The Air North flight from Darwin to Dili can take 76 passengers and it’s a full house. Two Australian school groups and their teachers, all bubbling with excitement for the adventure that lies ahead.
One group is bearing gifts of ukuleles, fourteen in all. I imagine a Timorese ukulele orchestra in the making.
We land in Dili a little after 7am, having flown over the south coast and Natabora but overcast skies have shrouded our view until we descend below the clouds.
The passage through check in and customs is slow but neither the grey skies or the form filling-in can dull the anticipation.
The morning in this city of 265,000 people is warm and sticky but not as warm as the welcome Dave and I receive from Jose Da Costa, his partner Lucy and two beautiful daughters, two and six years old, and Augus – he is to be our traveling companion for the week ahead. The eldest girl, Moira steps forward and presents us with personalised Timor Leste Tais.
It is a beautiful and touching little ceremony for both of us and Jose is unable to shield us from the warmth, respect, and love he displays. Dave and Jose go back to 2008 when Jose was employed by the Bega Valley Advocates for Timor Leste, their friendship is warm and they fall into easy conversation about family and life in the five years since Dave was last here.
Our transport is Jose’s Toyota Land Cruiser wagon. Dave made all these arrangements with Jose several months ago. Over the next eight days, we will spend many hours over some fairly challenging roads, the white Toyota proving a worthy beast.
From the airport, we drive thru Dili to Jose’s home in the Comoro Suco overlooking Tasitolu. It is my first glimpse of Dili, and I am absorbed by the sights, sounds, and smells.
The traffic is chaotic; motor scooters are the main transport – there’s a dad with a small child on his lap, mum holding a bub to her breast as they weave thru the morning traffic of buses, cars, SUV’s, 4WD’s, numerous state vehicles known as ‘Kareta Estadio’, trucks, water tankers, and the ubiquitous yellow Dili taxi.
The atmosphere is humid and thick, the acrid smell of wood smoke from roadside stalls and homes is all pervasive.
The grandeur of embassies, government buildings, and modern shopping malls is mixed with Portuguese architecture, humble abodes, roadside stalls and markets made of rusting tin.
Dili, as is the case in much of the country, is a city in transformation. Construction everywhere. Businesses, many of which are Chinese, selling everything from hardware to electronics and all that plastic crap that is endemic around the world.
The roadside litter takes me by surprise, plastic water bottles, and bags everywhere. Not just by the road but around shops and market stalls, along the beachfront, in drains and waterways.
As I am to discover Dili has little or no reticulated drinking water, or sewerage system for that matter. Grey water runs in roadside drains. Shops and market stalls sell water all over the island. From city to village – plastic water bottles are endemic.
On the way to Jose’s home, we stop at a bakery for fresh bread rolls. Tasitolu is about 8 kms from the centre of Dili.
Tasitolu is the site of three saline lakes. It is described as a protected area – a designated Wetland of National Significance for its ecological, historic and cultural significance. (See video above)
However, this is the dry season on the north side of the island. And Dili is dry. Very, very dry.
We cross a vast dry flat mud, salt pan beside a shallow lake, the edges littered with plastic and garbage.
There are homes built around the edges, I wonder what happens in the wet season. The homes are of concrete block construction. On a raised footing of stone and cement and mostly tin roofs. The disparity of wealth is starkly obvious.
Jose and his family live on the rising land overlooking Tasitolu. The home is still under construction with an upper level yet to be completed.
His is a household of at least 16 people – his family plus perhaps ten or more young men and women he is supporting with accommodation, food, and fees while they study. They come from his home village of Oecusse, a Timorese enclave in Indonesian West Timor and elsewhere.
One of his enterprises is making stone and cement pots which provide income and work for his extended family.
Our first meal in Dili – breakfast including bread roll, egg, sliced cheese, and coffee.
The coffee is from roasted Timorese beans. The ground coffee is simply put in a jug, pot, or thermos with hot water and sugar. Much sugar! Cloyingly sweet to my taste. But the coffee is good. I make a mental note to avoid the sugar wherever possible.
The hospitality in these few short hours has been almost overwhelming. It is to become the enduring and endearing feature of our stay here.
