Recently, one of our ChildFund sponsors travelled to Timor Leste to meet his sponsored child Alfredo, and see something of his country. In John O’Leary’s own words, he describes what he found…
17 July 2010: Dili comes as a shock. It’s only an hour’s flight from Darwin, yet it’s another world — sweaty, bustling, poor. There are children everywhere, playing football, scampering down lanes, dodging in and out of traffic. The smaller ones stare in amazement at my pale face, then wave and smile. The older children and adults are more reserved; one can’t help wondering what they’ve seen and experienced in this nation with its unhappy recent past. The hotel, when we arrive, is more like a barracks than the standard tourist edifice. Parked everywhere are large white UN SUVs, a reminder that East Timor still has security problems.
19 July: a sobering visit to the Comarca, the old Portuguese prison in central Dili which was later used by Indonesian security forces as an interrogation centre. The small, damp cells sometimes held 20 or 30 suspects — I feel claustrophobic standing in the foetid dark. Names and dates are scratched on the plaster walls, along with prayers for deliverance. I light a candle in front of a list of dozens of people who went into the Comarca during the Occupation and were not seen again.
20 July: up into the hills we go. It’s a coffee growing region, and here are coffee bushes growing right by the road. Occasionally we see a Timorese gathering the red coffee berries; later we see the berries laid out on sheets of plastic on the ground, drying in the sun. I make a mental note to buy Timor coffee if I can find it back in New Zealand.
We stay the night in an old Portuguese pousada — a romantic inn with marvellous views over the surrounding country. Less marvellous is the simple dinner, cold showers and toilets that don’t flush. Already I am beginning to realise how pampered my New Zealand life is in comparison with that of most Timorese.
22 July: a cold, starlit-climb up Timor’s highest mountain, Mount Ramelau, whose summit we reach just as the sun comes up. The mountain is sacred, and acted as a place of refuge during times of trouble. Crosses line the path in its upper reaches, a reminder that it is a place of pilgrimage, and memorial. The views are magnificent: one can see right across the island, from the Timor Sea in the south to the Wetar Strait in the north. Behind, to the west, is range after range of dark hills. Down there is Maliana, I realise, where Alfredo lives. I can just make out a few dim lights in the distance.
23 July: a complete change of scene, as we leave the cool highlands for the humid south coast and Suai. At Ainaro we stop and examine a massacre site from 1999; a steep ravine down which dozens of townsfolk were pushed after being sprayed with bullets. It’s hard to reconcile such horror with the smiling, waving populace we see as we drive by. Once again I wonder what sort of future East Timor has, given its traumatic past. Will Alfredo be spared a repeat of such horrors? One sign of hope is the numerous charitable and self-help projects up and running in the area. I see several signs that mention ChildFund New Zealand’s Graça project — it’s clearly important in Suai.
Project Graca sign
24 July: the big day arrives — the day I meet Alfredo! We rise at dawn and drive north over mountains on rough, potholed roads, arriving in Maliana just as my Timor Leste ChildFund contact, Belchior, drives into town. As the tour is stopping for lunch I make my getaway and we travel a short distance to Holsa, a suburb of Maliana. We slow down outside a simple concrete house by the road, and there, surely is Alfredo’s little brother. Suddenly I realise it isn’t Alfredo’s little brother at all, but Alfredo himself, a head shorter than a New Zealand boy of the same age. He comes forward and kisses my hands; he leads me onto the house’s front porch, where his family — mother, father, and shy big sisters — are waiting.
John and Alfredo
I give out presents, and a colourful Timorese tais scarf is wound around my neck in return. Conversation isn’t easy, as Alfredo and his family speak Bunak, a Papuan language quite different from Tetum, the lingua franca of East Timor, but a local interpreter and Belchior do their best. I have Alfredo’s last school report and talk to him on the importance of doing well at his studies. Poor kid, he probably just wants to go and play with the new football I’ve given him! After a few minutes, Alfredo’s mother brings out coffee and bananas from the family’s own garden. The coffee is mild and nutty; the bananas taste deliciously of banana, unlike the bland fruit back in New Zealand.
All too soon it is time for me to leave, as the tour is aiming to make Balibo by mid-afternoon. Alfredo comes out to wave goodbye, and then it’s back to Maliana. As we drive, Belchior explains that ChildFund in East Timor has over a thousand children on its list who need sponsorship. Sadly, some of them had sponsors, but lost them when the financial crisis caused people to review their commitments.
I feel suddenly tired, and realize how worried I was that I might not manage to meet Alfredo. Balibo turns out to be a dry, dusty town haunted by the murder of five journalists at the start of the Indonesian invasion in 1975. Staring at their photographs, I think how young they were — younger than I am now.
26 July: our second day at an eco-resort on Atauro, a rocky island about 30 kilometres north of Dili. Walking into the local town through the warm, frangipani-scented afternoon, we meet some school children going home. “Boa tardi” they shout in Portuguese, laughing. An older boy says “good afternoon” in perfect English. We ask his name, and learn that he’s finishing secondary school. What are his plans we ask? Does he intend to go to university? “I want to go to Australia to study,” he says. “But it costs so much!” Walking on, I wonder if our government could make university places available for Timorese students as part of its aid to the country. It would be nice to think that little Alfredo might one day go to university in New Zealand.
Timorese school children
27 July: back on Timor, we drive to the town of Baucau, east of Dili. The Portuguese left some fine old buildings here, including a magnificent mediterranean-style Mercado Municipal, complete with Moorish garden and fountain. But they’re all terribly run down, and with other, more urgent priorities, it’s unlikely they will be renovated soon. We are staying in a convent, and at dawn we are woken by sweet voices singing the mass.
29 July: we are now in the far east of the country. Every now and then we see examples of the famous “uma lulik” (spirit houses) in which local villagers store ritual objects. Magnificent, too, are the tombs of the chiefs, on which stand poles decorated with huge buffalo skulls. They’re a reminder that the old animist religious traditions are still alive in East Timor, despite the veneer of Christianity.
In the mid-afternoon we drive off the main road, down a potholed track, and arrive at a very poor village called Home. We are received with much ceremony, and after coffee and a simple meal we buy beautiful tais (ikat cloths) from the local women’s weaving co-operative. A fine tais might take six months to make on a backstrap loom; but they bring in valuable dollars to communities that live on the edge of want. The striped red-and-black tais feto (woman’s tais) I buy will hang on my hall wall in Wellington — a reminder of Alfredo and his country.
Woman weaving tais
4 August: after a few days in Dili, it’s time for me to go. I want to return home, yet I feel a curious sadness at leaving East Timor. “The place gets under your skin,” someone said. At the airport I stand behind a gaggle of young Australians and I am amazed at their plump size — in Timor, everyone is slim, not to say thin. The plane takes off, Timor’s mountains fade into the tropical haze, and all too soon I am back in the cold, efficient First World. The vast beefburger I eat at Sydney airport would feed the average Timorese for a whole day, I think — and its cost would bankrupt him for a week. It’s a reminder of the great gulf in living standards between my world and Alfredo’s. Mine could do with a bit less, I think, as I peel off the layers of tomatoes, lettuce, onion, beetroot, bacon, cheese and salad cream, and his could do with a bit more.
5 August: a smooth flight back across the Tasman, with the snow-capped Southern Alps looming into view half an hour before we land. Already meeting Alfredo seems a dream — did it really happen I wonder? Touching my tais, I think “Of course it did!” and I feel, suddenly, enormously happy.