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.
The beaches and hills of Dili have sustained us during our two-year stint. You can see the Jesus statue (Cristo Rei) at the end of the point, and Atauro Island in the distance.
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. Continue reading →
‘How old are you?’ asked the hairdresser. She was Indonesian, like nearly all hairdressers in Dili. I was the only customer. The power had gone out which meant a cold wash and no blow dry. Never mind. A young Timorese assistant hovered nearby with an older Chinese woman, perhaps the owner.
Still working: our landlord’s mother sweeps the yard with a traditional broom.
‘Fifty-nine,’ I said, although the $10 haircut had made me look much younger – like about six. There were small gasps. ‘You are very healthy,’ the young Timorese woman said, as if it was a miracle that I was still out and about. And to her it may have been. Older women are rarely seen on the streets of Dili. They age before their time; by their late sixties, most are dead.
I hope these women – who wear sarongs, chew betel nuts that stain their mouths red, and have survived two and sometimes three occupations of their country – are treated well. I know I am. As an older malae woman, I’ve received nothing but respect in Timor. It starts with hello, which is big in these parts. ’Mana’ – the usual female greeting – is often upgraded to ‘Senora’ or ‘Avo’ (grandmother) in my case. The white hair probably helps.
It’s harder for young malae women, who get pestered and groped, even on their motorbikes. Their freedom seems to bedazzle local boys who are used to girls staying home and doing as they’re told. Continue reading →
After 10 days in the seductive tourist bubble of Bali, I was determined not to succumb to post-holiday blues. We were heading back to Dili for a final three-month fling before life in New Zealand swallows us up again. There wasn’t a moment to waste.
My good intentions lasted as far as the luggage carousel at Presidente Nicolau Lobato airport, named after one of Timor’s resistance heroes. Think Hokitika airport, only shabbier. ‘Finis’, said the airport attendant as I peered hopefully at the empty conveyer belt which had delivered Pat’s bag – and everyone else’s on our flight – but not my little blue suitcase.
Presidente Nicolau Lobato international airport in Dili: think Hokitika, only shabbier.
We made our way inside the terminal to the office of Sriwijaya Air, an Indonesian airline. A smiley young Timorese man sat behind a glass wall. At the height of his desk, a small semi-circle had been cut out of the glass. To explain my problem, I had to bend down, twist my head and project my voice through this opening. To decipher his muffled reply, I put my ear where my mouth had been, all the time trying to maintain eye contact. It was hard to feel that Sriwijaya wanted to hear from me. Continue reading →
I never expected to end up teaching creative writing in Timor, least of all in the national language, Tetun. But every Wednesday morning for the last six months, I’ve sat in a windowless room in the former Balide prison in Dili doing exactly that with a team of social researchers.
My four male and two female students have interviewed 800 Timorese women about their roles in the 25-year resistance movement. An academic book is in the pipeline. Now their boss, Nuno, a journalist, wants to share the women’s personal stories. When he discovered my oral history and writing background, he asked me to give them a hand.
Members of my creative writing class. From left, clockwise: Nuno, Justin, Alito, Este and Polan.
Enlisting my help was a big leap of faith on Nuno’s part. I have no teaching experience, and running a class in a language I couldn’t speak 20 months ago is, frankly, a challenge. So how does it work?
In mid-November, before the rains came, we set out from Dili over the mountains through Gleno, Ermera, Letefoho, Atsabe, Bobonaro, Zumalai and down to Suai on Timor’s south coast, then back home via Same (pronounced Sah-may), Maubisse and Aileu. With Pat at the wheel of our rented Toyota Landcruiser 4WD, and Kiwi volunteers Del and Tony by our side, we hurtled 500km in four days at an average speed of 20km an hour. Along the way, we encountered dire roads, a harsh landscape, grandiose churches, hardy people, exuberant kids. Not a typical tourist jaunt but another fascinating glimpse into the rural lives of two-thirds of Timor’s people.
Click on the photo gallery below for the full story.
First stop, the coffee town of Letefoho in the western foothills of Mount Ramelau, Timor’s tallest peak. The new Catholic church, with its clasped hands steeple, attracts 2000 people to Mass on Sundays.
Religious icons like this Station of the Cross outside Letefoho church are commonplace in Catholic Timor.
The full Stations of the Cross line a pilgrim’s path up to three large crucifixes on a Letefoho hilltop facing a statue of Jesus with arms outstretched. In between, a radio tower ushers Timor into the 21st century.
Below the Letefoho church, young women carry shopping home from market in the time-honoured way.
But when a ride comes along, they’re quick to clamber aboard.
Outside Letefoho, we pick up an unlikely hitch-hiker, this old man in traditional dress pictured with Del. He and two young women are heading for Atsabe, at least an hour-and-a-half walk in the hot sun.
Atsabe is home to these four young Chelsea supporters.
Pat decides to detour through a dry riverbed rather than tackle this rickety bridge.
Arriving in the one-street town of Bobonaro at dusk, we’re grateful to find the only guesthouse open, unlike the only restaurant. The squat toilet’s a challenge for aging joints but the rooms are clean and cheap at $25 a night for two with breakfast of paun (bread rolls) and coffee. Sadly, it’s insipid Indonesian powder although we’ve just passed through prime coffee-growing country.
