Timor-Leste

July 20, 2016

Matebian, third highest mountain in Timor Leste, is 2300 meters (7600 ft).

Timor Leste (LESS-tay) or East Timor may get few tourists but it was fascinating to me. Basics:

• Longtime Portuguese colony from the 1600s to 1975 (minus WWII).

• One of two largely Christian countries in Asia.

• After the collapse of the Portuguese empire in 1975, East Timor was seized by Indonesia.

• Decades of brutal, indiscriminate Indonesian crackdowns against the continuing resistance by leftist separatists left many dead. Estimates range from 90,000 to over 200,000 killed out of a population of only 850,000 people in 1999.

• Finally gained independence from Indonesia in 2002 so it's one of the world's newest countries and I didn't know what to expect.

• Easy access: Quick visa-on-arrival at the airport and the national currency is US dollars.

Both of my top episodes to witness were totally unplanned.
The first involved religion and the second is more X-rated.
By sheer accident, we got to Venilale the moment that the new Catholic Bishop of Dili returned to his hometown. Venilale threw a big celebration to honor this local boy who made good.

Exciting for me to get to experience this unexpected slice of village life in Catholic East Timor.

After welcoming remarks by local leaders, boys danced, and the procession to the church began.

Almost the whole town must have come to honor the new bishop.

The route was lined by an honor guard wearing traditional clothes for this part of Timor.

Nice guy offered me a ride to catch up to the procession at the church.

By chance later, I was near the Bishop who did a puzzled double-take when he saw me, came over and shook my hand. I wished him well and tried to briefly explain my surprising presence.

The drive along the northern coast from the capital of Dili to Baucau, the second largest city, was usually beautiful with constantly changing terrain. Sometimes with dramatic coasts, sometimes through thick tropical forests...

... sometimes bright green rice fields... turning quickly
into miles of arid or semi-arid land and then back again to thick forests.

Lots of clean, pretty vegetable and fruit stands along the way.

On the Baucau-Venilale road, we passed this Catholic school where the kids (ages 7-10?) were trimming the field using... machetes. Yes, machetes.
Look closely, such as the boy on the front right. Incredible.
Can you imagine distributing machetes to US schoolkids?

In Baucau with my outstanding guide Manny.
Waiting for a christening ceremony at a Catholic church in Baucau.

Four key monuments in the capital Dili:

Top left: National hero Nicolau Lobato, leader in the resistance to Indonesia.

Center: Pope John Paul II, commemorating his 1989 visit (which reignited separatist sentiment).

Right: Cristu Rei is 89 ft tall hilltop statue built by Indonesia to gain Catholic loyalty during the occupation.

Bottom: Monument to victims of the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre. (Statue based on a real photo.)

Young college women kindly posed for me in front of the statue of liberation from imperialism.
East Timor had many overflowing vans and buses so I had to post one,
despite this being a travel photo cliche.

Turning now to the X-rated part of my Timor-Leste experiences...

I saw cockfighting.
Illegal in most US states to watch a cockfight.

Practiced around the world for thousands of years, cockfighting is now taboo among the culturally enlightened but is still popular in many places such as Puerto Rico, Guam, Central America, Philippines, Thailand and elsewhere. It's only recently been banned in Oklahoma and Louisiana, seriously.

On the evils of cockfighting, see here. For a defense of its legalization (and an attack on hypocritical multiculturalism), see here.

We stumbled on a place where several hours of cockfighting were just beginning. Fights are fairly short and followed by long breaks for bets to be placed on the next match.

In the cockpit (yes, this is where the word came from!) the owners/trainers get the roosters (who instinctively fight other roosters for supremacy) primed for battle, teasing them to establish the mood for combat.

Facing off with neck feathers erect to show an intimidating size.

Often both roosters would jump into the air to pounce, producing so fast a flurry of feathers that you could not see exactly which one was winning.

I must admit that, going against all my cultural biases, the two matches I watched were riveting.

Yet, two matches were enough and I did not stay for the long betting break before the next one, with perhaps a dozen more to follow.

Sometimes there was a quick tactical retreat.

But look at the razor attached to a leg of each rooster.
Razors make the matches quick and deadly.

Some people who think cockfighting is OK
hate this added element. But much shorter
matches means more turnover for gambling.


• • • • •

Back in the capital Dili, the waterfront from Portuguese days has been fairly well maintained and was a scenic spot.

One day at the waterfront, I thought the sky looked especially mercurial.

Sunrise in Dili along another part of the waterfront.

Local dishes were good too.
My friends at Undiscovered Destinations have led in promoting travels in East Timor offering, among other things, a two-week group tour. (Tell Mark that Bill recommended it.) I'll admit I was skeptical about devoting two weeks here so Mark arranged a guide/driver for an independent, five-day custom trip.

Now I wish I could have stayed longer. East Timor is indeed an interesting, friendly, safe, unique place to explore. It's an ideal choice for those who like to go off the beaten track.

Next time I want to head south from Dili to see the more traditional villages up in the mountains.

Postscript:  Visiting East Timor let me hit a personal benchmark down to a single digit in unvisited countries. The last nine are Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Chad, Niger, and both Congos.
No more country posts are planned here until August, following visits to Congo Brazzaville and Congo Kinshasa.