I biked yesterday to this point where I can normally find some peace. Most days kids play soccer in the dust/sand about 50m up the road, but they quit about sunset.

It’s just past the Pertamina oil depot along the beach. The island of Atauro is due north, dominating the view. I like to just stand there, leaning back on my bike, and listen to the ocean. Last night there was actually a bit of a surf. With coral reefs all around the island, we rarely even get proper waves. The sun had set over Alor, the island to the north-west.

There were no spectacular colors. Just dusty pink and a washed out blue. But it was quiet. A man walked idly by on the beach, rolling a cigarette as he went. He surveyed the water. He had new-looking flip-flops, used but clean clothes, and a baseball hat. His legs looked strong. He could have been 29 and he could have been 59. He was poor, but he seemed concerned with just being. Watching the water, stopping to light the cigarette, and take the first drag. He walked on. Not fast, not slow.

I lingered, just listening to the water. Thinking about the earthquake in an island a couple of hundred miles north of here. Wondering if we would get big waves. (We didn’t.)

As I turned to bike off, I noticed that the rusty scrap metal next to me contained a large box. It had a round piece on the door, and the door looked like it had been scraped open with a crow bar. It was a safe. Sitting there since the chaos of 1999. Rusting. Somebody had scratched some Indonesian graffiti on the top. I tried to imagine the story of this object. Who lifted it onto a truck? Militia? Indonesian military? Returning Timorese? The Australian peacekeepers? Did they succeed in opening it? (It was rusted shut and too heavy to attempt to open.) What was inside?

It was just sitting there, like a petrified tree stump. It will sit there for many more sunsets, people passing by, oblivious.

Portuguese customs

Last week in Maliana I met quite a character. It’s rare that I meet a Portuguese person in Timor who I feel comfortable around, a person with all of their cards on the table, not holding back some kind of viper-like need to defend Portuguese colonialism. The guy in question was a spectacled, middle-aged chainsmoking official of the Alfândega, the customs service.

Alfândega, by the way, is one of those words that has been used for centuries to describe more or less the same thing. Receiving goods for trade and charging taxes on them. Often in old times, it also meant “warehouse” or transit point for goods headed to other places. I suppose the English language equivalent was the Customshouse, or tollhouse, (incubator for some of the world’s greatest writers, including Melville, Whitman, and Conrad)… But now we have shortened the word to “customs” and lost its sea-going connotation.

But our Customs official in question had a self-pronounced, life long obsession with Timor. Not that he wanted to come here and become a king of a faraway place and marry the locals, like many before him. He just had a burning curiosity to come here and get to know people.

So much so that he befriended Timorese in exile in Portugal, and even made steps in learning Tetum while in Portugal. This is rare, as most Portuguese believed (and still believe when they arrive!) that Timor is a ‘lusophone’ country. But, he says, his efforts were not that rewarding, as he learned an older, more ‘pure’ form of Tetum spoken in Central Timor, called Tetum Terik. In Dili and in most places now, one finds, Tetum “Praca” (which incorporates many Portuguese words) has turned Tetum into a sort of creole language.

I was so intrigued by this man. He declared that Timorese are not lazy or stupid, just that the foreigners that have come here to ‘teach’ them for so long are lazy and stupid – including the UN.

I had to ask him if he knew the works of Ruy Cinatti, an engineer and forestry man, but an all-around humanist and defender of Timorese culture and human rights in the 1950s and 1960s. An immediate Chesire-cat smile. Cinatti had also written on the issue of the alleged “laziness” of the Timorese, and spoken quite eloquently in the defense of Timorese people, to the clear detriment of his career.

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Our Customsman had some interesting theories about American involvement in tragic events of 1975, taking more of the conspiratorial stance, that America had pronounced interests in defending the Straights of Ombai and preventing an Asian Cuba. He claimed that American carriers in Dili Harbor “forced” the Portuguese leadership to leave after the Timorese coup of August 1975. I said that sounds strange. Why would America even care what the Portuguese did or didn’t do? There was utter disorder in the Portuguese government and armed forces at this time anyways.

