Saying Goodbye to Timor Leste – What Have We Done?

Log Entry Location: East Timor

May, 2004

Leaving East Timor was much more difficult than we imagined that it would be. Of course it is a horrible cliché to say that you don't realize what you have until it is gone……but we really only realized how integrated we were, how good our Tetun had become, how many friends we had, how much we had learned about the political and economic situation there and how much it felt like home – as we were getting ready to leave. During the last several weeks we consoled ourselves by saying "we'll be back." For Patti, it was incredibly reminiscent of the end of her first year in Brazil in high school.

We had a series of goodbye parties and events and by-far the most difficult part was saying goodbye to our good friends, Lili and Osorio. We spent lots and lots of time with them and with the other members of our "adopted" family there. We even had the privilege of becoming godparents to Orio, their newest baby boy. After the death of their other boy in November of 2003, they saw it as a blessing to have a new little brother in the household. The whole family helped to prepare for our going away party at the house – everything from the traditional foods to Patti's dress and hairstyle.

Leaving government service and the Directorate of Environmental Services was also incredibly difficult for both of us. Thestaff hosted a big "send off" party and Patti spent most of that time crying with a handful of the local staff. Dean's colleagues came to our party at the house and also presented him with some beautiful tais as a going away present.

Vacation before Tonga

Before making our way to Tonga from East Timor, we took a much-needed vacation in Borneo. BORNEO! The place you heard about in elementary school or read about in National Geographic, with head hunters and unique primates. From our "base camp" (read Hilton) in Kuching, we visited a nearby orangutan sanctuary, spent a few days/nights in Bako National Park observing proboscus monkeys, and took a longboat into the jungle to stay with the Iban people. It was all quite amazing.

While we didn't see any orangutans in the wild, those we saw in the sanctuary were far from tame. The males were HUGE; many females had babies; and every one of them did natural acrobats through the trees and down jungle vines to reach the fruit the sanctuary feeds them each day. It's sad to think habitat loss has reduced the number of these amazing animals to unsustainable levels; it's only a matter of time before they are all gone.

The proboscus monkeys, called "Dutch monkeys" by the locals due to their long nose and rosy cheeks (think Jimmie Durante with rust-brown hair, and a long tail) were a different story. Even with only a few hundred left in the wild, we couldn't take a walk along the boardwalk in Bako without seeing a small pack eating the leaves off the trees. They never touch the ground – the trees they eat grow in the water, and they jump from tree to tree to get around.

Photo credit: National Geographic

Our trek to get to Iban country was an adventure in and of itself. After a 4-hour van ride through the pepper plantations of Sarawak, we arrived at the Batang Ai Resevoir. The first thing we saw was our longboat being battered about by a rainstorm and our Iban guides struggling (unsuccessfully) to keep the outboard motor from falling in! As soon as the storm passed, they bailed out the boat and we clambered in with all our gear to go across the reservoir. After about an hour, we pulled up at the dock of a longhouse – and replaced our leaking boat with a new one. We were amazed by the strength of the Iban as one (seemingly very small) Iban guy lifted up the outboard motor, threw it on his shoulder, and quickly walked up the steep steps to the longhouse – in flip-flops, no less. The whole transfer took all of 5 minutes and we were off to a more remote stretch of jungle.

After we left the waters of the reservoir, the river path got narrower and narrower and more and more full of logjams. They deftly navigated the boat around several and then reached a point where we just had to power through! It felt a bit like we were stunt people in a Borneo version of the Dukes of Hazard! The younger Iban guide was riding in the front of the boat and using his oar to push off from big logs and periodically jumping out to walk us through treacherous stretches. After an of hours of particularly slow going, they decided we could go no further by boat so we got out and waited along a sandy spot in the river while the two Iban guides went downstream to tie up the boat and hide the engine. By the time they got back, it was almost dusk. We quickly loaded all the gear (including a huge gas tank for cooking; all we carried were our cloths) on our backs and started trekking through the riverbed. It was getting dark. The river was full of leeches. The high part of the "trail" was made from slippery bamboo logs with rotting hand-holds. We both fell multiple times. We finally made it to the "jungle camp" – a very basic, but perfectly fine little shelter in the middle of the nowhere. After a hearty dinner, it rained all night and we slept to the sounds of the gibbons, hornbills, and forest insects.

The Iban people are one of many tribes in Borneo. Traditionally they used long boats – some as long as 7 meters – to travel up and down the rivers, fishing and trading for a living. Now, many Iban travel the world, working on oil rigs in places like Angola and Canada (it's true, they love to travel). The group we stayed with had one building that housed 21 families; it was like a string of row houses, each family with their own sleeping and cooking quarters, and a communal living room and veranda that ran the length of the building. Like the orangutans, the Iban's way of life is changing. Outboard motors were originally provided in an effort to promote tourism, and one of their primary river systems has been dammed to generate power for Kuching. These days, when an Iban man goes overseas he uses the money he earns to buy three things – an outboard motor for his longboat; a generator for his room in the the longhouse; and a television with vcr!

After spending a total of ten days in Borneo, we headed to Singapore for a long weekend of movies, shopping, air-conditioned mass transit, and lots and lots of good food. It is funny how much more we appreciated Singapore this time around (as opposed to our thoughts during Semester at Sea, when we wanted something more adventurous.)

The Timor to Tonga Transition – Culture Shock and More!

