Thor's Travel Notes


Letter from East Timor


[ This is a draft fragment of an old letter I wrote from East Timor in 1971, before the place was grabbed by the Indonesians (1975). New Zealand excepted, Timor was my first experience of the world outside of Australia, and the first hop in an overland journey that would take me through Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, then by the "Orient Express" train through to Vienna, Munich, Oostend and to London. I reached London with five pounds left in my pocket. At the time I saw the whole expedition as a mere scouting trip ahead of later more extended exploration. Time, life and wars have forestalled that agenda ... The Timor fragment below though does capture some of the flavour which seemed so pungent to me after a lifetime in the antiseptic cities of Australia and New Zealand].


... We are on the beach about three kilometres from Baucau. It is a fairly narrow strip of coral sand backed by a sea wall, and tipping gently into the warm, blue tropical water. The jungle has been beaten back a few hundred yards to make an enclave, and there is a heavy, deserted building reminiscent of Bondi surf pavilion (Sydney), as well as a few vast, spreading shade trees. Somebody finds some coconuts, which are neatly beheaded with a vicious looking machete by one of the children. The juice trickles, cool, sweet, tingling, to dissolve away the salt water from our swim. But I am not fond of its pulpy fruit. Much better the mature coconut with its thick, crunchable meat. Brian finds one of these in a plantation, and struggles to tear away the husk. The Timorese are vastly amused. They also signal a warning, and seem to mean that too much coconut is a very good laxative.

Late in the afternoon the supply barge from Dili is still there, half full. It will be unloaded, well, manyana manyana, and the labourers are playing tag like children in the shallow water. They are pleased, when we ask, to let us scramble onto the lorry with the gasoline drums. Travel on these roads is a violent experience, and I have to hang onto the tailboard with three fingers. Then of course, I want to blow my nose, which is tickling, but dare not let go.

Thursday is market day under the big balboa tree by the barracks. From early morning Timorese women file in from the hills, each one with something on her head and a spindle of dyed yarn yo-yoing from her hand. The men balance their loads on bamboo poles, or if they are a little richer, across the back of a chestnut mule. The mules are sometimes obstinate, and the load which is secured by a prong must be taken off carefully to avoid overbalancing the animal. 

People squat in the shade chatting quietly, while some officials in khaki try to organize each vendor into an orderly line with his neighbours. As with the children, they generally like to be photographed, and sometimes throw an heroic pose. Nothing really happens until 9.30am, when a Timorese man, cross-legged on a small wooden platform, thumps his official drum. Then all hell breaks loose. Nobody though seems to be wrapping in a fortune except the tobacco sellers. Much of the trade is in barter. He or she who makes an escudo comes straight to the tobacco seller, picks over the weed, and rolls a crude looking fag on the spot. I tried one of these cigarettes, but couldn't muster the suction to keep it alight. Its taste was vaguely reminiscent of the basket cane I once smoked experimentally as a kid.

There are melons and mandarins, little piles of peanuts, duck eggs, chilies, stinking dried fish, tomatoes, leeks, watercress, things the size of footballs that taste like a cross between oranges and grapefruit, and lots of other fruit I've never seen before. There are also several beetlenut sellers, mostly old women in black dresses with obscenely red lips. It is a relief to notice that most young girls avoid the stuff.

In the market, one can lose the other tourisimo quite easily, but walking about this very small town we tend to become a contingent, highly visible and, without trying, excluding ourselves from contact with local people. Only the Chinese merchants speak some English, or the odd Portuguese conscript soldier. We touch this place so lightly and quickly that it is impossible to learn much about the real society here. We will leave without beginning to understand the Timorese.

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* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.

"Letter from East Timor"... copyrighted to Thor May 2001; all rights reserved
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