East Timor Trip 2

As I write this I am sitting in “the Castway” a pub/restaurant built on an open air deck that overlooks the harbour in Dili, East Timor. It’s still very humid, but the rain today has made the temperature quite comfortable, and it’s always a few degrees cooler down here by the beach. So I feel just a little sticky, rather than the usual constant stream of sweat.

Around me I can hear at least 3 languages, as all the expats and consultants and aid workers sit down to a 1st world meal that costs around USD$10 for a burger and a beer. No way the average Timorese local would come here, given the minimum wage is USD$100/month, and unemployment is running at 70% plus.

Tonight I am one of the several dining alone, near a table of uniformed Australian soldiers. You see I have temporarily lost my wife Rosemary in a Gilligan’s Island type way. I dropped her off at the airport today for a “three hour tour” – a chartered flight with some friends to Suai, a town about 80km south of Dili on the South coast of Timor. However the weather closed in and the light plane was unable to return today. The problem is that our return flight to Australia is at 8am tomorrow morning, and she happened to be carrying my passort. So right now it looks like we could be extending our stay……

Return to Timor

I was invited to return to Timor a few weeks ago by Andrew Mahar, who runs the Melbourne based InforXchange and a Timor based offshoot, InfoTimor. Andrew was visiting for a few weeks and invited me to come along as he saw great potential in using VOIP over VSAT links here.

I didn’t need much inviting as after my February trip I had a bunch of projects running and was keen to return! As an added bonus some family friends offered to baby sit our 3 kids so that my wife Rosemary could come long. This is totally awesome – it’s been 5 years since Rosemary and I last traveled together so this has been a fantastic trip for us. I was a bit concerned about how she would cope with the 3rd world conditions but she has adapted well to the heat, humidity, and my suspect scooter driving.

The Scooter

On my last trip I made contact with the local computer geeks at the NGO Forum, and they have really looked after me on this trip. Abel has kindly lent me a scooter for the week, which we love. It gives us the independence to go where we like and not bother other people with driving us around.

Curiously, I feel relatively safe here on a scooter, as the traffic speed maxes out at 40 km/hr, and many people drive around in 2nd gear at 20km/hr. The driving is crazy, road rules barely exist, but the slow speeds mean you have plenty of time to correct any mistakes. Scooters can also avoid the potholes in the generally appalling roads around Dili, and can make good progress in the often heavy Dili traffic by zooming through the gaps.

So I love zooming around on the scooter. It’s air conditioning is also excellent, and $2.50 of petrol has lasted us all week. If it was electric it would be perfect. I think I am getting good at scooting as the locals are beeping at me like they beep at each other!

I must say I think the traffic cops here do a good job. They put them at busy intersections during peak hour and they park their truck in strategic places to partially block and thereby throttle the traffic. Today one brought me, my scooter and a bunch of other traffic to a screeching halt as he escorted two small children across a busy road during peak hour.

IP04 and Asterisk Training

I left a few IP04s here on the last visit and the local guys encouraged me to do a training course this time around. I was a little rushed the week before this trip so only got started on the course material on the plane flight over.

The course is a basic introduction to Asterisk and the IP04, but contains enough information to set up a simple network of IP04s with analog ports and SIP devices, e.g. a VOIP over Wifi telephone network.

I put some thought into making the course suitable for people in the developing world, for example:

  • It’s in HTML rather than presentation slides so anyone can work through it with just a browser. HTML is also suitable for projection or just viewing on a computer screen. This means it can be placed on a web site or viewed locally.
  • The source is included (in text file format), as well as a Makefile so anyone can modify the course and regenerate the HTML file. For example the course could be easily translated.
  • The course was presented in labs with a PC and IP04 per student (or two students). I connected my laptop up to the LAN and ran a web server on my LAN to present the course from my laptop. A couple of times I spotted errors so I used a text editor to quickly edit the course. At lunch time on the first day I realised that the students were struggling with vi so I added more copious notes to the afternoons work on vi. I found the use of HTML much more powerful than paper notes or power point slides.
  • Many of the links in the course were included as local links, no Internet connection was required. I even saved my IP04 and BAPS pages to local files inside the course.
  • The students were all free to take away a copy of the course on a USB stick, CD or USB hard drive. This also gave me a good feel for who was really interested and keen to learn more (about 20% of the students, which is not bad).
  • After some thought, I decided to focus on the command line method of configuring Asterisk rather than using a GUI. This means using the Asterisk CLI and conf files edited with vi. This is harder to learn but gives a more thorough understanding – important if you are going to be debugging an Asterisk system without much external help (e.g. you might be the only Asterisk guy in 1000km and have poor connectivity). I found that several people really appreciated the “under the hood” approach of the command line, related skills like vi and how to drive ifconfig are also very useful for general network admin. After some thought I now think that more command-line Linux geeks could really help the developing world, all that is required is a little training!

I presented the 1-day course twice to about 25 people each time and it was quite enjoyable plus something really different for the students. The highlight is when they make the first call across the LAN. Suddenly a phone rings right in front of them and they all burst out laughing as it is so unexpected. With this key knowledge (how to route a phone call over an IP network and hence the Internet) they know enough to set up a simple VOIP network in their country. Powerful stuff.

Here is the IP04 Asterisk course on-line and in tar-ball format. The tar ball is large as it includes a bunch of references, such as the O’Reilly Asterisk book.

If anyone else in the developing world would like to have the course presented please let me know.

How to help Timor

Now I am no expert on Timor, having barely spent 2 weeks here. So I try to keep my eyes open when I am here, soaking up information, peoples opinions, and talking to a lot of local people.

But my current feeling is that this country needs training more than it needs money. Timorese should be building Timor – not foreigners paid massive wages to come here and drive around in air conditioned four wheel drives.

For example, if there is an IT system to built (say a government database), then Timorese should be trained, and they should build it. That way it can be fixed when the foreigners leave. It is much better to build a simpler system locally then employ foreigners to build a more complex system that cannot be maintained.

Links

East Timor – OLPC Pilot 2
Metro Mesh Networks for East Timor
East Timor – We Really Do have Road Rules Now!

One thought on “East Timor Trip 2”

  1. Great story with the scooter, I had an electric and trust me… gasoline is much better esp. when you have an unplanned trip or errand that lasts longer then you thought.

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