Tony links up with some other likely lads in Bobonaro.
More Bobonaro residents.
Some Bobonaro folk are in for a good night’s sleep.
Next morning, a road worker guides us down the treacherous track to the Marobo hot springs.
But it’s going to take more than a new road to return the hot springs to their former glory as a Portuguese resort and mountain retreat.
It’s in the high 30s out of the water and even hotter in, so Pat (left), Tony and Del just dangle their feet. The air’s thick with the rotten-egg smell of sulphur. Close your eyes and you could be in Rotorua.
When the rains come, the road to Zumalai seems destined to wash away down the hill.
There are barely 10 consecutive metres of straight road in all of Timor and no sign posts between Dili and Suai. So imagine our surprise when we come across a job lot of signs warning us about winding roads.
Another mystifying sign, given that everyone walks everywhere and we can see no evidence of a school.
Out of the mountains and down on the south coast road between Suai and Zumalai, Del (right) and I rustle up real Timor coffee and snacks.
In sleepy Suai, near the Indonesian border, locals weave mats and snooze away the hot afternoon on raised platforms beneath thatched roofs. The elevated houses protect against flooding and hungry crocodiles in the wet season.
A shy young girl roasts freshly-picked cashews over an open fire on the beach at Suai-Loro.
Two boys offer us a taste of the cashew nuts. They’re delicious if you don’t count the burnt ones.
Physical affection is a lovely feature of Timorese culture, though it’s strictly girl-girl and boy-boy.
Local lads joke with Pat and make themselves at home on our Toyota bonnet.
Then it’s time to pull out the dance moves.
The new wing of the Suai Hotel, run by an enterprising young Timorese man, sports air con and TVs, although it could do with a bit of landscaping. Dinner is tiny crispy fish and rice at the warung across the road.
A grand cathedral in Suai has replaced the church where more than 100 people, including three Catholic priests, were massacred by militia in the violence that followed Timor’s independence referendum in 1999.
Being an altar boy at Our Lady of the Rosary church in Waiwhetu was never like this, thinks Pat.
Woven tais and a traditional head piece draped over a crucifix are the only Timorese trappings in the cathedral.
Graves are often more ornate than houses, ensuring protection from the ancestors.
Tropical foliage brightens up traditional houses on the south coast road after months without rain.
An Australian destroyer ran aground at Betano beach during World War 2, and remnants of the wreck remain. Later, Aussie commandos were evacuated from here. It’s hot, but we don’t risk a swim, especially as Del spied crocodile footprints on the black sand on an earlier visit.
Heavy wooden outriggers are used for fishing all over TImor.
A crumbling relic of Portuguese rule on the eastern end of Betano beach.
The town of Same in the foothills of Kablaki Mountain is still recovering from almost total destruction by pro-Indonesian militias after the 1999 independence referendum.
A swimming pool, complete with spa pool and waterfall, is part of Aussie Brian’s ambitious dream for his new Same guest house, our third night stop.
The Same hills in central Timor feature some of the country’s most spectacular scenery.
Government plans to dot pre-fabricated houses through each of Timor’s 2000+ aldeia (hamlets) for those in need have instead created ghettos away from traditional support, shelter, water and food. Many of the new houses remain unoccupied.
The motorbike in front bears the brunt of dust kicked up by a passing truck as we wind down out of the hills from Aileu back to Dili.
It’s a tight squeeze for large vehicles on narrow roads. Just before Dare, Pat has his own close encounter with a police car and we’re grateful to arrive home unscathed.
Australian ‘bastardry’ is something we Kiwis are pretty familiar with on the sports field. But the phrase is used in a more damning context by Australian writer Paul Cleary in his book, The Men Who Came Out of the Ground.
Cleary tells the story of the 400-strong Australian force that waged a guerrilla war against the Japanese in the Portuguese colony of Timor throughout 1942. As the Japanese swept down through South-East Asia, the tiny Australian contingent tied up an estimated 20,000 Japanese troops.
The key to their success was local support. Lieutenant John Rose wrote to his parents in June 1942: ‘The people we are living with are natives and they have been wonderful to us. They are great friends to the Aussies… they are invaluable guides, philosophers and friends here.’
Pat beside all that remains of the destroyer HMAS Voyager, wrecked in September 1942 after landing Australian soldiers and supplies on Timor’s south coast beach of Betano.
Every day in Dili is hotter than the last. The wind gets up in the afternoon and clouds gather over the burnt hills, only to disperse. It’s late in the dry season, no rain for months. My skirt sticks to my legs like gladwrap. Dust coats the trees, the furniture, my feet. Even the sky looks like it could do with a mop.
A hut perched on a barren Dili hillside late in the dry season.
And yet, after four weeks in the United States visiting our son Liam and his fiancée Aurora, it’s good to be back. No high-rise buildings or the roar of six-lane freeways. No designer clothes stores. No neon lights. Just streets full of people, beat-up taxis, skinny dogs, kids galore. Good-natured chaos interspersed with pockets of progress and, sometimes, desperation. Continue reading →