Dear readers,

The following is just a personal interest which I thought I put up to share it with you. I would also love to hear your views on them or perhaps if you have any other cultural notes, humors and myths from Timor-Leste that you would like to share. If you do, please share it (or them) and I will add it (or them) to this list and put it up.



Cultural notes, Humors and Myths of Timor-Leste

Humor: People who cannot control their mouths when they speak are said to have a mouth like the chicken’s anus. The story is that a chicken’s anus is constantly moving through the muscles that control it. However a man who talks too much is also said to have the lips of a woman. Apparently women talk too much in Timor.

Myth: I don’t know if this should be classified as a myth or a fact but it always works for me. Cool breezes can be created by whistling. This is specially helpful in Timor’s often barmy and icky climate.

Myth: You should not whistle during the night as it you would be inviting bad spirits.

Cultural note: Ladies should always accept a dance when invited by gentlemen at parties. If a lady refuses the invitation from a man, she should also refuse the invitation from the next man. If she refuses the invitation from the first man but accepts the invitation from the second man, it will be seen as disrespect to the first man. This often leads to brawls.

Myth: When stepping out from your home or any other house and you sneeze, it’s a sign of bad omen. You should consider staying for another few minutes before leaving.

Myth: When you are walking somewhere to do something and you trip on your left foot, it means bad luck. If you are leaving your house or any house, you should considering changing your pans. Tripping on your right foot is OK.

Myth: When a leaf falls near you and the leaf lands on its back, it’s a sigh of good luck.

Myth: You should not point at rainbows because your index finger or your hand will be deformed to a shape like that of the rainbow.

Cultural note: Never address anyone older than you, anyone with a respectful position with “you” whether in English, Portuguese or in Tetum.

Myth: The island of Timor is shaped like a crocodile because it was created following the death of a crocodile. How did the people know that the island is shaped like a crocodile? The tail being at Lospalos and the head at Kupang. The story of the crocodile is like this: A young man finds a sick crocodile and helps it to recover. To thank the young man or boy, the crocodile takes him to travel around the world. Their travel takes them to many places and many years until one day the crocodile grows to be very old and hungry. They were in the middle of the ocean and lost. The crocodile is tempted to eat the boy but realises instead that it was the boy who saved him from certain death in the past. As both of them grow weaker and no help is in sight, the crocodile decides that he should sacrifice himself to save the boy. So the crocodile dies and his body is transformed into an island. The boy is saved and inherits the island, the island of the crocodile, becoming the first inhabitant and the first Timorese.

Myth: Crocodiles are considered as sacred in Timor-Leste because they are said to be the ancestors of the Timorese. See the Crocodile story above. In some parts of Timor where crocodiles are found, it is said that if you are not an honest person, you can be identified by a crocodile and attacked or killed.

Cultural note: The traditional Lautem house is taken universally in Timor-Leste, east or west, as a cultural icon representing every East Timorese from every corner. Models of the house are made into gold pendants, engravings, paintings, etc. It is also used widely by every East Timorese to represent their culture.

Myth: You should not wear bright red during storms because you would be a lightning target.

Myth: In the southern seas, or the Tasi Mane (lit. male sea), you should not wear bright red as you would attract giant and destructive waves like a tsunami.

Cultural note: The Sea to the north of Timor is called Tasi Feto (female sea) and to the south is called the Tasi Mane (male sea). Tasi Mane is considered as rough and Tasi Feto as tamed.

Myth: The term Caladi comes from the Portuguese word for calado, or the quiet one. Originally Caladi is used to refer to the Mambae speakers of the central regions near the Ramelau cordillera whom are believed to be docile and cooperative. In contrast to Caladi is the word Firaku which is believed to come from the Portuguese expression vira o cú or to turn one’s backside. The Firaku, mostly referring to the Makasa’e speakers of Baucau and Viqueque, are said to be stubborn and uncooperative. The Firaku would turn his back “backside” on anyone who disagrees with. In today’s lingo, Firaku is associated with the “easterners” and Caladi with the “westerners.” A further reduction of Firaku is the word Irak (Iraq) to connote the “easterners”, in particular the Makasa’e speakers with terrorism and terrorists.

