THE BLOG

Commemorating Timorese Independence and Meeting Xanana Gusmão: A Photo-essay

I have only been in Timor-Leste for three months, yet it has been an unimaginably eventful time here. From attending three thrilling World Cup qualifying home matches to observing a series of events commemorating Timor-Leste's long, traumatic, and inspiring Independence struggle, I have been been able to experience a veritable lifetime of excitement.

Youth National Day

On November 12, the country solemnly honors the victims of the infamous 1991 Santa Cruz Massacre-as well as the sacrifices of the youth and activists who ultimately made independence possible.

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Timorese revelers on their way to National Youth Day commemoration

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The ceremonies kick off...

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...And Dr. Mari Alkatiri, Timor-Leste's first Prime Minister, is in attendance! He actually shook my hand...

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...as our paths crossed in the Santa Cruz cemetery after the ceremony...

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...where mourners paid their respect to slain Independence activist Sebastião Gomes

The Celebração: :The Arrival of Lisbon in the East

On November 28, Timor-Leste simultaneously kicked off a fascinating double-header of public holidays. The first was the Celebração, which commemorated the 500th anniversary of the Portuguese arrival to Timor's enclave of Oecusse. While I did not actually get ot attend the Celebração, I was able to visit Oecusse the week before and was fortunate enough to observe some of the preparations.

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First stop: Dominican Cafe in sunny Pante Macassar, the district capital of Oecusse!

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Timor-Leste's Motocross daredevils gearing up to entertain the workers and townspeople while practicing for Saturday's big event! Dr. Alkatiri observed the entertainment as well.

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The figures of the Portuguese settlers at the LIfau monument were covered in sheets to protect them from the elements before Saturday's extravaganza

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...and we spot none-other than THE Xanana Gusmão fastidiously watering the ceremony grounds in his characteristic "hands-on" approach to leadership and motivation!

Timorese Declaration of Independence: A Dili Extravaganza

The other November 28 holiday is the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Timor-Leste's declaration of Independence from Portugal-and subsequent 24 year-long brutal occupation by Indonesia. While many delegates and VIPs (including Nobelaurete José Manuel Ramos-Horta, who briefly returned from his special mission in Guinea-Bissau for the occasion) attended the Celebração in Oecusse, others attended the Independence Day celebrations in Dili.

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The cultural dance team gets ready to perform!

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One of the many dazzling performances in the concern-like atmosphere.

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The servicemen and servicewomen of the Timor Leste Defence Force (F-FDTL) enjoy the live music.

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Had the pleasure to meet the Bangladeshi Ambassador to Indonesia and his wife, who were the VIP attendees from Bangladesh.

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...When none other than Xanana appears to personally serve cake to the guests

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He has a fantastic knack for connecting with people, especially with kids

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And when the Director in charge of organizing the festivities asks if you want a photo with Xanana, you take that opportunity!

Okay that last photo needs some explanation. Namely: Why do I have such a ridiculous grin on my face; the clear aftermath of nonstop laughter? Because maun bot ("big brother") can joke around like no other, and has a way of unlocking everyone's inner child. Our conversation went a little like this:

Me: Your Excellency, may I please take a photo to show my friends in America?

Xanana: NO!!!

Me: May I take one to show my family back in Bangladesh?

Xanana: NO!!!...haha just kidding. *cameraman flashes photo*

Ergo the stupid grin on my face. Even an embarrassingly goofy photo with Xanana is still a treasure to behold. Last but not least...

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Just a few of the many, many tremendously hardworking and proud folks who made all of this possible.

As my time in Timor-Leste rapidly nears its conclusion (only two short months left!), I already have much to look back on-and memories to treasure for a lifetime. To everyone who made this latest saga in my life possible, thank you.

In true Huffpost citizen journalism fashion, A=all photos were taken with my Ipad (which is otherwise reliable but not so great at nighttime photos), and I will certainly invest in a proper camera for my next photo-essay! Much thanks to the graciousness of the Presidential media and communications team for allowing me to cover the Independence Day celebrations in Dili with the media team.