Living Conditions and Volunteer Lifestyles in East Timor
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Revision as of 14:25, 4 September 2009
|Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in East Timor|
|As a Peace Corps Volunteers, you will have to adapt to conditions that may be dramatically different than you have ever experienced and modify lifestyle practices that you now take for granted. Even the most basic practices— talking, eating, using the bathroom, and sleeping — may take significantly different forms in the context of the host country. If you successfully adapt and integrate, you will in return be rewarded with a deep understanding of a new culture, the establishment of new and potentially lifelong relationships, and a profound sense of humanity.|
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For information see Welcomebooks
Regular mail delivery is one of the things we take for granted in the United States. In East Timor, the mail service is relatively new and there have been problems both in reciving mail and sending mail home. Letters take about four weeks to arrive from the United States. Volunteers can receive letters at the following address:
Corpo de Paz
“Your Name,” PCT
Caixa Postal 310
Dili, East Timor
Volunteers have received parcels through the East Timorese mail system, but it can be a frustrating and sometimes costly process. You should discourage family and friends from sending packages because nearly all your living needs can easily be satisfied by what is available in the country. DHL and FedEx packages can incur significant customs duties paid by the receiving party. Packages are even sometimes returned to sender if customs does not understand the contents.
We recommend that you establish a regular writing pattern with friends and relatives in the United States because they may become concerned if they do not hear from you for an extended period. However, it is not uncommon for writing habits to change once a Volunteer has settled in and becomes more involved in projects in the community. Some Volunteers and their families number their letters in sequence to keep track of how many have been sent and received; that way, both parties know whether a correspondent is just too busy to write or some letters are not arriving.
There are few land lines outside of the capital and only district centers can be accessed using cellular phones. Many Volunteers have access only by satellite phones, which Peace Corps distributes to some Volunteers located in key sites for communication purposes. It is quite easy but expensive ($1/minute) to call overseas from Dili. Virtually everyone in the country who relies on telephone service carries a cellphone, although many of the outlying districts where Peace Corps Volunteers are stationed do not have coverage. In the case of an emergency, a Volunteer’s family can contact the Peace Corps’ Office of Special Services at 800.424.8580, extension 1470, during business hours or at 202.638.2574 after business hours. That office will then contact the Peace Corps office in East Timor.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
East Timor is on the tail end of the electronic revolution, but Volunteers are increasingly able to rely on the Internet for communication with family and friends in the United States. There are a few Internet cafes in Dili, though they may be too expensive for extensive surfing. The Peace Corps Volunteer office also has two computers that can be used for e-mail on a limited basis.
Housing and Site Location
Most Volunteers live in villages outside of major towns.
Houses are likely to be made of traditional palm and bamboo with heavily thatched, peaked roofs; or cement blocks with a corregated metal roof. Most villages are traditional, both in building construction and in availability of services. The most modern cement block structures may be government buildings such as health posts or schools. Any residences at least partially constructed of concrete block or finished wood are likely to belong to a village chief or to the most prosperous farmers or small business owners.
There is no electricity in most villages. Where there is, there are frequent power cuts. Most East Timorese cook over firewood even in the capital. Natural gas is available in Dili and some Volunteers choose to take a gas stove to their site, You may need to use kerosene lanterns or candles for reading or working at night.
You are required to live with a host family for the first six months after swearing in as a Volunteer to establish a web of friendship and security. Female Volunteers might consider living with a host family the entire time since East Timorese women rarely, if ever, live alone. This is the best way to ensure your safety. While crime is not a serious problem in rural areas of East Timor, there have been instances of small-scale theft from houses occupied by foreigners, and assault, while even rarer, is a risk not to be taken lightly.
Living Allowance and Money Management
All Volunteers receive a living allowance that enables them to maintain a modest but adequate lifestyle. While this allowance is calculated to enable you to live at the same standard of living as your East Timorese counterparts and neighbors, the Peace Corps’ primary concerns are that your housing meets minimal standards for security and that you have the resources to maintain a healthy diet and respectable lifestyle. Living allowances are reviewed once a year to ensure that they are sufficient to meet basic needs, and they are adjusted by the Peace Corps if necessary.
