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.
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.