I left East Timor some time ago to backpack north into Asia, where I am now. I may have left that island, but I remember it clearly…
Last year, it took me days of backpacking to reach the town of Baucau on the north coast of East Timor, just a short ocean dash from the southern Indonesian islands. I’d come for a radio interview on the local radio, 99.9 FM.
With the help of a translator while showing staff my website via a pay-per-hour wireless internet card from a Vietnamese internet company, the radio station manager finally decided what content she thought would be of most interest to the Baucau community: what stunts I could return to East Timor to undertake. We got straight to it.
In a carpet-walled studio with an uneven floor and mold spreading thickly across the ceiling, I was shown to my seat – a lopsided chair facing a bare desk on which lay tattered speakers producing the feint sounds of a recorded song. The station manager switched on 2 hand-held recording devices and through the interpreter, she conducted a 10-minute interview to be broadcast in English and the native language, Tetum. It was a pleasant interview and I was terrifically grateful because I was finding the East Timorese truly lovely people wherever I ventured.
The basic studio didn’t surprise me; I’d been exposed to primitive life throughout my 3-week stay in the country. The most memorable incident occurred one day at dusk. I walked into an isolated palm frond and wood house on a beach to ask for a night’s accommodation as wood fire smoke licked its way under and out of the asymmetrical doorframe sill. Using sign language and grand gesticulations, the resident old man coaxed me to the rear, past discarded partial crocodile skeletons and 2 small live crocodiles tied to stakes in shallow pools, to where I saw a 4-metre crocodile carcass being roasted clean of flesh. The man was a traditional crocodile hunter who used a simple harpoon to stab the reptilians in the bone and haul them to their death for eating.
I’m not a fan of killing wildlife, but in East Timor animal cruelty is routine. In the rugged mountains of the interior, I watched locals shoot whatever creature flew across their vision, including birds of prey. Food there is not as plentiful as it is in the West. But having coffee one morning exposed me to the worst animal cruelty I’ve seen in the tiny nation. I was a guest in a village elder’s home and his appealing daughter was preparing me coffee, as is the tradition when white people visit. Chickens, dogs, pigs and goats scratched, pecked and sniffed constantly in the dust in between the spartan village huts. Palm trees swayed gently overhead and the crashing of waves only 60 paces behind me provided a relaxing background noise to the nearby daily domestic activity.
With no notice, I heard what sounded like the sharp splintering of dry bamboo sticks being bent until they snapped. I turned to see a youth, all of 12 metres from me, wielding a heavy beam over a medium-sized black dog. He was smashing the brain case, sending its watery contents oozing down the dog’s face and splashing onto the sandy ground. The dog winced for a few seconds, twitched violently and then, as if entering a peaceful dream, relaxed and lay perfectly still. I flicked my gaze away, grimacing and immediately feeling a sickening churning in my stomach. My hosts giggled, telling me they’d eat well that night.
A slight sense of dizziness overcame me and I steadied my torso. The timing couldn’t have been worse, for at that precise moment, my coffee was served by the shapely young woman smiling at me broadly and saying, “Sir, please enjoy”. Coffee has never tasted so disgusting.