Three additional allowances are provided to Volunteers. After taking the Volunteer oath, each Volunteer receives a one-time settling-in allowance to cover the initial expenses of furnishing a house or room and purchasing basic supplies. Volunteers also receive a modest vacation allowance and two days of vacation for each month of service. Finally, the U.S. government sets aside $225 for each month of service; this readjustment allowance, which is made available after completion of service, enables Volunteers to resettle in the United States without undue burden.
While you are expected to live at the same level as those in your assigned community, you may wish to bring additional money or credit cards to pay for extraordinary expenses or for out-of-country travel during vacations. Few locations in East Timor accept credit cards. The Peace Corps strongly recommends that cash be deposited in a local bank or held in the form of traveler’s checks so that the money can be replaced in the event of loss or theft.
All East Timor Volunteers have an account at the local bank (Mandiri) in which living and vacation allowances are placed and withdrawn as needed. The Australia-New Zealand (ANZ) bank has an ATM that will accept check-card withdrawals from U.S. accounts at no charge.
Food and Diet
Dietary habits and a lack of agricultural diversity generally limit meals to corn, rice, noodles, fish (on the coast), occasionally meat and eggs, onions, tomatoes, and cassava. In more rural areas, a variety of vegetables and fruits is seldom available, especially September to November, the latter part of the dry season. Although East Timorese make liberal use of chili peppers, their spicy food is quite different, for example, from Mexican food. Corn is not ground into cornmeal and is generally eaten either roasted or boiled. Most East Timorese are exceptionally generous and will insist on sharing their food, no matter how little they have.
Many Volunteers choose to follow a mostly vegetarian diet, and they have found East Timor a fairly easy country in which to do so. However, a vegetarian diet is much easier to maintain if it includes eggs and fish. While it is possible to maintain a vegan diet, it may be challenging to acquire the variety of foods necessary to stay healthy.
Most Volunteer sites are connected by public transportation to the nearest district administration or town center or to Dili, the capital. In some cases, Volunters must walk for up to an hour to reach public transportation. This transportation consists of small buses, or converted vans called microlets, and open-bed trucks called angunnas. While public transportation is reliable most of the year, torrential rains resulting in landslides close roads for varying lengths of time during the annual monsoon season (from November to April). At those times, rural residents may need to walk around obstructed roads or walk on local trails to pick up transportation elsewhere. While your assigned community might not be a great distance from Dili in miles, getting to the capital could involve a lengthy trip because of bad road conditions. Many Volunteers try to identify alternative forms of transportation (i.e., private vehicles, taxis, or trucks) from sites in case of emergency.
Volunteers in East Timor are sometimes issued a dirt bicycle with a bicycle helmet. In accordance with Peace Corps’ policy, however, Volunteers are prohibited from driving or riding as a passenger on any two- or three-wheeled motorized vehicle (such as a motorcycle) for any reason. Volunteers are also not allowed to own automobiles or drive privately owned vehicles in East Timor. These prohibitions stem from serious safety concerns, and violation of the policy can result in immediate administrative separation from the Peace Corps.
Geography and Climate
While East Timor is in the tropical zone, there is considerable climatic variation by season and location. The rainy season lasts approximately from November to April, during which there are apt to be torrential rains every day and the weather, especially in the coastal lowlands, can be steamy and hot. The northern coast has the shortest rainy season and can be desert-like in the dry season. The southern coast receives more rain throughout the year and is generally green year-round.
Much of the island’s population area lives above an altitude of 1,000 meters (3,100 feet), and the temperature at those climes is notably cooler, especially in the evenings. In places above 1,500 meters (5,000 feet), a blanket may be necessary for sleeping and people often wear sweaters or coats, even during the day. Temperatures range in the lowlands from the low 70s at night to the mid-90s during the day with most days year-round being in excess of 80. In the mountains temperatures may be as much as 10 to 15 degrees cooler.