After a tearful "goodbye" at the airport, Patti headed to Tonga to set up the house and get started on her Peace Corps work there. Dean extended his UN contract by almost a month and remained in Dili to finish his work with the Division of Environment. So…..just like in East Timor, our "first impressions" were individual ones.

Patti's First Impressions of Tonga – "It Ain't Timor"

The long trip from Dili to Tonga allowed ample time to be mentally prepared for the differences. It isn't very far as the crow flies ……but the route was Dili-Bali-Brisbane-Auckland-Tonga. I was reminded again of how big Australia is! After spending a little over 24-hours in Auckland, I arrived at the airport for my flight.

Once I got the gate, I already felt like I was in Tonga. I was completely surrounded by huge Polynesians and they all seemed to be dressed in black. Many of the women were wearing head-to-toe woven mats over their clothes. As I looked around, I realized that many of the teenage girls that were now dressed in traditional attire were the same ones I had seen outside the security gates – in jeans and peek-a-boo blouses!

After a short flight from Auckland, I arrived at the main island of Tonga, Tongatapu,, at 2 am on a Friday. My new boss and her husband were there to meet me – complete with beautiful floral leis. The next three days were a whirlwind of feasts, kava drinking, introductions to the Tongan staff, more food, seeing the King at church, buying a kiekie (the less formal version of the body-wrapping mats), more food, and more food. Did I mention that they eat a lot?

The next couple of weeks were mostly filled with mundane things – house-hunting; becoming acquainted with the grocery stores; organizing my office at work; and marveling at how dissimilar things were from Timor. Of course, some things are very familiar……the importance of family; the flexible notion of time; the need to be careful not to offend; the obliviousness of some foreigners (palangis).

The "honeymoon" period was brief – maybe 3 days. Then I realized the enormity of what we had decided to do……a new culture, a new language, a new city to navigate, new Volunteers, new staff, new EVERYTHING. I immediately began to dread the emotional energy required to do it all again.

But……we've started that process. I found a house and we've started settling in to it. I've started Tongan lessons and it is coming along (slowly, but surely). I'm reading about and observing Tongan culture. And our first trip to the island groups of Va'vau and Ha'apai helped us to get a sense of the lay of the land. It is hard to believe it has been 6 weeks already!

Dean's First Impressions of Tonga - "It Ain't Timor"

Once Dean arrived in Tonga, Lui'sa* whisked him off to the far flung reaches of the Kingdom. Just like in East Timor, Dean got a taste of his new home first hand. Here's an funny little comparison to give everyone an idea of where we came from and where we are now.

Here is a photo of the Timorese bathroom at the "hotel" we stayed at on Dean's first trip out of Dili (third day in country) and the equivalent bathroom at the guest house in Vava'u, Tonga. Note the tile floor, Western toilet, shower (running water, no less), and electricity in Vava'u, and the complete lack of ALL this stuff in Timor.

Here are photos of the bedrooms at each of these establishments. Things to note in the Vava'u photo include: queen-sized bed fully equipped with pillows and a set of clean sheets, fan AND AC, electricity, windows, tile floor. Again, Timor had none of this – we shared a single bed with a smelly foam pad in a "mossy dome" to protect us from the mosquitoes. No sheets, no pillow, no fan, no electricity and it was HOT.

While we don't have photos to compare the cuisine offered during the first site visit in each country, we would like to share with you the following meal options: Vava'u breakfast: eggs with ham or sausage, French toast, fresh fruit, juice, cereal with milk – there were even lobster omelets on one menu. Timor breakfast: your own crackers and peanut butter; bottled water, if you were lucky. Vava'u lunch: pasta, sandwiches, burgers, fish and chips, chicken, fruit smoothies, milk shakes, and soft ice cream cones. Timor lunch: your own peanut butter and crackers. Vava'u dinner: pizza, lobster, tortilla rolls, burgers, more fish and chips, chicken, Greek salad with feta cheese; cold beer, wine, and mixed drinks. Timor dinner: Chicken or fish cooked only one way (their way), rice, and steamed vegetables, bottled water if you remembered to stop off at the kiosk during the day. In Vava'u there's a choice of about 10 good restaurants, and we ordered off menus. In Viqueque, there was one establishment (I don't think I would classify it as a restaurant quite yet) when we first visited.

Another big difference that we both noticed in our first days in Tonga is communication – everyone speaks English! Virtually everyone is at least somewhat bi-lingual and most Tongans in the city are completely fluent in English. Despite their fluency, they are (mostly) pleasantly surprised when palangis (Europeans/Americans/white foreigners) attempt to speak a little Tongan. Like East Timor, it doesn't take a great deal of effort on your part to show the locals that you respect them and their culture.

What's Next?

Dean's already making plans to return to Timor for a consulting gig, and he's up to his elbows cooking pastries for various Peace Corps activities. He's also making lots of great contacts with the various restaurants and expat social groups here. He's even managed to hook up with a cooking school for high school students in Nuku'alofa.

Patti's plowing ahead with her Peace Corps work and is also hoping to find some time to write up some of her East Timor experiences.

*Lu'isa is Patti's new Tongan name. Since the Tongan alphabet does not have a letter "B," they have a hard time distinguishing between "Betty" (Patti's boss) and "Patti." So….while drinking kava and brainstorming about it, it was decided we would use Patti's middle name.


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