Timor-Leste

Article by Hannah Rosenthal (UWC Atlantic College ’14-’16)

It’s 5:20 AM. I wake up in Dili, the capital city of Timor-Leste, a mostly Catholic country in Southeast Asia, to the echoing sound of Islamic prayers being broadcasted from the nearby Mosque. I reluctantly turn off the air conditioner and saunter into the kitchen, the cool tile soothing my bare feet as I pad across the floor. I make myself tea and settle in the living room with my laptop, enjoying the luxury of the barely-functional internet as I wait for the family to wake.

Dawn is still approaching and the view from the window is limited, hardly representative of what I know is going on elsewhere in this town of about 200,000 people. This is because we live in a gated compound, and it reminds me of the separation that I, and many expatriates, experience living in developing countries. The real world is outside the fence, and to experience it one must find ways to connect and engage, in the markets, at school, and by volunteering. This was my experience growing up in the Philippines and Mongolia.

Before long, Mum joins me and we spend time sharing stories, mine from boarding school in America and hers about our family’s recent move from Mongolia to Timor-Leste. As wonderful and pervasive as Skype has become, it can’t replace face-to-face time, especially with family and friends. By mid morning we’re on our way to the fruit and vegetable market; a line of open wooden stalls on the side of the road near the sea. Here, women lounge on the floor or in small chairs waiting to sell bananas, mangos, lettuce, tomatoes and more, all arranged on the wooden platform floor. Mum pays about a dollar for a papaya, pulling out a ratty American $1 bill that would never be accepted in the US. She receives small coins as change; the currency is a mix of US dollars and Timorese Centavos.

Crosby, my 8-year-old brother, has joined us today. Like my mum and me, he sticks out like a sore thumb. The children of the vendors notice him and being the social animal that he is, Crosby wanders from the market and sits under a palm tree with them. Once we’ve finished shopping, mum introduces him to the kids as “Malai”, meaning “foreigner” in Tetum, one of the sixteen indigenous languages spoken in this small island nation of just over a million people. He’d be happy to spend the rest of the day exploring with his new friends. I recall weekends working at an orphanage in Ulaanbaatar, where kids the same age easily wormed their way around language barriers, in much the same way they learned to navigate and enjoy the rusted playground equipment.

As Asia’s newest nation and one of its poorest, Timor-Leste is still finding its way after emerging from a hard-won fight for independence. It ranks near the bottom worldwide on maternal and infant mortality. A Timorese woman is almost 27 times more likely to die during pregnancy than her counterpart in the US, and infant mortality, at 45 per 1,000 live births, is among the highest in the world. Limited investments in schools and teachers, together with a legacy of violence and instability, means that kids go to school in shifts, often for just two hours a day. This is in stark contrast to my life in the US, of course, but not dissimilar to those of children in many other developing countries.

Our shopping is complete and the sun is stronger now. I can feel the temperature and humidity rising. Seeking relief from the heat, we drive to Cemetery Beach for a walk; my mum’s favourite spot. Its name notwithstanding, this is a happy place, a peaceful stretch of beach away from the main road that winds along Dili’s shoreline. Three Timorese kids, probably siblings of about six, nine and thirteen, walk alongside us. We ask each other questions and as the conversation finds a sense of ease, effulgent smiles creep their way onto the kids’ sun-kissed faces.

Our feet sink into the pale sand with every step, the lapping waves erasing them behind us. We collect sea glass together, the cool shining gems resting flat on my palm and jingling in my pocket. As we reach the end of this section of beach, I scoop a piece of kelp from the water, put it between my thumbs, and blow to make a high-pitched noise. They love it, and I attempt to teach it to the oldest girl. When she finally creates the desired effect, she’s delighted. I receive a heartfelt “thank you!” in heavily accented English and we go on our way.

A few days later these memories are with me as I start the journey back to my other life in America. Looking out of the airplane window, I know the dotted islands below, with their countless markets and schools and beaches, are full of children like the ones I met on Dili’s beaches and in orphanages in Mongolia. Their lives are different from mine, but their reality is part of my past and my present. My family connects, even binds, these contrasting worlds in ways that change as they move and I mature. At boarding school I look for opportunities to unite these two realities and hope that over the long term I will find ways to increase understanding between them.

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