It turns out the Americans were moving their ships out of Dili in August 1975 and merely offered the Portuguese a ride to the neighboring island. Pathetically, the Portuguese did not even possess proper naval facilities to evacuate their people from Timor.

According to Customsman, probably quite right of center, Portugal’s greatest mistake in 1975 was allowing the “communists” (Fretilin) to take the two main armories, which were recently stocked with the most modern arms from NATO. I also think this was one of the most decisive moments in 1975. But it was probably unavoidable, because Portugal was hardly willing to fight the Timorese after so many years of bloody war in Africa.

It was so refreshing to have a free exchange with a Portuguese person, who was so open to criticism and willing to engage in a nostalgia-free discussion of colonialism.


Everyday I’m reminded that my experience in Timor is so different than your ‘classic’ expat experience. I suppose it’s the geography, the strange intermediate location that we occupy, close to Singapore, Jakarta, and Darwin, Australia (which as far as I can tell is like the tropic equivalent of Anchorage, Alaska). For example, playing on the beach Sunday with a group of orphans, we pulled out about half a dozen packets of cookies for snack time. Some were from Indonesia, most were from Singapore, and some were from Australia. My Australian friends were eating the same brands of cookies (“biscuits”) that they grew up with at home. The sheer variety of cookies. I can even get very legit tasting Oreos here, from Jakarta.

Timor is a recycling point for all of Asia. Aside from taxis from Ulaan Battor and Shanghai, the island has been inundated with “charity” from Christian and philanthropic organizations across the region. During the emergency, the clothes being shipped in by the ton were from Australia mostly. But now most all clothes come from Hong Kong or Singapore. Perhaps they are not donated. Who knows. Anyways, they are sold on the street in the district towns and on the side streets in Dili at great profit. Needless to say, I will stock up on Cantonese boy scout uniforms before returning.

Another strange thing as an expat here is the closeness you can feel to the “outside,” watching satellite TV, recycling the Dunkin Donuts plastic bag over a million times (and eating pretty good imitations at the Lucky Cake House), and corresponding over email. But some seemingly small things help foster a sense of deprivation and isolation. For example, having to scavenge newspapers – reading the Guardian weekly over two weeks late (and it is like a gem in any case!). And the telecommunications situation at the moment is atrocious. It costs more to call Timor from Australia than any other place in the world. And Timor is not yet “reachable” from the U.S. Try your operator and ask if +67 is working yet!

On top of all of this is the bizarre everyday reality of being surrounded by military and police from all around the world. Mostly I run into them on the weekend mornings, especially the Balkan guys, sitting and drinking coffee for three hours. Sometimes they nearly run into me on my bike, with their enormous troop carriers, buses, and jeeps. Most are armed at all times. The military men are pretty obvious even when rarely in civilian clothes. And the Australians are forced to carry handguns with them even when not on duty. One night we saw two Australian women dancing with their guns slung on their hip like some kind of accessory. Needless to say, Timorese men find women on bikes a turn on, so I’m sure those ladies got a lot of attention.

One thing I can’t help but notice is that a lot of the military observers, not the peacekeepers, but the observers attached to the peacekeeping mission… guys paid big bucks to go and smoke cigarettes with village heads and ask about disturbances… these guys come from places of extreme turmoil. Here they all have pot-bellies and save up money to take their families to Disneyworld.

One table last week of big-bellied coffee drinking military consisted of the following nationalities: Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Philippines. All countries recently experienced extreme unrest or long bloody civil wars. For these men, I can only assume, East Timor is like dying and going to heaven.


It feels like I have spent in the last two days in cloud. After sleeping in and lazing around Saturday, waiting for Queen (to get her hair styled by a gay Scotsman with three pet chickens and a pet goat named Mrs. Nelly), we set off up the mountain behind Dili for the mountainous interior.

