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Timor Leste – a country finding its personality

By Robbie Mitchell

For the past two months, Alison and I have been island-hopping through the Pacific as part of a project documenting climate change projects funded by the Australian Government.

I was the first to admit that none of the three countries we visited—Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste and Cook Islands—were high on my bucket list. However, like all countries I’ve visited, each imparted its own personality and enhanced my wonderment of how the world works.

The country which fascinated me the most was Timor—a soup of conflict, coffee and quirks.

Conflict

Throughout the 90s and 00s, I had seen and read bits and pieces about Indonesia’s occupation after the Portuguese abandoned the country in 1975, and the Timorese struggle to first gain independence and then make it work. But it wasn’t until I watched the 2009 Australian film Balibo and talked to my girlfriend’s brother, Jarod, who served as a peacekeeper in Timor on two occasions that I really paid attention to one of our country’s nearest neighbours.

Both the film and Jarod painted a picture of an adolescent population stuck in the middle of a messy and corrupt divorce with no really clear picture of who was friend or foe.

Connected: It looks like a regular picnic shelter but we learnt from our guide that this newly built shelter in Dili has free wi-fi. At night the place is teeming with young Timorese busily working on their laptops.

 After 10 years of independence from Indonesian rule, Timor is only now starting to gain stability within its government and its society. However, everywhere we travelled to and everyone we spoke with recounts stories of something damaged and still broken from the years of conflict—even during Portuguese rule. And yet, they move forward and live for today with an eye on a brighter tomorrow.

Coffee

I’m not a coffee drinker. Six years of making the stuff to support me through university has made even the most delicious blends seem bitter and burnt (same goes for chocolate, but that’s another story). However, I can still appreciate coffee as a social mechanism and a cash crop.

The Portuguese introduced coffee to Timor over 500 years ago but it wasn’t until the 19th century that coffee became a cash crop. The warm and wet climate is perfect for growing high-quality Arabica, which provides a substantial income for nearly a quarter of the population.

Driving around the mountainous district of Liquiça, west of Dili, we passed hundreds of small coffee plots. What really captivated me, though, were the gigantic trees that shaded the plants.

Under cover: The umbrella-like Albizia trees provide plenty of shade for the coffee crop below.

Albizias (Paraserianthes falcataria) are one of the fastest growing of all tree species—on good sites they can attain a height of 7 metres in just over a year, reaching in excess of 40 metres high in a lifetime.

The pictures we tried to take really didn’t capture the size of these trees or the carpet-like effect their canopy creates from a distance, but take my word for it: they are spectacular.

Quirks

Finally, and most memorable, were the quirks. Here are four of my favourites:

  • Timor is derived from timur, the word for ‘east’ in Indonesian. Leste is the Portuguese word for ‘east’.
  • The official currency is US dollars.
  • Portuguese is one of the official languages and is taught in schools, yet only 600 out of 1.1 million people speak it natively. Tetum is the language most used; however, Bahasa Indonesia (official Indonesian language) is becoming popular among young people.
  • The UN’s most lasting legacy may be the wealth of exotic and delicious places to eat. We ate Turkish one night and French another, struggling to find traditional food.

  

Duty free shopping: Timor-Leste is a place where electronics come to retire.

If you’ve been to Timor-Leste, or another memorable country, share your quirks @RobbieMitch