Revolutionary Appeal & Reminders from Decades of War

Post #3 for the National Geographic Explorers Journal!

Naming Timor-Leste’s first national park after the revolutionary leader Nino Konis Santana was an excellent move. Firstly, revolutionary leaders are sexy and the bureaucratic designation of protected environmental zones is one thing that could definitely use more sex-appeal. Secondly, national unity was something the post-independence federal government desperately needed and Nino Konis Santana was just the storied freedom fighter and beloved war hero that could make this togetherness happen.

The town of Tutuala Nino Konis Santana’s birthplace
The town of Tutuala Nino Konis Santana’s birthplace

Born in Tutuala in 1955, a town on the easternmost tip of Timor in the now protected zone, Nino Konis Santana spent much of his youth as a student leader and school teacher. Following the 1975 Indonesian invasion, he fled into the mountains to join the FRETILIN (translated from the Portuguese as the “Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor”) and struggled against Indonesian occupying forces for the next two decades.

After the capture of the then-leader of the Falantil, the military wing of  the FRETILIN, in 1993, Santana took up the mantle as guerrilla leader, reorganizing resistance forces and coordinating operations until his accidental death in 1998. Not only a military commander, Nino Konis was beloved throughout Timor and his diaspora for his untiring efforts as a diplomat and his drive to forge Timorese unity.

Graffiti of Nino Konis Santana in the town of Lospalos

Coming from the United States, I can’t help but being reminded of Che, with the dusty fatigues and ragged hair, the years spent struggling in the mountains, and the pensiveness of their personas. While the initial invasion of Timor was motivated in part by a Cold War, post-Vietnam fear of socialism (FRETILIN is a leftist group and was in fact initially called the “Timorese Social Democratic Association”), Konis Santana was decidedly not Marxist; his only declared and practiced political ideology was the doctrine of Timorese National Unity.

Images of Nino Konis Santana (and Che as well actually) pervade the park. Nino Konis’ face is on T-shirts, on high school buildings and uniforms, and on graffiti. A home town hero gone big, Santana’s status as the first and only resistance leader of Fataluku descent is still highly celebrated in this easternmost part of Timor, home of the ethnically and linguistically distinct Fataluku people who are much closer in descent to melanesians than other Timorese groups.

A Goat Appreciating the Ruins of the Former Indonesian Administrative Building at Com

But all romanticized visions of the past aside, the horrors of the decades of Indonesian occupation can still be seen throughout this area of the island. Many of the buildings we passed were still riddled with bullet holes or burnt out (apparently some 70% of all structures in Timor-Leste were razed as the Indonesians fled in the late 1990s). Talking to locals at Com, one of the sleepiest seaside towns you can imagine, they told me stories of the armed Indonesian troops that would patrol their one stretch of road and pointed out the now ruins of the former Indonesian Administrative building that overlooked the harbor.

A Fretilin flag painted in Com

As a visitor to this beautiful place, its hard to really understand the hardship that a lot of Timorese experienced throughout their history. Reading about things like the “Fence of Legs” operation, in which the Indonesians rounded up Timorese civilians to form an epically long human chain and marched them through the countryside in an effort to force the guerrillas out into the open, and statistics that say at least one fifth (up to one third) of the entire country’s population was unaccounted for following the Indonesian withdrawal, a National Park seems epically unimportant.

But with this difficult history in mind, I can see why a model of stewardship would work well in the Timorese context. Decades spent hiding in the mountains and living off the land would give one an intimate respect for the environment and its health. The rigorous scientific understandings of conservation practices being brought in by groups such as the Coral Triable Initiative (more to come on these efforts!) would only bolster these innate Timorese ideas.

As we spend more time exploring, I am appreciating the benefits of both peace and a park, both of which the work of Nino Konis Santana helped bring about. As we sit enjoying the view and learning more about life and history in Timor, I can’t help but wonder what this venerable Timorese hero would have to say about having nearly one tenth of the island he loved so much protected in his honor.

