Subject: JP: Bare necessities and big spending in East Timor

The Jakarta Post February 18, 2001

Bare necessities and big spending in East Timor

By Text and photos by Ati Nurbaiti

DILI (JP): The big, tipsy man on the plane said he was to start a seven week vacation in Bali. Before the spirits garbled his tongue he managed to say he was from New Zealand and was supervising a building renovation project in Dili. "No work in New Zealand," he said, adding that he was quite looking forward to time away from Dili: "No life there. You go to bed at nine."

There are a considerable number of bars and restaurants in Dili including those at the many hotels to keep the thousands of expats happy, but the above bloke apparently had enough of the nightlife. He also referred to his "box" -- one of a series of rooms just big enough for a cot, a folding table and chair and a cupboard built into containers, imported from Australia.

For the last few years there has been no cinema in the capital of this soon-to-be new nation; television is on air again, complete with MTV -- that's when the power does not suddenly go out. Televisions have returned to the market but electronic goods have a short life span due to the fluctuating voltage.

For locals, joyful nights are the parties -- weddings and other occasions -- which one goes to as well dressed as possible, the women in glamourous tight outfits, preparing to dance the night away in mostly ballroom dancing style, no matter what the tune -- golden oldies, American country music, Indonesian and Timorese popular melodies, sung by natural and professional singers among the guests and hosts.

Wedding after wedding took place as refugees returned over the past year. At the parties one forgets the ruins, the hardship, the uncertainties and the garbage.

Beer, starting at Rp 12,000 a can, is the coveted company for happy hours, or better still -- the tuak shabu, the traditional liquor with a much higher alcohol content.

Fights, including one on New Year's Eve which led to one death, have been partly attributed to drunks among both the locals and expats.

Fighting is one of the popular "sports" here, quipped one UN police officer -- apart from soccer, fishing and gambling on cock fights.

During regular hours, Coca Cola and other soft drinks, at Rp 6,000 a can (the cheaper bottled drinks are non-existent), are the must-be-served-to-guests beverages and the drinks to be taken after lunch or dinner. "It's terrifying, I take water everywhere I go," says one health freak.

When beer was about half the price in 1999, "we would see children drinking beer in the morning," a resident of Maliana in the western region said.

Mineral water is a must for those who can afford it, while many make do with boiled water, which has a high lime content. International staff get mineral water for free. Tanks deliver potable water from Dili to all the posts manned by international troops.

A few days in Dili and reality sets in, of life amid the ruins, managing the high cost of covering basic needs and not so basic but de rigeur needs.

The value of U.S. and Australian dollars dictates the cost, which can be paid in rupiah, of goods and services which are at least double the price they are in Jakarta, or Australia, where most goods come from. The cheapest dish in a fairly cheap restaurant is, therefore, the equivalent of US$1, or Rp 10,000. Earlier plans to use the Portuguese escudo have been quietly dropped.

Cellular phones are a must due to the destruction of the telephone network. For US$76, almost the price of a cheap new cellular, one gets a SIM card which includes a new number and a pulse of 100.

To call up relatives in Indonesia, these cards, presently a monopoly of the Australian Telstra company, run out fast. Prices for phones and cards are cheaper on the roadside stalls or from vendors but there is, of course, no guarantee given.

Rebuilding homes is a long and costly process, with families making do with zinc sheets and tarpaulins for roofing, and planks of wood in place of shattered glass. Some neighborhoods have water pumps donated by the British Oxfam organization, having had their original pumps stolen during the September 1999 rampage.

The United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) has allocated 40 zinc sheets per household -- "but you have to get it yourself," one local gripes.

Largely intact houses in the elite areas have been rented by international staff for homes and offices. Some families, returning from shelters to find their homes destroyed, took over empty homes left by their original Portuguese owners in the 1970s -- some of whom have flown back to stake their claims, leading to a number of property disputes in the courts.

The owners arrive with complete documents, an issue so exasperating that leader Xanana Gusmao has said, "The town of Dili will not belong to the Timorese, but to the Portuguese, Indonesians ..."

Much cash must be set aside for transport. Taxis charge at least Rp 5,000 for a 10-minute drive. Public transportation on intercity routes, vital for farmers selling their produce, costs Rp 25,000 for a three-hour drive. Cars for hire are US$125 a day, excluding gas, and are particularly needed for traveling outside of town, although cheaper ones are to be found. Diesel fuel is Rp 3,500 per liter; city transport costs Rp 1,000, the cheapest price for anything except candies.

Prices have gone down but they are still exorbitant, particularly for the thousands without regular incomes. The lucky ones include those who have found jobs in hotels and restaurants. Money changing has become a new business for many a vendor.

People are looking for jobs at the lowest level in UNTAET -- Rp 1 million, or US$100, per month, which is barely enough to survive on in Dili.

The recent incident in front of the Timor Lorosae University, in which a Portuguese police officer was pelted by stones after he tried to pull a resisting taxi driver from his vehicle, has been linked to resentment towards international staff; $100 is merely a day's pay for many of those who are paid in the thousands of dollars.

Four hundred teachers went on strike in January in front of the UNTAET headquarters, with their contracts running out and their wages of $100 a month arriving late.

In this desperate part of the world, some, however, still can afford to wait for a better career.

On the waterfront across from the headquarters, Skyf Herniai hangs about with men selling souvenirs.

He snubs the scramble for UN jobs. "I used to get 20 bucks a day working with the (American) marines," he says in American English.

Instead, he claims, he will get a job with one of the many foreign businesses in Dili, and learn how to start up his own company.

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