But then you walk out onto the tarmac and you see them: a dozen United Nations helicopters, planes and trucks. Piles of white-tarp wrapped food and clothing covered in the UN Aid logo. A couple of blue-beret wearing soldiers leaning against a jeep sharing a cigarette. You look past the barbed-wire runway fence and see the charred remains of a building and suddenly you realise that this isn't familiar at all. This is like nothing you've seen.
This is East Timor.
During a sleepless six-hour stopover at Darwin airport - the only airport in Australia, I think, that needs signs reminding passengers that a minimum shorts-and-singlet dress code applies in the terminal building - I asked myself the question friends and family had been hounding me with since I'd seen the East Timor Independence Day celebrations on the news five months earlier and declared, "I'm going to visit there."
You look past the barbed-wire runway fence and see the charred remains of a building and suddenly you realise that this isn't familiar at all. This is like nothing you've seen.
Why visit a supposedly war-torn country that, if media reports and government travel warnings were to be believed, was nothing but a seared wasteland roamed by gangs of murderous bandits intent on liberating my wallet from my pockets, or more worryingly, my head from its neck? Why visit a nation still struggling to come to grips with the pain and anguish that Indonesia had inflicted upon it for over two decades?
The answer, as petty as it may seem, was a simple, driving curiosity. Since my childhood, East Timor was a country I'd only heard of on the nightly news while images of soldiers, demonstrators and indifferent foreign ministers had flashed by. It was, for me, a country defined by nameless faces crying, blurred images of mass graves and an overwhelming sense of pain; and I felt an unexplainable need to change that. I wanted to discover this nation: its people, its food, its language, its humour.
I also figured it'd be a great way to impress chicks at parties.
I'd wanted to write back and tell you about the real East Timor, not just the devastation. But within a day I realised that this was impossible. In fact I soon discovered that so many of my expectations and assumptions would be blown away. I began to expect the unexpected.
A young local shows off his wares at Dili's fish market. Enlarge »
The capital Dili, which sits on Timor's north coast, still prominently bears the scars of occupation. Although the city center has been enjoying feverish rebuilding efforts in recent years; throughout the city's outskirts one in every two buildings is a burnt out shell, or a pile of rubble. The charred carcasses of countless cars, buses and vehicles litter the roadside, lying beside stacks of shipping containers that have become the de facto building blocks of the new city. Entire hotels can be constructed by simply stacking such containers next to each other, moving in a bed and plugging in some electricity.
As a visitor, you a constantly reminded that this was once a war zone. UN soldiers thunder past in white trucks, helicopters delivering aid to far-flung provinces buzz about overhead and homeless Timorese have set up residence in abandoned churches and community halls.
But for those of you sitting there and asking yourselves, "East Where?", allow me to digress into the island's history for just a moment. Throughout the past four hundred years East Timor - which sits just a few hundred kilometers north of Australia's Northern Territory - has been the hapless victim of a territorial pissing match between various colonial powers, and more recently Indonesia. Having converted 90% of its population to Catholicism in the 1800s, Portugal effectively ignored the colony of East Timor until it unexpectedly withdrew in the mid-70s. The ensuing leadership void saw a number of political forces emerge in Timor, but before a stable government could be established the Indonesians - with the tacit consent of Australia and the United States - invaded.
The following twenty-five years of occupation saw 100,000 Timorese die at the hands of the Indonesians, whose iron-fisted rule was of the "don't question us and we won't kill you" variety. As reports of spying, torture, mass-executions and murder as a means of quashing political dissent began to pour out of the troubled island, international pressure on the Indonesian government mounted, and an Indonesian leadership change in 1998 finally triggered the eagerly-awaited announcement of an independence referendum for the Timorese. Despite an active campaign of coercion and bribery by the Indonesian army, the people of East Timor voted overwhelmingly (80%) for independence.
Within days of the vote, Indonesian-backed militias began a vicious scorched-earth campaign of revenge, systematically massacring the Timorese and setting the nation alight. By the time peacekeepers landed to quell the violence five weeks later, the tiny nation had been devastated. Ninety-five percent of its buildings had been destroyed, thousands of Timorese had been slain and more than half of the population had been displaced. A country that had so little was suddenly left with nothing.
Cars like these, torched and destroyed by the retreating Indonesian militiamen still dot the Timorese roadside, over three years after independence. Enlarge »
The past three years have been a period of re-growth for East Timor. With the nation's entire infrastructure torched by the fleeing Indonesians, the Timorese are having to build an entire country from scratch. Following their first democratic elections at the end of last year, the UN transitional administration finally handed over control of the region to the Timorese in May of this year and, for the first time in over half a century, this land and its people are finally in control of their own destiny.
I'd traveled to Dili with Ben, a friend and fellow Melbournite who was on his first backpacking trip through Asia (did I hear somebody say 'baptism of fire?'). We landed, dumped our bags in the spartan but friendly Dili Guesthouse (US $5 / night) - whose owner, Mena, never seemed to tire of laughing at me for reasons I can't even being to fathom - and set out to explore.
Given their recent history and the influx of well-paid UN staff into the country, I'd expected the East Timorese to be a quiet and distrusting people, wary of foreigners and quick to spot a chance to rip me off. I was wrong. Their kindness, pervasive humour, generosity and calm pride surprised me, as did the giggly nervousness with which they behave towards malai (foreigners).
