Journal 48: Leaving East Timor — A land of contrasts … and a wardrobe malfunction |

Journal 48: Leaving East Timor — A land of contrasts … and a wardrobe malfunction

A group of young girls stand near one of many burnt-out hulls of a car in Dili East Timor.

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of journal entries from Rick Gunn, a South Lake Tahoe photographer, detailing his two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is soliciting donations for The Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to To read his complete “Wish Tour” journal, go to

Historians called it the youngest nation on the planet. Economists refer to it as the poorest country in Asia. Critics called it a failed state.

But as I stepped from a bus onto the war-torn streets of East Timor, I called it my last stop in the developing world.

At first glance, the capital city of Dili seemed a free-for-all. Gangs roamed the streets, their live-limbed silhouettes haloed in dust. Heavily-armed U.N. vehicles prowled past these youths like a stream of angry army ants.

Collecting my things, I shouldered my disassembled bike past a handful of military outposts, crumbling buildings, and the ever-present hull of burnt-out cars. Helicopters swooped the skies and soldiers swept the streets, patrolling the city in standard V formation.

All of this was the legacy of the country’s short, bloody history.

Colonized by the Portuguese for 400 years, then brutalized by Indonesia during its 24-year occupation, East Timor established its independence through a U.N. referendum in 1999. Upon announcement of that referendum, Indonesian troops and anti-independence militias took to the streets. Almost overnight they destroyed 70 percent of East Timor’s infrastructure and slaughtered more than 1,400 East Timorese.

During that time, 260,000 people fled west.

When the violence came to an end, many claimed genocide – arguing that during Indonesia’s reign, nearly half of East Timor’s then 600,000 population was exterminated.

A detailed statistical report prepared for the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor cited a lower range of 102,800 conflict-related deaths from 1974 to 1999, approximately 18,600 killings and 84,200 deaths from hunger and illness.

These numbers may have been under-reported and are considered a minimum. Amnesty International puts deaths at 200,000.

As the remnants of all this destruction faded within Dili’s downtown darkness, I sought out a guesthouse and slipped inside.

Here the modern world returned to me in a tumble.

After a year of squat toilets, generator power and bucket baths, I was stunned to come across microwaves, sit-down toilets, shower heads, washers, dryers, chocolate, cheese and Tabasco. There was Budweiser, Newsweek, Time – celebrity trash-mags splashed with the latest photos of Britney Spears.

In the corner, a large-screen TV ran a 24-hour news channel. I watched for a moment as it flashed a stream of fearful images over-representing the thinnest strands of radical Islam: Muslim extremist bearing arms, Clerics burning books, Jihadis threatening violence. Scenes I hadn’t happened upon once through the hundreds of Muslim enclaves I’d cycled through along the way.

All these trappings of the Western world had come to East Timor with the flood of more than 5,000 U.N. personnel, and countless non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that occupy the city.

Caught off-guard, I took a seat in the guesthouse restaurant near two NGO workers. For nearly an hour I listened as one of these men waxed poetic about the various layers of taste a $30 bottle of wine had left on his palette.

Color me odd, but this seemed uniquely ironic in a country where only half the population had access to safe drinking water, 20,000 were in need of food aid, and one in 10 children died before reaching the age of 10.

It was all too much for me that first night. Too much, too fast. And all of it rendered a kind of reverse culture shock. One that felt oddly spectacular, and spectacularly absurd at the same time.

I finished my dinner, then tucked into bed.

“Is it safe to shoot photographs out there?” I asked the next morning before heading into town.

“No worries, mate,” an Australian replied, having lived there for 10 years.

Reassured by his confidence, I grabbed my camera gear and a handful of lenses, and walked into town.

Suddenly I came upon scenes of jaw-dropping contrasts.

Every other building was blackened, or burnt-out. On either side of these torched buildings, there were fine wine shops, supermarkets and upscale cafes – all of them catering to diplomats, NGOs, and U.N. personnel. Most of them were doing a bang-up business from behind reinforced concrete or coiled razor-wire.

Meanwhile, just across the street, locals eeked out a living selling the meager vegetables they’d coaxed from the drought-prone soil, their hard work netting them less-than two-dollars a day.

