Touchdown in Timor
There was once a small crocodile who lived in a swamp. His dream was to grow to an enormous size, but food was scarce and the swamp too small to support enough prey. “I must get out of here,” he thought, so the crocodile left the swamp and began his journey to find better waters. But that day the sun was strong, baking the ground and weakening him until he could no longer move. He lay roasting alive in the sand, waiting to die. Soon a boy passed by and, taking pity on the little crocodile, carried him to the edge of the sea. The crocodile thanked the boy for his kindness, telling him, “If you would like to travel, to one day cross the sea, come and see me.”
The two parted ways, with the boy always remembering that promise. A few years later the crocodile had become plump and healthy, so much so that the boy could barely recognise him when he returned. “Brother crocodile,” he said, “I want to see the world.” The crocodile agreed, and the boy climbed on his back, riding it like a canoe. Together they set off, following the sun as it rose in the east.
For years they travelled across the ocean, marvelling at the endless horizon, the stars in the sky, and the many islands they passed. But now the crocodile was old and could go no further. “Listen,” he told the boy, “my dream is over.” As the crocodile died, he grew and grew, until his scales became hills and his back a majestic ridge of mountains. And that is how ‘Grandfather Crocodile’, Avo Lafaek, became the island of Timor.
* * *
Three days before Christmas, Bama and I are aboard a Sriwijaya Air flight, midway from Bali to Dili. The bearded man in the aisle seat, previously silent, turns to me and poses an unexpected question. “You work in Timor?”
This is how we meet Marqy, a self-described freelance painter and musician who speaks fluent English. In him we see a new, emergent class of Timorese – well-educated, up-to-date and worldly. Others on the plane sport trendy outfits, sunglasses and fashionable dyed hairstyles. Marqy says many are students on a scholarship to Bangkok, where he has been working for the past two and a half weeks.
As the conversation flows, I quickly realise that our seatmate may be our best resource for basic phrases. “Can you teach us some Tetum?” Marqy pulls out a small notepad and begins scribbling. Diak ka lae? How are you? Hau diak, obrigadu. I’m fine, thank you. Hau kontenti hasoru ita bo’ot. I’m pleased to meet you.
“25% of our language is from Portuguese, 25% is Indonesian and the rest is [original] Tetum,” he explains. Marqy adds that the East Timorese are descended from Indo-Malay settlers, Aborigines from Australia and Papua, with 35 languages across a national population of only 1.2 million people. I ask him about crocodiles and Timor’s creation myth, to which he nods knowingly. “You’ll see the mountains before we land.”
Marqy is right. We make a wide turn for the descent into Nicolau Lobato International Airport, taking in a bird’s eye view of Dili and the legendary crocodile’s scales, falling away into the Banda Sea. Then our plane hits the runway with a roar, thundering past a row of palms bleached a pallid grey in the harsh midday light.
Inside the dark, quietly chaotic terminal building, we join the free-for-all at the single baggage carousel, which moves at surprisingly great speed. “Deskulpa, deskulpa!” I edge between a tall, lanky Timorese student and another overseas visitor to grab my suitcase before it passes out of reach. Success! The student helps me pull it onto the ground, and my case falls clumsily at his feet.
Dili has the feel of a booming frontier town – full of gritty optimism and corrugated iron roofs, with more traffic than I imagined. On the way in from the airport, we pass the upscale shopping centre of Timor Plaza, then an all-glass building – presumably the country’s first such office block – under construction. I recognise Motael Church, a centre of resistance under the Indonesian occupation, and the whitewashed Government Palace, now the backdrop for an enormous Christmas tree. The palace is among a handful of well-tended civic buildings, with some, like the Resistance Museum and the Xanana Gusmão Reading Room – East Timor’s first public library – boasting modern extensions.
As the taxi pulls up outside our hotel, two boys leap up from their seats in the shade of the front porch. In their hands they hold a collection of trinkets, among them several carved wooden crocodiles. Inside, the hotel has WiFi and 60 international channels on cable in English, Portuguese, Indonesian, French and Mandarin. The building itself is austere in white and cerulean blue, structured like a fortress, with few windows and a staircase circulating the central courtyard.
We meet the Portuguese manager, Carmen, in her office just off the courtyard. She has a strong opinion about the mall and glass tower we had seen en route from the airport. “That’s not development,” she says. “That’s growth… it only benefits a small number of people. You’ll see the contrast on the streets. Outside Dili, outside the central zone, lots of people still live in huts with no electricity and no water.”
But Carmen also speaks of the beauty to be found in the countryside, and its untapped resources. I ask about Timorese coffee, to which she points out a bag of powder, locally grown in the mountain district of Letefoho, on her shelf. “This was given to me as a gift,” she says. Carmen holds it to our nostrils and I breathe in the heady aroma from a small vent near its folded top. The smell is reminiscent of dark chocolate.
There are no elevators, Carmen tells us, in case there is a power outage. This fact alone is oddly exhilarating, and our hotel strikes me as the kind of place where a foreign correspondent would hunker down, anxiously filing news stories and uploading footage as important, world-shaking events took place outside. But it is not 1999 and East Timor has been independent – and mostly peaceful – for more than a decade. Carmen has lived and worked in the country since late 2002, and I ask her one final question before we head upstairs. “I’ve seen some small changes,” she says hopefully, “baby steps.” ◊