Fire and Aunger
Interim service training for the fifth group of volunteers in the small island nation of East Timor. There is a rumor going around that this training has been rushed through approvals because of the high level of early terminations in our group, nearly a third of our number and only five months in site. The venue is an idyllic convent high enough in the mountain to get a breeze but close enough to walk to a beach. The food is sumptuous and the company exquisite. We have one training after another with differing opinions on what the Timorese really need. I notice early on that no one is asking us what we think.
“My community has really poor self esteem, is all. They see the places around them improving, getting help. Even the Timorese who come through won’t stay for more than a day. So there is a training, some NGO, and then they pack up and go someplace more interesting. Somewhere they think they can help. And my community is embarrassed by how little they know, how far behind they are. They think it’s their fault and this is just the way they have to live.”
The real work is being done after hours. Clumps of volunteers wander into the meager light of my driftwood fire and the ocean ripples ever closer. We are drinking a thick, berry based, Indonesian medicinal alcohol called Aunger.
“Everybody talks about autonomous capacity building and making sure our work is sustainable. But that’s crap. You can’t build capacity when the people have nothing to eat. When they don’t have cab fare to get their baby to a clinic. These people need a safe, healthy environment and enough money to survive before we can get into that capacity. And anyone who tells you different is wrong.”
I look around at my colleagues, their business casual wear taking on the tea stained brown of all clothes in Timor. The firelight accentuates the circles under their eyes and the new, hungry, sharpness of their features. I listen to what they have to say.
“ I just sit there. That’s what I do. I sit there and wait and try to talk with people. But that’s got me nothing. Six months of just sitting there. One day I spent six hours cutting my lawn with these little tiny shears. That’s crazy right? In the middle of it this goat walked up and was all like, “Hey man I’ll eat that grass for you.” And I yelled at it. Because that was my job! It was the only one I had that month. Then I felt bad. That goat was the first thing to talk to me all week.”
They sit a moment and the conversation swirls. We admire the perfect stretch of calm white beach and tell inside jokes well missed from our time in training.. Sometimes people are overcome in the middle of their tales, choking back strong emotion. It’s not the ones who speak or yell that I worry about but the silent ones. The ones in their rooms facing another long night alone.
“I give this crazy guy cigarette if he’ll rub my shoulders. He lives in my town, you know, harmless, red teeth and one day he asks me for a cigarette. I’m like first you rub my shoulders then you can have a cigarette. Cause the people in town are forever rubbing up on each other and my shoulders are damned tight. So yeah he got a cigarette. But now whenever he sees me he comes over and starts a-rubbing. I could be standing in line or talking to someone and I’m like, “Woah man, there is a time and a place!” Next time I’m gonna hire me someone less crazy.”
I’ve been told that the first year is the hardest. I’ve been told that it’s a waiting game, the slow boring of hard wood, the stream that moves the mountain over time. I’ve been told a lot of things. Here’s what I know. My host family yells at me. I’ve got a heat rash that can be likened to a biblical plague. My pants often fall down because a goat ate my belt and I’ve lost sixty pounds. More than sometimes I just want to go home. So, what else is new?
“They, my host family community- whatever, don’t get. . . They haven’t gotten that I’m human yet. It’s not in their mind yet that I’m human. I mean, they laughed at me when my friend died. That’s, I know that’s cultural, but come on. I am going to do everything I can. Everything I can to convince my community that -work on other things. They really have some problems out there. But if they don’t, I mean if I’m not the guy who can do that. I’ll just sit on their beach and eat their damn fish for two years.”
I have the doc’s number on my cheap mobile phone. I’ve read the procedures for early termination maybe ten times now. But I know if I leave, I’ll never see how this ends. I grimly break off another piece of drift wood and toss it on the fire. The Aunger is bitter but I’m used to it.