The Urge to Complain

>> 21 April 2015

My New Year's Resolution was to complain less (particularly on facebook), and I think I've largely succeeded at this so far. When something happens and I feel the urge to complain about it, I actively work to re-frame the incident in a positive, or at least a grimly humorous way. I think this is productive, and overall a good thing for anyone to do, but it doesn't change the fact that things bother me, and that life is sometimes really hard. Things seem to have been building up lately, though, and I'd like to get them out before they do something bad to my psyche.

I am sick to death of people messing with the mirrors on my motorbike, and the larger implication of the lack of respect for property or ownership. In this country if you are not physically present on your motorbike, it does not belong to you. It doesn't matter how long you step away from it, someone WILL come over and sit down. They'll mess with all your switches and levers, and they WILL move the mirrors so they can LOOK AT THEMSELVES while they're sitting on your $1,600 park bench.

I am weary to the point of anger at the state of and attitudes toward mental health care in this country, and I'm completely fed up with my psychotic neighbor, to the point where I have to dig deep to respond (even in my thoughts) with the compassion that another human being deserves. This woman lives a literal wall away from me and she has a violent screaming fit every single day, and sometimes more than once. These fits are preceded and followed by long periods of moaning, wailing crying, and I recently fell victim to her inexplicable grief when I discovered that she'd wiped her snot all over my motorbike where, YOU GUESSED IT, she'd decided to stage her breakdown (and, apparently, watch herself). Her family says she's cursed, or has a demon. End of story, no treatment, no care. She is just left alone to confront the black terror of losing control over and over again.

I am tired of being afraid. My neighbor scares me. Watching a human being come unhinged and cease to be human scares me. Being responsible for the safety of her child (because like it or not, I am a part of this family now) frightens me. Thanks to the other night, I'm now afraid of the police. Waking up alone and not knowing what woke me up frightens me. Realizing that all it would take to die in this country is a heavy rain, an inattentive driver, a small earthquake, a single spark, a single mosquito, a single dog, a wrong step in the bush, it all frightens me. Every time I relax and take my safety for granted for an instant, I am putting myself at risk. It is exhausting, and I'm starting to feel the strain of it.

I can deal with the heat (though lately it seems to be making me vomit) and the rain and the floods and the filth, but what I have a hard time dealing with is the culture that created the filth. Nothing shows you your privilege more than the expectation that offices and public spaces have trash bins. They don't. I'm sick of seeing people dispose of their trash by throwing it out of their window. Every time I take the ferry, I watch as dozens of people throw their cigarette butts, empty bottles, and styrofoam instant noodle cups directly into the ocean. DIRECTLY. IN. Americans have such a guilt complex about their plastic waste, but it is places like this that created the Pacific Garbage Patch, not that family of 4 in Ohio who sometimes forget their reusable shopping bags and are forced to use plastic. Plastic is everywhere here, there is zero recycling capacity and only the most basic of trash pickup services. The general view is that 'outside' is your trashcan, and I am watching in dismay as Timorese people are filling their country with rubbish.

I promise this is almost over. I'm just going to start listing:

Being viewed as an object of prey, derision and resentment by complete strangers, but most of all, being viewed as an object. Knowing that every breath I take contains countless carcinogens from burning trash and unregulated vehicle emissions. The noise that pervades every aspect of my life. The insanely dangerous drivers. The people who put their infants and children on a motorbike with no helmet. The tendency for every guitar to always be out of tune and every singer to be embarrassingly bad. The assumption that every person in the country is Catholic and the open ridicule of other faiths. The inclusion of religion (and of course by that I mean Catholicism) in the NATIONAL CURRICULUM. The mouse discovered yesterday in my kitchen because I couldn't convince my housemates that 'not leaving food out' is actually important. The fact that I can't drink the water. The fact that we don't even HAVE hot water. That if I want to drink water, it comes in a plastic bottle. The incomprehensible rudeness of other foreigners to each other (I could talk about this for days).

WHEW. Ok, I'm stopping before this gets any longer. I just needed a bit of a whinge. Hopefully it's out of my system for a while. And if it isn't, I can always run down to the mall for a 2-hour, $45 Balinese massage, followed by a 90-minute, $5 hatha yoga class in an air-conditioned ballroom, and finish it off with cold beer and a sunset view over the ocean. And Bali is like, an hour away.


My night at the checkpoint

>> 18 April 2015

Dili has been enforcing checkpoints after dark for some time now, ostensibly because of rising hostilities of a known combatant in one of the districts. His name is Mauk Moruk (bitter brother), and the things he does in the forest generally have little bearing on my life. At first the checkpoints were looking at large transport vehicles (for weapons), then at cars/SUVs (for suspicious persons), and now motorbikes (for boredom and revenue).

