Back to Dili, 2014

Last time I was in Timor-Leste (also known as East Timor) I spent most of my four months outside of the capital city Dili. That was in 2010. I had a total of three weeks in Dili at the beginning of my trip, during which time I attended Tetun language classes and jumped through the bureaucratic hoops associated with obtaining a visa extension (most of which involved finding the correct office, building, person, or form, and standing in queues), but otherwise I lived in rural towns.

I enjoyed the buzz of Dili for those first three weeks. There was always something going on. I stayed with friends and completed my Tetun language homework every afternoon with the help of local children. We would chat, and sing, and just hang out together on the veranda of my friends’ Dili house. However, I was only there for a short time, and I never felt like I got to know Dili all that well.

I feel like I have made up for this now, having just spent a month in Dili doing fieldwork for my PhD. I spent each day visiting music programs and interviewing individuals with interesting experiences to share with me. I caught lots of taxis, and grabbed meals wherever I was at the time I was hungry. I stayed with friends again, who drew me into their social circles, so I met lots of welcoming people, each engaged in interesting work, good for a story, and happy to offer suggestions for further contacts for my research.

At the moment in Dili there is a huge amount of building and construction work going on. Much of this must be completed within a tight timeframe, as it is part of an effort to smarten up the city in readiness for the forthcoming Community of Portuguese-speaking Countries [CPLP] Summit. Timor-Leste currently holds the rotating Presidency for the CPLP, and thus will play host to the Summit, which brings the Presidents and high-ranking officials from all the countries in the CPLP together. The Summit is scheduled for mid-July, and Dili is in the throes of major upgrades, renovations and improvements. Everywhere you go, roads are being dug up, at least along the routes that the Presidential vehicles will drive. Piles of rocks, stone and rubble are commonplace. There is huge amount of dust in the air, and many people walk the streets or ride their motorbikes wearing surgical masks.

Most striking is the shiny silver corrugated iron that has been wrapped around many sites, shielding them from view. Some say that these barriers are to give the turf that is being laid time to grow, and to “protect it from Timorese children!” (Poor little Timorese children, being scapegoated like this!). It may also be designed to hide unsightly construction sites from view.

Lighthouse wrapped in silver, Dili, June 2014

The corrugated iron is so shiny, and so silvery! It gives the city a slightly surreal, space-age look. It reminds me of the cake decorating accoutrements we had in my family in the seventies, in particular the frilly, silvery wrap-around-the-cake thing that we used to decorate family birthday cakes. It looks like Dili is being populated by multiple oversize 1970s birthday cakes.

A more disappointing outcome of the city’s current facelift and spruce-up is that the food sellers that used to congregate on the beach every evening, selling barbecued chicken and ‘fish-on-a-stick’, have been moved on. In fact, people have been warned that, by the time of the CPLP meeting, any non-permanent structure on the Beach Road will be dismantled. It seems such a shame to lose these street stalls. The food they sold was tasty and inexpensive, the stalls were popular with Timorese families and visitors alike, and they gave this stretch of the city a lot of personality and character. It is sad that these hardworking people would be seen as eyesores, or as creating an unsanitary environment, rather than as contributing to the unique and attractive qualities of the city.

I stayed near the Beach Road (it does have an official name, but everyone, locals and visitors alike, calls it the Beach Road). This road now has a nice paved pathway that runs alongside the beach. It’s a relatively new addition, and I was impressed to see the large number of Timorese people jogging along it in the early evening. I don’t remember seeing many Timorese people jogging or doing other fitness or health-focused activities when I was here last time. I remember feeling quite self-conscious on the odd occasion I donned my sports gear and went out for a fast walk or jog. But there are many runners now. I also saw them running, with great stamina and grit, up the mountain road at the back of Dili, heading up towards Dare. Dili has the Dili Marathon each year – perhaps they are in training for that. Exercising suggests an optimism and faith in a controllable future (just as learning to play an instrument suggests a similar act of hopefulness and optimism). These are important steps in a city’s recovery from trauma.

Beachside path for joggers

Four years ago, there weren’t a lot of places that had internet access. Now, it seems like many more Timorese people are connected. Facebook is the most common platform. But also, I would say that mobile phones and mobile internet access is perhaps more affordable and accessible now; there are now competing providers which has presumably brought the costs down for consumers. Timorese teenagers seemed as connected to their phones and messaging as any of their counterparts in Australia.

I think the arrival of Timor Plaza has also added to this access to internet. When I was here in 2010, Timor Plaza was a construction site. Many people I spoke to felt unconvinced about Timor Plaza – a big shopping mall, Timor’s first, with a posh hotel and conference facilities, and a cinema, and a food hall. Would the average Timorese person be able to go there? Would they be able to afford to buy anything?

But it turns out that Timor Plaza is quite a buzzy place to go. There are always lots of teenagers hanging around, taking advantage of the free wireless (it never worked when I was there, but apparently it is usually reliable), sitting around on benches with their netbooks and laptops, doing what teenagers are supposed to do in shopping malls (hang around and not buy anything).

It is also air-conditioned. And non-smoking! (apparently the owner is an passionate anti-smoker). There is a pharmacy there, and a couple of supermarkets, a food hall where I ate a wonderful chicken biriyani, and which also includes a gelato stand, flagship stores for Timor Telecom and Telemor (or whoever the other carrier is, I can’t remember their name), I think I even saw an Apple store there! You can get printing and photocopying done, and shop for gadgets, and traditional Timorese souvenirs… even have a music lesson (there is a shopfront private music school, where kids learn piano), or a massage or a pedicure or manicure. It’s a shopping mall. It appears to be a better fit for Dili than I (and many others) originally thought it would be.

Small music school, Timor Plaza, Dili

Small music school, Timor Plaza, Dili

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