The island of Timor has long been divided.
The rugged landscape is no stranger to conflict, and in recent years both the east and the west have seen turbulent times. In the city of Kupang, on the Indonesian side of the island, I tried to persuade the ambassador of East Timor to grant me permission to cross the border.
William Bligh made land in Kupang after being set adrift by the mutineers of the ship The Bounty in 1789. His had been a journey of over 3000 miles from the Pacific, in a precariously overcrowded launch, through rough seas and hostile islands, with only a compass to guide him.
My own journey wasn’t quite so grueling- I still covered a vast distance of over a thousand miles and on what some would consider to be the equal danger of a local airline, but it was hardly comparable to the voyage of Mr Bligh. I traveled from Bali, to the eastern reaches of the Indonesian archipelago, and to Timor.
The island of Timor is politically split into the independent nation of East Timor, or Timor-Leste, and Timor Barat, West Timor, a part of the nation of Indonesia. The small port of Kupang is one of Indonesia’s provincial capitals and it would hopefully prove to be my stepping stone to the east of the island.
I landed at the dusty, barren airfield outside of the city. Aside from a few Australian surfers heading north to find their swells, the rest of the passengers were heading home to find their families. The whole island, and East Timor especially, is relatively poor, and many choose to leave this subsistence existence and head to other islands in the archipelago for work.
Timor’s history is distinct from the neighboring islands. The main religion is Christianity, in contrast to the predominance of Islam across much of Indonesia. The supremacy of Christianity, and Catholicism especially, is down to the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th Century, who set up trading posts and began over 400 year’s of colonisation.
The Dutch arrived later, and the two nations began their struggle for dominance over Timor, with the Portuguese eventually being forced east, as the west side of the island became part of the Dutch East Indies. And the divide has continued ever since.
Walking along the coastal road of Kupang I stopped for a Bintang Beer and directions at a bar overlooking the port. Along the beach families were running around and children were playing in the sand; an idyllic setting, yet somehow the colonial ghosts were still stalking the shores.
The bar owner turned out to be a part time guide as well. He didn’t have good news for me though. My plan had been to catch a bus to the border, but with only out dated blog posts from old internet forums to go by I wasn’t sure if I could get a visa there, but I hoped I could get through and make the journey to Dilli, the capital of East Timor. Unfortunately, I was told that the whole border between the two countries was in lock down, and there was no way I could get across.
I ordered another beer and contemplated whether to give up and just go for a swim, but was decidedly off put by the bar owner’s assertions that he’d occasionally seen salt water crocodiles in the bay. He suggested that instead of swimming with crocodiles it might be worth a try going to the East Timorese Embassy. It was fairly standard for the border to be closed and perhaps I could still find a way through.
West Timor was incorporated into Indonesia when the Dutch left their colonies soon after World War II ended. The Japanese occupation during the war had proved brutal and yet East Timor was to remain neglected, and almost forgotten by the Portuguese for another thirty years.
In 1975 East Timor declared its independence from Portugal, as revolution rocked the far away European nation. But independence wasn’t easy and the new country found stability hard to secure as warring factions fought for their own agendas.
Independence proved short lived, as the Indonesians used this instability as a pretext for invasion. All manner of rhetoric was flung around to justify what became a brutal occupation. The Indonesians cited communist fears, and then claimed that it was matter of anti colonial unity- that the island should never have been divided by Europeans.
As a guerrilla war began, it was clear that the once colonised nation of Indonesia had now itself become the coloniser. East Timor was once again subject to foreign rule.
Finishing my beer I jumped into a rickety Bemo truck and I was taken by the cheerful driver, singing along to Indonesian pop songs, through the streets of Kupang. He parked the Bemo outside a whitewashed building, with a grand fence, proudly flying the flag of East Timor.
The guard swung the gate open. There was a dry, overgrown garden leading to the entrance and I was led inside and told to wait.
In the hallway there were a few battered pictures of beaches and coral reefs pinned to the walls. I hadn’t been waiting long before a suited, beaming man came through the doorway, his hand held out toward me.
‘Welcome, welcome!’ He introduced himself loudly as the East Timorese Ambassador to Indonesia in Kupang. His name was Caetano de Sousa Guterres. A resoundingly long name for a man who would prove to have led an astonishing life.
He motioned to the pictures I’d been squinting at, and informed me that they had been sent from the government in Dili to try and help him encourage tourism. The pictures could have been better, but they still showed the extreme natural beauty of East Timor. That much was hard to hide.
We sat down in the next room, and the ambassador told me that his latest directive from East Timor was to boost tourist numbers. He pointed to some better quality posters of pristine beaches and panoramics of the mountains around the capital, Dili, and said that tourism could help his country out of poverty.
I said that was exactly why I was here. I wanted to see East Timor. He seemed pleased, and then offered me a cigar and ordered tea for us. Then he looked at me, sighed, and said but of course this would be impossible. His government wanted him to help send the tourists but then they closed the border to everyone at the slightest provocation from Indonesia, or simply on a political whim. He said it was time everyone moved on, but this was proving difficult.
East Timor claimed independence again as recently as 2002. After years of occupation and violence the Indonesians bowed to international pressure and let elections be held. The East Timorese voted for independence. But violence would again sweep the new nation and tension along the border still causes intermittent panic and closure to this day.
The tea arrived, and the ambassador began telling me his story. Mr Guterres began by slinging profanities at the government in Dili, who wanted everything from him and yet could only give him meager resources for their grand plans. But life was much better now, especially for himself. He gestured around, and took a puff from the cigar.
The ambassador had been a member of the guerrilla fighters in East Timor during the occupation. He had fought in the hills, in the interior of the country, avoiding the Indonesian army who led crack downs and tried to suppress any revolt. The FALINTIL, the armed forced forces of East Timor, led this long struggle and the ambassador was a part of the fight until his capture.
Treated like a common criminal, he was thrown into jail, and tried for crimes by the Indonesian government. He said he was lucky to be alive. Many of his comrades had perished. He didn’t tell me much of his jail time, which he said was spent mostly in Jakarta, and I didn’t pressure him for details.
The ambassador survived, where thousands on either side didn’t. In 1999 the East Timorese voted for independence as their plight became too much for the world too ignore. The Indonesians began to leave, but not before initiating punitive campaigns, destroying infrastructure and causing chaos for the new nation.
The ambassador was released as part of the amnesty, the guerrilla war ended, but as he acknowledged there was still a long way to go. He said it wasn’t easy sitting in Kupang, but he felt it was his duty to the country he had fought for. It was his job to help and that was why he wanted to help me across the border, to see his country first hand.
But at this moment there was no way he could get me across. The border had been closed and he couldn’t send me that way for fear of what could potentially happen along the turbulent line that had divided the island for centuries. He said that his was a beautiful, yet tormented country. It was a place I would not be able to venture to at that time. Events had conspired against it, just as history seemed to have conspired against this island- this island in the far flung reaches of the world. It is a place that I will one day make it to, to see what the ambassador was fighting for, and for what he gave his freedom for.
East Timor has been much calmer in recent times and the country is more accessible than when I tried to visit a few years back. The consulate in Kupang will be able to give you advice, or at the very least you can have tea with the Consulate General. There is vague travel advice here. The best advice is just to just get on with it.
For more adventures from the ends of the earth why not read about the whale hunters of Lamalera?