If I can describe Timor Leste in one word, it would be, “Virginal.”
This small island saw very little development despite being a former Portuguese colony during the 16th century and became part of an occupied territory of Indonesia until 2002.
It was almost as if its coloniser and occupier had deliberately wanted it to remain as a child with learning disabilities. This was not congenital by nature but one that had been created and shaped as such through a long process of involuntary subjugation by the Indonesian government.
However, like many children who are unexposed to external elements, Timor Leste maintained a kind of purity and innocence which baffled the minds of those who live in this day and age. After all, it should by now surpass the age of a minor and embark life as a young adult like the rest of its neighbouring peers.
Timor Leste has the most beautiful and untouched beaches I’ve seen in my entire life. If paradise does indeed exist on earth, they will be a coveted choice. There was hardly any concrete buildings in the capital city of Dili (except those that have been implanted by the international community during the period of transitional power at the start of the 21st century).
As you depart further from Dili, such simple and ordinary concrete structures we’re accustomed to are being swallowed by nature, pregnant with the sort of silence which can only be achieved through the absence of motorized vehicles. Majority of rural Timorese live in small thatched huts constructed from mud, wood and dried leaves. Those who are slightly better off live in houses made of naked cement walls and tin roofs.
Such was the level of simplicity that during the night, it felt almost as if everyone had gone to bed with the sun. With no electricity, there was total darkness and calm, except when you looked up at the sky, the millions of sparkling stars could not look any bigger and closer.
Timor Leste was my first United Nations mission and it’s true when they say that your first mission is often the most memorable and in my own personal view, the most exciting as well. I was entering unexplored territory. Very much like sex a la Malaysian style, I had heard very little of it but was left to my own imagination to figure out what it was really like. So, I fantasised about it and when I finally lost it, I was craving for more.
As with sex, there were minor glitches and momentary periods of emotional and physical adjustment. The biggest challenge and discomfort I had while in Timor Leste was having to confront my fear of the fearless cockroaches that were plenty and had the knack of flying amok in small spaces.
It was hell for me when it was time to go to bed. While I could seek refuge under the protective mosquito net, I was left completely vulnerable when the call of nature announced itself in the middle of the night.
Guided by only the smallest maglite torch you could find, I felt like a blind person waiting to be devoured by the vicious cockroaches. As if that wasn’t enough, more were waiting to taunt me in the loo.
I had to fashion an effective way to relieve my bladder without having a series of panic attack every night. The method of choice was admittedly primitive but no, I did not resolve to wearing diapers (hell, it was painful enough having to pack sufficient supply of sanitary products and diapers would have taken up precious space for indispensable items such as wet wipes, books and Knorr tom yum cubes).
Suffice to say that a 1.5 litre plastic bottle sliced into half did the trick.
Growing up in a privileged environment, I had to engage in laborious work in Timor Leste for the first time. One common task was to carry and transport heavy boxes of project supplies and this was usually performed alone. Don’t ask me where the men were but thanks to them, I developed strong arms and I was in my best form.
However, when I went home for my break after a few months, the first thing Mom said to me was, “Hmmm…your hands. They’re not as smooth as before. They’re so rough now, like the hands of a coolie. What exactly were you doing there?!”
The other challenge was to pass my driving test and the vehicle of choice was the crude but extremely sturdy Tata Sumo 4x4. I was obviously out of practice when it came to driving a stick shift but thankfully, the Political Counsellor for the Chinese Embassy, one of the first few international delegates I encountered by chance, gave me a crash course a day before.
Even though I passed the test, I still struggled to manoeuvre the vehicle which nearly cost my life once when it rolled dangerously backward on a strip of narrow and curvy road by the edge of a steep cliff. Once I mastered it, a normal six-hour drive became five and my best record was four and a half as soon as I learned to identify unique landmarks which helped me to navigate my way easily through 215km of barren landscapes.
Of course, these were minor challenges compared to the many new and exciting experiences I had in my first mission. I would subsequently find myself losing my “virginities” over and over again.
I had my first experience of staying in a floating hotel in Dili. Amos was a massive boat which offered camp-style accommodation before any other hotels were built on lands. Lodgers had to share tiny compartments cramped with bunk beds, small suspended televisions offering HBO and BBC channels and a flooded shower room every time one took a shower. But it was also on the Amos that I had witnessed the most glorious sunset in my life.
It was in Timor Leste that I first flew on a four-seater helicopter, small enough to have intimate access to breathtaking views from all angles through the transparent windows on all side.
Hopping on one of these was as easy as riding on chartered buses, scheduled to transport us to villages on isolated mountains deep in the jungle, twice a week.
It was one of the few things I lived for in Timor Leste and the novelty never really wore off.
Ultimately, it was having my own private beach in “The Blue Lagoon” fashion that made my experience in Timor Leste truly memorable. Eight years ago, nobody would have heard of Los Palos, Tetuala and Jaco Island, what I considered as the “holy trinity” of Lautem district.
I spent hours basking in the sun on white sand as soft as talcum powder and snorkel alongside fishes, sea turtles and coral reef that would make any certified divers and crystal glass turn green with envy. It was also the first time I slept on the beach and woke up with the sight of a whale at a distant horizon. I was instantly humbled by its grace and enormity.
All these happened eight years ago and sometimes I wonder whether it’s still as virginal as I first saw it.
This was previously posted at The Malaysian Insider on 6 October 2009 under the title Paradise found…and lost?