I had long felt a sense of inferiority in relation to my sorry attempts to climb the two most important and challenging mountains in Timor, Ramelau (9777 ft) and Matebian (7590 ft). Most of my friends have climbed at least one. The latter I made it halfway up with a good friend shortly after I arrived in 2001. But we started too late (8 am) and by the time we got halfway up it became clear that one result of the mass defoliation by the Indonesians on the mountain would be scorching sun-burns. So we decided to desist, to the amusement of our guides, who had not even broken a sweat.

Ramelau I had not even attempted, although numerous friends cavalierly described it as “easy.” Well, easy compared to Matebian, which is treeless, rocky and very steep. Ramelau is situated more or less in the middle of East Timor. It is about 4 hours from Dili, past a town called Maubisse which has a distinctly Andean feel – people wearing blankets like ponchos, small heaps of dirty potatoes for sale, a wide main street and the smell of earth and chickens.

After a long, winding approach to Hato Builico, the village at the foot of Ramelau, we decided to sleep in the car, as we had trouble revving it past 2000 rpms up the steep muddy approach to the campground halfway up the mountain (!).

Being cold in Timor is a strange sensation for Dili-dwellers. We had all brought the only warm clothing we owned. Queen was ahead of the game, as her employer paid for her to ship a container full of useless stuff from Canberra, including ski clothes and sleeping bags. UN Spy and I were with long-sleeved shirts, bed sheets and pillows. But we managed to stay warm all night, waking up to rain on the roof of the car.

Uggg. My last camping experience in Timor involved rain. And whisky. Moreover it was on a warm beach with good swimming. But here we were in the coldest place in Timor, dressed in our Matahari (Indonesian Kmart) specials — not exactly your REI catalogue models. But, Queen, UN Spy and I are not people to drive four hours, and sleep crammed in a car, to turn back with nothing accomplished.

So we slammed some Nescafe, ate apples and some soggy Oreos and started up the mountain.

After an agonizing 20 minutes we reached the “real” starting point, a flat area with evidence of numbers of campfires. This is where people with good cars and the brains to bring water-proof tents and dry firewood spend the night.

The hike was intermittently steep, but there were plenty of cut-backs. Evidence to me that the Portuguese had supervised the paving of the trail (which was quite wide)! Supervised, read: built with forced labor. Timorese would have cut the trail much thinner with sheer foot traffic and they would have gone straight up, like the most used trails on Matebian.

The Portuguese obsession with Ramelau, which in many respects is not nearly as dramatic as Matebian, stems from the fact that during most of the twentieth century, it was taught to be the highest mountain ‘in Portugal.’ This is not to say that Ramelau was not extremely important to Timorese, even before their ‘discovery’ by Europeans. Ramelau is a spiritual center, with its peak known as Tata-Mailau, meaning Grandfather or ancestor.

The vegetation along the path was fascinating, with tons of little mosses, ferns, flowers and shrubs I had never seen in Timor before. I could not help but thinking of my Mum’s colleagues at Mobot, guys in Birkenstocks with moss obsessions. There were patches of forest, but towards the top the trees looked weather beaten and rather pathetic. It was clear that climbers had deforested the mountain over the years to keep warm, as the pattern of standing trees and tree trunks seemed very irregular.

All the way up the mountain I could hear the neighing of horses. I could not see horses, nor could I see much of anything into the distance, just tree silhouettes up to about 20 meters away. I was walking in a cloud.

We lost UN Spy at the campsite area, and Queen was already at least 5 minutes ahead of me on the trail. So it was an amazing feeling of climbing alone. As I’ve said in other entries here the sensation of feeling alone in Timor is extremely rare. That in combination with being cold, it was a feeling of suddenly being transplanted to another place.

Queen waited for me at this clearing over an hour up. I was just getting my second wind, wiping the rain off of my glasses. We were in a large green clearing, and suddenly two large (for Timorese!) horses ran by. On our right was a large covered podium with a cross over. Many important masses are celebrated there.

We continued up, and the mist was turning to rain. The wind got stronger towards the top, and all hope of any clearing or glimpse of sunlight or the surrounding landscape faded. But it was a surreal feeling, winding my way up the last stretches of the path, through low scrub-brush. As I approached the summit I saw two silhouettes in the mist. I thought it was Queen and UN Spy, but it was Queen and this ghostly, beautiful white Nossa Senhora statue. The wind was howling. There was no place to sit for shelter. UN Spy made his way up only minutes after us (he had waited down at the campsite for us, but we must have passed too quickly).

