There were a lot of loose ends to wrap up. Buying a bicycle for the Uatolari police station. Writing an encyclopedic handover note for the folks at UN-office. Giving booze and clothes away. Buying agendas for the drivers (all out, had to buy wallets).

As a custom, I like to spend the last weekend before I leave a place far away from town. At first the plan was to camp in a coffee plantation. But the Carrasacalao family seemed to have circled the wagons after being evicted from their house in Dili (see entry from July 29), and even we thought it bad taste to ask to camp on the famous Fazenda Algarve in the mountains west of Dili.

So a good Australian friend and I went to the decadent Pousada in Baucau, to spend a couple of hours on the beach on Sunday morning. Ran into friends, spent the morning waiting for the tide to come in, floating in the shallow water, staring off at the line of clouds which indicated Wetar island in the distance.

Nothing momentous happened. I would like to say I ached with feeling. But I just felt normal. I did not even feel like a sellout for staying in the $50/night hotel. I guess I felt rather gone already. Thoughts like, a week from now I will be in the US, far from this ocean, from this life. Trying to enjoy my last trips to the market, the kiosk. The last sunset coming into Dili over the sunbaked orange hills.

I was to be the guest of honor at my best Timorese friends house. Dulce had the whole family, from Viqueque and Maliana, cooking in my honor. There was tempeh, tofu and fish, a feast especially designed for me. Her daughter Nina sang a song/poem for me in Portuguese. I sat next to her Great Uncle, the Minister of Education, who lived in Minnesota for a while. We conversed politely in American English.

I told Dulce that I would see her again. She met me at the airport the next day with an entourage of Nina’s friends and cousins. Queen came and so did Rodolfo, a good Filipino friend. We sat drinking Solos in the airport cafe, home of the $3 ramen noodles. The overweight children of an obviously American UN Police officer were fidgeting in their chairs in front of us.

I was most nervous about saying goodbye to Queen as I knew that she was about as nomadic as me, and who would know when our paths might cross again. I was sincere when I promised to come back to Timor, and I knew that Nina and Dulce will have only made inspiring changes in their lives when I returned.

As I ran into the departure lounge, I remembered the departure of Amerioca, when she exclaimed “Le monde est un petit pois!”


In the week leading up to my departure, I started to let people know that I was leaving. The reactions I got were quite endearing, and unexpected. Most often I was told, by people who knew very little about me, including taxi drivers and people I had just met, that I should send their compliments to my family.

Often, by women or regular acquaintences, I would get “O! Coitada.” Poor thing. You are leaving us, poor thing! While it may seem quite presumptuous, that they somehow knew that I loved Timor and had a very special relationship with the place, I suppose maybe in my speaking Tetum and general outlook, I relayed this to them.

Many people told me that ‘people like me’ (i.e. those who bother to learn the local language) should stay in Timor. I admitted to them that I myself had begun to think that Timor would continue to occupy a central role in my life. Certainly in the next year, I will continue to obsess over a small remote area of East Timor where in 1959 a group of disgruntled civil servants and traditional leaders took up arms (with the help of some Indonesians) against their colonizers. I am going to Portugal to read for a couple of months in the colonial archives in Torre do Tombo in Lisbon.

But I have told myself and others that I would like to return to work again. It just seems crazy to invest so much of yourself, not just learning language, but really getting to know a place, the good and the bad, to leave it after only 2 years. Toward the end, I began to feel like those ‘lifer’ type people who I had written off as crazy only a couple of weeks before. I have friends who have been in Timor for three years and want to stay at least another two. And I wouldn’t say its because they are vagabond, degenerate foreigners who have nothing better to do. It’s because there is something so addictive about the place for a small group of us.

I remember when I asked my friend Heike what she would miss about Timor the most, and her response was so simple, but so true: the ocean. I suppose it’s the ocean, and what it represents. The calming influence of the ocean is profoundly affecting. (It is so gentle on the north coast due to the reefs and ocean currents.)

We live so close to the ocean. Two of the three roads leaving Dili hug the coastline, winding around mountains. I remember trying to describe the Pacific Coast Highway in California to a Timorese friend, then I realized that we were driving on an equally spectacular route at that very moment.

The ocean also represents Timor’s distance from the world. Everything which is not hauled across the border is brought through a small port. If you want Oreo cookies, you can find them. But they were transported across Southeast Asia via the ocean. Once the ocean was what brought foreigners to Timor to exploit sandalwood and buy slaves. But now it is serving to isolate Timor, perhaps to protect it, perhaps just to drive up prices.

While I suppose the full range of western shopping attractions have reached East Timor, for me it is a place of limited consumption. A place where I do not feel like a mutant for not buying (or wanting to buy) new clothes every month. This is a rare feeling in the world. In my other experiences outside of the US I was never able to feel so completely apart from the consumerism which is so disturbing to me personally.

