I’ve visited 35 countries in my life and I like to plan my travels carefully. On a return to my kangaroo infested birthplace later this year I’m thinking of stopping by the world’s second newest country: the Republic of East Timor. It’s half a tropical island about the size of Connecticut, a long way away.
Growing up in Australia in the 1970s we heard a lot about East Timor when our common neighbor Indonesia invaded and killed some Aussie journalists there before Australia – in a shameful move – recognized the invasion, along with the US. Nowadays Australia just steals their oil, so we all get on famously.
The East Timorese are a plucky people, familiar with hardship. After 273 years of grim Portuguese suzerainty in 1974 they declared independence. Lots of Portuguese colonies were doing it then (Cape Verde, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Angola) thanks to the death of the brutal but sleepy Portuguese dictator Salazar. Declaring independence from Portugal was a very mid-1970s thing to do – like buying bean bags or lava lamps.
A month after their self-declared independence in 1975, which the imperial swells back in Lisbon barely noticed, the Indonesians invaded, uninvited, and gobbled little East Timor up.
For 24 years the East Timorese endured having the bejesus beat out of them by Indonesia’s colonial fist. The Timorese waited as calmly as one can in that situation and when democracy arrived in Indonesia in 1999 they had another frantic shot at independence. Given the earlier deaths, Australian journalists were understandably leery of visiting. In the intervening decades they lost several hundred thousand people to Indonesian brutality. Exiles in Australia hosted depressing (but free!) public BBQs in parks for themselves and their friends (me), with soggy faux Indonesian food. Few things are sadder than the political BBQs of a kindly but defeated people with middling food in a forgotten Aussie suburb.
They won independence with their individual heroics and temerity. They were lead by Jose Ramos-Horta: imagine Lincoln, Washington, Mandela and Elton John all rolled into one (a tough image, I know) – that’s Nobel Prize winning and later President Jose Ramos-Horta. He lead the independence movement FRETILIN, the PLO of East Timor without the hijackings and a study in passive resistance. As part of his lobbying at a Pacific UN summit he bribed the hotel maids to stick pro-independence stickers in the toilets of every delegate’s room. This was the very apex of old school toilet diplomacy.
On with my trip. Few tourists visit, but the visa regimen is very loosey goosey: visa on arrival for all, $30 cash; the entry policy of a welcoming country. Costs there are cheap. It’s a tiny Catholic country surrounded by giant Muslim Indonesia, so their Catholicism runs deep.
There are lots of decent hotels, all of which seem a tad expensive for one of the poorest countries on earth, but I guess all the international bureaucrats, UN people, and humanitarians drive up prices. A large international aid contingent makes for expensive accommodations, tailored as it is for foreign do-gooders, experts, and braless young volunteers: all very welcoming. Their economy would be more oil based without the Australians relieving them of the burden of getting paid for their oil which Australia seems to regard as its own, but they do export excellent coffee. If you’re in Starbucks and you see East Timorese coffee you’d do a service to human dignity and your taste buds to choose it.
For jaw-jaw, although Portuguese and Indonesian are understood, I think the local language barrier might be a problem, as evinced by this language map.
And here I am with my Bunak barely passable and my Makase at mere high school level. I get by fine in Fataluku, but the verbs are tricky. I guess I’ll just do the American thing and SHOUT at them in English.
Their neighbors in Papua New Guinea have an even more elaborate linguistic setup with 850 languages in a presumably noisy space the size of California. Witness: GO HERE.
Can you imagine having your language or even your entire country unknown to the outside world? A man from “Cape Verde” (its real, another 1970s ex-Portuguese bean bag) lectured me about this problem once.
Sorry, my trip. There’s decent surfing in East Timor, but I don’t surf. They’ve got the coolest diseases there. I still have black water fever, scrapie, and the Mandelbrot chills on my bucket list of Exciting Diseases to Get and surely East Timor would check them off. I like to go native on my travels so literally “chilling out” in a banana leaf hut in a mosquito infested swamp is right up my alley. Think of my Instagram feed – I could post a photo each time my temperature spikes or I sweat off a pound or two.
But I know that when I do go for a week or so and spend some money there, I’ll get to meet a solid, cool people who, despite centuries of oppression and no real natural wealth, have done pretty well for themselves in every way, despite Catholicism and baton-passing colonialism between Portugal and Indonesia. I just won’t go to any more of their BBQs.
David Anderson is an Australian American attorney in New York City. He has been known to lie about his fluency in obscure tribal languages, sometimes even making the entire language up, because really – who is ever going to call him on it?
*except for one disease which I made up, and my linguistic skill, all of the above is factual.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Part of this post was inadvertently not included. It is now complete and we’ve redated it to run on TMV today.