A breakfast reminder of the peace efforts
A breakfast reminder of the peace efforts



How Do You Define a National Park?

Post #2 from the National Geographic Explorers Journal!

After a nauseating hour and a half in the back of a mini-bus driven by a trio of solemn teenage boys, we arrived at Sina Seaside Guest House in Com. As we settled in, a group of Australian volunteers (there seem to be a lot of them in Timor) were passing through for lunch.

Seating ourselves at the table next to theirs, conversation started flowing and eventually landed on my project to explore the issues surrounding Nino Konis Santana National Park. Eager volunteers as they were, they excitedly informed me of the various initiatives underway and what roles these projects, and they themselves, were playing in helping to preserve this beautiful area as well as help Timor progress as a whole.

View from Sina's Seaside Guest House in Com
View from Sina’s Seaside Guest House in Com

After the Aussies had eaten their fill and sped off in their four-wheel drive, the wife of the owner began clearing dishes in the eating area. With the park on my mind, I took the opportunity to ask her about what she thought about Nino Konis and all the changes that were occurring as a result.

While difficult to fully comprehend her meanings in the half-mimed language of Tetun, the local language, Portuguese, and English that we used together, the way she spoke about Nino Konis was decidedly different. For Sina, the park most immediately meant more Australian volunteers, which meant more people stopping by for lunch, which meant more income for her family to live here like they had for decades, fishing, gathering firewood, and weaving traditional tais, the local woven handicraft. There was less eagerness for dramatic change like the volunteers and more of a contentment that things would get better while staying relatively the same.

Road Marker At Com, Officially Establishing Us in Nino Konis National Park.
Road Marker At Com, Officially Establishing Us in Nino Konis National Park.

And that’s the interesting part about Nino Konis: the contrast in expectations and ideas on what a National Park should be, most clearly divided between foreigner and Timorese, but not only fractured in this way. Reflecting back, I too had my own pre-conceived notions about what Nino Konis was. For example, I was surprised when I couldn’t really tell when our exploration of the National Park actually began. From the maps we found online, I know it all started somewhere on our journey between the Portuguese colonial fortress at Lautem and the sleepy beachside town of Com, but beyond that it’s unclear.

There weren’t any of the things I was used to seeing that indicates the transition between the public and  the protected: no signs, no tourist posts, no uniformed officers of the park service. And to be frank, everything in the park looked pretty much the same as everything outside of the park, from the terrible state of the road to the gorgeous blue of the ocean to the assortment of tin-roofed houses that dotted the shoreline.

Com Harbor
Com Harbor

In addition to not being well-marked, Nino Konis Santana National Park is also apparently not well-named. That is, technically it’s not even a national park. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a national park is a natural area of great beauty protected by the highest authority in the land from human occupation and exploitation.

According to recent surveys of Timor-Leste, over 15,000 human beings like Sina are currently occupying and exploiting the natural resources of the Nino Konis protected area, just like their ancestors have done for generations. Furthermore, international stipulations on defining a national park include things like the prohibition of fishing and having an large enough budget to adequately protect the area- things that the government of Timor-Leste just does not have the resources and political interest in enforcing.

Boys pulling a fishing boat from the water in Com
Boys pulling a fishing boat from the water in Com

The protected area of Nino Konis was established in 2007, but evidence of human occupation on this part of the island goes back more than 30,000 years. The land is part of the people who live here and the people who live here are part of the land.

What then should evolve: Nino Konis Santana National Park or our understanding of protected areas themselves?  The world’s environment has been fundamentally changed by human activity, from agriculture to mining to global warming, and “protected areas” are not immune to these alterations. (Even Yosemite and Yellowstone are at the very least criss-crossed by roads and telephone wires.)

