Wednesday, December 10, 2014

5 Months on Crocodile Island

Hey everyone.

It's been quite a while since I wrote on this blog. Call me busy or call me lazy, but I put it to rest for a while to focus on enjoying the present. Anyway, today marks the five-month mark of my year in Timor-Leste, so I thought a little reflection was warranted.

Where to begin...
The rainy season is upon us. I heard whispers and rumors about this time of year from the beginning. "The storms are insane," they said. "It will be unbearably hot," they said. "Watch out for the pot-holes...they fill up after storms and the road looks flat," they said.
I've learned to take Timor gossip with a grain of salt, but these...these were all true. I'm blown away by the consistency of these storms. Every day, around 4pm, the tin roof above my head makes the most deafening noise, and my co-workers all look at each other as if to say, "(Sigh) Damn it."
The flooding of the roads brings flashbacks of the corner of Zimple and Broadway, and that's when I start to think that maybe some things happen everywhere.

With all of this rain, though, things are finally in bloom. On my drive into work this morning, I looked up into the hills behind the office and was shocked by all the green. I'm excited for Timor to take on a more tropical look after five months in the dusty drought.

Movin' on from that, things are going well at work. I'm starting to feel more and more comfortable speaking Tetun, the language of Timor-Leste. It's a unique blend of Indonesian, Portuguese, and over thirty indigenous dialects. There's actually no official dictionary yet, as the language remains rather fluid. In any case, I've been practicing with our neighbors and my coworkers, and I've at least gotten command of the key verbs and the key food items, so I think I just might survive.

Yesterday, I was allowed to write my first blog for the organization. As a volunteer from the United States, I usually remain in a back-office capacity. Fundasaun Mahein has such weight in the community because of its local voice and origins, so I am happy to work on systems-level and donor-related work.  But yeah, I got to write a piece yesterday about corruption in Timor-Leste. About a week ago, Transparency International released its yearly 'Corruption Perceptions Index,' and the results for Timor-Leste were unflattering but not altogether surprising. According to the CPI, corruption has worsened in the past few years, an observation that seems rather consistent with recent events, including alleged embezzlement and corruption by the Minister of Finance and a con-man fronting as a 'petroleum expert'. Anyway, the blog was a bit sobering, but I was grateful for the opportunity to put my writing skills to the test and dig a little deeper into the political enigma that is Timor-Leste. The post will hopefully be up soon on the website (

Since I last posted, I've done a bit of travel. Some of my dear friends have left Timor-Leste, but we went out with a bang, with trips to Mt. Ramelau, Jaco Island, and more. The journeys to these places were every bit as exciting, if not terrifying, as the places themselves. The roads out in the Districts leave much to be desired, but the terror is all part of the experience. Anyway, we did a sunset hike up to the top of Mt. Ramelau, at around 10,000 feet, where I experienced 'cold' for the first time in Timor. Weeks later, we went over to Jaco Island, a sacred island at the eastern tip of Timor, where we snorkeled, had a campfire jam session, crushed perhaps a bit too much wine, and left with wicked sunburns just about everywhere.

I've gone from a ghost to a celebrity in the neighborhood. Though my name is difficult for my Timorese neighbors to say ('Jace'? 'Chance?' 'Jance?'), it's awesome to know that I'm known 'round here. Usually, my name is followed by a hand gesture that I've learned means, "Frisbee time...?" I've taken a few kids under my wing and started training them, getting their flicks and pivots on-point. On any given night, though, I'll walk to the community soccer field and soon am surrounded by at least 20 kids, all of whom are incredibly hyped to play this weird little sport where you use your hands instead of your feet (though some still kick the disc, much to my chagrin). It's been an awesome form of cultural exchange and a way to keep a little bit of home in my life. Am I fine with the fact that my best friends in this country are six years old? Totally.

As Christmas approaches, I'm getting real stoked to get off the island for a bit. On the 24th, I head over to Bali for a six days of exploring solo on a motorbike. I'm still charting out a route that will take me past many of the notable temples, volcanoes, and rice terraces. Very excited to just get on the open road and see what I find. After that, I head to Bangkok on New Years Eve to meet my dear ol' brother Drew. We'll be hanging out in Thailand for a few days before coming back home to Timor, where I'll show him some of my favorite spots and get his tempeh game up to speed.

Anyway, that's a verbose lil' reflection of my recent adventures, experiences, and thoughts here in Dili. Crazy that I've already been here for 5 months, and I continue to be surprised at how natural it all feels to wake up here in the morning. My definition of 'home' has been challenged quite a bit in the last few years, between time spent in Florida, Louisiana, Morocco, Haiti, and now Timor-Leste, but I'm finding that it truly is where your heart and where your friends are. I've been blessed to find what I need here, and I'm looking forward to seven more months of perspective.

Peace and love,

The crew, huddled for warmth at sunrise atop Mt. Ramelau

Standing on a rock west of Dili on the way back from Liquiçá

Our bungalows in Tutuala. Possibly Dharma Initiative...

