Reading the prologue to Invisible Man, my favorite book, I realized that my experience in East Timor is completely the opposite of Ralph Ellison’s main character in 1950s New York. His is a man who is systematic ignored, made to feel invisible for sheer lack of recognition of his existence, somebody who people bump into for not having seen, and then curse for being in the way, and being black. “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me… Then too, you’re constantly being bumped against by those of poor vision. Or again, you wonder if you really exist.”

I on the other hand, am a white woman, so visible that I attract resentment and scorn as I move around here. People see me, curse me, and then bump into me on purpose! What a different set of circumstances. There is no wonder if I really exist, indeed my existence is follows me everywhere I go with smooching noises, and disapproving “tut-tutting,” or “Hello Mrs,” or “Professora bonitas.” Instead of seeing “my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination” as they do for Ellison’s character, when people see me they see me by a distorted version of me. Some kind of pornstar, erotic mirage rising before them in a desert of Catholic reppression.

My experience, however, is in a very fundamental way voluntary. I am an analogy to that white journalist who underwent pigment therapy and dyed his skin a darker tone in 1960s South to write the book Black Like Me. However nasty, or unbearable I find the experience of being a white, western woman in a repeatedly colonized, patriarchal third world country coming out of severe repression and trauma, I have an easy escape valve: leave. I have a new appreciation for the anger and the ambivalence of Ellison’s character, feeling the opposite sensation: visibility, but also knowing that for me it is temporary, it is a mere experiment.

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Little red explorer ants fan out across my white tiled floor every morning and evening, presumably looking for little oases of nutritation, like scabs, crystallized electrolytes from drops of sweat, and maybe the odd gigantic morsel of food, like candy or bread or oozing mangoes.

I have never lived so close to the equator, nor so intimately with insects. I take mosquito coils to the bathroom and watch them bob and buzz around me while I’m on the toilet. They seem undeterred by my violent swats are them with my hands, or by the smoke rising from the coil that I wave around like some kind of alterboy. Sometimes it’s hard to forget that these guys are bearing Dengue fever, and that Dengue is bigger than the cumulonimbus rain clouds hovering over Dili – a vice-like headache for weeks and wracking fever.

More harmless, are the geckos, some seemingly naked in their translucence. They constantly run up and down the walls and ceilings here, defying gravity. They are silent companions here, intermittent witnesses to our indoor activity.

The coolest place in room, by far, in on the floor. I am may have discovered this serendipitously, through my aescetic style of furnishing. But even when I do buy a chair, I know that on truly sopping evenings, I will be sprawled out across the floor with the fan beating down warm air on me. In bed I estimate I sweat out a liter of water an evening, even with the fan cooling me down. Something about sheets and mattresses and proper “beds” that is just wrong for the tropics. In Brazil, they seem to have it right, with most rooms consisting of no furniture at all, just two pegs half way up opposite walls and its BYO hammock.

Truly, the distinction between “inside” and “outside” that we make in my temperate home is not applicable here. Beyond the obvious physical porousness of my room (half of the outside wall is made of laminated palm spines nailed “tightly” together), dirt, insects, and rain are just as much present here as outside. It just takes them slightly longer to get here. I can see water stains on the white board ceiling I have above me, which clearly conceals a mostly-rainproof corrugated metal roof. The stains, however, seems proof that roof is not waterproof on some especially torrential days.

Pig screaming greets my every morning “inside” my room as though I were in the sty yanking pig ears in my sleep. I suppose I’m reminded that I’m “inside” by the unfailing Olympian leap of a particularly insane rooster on the tin roof every morning, followed by a number of cacophonous events such as the across the roof shuttle run, the triple jump and the merciful final catapulting leap off of the roof.

I have taken a truly Dalai Lama-like attitude to this invasion of insect and animal life. I mean really, what is the point of killing the ants and the rooster and the mosquitoes? They have surely already made heaps of babies that will come after them, and there is no point in increasing the death and destruction around here. I just pick up my chicken-feather duster and sweep the ants out of the door. Or put on 80% deet (I affectionately call “jet fuel”) and pray.

There’s this crazy British show from the seventies called “The Prisoner.” In the show this guy is obviously some kind of spy in a wacked-out futuristic England, and he is shown to be stripped of his position and before he knows it, he wakes up on this weird island. He has no idea where he is, and no idea how he got there, and everybody seems to regard his presence as totally normal. He spends the first couple episodes trying to figure out what the hell is going on, where he is, and how to escape. And oh, who the foxy women are… Before long his bizarre comfortable island life seems liveable, all the comforts are there, very little is expected of him, even though he really has no idea what is really going on. It’s like a seventies Truman Show, where everybody pretends not to know of anything “outside” but there’s this feeling that they ALL know, and they’re playing dumb. There is this unbearable tension through the whole thing, and it’s actually so strangely and slowly paced that it’s an unbearable TV series.

