I couldn’t go past those smiles. When an eight-year-old laden with tangerines grinned and said, “Hello Missus… you buy?” I was smitten. Needless to say I ended up with a bounty of fruit so bitter, it couldn’t be eaten. Fortunately, practicality did rear its head on the odd occasion – like when a young entrepreneur tried to sell me a rooster, “Very good: 10 dollar”. Now this was a very handsome bird, but there was no way I was about to make him into chicken soup. One enterprising youngster did come up with a slogan that was hard to beat, however. Incorporating the name of President Xanana Gusmao, he touted the amazing qualities of his “Xanana Bananas”. How could I resist?
Behind each of those smiles though, lies an almost unbelievable story. Everyone in East Timor has been touched in some way by the violence that followed the vote for independence from Indonesia in 1999. I first met Alfredo through a Timorese friend at the beach. This shy 13-year-old didn’t seem to have any friends. His left arm was amputated at the shoulder after he was peppered with bullets while running away from militia. He told me in a letter transcribed by my friend that he cried for days when he lost his arm, but never let the militia see his tears. Alfredo bears a terrible physical scar, but his emotional turmoil is far worse. More than anything, he wants to look like the other kids again.
East Timor’s children are tough. There are at least 20 orphanages in the Dili district alone. Many of the kids who live in them have lost both parents… some witnessed their loved ones being killed. They’re not ones to dwell on the past though; they’re ambitious, bright and hopeful about the future. Many want to go to university and help to rebuild their country. 20-year-old Sao is chasing a scholarship with a Melbourne university. He wants to study telecommunications engineering. He’s learned computing and English of his own accord and now works as a volunteer translator for an Australian welfare worker. His close dealings with the Aussies seem to have rubbed off… often he’ll come out with pearlers like “g’day cobber”.
Other young people, like 14-year-old Maria, just want to grow up to be happy. Maria never speaks about her past, and when asked what she wants to be in the future, she simply replies, “a good person”.
In the dry season, East Timor’s capital Dili is a hot, dusty place. While shops, and western-style restaurants and hotels are sprouting up, burnt out buildings are constant reminders of the recent past. A trip to Dili’s Santa Cruz cemetery is a sobering experience. This crowded graveyard, where headstones from decades past stand alongside those of 19-year-olds killed in 1999, is the site of a massacre. On November 12, 1991, at least 200 East Timorese were killed here.
Dili’s tais markets, which feature a great range of well-priced local handicrafts, are a must-see. It is here that one can pick up the beautiful hand-woven welcome tais – that is, if you haven’t already been given one. They’re thin strips of cloth – often with the words Timor Lorosae woven into them. If a local places one around your neck and kisses both your cheeks, consider it an honour. It means East Timor welcomes you, and you are a true friend. Now if the welcome tais are beautiful, the hand-woven sarongs are simply exquisite. Most are as big as a tablecloth and the designs are as numerous as they are intricate.
White Sands beach, a few minutes out of Dili, is the perfect place to cool off, so long as you don’t mind the company of a few dozen Brazilian and Portuguese soldiers. And if you’ve brought plenty of water, a hike up nearby Cape Fatucama to see the enormous statue of Jesus close-up, is compulsory. The views are spectacular.
If you’re looking for nightlife, bars abound. You can sing karaoke, or dance the night away at beachside restaurants. In fact, dance floors can suddenly materialise at most venues… and be prepared to dance the Lambada. In Dili, Latin dancing rules!
East Timor is on the expensive side. When the currency changed from Australian to American dollars, prices literally doubled overnight. Have hamburgers at one of the western-style venues and expect to pay at least $US10.00, but eat rice and vegetables in a local restaurant and bill is much smaller. As for shopping at the markets, or travelling by taxi… if you’re foreign, you’ll pay more – haggling is acceptable though.
Venture outside Dili and the scenery improves dramatically. The problem is that it can be an uncomfortable journey to get anywhere. Unless one makes friends with the owner of a four-wheel drive, the cheapest way to travel is by mikrolet (minibus). If there are a few of you, the best option is to hire your own mikrolet and driver for the day. Otherwise you’ll end up squashed in the back with up to 18 others, not to mention pigs and dogs.
Baucau, a spectacular three-hour drive west along the coast from Dili, is a slice of heaven. From the town, take the meandering road down the hill to the beach. Amidst the lush tropical foliage, and beside a cascading stream, families have carved their homes quite literally out of the hillside. It’s like stumbling upon a lost world. Be sure to stick your hand out of the car window as you drive through, because the children standing by the roadside will want to High-5 you. Baucau’s beach is paradise; coral sand, turquoise sea and palm trees that spill right down to the water’s edge. And the local kids make keen beach cricketers too.
Head to the Maubisse in the mountains for a cool reprieve and spectacular views. It’s a good three hour journey up steep, windy and often washed-away roads (not good if you’re a back seat driver or susceptible to motion sickness). A guesthouse at the edge of the marketplace offers western-style eats and amenities, but the local fodder is great. The markets are definitely worth a look and while you’re there, expect to be the main attraction.
I found that the best way to experience East Timor was going with a skill and working with, or training the locals (especially if it’s anything to do with computers). I was lucky enough to be a part of a team that developed a news website for East Timor’s media. By day we trained journalists in web publishing, by night we taught local teenagers how to use the Internet. There are numerous volunteer organisations and the people are eager to learn. They’re also extremely grateful, and you’ll make friends forever. In fact, just walk through town a few mornings and the “Bondias” will fly thick and fast. It seems no one forgets a face.
Any danger is disappearing from East Timor. While it’s expensive and the infrastructure isn’t the best at the moment, things are changing quickly. The world’s newest nation has some spectacular sights to see and unforgettable adventures to experience. But it’s the people who’ll capture your heart and mind… and make you never want to go home.