Timor-Leste – Travelogue

My trip began much how it ended, with a half-serious enquiry as to whether I was going to die. “I’m not sure yet” was the less-than-welcome response from the attendant aboard my terribly turbulent Garuda Airlines flight. I was en route to Timor-Leste (located here), having encountered what the Germans might call a ‘luxury problem’ in that I’d seen just about everywhere else in Asia. This was the continent’s newest and poorest nation, the world’s most oil-dependent economy and home to the largest UN peacekeeping mission on Earth. Emerging from decades of bloodshed and occupation with barely any infrastructure intact, war-ravaged Timor attracts just 1,500 tourists per year. Roads are amongst the world’s worst (where they exist) the postal service is rumoured to take one-and-a-half years, the humidity is oppressive, healthcare minimal, poverty rampant and the dinky shot-up capital, Dili, would make even the most modest of British towns look like a megalopolis. It is isolated and inaccessible with just 3 ports of entry (Bali, Singapore and Darwin, Australia), so why would anyone care to visit?

Because travellers will discover in Timor-Leste what everyone else in Southeast Asia is hopelessly searching for… All your dreamy paradise island clichés can be found within – pristine white beaches, crystal clear azure seas, some of the richest and most diverse sea life on the planet and welcoming, unjaded locals to show you the way. Adventurous tourists will find some incredible hiking routes, thick rainforest, untouched lagoons and delicious seafood – and 9 times out of 10, you’ll be the only traveller in town. The country has only one man-made tourist attraction though, and it would be my first stop…

The Cristo-Rei of Dili was a bit of a ‘one finger salute’ courtesy of occupying Indonesia. A ‘gift’ from dictatorial fruitloop Suharto, the giant JC was installed in 1995 and still faces Jakarta, standing 27 metres tall – a metre to represent each Indonesian province, including Timor-Leste. You’d think the locals might have hacked off a metre or at least rotated him towards the city since winning independence ten years ago. However, the statue was blessed by John Paul II and the ex-Portuguese colony remains 94% Christian. I sweated my way to the top one morning and was treated to a stunning panorama of the capital.

Just as I’d taken my obligatory ‘thinker’ shot, an extremely friendly local fellow accosted me to pose for a phone photo. He then happily began gesturing at his open mouth and so I offered him some water. He kept pointing so, in my naivety, I then suggested a polo mint which he also refused. When he started pointing at my crotch, I realised what was really on offer. I politely declined on the basis of: *I’d just had breakfast. *He wasn’t my type. *We were at the foot of a 27-metre Jesus in a devoutly Catholic country. *It would involve a very major lifestyle change on my part.

As much as I’m up for new travel experiences, the area wasn’t exactly renowned as a hot cruising spot and this wasn’t what I’d envisaged when told of the ‘very friendly’ locals. I had to wonder what kind of success rate he’d have to enjoy in order to justify hanging around there all day. I made a hasty exit, reassured that ‘I’d still got it’ and hoping that my new friend would find success some other day.

Whilst I barely met anyone else visiting the country purely for tourism purposes, there was no shortage of foreigners – especially in Dili – which was teeming with UN and NGO workers in gleaming 4x4s. The world’s largest UN deployment includes 1,465 police officers, 894 local staff, 372 international staff, 160 volunteers and 33 military liaison officers. Compared to other hell-holes where their forces are positioned, serving in Timor-Leste under one of the myriad of UN acronyms remains the cushiest and most highly sought after appointment. A false economy of imported goods, international eateries and mid-range hotels have sprung up to support the influx (all destined to suffer if the mission pulls out as planned next February).

Typically, when asked, few UN workers seemed to know why they were there, and no party involved seemed to want them to stick around. Nevertheless, in 2006, they departed too quickly (taking vehicles and equipment with them) and the country descended into internal chaos pitting east against west and the police against the military. The focus today is on capacity building, though unfortunately, many of those lumbered with tasks such as training up entire police departments are no better qualified themselves. Some of the Bangladeshi cops were just lowly officers plucked from the community beat back home and cannot even drive. And so the UN has been forced to learn a few lessons on how to nation build from scratch.

