautiful but it has lacked vision, verve and money.
With the failings of the past it is now with the younger generation where most of the hope lies.
Serrano Sianturi works for the Sacred Bridge Cultural Foundation. The organisation runs a program called “Hug the City” which takes school children to Old Batavia to learn and appreciate its history.
“Now it is time to defrost our history, to reclaim our culture. If we defrost it and really look at it, only then can we preserve it and learn from it better.”dsc_04522

It began with a sudden trembling


The child of Krakatoa puffs smoke. It is an orphaned offspring, created out of the largest recorded explosion in human history over 100 years ago.

‘Anak Krakatau’ first showed its head above the white tipped waves in the Sunda Strait in the last week of June 1927. Decades on, this child has grown up. Each and every year since its birth, the volcano has gotten taller by 20 feet. It may still be a baby in geological terms but in human history it stands as a reminder to the ferocity of its parent’s former life. A reminder of its impact for modern civilization. All from one sleepy morning in August 1883.

Today it is dark, foreboding. A combination of rain and sea water belts across the side of the boat we have hired for the one and half hour trip from Banten Bay in West Java. I am informed by a tourism website “On a clear day one panoramic highlight is the visibility of the infamous Krakatoa Volcano rising above the horizon in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra.” But today is not clear. And it is wet. There was a weather warning suggesting small boats avoid crossing the Sunda. But according to our guide, Poi, today is calm.

The boat launches off a wave, achieves a brief moment of zero gravity then slaps back down on the water. Girls scream. I hold tightly. Poi smiles.


Through grey spitting clouds, three islands appear, two framing the other. The picture. Yes it looks like a volcano, an almost perfect dome with wisps of sulphurous gas rising into and blending with the sky above.

We pull closer to the coast and Poi directs us to jump ashore.

We are greeted by a sign outlying some of the rules of the volcano. “No drugs, no drink, no weapons and no music instruments.” The volcano gods were audio-phobic Mormons. Don’t upset them.

The volcano erupted again in June 1994 and many tourists were caught scaling its slopes. Rocks spewed by the caldera killed one American tourist, injured three Britons and two Indonesians.

I ask Poi about that day. He nods. “Psshh pshshh,” he says, moving his hands as if squeezing an undersized beach ball.  He shakes his head. “Very bad. Very bad.”

The last big eruption was in May. Poi was there. “You could not get onto the island but I was on the boat just over there.” He points to Rakata, the island which housed Krakatoa before the 1883 eruption.

I follow his hand. The site feels significant. But it is a shadow of its former glory. Rakata is now two thirds of its original size. Most of it was blown in the ocean after the main eruption. Half the volcano slid into the sea at such a velocity it created a devastating tsunami which hit the coasts of Java and Sumatra killing almost 40,000 people.

I try to imagine watching it happen in front of my eyes. I try to imagine that 40m wave form and I try to trace its path to the coastline of Indonesia. But I can’t. It seems too foreign. Too big. Too distant.

Further around the coast of West Java, the beaches have white sand and blue water. In the surroundings of Anak Krakatau the sand is black and the sea is green.

“I’m sorry it is not clearer, quite murky yea?” Poi says.

Nothing, I think, compared to what it must have been like. In 1883, 25 cubic km of rock and ash was thrown 50km into the air. It prompted American firefighters into action half way round the world. Off to battle what they assumed to be rampant firestorms. In truth it was merely the brutal sunset caused by the churning clouds of Krakatoan fallout.

On the volcano it is quiet. Peaceful. Not a sound.


Scanning the area one thing stands out more than the smell. The seismic equipment around the volcano is broken. Solar panels that power them smashed, fences that protect them bent. It causes just a little worry as to how it might predict the next big explosion.

Back then it began with just a sudden trembling.