Ashley Chow: Timor-Leste

August 28, 2011

The longer I stay in this country, the more I see how my life in America is an embarrassment of riches.  Materially speaking and in terms of education.  A single bookstore in America probably has more books (and quality books, for that matter) than the entire city of Dili.  Students in the university don’t have access to the internet or textbooks to study from.  The classrooms have broken desks and whiteboards that have not been properly erased and cleaned in years.

But at the same time, Timor has its own riches.  The other day I spent the afternoon at the beach at low tide.  Among the tidal pools I was delighted to encounter a world of life: sea urchins, starfish, salt water snails, hermit crabs, tiny fish, something that looked like a sea cucumber.  I could have stayed there for hours if not for the burning heat of the sun.  It’s winter in Timor, so in the shade and at night time, the temperature actually feels quite cool and refreshing.  Under the sun, it’s a different story.

For the most part, I’m still not completely comfortable in this country and still feel as though I’m adapting to Timor life.  The unremitting crows of roosters throughout the day have dissolved my childhood image of picture-book roosters that obediently crow once a day at dawn.  The boars, stray dogs, and goats are not only ubiquitous but for some reason also pregnant.  Thankfully the animals mind their own business and do not seem interested in approaching people.  While driving along the road by the beach, the fresh ocean air gets regularly interrupted with the smell of burning trash.  What else.  This is a country without addresses, only districts and street names.  The place where I’m staying at is indicated by the first red gate down California Road.  I visited the postal office in Dili, but am not sure how mail gets distributed around the city.

I finally wrote my first poem here last week and hope that it is one of many more to come.

August 1, 2011

Four days and four plane rides later, through Chicago, Seoul, and Bali, I finally arrived in Dili, Timor-Leste.  I’ve been here for a little over a week now and feel very far from Boston.  Probably the most familiar trace of Americana I’ve encountered are the pop songs playing in a cafe that I frequent.  Other than that, I feel quite displaced here and have just been trying to absorb all of the unfamiliar: the clear sea water and soft sand beaches (this is no rocky New England coastline), coconut trees, bananas of varying species, including a red-skinned one, orange tap water, traffic anarchy on the roads.  Timor-Leste’s status as one of the poorest countries in the world is apparent even in Dili, probably the most well-off area of the island.  Almost all the Timorese children walk barefoot along streets littered with broken glass, rusted cans, and other debris.  Goats, chickens, and stray dogs roam around and pick at trash piles for food.  Electricity, internet, and running water flicker on and off or refuse to work at all.

So far I’ve just been trying to take copious notes and observations that will hopefully be used for my poetry.  I’m not sure how being in Timor will manifest in my writing, but I’m sure the poems that will come will be different than they have been this past year.

Here is a photo of a beach in Dili, close to where I’m staying.

April 24, 2011

This summer through fall I’ll be in Timor-Leste to experience firsthand a post-conflict society and to speak directly with survivors of extremity. As I live in the capital Dili, I hope to talk with and learn from the Timorese people–political leaders, doctors, fishermen, teachers, writers, artists–anyone who is willing to share life experiences with me. I imagine these conversations will be eye-opening in profound and devastating ways for me, and as I grapple artistically with the realities I encounter, I hope to find inspiration for my own poetry.