Well, on my bike on my way home today I saw a kid with short curly hair and tips dyed blonde – a Timorese kid that is… And I suddenly felt this crazy homesickness, a punk-induced nostalgia for a more comfortable place than this. A place where being weird is being normal, a different kind of conformity.

Here, I observed today, the I’m creating these grooves, these channels of movement here, going to the same spaces, in the same orders, for the same reasons. It’s as if Dili has basically stopped expanding to me and has taken on a finite character. I could on a map number the places I frequent and my routes between them. In many places, this routine, this consistency, while perhaps boring, would provide comfort and stability. Here, as I feel myself slipping into routine, it feels no more comfortable than the wide-eyed panic and wonderment during my first days here. I am not regarded with anyless scorn or disdain than I was at the beginning.

There is a distinct feeling of being trapped in a bizarre, cappucino and ruin-filled dream. Kind of like that seventies show “the Prisoner” that Rich tried to hook me on this summer. Everything should be so pleasant, so comfortable, because materially, if you emphasize comfort, you can have it. But there is this bizarre, continually panicked sense of dislocation and exclusion. Maybe it goes back to the dustball metaphor, that I just want to be swept up in the great dustball of the UN and have comfort in numbers, even if dirty. If I felt as brainwashed as the rest of these people here, if I just really thought that this was real life, then I would stop getting so upset about everything.

Outside of Dili, the seat of power since the Portuguese set up shop there in the 17th century, the landscape is strikingly varied, scarred by poverty and military destruction. Timor’s climate is unique in the world, providing a buffer between tropical Indonesia and dry Australia. Seven degrees south of the equator, Timor is known for its severe dry season. Half of the year leaves coastal and high regions parched, in parts with red earth which reminds of the Australian outback.

Yet other regions remain a lush green color the whole year long. Its volcanic origin provides for stunning, at times fractal-like ranges. Due to varying altitude and rain-fall by region on the island, Timor sustains an astonishing variety of eco-systems from alpine meadows to rainforest, from pine forests to mangroves, all in an area the size of the state of New Jersey.

While its leaders trumpet the desire to become the next “Singapore” (which one can only suppose to mean orderly and prosperous), many hope that East Timor could become the Asian Costa Rica, a peaceful eco-paradise.

During two years of UN administration, over a dozen areas were declared “protected,” with penalties for damage to flora and fauna. Coral reefs are protected by regulation of the UN administration. These areas will become the first designated National Parks in East Timor.

Talk of National Parks and nature reserves may seem quite precocious in a country that is still technically administered by the U.N., in the throes of constitution writing. Unemployment and rural poverty are the greatest challenges facing the new government. In the past, both Portuguese and Indonesian colonial administrations were the greatest employers, providing the majority of jobs. This cannot be the case for an independent East Timor. Industry has no footing on the island, and reliance on exporting of volatile agriculture commodities has proven catastrophic in the past two years, with plummeting rice and coffee prices.

Tourism, in this context, looks like an appealing job-creator and revenue generator. Even now, the “captive” market of UN staff in the country has helped to energize the tourist sector in the short-term. More than a dozen western-style hotels have sprung from the ashes in Dili, and two SCUBA operators provide access to East Timor’s pristine reefs, mostly for ex-patriate staff. But both diving outfits are foreign-owned.

East Timor Transitional Administration Tourism Officer Vicente Ximenes has high expectations for tourism, and hopes to develop the sector in a well-planned, responsible way. First priority, he claims, is an assessment of what the country has to offer — to catalogue all of the sites of ecological, cultural and historical importance.

Ximenes hopes to avoid a Bali-syndrome, where development is extremely concentrated and unstructured. “We don’t want everything in the capitol, so we’ll try to start from the edges,” he says. But with only 6 staff, few resources can be devoted to educating people outside of the capitol about tourism or developing new projects.

“Hello Mrs! How are you?” screamed a pack of kids half way up Mount Matebian in the remote highlands of central East Timor. As “malay,” the universal Timorese label for foreigners, the children had spotted us immediately from the porch of a bamboo-walled, palm thatch-rooved hut. Even though the region we were traveling in speaks a local language and Tetum (the unofficial national language layered on top), these children, who would have to walk for an hour to see a foreigner, screamed to us in English. For a country so dramatically closed off from the world until the late 1990s, the penetration of English phrases into mountain vocabulary reflects the break-neck pace of change brought the near two-years old international presence.

Mount Matebian, hopes Dili-based entrepreneur and long-time guide Pedro Lebre, will be a “test-case” for eco- and cultural tourism. Located in central-eastern East Timor, access to Matebian from the capital is via a road which during the dry season is quite passable, offering stunning views of rice paddy terracing, tracing its way through a handful of traditional villages. In the wet season, the five hour ride from the capital to Baguia, the village at the base, will take up to 7 hours with experienced 4WD drivers, and will also require large portions of the road to be leveled and heightened.

