East Timor: The millennium’s newest country, the world’s oldest story…

I first heard of East Timor in 2000 when I was living in Kangaroo Valley Australia as a Willing Worker on Organic Farms. The man we were WWOOFING for was Peter Wesley-Smith, who had worked in Hong Kong and saved the resultant money to buy Australian land and return it to a haven for wildlife, including the duck-billed platypus. He was pretty inspiring, and instead of using our free labour to dig ditches, we found ourselves making bread, drinking tea and feeding flocks of birds who came to his garden for a snack. East Timor was not a country then, but it was damned close, and Peter was excited by progress being made, for he had co-written this week’s music, the musical Quito which tells the story of an East-Timorese refugee with schizophrenia, who was found hanged in a Darwin hospital.

Peter, and his brother Martin (who was a great laugh but who has sadly since passed away) were passionate about freedom for this tiny ex-Portuguese colony and were the first people to open my eyes to the barbarous Indonesian occupation and the fact that over 100,000 East Timorese died.

It is these traumatic years (1975–1999) that form the backbone of this week’s book, the Redundancy of Courage by Timothy Mo. Despite being set in the fictitious country of “Danu”, the action clearly takes place in East Timor and there are allusions and references to actual history and geography throughout. I’ve not been able to find out why he didn’t go the whole hog and base it in East Timor, but I will forgive him this peculiarity as despite the traumatic subject, the book is essential reading, full of rounded characters and insights into life during wartime. I can never understand how some authors can weave such intricate and believable tales of things that didn’t actually happen. I would happily read Mo again…

…and I would happily eat Caril, the national dish again too! It is a mildly spiced coconut (vegan) chicken curry with red pepper and the whole family ate it without complaining (this only happens about 50 per cent of the time!) We ate it with Batar Da’an, a pumpkin, corn and mung bean dish which was not quite so popular.

Since gaining its freedom from Indonesia, East Timor (which is mainly Roman Catholic) has been one of the few places in that neck of the world where you can easily drink beer. But Timorese beer is rarely exported and so instead we went to one of Birmingham’s few remaining coffee roasteries to get East Timor’s second largest export — coffee. Many consider Timorese coffee to be one of the best in the world, the beans are light and the taste is strong. We had an eventful hour sampling different roasts with the Coffee Roaster, who seemed horrified by how little we knew about coffee. We shall be going back to his shop, as soon as my heart recovers from the caffeine injection.

So that just leaves the film, Balibo. Sadly, it follows the time-honoured trick of taking a war in which 100,000+ locals died and retelling it through the eyes of some white guys. None-the-less it is powerful indictment of those horrific years and I do understand that Australians are more likely to watch a film about Australians in East Timor than East Timorese in East Timor. It reminds me of that Monty Python sketch “here is the news for gibbons. No gibbons were harmed today in an accident on the M1” etc.

The film centres on a journalist called Roger East (#digression 1: this is quite incredible as Timor means East, so it is a film about a man called Mr East in the country of East East (#digression 2: he appears in Timothy Mo’s novel as Bill Mabbely)). Mr East goes to East Timor to follow the story of five Australian journalists who were killed in the weeks before the Indonesians occupied. He slowly warms to the people and their plight and decides to remain even when the last international journalists are evacuated. I hope you will watch it so I won’t tell you any more, but instead say farewell to East Timor, and hello to Ecuador!

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Armchair traveller

Armchair traveller

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Zero carbon lockdown travel through books, drinks, food, films, music and the magic of living in multicultural #Birmingham.