Settling In

In Manatuto, East Timor


20 November 2003 -- Manatuto, East Timor

For me, the first four months have been a period of testing: testing to see if I really want to be here, in this town, with this organization, for another twenty months; and of the community testing me out, figuring out how seriously to take this giant come to volunteer in their midst. I've learned quite a bit about how things do and don't work here, and how I can maybe get a few things done if I stay here long enough. I've decided to stay, to stay true to my commitment, put up with Peace Corps' bureaucratic and managerial problems, work through the quirks of living and working in a different culture, and make myself a home here. Without a doubt, the host family I chose to live with, and that which Teresa graciously referred to me, has been the force coalescing all the reasons for me to stay.

The young girls, my little host sisters, so eager to engage the world, so curious about their environs, so full of playful energy, ready for seemingly any challenge, and for whom a discussion of relatives lost to the struggle for independence is as commonplace of my listening to my grandfather's stories of working on the railroad survey crews, have brought such joy into my life, teaching me what it is to feel a part of a huge family (9 children to a mother with 9 siblings).

The other day, I was watching several of the kids picking jambua from the tree below my window. They didn't see me watching, I just enjoyed watching them reaching for the fruit and sending their little brother up in the branches to shake down the barely ripe, dry-juicy, waxy fruit. Mikaela eventually saw me and laughed up at me. I'd just broken open a green coconut their older brother's friend had sent down from the coconut tree out back, and was drinking the sweet, warm, smooth water from inside. They didn't believe it was really ripe, so I challenged them to come up and taste for themselves. To my surprise, Mikaela and her little sister, Dercia, came up and we had a relaxing afternoon discussion. They tasted the sweet liquid and laughed as I was the only one that could drink a whole glass without breaking into an inexplicable laughter. They finally, after four months, admitted that their father was not Sra. Lina's current husband, Sr. Domingas, but was a man of Chinese decent from Suai (on the south side of the island). Now this is more than obvious to even the most casual observer, for three sisters are close carbon copies of each other, while their other siblings share no physical traits. But I didn't protest the firm response I'd received twice before that all the kids had the same father.

The kids tried out my new three dollar hammock that isn't even work half that, and they asked me why I don't kill any animals. Being a Buddhist gives me an explanation easy for them to grasp, but they were equally interested in the ideas that not killing animals and vegetarianism also saves resources, and is good for my health. Mikaela has recently told me she doesn't eat meat (na'an) any more, but her sisters all laugh and quickly point out the lie in the claim! However, Mikaela has taken a dislike to beef (buffalo meat) and pork. I am always quite careful not to preach, and try to point out that my interpretation of Buddha's teachings is mine, not shared by all Buddhists, and that I do not criticize anyone for killing an animal for food.

Still, I just heard tonight, that Teresa's host sisters were on the radio the other day talking about my eating habits! Apparently they and the radio-show host thought it interesting, but said I should eat more fish so I would not be so skinny! I could use a few more pounds, but eating more or differently won't add them at this point.

mj


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