Matebian, while not the tallest peak in Timor, is considered the most sacred. In pre-Portuguese times, the mountain stood at the center of the various island cultures’ cosmologies: a source from which souls emanated and inevitably returned at death. At the summit, a full 8000 feet above sea level, the Catholic church has piggy-backed on ancient tradition, erecting a shrine named Cristo Rei, or Christ the King. On October 10, the annual day of pilgrimage, people from across the country and across the world make the trek, with the international dimension only growing during the current UN administration.

Lebre hopes to include stories of Matebian’s recent history in his tours. In 1975, shortly after the completion of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, two Indonesian soldiers “disappeared” on the mountain, provoking a whole battalion to come looking for them. The battalion was summarily destroyed by the highly effective guerilla force FALINTIL, in one of its early and most heroic battles. From 1975, until Indonesia bought fighter planes in the late 1970s, Matebian became a refuge for nearly all of the population of the eastern most three districts who gathered in its valleys and caves. For most families, this was a desperate move: there was not enough food, water and no medicine. Lebre’s village was “depopulated,” those people who did not remain in the mountains were sent to central prison camps.

Jakarta’s acquisition of fighter planes from England and the United States brought untold destruction to East Timor’s most sacred mountain. Whole swaths of forest, considered cover for the hiding civilian population were bombed and napalmed, leaving many meadows unnaturally exposed to erosion. The Indonesian army began a devastating bombing campaign, in which over 10,000 people huddled in one of Matebian’s caves perished under a hail of napalm. The cave was subsequently sealed. Lebre hopes to create a monument to those who died there, including many of his family members.

Matebian holds a special place in the heart of FALINTIL guerilla fighters, many of whom came from the surrounding districts, and fought their fiercest battles there. The region is so FALINTIL-friendly that during Indonesia’s terror campaign in 1999 surrounding the vote for independence, Indonesia sympathizers and militiamen were to frightened to operate in the area. They were told they would be murdered immediately by FALINTIL for any misbehavior. Unlike other towns in East Timor where up to 90% of infrastructure was destroyed by militias and the Indonesian army, Baguia has only two burned buildings.

Legendary FALINTIL Commander Matan Ruak, from a village visible from the mountain, plans to rebuild an impressive “uma adat,” or traditional house, in the shadows of the peak. Many demobilized guerillas are attempting to return to civilian life in the areas surrounding the mountain. Lebre and others have proposed a plan which would employ them as guides or rangers for the mountain, as respected caretakers for the land.

East Timorese have been slow to check the UN on its failures in the most fundamental areas of Transitional Administration, including justice, infrastructure and education. Many foreigners are puzzled by this. Perhaps, they posit, the UN is actually winning the propaganda war, that the East Timorese are won over by cartoon-posters and the few high-profile UN figures who have learned their language.

But the real answer is much simpler: the UN never really penetrated the East Timorese consciousness enough to create an expectation in the first place. Sure, people here know that a lot of foreign money is being spent in their name, what amounts to about $750 million a year. Many see the peacekeeping forces, which take up only 40% of that number, as the UN’s single contribution to East Timor in the past two years. After all, the border with West Timor, and its former occupier, is secured.

Yet the notion that the UN could reconstruct East Timor, without better coordination with the East Timorese, seems absurd to the man on the street. The actions of the UN here have been mysterious from the very beginning; many people were asking months after UNTAET had started when it would arrive. Few people know somebody with a position higher than secretary, interpreter or security for the UN.

The Timorese gave the UN a full year to merely begin some of its most crucial work, after finally realizing it had arrived. Consultation with qualified Timorese did not noticeably increase. Now the UN has entered some kind of Warp-9 emergency-shutdown mode, with legions of UN professional staff and volunteers poised to return home before the ink of the new constitution has dried.

Some Timorese people feel outraged. Especially those who have access to the figures, who know how much money boomeranged out of here in international salaries as opposed to reconstruction of their country. But many take a long view, seeing the UN’s role here as minimal, but crucial. A bureaucratic UN presence here prevented violent political infighting between old rivals. That is about all. But it provided the oxygen the East Timorese people needed to return to their rubble-filled homes and face the ashen disappointments and indignities of the reconstruction period without fear.

The East Timorese reaction to the UN falls largely along the urban-rural divide. In areas outside of Dili, a city of around 150,000, most people have little to no idea what the UN is doing in East Timor except “keeping the peace.” Only in the 13 district administrative offices does the UN show any significant bureaucratic presence outside of Dili.

