Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Meeting Dili

Approaching Dili by air is startlingly beautiful. If you can imagine flying into paradise, well that’s how my first glimpse felt. Thick clouds covered the island at first, apart from the craggy peaks which pierced the fluffiness. Beside me my travel companion (Tim F) commented, I wonder how it would feel to be standing on top of that mountain. Like standing on the edge of the world I’d bet.

The Air North plane to Dili seated about 30-40 people and was full, with two attendants for the one-hour flight from Darwin.  We arrived at Dili airport and were startled to notice people standing and waving to the plane, only a couple of metres from the edge of the runway.

Around the airstrip were at least a dozen choppers and other aircraft imprinted with ‘UN’. Large wooden crosses dotted the hillsides close by. These are not burial sites or memorials, but simply reminders of faith placed around the city in this predominantly Catholic country.

Customs was relaxed. We paid US$30 for a visa, showed our passports, and stated the purpose of our visit as ‘visiting friends’ (friends that three of us were yet to meet). Bags were scanned, and presumably scrutinised, though how intently I am unsure. We simply handed our incoming papers to a gent standing in the walkway out to the greeting area. And that was it.

We were met by Rev Samuel, Mr Argus and Ardaleno. Two local barefooted children, covered from head to toe in dust, spontaneously joined us on the walk to our car, and the young boy who I guess was about nine years old, lifted the bags and guitars inside. We piled into the Rav 4 Samuel had on loan from Mr Argus. I can’t imagine what we must have looked like after 24 hours without sleep.

The drive through Dili was bustling and entertaining, accompanied by the usual tooting horns, occasional pothole, obligatory swerving to avoid bikes and people, trucks overloaded with dozens of people, motor cycles with whole families on board, and vans with patrons hanging from the doorways.

But if you think you get the picture, Dili is no carbon copy of other Asian cities. It is too busy being itself.

The air is warm and dusty here as the wet season has not yet arrived. Unless you work in the public service, it's a 7 day working week here. Perhaps you might take a break to go to church on Sunday morning. From the ends of long bamboo poles, slung across people’s shoulders, hang fish, pak-choy, shoes and any other manner of item for sale. People wheel huge wooden trolleys, sometimes through the traffic, and others sit at stalls on the footpaths selling bottled water and such.

But that still sounds like other Asian cities I have visited.

Dili is not built-up in the way of the others. There are some large buildings, most built in Portuguese architectural style, but very few exceed a couple of storeys. The Catholic cathedral is the largest building in town, and I find its size and austerity offensive. Housing is predominantly constructed from bamboo and corrugated iron, and many structures are built on riverbanks that don’t look like they’d see out a high tide. If I had to make a comparison, the closest I have seen to Dili is on some townships of Laos, but still in Laos there is more visible wealth.

Rev Samuel saw us unto the Oriental Hotel, just a couple of buildings from Hosana Church from which our activities are based. We are grateful for our rooms with their private bathrooms and air conditioning. Mine is situated in the centre of the hotel and borders a festively painted courtyard. The hotel had provided some breakfast for us: fried eggs, sweet bread we could toast, cordial, and jam. We had three hours until our first duties, so retired to out own rooms to rest.

Suddenly I missed my family, the way one does when faced with the unfamiliar.

It was good to lie down and stretch out on my double bed under the air conditioner - surely one of the better modern inventions! After waking on Friday morning back at home (more than 24 hours before) I’d had no sleep, so I lay down on my bed and caught half-an-hour or so. The power nap would have to suffice as the combination of cool air on clammy skin woke me prematurely.

I worked out how to activate the hot water after my first shower by following the pipes around the wall to an electric switch labelled ‘hot water’. On my first day I helped myself to three showers while I acclimatised, and battled exhaustion. There are three types of power point in this room, none that accommodate the European convertor brought on this journey. Luckily one of the versions on offer turns out to be an Aussie point. The courtyard has a fishpond in the centre and some places to sit, but it’s far too hot to use late morning. I know. I tried.

Now on our fourth day in Dili I am amazed how quickly we have settled in. And also how familiar our companions, now friends, feel to us despite the stilted language. They are warm and welcoming with a ready smile, a handshake or kiss, and they are grateful for whatever we can offer. It is a pleasure and a privilege to be here.

You may also be interested in reading
Exploring a Theology of Gratitude in the Land of Entitlement

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