Asking and Doing

In Manatuto, East Timor

8 August 2003 -- Manatuto, East Timor

It never ceases to impress me how little time to myself I have each day, especially considering how little work I actually have: perhaps it is just living with an engaging family of fifty-five. Regardless the reason, my journal is woefully out of date, with little chance of catching up.

In my last entry, I griped a bit about the Peace Corps' local administration, perhaps too much so, because since then, they've left me alone, and everything has been fine. I only hope the communications from them stay as sparse as they've been the past two weeks.

Since coming here, I've learned more about the history and realities in East Timor through conversations with local people than I ever could in any books -- though the books I've read have helped to put a larger perspective on the stories. However, it is very difficult to relate the stories, partly because they are pieces of other people's lives I'm not sure I have the license to share, but more simply because these stories are so vast, often second hand, and the telling of them is so informal, that I could never be sure of relating truth or fiction to the readers. But where is the line between truth and fiction regarding an attempt to rip asunder the land and people of East Timor?

Senora Lina's husband -- who was the drunken cause of the argument mentioned in my last entry -- related to me the other day the three times he was in Indonesian prisons because they thought he knew something he didnít. He lied his way out after grueling interrogations. Senora Isabel has mentioned several times how the family ran to the hills during the '99 post-referendum militia violence. The other day, Elias, Senora Lina's oldest son, talked about the minimum food they had when hiding for a couple of months in the foho (hills). His cousin, also named Elias, mentioned how the men in his family ran to the hills in the west while the women ran to the east, both groups thinking the family members not with them were dead.

That Elias is a strange one, for every conversation we have, he peppers with references to the gifts he's received from other Westerners, such as the off-road motorcycle he has. Only occasionally does he ask me for something like medicine. Asking for things seems to be a prerequisite for any young man speaking with a Westerner. Another relative of the family, Donico, and I have talked a few times and he always asking if I can get him something. The last thing he fixated on was a simple hat from America for which he would trade a genuine Timorese Teis. That would have been a nice thing to talk about from the start, and could have been accepted as a genuine desire to trade momentos. But before requesting a Columbia hat, he asked if I could get him a rice husker (of which there are numerous around town already donated by international NGOs), or a paddy plow; at least he wasn't asking for money.

I never really take offense, and am not bothered much as no one ever is persistent to the point of rudeness, but it telling of the attitude cultivated by both the Indonesian occupiers and the international donor agencies and NGOs since occupation: both simple pumped millions of dollars worth of material, equipment, food, clothing, medicine, roads, irrigation projects, and countless other stuff into the local economy. As far as I can tell, much of it made it into good hands, helping feed people in need and give light to people without. But perhaps it's been too much. We heard much talk about how people won't work without compensation, and there does indeed seem to be an attitude of entitlement here. However, there are also plenty of people doing real work, in the rice fields, in the markets, on the roads. The older people in particular seem to work pretty hard.


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