Christmas with the President
There’s this bar in Singapore, called Number Five. It’s an institution; it has been for the last 30 years. One year, it gave us a big Christmas surprise.
Number Five counts loan sharks, SPGs, expats, chancers from every country in the world, bankers, gangs of tourists, ah bengs and more among its customers. A few years after I’d first arrived in Singapore, I was in there, propping up the bar with Mallika, enjoying a pre-Christmas after-work drink or two and watching the crowd.
We had a couple of martinis, dallied with a pan-pizza, then fell into conversation with an unusually dapper man, notable for the twinkle in his eye and his charming Latin accent. He told us his name was Paulo, and that he was in Singapore on business with his boss.
We, in turn, explained we were local journalists with an interest in regional issues, and always looking for stories. “Why don’t you come and meet my boss?” he asked. “He’s really interesting to talk to. He’s staying at the InterContinental — it’s only a few minutes from here by taxi.” He also mentioned he was from East Timor (Timor Leste), and that he and his boss had come ‘to talk to some people here’.
We didn’t know Paulo from a bar of soap, but thought, what the hell, it’s worth a look. You can’t get into too much trouble in Singapore, anyway. We taxied to the InterContinental, were ushered into the Presidential Suite, and were introduced to — the President.
The President, that is, of Timor Leste — the world’s newest democracy at the time. José Ramos-Horta, 1996 Nobel prizewinner, global statesman and diplomatic colossus of southeast Asia walked over, smiled and shook our hands. Our jaws stayed at floor level for a while as the most courteous, charming and impressive man we had met in years welcomed us in and told us to help ourselves to drinks and nibbles from the table.
We spent an hour or so pretending to mingle with the politicians, diplomats and hangers-on that filled the room, but realising we were way out of our depth we began to take our leave. The president, who hadn’t really spoken to us much til then, saw us picking up our things, and came across with a smile.
“What are you doing over Christmas?” he asked. Slightly puzzled, we said we had no set plans.
“It’s my birthday on Boxing Day,” he said. “Every year I hold a birthday party and invite the poor children and orphans of Dili to my house. Would you like to come?”
For the second time that evening, our jaws collapsed downwards. “We will pay for the airfare, you just need to get a hotel once you are there,” he added, as though we might need convincing. Paulo chipped in to say that he owned a hotel, the Hotel California, and we could definitely find a room there. There was nothing in our list of excuses that could compete. We said yes, we’ll see you in Dili. And thank you very very much, Your Excellency.
A week or so later, our 737 screeched to a halt at Nicolau Lobato International Airport in Dili, we tumbled out onto the heat and humidity-drenched tarmac, and were whisked off to the charming Hotel California by a minivan.
Next afternoon we were driven in a window-tinted Toyota to the presidential lodge and, still rubbing our eyes with disbelief, enjoyed traditional food, rice and birthday cake with José Ramos-Horta, famous guerrilla leader José Alexandre Xanana Gusmão, their partners and friends, and dozens of equally bewildered young Timorese children. We were both completely bowled over by their open welcome, generosity and friendliness.
But that wasn’t the end of it. After Mallika had finished dancing with Xanana, I’d scoffed plenty of rice and cake, and we’d marvelled at the reverence all the people had for their president, the man himself came over and enquired how we were enjoying things. He asked if we had had much opportunity to see the countryside; we said not really, just the parts we drove by in the minivan and a wander on the beach that morning.
“Well,” he said, “I have to go up to a mountain village tomorrow to open a new school. Would you like to come along?”
“The people there are real Timor people like in the old days,” he added. “I think you would enjoy it.” We agreed we probably, definitely, grovellingly would, imagining driving there in a diplomatic plated, armoured LandCruiser (there were still sporadic outbursts of violence following the ejection of the Indonesian occupiers), flanked by gun-toting Special Forces and with terse walkie-talkie interjections keeping the tension high. Wrong again.
“OK, we’ll meet up in the morning at about 7.30,” he said. “Sleep well, and see you tomorrow.” Next morning saw us not in a LandCruiser, but once more on the airport tarmac, this time clambering aboard the presidential helicopter, I kid you not, crewed by Australian Army conflict zone specialists. It really was turning out to be a surprise Christmas.
We took off, thudded low over Dili then turned inland across some of the most wild and uncivilised mountain terrain outside of Papua New Guinea.
We flew over huddles of huts, tiny squares of cultivated land, and scampering groups of waving children. No sign anywhere of connecting roads or even paths — just thread-thin tracks that a single human could walk along. Those mountain settlements were so isolated it was hard to comprehend that people managed to live there.
We climbed higher, over mist shrouded ravines and crags deep into the interior of the island, then dropped down onto a small plateau where the village with the new school was perched. The chopper blades had barely slowed down when a bunch of wild-looking mountain men with ragged beards rushed us, waving sticks, knives and wearing amazing horned turbans.
Luckily for us, they weren’t angry, just utterly delighted that their beloved president, the man who had helped them win their freedom, the famous Mr. Ramos-Horta, had come to open their new school. Singing, shouting and beard-waving broke out across the whole plateau.
And there we were. Right in the middle of it. We were garlanded with crocodile-icon scarves, led into the school and treated to a couple of growlingly scary warrior/warrior women dances as the entire neighbourhood chattered and wailed and smoked pipes in celebration.
It was amazing — and we were in that moment, random invitees, utter strangers, gobsmacked recipients of the president’s unasked for and unexpected generosity.
Eventually, the villagers calmed down, the president signed his name on a lump of stone to mark the opening, we ate more rice and the pipes came out again. But black and glowering storm clouds were looming lower and lower over the nearby peaks, and the Australian pilot was looking worried. He warned we might not have enough visibility to take off safely and fly back to Dili.
We were all rushed aboard the helicopter, then lurched rapidly off the plateau and plunged what seemed like vertically through banks of blinding cloud into unseen abysses framed by (we’d seen them on the way up, remember) razor-sharp ridges. After several minutes of flying blind a few roads and scattered houses became visible, the outskirts of Dili made themselves known, and we swung back over the airport. It was then the pilot revealed that his piloting was driven not by careful attention to the instruments and sophisticated navigational aids, but by his memory and the seat of pants.
“Up here there are no reliable maps, and the weather changes so fast it’s impossible to do anything other than just try to avoid hitting the ground,” he explained. We were very glad he hadn’t told us that earlier.
We spent a few more days in Timor, one of them with the President as he told us about his decades fighting for independence, and describing how he had survived an assassination attempt, right where we were standing outside his home.
His dispassionate account of almost bleeding to death on the dusty road was unforgettable; it reinforced what a man of principle can overcome if he holds true to his belief.
In his case, that meant holding true for 24 years to the moral right of Timorese people to govern themselves, even as his country was being raped and slaughtered by Indonesia. All with the connivance of many powerful western governments.
When we got back to Singapore, it was like a Christmas dream had ended. Many of the things we had seen and done were almost unbelievable, but they really did happen. I don’t think that amazing Christmas was entirely due to the effect of Number Five, but you never know … I’m definitely going back just in case it was.