There was a telepathic consensus that it would be useless to wait for a break in the clouds, because there were not discernable ‘clouds’ so much as one big cloud enveloping us and probably most of central Timor. On the way up I was quite warm even though I was wet due to the constant strain of climbing. But it was cold up there. We took photos with Nossa Senhora and scrambled back down.

The total ascent, I’m estimating at about 3000 ft, took us about 1 hr 40 minutes. The way down it probably took just over 30 minutes.

The strangest thing was that we all arrived in Dili feeling sunburned. After having walked in a cloud for over two hours!

Enclave pt. 2

In Oecussi, partly for my job, I began asking about development’s new darling, “civil society.” How many NGOs? Are they good? Do they do what they say they do? Not surprisingly, in a small isolated place like Oecussi, there was one NGO. Named FFSO. (I guess my agency isn’t the only one obsessed with acronyms that everybody forgets the meaning of.)

FFSO was founded by Oecussi’s best and brightest during I assume the opening towards the end of the Indonesian period. One is now a defense lawyer, one is now Secretary of State for Labor and Solidarity (our counterpart – Division of Social Services). Others are all in Dili with “good jobs.” So who runs FFSO now? And do they do what they say they do?

This is where it takes an absurd turn. Apparently, FFSO an NGO funded by MAJOR donors such as IRC, USAID, Ausaid, <a href=”; mce_href=””>Oxfam Australia</a>, UNICEF and others, has over 7 program areas. All administered by approximately 7 staff that have high school equivalent educations and have had little to no training in administration. But programs have just sprouted like mushrooms after rain. Why? Because donors are just waving money at FFSO. They must have “local partners” in order to be “sustainable.” Welcome to developmentspeak.

The basic problem here is not attention to sustainability so much as the donor agencies’ complete inability to be realistic about their partners. In the “emergency” they come in waving money at understaffed, underexperienced groups, who gladly take it (they need money for soap, roofing materials, clothes and FOOD.)

The NGOs and donors would not THINK of implementing their own programs in this day and age, no matter how poor the local NGO scenario may be.

Example: in Oecussi, the big bad <a href=>Asian Development Bank</a>, blamed for massive, reviled infrastructure projects like dams and such, finally decides that it needs to work with and through the people. So they hand over a water rehabilitation and hygiene program to <a href=>IRC</a>, but with the condition that IRC work through a local partner. So what ADB wants is a “development” project executed with all of the fuzzy feel-good ideas about partnership, in an “emergency” timeframe, three months. They want something like 200 latrines built and 2 water systems rehabbed and hygiene education for those two large communities. Hmmmm.

Of course there’s more to the story, but the basic idea here is that donors, international NGOs and agencies need to figure out how to make the “emergency” period less of a free-for-all and work REALISTICALLY for sustainability, transitioning to the “development” period, when they will demand total transparency and self-sufficiency from their hapless “partners.”

Too often the emergency ends in one week. All of a sudden, here come the auditors or the emergency money runs out and so the donors and big NGOs expect their partners to respond with lightening speed. The demands are great on the local NGOs in this period. Especially when there were virtually no strings attached during the “emergency” period. Reporting? Naaa. Line items in budgets? Only the most sketchy ones.

It’s like giving Enron a week to fix the mess that they created for three years.

In any case it’s a running joke at my place of work that the work we do is never sustainable. That HQ auditors will come here and tell us to make it more sustainable. Cut NGO staff salaries. Cut motorbikes. Cut fuel. But on most of our projects, which involve outreach to children, besides paste and felt-tip markers, SALARIES and TRANSPORTATION are the two greatest costs.

So what I concluded, jokingly with my hosts in Oecussi is that CHILDREN ARE NOT SUSTAINABLE. Therefore they must be phased out of our programs. For that matter, PEOPLE are not sustainable. Why are we working with these fragile organisms?