Our home during our time in Dili is Fatuhada, the Carmelite Convent near the centre of the city.
We arrive to a welcome from several of the sisters and another breakfast. Tea, bread rolls, sliced cheese, and jam, with bottled water. My plan for losing a kilo or two while here is looking doubtful. Lunch and dinner with the sisters that day is further confirmation.
It is now after 10 am Dili time and both Dave and myself are in need of rest. It’s been more than 24 hours since either of us have had real sleep, there’s some time for a nap and wash before lunch with the sisters at 12.30.
Lunch is more substantial than breakfast, rice, steamed greens, salad, noodles with chicken, bananas, and apples. The bananas are small, from the palms within the convent’s garden – sweet and delicious, fresh and still on the bunch. They are a feature of most meals at Fatuhada.
There are about 19 sisters and acolytes gathered for lunch. They are warm and friendly, and I feel very welcomed. Several have been to the Bega Valley as guests of the Bega Valley Advocates for Timor Leste and they are excited to see us and talk face to face of the wonderful contribution the advocates have made and the enduring friendship formed with the Bega Valley.
Jose and Augus return at 2 and we head off a trip to along the coast of Dili Harbour. First to Cape Fatucama at the eastern end of the Harbour, where in 1988 Indonesia’s former president Suharto built a statue of Christ. But because it was built by the dictator it was not popular with the Timorese. The Cristo Rei (Christ the King), was a failed attempt by Indonesia to dissuade East Timor from demanding independence.
On the western point of the harbour there stands a giant statue of the late Pontiff, Pope John Paul ll.
When dozens of East Timorese students defied Indonesian security forces and rioted in front of Pope John Paul II in October 1989, Indonesia’s brutal rule was highlighted to the world for the first time in years.
Twenty years on the statue of the late Pontiff was erected as a symbol of renewed hope for the people of Timor Leste. The Pope’s face looks towards Dili’s western outskirts where the riot took place.
There is some confusion in articles I have read from that time.
One refers to the statue as being a six-metre high bronze statue, another describes it as a ten-metre concrete construction. Either way, it is massively impressive.
There is also some contradiction around the 1989 riot during the mass held by Pope John Paul II, as to whether rioters were angry at the Pope for calling for an end to the violence and reconciliation with Indonesia or whether they were inspired by the Pope’s message. Whatever the true motivation for the riot, the Pope’s visit focused world attention on the Indonesians and East Timor and is seen by many Timorese as galvanising a determination for independence.
Our afternoon is spent in Comoro with Lorenzo and his family, friends of Jose and Augus. Timorese coffee, strong and black, conversation shared about family, life in Dili, study, work and survival.
I’m learning that everyone has a mobile phone, they are as common as the plastic water bottles. The fixed line and telecommunications network was destroyed by the Indonesians in 1999. Though somewhat reinstated since, mainly in Dili, mobiles have taken over. By 2015 94% of the population could access mobile and internet services. And they do. Coverage seems to be 4G with at least three providers, Timor Telecom, Telstra, and Vietnamese provider Viettel.
Timor Leste’s young population is perhaps also driving the mobile take-up. This is a country of 1.2 million people, where 50% of the population is under 25 and 40% under 15.
Over coffee, we talk of Chinese business and investment in roads and power. It is a contentious issue for many Timorese.
We take our leave with a warm farewell, bundle into the Toyota for the drive back to Fatuhada for the evening meal with the sisters – rice, chicken, spicy steamed greens, spinach, a side dish of deliciously hot salty chili, a cup of tea and of course bottled water.
What a day it has been. Nearly forty hours with just snatches of shut-eye on the three flights that brought us here, and a nap this morning before lunch. Sleep beckons with visions of generosity, joyous smiles, and the contradiction of poverty and wealth, but above all those faces that break into gorgeous smiles.
More to come…
Click HERE to catch up on Postcard 1.
Words and pictures by Tim Holt.
*Tim Holt retired as Mornings Presenter at ABC South East NSW in December 2015 after a three-decade radio career.
Thanks to About Regional Member Robyn Amair and her contribution to local story telling.