The layer below the district offices, added halfway into the two year mission, is a network of District Field Officers, or DFOs. Sent to small offices in remote villages, many DFOs feel confused about what their work for UNTAET actually is, besides paperwork and basic emergency aid. The most successful DFOs take initiative much like Peace Corps volunteers, creating their own projects like aiding craft cooperatives or starting up libraries in their offices.

But most rural areas are out of the reach of the DFOs. In fact, in some remote mountain areas, Timorese friends have reported meeting village chiefs who were unaware of the UN presence in East Timor. Another story, coming from a western mountain district, goes that villagers greeted a UN helicopter as if it was Portuguese, as if the Portuguese had finally returned after their departure 25 years ago.

Many of these rural people did vote in the UN’s constituent assembly. But did they know who or what they were voting for? The names of 5 or 6 key political figures rattled around Dili for the months preceding the elections. Parties used their leaders’ clandestine names in the newspapers. Yet outside of Dili, there was little to no recognition for politicians beyond the once-imprisoned guerilla leader Xanana Gusmão, who was widely believed to be on the ballot for FRETILIN, the revolutionary party that led the struggle against Indonesia. The actual leaders of FRETILIN, many of whom are returnees from the post-1975 diaspora, are actually quite personally and politically opposed to Gusmão.

East Timor will not share South Africa’s experience of negotiated transference of power to a resistance hero. Instead, the country can expect unscripted palace intrigues and political maneuvering in the capitol preceding independence.

Some expats, it seems, live in constant mental feverishness, running their lives plagued a high degree of paranoia or hyper-imagination. These people believe the winning party in the recent UN-sponsored election fixed the election or that the CIVPOL and Portuguese peacekeepers are following them, and that the Special Representative to the Secretary General (in East Timor, the king) want to be rid of them, by whatever means necessary. Does one categorize these people paranoiacs? Schizophrenics? Anywhere else, I might say so.

But in East Timor, there is a sort of Heller-ish logic to their condition. Those who would stay here long enough, in this liminal environment, entrenched in nasty bureaucracies (or fighting them) have to be mad in the first place. So madness is a precondition to staying, but it prevents legitimate participation… The East Timor Catch-22.

The yes-man cliques and personality cults, defining both local and UN internal politics, coupled with the singularly undemocratic design of the sovereign governing body called UNTAET (UN Transitional Administration in East Timor), have created a hostile environment to critics. Show your opposition and you are immediately branded persona non-grata. And in a country where the ex-pat population is no less than a medium sized American college, there is no anonymity.

And while stories of being chased, threatened or run off of the road by UN police soun far-fetched, well, law enforcement is conducted by a patchwork of international police forces, each with its own checkered human rights record. So these paranoic characters, having resigned from UNTAET, or having had too many intimate journalistic encounters with the Administration, form a sort of “dissident” class.

When the UN decided to become the sovereign governing body over a piece of territory, it had to expect well-voiced and systematic criticism. Instead of taking the transparent, democratic approach, or more realistically adopting careful post-scandal, spin strategy, it has attempted to create an aggressive propaganda machine. UNTAET has previously issued a gag order over its staff, threatening penalties for contact with the media. The Press Office functions as a Ministry of Truth, recently issuing a proclamation of UNTAET’s 20 achievements over the past two years, half of which contain a thinly-veiled revisionism and newspeak.

The night, in Dili, East Timor, can be desperately garish or darkly lonely. Groups of expats move in insecure squads like college freshman around the city, frequenting just a handful of acceptable bars with European beers. Those without a UN or NGO crew, without cars, and without heaps of disposable income to waste on Red Label and two-dollar cans of Heneiken, stay at home, often without power, writing on laptop batteries, or reading by candle-light. Or just lying in bed early at night wondering whether we should just give in to the carnivalesque bar scene and sex-driven nightlife outside.

The darkness at home draws ex-pats closer to the feelings of East Timorese neighbors, people for whom darkness provides cover for evil. During the day, East Timorese renovate, adapt and use the same spaces that were the sites of massacres, torture-chambers and personal prisons. But at night, these places become off-limits. Children refuse to pass by the Liquiça church at night, the site of the shooting and macheteing of over 50 men in April 1999 by the local militia Besi Merah Putih. The church in Suai, where over 250 women and children, and 2 priests were butchered by hand on September 6, 1999, is used everyday for services. By nightfall, the compound is absolutely deserted. At night, the black soot marks in still roof-less buildings lick upwards like dark unextinguishable flames.

The toll of these recent experiences, layered on top of 25 years of brutal Indonesian occupation, is not limited to the night-time hours. Walking down the street, compare who look physically the same age. Similar lines on the face, similar middle-age gait. But even a superficial glance, and there are certain people who wear years of hardship, years of struggle for survival on their face. Call it trauma, call it stoicism, call it experience. Here there is physical age and there is mental age.