East Timor, or Timor Leste. Most visitors never see beyond the area’s few popular beaches, but this province spreads across ancient rainforests and unruffled shores. I take a walk. The clouds, the sea, the sand all shimmer in the same slate gray. Children graze the water, chest-deep in waves. Dinner is nigh.
I love the hour when sunlight turns to butter cream. Sometimes the setting surpasses the menu—eight modest tables in the sand, a mild breeze, flickering candles, and flapping palms. It’s one of those tropical nights when the temperature of skin and air harmonize as though two notes to a consonant song. We order a whole red snapper with a bed of crispy fried garlic chips and a tomato salsa. Choose your Snapper, Parrot fish or other catch of the day from the old battered freezer who breathed its last, so the fishes sit on a bed of ice. Your order done, catch a beer and wait for your fish being grilled with garlic, butter and salt over a beachside flame. It is among the simplest of fish, but it is hard to imagine anything better. Dinner is the same everyday when you eat out. Weekends are spent looking at the changing skies and the tide pulling out from the small bay in Dili.
Nothing extraordinary, but everything lovely.
Extraordinary scenes lie up the road several miles ahead, past rubber trees and oil palms, in a smattering of village cafés with recipes revolving in local simple fare made to feed lunch and dinner . No signs, just a shack with plastic chairs and collapsible tables. No menu, just a finger point and a nod to the vendors. The women behind these tables wear simple knit Tais sarongs denoting their clan as per the row of Ikat woven patterns and colours.
Wander a beach at sunset, and you’ll hear the children frail voices matching their moves into a karate jump. Militia is all they have seen since they left their mother’s breast. Walk the streets, and you’ll meet more goats than dogs. Cultural roots tend toward Indonesia, and kitchen habits hail from what is available in the daily forage.
Why is there no cultivation in Dili?. A driver from UNICEF once told me during one of my initial travels to the inner highlands , a certain saying about farmers throughout the region: some of them plant the rice, others watch it grow, and some simply listen to it grow. It’s meant to be a commentary on stereotypes, ethnic relations and workmanship.
We ate a feast of bananas, bread and unsalted butter, drank coconut juice, indulged in palm fruit, then took a walk among the umbrella palms. The tree gives fruit and juice for sustenance (and alcohol for celebration), leaves for thatching and basketry and sturdy wood for furniture. Jorge, our translator, stops the car, he hails a guy in Tetum. The latter complies instantly and transforms into a langur with agile moves, he reaches the cluster of leaves at the top. He starts dropping the nuts, Jorge brings me some and shows me how to open one. Slice open the hard softball-sized shell and inside you will find three peanut-shaped segments filled with gelatinous flesh sitting in puddles of light, sugary syrup.I love the fruit. I love its consistency and its unusual shape.
All around us were radiant fields of rice, fed by recent rains. Coffee vegations make a nice canopy everywhere are we climbed higher on tortuous roads. From there, the road climbs up and winds its way to Baucau, the second largest city in Timor-Leste, passing some simple thatched houses, sometimes surrounded with beautiful multicolored bougainvilleas. Plenty bundles of wood are for sale along the road – as if there wasn’t already enough logging done. But everybody tries to earn some money to survive somehow. When we reach Baucau, lying on an altitude of 1’000 ft., it is pouring. Reaching our destination in the middle of the night. Silence and darkness greeted us.We listened. Not a lot moved in the thick, still air. Plenty of frogs croaked from the soupy glug in which all that rice grows. We found a house with a voice, as Jorge, thanks to his excellent sense for orientation, finds it in the darkness. It was going to be our night B&B. Our guesthouse is very basic though: A tiny room with two bunk beds, a wall that doesn’t go right up to the ceiling, a shared washroom where there is not enough water in the balay, a water reserve like a mini tub in concrete, promising a good wash with the plastic tumbler … mosquitoes buzz excitedly at the new meal they have for the night. Nevertheless, we are happy to have a roof over our heads and that our LandCruiser is safely parked in the compound.Breakfast is another story, it will unfold itself with light.
For 24 years, the Timorese people lived under a brutal occupation, which led to the deaths of some 200,000 people—a third of the population back then. In the early years, Indonesian forces bombed the interior of the island from land, sea and air. Thousands of civilians fled their villages to the mountains, where they camped in caves.
For years, Edwina and her family, like many, ate whatever they could find: wild beans, dried potatoes, roots and tubers. Indonesians shot thousands of Timorese. Many more died of starvation and thirst. Small graveyards are scattered across the mountain today—red crosses mark those who died fighting; white crosses denote many more who died of disease and hunger. “Sometimes seven, eight people in one family died,” Edwina told me. Sometimes children and parents died on the same day. There wasn’t time or means to bury them all.
These are the memories that shaped Edwina’s childhood, and these are the memories she still carries today. Indonesian-backed militias retaliated in a rampage of rapes, massacres and fires that destroyed much of the country. The UN intervened, and Timor-Leste became fully independent in 2002.
Surviving the past has given Edwina an unbridled will to live in peace. And that will for peace may well be the final triumph over terror.
Once a busy beach of Areis Branca on Sundays by UN missions staff, now it lays empty. The SUVs bring backpackers tourists instead. A cheap destination for a beautiful country.