28 July 2003
We've been in Timor for 3.5-months already, but it feels like
a lot longer. There have been times when Susan and I hang onto
our love like the last string of our salvation. Then there have
been times when we hold on so tight that our hands start to
get tired and they slip just a bit, which scares us back into
the task of holding on tight. It has been more difficult coming
to East Timor than I had imagined. However, we are now settling
into a great groove and speaking the language much better. We
really enjoy the family we live with and I finally got my hands
on an Economist, a month and a half old, which makes me feel
like I am keeping up with the rest of the world. Of course,
in more ways than one I am not keeping up with the rest of the
For example, our current lifestyle is pretty basic. We have
no running water and no electricity. However, living with only
the basics isn't so hard, in fact it can be nice to be so simplistic.
The rough part is the complete lack of privacy. We live with
this family in a house with no ceiling and the walls stop three-fourths
of the way to the roof. From our room and any room in the house,
all things can be heard. Everywhere we ride our bikes or walk,
people of all ages stop, stare, and yell, "malai, malai,
ba nebee?!" Which roughly means "Strange stranger,
strange stranger, where are you going?!" Sometimes it is
nice but it can get taxing. Everywhere we go our every move
is watched. People even stand or sit out in the street to catch
a glimpse of us through the window. It is weird, like we are
celebrities or something, but we are getting used to it and
sometimes this life, the strangeness of life, or simply the
shortness of life makes me take that step backwards into a more
Susan and I have this queen size super lux mattress, but we
haven't had a bed frame to put it on. So it was my job to find
someone to build us one. I set about the task by talking with
the man whose home it is we are living in. After discussing
what I was looking for, he thought about it awhile and said,
"lets talk about it tonight". After a minute or two
he stopped himself in thought and asked if I could go with him
right now and talk with some people in the village about it.
Great! We grabbed our bikes and headed out and down the road.
The first person we talked with said they had no wood. The second
person we talked with was a woman who said it would be better
if we came back when her husband was home. So we left and went
to another home down the road. When we rode up to the house
several children came running up yelling, "malai, malai!"
Here we found the bed-maker with wood, but not enough wood for
the lats to rest the mattress on inside of the frame, just enough
for the frame itself. Okay then. I quickly figured the longer
I hang around the more likely the bed-maker would be to charge
me more for any frame that came out of it. So we rode our bikes
to the local Administrator's home and talked with him about
the problem of the lack of wood. The administrator suggested
we use bamboo for the lats instead of wood planks. Brilliant!
Bamboo is everywhere, so we got back on the bikes and headed
home. On the way we began discussing how much I should pay for
the frame, and just as we decided 10$ wouldn't be enough we
ran into the old man bed-maker without enough wood for lats.
He had been waiting for us outside of our home, and after the
pleasantries we invited him inside.
We all sat down and shared the news about the bamboo, and slowly
the tension rose as I began the negotiations by taking great
pains to clearly explain that although I am a "malai",
I have very little money. I looked hard and sincerely into his
leathered face and elaborated about how I am a VOLUNTEER. I
explained that our bikes are really not ours. "Peace Corps
lends them to us to help us in our work helping your community,
and we must give them back when we are finished." He listened
intently, letting me know that I was being understood. So I
finished up by asking, "what do you think we should pay?"
Unfazed he looked at me through the smoke of his cigarette and
suddenly became uncomfortable and hesitant. Sensing his discomfort,
the man whose home I am living in, my advocate, piped-up and
re-explained everything I had just finished saying. As the bed-maker
began to squirm in discomfort again, another bent and weathered
man walked into the doorway. Why and from where, to this day
I have no idea, but he was quickly given a chair across from
me and next to the bed-maker. No one offers introductions as
they all know who I am and that is enough. Oddly I noticed that
I was the only one that was not barefoot. And for the third
time my advocate began explaining my position.
At this point my mind started to drift and I began to wonder,
"Who is this old man who just came in?" He was a bit
taller and longer in the face. He was smoking as well and sat
nodding to everything that was said. And from nowhere, life
and it's strange shortness suddenly enveloped me. I was no longer
irritated with the process. I was no longer listening. I was
just sharing time and space of this short life with these men,
and was completely content to be doing so. I was void of reservation
and totally aware and present that we were engaging each other
in this brief moment in time's history and we were all damn
lucky to be so lucky. I suddenly knew that the price of the
bed-frame did not matter, it was the experience of the process
that counted and I would agree to whatever price these two men
As I was coming-to, my advocate was handing the bed-maker a
pen and paper to write his price on. The bed-maker reached out
to grab the paper and pen, and right away started explaining
how the wood for the frame was way out on his plantation and
that because Susan and I are so tall, the frame will need to
be longer requiring longer pieces of wood, and on and on.
And then I was loving the process and loving his explanations
because I knew what he did not: although his explanations were
wonderful, they were no longer necessary. I had embraced the
moment, surrendering myself to his price and again I found myself
more observing that really listening. "What these two men
have seen...?" I started to wonder. Their country has been
owned by the Portuguese and stolen by Indonesia. Their friends
and family members killed in the struggle for freedom...the
piece of paper pushed through my thoughts and into my hands.
"These 'old' men are probably only my step-mother's age,
they have just been beaten down by the struggle of their hopeless
lives." This was my last wisping thought before I looked
down at the paper and saw a shaky figure circled on the page.
!!!!! $350.00 !!!!!
"WHAT IN THE HELL ARE THESE GUYS THINKING!!" The brand
new bike that was sitting just outside the door that the Peace
Corps gave me to help these people in their godforsaken hopeless
struggle cost less than that! They have got to be kidding!
"Easy Fairchild," deep breathing and regaining composure,
I became aware that I had no real idea of how to respond to
his price because anything I put down on the paper next to $350.00,
would look like an insult. I looked helplessly at my advocate,
"are they serious?!" But he just encouraged me to
write my figure down and not worry about it. "Right, screw
these old men and what they think, there is no way I am coming
even close to their price." So I wrote down $30.00 next
to $350.00, handed the paper back and braced. The old bed-maker
slowly looked down at the paper, mumbled a few words to his
buddy, and said with a hint of a grin, "alright you can
have the frame on Sunday."
The balance always seems to rest on a tricky fulcrum when navigating
a new language and culture. Fortunately most of our days are
spent in the present and enjoying the process.