'Welcome', said the neighbouring passenger on my flight from Darwin, 'to one of the 10 least-visited countries in the world'.
She meant East Timor or, more accurately, Timor-Leste, which also happens to be the world's second-newest country – a mere 15 years old. The plane was carrying about a dozen people, which rather underscored her point.
'She' was also an Australian diplomat, and thus welcomed the opportunity to brief a visiting journalist on her country's activity in the former Portugese colony. Unmentioned was a feeling of guilt, for in 1975 the nine-day Timorese republic came to an end when, with tacit consent from Canberra and Washington DC, Indonesia invaded.
I was there partly out of curiosity at how a newly-independent nation was faring after decades of conflict, but also in order to remove another country from my global bucket list. We touched down in Dili, the capital, about an hour after leaving Australia's northern territory (itself only 'self-governing' since 1978), and the heat was baking.
Everything, however, seemed in reasonably good order, while a useful first-stop was the well-appointed Resistance Museum, which coolly set out the post-1975 chronology, culminating in the New York Accord of May 1999 (just as Scotland was electing its newly-devolved parliament) and the creation of the second East Timorese republic in 2002. The information panels were admirably free of rancour or mythmaking.
They included photographs of the Santa Cruz cemetery, a short walk north-west of the museum. There, in the early 1990s, Indonesian soldiers surrounded and massacred at least 250 East Timorese supporters of independence, their only provocation having been a largely peaceful and orderly protest against the Indonesian occupation. A sun-faded placard indicated plans for a memorial but, remarkably, across the road I found a second well-attended cemetery, this time for Indonesian soldiers killed on duty in Timor-Leste.
This might seem surprising, but there appears to be very little bitterness between post-independence Timor-Leste and its former oppressors (who, after all, did some terrible things, including the murder of five Australian journalists in 1975). Of colonial Portugal, meanwhile, there's very little trace. In the afternoon I spent exploring Dili I could find only a few (relatively new) Catholic churches and one basic memorial to a former Portugese 'administrator' near my hotel.
The Hotel Timor was Indonesian built and run with brisk efficiency. At its cafe you could digest a Portugese tart while eavesdropping on Aussies, international aid types and upwardly-mobile Timorese. It felt a bit like being in Lisbon, which perhaps was the point. In Gordon Peake's engaging book, 'Beloved Land: stories, struggles, and secrets from Timor-Leste', he returns again and again to the hotel lobby to illustrate the contrast between pre- and post-independence.
One former revolutionary interviewed by Peake admitted that his freedom movement had moved too quickly back in 1975; that, on reflection, some sort of transitional autonomy under Portugese rule would have better served East Timorese economy and democracy, not to mention guard against Indonesian expansion.
There are, of course, problems which are virtually inevitable when nations transition from civil war and colonial occupation: corruption, high prices and over-dependence on international aid, yet at the same time the government of Timor-Leste has established a sovereign wealth fund (there is oil between it and Darwin), considered international best practice. On the streets and faces, meanwhile, there was a palpable sense of a nation that wants to improve and develop.
It was reflected, too, at Timor-Leste's only airport and main hotel. The former was dark and dingy but generally functional. A single check-in desk dealt with all flights regardless of airline (and why not?), while immigration and security were swift, friendly and tokenistic. By boarding time there was no sign of my flight to Bali, but then suddenly it roared into sight and within 10 minutes it had been emptied of passengers and refilled with me and a few dozen others, a process that would have taken three times as long at any western terminal. At the hotel, meanwhile, I was charged nothing extra
for airport transfers, wifi and wine refills in its Portugese restaurant.
Somehow I doubt such a pleasing lack of officiousness will last very long. At the moment Timor-Leste, just a decade-and-a-half old, is eager to please, but it has grandiose plans for economic growth and development, much of which may be quixotic. Still, in circumstances profoundly and tragically different from similarly aspirant nations in Western Europe, it struck me as a good advert for independence: nimble, friendly, forward-looking and intent on close relations with neighbouring nations it could easily spurn.