There is however a more rational explanation for the origin of the two terms. The word Firaku comes from the Makasa’e term fi raku, which means my friend or my brother. It’s exactly the same as what you would say in English, “hey buddy”. Whenever Makasa’e speakers meet they say “fi raku”. I am not sure if this term is still current. The word Caladi on the other hand is said to come from the Malay word for tubers (yams and other edible roots), keladi. The regions around the Mambae area produce tubers aplenty. Malay speaking traders must have been dealing with the Mambae speakers more often when it comes to trade in tubers. The word for sweet potato in Tetum, fehuk, is also used to refer to someone as being stupid.

Myth: When sitting on a table, do not sit at the corner especially if you are unmarried. For the yet to be married, sitting at the corner will lead to a marriage to a buan or witches. So sitting in a corner is generally avoided. Round tables are not as complicated.

Cultural note: Never give anything to another person or receive anything using your left hand. It is considered as disrespectful.

Myth: Some fruit bearing trees will carry a curse in what the locals call horok. The tree owner would hang an object (egg shells, black cloths, pieces of hair, tree barks, etc.) on the tree and put a spell on it. Whoever eats from the tree without the owner’s permission (to remove the spell) will get sick.

Myth: There is a belief in a magic spell that would make one invisible to the ordinary people. This spell is called matahelik and is used mostly by thieves.

Myth: In Lautem region, the snake is revered. According to the local myth, in the distant past some of their relatives transformed themselves into snake.

Myth: Cats are regarded as sacred. If you kill a cat, you will be damned for up to seven generations.

Myth: During wakes and funerals, cats are locked up or kept away from the dead body as far possible. If the cat jumps over the dead body, the dead body will awaken and be commanded by bad spirits.

Cultural note: Dog meat has become a delicacy in Timor-Leste. However this culture was introduced by the Indonesians from Sulawesi in the late 80s, when the first dog meat restaurant was opened in Colmera suburb.

Cultural note: See an article by Elizabeth Traube, “Unpaid Wages: Local Narratives and the Imagination of the Nation” (The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology Vol. 8, No. 1, March 2007, pp. 9-25). Abstract: This paper explores how official nationalist discourse is appropriated and reworked in local constructions. It draws on ethnographic fieldwork in the district of Aileu, East Timor, conducted before the Indonesian invasion and after the 1999 referendum. Bridging these two periods is a Mambai narrative tradition about a Christ-like figure named Tat Felis, who comes to Aileu with the first missionaries and is persecuted by local chiefs. In different ways, the paper argues, Mambai have entwined the story of the suffering inflicted on him by their ancestral chiefs with the suffering endured by the people in the nationalist struggle. Such narrativised ordeals evoke a cultural code of reciprocity in which whoever suffers to bring something forth must be repaid. In referencing their own enduring obligations to Tat Felis, people implicitly or explicitly remind nationalist leaders that the nation was purchased with their blood.

Cultural note: Beware of Timorese humor. They are really boring!!!

Cultural note: Any vice is a bad vice and in Tetum language, most of the vices are constructed from their root-word (a noun or a verb) by adding the suffix –teen. Teen is a morpheme of tee, a word denoting all kinds of waste, human, animal or objects. So a smoker becomes tabaku-teen, a thief becomes a na’ok-teen, a drunkard becomes a lanu-teen and a stupid person becomes beik-teen. If you are labeled with any word that ends in –teen, it is not a compliment.

Myth: In English there is a saying that goes, “If you find a penny, pick it up. All day long gives you good luck.” In Timor-Leste if you find a penny, you better not touch it and leave it where it is. According to local customs, if you have an incurable disease you can get rid of it by passing it on to other people. So you do this by rubbing a penny on the disease, or all over your body, plus a little bit of hamulak (a Timor prayer) and throw it away; hopefully someone will find it and keep it. And when they do, they won’t only pick up the penny but also the disease with them. Thus you will be cured.

Myth: The number three is regarded as a bad number. Taking pictures of three people, giving three things to someone, things that come in pairs of three, etc., are generally avoided.


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