Leaving my less than luxurious accommodation (featuring a lethal eye-level ceiling fan), I hired a motorbike in the hope of tracing the country’s only half-drivable road along the northern coast to Jaco Island. The rainy season had all but cut-off the southern part of the island. Away from Dili’s 4x4s, old Singaporean yellow cabs and packed ‘microlets’, it was quite possible to drive for several miles without seeing another soul. The coastline gave way to thick jungle and then again into beautiful tiered paddy fields. Meanwhile, the road itself would often throw up sudden crater-like potholes or sometimes just disappear completely off a cliff without warning.

The further away from the capital, the more picturesque and green the scenery became, occasionally passing through villages where there would be a stream of welcoming smiles and waving from the local children chanting ‘malae!’ (‘foreigner!’). Folks generally spoke Tetum and sometimes Portuguese, but all were genuinely hospitable and unused to foreigners passing though. Many utterly insisted on having their photograph taken (which I’d agree to if only to stop them photobombing mine).

During the occupation, Indonesian vehicles tearing through villages were nicknamed ‘no problems’, such was the attitude of drivers who hit a child. A German delegation observed in 1985 that “the whole island gives the impression of being under arrest. No-one smiles”. Today, it is very much the opposite – smiling faces are abundant because, it is said, people no longer have to worry about war. This is not to say there isn’t continuing poverty – 75% still rely on subsistence farming and it was clear that most lifestyles have remained unchanged for centuries. Families eat what they grow and hope there’ll be some excess to sell.

Today, animals are the biggest hazard on the rundown roads. Should your vehicle strike a dog, chicken, pig or goat, you’ll have to negotiate with the village chief to pay a fine of US$10, $20, $100 or $200 respectively. Of the various animals I navigated around, chickens were by far the stupidest. Chickens are all suicidal and will go in the opposite direction you expect. Almost as dangerous are the native population of saltwater crocodiles, which are more likely to bother unsuspecting beach-goers or those brave enough to go for a swim.

What looks like a 3-hour drive on the map can take at least double that in reality. Eventually I made it to the second city, Baucau, 122km east of the capital. Again, there was very little to see or do, though I had a lot of time for the old Portuguese Mercado Municipal building. The crumbling, derelict old marketplace sits in the middle of the old town begging for restoration, nature slowly reclaiming it. Some other colonial buildings remain untouched as it is feared that ghosts inhabit them, though there is otherwise not much evidence of the Portuguese presence left. This is partly because they severely neglected their remote outpost, or as current President Ramos-Horta puts it, “East Timor, under the Portuguese, seemed to sit still in history. The clock of development did not tick there”. In 1861, naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace decried that “nobody seems to care the least about the improvement of the country…. There has not been a mile of road made beyond the town.” By 1975, when a bloodless revolution occurred back home, Portugal had built just 19km of roads.

The power vacuum created after they abandoned the colony led to a bloody invasion by Indonesia within days. Suharto insinuated communism might take a hold and so instantly won Western backing – Australia was interested in oil deals, Britain was complicit and the US provided weaponry. President Ford sent a congratulatory pack of golf balls to Jakarta, whilst the Brits stated that Timor was “too backward for Western-style self-determination.” A third of the population was wiped out between then and the turn of the century, as Ramos-Horta continued to represent the country in exile at the UN. Dili’s ‘CHEGA!’ (‘No More, Enough, Stop’) Exhibition draws from thousands of archived witness testimonies to paint an unfortunately typical picture of this time. Comparable to Cambodia under Pol Pot, the years-long brutal oppression involved torture, forced displacement, disappearances, sexual violence, famine and cruelty.

As I hadn’t time to make it to Jaco Island, I headed south towards Viqueque passing some WWII tunnels which the Japanese had forced locals to carve into a mountainside (I wandered in as far as I’d dare). However, the road became too dilapidated for my two-wheeler to handle and so I chased the sun back to the capital, passing though countless small communities where the only solid building was the church…

Back in Dili, I was afforded just enough time to see the infamous Santa Cruz cemetery – the notorious site of the 1991 massacre in which at least 250 peaceful protesters were killed. Unfortunately for the Indonesians, a number of foreigners also fell victim to the state-instigated violence and their presence, as with the 1975 Balibo Five killings, helped raise awareness of the ongoing oppression. Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman was one of the injured journalists reporting (Click here for her account. Note that her voice may be difficult to make out over the ringing of her big brass balls!).