I've know about this for some time. The US Embassy advised all citizens to carry all their documents with them at all times, and I have always obeyed this. For me, this means my passport and driver's license (we'll come back to this). Since the new year began, I've even had a self-enforced curfew of 10pm. I've been stopped many times at these checkpoints, most notably on Valentine's Day night, when I was wearing a pink sequined dress and 4 inch heels, and I generally get through them without incident.

Until tonight.

The thing is, you don't really have to stop. The road isn't really blocked, and if you keep driving, it's not that big of a deal. The police are annoyed, but they won't do much (except in Baucau, where they apparently shot at someone, but the cops there are crazy already). In general, white people are just waved through. But I still stop every time and at least say good evening and ask if they need anything from me. There is a lady cop that I particularly like who calls me Mana Professora (big sister teacher).

Tonight, I got waved over into the holding area (not unusual), and asked for my documents (not unusual), and then asked to turn my bike off (unusual). Cop 1 took my license away and handed it to Cop 2, who was to write me a ticket for not having my documents. I didn't have proof that I owned the motorbike, or that it was registered, despite having legal plates (which indicate both of those things, and have, in the past, been sufficient).

I do not like having my documents taken away. I will do anything to keep someone from taking my documents away. Tonight, this manifested as all-out pleading and shockingly fluent Tetun. I asked repeatedly for some explanation as to why I was getting a ticket, why my license was being taken away, what specifically they needed from me, and then I started making phone calls. I had been texting the friend I'd just left (who's father is a Timorese cop), but his document situation was even worse than mine, so I forbid him from coming to help like he'd offered. He called several times throughout to check on things and it was the vital anchor to a crazy evening.

I called my housemates. I said, "I have an emergency. I need you to find the key that unlocks my desk and bring any papers that you find inside to the checkpoint in Colmera. They're taking my license away." They couldn't find the spare key, so they drove to the checkpoint to get my copy. Then they drove back to the house to get my papers.

In the mean time, I sat on the curb and started crying. One of the 10+ cops was really angry about it and started talking about me and 'foreigners who don't know the law' and I shot back (in Tetun) that I did indeed know the law and that I had everything that was legally required (not actually true), and once he realized that I speak his language and was genuinely frightened he was much nicer. He and Cop 2 turned out to be the nicest dudes there.

While I was sitting crying on the curb, I collected a gang of about 10 little boys between the ages of 7 and 13, who thought it was hilarious/awful that I was crying and tried anything to make me laugh. Malae tanis- la bele, bele hamnasa, diak liu mana hamnasa. "Foreign lady is crying- you shouldn't, you should laugh, it's better that big sister laughs." So while I waited, I did the only thing I'm truly good at. I started teaching them some English. Just a few corrections- the difference between Mister and Misses (Timorese kids call all foreigners 'mister'), and how to introduce each other (they've got 'my name is...' just fine, but needed the words to get to 'his name is...'). We tickled and joked and talked about where we're from and whether I'm Catholic and if we have Catholics in the US and what I'm doing in Timor and mother tongues and districts and food, and all the while the cops were listening.

I think this is what won the cops over to my side. It is unusual for cops to detain a foreigner. It is even more unusual for that foreigner to be as stubborn as I was. It is unheard of for a foreigner to be laugh-crying while teaching English to a bunch of street urchins while detained at a checkpoint and be totally cool with it. Cop 10+ (as I'm now calling him) came over and told me that he wanted to help me, but that he just couldn't because they had to be serious tonight. I watched as they impounded half a dozen vehicles and closed the checkpoint down for the night, letting anyone and everyone through (seriously? come on, you jerks).

My housemates/saviors returned. By this time, I knew that whatever documents I managed to come up with, Cop 2 (the ticket-writer) would accept them and it would be done. I was right. I still don't know if the papers they found in my desk are the legal proof of my ownership of and state registration of my vehicle, but I got my license back and the ticket won't be filed. I don't intend to find out if I'm not in possession of the correct documents, though. There are many back roads and alleys around these check points, I just don't take them because I never thought I was doing anything wrong. Now I know!

So now I'm getting impressively drunk (5+ beers, pretty coherent, right?) and listening to metal really loud and doing my best to see the positive things that have come of this experience.

What I've learned about myself: I am assertive. I am brave. I am patient. I am clever. I am fluent enough in Tetun. I know how to talk to people. I know how to bring people around. I am a teacher.

