Timor-Leste is a simply remarkable place. When you compile the odd collection of other-worldly experiences we have here in any given month, you realise how fortunate we are to be living this extraordinary life. Here are a few snapshots of life in this remarkable place.
Days before the election, there was an uneasy tension across the country. The final days of political rallies were colourful and disruptive. I got caught in a Fretilin motorcade at one point, which was quite good fun. One of my work colleagues did too, and managed to snap this photo:
Up until election night, the major sides were seemingly very confident of a comprehensive win. Ultimately it was Xanana’s coalition, the Change for Progress Alliance (AMP), that prevailed with, thankfully, an outright majority – whether you support the AMP or not, at least a majority means the government can govern.
Xanana Gusmao was buoyant: a big election victory on the back of having recently returned to Timor after concluding the long-running maritime boundary negotiations with Australia. We saw this exuberance first hand at an art exhibition a few nights ago: he was involved in everything, jumping from keynote speaker to interpreter, to percussionist, and then to impromptu artist – a man basking confidently in the adoration of his people. In high spirits, he even took Bethany’s hand and graced it with a gentleman’s kiss. I missed out and had to settle for an enthusiastic handshake and a pat on the chest. Maybe next time.
The art exhibition was commemorating the signing of the maritime agreement, and thus there were many paintings of crocodiles (the Timorese totem) and kangaroos (either sparring or embracing) set on backgrounds of open seas or flags.
There were many notable patrons present. Bethany was excited to get an opportunity for a chat and a photo with Timor-Leste’s preeminent singer-songwriter:
Except it wasn’t him… a case of mistaken identity. Nevertheless, we found out later it was a man they call Maun Iliwatu, the founder and director of Timor’s leading art school. Still worth a photo.
The exhibition was held at the Timorese Resistance Museum, so we took the chance to wander those displays too. When you follow the story from 1975, and see that Xanana has been the mastermind and people’s champion for more than forty years, it’s not hard to see why he is so revered.
“Unfortunately, a kiss from the people’s champion does not equate to legal recognition of Maluk Timor by the Ministry of Justice.”
Unfortunately, a kiss from the people’s champion does not equate to legal recognition of Maluk Timor by the Ministry of Justice. We have been labouring to get our registration as a rebranded NGO approved, some eight months after separating from Bairo Pite Clinic. Sequential legal obstacles have delayed our progress, so we were pleased to finally win an audience with the Minister of Justice to plead our case.
This was no small matter, and I was nervous. There are many conventions as to how one is to conduct oneself in these high-level meetings, and sadly I’m oblivious to most of them. I’m pretty sure there isn’t one that says you should stumble into the glass coffee table in the foyer. I knocked the thing off its legs, and spent the next few minutes trying hopelessly to reassemble it, apologising all the while to the stunned reception staff who were trying to find out who I was and why I was demolishing their furniture. A flying start.
Thankfully the Minister (pictured in blue) was delightful. I assume that news of the coffee table’s demise was yet to reach her. She advised us to resubmit a key document to her department, offering to try to help.
I asked our lawyers for the key document…
“Ahhh yes. That one.”
“Yes, the one we have spent months getting approved by the Notary.”
“The original has been submitted for publishing, and there aren’t any copies.” “Hmmm. That’s not ideal.”
“Oh, and the publisher says they don’t have it, nor any record of having received it.”
“OK. Right. Good.”
. . .
And so began a couple of weeks of to-and-fro.
“Had the Notary delivered it?”
“Yes, confirmed. signature to prove it.”
“Had it been received?”
“Allegedly not. How could that be?”
. . .
On Tuesday I sat, downcast, in a government strategic planning meeting, representing Maluk Timor. I watched all the other key players – Timorese and international – laughing and backslapping together. Yet we still sat as outsiders, without formal registration, despite eight months of trying. I felt entirely demoralised. I fired a volley of frustrated phone messages as I sat in self-pity and disappointment. It triggered some action – that same afternoon two of our representatives returned to the publisher and uncovered that they had in fact received the document. Better yet, they had already published our legal recognition in the national journal. It was already done, and we hadn’t even known it! A badly needed victory, and cause for celebration.