The protected area of Nino Konis was established in 2007, but evidence of human occupation on this part of the island goes back more than 30,000 years. The land is part of the people who live here and the people who live here are part of the land. And yet the National Park, or at the very least the idea of a National Park, is bringing much needed income and resources to this long overlooked part of the world. Should our conservation models be predicated on the absence of humans or can they incorporate the idea that societies can be stewards of their natural surroundings?

Through primarily the result of circumstance, and I also hope a little bit of willfulness, the Timorese government has chosen the latter model of conservation. As the park progresses in the coming years, for the sake of the park and the Timorese people, I hope the strengths of stewardship far outweigh the weaknesses.

A man gathers foliage from the park to feed his goats
A man gathers foliage from the park to feed his goats

*I researched further and found that technically Nino Konis Santana National Park is a IUCN Category V Landscape/Seascape, a definition which takes into account the cultural as well as environmental importance of a region similar to a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I would argue that National Park has a better ring to it though.

Around Bacau

Despite the terror of getting here, Bacau is a beautiful place. I wish we had more time to explore, but the whole point of this trip is Nino Konis Santana National Park, so we want to spend as much time there as possible. But even in our brief 18 hours we saw some pretty cool things, like an old Portuguese fort, education complex, and “pousada” (basically a hotel), lots of pigs, and a natural spring pool. Katie and I were almost purposely run off the road by another group of Timorese teenage boys in a giant truck, but that was a minor hiccup in an otherwise pleasant visit.

Bacau Bound and Timorese Teenage Boys

After overnighting in Dili, we hopped on the 9 am mikrolet to Bacau, a large city about four hours to the east.  To be frank, it was quite the four hours. The roads in Timor are absolutely terrible and many are on a sheer cliff face overlooking the ocean, resulting in both sore asses and heart-stopping moments of terror. In addition to being nauseating and overcrowded, we made the poor move of sitting in the back row, where there are no distinct seats so as many people as possible will try to sit there. I think the record on the trips was six, including a kindly old woman who kept feeding my brother roasted peanuts.

This Mikrolet didn’t quite make it

As white foreigners, we were quite the novelty on this tiny bus. (Although its incredibly expensive at $100 a day, most tourists to Timor-Leste opt to rent a car. After our first mikrolet experience, I can understand why.) As a group that included two foreign women, the attention was not the kind we wanted.

Our guest house was at the very end of the road in Old Town Bacau and so we were the very last travelers left on the bus. It was us and a group of six rowdy teenage boys, who seemed to somehow work for the driver or were just simply along for the ride. But the longer it was just us on the bus, the more amped they got, each trying to out show the others, starting, yelling things at us in Tetum, getting in our personal space. We were already on edge from before, as one had tried to grope Katie about an hour and a half into the ride, and the last ten minutes were among the most uncomfortable in my life, with one particularly stocky boy with a mohawk leaning over the seat in front of me until his face was less than six inches from mine, stating at me intently until I reacted (which I thankfully never let myself do when confronted by stupid men).

Relaxing on the veranda after the long ride
Relaxing on the veranda after the long ride

When we reached our stop we literally jumped off the bus, with the obnoxious boys carelessly throwing our backpacks out after us in the dirt. Unemployment is a big issue here, which probably explains why six teenage boys were riding a bus for four hours for no apparent reason on a Thursday, but I don’t think Timorese teenagers are my favorite people.

But after that memorable bus ride, we were pleasantly surprised by the cleanliness and comfort of our guest house and its pretty veranda. The plan is to relax here for the rest of the day and try to make our way to Com by tomorrow afternoon.

Lunch/Dinner in Bacau
Lunch/Dinner in Bacau

Basic Things about Timor-Leste You Really Should Know

Before I delve further into our Timor times, there are a few things about Timor-Leste that (I think) are very important to know.

1. It’s not in Africa.

A lot of people whom I told about my trip thought I was going to Africa. Nope. Timor-Leste occupies the eastern half of the island of Timor in the very southeast corner of the Malay Archipelago. It is just above Darwin, Australia and nowhere near any part of Africa.