The last thing that I will miss about East Timor is all of the constant work put into interpersonal relationships and understanding people. I think part of what frustrates other people about Timor is exactly what I have enjoyed and learned from. Arriving in East Timor is not like arriving in an African or Latin culture. It is not closed per se, but making friends and winning people’s confidence is a process which takes time. I leave East Timor with only a small handful of friends. I know scores and scores of people and they know me. But I only have an open, friendly rapport with a couple. I have good working relationships, which I can tell developed over the 1 year I worked there.

Maybe you can detect I am slipping into some kind of colonial-era generalization of a people. But hear me out. Timorese people can be very tough. Maybe it is a strange comparison, but some, if not many, exhibit turtle-like tendencies. One little noise, or fright or reason to distrust you, and it will be a long time before you might see their head again.

Timor is a place where you earn personal relationships. You nurture them, and take nothing for granted. It is a place where ‘history’ if we want to objectify it as such, lives inside of people. I am a changed malai leaving this place.

On, this my last trip to Maliana,  I use the opportunity, passing many places owned by the infamous militia leader Joao Tavares, to bring up the topic of ghosts with Andre. Over the past two years my trust of intuition and extra-sensory perception has definitely increased.

He asks me if I ever smell at night a sudden, intense sweet scent. In Dili, one instance comes to mind. Near the lighthouse, only one building remains abandonned. A sweet breeze entered the car window. I think I was slightly drunk, I leaned back in the passengers seat and enjoyed.

Andre says, the sweet smell is the indication of a ghost. There was a ghost about. There are many ghosts around the lighthouse, from the civil war to 1999.

Then he said something that sent chills down my spine. His Filipino friends saw ghosts around Dili all of the time. During the day.

Part of what is disconcerting about this, is that Filipinos do not tend to have too much connection with the history of the place. They are interested in working and saving. So they have no real ‘reason’ to psyche themselves into thinking that they are seeing ghosts.

“How do you know you’ve seen a ghost during the day?” I ask. “Do you ever walk down a street during the middle of the day? When the sun is hot and there are few people around? Somebody passes you. You will look back seconds later and there is nobody there.” He says. My eyes start to water and I swallow. Two uncontrollable reflexes.

“Sometimes you will call out ‘hi’ or ‘good afternoon’ to somebody. There is no response. Then you turn back to see them after you’ve passed, and there is nobody there.”

“Dili is full of ghosts,” Andre says, as we take the last curves before the Nunura river, descending into Maliana in the noon-day heat.

Another trip to Maliana, in the soft seats of a large bubbly Landcruiser intended for the bums of people with titles like “Representative” and “Coordinator.” Opening and closing the window, getting too hot in the sun and too cool in the blasting A/C.

Appreciating my driver, Andre: his professionalism and diamond earing. Definitely not a guy like the rest, ornery Commandante or Reckless Maniac, who we wrote three official letters of complaint about. Andre is just a guy, riding the line between tradition and modernity. A guy who is tired of buying buffaloes for distant relatives to get married, but goes up to the mountains and jokes with his grandmothers on the weekends. A guy who believes you should only have the number of children you can afford to provide tennis shoes for. A guy who drinks too much and has been known to drive drunk, but looks out for strangers and would do anything for a friend.

Andre sees the ‘wages’ of independence being paid to others, people who did little for the resistance. People who worked in “Battalion 702″ who arrived at work in Indonesian offices at 7, did 0 at work and went home a 2pm. Collaborators is too active a word for them. They passively benefited from the Indonesian occupation. Then there were those who were simply not in East Timor, living overseas in relative comfort.

Andre says he formed part of an urban network supplying materials to the guerrillas in the jungle. Each grouping within this network, often set-up ad-hoc through some familial connection with guerrillas, was called a ‘caixa,’ meaning box. The box symbolized both the supplies to be delivered to the guerrilla forces in the jungle (in a box) but the group of people behind that box. Sometimes the box would merely be cigarettes and aspirin. But Andre had a family member who worked as a receiver at an Army warehouse in Dili, and he would unload boxes of uniforms and boots on Andre from time to time.

One occasion Andre had to keep boxes full of stolen uniforms in his house for a couple of days until he could deliver them at night to the designated mountain location. He put his family at extreme risk by keeping the materials there. If anybody in the ‘caixa’ was ever found out, they faced torture, the abduction and rape/torture of family members, and imprisonment. So it’s easy to see how the ‘clandestine’ urban elements of the <a href=””>resistance</a&gt;, not just the guerrilla forces feel that their sacrifices should be acknowledged.

Prime Minister <a href=””>Mari Alkatiri</a>, who spent the whole period of the Indonesian occupation in exile, studying and teaching law in Mozambique, made a comment last year that will never be forgiven by people like Andre.

He said, “Caixa? What’s that? What’s the big deal about caixa? Like a caixao? [a big box]?” By minimizing the importance of the caixa, and derisively asking if its importance had to do with its size, Alkatiri committed a grave offense to the clandestine networks.

People turned the joke on him, saying, the only ‘caixao’ [big box] Alkatiri will know — and quite soon if he’s not careful — is a coffin. This was just one of many menacing jokes and comments I heard in my last weeks in Timor.