Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Dropping the Flag

During the closing ceremony of the Independence Day celebration in Dili yesterday, an honor guard lowered the Timorese flag in front of the Government Palace when suddenly as the flag was being folded -- one of the honor guards dropped part of the flag onto the ground.

There was a collective gasp around me.

By the look on his face, the honor guard was in shock, himself -- and no doubt deeply embarrassed. A few seconds after the incident, he kissed the flag.

I had not realized the significance of the incident until I talked with my colleagues.

Many Timorese are superstitious and that includes issues concerning the flag. Some believe what happened yesterday is a bad omen -- signaling trouble ahead.

I was quickly reminded this morning by colleagues that on May 20th, 2002, when the flag was raised for the first time at Government Palace over an independent Timor-Leste -- the flag did not flutter. Within months, they said, new violence broke out.

The photograph of yesterday's incident appeared on the front page of one of the major newspapers, The Timor Post, with a short description of what happened.
One of my colleagues said his neighbor who saw it happen on television -- ran out of her house -- sobbing. He said she told him -- we are not going to be safe.

The reaction to yesterday's incident shows just how on edge people are -- it was just over a year ago that an assassination attempt was made on the president.

The main opposition political party is already attempting to politicize the incident by declaring that the ruling party is in trouble.

By the middle of the afternoon today, the President and Prime Minister were holding high level meetings to discuss how to handle the whole thing.

Independence Day in Timor Leste

Seven years ago today Timor-Leste became an independent state -- the first nation of the 21st century. The anniversary was marked with parades, speeches and concerts.Below: Members of the band, resting after a long march on a hot day!The anniversary celebration concluded with a series of performances -- including two songs by a Japanese soprano. It may have been the first time many in the audience had heard opera.

When she hit her first few high notes -- many people in the audience tried to imitate her -- it didn't appear to be in a mocking way, but in a way that suggested they'd never heard singing in that form before. After each song, she received tremendous applause.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Sacred Crocodile of Timor-Leste

The map of Timor-Leste looks something like a crocodile -- the small lake near the eastern tip serves as the crocodile's eye.

My Timorese colleagues tell the story of how, many, many years ago, a small crocodile lived in a swamp in a far away place. He dreamed of becoming a big crocodile, but since food was scarce, he left to find the sea. However, the weather became increasing hot and still far from the sea -- the little crocodile began to dry out and lay down to die.

Along comes a little boy who takes pity on the little crocodile and carries him to the sea. The crocodile, forever grateful, tells the little boy "you saved my life, if I can ever help you in any way, I will be at your command."

A few years later, the boy goes to the sea and calls on the crocodile, who is now big and strong. The boy tells the crocodile that he has a dream. "I want to see the world," he says.

The crocodile says "climb on my back" and then asks "which way do you want to go?"

"Follow the sun" says the boy.

So they set off for the east and they travel the ocean for years and years, until one day the crocodile turns to the boy and says "we've been traveling a long time, but now it has come time for me to die. In memory of your kindness, I will turn myself into a beautiful island, where you and your children can live."

As the crocodile began to die, he grew and grew and the ridges on his back became the mountains and his scales the hills of Timor.

Today, when Timorese people swim in the sea, when they enter the water they say "Don't eat me crocodile, I am your relative."