I am watching the clouds float past my window lying in bed. They are going towards Alor, the island to the northwest. I don’t have to get up out of bed to ascertain where they are going and where I am. Islanders have an inherent positioning system, not as precise as machine connected to satellites. But more relevant. An islander could tell you, for example, even in the extreme highlands, which reach nearly 10,000 ft, how many hours walk is the ocean and in which directions. Coast dwellers could probably tell you how many days or hours it is to the next island on the horizon.
In Timor, there is tasi mane and tasi feto. These are the two key cardinal directions. Tasi mane is the coast with pounding surf, the one that crude oil from the depths of the sea has been known to naturally wash up on, the one with 7 meter long salt water crocodiles. The south coast is the “man’s coast,” wild and rough. The north coast, bordering the depth Straights of Ombai, is in contrast, the “woman’s coast.” There is virtually no surf here due to the natural protection of the islands to the north and the largely intact coral reefs all along its length. Crocodiles are extremely rare here, and appear more in rumor than anywhere else. The reptile metaphor continues, as it is the north is the <a href=http://raiketak.blogspot.com/2003_03_23_raiketak_archive.html>teki</a> to the south coast’s toke (big, loud gecko, considered the ‘man’ gecko).
As in any place on earth, attention is paid to longitude in relation to the path of the sun. Timor Lorosa’e, the defacto name of Timor in the transitional years of 2000 and 2001 (which was abandoned in favor of the Portuguese, Timor Leste) means East Timor in Tetum. Well, kind of. Loron is sun, and sa’e means rise, hence east, Lorosa’e. Loro monu, the sunset, is likewise used to describe the ‘west’, the area from Dili west to the border.
But because we are on an island, neither of the terms take on a more abstract conceptual meaning of the area of the earth where the sun is shining before it hits East Timor. (As with tasi mane and tasi feto, which do not mean south or north as such, but describe actual places.) So directions have a meaning deeply grounded in the immediate geographical context of the island.
This makes the name Timor Lorosa’e politically more complicated. Because then it does not only mean, in the Timorese understanding, the eastern half of the island of Timor (as it would to the world) but it means the eastern part of the Tetum-influenced area of the island. In other words, to chose the name Timor Lorosa’e for the whole nation, would be to exclude, in some people’s opinion, the whole area west of Dili to the border with Indonesia.
This is even more complicated by the fact that Tetum is spoken as a mother tongue by very few people on the eastern tip of the island (where the sun literally rises).
So Timor finds itself in the strange bind that many post-colonial nations do. Having to accept the use of colonial terms (and concepts) which are intended to foster unity over regionalism. But in the end, while something seems to lost in cultural terms, it is clear that most Timorese still have their internal island positioning system, with everything ‘east’ and ‘west’ and north of the tasi feto and south of the tasi mane of Timor Leste remaining none-too-relevant.