The main road and cemetery in Maubisse district. 

A fishing rig at Atauro Island

Dili Beach at sunset.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Hahan, Hash Harriers, and Health Care

Friends and family,

Let me start of by apologizing for slacking on the blog. It's been a busy month or so since I last checked in, so there is much to tell.
Like I told my parents last night, I think I officially fell in love with this place over this past weekend.
Now that the shock has settled down and I've figured out my daily routine, I finally feel at home.

'Hahan' is the Timorese word for 'food,' and I've begun to use it quite a lot. I've told many of you about the divide here between foreigners and locals, on just about every level. I would attribute it mostly to pricing and location. Naturally, the restaurants geared toward tourists are on the beachfront. It doesn't take long, however, to realize that there's no Timorese restaurants in plain view.
I got a little sick of American food (and tourist prices), so I started to explore inland on Camara road, where there are literally hundreds of hole-in-the-wall Timorese restaurants, called 'warungs.' Within a week, I became addicted to Ali's Asian Food, the best spot near my house. I can get tempeh, tofu, vegetables, soup, potatoes, rice, and more for $1.50, and it's absolutely incredible. I think I ate there for dinner every night last week, so I can basically walk in, sit down, and they'll bring me my 'usual.' Talking in my new-found Tetun with the waitresses and sitting there, amongst the noise and the cigarette smoke, I felt a sense of belonging. I don't think that many foreigners eat there, so Ali seems happy to have me as a regular customer.

Hash Harriers
It feels good to finally have a solid group of friends here. Granted, many of them are leaving within the week, but I'm encouraged by the fact that there seems to be a constant stream of foreigners in and out of Dili. A couple weeks ago, I went with Hiba to the US Embassy, where I met many of my closest friends here, who range from teachers to doctors to Navy CB's to even the Ambassador himself. It's been pretty awesome talking to everyone about their experiences so far, hearing how we all ended up together in this little-known country.
I've been hanging out with a lot of them on the weekends, going to the beach and karaoke bars and even a music festival last Friday. One of my favorite new things has been running with a running club, the Hash House Harriers, on Saturdays. This past week we followed a trail up this mountain and ended up on this cliff overlooking the airport along the ocean. Besides a way to meet people, Hash has been an amazing way to scope out some hiking and running trails for the future. It's pretty awesome how unassuming all of the trails are here. You can just follow a path, not expecting anything, and end up in a remote mountain village with a panorama view. Cool cool stuff.

Health Care
As part of the process of getting my work visa for this year, I had to get a medical check-up at the hospital. Having some friends here at the clinic has given me some perspective on the state of health care here in East Timor, and my visit to the national hospital this morning confirmed a lot of what I heard.
In an ideal world, everyone would have unrestricted access to equal, quality health care. But, as we can attest to back in the United States, the issue of health care is complex. Health care is not simply an economic challenge, but a logistical and a cultural one.
It is no secret that poverty exists here in Timor-Leste. Some figures estimate that as much as 38% of Timorese live below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day. Matched with high fertility, especially in rural areas, there are clear difficulties in balancing the many costs of life here. Now throw in the fact that the only fully-equipped (and I use that generously) hospital here is in Dili. Now consider the state of roads, which are riddled with pot-holes, road-blocks, and general circuity, often taking several hours to go only 80km. Oh, and did I mention that most people have to take the bus? All of this considered, it seems that many people only make the logistical and financial sacrifice of going to the hospital when they know that their health is in serious danger. Many people don't show up to the hospital until it's too late, and others make the journey here but lack the money to get back to their hometowns.
There's also some social stigmatization of Western medicine practices. Someone I met who works at the blood bank told me that some villages outcast members who return after blood transfusions or blood work, because they have others' blood in them.
And I haven't even talked about the staff and facilities of the hospital, for those who manage to reach it.
In short, there are some real problems with health care here.

Anywayyyy, on lighter terms, I'm thankful for my health and for the company of new friends here in Dili.
Much love to everyone back home. Keep checkin' in with me when you can. It feels great to hear from all of you.
Check out some pictures below, if ya want. I need to pick up my photography skills, but I'm workin' on it.


Standing on a cliff at the western point of Dili

The United States Embassy in Timor-Leste

Sunset on Beach Road

Statue of Revolutionary Hero Nicolau Lobatau

Me and my coworker Evang

Luncheon at the Prison Museum

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Checkin' in from Dili

Hello friends and family and whomever,

It's been a while since I've checked in from over here in Asia, so I thought I'd take a little time to reflect and try to process it all. I'm currently between assignments at work, so I've got some time.

So I've almost been here in Dili for a month. That's a crazy thought. As slow as certain moments may be, the experience as a whole is flying by. It's been pretty surreal waking up recently and going about my routine, as if I was back home or anywhere else in the world. Sure, certain elements are different...VERY different, but I'm learning more and more to appreciate the similarities in life, no matter where I am.

