So I made it to the end of the Indonesian Archipelago. I tried in 2000, again in 2006, both times thwarted by internal instability. I sit in a convent, in the high mountains of central Timor, tucked under some thick wool blankets, tapping away at my contentment about my contentment. I’m travelling with a middle-aged Portuguese guy whose Portuguese mother tongue has been a life-saver, for those random days in Brazil five years ago hadn’t revealed themselves in linguistic form.
So why am I so content? Well, Timor, like Tibet, Cuba, Cambodia and the so many other places I have yet to be graced with, holds the fascination of having living history, trials and tribulations at the beholden of others. These bodies of people maintain their pride, language and cultures despite all the physical cruelties and psychological humiliation enforced on them by aggressors and a determinedly blind-eye world. I also wanted to be there before the backpacker/tourists merely see them as a cheap tourist destination, then with less smiles and more suitcases. It might seem snobbish to some but I believe those who know me, understand I am not so shallow.
I got up early today after a long sleepy first day trying to get over my Australian adventures. I spent this second day looking round Dili, with its heat, dusty and UN SUV and attempting to arrange a visa extension for Timor and an Indonesian visa for next week. The visa extension has proved troublesome and mildly frustrating. But its difficult to get stressed here. Everyone is so friendly even when unhelpful, desperately trying to help, negotiating unfamiliar red tape and sympathising with genuine, open smiles. I will know my answer on Friday. Hopefully Michele, my friend here I met in Kuala Lumpur will be able to help with his UN role. He reminds me of Jeroen, a big, domed guy with a passion for the world and a determination to do something with his skills. I enjoyed my evening though, talking with the hostel owner’s eldest daughter, who works for the Japanese ambassador but seen as unruely by her parents for her drinking, smoking and previously living with her Portuguese boyfriend in Lisbon.
But today was a magic day, the type that justifies my adventures. I met George, the Portuguese guy randomly at 630am as we both emerges from our rooms, ready to head into the interior. He had heard that an Australian had the same plan as myself and after brief discussion, we concluded that Australian was msyelf. We walked 2kms, up to the market and Anguna stop. An Anguna is a pick-up truck in which 18 of us piled into the back, along with a goat, 2 chickens and sackfuls of rice. Everyone else was local, mainly students or parts of families heading home. As the pick-up crawled up the hills backing over Dili, affording us a stunning coastal view, the discussion began.
The parental generation and the young kids have been studying Portuguese in school as part of the colonial era and a recent attempt to move away from the oppressive Indonesia era. The kids answer in stock phrases which still blush their brown cheeks and the parents happily discuss Timor and it’s various economic and political woes. The attempted assassination of President Ramos Horta in February 2008 is still fresh in the mind. (Ramos Horta was shot but recovered after a month in hospital in Darwin and was at a party at my very hostel last Saturday! Can’t believe I missed it!) Renaldo Alfredo, the plot leader and attempted assassin was killed by the police a few days later but a trial for the other co-conspirators starts in August. The young student called Renaldo next to me was busy practising his English and jokingly pointed out that he wasn’t ‘the’ Renaldo. We moved on in the traditional way and compared Portuguese Ronaldo with Brazilian Ronaldo. They have taste here.
As we pulled over the mountain range, twisting and turning alongside cliff edges, I sat back, talking and smiling. I couldn’t help it. The scenery was magnificent, the journey uncomfortable but joyous. Like in Laos, villages here are built on the edge of the road which itself lingers on the precipice! Why are they built there? Well, simply because it’s makes sense commercially. I took a few pictures and then showed how to a 10-year old girl who spent the rest of her journey, filming us all or taking pictures of the villages, Timorese faces and various parts of the animal infested floor. But she was excited by it, laughing and giggling at her new skill. The Timorese aren’t built for cold weather and struggled as we crossed ridges. I gave my hoodie to another girl who had sat shaking. While it may seem an unimportant or self-indulgent details, it’s those kind of acts that bring us together and I am very fortunate to have appreciated many such offers myself.
