Last Sunday, Pat and I went snorkelling at Back Beach behind the Jesus statue, as we’ve done on many a Sunday morning in the last two years. Later, we wandered around to the next bay. A high stone wall has appeared on the cliff edge. It won’t be long before the view of Atauro Island is commandeered by whichever ema boot (big-wig) is building a house on that beautiful spot.
Behind us work had begun on a five-star tourist resort; across the water, new dirt roads zigzagged over the hills, heralding more exclusive development. We agreed that we’ve been lucky to be in Timor at this time. A time of optimism, in spite of all its problems. A peaceful time, sandwiched between the turmoil of the past and the creeping inequality that casts a shadow over the future.
We perched on a rock under a straggly eucalypt and watched two fishermen check their net. Fortified by a thermos of strong Timor coffee and the gingerbread Christmas trees which had just turned up in a parcel from Wellington sent by my sisters nearly three months ago, our talk turned to leaving. Sensibly, Pat’s winding down, getting things in order, mentoring others to take over his role at World Vision. True to form, I’m winding up, aiming to launch my Tetun creative writing manual before I go. There’s the little green house to pack and farewells to be had. And we want to repeat some of the underwater and hill-climbing excursions that have soothed our souls in the heat and grit.
As with our home town, Wellington, the harbour features in much of what we love here. On Sunday night we drove 30 minutes the other way to eat ‘fish on a stick’, the local equivalent of fish and chips on the beach. Beside us, a laid-back family of 12 passed a baby from lap to lap as they devoured barbecued skewers of fish, chicken and pork, and endless packages of katupa, coconut rice wrapped in plaited palm leaves.
The Timorese are addicted to rice. No meal apart from breakfast is complete without it (although they get through a lot of instant noodles too). This hasn’t always been so. Before the Indonesian invasion in 1975, maize was the staple, along with root vegetables like cassava, yams and sweet potatoes. Now the market’s flooded with subsidised white rice imported from Vietnam and Cambodia, stifling local production.
White rice is filling but it’s not nutritious. This helps explain why Timor has one of the highest rates of ‘hidden hunger’ in the world, topped only by Burundi and Eritrea in last year’s Global Hunger Index. The worst hunger occurs in the districts, where three out of four Timorese live. Yet parts of Timor are very fertile, and the country has lucrative oil reserves and a Petroleum Fund worth $16 billion. Surely this is enough money to develop sustainable farming to feed 1.2 million people. Instead, Timor suffers from what is known as the ‘resource curse’, using its oil windfall to import nearly all its food and investing little in agriculture.
Watching my neighbours prepare endless food with no mod cons reminds me how much of life revolves around eating. A Timorese breakfast is a modest affair, usually featuring tea or coffee and paun, small bread rolls (a Portuguese legacy) that cost 10c each and sit in your stomach like a stone.
At lunchtime, Dili workers eat in warungs, Indonesian-inspired restaurants that serve a smorgasbord of overcooked, lukewarm food. The simplest offer a piece of chewy, deep-fried chicken or a small grilled fish, something green, and the ubiquitous rice for $1.50. For twice that, we get to choose from 20 or more dishes at our favourite warung, Lili’s in Lecidere. Palm oil and MSG add flavour, as long as you’re not worried about your cholesterol levels or have a hankering for salad. The locals top it all off with ai manas, a fiery chili salsa.
Dinner’s much the same, although people eat at home, and there may not be protein. Doughnuts and deep-fried snacks fill the gaps. Plates of battered banana and tempeh often get passed around Pat’s office, he tells me. Unless these habits change, obesity could be the next problem facing the slender Timorese, not to mention my beloved.
Ironically, the locals think malae (foreigners) don’t eat properly. Our tropical fruit breakfasts and cheese and tomato on toast for lunch aren’t real meals in their eyes. They’re not cooked. And where’s the rice?
One thing I won’t miss about Timor is cooking. In Dili, it’s possible to get most ingredients, except fresh milk and fresh meat, most of the time if you have cash and wheels. On foot, I tend to stick to our two local supermarkets like over-sized Four Square stores, and the open market by the beach, scrounging other veges of variable quality from roadside stalls.
When I first arrived, VSA volunteers Dorothy and Miang initiated me in local food at the rambling Hali Laran market (now relocated to Taibesi): red rice, freshly shredded coconut, dried fish, galangal and turmeric roots, beans as long as spaghetti, brightly-coloured chillies, piles of unfamiliar leafy greens. Both are great cooks. Miang’s a food technologist and Dorothy spent years living in Laos where she wrote Food from Northern Laos: The Boat Landing Cookbook, illustrated with gorgeous photos taken by her husband Kees.
In spite of their tips, I don’t produce green papaya salad or tofu and banana leaves for dinner. It’s enough of a challenge to prepare one-pot meals bent over our ancient two-ring gas burner as I spare a thought for Timorese women slaving over open fires and small petrol stoves. The purchase of an Indonesian oven – a hot tin box inside and out – sent me scurrying further back to my culinary roots. If I fancy a sauna, I roast meat and potatoes. Last weekend I made a banana cake.
Conversely, eating out at the string of beachfront malae restaurants within walking distance (Portuguese, Vietnamese, Chinese, Lebanese, Sri Lankan, African) is high on the must-do list in these last four weeks. At around $10 a meal, with a free sunset thrown in, we might as well enjoy them. We won’t be able to afford a cup of coffee back in New Zealand, by all accounts.
But my strongest memories will be of meals in the districts, where the rules of hospitality dictate you feed visitors till they’re full, even if you and your family go hungry. Batar daan, a smoky corn and bean stew, in the misty hills of Bobonaro. Stir-fried chicken and vegetables from a communal Aileu kitchen. Chokos in coconut milk and turmeric-flavoured rice at a traditional cooking class in Loi Hunu. A humbling array of dishes in a dirt-floor hut with our guide Abrau’s family after we’d staggered down from Mount Matebian.
The Timorese have been too busy warding off starvation to develop a sophisticated national cuisine. But they do know how to cook nourishing, flavoursome, locally-grown food. Therein lies the key to a healthy future.