Mariana Pinto - " I never thought visiting it would be worth risking my life but it really is an unbelievable place"
We met Mariana the first night in East Timor, we were very welcomed by all her friends for a pizza night at the beach near Dili.
1. What is your name, where do you come from and what do you do for living?
My name is Mariana, I come from Lisbon, Portugal and I work in the International help sector in Dili, Timor.
I arrived here in June 2012, initially for a 3-month project, and now I’ve been here for over 4 years. What made me stay was the fact that I had already been working for this sector back in Europe but always on paper, far from the action. I felt that here, my work could have more impact and would be much more hands-on.
Also, I loved this country; it’s a wonderful place with so much to do. I currently work for a French NGO - Triangle Generation Humanitaire - on a project aimed to fight domestic and gender violence so I work mainly with women but also with children.
Before that, I worked for another NGO in the justice department, also here in Dili. I was like a watchdog for the juridical system, I would go to court to make sure that the trials were being fair and that no human rights were being violated. This work really opened my eyes to the Timorese reality.
2. What advice would you give to someone like us that just arrived here?
I have several advices actually! The main one is, when you come to Timor, don’t stay only in Dili. It’s not always easy to leave Dili because the roads aren’t good, but it is definitely worth the effort. Also, don’t think of this country as Indonesia, because it isn’t. Some people haven’t even heard of East Timor so they arrive here and don’t understand why it’s violent or poor. Get to know its history; it’s the best way to enjoy this experience. Everything will make more sense.
My other advice is to go scuba diving. You won’t find many places like this, with so much to see and so little divers.
3. What would you say is your favourite food?
East Timor doesn’t have a very strong culinary history because of all the wars it has been through. Many of the women died in these wars so a lot of the recipes were lost with the oldest generations. The Indonesians were the ones introducing rice to the Timorese, before that it wasn’t very common.
But my favourite typical dish they have now is Catupa. It’s these squares of rice boiled in coconut water while wrapped in palm tree leaf. Once it’s ready, you eat it like bread.
4. What's your favourite place here?
I think I have two favourite places. One is Adara, on the island of Ataúro. When nobody is there it’s very special. The other one is the lake before Tutuala, full of crocodiles! When you pass by it by car, the landscape is breathtaking. On the background you have a mountain that looks straight out of the tropics and in front of it you either see a beautiful lake or, if it’s dry, you see what seems to be a savannah full of animals. It’s amazing because they’re two landscapes that shouldn’t be together, the tropical mountain and the savannah.
Then there’s my newly found favourite place, it’s the nature bridge near Baucau. Imagine a crystal blue river running right in the middle of the rocks creating the illusion of a natural bridge. The only problem is that a lot of times the local communities that are already in conflict between them throw rocks at the people or the cars that stop there because they want money from them. I never thought visiting it would be worth risking my life but it really is an unbelievable place.
5. What would be the perfect Sunday afternoon plan?
That’s an easy one! Getting out of Dili with a group of close friends and going to a beach that’s not crowded, which is easy to find, and spending the whole afternoon there with a picnic and some wine. Then, coming back home, shower and leave to have dinner at Harry’s, the best Indian restaurant around. This has become quite the tradition, it sounds simple but it’s the perfect Sunday because it seems like a mini vacation.
If we have a bit more time, then a good plan is to go to Maubiça and make cheese fondue! It’s on the way to Ramelau and it’s much cooler there, at night sometimes it’s 14 degrees! So we rent a simple house, light up the fireplace and make fondue.
6. What makes you happy?
I don’t have a particular moment, but several moments, always in the same situation, which is when I’m travelling with people who are important to me and we’re in some amazing place. Or it can just be a new place where I feel completely free, as long as it’s with people who are important. This has been a pattern since forever because I remember feeling this when I was very young while travelling with my parents.
7. What do you think has changed the most in Timor?
The most visible change is definitely the infrastructures. I remember arriving to Dili in 2012 shocked with how bad the roads were. Now they’re much better.
You can also see the rise of a small middle-class, which didn’t use to exist. Normally, it consists of people who work for the government or for international organisations with stable work and salary. You see that people feel they have more to loose so they worry more about the future of the country. You also see many more people going out for dinner, feeling more comfortable going out at night. Before, you wouldn’t see any Timorese out so it’s very positive. But there are also negative changes, like corruption.
Regarding my work, the violence in the country seems to be increasing but it’s only because people are talking more and more about it. Even though it’s getting better, it’s still much too high and it’s something that will take generations to fully change. The reason for this is because violence has existed forever here in East Timor, everybody has been a victim of some sort of violence so to change it you really have to understand the essence of the problem.
In East Timor, you have very tribal societies very isolated from each other. It’s not unusual to hear of tribes that live only a few kilometres from each other that speak two completely different languages and that have never met. If you look at the linguistic map of the country, you’ll see that there are 35 different languages with Tetum being the language that people seem to understand the most, becoming the common language.
It’s also a society very marked by conflict with 500 years of Portuguese colonisation, the very violent Indonesian invasion and with a very dominant and repressive catholic church. And now, more recently, you have the presence of pornography on mobile phones and some people try to reproduce what they see with their kids.
We have to understand that these people have very little exposure to the world; many of them don’t even know where Timor is on a map. So generally, Timorese people aren’t really glad that all these institutions are here because, in the end, they see them as a new invader, coming from all over the place and with many different ideas telling them what to do.
But there is still hope. Even when oil finishes, which it will, they have a lot they can work with. They just need to develop certain industries like the production of coffee. They have great coffee but the farmers need to be educated. A lot of times, they pick the coffee when it’s still too ripe because they are desperate for money.
Also, they should create a more developed common language. Tetum is a very incomplete language but it’s not at all basic. You have four different ways to describe the rice. It’s a language that has been developed for centuries based on their past needs but it doesn’t work for today’s needs. You can’t teach philosophy or medicine in Tetum for example, there are no words for it. So, working in development can be very frustrating. As I usually say, if you want to see results, then work in humanitarian help where you immediately impact the person in need. In development, you work with projects that you don’t know will work, and if they do work you probably won’t know the impact on the long run.
8. What would you like to ask our next host?
Do you feel part of Indonesia?