The journey took us 3 hours and to the small, mountain town called Maubisse recommended to me by Michele. The town was simple and displayed typical third-world disrepair. But it was surrounded by lush fauna and bear-like hills, rolling around the compass points. George had heard we could stay at the convent which seemed like a great idea rather than a guesthouse. We weren’t worried about finding accommodation though. There were no other guests in town! The church is vast and airy, painted white inside and outside. George said it reminded him of a South Portugal church which would be barely in use. Not so in England I replied. We’d be worshipping beer and Weatherspoons in such an environ. We visited the Possada on the hill for a panoramic view, then hiked 4km uphill to a church opened by Timorese freedom speaker and Nobel Pride winner Cardinal Belson in 1988, shortly before incorrectly ordained by Pope John Paul II in the presence of the despotic Indonesian President Suharto. The views were as stunning as the wind was punishing.
Earlier we walked to the cemetery, a ragtag plot revealing the despicable results of the Indonesian invasion in 1976. Approximately 60% of head stones referenced the poor person dying in September or October 1976 when the military ran massacres these areas to impose their will over the Timorese. It’s estimated 25% of Timorese died during the years of occupation. But something I noticed in Cambodia, Uganda and also here in Timor is the indomitable human spirit they maintain. Despite the horrors afflicted on these people by political power and uncontrolled military brutality and the subsequent economic harshships, they remain positive, enjoying the simple joys of family life and a giggle. It makes you wonder how westerners can have the nerve to wallow in our often self-inflicted narcissism and depression.
I left the next day and flagged down a pick-up which took me north across the ranges and through the town called Alieo, a middle sized place with a bustling market and yet another monument to wars horrors, this time the Japanese massacring the Portuguese during World War Two. The memorial was restored by Portuguese peacekeepers during the UN occupation. The Timorese have mixed feelings about the Portuguese unlike the Australians who they seem to resent for reasons I can only put down to historical strewdity. The Australia’s role in Timor was cleanly cynical. Not only did they know about the 1976 invasion 12days before, they then also covered up this information to avoid the implications of 4 Australian journalists being marched out into the street by the Indonesian military and executed. This political disgrace was concluded in 1978 when Australia became the first country to recognise Indonesian control over East Timor in exchange for equal rights over the oil under the Timorese Strait. America and George Bush has no monopoly on this bull shit.
Politics is, therefore naturally a difficult subject here. The students were demostrating daily during my time over politician’s plans to buy 60 cars for each elected member so they could visit their districts. Walls are graffitied with questions over the Australia presence as well as some support for agriculture reform and even Renaldo Alfredo, the failed Presidential assassin. After a few hours in Alioeu, I returned by pick up to Dili, this time with only 22 companions (2 babies), 3 fish and sacks of cabbages and a pit-stop to change a burst tyre. The Dili hotel had Indonesian embassy contacts and was managing to get my passport processed in 1 day rather than the usual 3.
I decided to find the Santa Cruz Cemetery that afternoon, one of the back breakers of the Indonesian media spin operations. Sure they built roads (badly) and a few schools (forcing the kids to learn Indonesian) and they persuaded the Pope to visit, but in 1998, they massacred over 200 mourners at a funeral service at the cemetery. News immediately leaked out across the world and the pressure turned up on Suharto. As usual, of course it was mere rhetoric and the world moved on, probably to ignoring a humanitarian crisis in another part of the world or worshipping some celebrity wedding.
Before getting to the cemetery, I walked past Dili stadium and understood there was a game. I only got to see more than 5 minutes action before, a huge commotion started to the right of the crowd involved the away bench. Before I could see what was happening, the riot police arrived, an away player jumped the fence and the police chased. The player eventually clambered over and was taken away. That completely distracted the players and supporters and held up play for 10 minutes. 5 minutes after play resumed, the final whistle went to signal a penalty shoot-out won by the home team. Huge celebrations broke out, kids ran out to congratulate their heroes and a little kid wearing a Cristano Ronaldo shirt, like his hero, missed the point and cried at the noise.
The cemetery would have been a quiet, contemplative affair place except for the kids playing in an empty allotment, bare-foot, with makeshift goals, some skilled but selfish players and those little lads who just chase the ball and never get a touch. I couldn’t help smiling at our universal childhoods. Some of the younger kids sat with me as the elder kids played and generally messed around, trying to get me to beat up one of them and then proceeded to bundle him. He fought back strongly though and they were all friends again. Finally two engineering students sat next to me on the monument. Its your duty as one of the ‘lucky’ people to talk to curious, open minds. What we talk for granted is dreamlike to these kids. We talked about their future and what they planned to do and I asked about the Indonesian military and we generally agreed what The sun had gone down by this point. I didn’t want to leave but I had a dinner date with the hotel owners daughter!
