One of my favourite things about travel is that it puts things into perspective. Things that seemed so completely essential at home seem trivial while you’re travelling. I don’t need to check facebook every day. It’s okay to leave the house without makeup. It actually doesn’t matter that my shoes and my handbag don’t quite go together.
In so many countries, having shoes to wear is, in itself, almost a privilege. It doesn’t matter how many outfits they go with. Just having one pair of shoes is a luxury of sorts.
This isn’t a new revelation for me. It’s something I have known my entire life. It’s something I’ve been reminded of numerous times. Whether it’s been in Burma, the Philippines, Bangladesh or Cambodia, I’ve been reminded of just how fortunate I am to have been born in Australia.
Living in Timor-Leste, however, is giving me a whole new perspective.
Following a coup in August 1975, the Democratic Republic of East Timor was declared an independent country following centuries of Portuguese rule. Independence was brief. On 7 December 1975, Indonesia invaded in brutal fashion. What followed was years of a cruel and violent occupation, coupled with retaliations by those determined to gain rightful independence from the oppressive Indonesian regime. On 20 May 2002, Timor-Leste finally gained independence and become the world’s newest nation. In the wake of a tumultuous and bloody history, the new country struggled to find its feet, with violence again breaking out in late 2002, 2005, 2006 and 2007. In 2008, an assassination attempt was made on Jose Ramos-Horta, a revered independence hero, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and then-Prime Minister.
Timor’s turbulent past is not relegated to long-gone history. It is recent. Very recent.
During the past week, we were lucky to have a guest for dinner on two consecutive nights. Out of respect, and concern for his privacy, I will refer to him as Mick.
Mick is just 5 or so years older than I am. He has a kind face, smiling eyes, and a roaring infectious laugh. For someone who never finished school, and taught himself English, he is incredibly articulate, and clearly intelligent.
When he was 13 years old, Mick joined the resistance and fought the Indonesian’s who were occupying Timor. By the age of 15, he was a commander of the resistance forces.
Over the two nights, Mick explained that the scars that mark his face were gained during his time in the jungle, from battles with Indonesian soldiers.
He told us how, at the age of 13, he was forced to watch as the Indonesian’s slashed open his brother, disemboweling him. His brother, miraculously, survived.
He told us of his female friends, who were brutally and repeatedly raped. How one of them defiantly informed Indonesian forces that they could continue to rape and impregnate as many Timorese women as they liked, as long as they knew that they were breeding the next generation of freedom fighters.
He told us that his parents were imprisoned and tortured for standing up for the freedom of Timor.
He told us about the hunger he and his fellow resistance forces faced in the jungles, how they shot a monkey to eat, only to realize too late that she had a baby. He told us how that had affected him deeply.
Stories such as these are not things I usually associate with someone who is of a similar age to me. They are the stories that belong to elderly veterans. The stories that appear in history books, not ones that are shared over dinner.
Among the horrific stories we heard, however, what stood out to me was the passion that Mick has for his country. When he talks of Timor, his face lights up. His dream is for us – and others – to learn as much as we can about the Timorese people, the culture, and the country and to share it with the world. He doesn’t want the world to think only of violence and tragedy. He wants the world to know what an amazing, diverse nation Timor is with its lush jungles, and postcard-perfect beaches. He wants the world to know how friendly, how generous, and how resilient the Timorese people are. He wants the world to know that Timor welcomes outside help and that Timorese people are eager to work with the many NGOs and foreign aid agencies that have flooded this country. He wants the world to know that Timor wants to improve the lives of its people. But that it must be done with the Timorese people, not for them.
Timor-Leste is a nation that has endured centuries of foreign interference. Now is their time. It’s their time to take ownership, to have development and freedom on their terms.
Mick is not much older than me. He has lived a life that nobody should have to live. He has fought for the freedom of the people of his country. He has experienced untold horror at the hands of a brutal regime that was supported by Australia, despite global condemnation. He continues to fight for a better future.
Mick is one of the people I referred to in an earlier post: a person that has made an indelible mark on my life.
He has given me perspective.