What I've learned about Timor: Cops are just people. Timorese people are just people. Children are just silly small people. Foreigners don't get an automatic pass. The ticket forms are in Tetun and English (not Portuguese or Indonesian). The cops prefer to speak Tetun and Indonesian (not Portuguese or English). The children prefer to speak Tetun or English (not Portuguese or Indonesian). People are people are people.

Positive affirmations: I have good friends. I have made good choices in the people I surround myself with. My life is a classroom. I am both the student and the teacher.

I'm getting a massage tomorrow.


Reading Around the World: Update 7

>> 10 April 2015

Voices Echo, Linda Lee Graham

There are writers who use characters to tell stories, and there are characters that create their own stories and use a writer to escape into the world. This book was definitely one of the second type. Set in colonial and slave-state Jamaica, the story follows a young English wife who follows her aging husband to his plantation. She, in turn, is followed by her attorney, an American Scot who is secretly in love with her (of course). Their lives and the lives of their neighbors, friends, enemies, slaves, whores, and children are woven into a thick and complicated plot that doesn't shy away from any of the unpleasant realities of plantation life. Tropical diseases, murder (so much murder), miscarriage, the legal ownership of another human being, infidelity, earthquakes, black magic, cyclones, forced prostitution, someone getting their finger bitten off, it's all there. I've actually been reading this book for close to 4 weeks because a.) it was really long and b.) I didn't have it in me to skim this one. The details of Jamaica are so rich that I felt I was there (also, it happens to be really similar to Timor, so that helped), and I could almost see the characters faces, hear their voices, recognize their walks. Truly, a fantastic read. I found out at the end that this was the middle book in a trilogy, so maybe after I finish this project and can really take my time, I'll read the other two.
Kissiness: 3/5
Grittiness: 5/5
Happiness: 1/5
Feels: wow, overwhelmed, bored, wow, sigh

So, You Want to Be Canadian: All About THE MOST FASCINATING PEOPLE IN THE WORLD and THE MAGICAL PLACE THEY CALL HOM, Kerry Colburn & Rob Sorensen

O, Canada.... (yes I went there). I've always felt that Canada exists somewhere between a grudging jealousy for the US and an overt inferiority complex and this book did very little to change my mind. I know that the entire thing is meant to be funny and light-hearted, but every chapter, anecdote, and factoid had this undercurrent of "CANADA IS RELEVANT AND BETTER THAN THE U.S.!!!!!! RIGHT!!!???!!!!" Sorry Canada, I'm still not impressed by how much you like hockey, I don't want anything to do with whatever horror cheese curds are, and don't consider 'not freezing to death sometimes' and 'not being the US' sufficient inducement to spend any time there (which may have been the whole point of this book). Come on, Canada, be your own thing. Stop defining yourself by your 'nots'.... Not the US, thank God, haha what jerks! Not England, stuff and nonsense pip pip cheerio! Not France, oui oui AUN HAUN HAUN HAUN! Definitely not Russia, killed them at hockey once in the '70s! I'm still pretty jealous of your healthcare plans and the fact that you recognize and value your indigenous population, and whatever sorcery the 'Northern Lights' must be, but that's all you're gonna get from this red-blooded American. Oh, sorry, I forget that you're also technically 'American'... boy that must rankle ;)
PatriotActiness: 0/5
Obamacareness: 100/5
Indigenousness: 5/5
Feels: pity, confusion, amusement, condescension, resignation

Inca, Geoff Micks

Amazingly detailed, imaginative, full of complex characters and scenes, political intrigue, love, death, and gruesome reality, I was trapped in this book for weeks and weeks. The thought of opening it up to conquer another chapter exhausted me before I even began- eventually I just had to binge-read my way through it just to get to the other side. This is the life story of one of the most powerful Inca of the Blood, who watches his kingdom fall to ruin in a single generation. It is being recorded by a captured Spanish priest somewhere in the interior of northern Chile, and is being told by a very old man at the end of his life. The cast of characters is seven pages long, so I'll paraphrase here as best as I can. Incan empire is very, very efficient. There's a satisfying and logical coldness to the concept of statecraft present throughout. Then, in a few years, socialist utopia gives way to utter Machiavellian madness. Emotion overcomes reason. Smallpox arrives (before the Spaniards!) and decimated once-thriving empire. Decades of war culminate in utter ruination of long-held kingdoms. Order gives way to chaos. Spaniards burn good people at the stake in the name of God, stealing anything they want and killing those in their way. Horrific.
Stabbiness: 5/5
Subtlety: 3/5
Kissiness: 1/5
Feels: anger, ruin, frustration, despair, despair, despair