Dili is overrun by the UN and other NGOs. The UN’s work is easier to evaluate. They keep the peace, help form the government ministries and generally give the world’s newest country some structure and self-belief. Due to the sometime precarious position here in Timor, the NGOs work under the protection of their governments and thereby a lot of the well-known organisations aren’t here due to the interference. It also means the organisations here seem very interested in driving around in their air-con SUVs, meeting like-minded Timorese rather than the ‘man in the street’. They seem fearful, maybe even suspicious. The amount of times I have almost been hit by a speeding NGO SUV is incredible.
In Maubisse, George and I went to the Possada to have a late tea. An NGO vehicle was there, presumably staying. After all, it’s only $60 a night when we were staying for $5 in a church convent. Don’t let my tone deceive you. $60 is an incredible amount of money here in Timor but for the NGOs, it’s no problem. They aren’t paying. And when George went near the restaurant bathroom, one of the western staff got up and locked their bedroom. George is about 50, a international businessman and dressed as a man of money. With that kind of human mistrust, you have to wonder how they manage to look the poor-stricken Timorese in the eye.
The foreign presence, while welcome in many ways has had the effect of driving up prices considerably. The currency is the US dollar which meant everything from biscuits to coca-cola became $1. Rooms in Dili start at around $25 and as the Western staff here aren’t paying, the price rises continue. This not only creates diffiuclties for the Timorese in Dili but also a huge income gap between the capital city dwellers and the folks in the countryside. This kind of divide helped fermented the uprisings in 2006 and 2008. Both times brought Western soldiers and the UN back into Timor. When they can leave is unclear.
So dinner tonight consisted of Western fair at relatively expensive prices. I have tried desperately to find some Timorese food but it seems tough. I also mean that as a joke. Every meal consists of rice, some sliced carrots and cabbage and tough meat. There is no East Timorese beer but the UN staff seem to have no issue drinking Bintang, the beer brought here by the Indonesian military back in the days. Lia, the daughter is a funny girl. She giggles at the right time which every man knows is disturbing attractive. But she is also rounded and enjoys a chat. It’s not easy to talk here unless you are fluent in Portuguese and then only in Dili or tourists areas. It also gives you a bit of insider knowledge in under unreported country.
I wandered along the seafront the next morning until I found my bus stop. It was hot and I was late. The sun was already high, the skies were clear. I debated within myself whether I just stay an extra day in Dili. The bustle of Dili was markedly fervent compared to Maubisse and my destination this day of the second city of Bauacu didn’t overwhelm me with expectation. I thought I could see more of life in Dili. But I wanted to see some more of real Timor and a journey is the only way. The bus stop was the usual drinks stall, all ubiquitous timber shack. I was ushered on; a malai,(foreigner) whispered round. I sat next to the window and was immediately joined by the ‘English speaker.’ Its a common moment. A local wants to practice his English, test himself or simply show off to the rest of the bus. Still, he was wearing a suit so I doubted he was a shark.
It turned out he worked for the UN soldier in Baucau as a translator and he listed the various nationalities he worked with. Quite an impressive list from Bangladesh to Turkey to America. He also knew the art of timing; nodding off for significant periods to allow me to finish The Blind Watchmaker by Richards Dawkins. A long, intense, scientific read but worth the time to increase your understanding Darwinism.
The journey took us along the north coast, hugging the coast, bumbling around blind cape corners, hung over sheer drops. Many third world journeys are like this; the scenery blases the mind to the near imminent danger. The ocean mirrored out blue, the long stretches of sand overlooked by sheer ochre cliffs with schools of dolphins off the coast from the fishing nets. We had the usual pit stop to change a tyre in a roadside village and finally reached our destination only an hour late. I found a cheap guesthouse on the advice of my translator (sadly I can’t remember his name). $15 a night with an ensuite. C’est bon, non?
