Tales from East Timor

Updated: Apr 17, 2018


“Hi. Is that Mr. David Lucas” “Yes” “I am Solanje, the Major General of East Timor Defense Force’s secretary. The Major General asked me to call and give you his personal email and my number, so that you can contact him if there is anything at all that you need help with.” “That is very kind, please can you thank him for me. Also can you let him know that we are leaving for Indonesia on Saturday and will be free on Friday evening if he would like to join us for dinner” “I will pass the message on to him, have a safe onward journey” “Thank you, we will try. Goodbye.” “Goodbye”






Few days earlier:

We dropped our bags down in the room of the backpacker hostel we were going to be staying in whilst back in Dili, the capital of East Timor. My phone started to ring and the name General was flashing on the screen. “Good afternoon, Sir”. I had no idea how to address a Major General, especially one so relaxed and laid back. “OK, that’s sounds great… Yes I know where it is… We will be there in a little over an hour.” I put the phone down and turned around to Maiju and said told her that was the General and he expected us for afternoon tea in about an hour.

We had showers and tipped the contents of our bags out onto the floor searching for the cleanest, smartest and least wrinkled clothing we could find that would befit a reception with a war hero. With scarves trailing and shirts being tucked in we hurriedly walked through the leafy neighborhood which housed the diplomats and embassies of all the different nations that have representation in East Timor. Soon we arrived at a large house surrounded by high fences and walls guarded by armed guards. We strolled in and were greeted with smiles and were then ushered through the garden to the office.

The door opened and Taur Matan Ruak came forward arms outstretched to great us. “Good to see you again David. How was your journey back down from the mountains?” “Good, thanks”. We were sat and chilled sliced apple and pineapple was brought in with an icy cold bottle of water. We exchanged pleasantries and then began to talk about our time up at the mountains. We exchanged photos and soon he was recounting stories of his 20 years of hiding and fighting in the jungle and on the mountains of East Timor. In 1975 the Indonesians invaded and slowly and steadily citizens fled to Mt Matabien to seek refuge. At one point there were over 140,000 people entrapped and starving on the mountain sides. The General was given the rank of a commander and the task of defending the citizens. He said how they only had 527 guns against up to 45,000 Indonesians who had air support and shell attacks from the Navy. They stood their ground for 3 months before they had to surrender their position. The General continued to tell us tales of guerrilla warfare and epic bravery.

Coffee arrived and he took that as a good chance to suggest that once we had finished we should go for a drive and then perhaps for dinner.

Our car, complete with bodyguards, swept out of the driveway and out into the city. People stood to attention as we drove past. Over dinner he suggested that I should walk an imaginary line from west to east across East Timor, through jungle and over mountains. He said how he would be willing to provide guerrilla fighters to be our guides. He must have noticed my excitement at the idea. He continued by saying that he will ask his secretary to call to provide email addresses and even contacts for the president’s advisors, in case I would like to pursue this idea further.

After we finished off the last bit of fish and drank down the last of the Bintang we drove to his house for more tea and coffee and to be introduced to the rest of his family. Seeing that his role as Dad was in demand to see his kids off to bed we decided to leave. After again more promises of his assistance he summoned his driver and we were driven back to the hostel in a Land Rover with blacked out windows.



2 and a half days earlier:

The alarm went and Maiju kicked me out of the bed. It was 03:45 and apart from the crow from an early cockerel the village of Baguia was still very much asleep. I ate three bananas, kissed Maiju goodbye and then climbed out the window, as I knew the front door would still be locked. I sat on a small wall and waited for my guides. At exactly 04:00 the two boys turned up and we left walking uphill along the track that would lead us out of the village. Omaro was 16 and was the leader of the two boys.

