Timor-Leste–a country that some of you probably have heard of but can’t seem to figure out where it is exactly and why it rings a bell. One guidebook warns that it is a country that you want to leave immediately after a couple of days but would not want to leave at all if you stayed longer than that.
Briefly declaring independence in 1974 after the withdrawal of the Portuguese, this small island country in the east succumbed to its much more powerful neighbor, Indonesia. After 25 years of occupation, Timor-Leste voted against integration with Indonesia in 1999. A bloodbath followed as pro-integration militia burned the young nation into ashes and killed thousands of civilians. (The Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation or CAVR in Dili estimated that around 100,000 lives were claimed by various human rights violations and/or conflict-related incidents from 1974-1999.)
Gordon Peake wrote an informative and intriguing book entitled, “Beloved Land: Stories, Struggles and Secrets from Timor-Leste”. He narrated stories of Timor-Leste facing the challenges of a new state using detailed observations, gripping gossips and contradictions among various aspects of Timorese society–from the luxury cars to dilapidated buildings and nepotism to brave NGO leaders. I was finishing the last pages of his book when the Sriwijaya pilot announced that we were about to land on President Nicolau Lobato International Airport of Dili. I raised my window shade and looked at this land I’ve been dreaming to see since I started studying about humanitarian intervention and post-conflict rebuilding. “The Land of the Sleeping Crocodile,” I whispered to myself. The bright sky and blue waters awaken my tired body and sleepy mind. I thought that if this land is sleeping, it must have had dreams. Before, it dreamed of independence, bravely fought for it and achieved it. Now, its leadership dreams of rapid economic development, becoming a model for democracy, and membership into a regional organization. On the other hand, the people dream of basic services, equal opportunity for all, and justice for the violent past they endured. It’s not difficult to figure out the differences of aspirations among the Timorese people.
I want to share my observations around Dili during the first week of my fieldwork here. I chose the title for this post, “Through the Windows of Dili,” because I believe that even though small, Timor-Leste has so much more to show me behind the windows of its history books. I’m eager to see more, to understand better, and to walk together with this country that had been close to me throughout the years of my studies.
1. Timorese are extremely friendly. It’s not uncommon to greet strangers and it’s reliable to ask people for directions. I stayed with a host family for the first few days and they were all warm, hospitable and treated me like one of them.
2. Development of infrastructure is evident in the city. New investment lands are being fenced, roads being built (or rebuilt), and buildings being constructed. However, uneven development is also obvious. Luxury cars, mostly owned by politicians if not rich businessmen, cruise along pothole-filled roads, street vendors sleep beside their stalls in front of expensive hotels, and electricity blackouts are tolerated. I once visited an NGO office and was greeted by staff who were just hanging out at the balcony because there was no electricity. A friend told me that although it has improved, blackouts still happen unannounced.
3. The city has a very relaxed environment probably because of its geographic location (and partly because of the years of suppression). Protected by the mountains in the south and the ocean in the north, urban living sits comfortably alongside the natural beauty of Dili. Just a short drive from the city centre lies the pristine beaches near Cristo Rei and the three peaceful lakes of Tasitolu on the other side.
4. A friend joked that every time he’s at the airport, he would probably know almost half of the passengers there. Once on a motorbike and while waiting for our turn at the stoplight, another motorist stopped and my friend called out his name, updated each other, and exchanged calling cards before the green light. I also observed her greeting people while we walked around the neighborhood, at the cinema, supermarket, almost everywhere we went. Everyone knows everyone in this small city with a population of only around 200,000.
5. Dili is an expensive city compared to other capitals in Southeast Asia. The cost of living is surprisingly high (because most of the products sold here are imported) given the low minimum wage of a little more than US$100. Fastfood meal costs $5, a restaurant meal at $10 and coffee at $2-3. Internet is slow and at $18 per 1G, I’m already suffering from internet withdrawal.
With its shortcomings and recent developments, Dili remains to be a charming city. Standing on top of the hill where Cristo Rei is located, I felt that I was overlooking the edge of the world. These are the observations I had which are noticeable for visitors. But since this is the land of secrets and dreams, I’m sure there are more discoveries to be uncovered in the coming days.
One thing I have to emphasize at this point and that we have to keep in mind when we talk about this small, developing country in Asia, is that Timor-Leste is the home of survivors of colonialism and victors of a resistance movement against occupation. It is the beloved land of strong-willed people eager to move forward. These characteristics may not be easily observable but these are the characteristics that shaped its past and present and would continuously shape its future.