East Timor: Part 1

In 2008 I went to East Timor with some volunteers from my high school to install an electrical system for a school in a village called Zumalai on the south coast. We brought over some tools and electrical equipment and I brought back a few words in Tetum and a cute little tropical parasite.
Mt Carmel in Hera is named for the Mountain in northern Israel where the Carmelite order was founded by pilgrims or soldiers during the crusades.

These are the Tetum words I know:
Hau la comprehende – I don’t understand
Malae – foreigner
Mutin – white
Diak – good
La diak – no good
Los – very
Moras – sick
Manas – hot
Bulak – crazy
Ituan – little
Obrigadu – thankyou

My flight leaves Saturday afternoon so naturally I spend Saturday morning shopping for a decent pair of hiking boots. The sales guy assures me that it will take only a few weeks to break them in- by which point I’ll be back in Melbourne and able to walk to the pub in comfort and style. About midday I cram my pack with wall sockets and light fittings and tools and head out to the airport. Meeting me there are my two companions for this trip, Shane and Brother Sean. Shane is another ex-student happy to help out and Br Sean is the man with the plan – he raises the money and organises projects to support the school in East Timor. We arrive in Brisbane after dark as a lightening storm rolls in and I test out my boots on the unforgiving terrain of the domestic terminal lounge. Everyone in Brisbane looks like they’ve come straight from the beach to watch Rugby at the airport in the middle of the night. Must be a northern thing.

We touch down in Darwin a few hours later whereupon my gaffer’s tape is confiscated by Air North security. I mention my spotless track record of not hijacking planes with tape on the last two flights but they aren’t taking any chances. We leave Darwin at dawn heading northwest over the Timor gap -an area of ocean that has been jointly plundered for oil and gas revenue by Australia and Indonesia for the last 20 years while East Timor has remained one of the poorest countries in the world.

Only an hour and half later we’re over the island itself and I can see massive dry river beds hundreds of meters wide. We follow one of these riverbeds inland for a kilometer or so before mountains start to appear. The closest thing to this sort of terrain in Australia is Wilson’s promontory; steep forested mountains packed shoulder-to-shoulder with one another like a wrinkled green blanket kicked to the edge of a blue bedsheet. Mountains are all that can be seen below the aircraft from the south coast to the north.



I had read that pro-independence rebels, the Falantil, had managed to carry out a guerilla war against the Indonesian army for 25 years. East Timor is a tiny country, about a quarter of the size of Tasmania. I didn’t understand how it was possible. Now I realise. There doesn’t seem to be anything down there but jungle and mountains and rivers.

It’s just after eight when we come round to land in Dili. At the east end of the bay, looking out to sea towards Jakarta, is the statue ‘Christo Rei’ – a smaller version of Rio’s ‘O Christo Redentor’. At the other end of the bay is a statue of the late great John Paul II.

From the air Dili looks like a large beach town like Cairns or Port Douglas. The only large buildings appear to be churches. We touch down at Presidente Nicolau Lobato International Airport just as an Australian Blackhawk flares and sets down behind us. The only other aircraft are fat Russian helicopters and cargo planes painted UN white. Stepping onto the tarmac is like stepping into a sauna. The air is thick and still and has that vic-market smell of composting vegetation, fish and exhaust fumes. Jeans were a bad choice.

Jolly Timorese security guards usher us in to the terminal and dour Timorese customs officials stamp our passports. Customs in Darwin has a laundry list of items you’re not allowed to bring with you. Customs in Dili just has big sign saying you need to take the magazine out of your rifle before boarding. It’s the little things, y’know?

Fr Antonio gives us a warm welcome in the terminal. Antonio is a priest who helps manage the three main Carmelite parishes in East Timor- one is in Fatuhada in Dili, the other is in the neighboring district of Hera and the last, our eventual destination, is on the other side of the country in a village called Zumalai. Fr Antonio takes us through Dili in a mini bus dotted with book-club stickers of the virgin Mary. There’s a rosary hanging from the rear-view mirror and pictures of Mary on the glove box, the steering wheel and over the dashboard compass.

Anything goes on the streets of Dili. Whole families travel circus-like on motorbikes and veer into oncoming traffic to overtake. The motorbikes look like they’re ready to fall apart. while I’m watching one I see a piece of faring break off and skitter across the road. Antonio laughs when I put my seatbelt on. “Dili. No laws” he says by way of explanation. He can put his trust in the holy mother I’ll put mine in seatbelts.

From street level Dili looks like a shanty town. The only large structures are the Parliament and the Australian embassy/army base. There are concrete buildings but many of them are roofless ruins. Most were destroyed during Indonesia’s scorched earth withdrawal in 1999 or destroyed during the 2006 riots. The Comoro river runs through the city. Well it does in the wet season anyway. As we drive over it looks like one big construction site.