Despite a relatively large UN and NGO presence in the region, international workers are usually confined to their barracks for security reasons, which means that East Timorese have had little, if any, interaction with foreigners. So when you approach a drink vendor and ask for a bottle of aqua, for example, you're studied with the same kind of smiling fascination that you'd imagine somebody would give an alien race. And when you happen across a local that can speak English and are invariably asked "You are UN?", the shocked but proud and beaming reaction you invoke when you reply, "Tourist, just for holiday" is priceless.
Kids monkeying about on cocunut palms in Los Palos. Enlarge »
Only a few thousand tourists, mostly Balinese backpackers on visa renewal runs and tax-shy businessmen, have visited East Timor since independence, and the locals are still coming to grips with the fact that anybody, especially 'rich' Westerners, would want to visit their country. But with a rugged, mountainous landscape, gorgeous white-sand beaches and some of the friendliest people I'd met, I'm guessing I won't be the last.
After a few days sampling some local fare (fresh-grilled fish on the beach and a meatball/noodle concoction known as bakso are definite highlights), looking around Dili and nearly gate-crashing the Prime Minister's office, Ben and I packed our bags and jumped onto the back of a ute (US $2) headed to the remote hill village of Maubisse. Rising out of the Dili's arid plains, the landscape seemed to change by the minute like an indecisive girl before a cocktail party: from eucalypt scrub to lush rice paddies, to coffee plantations and ghostly mountains of leafless, skeletal trees before finally deciding on the tropical chic of green palms and dense bush.
After arriving at the chaotic local market, however, we were shocked to discover that the only accomodation in town - a Portuguese run hotel set up for cashed-up UN managers on weekend flings with their secretaries - was demanding US $80 a night ... a figure which was way beyond my emaciated budget. We wandered around for a while, as I lambasted myself for having made the last-minute decision not to bring a tent, and briefly contemplated spending the night sleeping on some remote hill and hoping it didn't rain. Just as we resigned ourselves to becoming a pair of homeless bums, we were approached by a young Timorese man who spoke English and wanted to meet the malai in town. We asked him if he knew of anybody that could put us up for the night, and he simply smiled and uttered the sweetest two words in the English language: "Yes, CIVPOL."
CIVPOL, the East Timorese police force, is being coordinated and trained by volunteer police officers from around the world and has offices in most villages and towns. Our new friend was a trainee police officer with them and kindly offered the police station's back room to us for the night. We gratefully accepted, and spent the rest of the night exploring silent cemeteries at dusk and munching on chicken at a warung while chatting to an idealistic French documentary maker, a haggard Portuguese entrepreneur and a 'been there done that' Timorese geriatric who had fought alongside the Australians against the Japanese in WWII and who had remained faithful to his Catholic upbringing by producing no less than twenty-five children with numerous women.
The next morning we rose after a few hours of very uncomfortable sleep on the tiled CIVPOL floor - not helped by slightly distressing Glock 9mm training posters on the walls reminding officers to 'never aim guns at your friends' - and climbed a hill in the Maubisse's center to watch the sun rise over the towering mountains that encircle it. And as the sun's yellow fan began to illuminate the valley of cloud wisps and rice fields below us, we were suddenly very, very glad we'd come.
After a morning spent being studied curiously by the locals at the bustling market and watching the weekly ritual of church that is taken very seriously in Timor, we thanked our CIVPOL friends with some market-fresh bananas and buns and hitched a lift back to the heat of Dili.
While Ben began his open water scuba diving course I decided to put some of the skills I'd picked up in the Philippines last year to use and departed to dive off Timor's reportedly breathtaking coast. My companions were Klaus, an incessantly-grinning German with an unhealthy obsession with sea slugs, and the dive shop owner Wayne. Until a few years ago Wayne was a British war journalist for Reuters, but after witnessing humanity's worst in a roll call of recent history's most horrific tragedies - Bosnia, Rwanda and Somalia to name but a few - decided to sell up and settle down with his wife among the palm trees and warm smiles of East Timor.
After an hour's drive along pristine coastline, and past a very Rio-esque giant statue of Jesus standing watch on a hill near Dili (it was designed and funded by the Indonesians as gesture of good faith, but according to the locals it was built looking out to sea as a message that even Jesus had turned his back on the Timorese) we arrived out our dive site, kitted up and jumped in.
Ben and I were one of four foreigners in the tiny village of Maubisse when we visited it's morning market. Enlarge »
East Timor's north coast lies at the top of a 3km deep trench that begins just a few meters from its shoreline. These walls, coupled with an untouched reef protected from the destructive warm currents of El Nino have made East Timor every scuba diver's dream. After one minute under the surface it was easy to see why.
Fish of all colours and sizes dart about you in the glass-like water, some swimming up to you curiously then darting away like shy children. Rainbow coral, giant clams and even the odd shark and manta ray pass by as you glide above them. Even Klaus, a diving veteran of hundreds of dives and location, could not contain his awe as he surfaced each time and uttered the word 'amazing'.
And as I surfaced from my last dive for the day to the sight of the sun setting behind a mountain in the distance, flopping down to drip contentedly beside a group of local boys who were strumming wistful Timorese folk songs on a battered guitar and singing along in a surprisingly good four part harmony, I found myself a piece of pineapple, savoured the warm tropical air on my face and decided I had to agree.
I hadn't expected it to be, but it truly, truly was.