It was only when I almost missed the water taxi to Atauro Island next morning that I realised that my watch had been wrong for 5 days. I’d been living an hour in front of the rest of the country yet, such was the slow pace of life, it hadn’t made any difference. Sometimes I’d wondered why some things were still closed for lunch at 2pm, but thankfully I was the only one on the speedboat that morning so was still able to travel.

Previously a prison island, lush Atauro is surrounded by unspoiled coral reefs and immaculate picture-postcard beaches. Other than a spot of snorkelling, reading and gawping at the night sky, I was sure to do absolutely nothing for two days as I settled into a tent at an eco-resort. One outing I did make was to the small factory of a superb women’s empowerment NGO called Bonecas de Atauro. They manufacture unique cabbage-patch-like dolls, a sought-after gift from Timor-Leste, and the women let me join in and buy a couple for friends.

On my final morning I heard some disturbing news about a murder the night before. A guy had been drinking and had beaten his wife to death. The UN police had descended upon the island to take him away. Apparently, it was desperate times for all of the 8,000-strong population – they were suffering a drought and needed rain that week to prevent a third and final maize crop failure. If that happened, then emergency food would have to be imported. I learnt that, although the land looks fantastically green and the seas bountiful, the area was not especially fertile and the oceans were over-fished.

Just before a final visit to the local market, I met a famous herpetologist and TV star Mark O’Shea who had just arrived with a study group which had already registered dozens of new species on the island. They were now focusing on monitor lizards. I also met a German public radio journalist who I caught the weekly public ferry back to Dili with. I’d heard news of a gang-run cockfight happening the next day so we agreed to meet the following afternoon.

Cockfighting remains a popular, centuries-old traditional spectator sport and community gambling event [full photo story here]. A taxi driver led us to a ‘futumanu’ arena in time for the 2pm start where owners were already letting their birds spar with potential opponents in order to find a fair match. Razor-sharp metal spurs were tied to the back of the chicken’s legs as each of the owners place an all-or-nothing bet with the house (which takes a commission of around a third). Spotting that some foreigners had rocked up, the referee gave us a VIP view in the bank area. His job was very well paid at US$400 per month – and it needs to be, as poor decisions had previously led to entire villages being razed, sparking full-on riots.

As the animals were paired up, the commotion increased with the all-male crowd placing bets between themselves. The cocks stared each other down before jumping forward feet first. Fights were a daily event and can last several hours, sometimes with bets of up to US$1000 changing hands. Some Westerners may decry the animal rights aspect, but the human cost to the men and their families is the real issue. 40% of Timorese live on under US$0.55 per day and the country has the poorest Gross National Income (GNI) by Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) in the world – meaning it is an extremely expensive place for its people to live. Despite this, many insist that gambling can be a fast way for ordinary people to make money.

As for the birds, I’d much prefer the pampered life of a Timorese cockfighting chicken than that of a long-suffering Western battery hen. They are purchased for around US$30 and are lovingly groomed, fed and cherished by their owners until their big day arrives… The spectacle was less graphic than I’d feared and the suffering was minimal, with the loser being BBQ’d up within hours of their gory demise. After causing me numerous scrapes with death on the roads, my sympathy for the Timorese chicken had perhaps been tempered somewhat.

In return for inviting my journalist friend along, he asked whether I’d like to meet the Nobel Prize winning president. Somehow, it didn’t seem a fair exchange but – of course – I accepted and we made our way to an election rally where Ramos-Horta would be announcing his candidacy… Attending any sort of political gathering, let alone in Timor-Leste, would normally ring alarm bells, but then so would getting involved in gang-run gambling events.

I’d ended up standing right next to the man himself purely by pretending to look as if I knew what I was doing, coupled with looking white – both of which I pull of extremely well. My big new camera may have helped disguise me as a journalist too, as I leant over and shook the president’s hand, saying it was a pleasure to meet him. He asked how I was, to which I meekly replied ‘hmmnghnnhmgh’ and emitted a timid chuckle. God knows I need to man up if I’m ever to make that transition to journalism….