As we drive through Dili I start to get a feel for the place. The streets are crowded with young people and vendors selling vegetables, clothing, phone cards, fruit and petrol in plastic bottles. We drive out of Dili over a steep mountain into Hera district. We pass what looks like a go-cart track and Fr Antonio tells me it’s Dili’s driving school. It’s a nice gesture but its current use seems to be as a goat pen. We travel through the valley, turn off into a banana plantation and arrive at the seminary compound. The Carmelite seminary is the first modern building I’ve seen in Timor. It has lush gardens, 24 hour electricity, flushing toilets and table tennis. It sits at the base of ‘Mt Carmel’- named for the mountain in Israel where the Carmelite order was founded. Hera’s Mt Carmel is much steeper, much hotter and, like much of Timor, has been subjected to slash-and-burn deforestation.



There’s a definite ‘lost boys’ of Peter Pan vibe about the place. On the streets of Dili you see children and teenagers almost exclusively and even the seminary seems staffed by Timorese men in their late teens. Those from Dili generally have to know Bahasa Indonesian, a little Malay, a little English, a little Portugese and, of course, Tetum which has several different regional dialects. There’s an odd mix of gluts and scarcity in Dili. There is no running water and no electricity to most of the city but you can buy phone cards from random children every 20 feet down the road. Timor Telecom has blue ‘Toke’ (lizard) cards for men and pink ‘Tecki’ (gecko) phone cards for women. These are also the affectionate slang in tetum for boys and girls.

When Fr Antonio leaves the brothers crowd around Shane and I and we carry on jarring conversations on several fronts. Introductions take place every few minutes, ‘Richard’ is a little too hard to say so for the rest of the trip I’m ‘Riccardo’. Everyone smiles a great deal. If there’s the barest suspicion that I’ve said something jokingly the brothers fall about laughing.

We are treated to five star service- our own rooms, fully furnished and stocked with bottled water, little shampoos, soap and pepsodent and a free pair of thongs. which is good because the only footwear I brought were my hiking boots.

The fan in my room is on high all night and it successfully stirs the heat around my room like an eggbeater. I sleep fitfully and awake to Gregorian chanting at 5:30 in the morning. We spend monday morning in Fatuhada getting supplies from the friendly Timorese on the other side of the language barrier. The problem we have is that virtually everyone is instantly agreeable which makes it difficult to work out what exactly they have in stock, what we have to pay for what lengths of conduit and wire. When the woman at the hardware store finds out that Sean is a priest her deference increases tenfold. Buying supplies takes all morning.

The road to Zumalai, I later discover, is just one long succession of potholes and washouts and landslides. It’s a journey spent mainly on uneven ground in first gear. Fr Antonio is a small man in his forties with a kind face and a cheeky smile and he makes this gruelling trip at least once a week. Clearly the nice, paved, two-lane roads around Dili are where he makes up for lost time. We take the scenic route back to Hera along the coast past the Hotel California and the Tourismo and Antonio drives the whole way like he stole something. We fly around blind corners with nothing more than a warning beep of the horn and we overtake motorcyclists travelling at 60 like they’re standing still. The rosary hanging infront of the windscreen swings wildly. The only time he stops is when we reach the UN checkpoint into Hera.



We arrange to leave for Zumalai the next morning at eight. With an afternoon to kill we ask if any of the brothers would like to take us up the mountain. Br Isak and Br Johan take us up what I soon realise is not a path but just a bare section of slope from the runoff during the wet season. The two brothers leg it up the mountainside only barely breaking a sweat and stopping occasionally to enjoy the view and let Shane and I catch up. There are woodcutters on the saddle to the next mountain but when they see us most of them run away shouting ‘malae!’.

Eight AM in timor time is eight AM give or take two or three standard deviations. We also have to contend with terminally-agreeable Timorese. A typical exchange;
“We leave Saturday? Sabadu?”
“We leave Saturday?”
“Yes, saturday”
“We leave Sunday?”
All this means is that, by the time we actually do leave, it is fast approaching the hottest part of the day and Shane and I are riding shotgun in the back of the dump truck with all the electrical equipment and luggage. The truck travels through Dili, past one of the larger refugee camps and into the mountains overlooking the city. We travel uphill along a precarious winding road dodging overloaded minibuses for several hours. Finally we reach a valley before heading uphill again until well into the afternoon. We travel through beautiful hill towns, terraced rice paddies, Portuguese-style cemeteries in pastel colours and countless hills topped with crucifixes.

Continued: Part 2



Richard Pendavingh

Photographer, designer and weekend historian. Editor of The Unravel. Confined to Melbourne until the plague lets up.


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