Tag Archives: travel

Timor-Leste Diaries #1 – First Impressions

It seemed we had only just left Darwin before our little jet commenced its descent into Dili. Barely 600km from Australian soil, it was immediately clear that Timor-Leste was, in fact, a whole world away. Steep and striking mountains towered above us as we taxied along the Dili runway past multiple UN and ADF helicopters.

We lined up for immigration on a covered path surrounded by gardens (unlike any immigration I’ve encountered before!). And bam, there was my first collision with the language barrier.
“How long are you here for?” he asked from his little booth.
“16 days.”
“OK, 7 days,” he said, scribbling 7 days on the stamped visa in my passport.
“No, no, sorry, I need a 30 day visa.”
“One week? Yes? 2 week?”
This confusing but friendly conversation last for quite some time involving a comprehensive discussion about weeks and days and a bit of counting on fingers until I got my passport back with some scribble that I hoped spelled out thirty days. I get so frustrated and feel so rude when I am unable to speak the language of a nation.

We then threw our luggage into the back of a small truck and clambered in on top of it, much to the horror and embarrassment of the driver who couldn’t believe we’d prefer to sit in the dirty back rather than in the dual cab with him (oops. we didn’t know this offended him until later!).

As we weaved and honked our way through the heavy traffic past banana trees and cinder block houses, I was acutely aware of the smells…a pungent aroma of sea air, fruit, petrol fumes, rubbish, the tropics and animals all combined. Strangely, it invoked strong memories of my time in Guatemala…similar climate perhaps.

It was good to be here. Awake since 3am, exhausted, sick with a bad cold and sinusitis, mentally tired from a very busy semester, I was feeling a little apprehensive about surviving the next couple of intense weeks learning about peace building, state building, security sector reform and development. But in the back of that truck in the glow of the morning sun with the tropical breeze on our faces and countless children waving from the side of the road, the fears began to melt away and yes, it was good to be in Timor-Leste.

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The East Timor Diaries – Pre Departure

Soon, I will be heading into the Pacific to East Timor with a small bunch of students to spend a couple of weeks examining the “Development-Peace-Security Nexus” in post-conflict societies. I am expecting my ideals to be challenged, my worldview to expand and my brain to possibly explode from the truckload of readings and new theoretical concepts I am being introduced to.

I am excited. I am also freaking out a little, as continuing in my habit of getting sick at very inconvenient times I am currently melting from a slight fever and an incessant cough that is beginning to sound quite nasty. And so every time I get up to pack or study a little more I find the world spinning and shortly end up back in bed. Am frustrated and feeling a little overwhelmed about all I need to get done, but hopefully this cold/flu/bronchitis/whatever will run its course quickly and I’ll be up and at em in no time.

But I certainly can’t wait to get there. East Timor has captured my heart.

Quick History
East Timor. A land of breathtaking scenery, a wonderfully pleasant climate, and possibly the most resilient people of the world. Also a land of great suffering and hardship, East Timor sat under Portuguese rule for over 400 years, were briefly occupied by the Japanese during WWII, and after finally declaring independence in 1975, were invaded by Indonesia a mere 9 days later.

The world turned a blind eye as the occupying forces of Indonesia reeked havoc across the nation; pillaging, burning, raping, killing; it was a campaign of terror designed to subdue the East Timorese until they willingly submitted to Indonesian ‘integration’. Horrifically, approximately one third of the East Timorese population died from conflict related causes during the Indonesian occupation. Amazingly, the strength of the East Timorese did not wane and they continued to fight against Indonesian invasion both within the country and outside the country.

Their indomitable spirit paid off when following the fall of the Suharto regime, President Habibe called for a referendum in East Timor; this would decide whether East Timor would become an autonomous state within Indonesia or not (consequently regaining their independence). In spite of the intimidation and violence by Indonesian military and Indonesian sponsored militia groups, an overwhelming 78.5% of the vote was against autonomy (that is, for independence) and East Timor was free once more. Sadly, the violence was far from over, as the angry militia and military went on a rampage – burning everything in their path as they retreated to West Timor.

Since then the nation has struggled to rebuild itself, and unfortunately East Timor now gets to carry the label of the poorest country in Asia (according to the HDI). The rapid UN led transition to democracy left many gaps in institutions and relationships of this nation and 2006 saw further violence erupt in Dili.

And so it is to this troubled but beautiful nation that I am flying off too…with a suitcase full DEET spray and spare shoes and little koalas to give away, but most importantly, with an open mind……I have so much to learn, about peace building, about nation building, about state building, about interventions, about ideas of development, about cultures and traditions, about…everything. I have a feeling I will come back with more questions than answers…

When solitude is too much.

The view from outside my room.

It had been another full, busy, new, exciting week early into my stay at the girls home in Guatemala. 5am starts, herding the 12 little girls off to the school bus, cooking (and burning) meals for 18 people each day, staff meetings that went for a million hours, herding the girls back from the school bus to the house, showers and homework and washing clothes and washing dishes and moderating turns on the one working bike and then crashing into bed at 10:30pm each night.

And it was on one of these evenings, when I had cooked and prepared supper, uniforms were laid out ready for the next day, when suddenly the house parents disappeared upstairs with their kids to their own private room for awhile and the girls ran off to their bedrooms to plan acts for the evening’s talent show.

Suddenly, I found myself standing alone in a pitch dark dining room.

