Saturday, March 14, 2009

Down in Dili East Timor - by Martin Foreman (August 2004

Okay, I admit defeat. There is no way I can fill a column on gay life in this town. It's not there isn't any. It's just that there's so little of it. A leading global expert on HIV/AIDS (me) estimates that in the East Timorese capital, which has about 120,000 inhabitants, about 1,500 - 3,000 men have sex with men. Perhaps 100 of these is willing to admit it or is so camp that he doesn't even need to open his mouth, and on any one night, about 15 are going to put on their best clothes and head into for the town's night spots. Which means that gay life here isn't exactly vibrant.

There are, apparently, four places where gay men can regularly be found mingling in the crowd. There's Poy Cholor, near the oil terminal (which consists of one pier and a single pipeline), Sagres and Another Place whose name I've forgotten. Yes, I know that's only three, and I didn't visit any of them. But I did go to the fourth: the Dili Trade Centre, a first-floor (second-floor for the USAmericans among you) bar where the highlight of the week is the band that performs there on a Friday night (at least until the Bishop living nearby telephones to complain that he can't sleep).

I spent two weeks in Dili in a hotel next to the British Embassy, which comprises a bungalow with just enough room for a retired colonel and his gin-and-tonic. In the tiny garden, there's a satellite dish bigger than anyone else's in Dili, presumably so that the colonel and his moustache can catch reruns of Nigella Lawson, Two Fat Ladies or Keith Floyd, depending on his culinary and sexual predilictions. The latter may not be not be up to much, considering that the flagpole from which the ambassadorial Union Jack hangs limply is a very modest erection compared to the thick and taller Japanese rod next door.

Okay, let's cut the weak humour and get down to basics. East Timor is Asia's newest and probably poorest country. It's just south of the Equator, has the usual requisite tropical landscape of palm trees, mountains and sometimes sandy beaches. It's less humid than Bangkok, which means I was less inclined to sweat - a bonus to me and those around me. It's also very expensive. A night in the Esplanada hotel, which is pleasant enough but lacks basic facilities such as clean towels and a telephone in the room, sets you, or the company that sponsors you, back US$80 (£44) or more a night, while a decent brunch in the hotel restaurant, completely with mimosa, will another $22 (£13). The combination of high prices and low facilities goes a long way to explaining the lack of tourists.

Anyway, East Timor is half of an island that for several hundred years was shared by the Dutch and the Portuguese. In 1949 the Dutch left their half and West Timor was incorporated into the newly-independent Indonesia. The Portuguese hung on to their half until 1975, a year after a coup d'état in Lisbon unseated one of Europe's longest-running dictatorships. As soon as it came into power, the new, left-wing, government in Lisbon issued a statement that that they were abandoning their colonies and helpfullly listed their remaining possessions around the globe.

Except that they forgot to mention East Timor. Not surprising, really; the Portuguese were not one of the world's better colonisers - say what you like about the Brits, in our Empire we tended to erect substantial buildings and educate at least a few natives so that when we pulled out we left functioning bureaucracies and at least some infrastructure. The East Timorese were left with nothing but poverty. Shortly after the Portuguese headed for home, the Indonesians decided to claim ET as theirs. They weren't lured here by the cinnamon or coffee or sandalwood as much as their reluctance to share a border with a country whose government leaned far to the left. Also, the fact that it was believed there were vast oil deposits on East Timor's southern shores probably had something to do with it.

There may only be 800,000 of them, compared to around 200 million Indonesians, but the East Timorese, who are of Melanesian stock (think Australian aborogine), Tetum speakers and Roman Catholic, unlike their Indonesian-speaking, south-east Asian Muslim rulers, resisted the occupation. There followed 24 years of guerrillla fighting, torture, rape and murder common in such situations. The guerillas' PR was effective, the world began to pay attention and support for their cause grew; in 1999 Indonesia quit and the United Nations and Australians moved in, the former to keep the peace, the latter to distribute aid and run bars.

Five years later, the UN is on its way out, but the Australians have dug themselves in. There are also quite a few Portuguese and Brazilians since the new government decided that Portuguese would be one of the country's official languages (the other is Tetum). That is despite the fact that very few Timorese under 30 years old speak Portuguese. English is used with most foreigners, while Timorese who come from different ends of the island and whose dialects of Tetum are mutually unintelligible use the language of their most recent oppressor - Indonesian. (Unaware of this linguistic confusion when I signed the contract to work in East Timor, I looked forward to chatting away in the language I first learnt a generation ago in Rio. I watched City of God on DVD and started mumbling to myself phrases like quando era a última vez que você usou camisinha? - when was the last time you used a condom? - only to discover on my arrival in Dili that almost nobody understood me.)Back to the Australians. They're so involved in the country that they've decided to take over the country's oilfields. Well, strictly speaking, they negotiated a treaty revising maritime boundaries with Indonesia at a point in the mid-1990s when it was clear that Jakarta was on a losing wicket, giving them (the Australians) the bulk of the oil. Even though the treaty was signed by an illegally occupying force, Canberra insists that East Timor honour the agreement. The ETs (I'm sorry - I couldn't resist that one) are hopping mad, but there's nothing you can do when your total population is about the size of a couple of Sydney's suburbs put together and your navy probably has no more than one battered ferry. [In late August 2004, an agreement was reached with Australia that granted ET an extra US$2.1 billion of the $21 billion estimated total value of the oil.]

