The inaugural Tour de Timor was conceived, planned and finalised in the three months leading into the beginning of the race. It coincided with the opening of the Chinese-donated Presidential Palace in Dili, the 10th anniversary of the East Timorese referendum for independence and was itself cause for celebration in each and every town it visited. Timor’s 10th birthday has certainly been an eventful one.
The underlying themes of all three events were peace, unity/inclusion and global attention. I rode in the tour and was struck by how this was a common goal not only in Dili but across the nine provinces we rode through. The streets were lined in every village with children yelling “viva Timor L’Este”. The adults waved us on and offered some of the social riders (my team) drinks and food from their stalls. The Timorese residents were all handed out flags from several of the participating nations, the villages in which we spent our nights on the five-day tour were mobilised to feed and accommodate us.
Such was the nature of this hurriedly organised race that we were all fairly well welcomed into a celebration at each village. Indeed, from the first night outside of the capital Dili, in the second city of Timor, Baucau, we were treated to a festival in each of the overnight stays. The film Balibo was shown in Tetum in each of the villages. Certainly there was a sense all across the country of a real excitement.
Dr Jose Ramos Horta suggested in his speeches before and after the race that East Timor was a country that will develop peacefully. He spoke of his ideal of Dili as the “city of peace”. And indeed it was an amazingly peaceful experience. Riding throughout Timor gave us an opportunity to meet with the riders, the young Rotarians who assisted throughout the race and villagers in each of our stays.
In the rainforest of Loihuno at the end of the second day we found ourselves staying in a place only a decade ago a refuge for guerrilla resistance. It was for us a scene of festivities and feasting. We were guests to some of the most amazing hospitality, we were offered a breathtaking place to stay and were sent on our way the next morning by cheering locals.
Our third day took us to Betano, on the south coast of East Timor and on the fourth day we wound up high in the Mountains of East Timor, staying at the Portuguese-era Pousada da Maubisse. Finally our descent into Dili rounded out the Tour de Timor and led into the celebrations for the Timorese independence.
What I found amazing was the way the locals were so willing to share their celebrations with foreigners. Everywhere people went out of their way to accommodate us. This willingness to have foreign people in Timor was reflected in the ideal of global attention to Timor. The value of tourist money has been well experienced in Dili through the presence of international (and especially Australian) soldiers and development teams. The use of a sporting event to promote the country was then an extremely apt decision.
Dili has a long way to develop before it attains tourist status anywhere near like that of Bali or Thailand. Indeed, of the other travellers we met in Dili hostels and backpackers, the majority reported being in East Timor for the convenience of being out of Indonesia long enough to renew their Indonesian visa. Among the locals in Dili many have lamented the use of the US dollar and it’s propensity to hold back some of the tourists aiming at a cheap holiday. The Asian backpacking flavour of East Timor shines through strongly with the ubiquitous Tiger beer. The scuba diving, hiking and heat make it seem a familiar and likeable destination. What then about perception, development and a foundation of peace?
The fact that we witnessed country-wide unity, patriotism, and what one would describe as Timor’s best behaviour - akin perhaps to the behaviour of Sydney-siders during the 2000 Olympics - suggests to me that perception is recognised as a major issue in East Timor. There is a real effort to showcase the country for foreigners.
Among the locals there is further a perception of a strong drive for development. In asking general questions about education, about the direction mid-20s Timorese might head and about what expectations there are, there was a general feeling of hope. The current government is now ushering in a new school system based on the Portuguese model and taught in Portuguese. This will replace the previous generations’ system that was taught based on the Indonesian model and in Bahasa. However Indonesia maintains a strong cultural influence.
The ideal of peace was for me no better demonstrated than through the celebrations at the Palace da Governo. There Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao shared the stage with the famous Indonesian singer Krisdayanti. Krisdayanti was greeted with excitement and appreciation from the Timorese. I was continually amazed by the level of goodwill displayed by the East Timorese towards the Indonesians. They told me about the Comisao Verdade e Amizade (the Commission on Truth and Friendship) which was held in Bali in 2005. This was an opportunity to address issues from the Indonesian occupation and withdrawal. Throughout my conversations with Timorese in Dili there was a level of goodwill towards Indonesians and Indonesia. There were no feelings of bad blood or chest-beating parochialism. Although I am sure the Indonesian era has not been forgotten, nor perhaps entirely forgiven, there seemed to be an aura of moving on. Likewise with the civil unrest of 2006.
The civil unrest of 2006 is, like the withdrawal of Indonesia, not something that is broadly spoken about. Yet when questioned, many of the Timorese will maintain that Alfredo Reinardo, leader of a rebel faction and the man who shot President Ramos Horta, was a hero. As for that fatal day where he attempted to take the life of his president and was himself killed? A misunderstanding.
My East Timorese experience was an amazing sporting event that coincided with the opening of the Presidential Palace - a venue replete with a children’s play ground and free Wi-Fi - the conclusion of an international trade fair and the 10th anniversary celebrations. I saw a country that was forward looking and willing to put on a display for all who were present. I saw a sporting event with real ongoing potential (I’m not alone in this either: see Kofi Anan and Prince Albert of Monaco’s thoughts).
The Timorese efforts represented to me a real effort to involve Timor in the world and to attain the goals of peace and unity. As a tourist, I was well and truly catered for. As an interested onlooker, I will be sure to continue to keep in touch with our newest neighbour.