In smaller towns or rural areas, there may be an occasional celebration, such as a wedding or the inauguration of a new house, in which everyone participates. Celebrations are often quite elaborate and may involve the sacrifice of a goat, dog or buffalo, which is then served in a community feast. Older people often dress in traditional clothing for such events and perform traditional dances and rituals. In Dili or larger towns, there is a wider variety of social activities, including eating out at restaurants and attending local sporting events.
In the evenings, residents of towns sometimes gather for soccer or volleyball games. Most social events center around the family, although youth frequently cluster in groups of boys or girls to pass the time and gossip. In this fervently Catholic country, the local church is another locus of social activity in the community. In addition, Volunteers frequently participate in groups organized for selected activities, such as an ecology club. Timorese also enjoy outings to the beach even though only young males normally go swimming.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
In East Timor, a salaried job is regarded as a great privilege. While offices may be unfurnished, supplies scarce to nonexistent, and transportation mostly unavailable, an employee will observe regular hours and assume a professional demeanor while working. Don’t be misled by the seeming informality of your workplace; you will need to follow the lead of counterparts and take professional responsibilities seriously. Offices and job sites may be visited frequently by supervisors, and perceived unprofessional dress or behavior of a Volunteer could reflect poorly on both the Timorese counterpart and the Peace Corps. All health promotion and some community development Volunteers will work in offices. Volunteers who work in agriculture or in less structured village placements will need to use office attire for special occasions or when they visit government offices, local officials, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or the Peace Corps office.
The clothing culture is different in Dili than in the rest of Timor, particularly the rural towns and villages where you will be placed. While you'll see women wearing Western styles in Dili (that show their midriff, shoulders, and upper leg), this isn't acceptable in outlying areas. Both men and women should plan to dress very conservatively at least through training and the first months at their permanent site, until they fully understand what is acceptable at their site. East Timorese may be offended by visitors to their homes or offices who display a sloppy or unkempt appearance. Cleanliness and neatness are very important for Volunteers representing the Peace Corps. Shorts, flip-flops, and tank tops are not considered appropriate dress in an office environment. At work, men should wear collared shirts and long pants. Women should always wear bras. Shoulder-length hair and dreadlocks are generally acceptable on men, if clean and well-groomed. Any kind of visible body piercings (including tongue studs) are not acceptable for both men and women. Pierced earrings are acceptable for women, but still not considered acceptable work attire for men.
Swimwear should be very conservative. Bikinis are not acceptable for men or women. If you want to swim in public (where Timorese can see you) women should wear a T-shirt and shorts over their bathing suits.
More detailed information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is contained in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur although most Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal security incidents.
The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies
designed to help you reduce your risks and enhance your safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in East Timor. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being.
Rewards and Frustrations
Volunteers have a variety of reasons for joining the Peace Corps, but high on the list must be the desire to help others. Most Volunteers therefore bring an abundance of motivation and enthusiasm to their assignment. These are not lost in serving others but usually are tempered by a deeper understanding of other people’s daily realities. So while Volunteers should not expect to “change the world,” they can look forward to making a tangible impact.
Being a Peace Corps Volunteer requires adjusting to alternative ways of thinking, living, and working, and such adjustments are never simple and painless. The people you work with may have strong feelings of pride and nationalism. Your enthusiasm for change, however well intended, may be misunderstood. You will need to be considerate of the emotions, needs, traditions, institutions, and way of life of the people you work with.
Satisfaction will come from your commitment to learning about the inner workings of a different culture and your flexibility in dealing with new values and experiences. After living and working with people of another culture, Volunteers often develop strong ties that are reflected in strong emotions. Intense feelings of desperation, satisfaction, anger, happiness, anxiety, and peace of mind will crop up over and over—these feelings are the heart of the Peace Corps experience. But at the end of it all, it is a rare Volunteer who does not feel that the experience was one of the most important in his or her.