I searched the town camera in hand and realised how little there was to it. As usual the mercado (market) was a burnt out shell, the usual work of the retreating Indonsian troops. A shame too as it’s an impressive baroque structure. One sidenote to point out in mild defence of the Indonesians. It’s very easy to look at destroyed buildings and assume it was the work of the Indonesian military. My translator friend laughingly pointed out as we left Dili that these ruined buildings beside the road were the work of the Timorese in 2006 and not the Indonesians as I suggested.
Baucau is a Fretelin town. The flag is everywhere. Fretelin were the resistance fighters in the time of the occupation and Xanana Gusamo’s, the present Prime Minister and former fighter and prisoner image is often found painted up in the classic image of Che Guevara. The further east you head, the more overt political images become. There is a general feeling the more rural areas have missed out on the UN boom and this has contributed to the various uprisings over the past few years.
Baucau isn’t much to talk about. The beach is 7km away and the town is divided by a cliff. The town centre takes about 20mins to walk around. Back in the hostel I met an Irish lass travelling right now with an English guy who’d be on the road for 6 years now. Because he is not particularly going anywhere, has no overt goal, I wonder what his story. What caused his disperate movements? My experience is it’s often linked to a broken past or relationship, followed by a need to move on, a need to escape that past, prove yourself elsewhere and do what you feel you now can. Dinner involved swapping stories. His decency implied to me something had broken in his life and he’s has moved on this way. It’s certainly far more constructive than getting drunk and having a restraining order put on him! My last night was a disappointment in some ways but an affirmation in many.
I had got back to Dili on an uneventful bus apart from the endless crying baby and the guy with two two sitting next to me who seemed fascinated with the malai. I went out drinking with the hotel owner’s daughter. We went a busy bar round the corner full of UN and NGO staff. I had never seen more mustaches in my life. The bar had tight, live music but the sights of 40 dads and mums have a boogie reminded me of family weddings or new years I’d been forced to go in the 1980s. I got introduced to Brahim who hails from Afghanistan and was by far the youngest member of the mission aged 24. The guy is pretty cool and chatty, informing me of his childhood involving never playing outside for fear of bombings and land mines and one of the greatest names, Thor, the only Icelandic guy in Timor. The nightclub Amigos wasn’t much bigger than my room and tended to get full of Portuguese policemen who did nothing for the action except sway like retards. I left by 2, walking Lia back, knowing I had to get up early in the morning.
My bus to the border took us along the coast, a pretty ride though as usual, it took far too many hours to cover a little over 100kms. The border was a stunner, the best I had ever seen. Waves lapping up to a white sand beach, dotting with coconuts trees and dunes. While customs had lunch, I entertained an Indonesian girl with my pathetic attempts at her language, one I will need to try and speak for about a month. Eventually I passed through unconcerned and Timor, sadly, was part of my past.
It’s worrying to wonder where East Timor will be in 10 years. Without the UN aiding in developing political structures and inputting financially into a subsistence economy, it’s difficult to see the country getting onto it’s feet. It simply has no industry and very few exports. The efficiency isn’t there, the sense of patience is lacking to build a civil society which normalises negotiation and debate rather than protest and civil unrest. Families are still huge with an average of 7.4 children per mother, keeping them in poverty and reliant on the land. When the UN leaves, I expect a lot of NGOs will too, citing security issues, leaving a vast economic and knowledge gap. The country is simply years from being ready to be independently viable. Like the roads I have so happily travelled along, I unfortunately predict a very bumpy road for East Timor.
Back to myself. I may have returned to a land of cockroaches, street dogs, pigs next to the road and mosquitoes, 6 hours electricity a day, cold showers, kids’ requests for a dollar and patchy internet but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. My trip here has been short by necessity but my experience hasn’t. I have felt overwhelming humbled here, greeted constantly with smiles and hellos from the poorest people, asked to be in pictures and felt the pride of the unbowed Timorese people who refused to capitulate as had we turned our backs. It makes me reflect on your own travels and experiences and what you have achieved while these people were fighting for their freedoms. And the fact I was carrying a laptop and SLR, worth more than twice the GDP per capita made me gulp somewhat. As in the ‘no mas?’ blog, it’s time to put back and do so from a position of influence. This blog has come so easily. The monologue just flowed. For everything, Thank You Timor.