Darragh Peter Murphy travelled to Timor-Leste, ahead of the 20th anniversary of the country’s independence referendum, to explore how peace has brought economic growth, yet political instability remains, and the oil and gas reserves are running out. Here, he reflects on his trip.
It’s nearing 4pm and a day’s work in the mountainous highlands in the Timor-Leste district of Aileu is almost over. With the help of the charities Plan International and Fada, I’ve interviewed over a dozen people, and traversed four villages around the island’s highest peak, rising almost 3km above sea level.
Today, however, we’ve gone a bit over time. In an hour, I have an interview – twice rescheduled – with a Government minister in downtown Dili. We’re about 20km from Dili as the crow flies. But the actual route is on a winding, near-vertical stretch of dirt road which, for about half the journey, is four lanes wide but unpaved, and pockmarked with bumps – natural drainage chasms running at right-angles to the traffic. For most drivers, even with the roads empty as they are, we are two hours’ drive away,
Fortunately, the man in the driving seat of my 4WD is not most drivers. Professional and courteous to a fault all day, he appears to relish the suggestion that we need to move quickly. When he says “don’t worry, I can drive fast”, he says so with the air of a man who has been driving at usual speeds for far too long, and finally has the chance to combine service to a client with his insanely skilful driving.
And what driving it is. Every turn on the winding drive down becomes a carefully controlled skid; every rainwater drain, a sort of jump slope. With little traffic, and mountain rivers whooshing by, the journey is exhilarating, and impossible to accurately convey through words.
He leaves me at the Government Palace with five minutes to spare, just enough time to steady the nerves for a meeting with Fidelis Magalhães, the Minister for Legal Reform, a man whose very expensive education has seemingly left him with a very theoretical view of governance, and scant empathy towards the immediate needs of 40 percent of the population currently living in poverty.
Other interviews with Government figures share a similar disconnect between the grinding poverty, which is painfully obvious to anyone visiting the areas outside the capital, – or the hospitals in the capital – and the grand patriotic ideas about manufacturing, huge roads and the grandiloquent ideas of transforming Timor-Leste into an oil hub of international importance. Even if that was possible (it isn’t) it would have zero effect on the country’s poor. The jobs would go to better-educated Chinese and Indonesian technicians, and the revenue would either be swallowed up by the cost of building such an industry, or be spent on yet more glorious infrastructure. Meanwhile, children continue to die of TB, malnutrition, diarrhoea and leprosy.
Many working in development, of course, know this – as do the more clued-up members of the opposition Fretilin party. The civil governance NGO La’o Hamutuk, whose importance it is impossible to overstate, say that current Government policy will bankrupt the country’s multi-billion oil and gas reserves within 10 years. What effect will that have on a country enjoying less than fifteen years of unbroken peace, with most its population unemployed and aged under 35?
Some ministers talk of rivalling Bali to lure in tourists, but the island is ill-equipped, even for visitors who experience frank enjoyment in ‘roughing it’ and experiencing life like the locals.
For myself, the first problem upon arrival is money. The magnetic strip on my Visa ATM card chose an airport in Indonesia to malfunction, meaning I arrived with US$100, rather than multiples of that amount. Paying for the visa meant I was down to $50.
And, following the impromptu withdrawal of ANZ bank from Timor-Leste, my back-up Mastercard was also no longer accepted anywhere. It was at this point that, despite being assured otherwise, my mobile phone company was unable to provide roaming internet. Meanwhile, no one in the taxi rank seemed to have heard of my hotel.
And Christ, it’s hot. It’s January, the rains are late and we’re 100 miles south of the equator, with sultry winds flowing up from an Australian continent baking in near-50 degree heat. Here, there’s also near total humidity. A walk in the sun in midday, even near the coast, is to experience near-immediate fatigue.
Enter Paula, a Portuguese teacher on my flight from Indonesia who offers a lift downtown with her boyfriend. They drop me outside my accommodation, booked online. Online, it seemed a trim ‘boutique hotel’, perfectly within budget – and a quiet spot in which to make sense of the political currents swirling in a new country amid an ongoing Government shutdown.
Except, it turns out not to be a hotel at all, but the Mexican consulate. There is no food on offer, cooked or uncooked. And the nice man behind the desk in the main consulate house is seeking $400 in cash up front for my room out back. You’re asking the wrong man, hombre.
Instead of giving him money, I manage to get him to order a rental motorbike for me, which arrives after a short, five-hour wait.
My most important interviews are not for a day or two, so I Whatsapp Tom Hyland, an Irish contact, to meet up the next morning. The wide, multi-laned streets of the Government quarter of Dili are heaving with cars, like a busy LA suburb, albeit perched between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. I bike it to a small supermarket a few blocks over and pick up nuts, water, and a slab of Toblerone. There’s a Burger King charging $10 a meal around the corner, and a couple of restaurants on the seafront out of town, towards the Rio-like Cristo Rei point. But travelling 10,000 miles tends to knock the initiative out of you for a few hours at least, so I retire to my granny-flat at the back of the Mexican consulate. It’s not until the next day that Tom Hyland comes to the rescue.
We arrange to meet in the café-lobby of the place I probably should have booked, the Timor Hotel. Given his exploits in winning both Irish and European recognition for the plight of Timorese during their suffering under Indonesian occupation, I’m half expecting a sort of towering Timorese Michael Collins, but am met with a gent of quiet dignity, with a broad Ballyfermot accent. An American swimming coach wants us to join her in having a lunchtime aperitif; Tom draws us away, to a table in a corner.
We’re joined in dribs and drabs by the writer Abe Barreto Soares, Fernando Sylvan, and sundry other characters, including one Timorese man sporting a broad North Dublin accent. There is talk of Dr Dan, Dr Ingrid and Max Dahl, and a rapid fire education in the labyrinthine local politics, encompassing the split in the Falintil guerrilla movement who won independence, and the forces coalescing around Xanana Gusmão, the country’s de facto leader.
After doing so much in drumming up official support in Ireland, Tom avoids Timorese politics now, and works as a translator for the Government.
Yet he’s canny all the same. “Here, come up to the counter with me and I’ll give you back the money I owe you,” he says, full knowing that he owes me nothing, but wanting to save me from the embarrassment of explaining how I came to be locked out of the Timorese banking system.
Tom gives me $100 and the number of his friend, the British honorary consul. After profuse thanks, I pop around the corner to buy a Timorese SIM card; then set off for my first proper Timorese meal, eaten at sundown next to a short strand in which sea crocodiles occasionally pop up. In nearby Northern Australia, they eat crocodile burgers, but the animals are sacred here, and killing them is illegal. Timorese call the animals ‘abo’, the same word for grandparent.
In Timorese mythology, the mountainous island was formed when a crocodile named Lafaek Diak sacrificed itself to become the home of a human child it had befriended. Yet mortality rates from crocodile attacks have now climbed to over one person a month, and scientists are investigating whether the rising number of attacks – they have jumped twenty-fold in a decade – are down to an influx of crocs across the Timor Sea from Australia, where populations have exploded in recent decades.
After dinner, I meet the British honorary consul Tracey Morgan, who is hosting a quiz night with Australian and Dutch friends. After testing some home-made brew and answering at least one question correctly, I get a crash course in political and economic goings-on – and an agreement to allow me to transfer funds to her account as a way of accessing cash locally. Like Tom, Tracey became an invaluable guide and host during my stay in Timor, and introduced me to many an interesting interviewee, including Dr Dan Murphy at the Bairo Pite Clinic and Government ministers. To Tracey, and to Tom, I offer undying gratitude.