Timorese are fiercely proud of their independence and very aware of how hard they’ve had to fight for it. They are also quite stoic in the face of adversity, something honed through decades of tragedy. In many ways the population has been awakened to the possibilities ahead and that can explain some of the frequent internal upheavals. Without a common enemy in the form of the Indonesians, all manner of factions are vying for their place in the new East Timor. Old scores are being settled and spheres of power and influence calved out. People are not hesitant to protest perceived wrongs and this has led to frequent clashes in Dill and elsewhere, especially in old Fretilin strongholds.
Despite the chaotic images shown in news reports, the Timorese are one of the friendliest people you will encounter. Normally polite in a simple way you’ll soon get hand fatigue from all the waving you’ll be doing. Language issues aside, the Timorese are gregarious; in a nation this small, everybody seems to have one degree of separation.
There is a long collective memory, but the Portuguese from colonial are fading from consciousness, as are the Japanese from the war. It’s much more complex regarding Indonesia: most adults in the country educated in Indonesian-run schools actually speak the language. And almost everybody had a loved one killed during the occupation, others married Indonesians sympathetic to the Timorese cause. Australia also poses a complex question. If any country could have stood for East Timor in 1975 but didn’t it was Australia. Fretilin and others still resent perceived Australian meddling in local affairs, yet Australia’s local importance, its leading role in trying to maintain peace from 1999 and the many Australians with a direct interest in, and friendship towards, East Timor make it a highly significant player.
Finally, many could learn lessons about stress reduction from the Timorese who don’t expect things to work very well and are very adept at patiently adapting to the myriad challenges faced daily.
Hospitality is important to the East Timorese If you’re offered food or drink when you meet somebody, it’s important to at least taste it but always wait for your host to take the first sip or bite. As a result of the long Portuguese period, shaking hands is expected. Women often cheek or air kiss, usually on both sides of the face It’s good form to greet others you pass on the street. And do as your mother always said: don’t put your feet up on anything. Always ask before taking photos or video of people but usually the East Timorese are quite happy to be photographed – a sign that East Timor is not overrun with touristis. Say “Bele?” (“May I?” in Tetun) and you’ll likely get a smiling “bele,bele” in response, which means “yes, yes”, in contrast “Labele” would mean no and that the photo is not welcomed. East Timor is a conservative, largely traditional culture with strong Christian values. Elders, church and community leaders are treated with deference. As a general rule first names are only used among close acquaintances. Otherwise use “Senhor” (for men) or “Senhora” (for women).
Timorese Dance & Music
Bits of rock country, hip-flop, rap and even reggae can all be heard in East Timor’s modern music. Guitars are popular and if there were garages there would be a lot of garage bands, especially in Dili. Instead you might say there are lots of under-trees bands across the country. No important East Timorese social gathering is complete without a band performing the types of cover songs that have been the staple of legions of globe-trotting Filipino bands to the north. Usually a generator will be found for the synthesizer and the ballads can continue long into the night. Should you stumble upon a festival featuring traditional dancing and music, you are in for a rare treat. The likurai was primarily a Tetun dance used to welcome warriors returning from battle. Women danced with a small drum and circled the village compound where heads taken in battle were displayed. Today it is performed by unmarried women as a courtship dance. The tebedai dance is a circle dance performed throughout East Timor and it is accompanied by a drum.
The traditional houses of East Timor vary from the large conical Bunak houses (deuhoto) in the west to the unique and iconic Fataluku houses in the east. The tall, elongated Fataluku houses have stilts supporting a main living room and are topped by a high, tapering thatched roof. A few have been built for display purposes, but you ll find many still in use on the road to Tutuala and in the region of Lantern and Lospalos. In Oecussi the hills are dotted with the traditional lopo and ume kebubu houses of the Dawan people, while all the way from Dill to the south coast you’ll find the circular houses and conical roofs of the Mambat people. In Maliana, capital of the Bobonaro district and home to the Kemak people you’ll see rectangular stilt houses.
Basket weaving is an important skill. Along the coast road between Dill and Manatuto village, craft workers hang their work out by the road to sell. Manatuto is also noted for its pottery work. On Atauro Island, directly north of Dill, a number of villages have their own distinct crafts, including wood carving and basket work. Arte Moris, an idiosyncratic and intriguing art school, gallery and social centre for a new generation of Timorese artists. It’s home to a growing number of artists in residence and is on the must do list for Dili.