Monday, October 01, 2012

Dili Dallying

The ferry journey from Oecussi to Dili was calm, uneventful, and would have been completely forgettable were it not for the presence of another foreigner aboard. Sometimes I purposefully avoid other Westerners whilst travelling, but I thought that anybody catching this particular ferry and sleeping on deck with the locals in such a forgotten part of the world must have a story worth sharing. There are three types of foreigner to be found in East Timor: those who work for the alphabet soup of INGOs or supranational organisations, such as the UN, Oxfam, MSF, Caritas, the UNDP and so on; the second are those who come to visit friends and family in the first group; and then there is the third group, those who are overlanders and completists, who include East Timor in a larger itinerary, usually linking Indonesia to Australia. Mike was none of these. Instead he was the quintessential eccentric Englishman; a solicitor who had decided to take his annual three week holiday in a lesser-visited holiday destination. He had just spent the past week in Oecussi, a place where most Timorese have never set foot. A rare breed of tourist indeed.

The modern-looking Independence Memorial Hall in Dili is one of the best history museums in Asia.

The ferry put-putted overnight at a leisurely pace to Dili arriving with the dawn, but even if it had been travelling at warp speed the difference that greeted me when I awoke upon arrival could barely have been greater. A hubbub of people as we descended: passengers carrying assorted bags, even bundles of firewood, taxi drivers clamouring for passengers, children getting underfoot, youths trying to look cool, and the ever-present goats and chickens. In the city there was traffic, vendors beginning to set up their stalls, and crazy, health-conscious Westerners jogging along the waterfront where venerable, spreading banyans provided gentle shade. My first impression of Dili was of a well-tended, manicured (for southeast Asia) town. There was even that hallmark of "proper" civilisation: an infuriatingly pointless one-way traffic system ... and people were respecting it!

Dili may be a sleepy backwater, but it does have its advantages, such as being able to have Friday after-work drinks whilst sitting on the beach and watching the sun go down.

Much of the devastation that preceded East Timor's painful inception has been tidied up, plastered over and swept away, at least in the town centre where the bureaucrats, in over-large ministries, and foreigners operate. Whilst Chinese traders have returned and set up electrical goods stores and supermarkets once more. Nevertheless those birthing pangs were formative and constitute a significant slice of the national psyche. The 400 years of Portuguese colonial rule were criminally neglectful, with Timor little more than a stagnant, festering backwater ignored but for its supply of sandalwood. Then, as Portugal imploded in 1975, leaving its far-flung colonies to fend for themselves, Timor's short-lived independence was quashed by its colossal neighbour Indonesia. Suharto argued that such a small country wasn't viable and that it would be hijacked by Communists. The Americans, still licking their wounds after the humiliation of Vietnam gave their tacit approval (as long as no US-made weapons were used in the military action) whilst Australia kept quiet, unable to find enough moral rectitude to fend off the lure of economic advantage. The rest of the world couldn't even find East Timor on the map. The Indonesian army easily overwhelmed the under-equipped resistance forcing it into the mountains from which it was never able to launch more than a few guerrilla raids. The occupation was heavy-handed and in the first years the country lost over 20% of its population. Starvation, massacres, forced evictions, rape, napalm, the use of human shields, torture and arbitrary arrest and imprisonment were all common practice. Eventually the cumulative effect of the collapse of Communism, greater media reach and accessibility (the filming and subsequent broadcast of a massacre of a peaceful protest at the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili in 1991 is widely credited as being the turning point in the conflict), and the fall of the Suharto regime led to a UN-sponsored referendum for independence in 1999. The result was never really in any doubt, but what did catch the international community by surprise was the retaliatory violence perpetrated by Indonesian-backed militias following the poll that left the incipient country bereft of the overwhelming majority of what little infrastructure it did possess. This whole story is touchingly, informatively and quite objectively presented in the modern Independence Memorial Hall.

The memorial for the 250+ killed in 1991 at the Santa Cruz cemetery, one of  the landmark events in East Timor's struggle for independence.

Although I would probably position myself amongst the third group of travellers to East Timor I cannot be completely excluded from the second. A few months ago, whilst in Malaysia, I received a message from an old school friend. Despite having lived in the same house for over a year (a long story) I hadn't seen or exchanged any meaningful contact with Caroline since I left Scotland over 16 years ago, though we had reconnected tenuously via Facebook (a wonderful tool for maintaining contacts that are dispersed far and wide, as is becoming ever more frequently the case in today's hyper-mobile world). So when she wrote to me and said that she was working in Dili then I knew I couldn't pass by so close without paying a visit. In 16 years her appearance had barely changed and I'm sure I would have recognised her had we passed on the street. Luckily we had both matured somewhat since then (her more than me) and we could reacquaint ourselves with the adults we have become. Curiously we have both led rather peripatetic lives, though hers has been more professional whilst mine rather haphazard, which have brought us to this convergence; me with my wanderings and Caroline now working for the Timorese ministry of finance, trying to help them not be completely taken advantage of by more savvy and worldly foreign firms and governments.

Reunion with Caroline after 16 years. As you can see she was happy to see me. I, on the other hand, am finding it difficult not to look like a hobo.

It has become one of the unexpected pleasures of this journey to reconnect with long-lost friends and I certainly hope there will be more such encounters to come.


Graham Swan said...

Hi Erik

I am making a calendar to raise funds for a village (Soibada) in Timor leste. May I please use your shot of the Santa Cruz cemetary?


Erik said...

No problem. I can send you a higher quality image if you send me your e-mail (I can delete your comment containing the e-mail so that it doesn't remain online). Also let me know if there are any other photos that take your fancy.