Google Map of Timor-Leste
Google Map of Timor-Leste

2. It’s history has been brutal.

Timor-Leste gained sovereignty from Indonesia in 2002. It’s been occupied basically since the 17th century and that occupation has been incredibly brutal at times. While its more recent history has also been tumultuous, Timor-Leste is officially a sovereign state, a fact that its hardened, yet incredibly friendly people are staunchly proud of.

Revolutionary Leader Nino Konis Santana Photo: East Timor Legal News
Revolutionary Leader Nino Konis Santana Photo: East Timor Legal News

3. It’s expensive.

Despite being one of the poorest nations in the Eastern Hemisphere, Timor-Leste is one of the most expensive places to visit in Southeast Asia. These high prices are bolstered by the government’s use of the U.S. dollar as currency, a relatively recent influx of oil money, and the steady rotation of well-paid foreign “volunteers,” government personnel, and NGO do-gooders.

4. It feels a lot like Latin America.

You can definitely feel the Portuguese influence in Timor. All the cars are bumping reggaeton and kuduro, everyone is wearing a soccer jersey, and the Portuguese flag is on everything. It feels like I’m back in Brazil and not actually in a former part of Indonesia.

5. People love foreigners

If you are visibly not Timorese, your travels will be filled with shouts of “Malai,” the Timorese word for forienger. It derives from the fact that the original foreigners here were Malay sailors, hence the similarity of the words. But almost everyone will be excited to see you, for better and for worse, especially the abundance of super cute children.

Timorese kids going crazy over us "Malais"
Timorese kids going crazy over us “Malais”

6. You should drink the coffee

Timorese coffee is considered some of the best in the world. It is almost 100% organically grown, mainly because most growers cannot afford pesticides. It is steeped here like tea, with coffee grounds being covered in hot water to make a pot, so cups often come with teeth filled with (delicious) coffee particles.

Morning Coffee
Morning Coffee

7. Oil is the name of the game.

Despite its push towards eco-tourism and sustainable development, the majority of Timor’s money comes from rich oil and gas reserves off of its southern coast. The government collects no taxes, but owns nearly all of this fuel, which it trades to foreign entities.

Oil Pipeline Monument Outside the Statehouse in Dili

Finally in Dili!

J walks along Dili's harbor
J walks along Dili’s harbor

It took three days, but at long last we are in Dili, Timor-Leste’s (somewhat) bustling capital!

Timor-Leste's Parliament
Timor-Leste’s Parliament

After wanting to visit East Timor for a very, very, very, very, very long time, I have to admit that I’m a bit disappointed.  Starting with the assault of cab drivers at the airport and concluding four hours later with our inability to find a single cafe that was open, I could feel myself slowly deflating the more we wandered around Dili. (It turns out it was a public holiday that day, which explains the lack of food options.)

Graffiti commemorating Timor's long struggle for stability
Graffiti commemorating Timor’s long struggle for stability

The harbor and the main boardwalk itself were quite beautiful,  with rolling hills flanking the pristine blue water of the Wetar Strait, but a beautiful view can only hold your attention for so long against the heat of the tropical sun, the hunger that jetlag’s awkward eating schedule brings, and the acrid burn caused by the smoke of burning garbage. (Dili has no public waste management system, so most people get rid of their trash by lighting it on fire.)

A local man strolls along the Dili boardwalk
A local man strolls along the Dili boardwalk

I have to put all this in perspective though: our end goal is not this shabby yet up-and-coming city, but rather a national park that by all accounts is one of the most beautiful places on the planet.  A Norwegian girl at our  hostel has been here for a week, spending her days diving at sites just outside of the city, and has fallen in love with Timor-Leste. Hopefully, by the end of this trip we will to!

I just had to put a chicken picture in here
I just had to put a chicken picture in here
A group of boys gather on Dili's waterfront
A group of boys gather on Dili’s waterfront