At first Omaro had said we should be on the summit in 8 hours, after half an hour of walking at a good pace in the moonlight he decided that we might even make it in 5 hours. We were walking fast and strong and by the time the sun had risen we were high up on the sides of Mt Matabien, the second highest peak in the country. As we walked Omaro pointed out blocked cave entrances that had collapsed due to shellfire and had buried alive sometimes up to 40 people at a time. The top section of the peak was comprised of jagged fluted limestone piercing through the otherwise soft lush beds of grass and mint. To the joy of the boys we reached the top at 08:00, which they said was their fastest time yet. After I had enjoyed the feeling of being cooled down by the wind we began our descent. This started off slow and steady then the two “guides” started to make sounds as if they were revving up their motorbikes. Then all of a sudden they let them go and they were off running at full pelt down the way we had come. Their motorbike sounds began to become more distant and soon I was left alone. I had no choice but to run after them.


We arrived back at the village at 11:30. Maiju was at a local feast in celebration of a life of a woman who had sadly died the day before during childbirth. Maiju had taken the room key, as she was not expecting me back till late afternoon. I sat in the shade trying to find a breeze to cool my sun-baked body down. Sweat dripped down onto my already soaked t-shirt mixing the dirt into a fine mud, I was stinking and there were no showers. At that point a series of jeeps and police cars pulled into the car park and about 15 men comprised mainly of soldiers stepped out and walked towards a large room that was set for lunch. They eyed me suspiciously as they stepped round my sodden stinking slumped body. Five minutes later a small man in dark glasses came out and in great English asked if I would like to join them for lunch. I said thanks but I am in no way presentable enough to sit around a table for a formal lunch. He told me not to worry, after all, look at me. I did and he was dressed in a clean black shirt, ironed trousers and polished leather shoes. I entered the room and he seated me at the head opposite himself. Everyone else kept quiet and waited for the man to start eating.

“So what is it that you do?” I asked him wanting to break the awkward silence. “I am the Major General of the Timorese Defense Force.” “Oh” I replied.


6 days earlier:

Our heads were underwater and we were slowly swimming out over an incredible reef. The visibility was around 40m and fish of all shapes and sizes were busy about the day-to-day lives. This was without a doubt the best snorkeling that either Maiju or I had ever experienced. Maiju was ahead of me.

“Blark” I heard Maiju say, our heads were still under water. “Blhat” “BLARK” “Bloh Blark” I saw where she was looking and there was a small white tipped reef shark. We came to the surface and I told her how these sharks are nothing to worry about. She said she knew, but there was a bigger one as well that I did not see. We carried on swimming. “Blaiju, BLAIJU! BLERE’S BLA BLUCKING BLIG BLARK.” I had now seen the bigger shark Maiju had seen before me. It was about 10m away and had the full shape and size of a classic “Jaws” shark. All of a sudden we decided that we had had enough of snorkeling and we made our way back to the beach. Our idea of retreat was that Maiju went first and I swimming backwards keeping a look out for the shark. No, hang on, I think that was Maiju’s idea.

We had been encamped on Tutuala beach at the far eastern end of the country for four days. We were alone apart from couple of fisherman that walked by us twice a day and a few members of a community project further inland. We had set up two blue tarpaulins one above us to protect us against the sun and the other under us to keep away hermit crabs. Our mosquito net hangs in between, fixed from the mangrove tree above us. We were lucky to get water from the fishermen, but all we had to eat was rice and whatever fish we could buy from the fisherman. Day one’s fish had a deep red colour with yellow trimmed fins. Day two’s was a 3kg parrot fish. Day three’s was a massive Barracuda that was so big it served all three meals for that day. We cooked them on a makeshift wooden grill above a fire. Life on this beach was truly paradise. What we didn’t know at the time however was that saltwater crocodiles are a big problem in the country and attacks are commonplace. We were lucky that there were no rivers coming down on to the beach as it is these estuaries that they like to hang around in. After several days on the beach we were starting to long for the cooler wetter air of the mountains.

10 days earlier earlier:

The normal wave of heat and humidity hit us hard as we stepped down off the plane onto the runway, as was exactly what you would expect from arriving in any South East Asian country. Helicopters buzzed around the sky and we joined the other passengers off the flight to queue for our visas. We looked along the queue and realised we were the only people who were not NGO or UN workers. The statistics show that only between 1,000 and 1,200 tourists visit this country in a year, and most of those are there to renew their Indonesian visas or to visit family members working for the NGos. We were among a handful of people that had gone to East Timor this year in search of beaches and mountains. We felt excited to what we might find.




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