East Timor, the city
Trip Start Sep 05, 2009
23Trip End Sep 11, 2010
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However, this seemingly lack of incentive to own the land didn’t stop Indonesia from immediately laying claim to it upon Portugal’s departure. I haven’t yet figured out what gives rise to these imperial motives that every country seems to possess and which have dominated the course of modern history. I think people just like to own things, and somehow fail to consider whether the people they are claiming sovereignty over want to be owned. Of course the locals weren’t too keen on being governed by a bunch of people 10 islands away in Jakarta, so for the next 25 years or so they waged a rather ineffective guerilla campaign against the much more powerful and well equipped Indonesian army that was occupying the island.
Then, early in the 21st century, Indonesia suddenly decided to pull out just about as abruptly as Portugal had. The Indonesian government allowed the Timorese people to hold a referendum to determine whether they would remain a part of Indonesia or obtain independence. Despite significant pressure and threats from the occupying Indonesia military, the people overwhelming voted for independence. The only problem was, the occupying forces weren’t so keen on the idea of Timor being independent. After struggling against the guerilla forces for control of this island for the last couple decades, they weren’t willing to just concede defeat, turn around, and quietly disperse
So what you now had was an island of a few hundred thousand resilient people who had finally gained full autonomy over their homeland, only it was now mostly burnt and scarred, and they had no real political or leadership experience and didn’t really know what to do with it. Open floodgates and enter international missionaries. And that pretty much brings us to the present day. The UN and a host of NGO’s are still here and still working diligently to build political, law enforcement, education, healthcare, and public works institutions from scratch. It is a long and difficult process.
For most people this is the main draw to visiting East Timor, the opportunity to see a country that is still struggling to get to its feet and establish an identity after a violent separation from centuries of colonialism. As you would expect, there isn’t much in the way of an established tourism infrastructure. You are really just there to experience the country, to see how the local people get by, to get a feel for this place.For just about everyone visiting East Timor, your base of operations is the capital city of Dili
Now, despite the less than glamorous description above, I should mention that the airport is a far superior method of entry compared to the overland route. If you don’t believe me, refer to my previous blog entry for thorough convincing.
You would assume that in a place as undeveloped as East Timor, especially being in Southeast Asia, that traveling would come at bargain basement prices. This is not the case! The large presence of UN and NGO organizations has saturated the local accommodation market, driving up prices for things like hotel rooms, rental cars, and sit down meals. I was also surprised to learn that these missionaries are not as well received as you might think. Among the locals they have a reputation for: 1) not doing much 2) speeding around in SUVs with a general disregard for whatever else happens to be on the road. Which seems a bit contradictory, because why would you speed around in an oversized vehicle if you don’t really have anywhere to go. I can’t speak to how efficient they are or how much they actually do, but after having to jump out of the way a few times I can verify that their driving habits leave a lot to be desired.
For a thorough review of what you actually do while you are visiting East Timor, please read the rest of this paragraph
Sarcasm of course! Your time in East Timor is entirely self-driven and can be as little or as much as you want it to be. It will land near the low end of the spectrum if you are looking to be entertained in the fashion of a traditional vacation by way of guided tours, established tourist hot spots, institutions like museums or wildlife parks, or rowdy nights out on the town. However, if you arrive with an open mind and the intention of simply experiencing a life different from your own, then your visit to East Timor can be a rich and rewarding one.
I spent half of my time in East Timor indulging in the relative comforts of Dili. Relative is the key word here. My hostel featured a bathroom with actual plumbing, but no hot water. The hostel common room featured an actual DVD player, but it didn’t work. And the hostel sleeping quarters featured a fully enclosed and air conditioned eight-share room with an actual roof, but when it rained water leaked through the ceiling and dripped onto my right arm Chinese water torture style.
Actually, the hostel served as an excellent base for operations. Annual tourism numbers are strikingly low, with the first few years after independence recording less than 1,500 hundred visitors annually, though within the last year I believe that number has risen above 10,000
It was through the staff that I had my most interesting experience in Dili. The lady of the house, Rita, had a friend who was getting married and extended an invite to attend the wedding. I was hesitant; I could just envision how awkward it would be trying to fit in at a ceremony where I wasn’t familiar with the customs, didn’t know the anyone, and wouldn‘t be able to pick the bride or groom out of a crowd. Only, this hesitation was soon overwhelmed by a realization of how awesome it would be trying to fit in at a ceremony where I wasn’t familiar with the customs, didn’t know the anyone, and wouldn‘t be able to pick the bride or groom out of a crowd.
So an hour or so later I found myself in the back of a pickup truck with about 9 kids who were ostensibly all member of Rita’s extended family, in the rain, on my way to a wedding. If it seems like a strange way to get to a wedding, that’s because it is. But this is how you get around in Timor. Put the limo fantasies aside; you travel to senior proms and weddings in the same manner as to the corner store to buy bread
We showed up unfashionably late to the wedding at a time when most of the guests were already there. This made our entrance fairly noticeable. What made it exponentially more noticeable was that I was the only foreigner at the wedding, which everyone acknowledged with unrestrained and protracted staring for the remainder of the evening. As I understand it, the venue for this wedding was better than average. That’s not to say it was in a church or an entertainment hall, but rather that it was indoors. They are quite often outside under tents, not because the weather is beautiful and the air refreshing, but because there just aren’t that many venues for hosting this sort of thing. This wedding was in what appeared to be an old auditorium style community gathering place. It was basically a big open room with a small stage and windows along each side in three different styles: barred, boarded, or open air (open air means the glass was broken and hadn’t yet been replaced with bars or boards). Which to me, was just perfect.
You see, getting married in East Timor isn’t about intricacies such as floral arrangements, seating charts, fancy catering menus, and open bars. There were no flowers, we sat in a folded chairs that had been unceremoniously crammed in along each wall, we ate spicy dog meat, and we drank a can of soda
After the meal there was a ceremony, which I would detail further if I had understood a word of it. Suffice to say, I think it was pretty typical.
What wasn’t so typical was the subsequent dancing. If I had to explain it briefly, I would say subdued and regimented, yet fun and unorganized. If I had to explain it in a way that actually makes sense, it would be something like this:
There is a band, or at least there is a collection of people in street clothing who are gathered around in one corner, and there are some microphones and speakers and a keyboard, and sometimes they play music, and sometimes they play a CD. There is a break between every song, during which time everyone clears the floor and returns to a seat, at which time another song begins and everyone stands back up and returns to the dance floor. Everyone is performing a simple variation of the same basic dance, regardless of their age, gender, or the genre of music playing. This dance consists of a man and a woman, in a traditional slow dance position, performing a basic three step pattern, in one spot, while progressing in a gradual clockwise circle
Apart from the wedding, there was nothing particularly noteworthy about my time in the capital city. I did lots of general wandering on foot, and spent a good deal of time unsuccessfully trying to avoid the rain and unsuccessfully trying to find something to eat that didn’t make me sick. So, I guess you could say, I spent most of my time getting wet and looking for the nearest facility. Yah, it ain’t the Ritz.
The more interesting part of East Timor is going beyond Dili and exploring the countryside. This, as they say, is the real East Timor
As always thank you for reading,