Yes, it’s just one step of many, but an essential one – one that justified the ruining of a badly-designed Indonesian coffee table. Acceptable collateral damage. I was vindicated.
“This is the Timor we’re slowly coming to know and understand – where things rarely go as planned.”
This is the Timor we’re slowly coming to know and understand – where things rarely go as planned.
A couple of weeks ago, Miriam was overwhelmingly excited about her class going on a school excursion to the beach to fly their homemade kites. She was counting down the days. Bethany was going to go along as support, but a late change in plans meant it would be me instead. I met the bus down at the beach as they arrived. It was picturesque as always:
Ugh. The tide was up, the waves were bigger than usual, and all that was left of the beach was a scatter of muddy puddles under the placenta tree.
The placenta tree, pictured above, has placentas in plastic bags hanging from it. There are several such trees in Dili. I’ve never quite grasped the traditional reasons for why people hang placentas from certain trees, but it’s probably not the ideal landmark for a Year 2 school excursion.
The excursion was abandoned, and the devastated kids were returned to school. It broke my heart to see their grieving faces at the bus windows, gazing longingly at the filthy sludge and puddles they’d been so cruelly denied.
A week or so later, we attended the farewell party of some good friends, and part of the entertainment was a joyride in a Timorese outrigger. Levi signed up, as any 8-year-old should. The pictures tell the story:
. . .
Our kids are racking up all kinds of life experiences, good and bad.
Last week, we were invited by the neighbours to come and see their pet. Who knew we had a pet deer living next door?
Then they showed us their other pet.
I’m not joking – that is a nine-foot saltwater crocodile living in their backyard. His name is Apeu. Apparently they have had him for nine years. When I asked who cleans the enclosure, they said they just hose it from the outside. He gets chicken and fish once a week. I was absolutely dumbfounded. How can we have lived in our house for two years and not known that we had an 150kg man-eater living in the laneway next door?
“You see what I mean? This is an extraordinary place, and just when you think there won’t be too many more surprises, a nine-foot salty appears in your life.”
You see what I mean? This is an extraordinary place, and just when you think there won’t be too many more surprises, a nine-foot salty appears in your life.
Sometimes it’s new things taking us by surprise, and other times it’s old things hitting us afresh. This week I was asked by a Timorese gentleman if I could help his daughter, currently admitted in the National Hospital with rheumatic fever. He knew of our connection with East Timor Hearts Fund and others, and he wondered if we could help arrange the emergency heart surgery she needed to survive. I said I would make some enquiries about her case. Unfortunately, her condition was so poor that she would never be well enough for a flight to Australia. There was a chance, but it was very slim. He understood, having heard a similar explanation already. He was gentle and gracious, but his grief was palpable. He described to me how she was too breathless to eat, and that she couldn’t lie down to sleep. He told me that the previous day had been her birthday, which she had spent in a hospital bed, gasping for breath. Her twelfth birthday. Something in me broke. As a father of four children I could barely comprehend what it would feel like, watching one of my own children die, acknowledging a birthday in the midst of it. She is one of so many, dying unnecessarily.
She is not lost yet, and we will do what we can to save her. But if nothing else, I set my jaw again, with renewed purpose, throwing my shoulder to the wheel. There is work to be done, and there is an urgency to do it.
Thankfully we have many reasons to be optimistic. There are so many little wins.
This is a photo of one of our Timorese doctors, whom we have been supervising for almost a year. She wears the black garb of mourning, having lost a dear family member just months ago. She is pictured with a volunteer doctor from the UK. Together they are on a community home visit in a remote village west of Dili. They are providing a medical assessment for a man with a physical disability – the first such medical assessment he’s probably ever had. It’s a new frontier for Maluk Timor, started less than a fortnight ago. Sure, their car got a flat tire and they spent the whole day stuck out there waiting to be rescued, but that’s all part of the experience!
That’s just part of living in this remarkable place.
Dr Jeremy Beckett and his wife, Bethany, are GPs from WA who moved to Timor-Leste with their four young children in 2016. They have long been a part of the CMDFA community, which has been a major influence for their work in medical missions. Jeremy now serves as Director of a health NGO called Maluk Timor, having initially worked as the Medical Director of a busy charity hospital in Dili. Jeremy is also the author a self-published book called Tessellating: Where faith meets practice.
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