I made my way outside and settled down on the top step outside my bedroom door. The metal door was cool upon my back, the breeze fresh on my face. Concrete wall to my left, barbed wire to my right; stars above, palm trees standing dark upon the horizon.

The universe spread out before me, tiny me, fenced in with barbed wire.

While embracing the chance to stop and catch a breath and ponder, as my hectic world suddenly ground to a halt I found myself alone.

So alone.

Solitude, and, isolation. Intense isolation. There were no tears. Just an intense realisation of the sensation of feeling entirely isolated. A sense of almost being trapped in a world completely by myself, disconnected from everyone.

I was alone. I needed to talk to someone. Laugh with them. Tell them what I feeling. Hug someone. Connect. It was so deep; the intensity shocked me.

Blame the long working hours, the fact that I was living at work, the weariness, the newness of my friendships, my poor spanish, the cultural differences and my lack of internet access or any sort of connection with the world outside of Chimaltenango; it certainly wasn’t that I didn’t like the work I was doing or that those I worked with weren’t amazingly welcoming and accepting.

It was just that circumstances had conspired against me to place me temporarily in a place of solitude.

In that moment, I realised…relationships – all types – really are the most important thing in life.

And yet also in that moment, I realised that on another level, each of us, to a certain degree, has to walk our paths through life alone.

And I also found that in the pain and intensity and emptiness of that moment, I was still so aware of the presence of something so much bigger than myself.

So I got up, tucked my iPod away, told myself it wouldn’t be like this forever, and went down to watch the talent show.

Semuc Champey

Isn’t it wonderful when you stumble across something that triggers a sweet memory…(especially wonderful when it enables you to procrastinate from writing that assignment for just a few more minutes!)…well this morning, Semuc Champey found it’s way through a newsletter into my inbox. Care to wander down memory lane with me for a minute?

Semuc Champey. 14 beautiful natural pools where somehow the wild rushing river has decided to take a break and run underground, leaving above these natural limestone pieces of heaven providing a true gem hidden in the tropical mountains of Guatemala.

Semuc Champey. August 2009. The day beforehand was a crazy day where tour buses hadn’t arrived where and when they were supposed to, and then broke down several times along the journey, oh and also left me stranded in a town in a middle of a protest…so I took my life into my hands and hitchhiked. (yes. I know. never again. it was exceptional circumstances.)

But on this day…things ran smoothly. Rudy, our guide, was absolutely beautiful….just one of those people who radiates happiness and kindness, I’ve never forgotten him. Maybe that’s cos he was constantly complimenting my shocking spanish. Hm. Anyway.

The bus rocked up on time. We piled in. We drove and drove and drove but at last after several hours we arrived.

Arrived at this beautiful little hut secluded in the jungle, where we made ourselves comfortable while our guides prepared our vehicle for the next part of the journey….we would need to 4WD this part!

Aah…but how will 12 people fit in a 5 seater 4WD? That’s ok…stick the Brits and the Aussie in the boot…and the guide on spare tyre out the back! Yes, there was much laughter.

But our cramped journey didn’t last long. The 4WD decided it didn’t like carrying 11 people and died about 500m up the road. Rather than stand around and wait while they tinkered and toyed with it, we decided to get a head start on foot. And wow…totally worth it. Fields of maize blended in with the jungle as we hiked up and down these beautiful hills; for some reason, we decided that the Sound of Music would provide a perfect soundtrack for our journey so…sing it we did (not sure the spaniards with us appreciated this as much!).

We came around another bend and down a steep hill and there was the beautiful, spectacular river. We’d finally arrived at the entrance of the park. We took a break at another hut, snacking on those bags of rich fresh fruit that Guatemalan vendors make so wonderfully (yes I know, massive parasite risk! but they are so good..), being stared at by a creepy one eyed dog.

Time to hike some more! Rudy complimented me on my spanish again. Yay. We swapped words…”how do you say celoso in English?” and “Como se dice steep en espaƱol?” as we made our way into the jungle.

Semuc Champey. There it was. Beautiful, bright turquoise, deep in the forest; aside from the path and one change room, relatively unmarked by humankind. We took our turns getting changed in the pitch black change room (drop toilet anyone? never mind we’ll just hold it.) and then marched out onto the limestone ledges, ready to plunge into the pools below. Rudy made me jump first. Must be because my spanish was so good. Ha.

So we jumped. And we swam to the edge, then jumped down to the next one. And swam again. And I remember floating there, looking up at the forest canopy above and around at the turquoise water around me and just feeling overwhelmed with the serenity and immense beauty of this place. It felt so safe.

Safe, that is, until Rudy told us it was time to climb down a waterfall. He took a room and looped it around a rock, then threw it over the fall. You just climb down, then back up, he said. I had a good look, for about a second, before politely declining. I didn’t feel like dying that day (maybe when I actually have upper body strength I will go back and climb the water fall).

And that was Semuc Champey. More hiking (Rudy offered to carry me when I got tired. But pretty sure I was taller than him so kept at it), a tropical downfall that left us drenched (just after we dried off from the swimming), some mystical caves (thousands of bats. no kidding. pretty amazing), and a long drive later, we were safely and exhaustedly settled back into our hammocks in Coban.

If you’re in Guatemala, definitely worth the trip to Semuc Champey. And be sure to ask for Rudy and compliment his english.