To the outside world, Ramos-Horta seems like the perfect human – a writer of children’s books and humble peace and human rights advocate so embarrassed by his large, Chinese-built palace that he opened the grounds for the public and installed free wifi. The office of president is mostly ceremonial and so he wields little power nowadays – however, many Timorese are annoyed in how forgiving he was of the Indonesians, of present day criminals (he pardons hundreds every Christmas) and even of his own attempted assassin, who almost succeeded in killing him back in 2008. It is unclear whether he will win again but this did not stop him donning full-on tribal get-up and plastering the church rallying point with pictures of him meeting Pope Benedict. Clearly, cheap cynicism was a feature of politics the world over.

Also facing the country this election year is the issue of where Timor-Leste’s vast oil and gas riches are disappearing to. Despite outright theft by Australia over the decades, almost US$9billion has been generated in recent years, the biggest increase in income of any country during the same period. In fact, the impoverished nation has no debt whatsoever and is thus free from any IMF interference… Although the government has set up a convoluted investment fund to maximise the country’s mineral wealth, it appears they are living off the interest quicker than it can be generated.

Onlookers may wonder why they’re not doing more to repair infrastructure and build an alternative economy to take over when the oil runs dry in a few years time. But besides from large sums disappearing under endemic corruption, a large slice of the wealth is going towards more immediate concerns such as importing subsidised staples (mostly rice). It may seem short-sighted, but it provides some stability and normality in a country used to living day-by-day on the edge.

One of my final stops was Dili Cathedral, where everyone had turned out in their Sunday best for the morning Portuguese service. I also paid a quick visit to Arte Moris, another great NGO which trains young people in painting, photography, multimedia, sculpture and architecture. Some of their output was understandably quite political.

Along with an annual carnival, art fair, ‘Tour de Timor’ cycle race and marathon, Dili was noticeably trying to foster its new image as ‘City of Peace’, as it continues to look towards a democratic future. I’m not sure I’d recommend the country yet as a destination, if only because of the prohibitive costs involved and lack of any tourist industry. Some may prefer that though, as Timor-Leste is certainly off the beaten track and the reserve of the more adventurous and hardcore travellers – just as I was to learn upon arriving back in Hong Kong…

Within less than 24-hrs, I found myself scrawling the internet in search of why I suddenly felt so severely feverish and weak. As with my bout of malaria 9 years ago, the doctors were pretty dismissive but – within a few days, I found myself in the hospital ER answering questions about my travels in minute detail. Even the words ‘Timor-Leste’, which I had to get translated into Chinese, struck horror into my colleagues and the doctors looking after me. After being admitted to a ward, it was the Department of Health who called me, a week later, to confirm that I’d contracted Dengue Fever. HK doesn’t piss about with outbreaks and so were keen to build a picture of my exact movements around the city since returning. The area around my home, my workplace, the aeroplane I travelled on and a few streets in Mongkok were then treated with insecticide to prevent mosquitoes.

My four days on a male ward felt a lot longer – I must’ve bought the average age down to about 93 and being held captive was my idea of hell. I spent my time lying around in boredom, panic and existential crisis (usually looping in that order), whilst cursing the insect which bit me on Atauro Island and my own cockiness for not wearing repellent. Meanwhile, the Scotsman next to me kept sane by placing bets on who would “snuff it” next. And more often than not, someone on ward C7 would indeed not wake up the next day.

For the second time in as many weeks, I enquired as to my own odds, to which the doctor said, ‘There is no treatment or cure. But some people survive!” Cheers doc… On the day I’d pledged to secretly ‘unplug’ an infuriating neighbour I’d christened ‘Epic Snore Man’, he was spared as I was finally informed that my white blood cells were increasing. I was discharged having ‘gotten away with it’ but was told that I’d be in real trouble were I to contract Dengue for a second time. A lesson learnt the hard way.

And so another patch for the bag and another tropical disease to add to the list (which I’m secretly slightly proud of). I’m still off work this week but have pretty much recovered now. Whilst Timor may have punished me this time round, its people really have been to hell and back at the hands of the Portuguese, Japanese and Indonesians.  Their beautiful country deserves to be on the map and if it can get through this year’s elections and UN pull-out, maybe it can develop as second fiddle to nearby Bali, without making its mistakes.

Happy Chinese New Year of the Dragon…
Tom.