These contrasts may not have been so apparent had the U.N. pulled out of East Timor as they were slated to in 2004.

But in 2006, after a long struggle to build fledgling institutions, East Timor slipped backward toward anarchy and insurrection. Only this time it was Timorese fighting Timorese. During that wave of violence, 100,000 people were forced from their homes, 30,000 into UNHCR Refugee Camps around Dili.

Five minutes later, just past the center of town, I stumbled upon just one of these camps. It was massive.

Occupying the space of a large public park, it was a city within a city – entirely constructed of rope, tents and tarps.

Gazing for a moment at the inhabitants living in filth, there was garbage and feces, and pigs running loose. Children bathed from broken water pipes, while women washed their clothes in free-standing puddles.

Directly across the street stood a five-star hotel.

And at any given moment – through large picture windows – you could see people sipping cocktails as they stared back over the mayhem.

Shaking my head, I entered the camp, and began making images.

As I did, I intentionally ignored a recent U.S. State Department travel warning I’d come across online.

The most recent for East Timor read:

— Indiscriminate communal violence continues throughout the country. Gang-related violence occurs often in Dili, and Americans risk intentional or inadvertent injury. Stone-throwing attacks on vehicles are frequent, and have affected American citizens on several occasions.

— Several areas of Dili have become sites of chronic security incidents, particularly the areas around the camps for internally displaced people (IDPs). Americans are advised to avoid these areas and check with the U.S. Embassy regarding other areas of concern.

— More public demonstrations are possible because of Timor-Leste’s 2007 presidential and parliamentary elections.

Just after this warning was issued, in June 2007, violence erupted again in Dili. This after the installation of a new coalition government. During this renewed violence, gangs and rioters took to the streets, smashing cars and torching houses, including that of a woman and her three sons – the relatives of a government minister. She was burned alive, cradling her youngest son in her arms.

Moving to the center of the camp, I raised my lens and made an image of a statue figure holding a flag.

Suddenly, a resident of the camp – a young man of perhaps 20 – walked up and shot me a red-hot glare.

Behind him were three other men, all throwing equally aggressive stares.

“My friends say you took picture of him,” he barked with a heavy accent. “Now he want to fight you.”

I didn’t reply.

“Are you with the military?” he asked intently.

“No,” I replied.

“Are you a journalist?” he continued.

“Sort of,” I said. “Mostly I ride a bicycle.”

“Where are you from?” the man continued with an intensified demeanor.

“California,” I replied.

His eyes widened. “America?!” he replied, “We don’t like America, OR Australia here.”

As he spoke a plume of anger arose from within.

I was sick of it.

I’d heard it from a thousand different people, in a thousand different ways, in over 30 countries around the globe. All of them using me as a sounding board to express their deep disapointments with president Bush, his choice to create war, and the violent example he was setting for the world.

I stepped up to the man’s face.

“And so what am I supposed to do about that?” I said, matching his intensity.

“We don’t like George Bush here,” he said clenching his fists, “do you?”

I moved even closer, then looked him in the eye. “I did not VOTE for the man,” I replied slowly through gritted teeth.

Suddenly he stepped back and a smile rose to his face. He extended his hand and said, “My name is Miguel … “

It was a scary moment. But not nearly as scary as what came next. For just seconds before I’d met Miguel – after I’d first thrown my leg over my bike – I’d unknowingly split a sizable hole in the crotch of my shorts.

What became increasingly apparent at that moment was the fact that our entire conversation had taken place with my junk more or less exposed to the light of day – a disturbing discovery to say the least.

I made a bee-line to find needle and thread.

August 24-September 3, 2007

Mileage log: 18,840

Elevation: Sea level

Dili, East Timor

“There are those who give little of the much which

they have, and they give it for recognition, and their

hidden desire makes their gift’s unwholesome. And

there are those who have little and give it all. These

are the believers in life, and the bounty of life, and

their coffer is never empty. There are those who give

with joy, and that joy is their reward. And there are

those who give with pain, and that pain is their

baptism. And there are those who give and know not

pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with

mindfulness of virtue. They give as in yonder valley

the myrtle breathes it’s fragrance into space. Through

the hands of such as these, God speaks.”

–Kahlil Gibran

–From “The Prophet”

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