Timor Leste is a country still struggling to find its feet after decades of violence at the hands of exploitative foreign powers. Even if the people have lost their faith in government or the powers that be, they have plenty of other support. Jeremy Torr reports.
Dili, Timor Leste, 21 October 2013. Having recently visited Timor Leste, one of the newest countries in the world, I gained a vital glimpse into how faith can sustain in the face of terrible privations. The capital, Dili, is like many Asian cities; full of hustlers, poor locals, opportunist foreigners, and a plenty of people working incredibly hard to get by.
All this is in the shadow of some truly horrific recent history; burned out and blasted buildings still show the scars. Exploited and tyrannised by the Portuguese and then Japanese and then the Indonesians over the last couple of hundred years, betrayed by the Australians and forgotten by the rest of the world, it’s fair to say they are just about keeping their heads above water.
On the main road from Dili to Baucau aiming for Osu Lauto beach, set up as a tourist spot on eco-friendly lines, we pass little that could be described as un-environmental. Actually, most places in Timor are eco-friendly as there is almost nothing environmentally unfriendly. Timor is much as it was a few hundred years ago; almost no pollution, unnatural dirt, rubbish or artificial structures outside Dili. In fact there isn’t much of anything. Just scrub, trees, subsistence farming, a few huts, piles of buffalo poo and birds. Most rural people live in basic wooden huts, roofed with thatch and with no chimneys even though cooking is done inside over open fires.
We arrived at Osu Lauto, a beach community on the north east coast, and took a canoe trip up the coast – what a stunner. Corals vibrated in crystal water just a few steps off every beach, seabirds and fish swooped around us, and it was utterly deserted apart from weird thatched igloos with bones and rags flying off the roof looming ominously from cliff tops.
“There’s still a lot of animism here,” explained Kevin, an Aussie who lives there, helping the villagers set up small businesses. “Roman Catholicism is the official religion but the more remote villages still stick to the old animist ways.”
Later that day, we took a walk up a small mountain to see caves the Fretilin resistance fighters hid in when they were fighting the Indonesians. Inside were piles of rags and bones, and lots of graffiti. Not all of it was from casual visitors, by the look of it. And guess what was on the side of the road down the bottom of the hill near Lekirika Mana? A full-on bamboo totem pole, complete with buffalo skull, bones, an effigy crocodile and bamboo slivers, waving ominously in the wind.
To add to the confused theology, the next day we drove by a first communion celebration near an immaculate – and completely full – church complete with the most lovely hymn singing I’ve ever heard. Everybody was dressed in his or her finest crisp white shirt or blouse, hair slicked and toenails polished. There was no doubting the community commitment to Catholicism.
It’s just that some churches, like the one at Maubisse, a remote town in the mountains, had an animist three-branched lulik outside, as well as a cross. A local explained to me that it was a pragmatic move in case the Christian cross didn’t do the job of keeping bad spirits away. It helps protect the trees and the place from bad things, he explained. Weird-shaped clouds drifted uneasily off a nearby mountain to emphasise the issue.
As we drove further up into the mountains towards Mount Ramelau, a smidgeon under 3,000m and Timor’s highest mountain, the road became more challenging even in our 4WD. Next morning we woke at 3am to start the hike. Our guide, Nuvo, advised us not to say anything negative out loud as we walked, as it would offend the spirits of the mountain, so we kept quiet. We got there a couple of minutes past 6am, just as the dawn broke – to see a massive statue of the Virgin Mary, surrounded by dead flowers and offerings.
Our guide immediately prostrated himself before a statue of the Virgin Mary, and prayed thanks to God. He showed us the bullet hole in his leg that had slowed him up on the last stretch of the climb; he’d been shot during the Indonesian occupation and had to limp into the hills to escape. His brother was shot dead.
About halfway down the mountain, we passed a primitive outdoor chapel, made of wood and with a traditional thatched roof. Outside, rows of wood benches took the place of pews. A cross dominated the front of what would have been the aisle between the benches – supported by an animist lulik. The guide reminded us not to say anything bad, especially in this place, and touched a buffalo skull nailed to a post with the palm of his hand as we carried on walking.
Even if it doesn't have lots of money, Timor still has plenty of gods, it seems.
Getting there: Fly Air Timor from Singapore. Three flights a week, stay in Dili at a hotel, or elsewhere in an old style pousada. But don’t expect luxury.