Work has been great so far. The work culture here is significantly less hierarchical than back home. My boss insists that I don't think of him as a superior, but as a brother. All of my coworkers are constantly joking around with me, laughing with (at?) me as I stumble through basic phrases in Tetun and hang out on the porch at lunchtime. I would say that work is the place where I feel least like a 'malae' (foreigner), and that's pretty special.
My responsibilities are mostly grant-writing and document review. In just a few short weeks, I've already drafted and sent three different grant proposals to various post-conflict and security monitoring organizations around the world. It's inspiring to see so many countries with a vested interest in the development and stability of this young democracy. Though it has a long way to go, relative to the United States, I would say that East Timor has made remarkable strides in its twelve short years, considering that virtually all infrastructure collapsed or was burned to the ground during the last days of the Indonesian occupation in 2002. 
My work gave me a motorbike last week, and I'm slowly getting comfortable maneuvering around town. I've managed to scout out some incredible hole-in-the-wall Timorese restaurants, all of which serve a mound of rice, tofu, tempeh, and vegetables for about $1.50. That's been my lunch go-to. I still haven't gotten food poisoning yet (knock on wood). 
Speaking of, buying anything here is an interesting task. Everything that isn't made in Timor has to be imported, often from far away. Scarcity and the cost of transporting these goods from wherever to the tiny island of Timor drives the cost of virtually all foreign goods way up. I went to the store yesterday, and a loaf of whole wheat bread was $8.00...with all of this considered, I've tried to buy local as much as possible, both to save some cash and to support local agriculture. Con: It limits my food selection quite a bit. Pro: Rice and beans suits me just fine, as many of you know. 

I'm living in the Marconi neighborhood which is, interestingly enough, one of the main Indonesian enclaves in Dili. Two mosques are located near my house and, for a second period in my life, I hear the Call to Prayer five times a day. Weird flashbacks to my time in Morocco pretty much every morning that I'm jolted awake at like 6am...haha. It's cool being surrounded by something so different from my own upbringing though. 

Sharing my own culture with the neighborhood has been a fun process. I learned early on that hosting a 'malae' is somewhat of an honor for Timorese. As a result (and this is really strange for me), I am somewhat of a celebrity. Every time I walk by, people yell 'malae!' or 'Mister!', and kids come rushing out to give me high fives. The other day, they asked where I was from, and when I told them 'America,' they started clapping. Pretty wild stuff. Every move I make here is a representation of the United States, and I have to be conscious of the image I portray. As a result, I've just been trying to say hello to everyone and show that I'm thankful for the opportunity to live in their community. The other day, I dusted off my frisbee, brought it outside, and tossed with a couple kids. Within about five minutes, there were at least 15 kids and even some parents. I'd say that was the coolest experience I've had so far, as I was able to share a totally new activity with kids that had maybe never played with a malae before. 

Anyway, thank you to those who are still reading. I apologize for the long post, but there has been a lot to share from these past three weeks. I posted some pictures below, mostly all of sunsets and the scenery around town. I've been going on runs and walks at sunset, so that's been the majority of my photo time. I'll be posting more as I take them.

Peace and love,

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Up, Up, and Away

On July 7th, I drove the airport with my family, feeling a mixed bag of bittersweet emotions. That morning marked the start of "The Day," one that I had been mentally preparing for since mid-May. The previous week had been a blur of vaccinations and tearful goodbyes and last-minute Netflix'ing, all much too fast to process at once. As I hugged my parents in the perpetually-empty main terminal of JAX, the gravity of the goodbye really sunk in.
I had lived abroad before, but never had I taken on a full year, by myself, in a country that no one has ever heard of. I first heard about East Timor during IDEV-101, not from the professor but from the "Name the Countries of Asia" Sporcle quiz that successfully distracted me for a week. I remember looking it up on Wikipedia that day and thinking something to the effect of, "Why am I taking the time to actually look this random country up?" 
I don't want to get too philosophical, but I have always thought that things happen for a reason.
Anyway, I gave one last wave goodbye and headed to the first of my many departure gates. It would be a long, long journey. Jacksonville to Detroit to Tokyo to Taipei to Bali. 48 time-change-adjusted hours of travel, including a 12-hour layover in the Taipei airport, during which I demolished beer and both The Hobbit movies in a dark, empty food court.
Hours later, I got to Bali, where I would stay for two nights. I got the airport, took my first breath of Asian air, grabbed a taxi to my hostel, then headed for the beach. I took a few pictures of the sunset (see below) but was mostly content to just wander and stretch my legs after all that plane travel. 
The next morning, I woke up and went to Ubud, a popular tourist destination about an hour north of my hostel. While there, I hung out at a Sacred Monkey Sanctuary and took an incredible hike up one of the many rice plantations (check out the pictures). 
Anyway, I flew into East Timor the next day, happy to reach my final destination and home for the next year. Everything is going great, and I am almost through my first work week at Fundasaun Mahein.
I'll check in real soon.

Much love,