Jesus is hard to miss. Nearly 100 feet tall, he beckons from atop an enormous metal globe on a promontory overlooking Dili, the capital of East Timor. It's said that Cristo Rei is the second-tallest such statue in the world, exceeded only by Rio de Janeiro's Cristo Redentor. Some note that the figure, erected by Indonesia during its bloody occupation here, doesn't face this devoutly Roman Catholic country. With embracing arms, Jesus instead looks west—toward Jakarta.
The orientation is fitting: for centuries, it seemed that even God had turned his back on East Timor. But on May 20, 2002, after decades of struggle for independence, the tiny country became the world's newest nation.
For several years, East Timor (now officially called Timor-Leste) has profited from a massive, multi-billion-dollar rebuilding effort led by the United Nations.
By the time the organization's mandate expires this May, though, most staffers will have departed, leaving the country to grapple with a tremendous loss of income. As in other battle-scarred places (such as Afghanistan), East Timor has proclaimed tourism a linchpin of its development strategy. That notion plays well in press releases, but can a remote, impoverished place best known for bloody conflict hope to attract even the most adventurous tourists?
The fact that East Timor is secure enough to contemplate a tourism industry indicates how far the Connecticut-sized country has come. Portugal established a foothold here in the mid 16th century, but during the 400-plus years of its rule barely gave the colony a thought. Naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who passed through Dili in 1861, noted that "nobody seems to care the least about the improvement of the country.... There has not been a mile of road made beyond the town."
Things hadn't progressed much by 1975—the colony then had a grand total of eight miles of paved road—when newly socialist Portugal finally divested itself of its colonies. In East Timor, civil war erupted. The pro-independence Fretilin party triumphed, leading Indonesian president Suharto to worry that other secessionist movements in the sprawling nation might be emboldened. Just 48 hours after a December 1975 state visit to Jakarta by President Gerald Ford, Indonesian paratroops seized Dili. Fretilin fighters took to the mountains and began waging a guerrilla war. The decades-long struggle would ultimately claim more than 100,000 lives—a devastating total in a nation of fewer than 1 million.
In 1999, weary of international criticism and the expense of occupation, Jakarta allowed a referendum on self-determination; about 78 percent of the Timorese voted for independence. The Indonesian army and its local militias retaliated by slaughtering civilians, scuttling ships, and destroying three-quarters of the country's buildings. "I felt like an ambulance driver arriving at the site of a car crash and finding a dismembered body in a state of clinical death," said the late Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN troubleshooter sent to oversee the country's resuscitation.
Five years on, the UN considers East Timor a success story. There is an elected government, led by the charismatic guerrilla poet-turned-president José Alexander "Xanana'' Gusmão, who keeps his Dili office in a half-ruined building dubbed Palacio das Cinzas (Palace of the Ashes). Offshore oil and natural-gas fields are being developed; they are projected to generate $3 billion over a 20-year period, beginning in 2005. And although soldiers still patrol the capital's somnolent streets, and power blackouts remain a daily vexation, Dili echoes with the sound of jackhammers and smells of fresh cement.
Beyond the capital lies a harshly beautiful land. Sere mountains rise dramatically from the water's edge. Monsoon forest drapes the island's south side. Driving eastward from Dili with Rui Gonçalves, who runs Timor Mega Tours, the only tour operator in the country, we passed empty beaches and fallow rice-paddy terraces before arriving at the town of Baucau, where lovely colonial buildings were spared from destruction in 1999. Another scenic route took us inland, snaking up slopes swathed in coffee plantations, to Maubisse, a hill station with panoramic views of 9,721-foot Mount Tatamailau, the country's highest peak.
Not surprisingly, the ghosts of East Timor's tragic past were everywhere we went: the mangroves near Metinaro, where students had been massacred; the gutted villas of Alieu, a mountain town nearly leveled during the occupation; the pastel-pink Pousada Baucau, which once served as a torture center. Communicating with the Timorese proved difficult—most speak only Tetum, a Portuguese-Malay argot—but I was struck by their affability and optimism. It reminded me of my travels in rural Cambodia, where everyone seemed to have a personal story encompassing both hope and horror.
One of Timor's greatest assets is offshore: warm, clear seas with pristine coral reefs. In a single one-hour dive, it's possible to see a multitude of tropical fish, as well as manta rays, sea turtles, sharks, and dugongs. Best of all, no charter is required: the shore diving is superb.
One morning I met up with Australian Mark Mialszygrosz, who runs Dive Timor Lorosae. Engine problems scuttled our planned run to Atauro Island, so we dropped anchor 10 minutes from Dili off Cristo Rei Beach. Except for a few fishermen, the place was deserted. After our snorkel, we motored back around the point, passing Cristo Rei. "One day he'll fall into the sea,'' said Mialszygrosz, smiling at the thought. "It'll be a hell of a dive site."