Getting into Dili (Lavender's Blue)
I've flown into Dili from Darwin after travelling on the Ghan. I keep wanting to sing ‘Lavender’s blue Dilly Dilly,’ but I’m not sure how well it would go down.
My guide, Luis, is a very serious and earnest man. He’s already told me that he was orphaned by the age of seven (as a result of the war with Indonesia - (see Timor- Leste in a Nutshell) and fended for himself, from then on, as did his siblings. He has a lot to say about the Indonesian occupation. It was a tough life. The morning follows that theme as we tour the tiny capital.
Like most capital cities Dili is a magnet for those seeking work. Dili is a melting pot of the different ethnic groups of East Timor. There also far more men than women living here. The use of Portuguese was banned under Indonesian rule, The Roman Catholic Church l became a focus for resistance to Indonesian occupation.
We drive round all the new civic and national buildings. These are mostly constructed by the Chinese to replace those razed in pique, by the Indonesians, when they left the country ). If you look hard you can still find some Portuguese colonial buildings, such as. the former Market Hall, which is used as a Congress Centre nowadays. The former Portuguese Governor's office is now the office of the Prime Minister. Even under Indonesian rule, during which the use of Portuguese was banned, Portuguese street names like Avenida Marechal Carmona remained unchanged, although they were prefixed with the Indonesian word Jalan or 'road. Most of the supermarkets and hardware shops are Chinese and Chinatown in Dili is a modern, industrial swathe.
The Main Sights of Dili
The main sights of Dili are mainly independence struggle related. There's the statue of the first president and independence leader, Nicolau Lobato and others commemorating the martyrs in the two most recent conflicts. Then, the cemetery, where the Indonesian army massacred protestors and the Resistance Museum, which tells the story of the country's struggles for independence from Portugal in 1975 and then Indonesia in 2002. It’s a sobering experience, especially the videos shot by journalists one or two days before they died, trying to bring the plight of the people to the world’s attention. It brings to mind the photographic exhibitions in Vietnam. There are cases displaying their clothes and cameras.
There are legacies of Jakarta's occupation too, the Church of the Immaculate Conception, seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Díli, purportedly the largest cathedral in Southeast Asia, and the 'Integration Monument', commemorating the Indonesian annexation of the territory in 1976. Not to mention a Hindu Temple. Luis hasn't taken me to see these.
At the end of the bay sitting on a hilltop high over the city, is the 27 metre tall Cristo Rei statue. It's a vague mimic of Rio's Christ the Redeemer - this one has Jesus atop a globe. It was built by the Indonesians, in an attempt to ingratiate themselves with the catholic population. It also marked the 20th anniversary of East Timor's 'integration' into Indonesia. Beneath are a couple of beautiful white sand beaches lapped by clear turquoise water. One of them is referred to as 'Jesus' Backside Beach'. There’s also a row of embassies, all on premium sites with views over the water, just like in Libreville.
A clockwise tour of the island and back to Dili.
I’m supposed to be sailing to Artauro Island at the end of my visit and staying overnight for snorkelling. The itinerary says the water is sublime there. Except that the company booked to take me have cancelled. They say the weather will be bad for a week and I won’t be able to get back. To say I’m disappointed is an understatement. It’s a notoriously rough stretch of water and the boats aren’t huge, but the BBC forecast isn’t flagging up any storms.
Luis turns up with his head shaven today. He says that he thinks his ‘long hair’ was the cause of his bad headache when we were travelling. He offers to take me west to see some resistance sites. But I’m determined to stay in comfortable accommodation at least and I’ve had enough of the bad roads round the island. I can stay in Dili and read about history. So, we compromise on the beach at Liquica, where he says there is snorkelling available.
There’s an upmarket little beach restaurant where we can loll on settees, but the tide is very high on the black volcanic beach. There's a strong current running and no-one is in the water. Snorkelling is off.
Time by the pool at this, the top hotel in Dili. I’m alone, except for several staff who spend hours weaving a pastel pink and purple balloon arch and pleating a cloth to cover a table alongside the water. I’m fascinated. I’ve always been intrigued as to how they make those. I wonder what important event is to be held here. Then they fetch some stands and display some child’s plastic toys. It’s a Dr Samara kit, complete with stethoscope, hypodermic and sundry other accompaniments. This is a strange world, Horatio. Back to Darwin on my way to Christmas Island.