But it's not the Australians that preoccupy the ordinary Timorese as much as the United Nations. Fewer UN troops and support staff means fewer US dollars - also the ET national currency - to spread around. It's a disturbing prospect. After all, one high-ranking blue beret can easily support a maid, a driver and a couple of security guards; when he (occasionally she) leaves that's four ETs out of work. Restaurants are closing all over town. Drivers of battered taxis asked me anxiously which unit I was from and when I would leave. I reassured them that I was not from the UN, then disappointed them by saying I was only there for a fortnight.

Back at gay life... There may not be much of it, but it's surprisingly open. On my first visit to the Dili Trade Centre I arrived about 10.30 and knocked back a couple of beers while watching expats from their late twenties to early forties, male and female, determinedly drink and dance to the band's surprisingly good reggae. This was, I had been told, the centre of gay nightlife but apart from myself, I could spot no friend of Dorothy. However, by midnight the atmosphere had begun to change. A group of fashionably dressed young men entered; for the next hour I chatted with them and watched as the white-skinned couples left and the darker Timorese arrived. By one o'clock it was clear that the Dili Trade Centre on a Friday night was the place to find single men of every nationality, ethnicity and sexual orientation; it was also the place for single women in unnaturally tight clothing, although they did not seem to be doing much business. And don't forget the single feto, a very masculine figure in a blouse and skirt. One of my new companions said this was the best place for gay people to come. I asked why. Because it's less violent than the others, he said. In the other bars there are UN troops running amok with Kalashnikovs? I wondered. No, he said, just the locals with knives and fists. Okay, I thought to myself, I can live without that.

I was in Dili to help set up an HIV prevention programme for men who have sex with men and later that week I brought together half a dozen of the locals to help me understand the situation better. I originally scheduled the meeting for 5.30pm but was told that most of those I invited would have to go to university classes at 6. I brought the time forward to 4pm and waited alone at the allocated spot - the bar of my hotel - until 4.35, when the first person strolled in. By five o'clock four men had arrived. Another three came in the next hour. With beer and snacks, six o'clock came and went and none of them rushed away. Ah well, I reflected, the lack of punctuality common to the hotter climates of the world was clearly alive and well on the borders of the Pacific.

Ages ranged from a languid 23 with dark blonded hair to the 41 year-old slightly tense radio personality whose face now adorns the country's first leaflets for gay men. Most were either unemployed or vague about work and were eager - or said they were eager; no-one in East Timor seems to be a ball of energy - to work together improve the lot of their fellow gay men. I had a list of things to talk about and conversation was wide-ranging. Over a coupe of hours I learnt such disparate facts as the Tetum word for fuck (I've already forgotten it - not much use for it here in Bangkok) to that some members of parliament had considered legislation outlawing discrimination based on orientation. What do you do if you want sex, I asked one. Well, he said, first he'd phone a friend, and if one wasn't free, he'd pay a taxi-driver, and if that didn't work out he'd go to a bar like the Dili Trade Centre, and if that didn't work out (and watching the dynamics of the DTC I suspected it seldom did), he'd cruise the section of street and park in front of the Government Palace. I thought of the apparently limitless choice of partners in the bars and saunas and internet chat rooms of London and Bangkok. There were many forms of poverty I realised, not just financial. Of course my dear elderly mother would opine that sex should only be practised within marriage or a loving committed relationship irrespective of the gender of the participants. In Dili, that sounds like a serious option.

We talked more, but the story was basically the same - a few men who were more or less open about their sexuality and a much greater number of "hidden" men, who took what chances were offered. Very little knowledge about HIV, other sexually transmitted infections and safer sex. Quite a challenge for the next stage of the project.

And that was the gay scene. I thought about seeing more of the island, but I had a lot of work to do and I never got out of Dili; perhaps next time. I hear that there are some beautiful mountains and beaches and diving in East Timor. The fact that the roads are dirt-tracks, there are few hotels outside Dili (and even fewer with en suite bathrooms) and restaurants are few and far between both attracts and puts me off. Perhaps I should go; ten years from now, who knows what the country will be like.


  1. Dear Writer,

    I am glad to have browsed to your blog and interessting article about the Gay's life in East Timor.

    There must have been times for gay to stand up and speak for and by themselves. However,Your article should be posted only after pre-study, study and post study. It has high tendency to draw any conlusion by other people who have not come accross to East TImor. There could be also Judgemental in that kind of situation. I am not lamented about your statement "there are 1,500 - 3,000 men have sex with men in East TImor". The article might not have based on the Truth over there. I admit that I have not even done any research in order to proof what you have been writing but I personally believe that it has been only hersays.

    I do believe that Mass Media becomes a channel in which we can write and express what we want and feel however, there could be also some basic codes which we have to obeserve to.

    I wish we work together in order to find some basic resource supporting to your article.

    Let us discuss over and over about your article.

    Thank you very much!

    Dionisio de Jesus Lopes

  2. Thank you for your nice posting.
    it is really helpful to us.
    such a nice topics.