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Dawn of a bright new era in East Timor, land with a tragic past

The Australian - October 8, 2011

Jill Jolliffe – East Timorese hotel manager Alice Goncalves has survived many bad moments in the hospitality business.

The worst was as a young woman in December 1975, when she found herself kneeling at gunpoint in the front yard of Dili's Hotel Turismo with all the hotel guests. "These guys were the Indonesian army's red-beret soldiers. I thought I would die," she recalls.

She was saved by her resourceful mother-in-law, Carolina Mascarenhas Goncalves, then managing the hotel, who had earlier confronted troops disembarking in Dili harbour to demand safe conduct from the commander, Colonel Dading Kalbuadi. "Maybe he thought my mother-in-law was funny," Alice muses. "Brave or funny, I don't know... he gave her a pass and it saved our lives. That day when they were ready to kill us, she said, 'Look, we have this paper', and they let us go. She was a gutsy woman."

The near-execution occurred just three months after five former Hotel Turismo guests, the young newsmen later dubbed Balibo Five, had been killed in the border town of that name during an overland invasion preceding the Dili landing. Another guest, reporter Roger East, was executed at the Dili wharf on December 8, 1975; Alice remembers them all.

In 1977 she fled to Indonesia, where she was later assisted to freedom by a mysterious but kindly Indonesian general. With her husband, Rui, she won political asylum in Australia and lived here until the 1999 Indonesian withdrawal, when they returned to East Timor to revive the hotel's fortunes. By 2005, she was manager.

In 2009, Australian filmmaker Robert Connolly commemorated the dead newsmen in Balibo, with many scenes filmed in the hotel. Since its construction in 1969, the simple art-deco-style building had housed an array of colourful guests, from journalists and generals to writers, spies and backpackers.

In its heyday as a favoured watering hole, Hotel Turismo was to Dili what The Strand was to Rangoon, Raffles to Singapore and The Oriental to Bangkok.

Alice survived, but the historic hotel didn't. In January last year, it fell under the developer's hammer after a deal between the Timorese government and a local investor abruptly ended the lease. Alice and Rui were ordered to leave along with all their guests, or face eviction by police. The old building has been razed and a new version, Hotel Novo Turismo, is under construction on the site. First impressions, to my mind, suggest vulgar grandiosity.

Undaunted, Alice and Rui have opened Tibar Beach Retreat on a peaceful bayside slope 15 minutes west of Dili. It features eight boutique bungalows with a garden stretching down to Tibar Bay.

Alice is training a team of young Timorese staff and chef Zaida Cardoso is cooking at its Ximangane restaurant (named after Rui's pseudonym as a resistance fighter). Alice's previous Hotel Turismo touches are recognisable in crisp white tablecloths, gleaming glassware and posies of tropical flowers.

Zaida, born in Portuguese Africa, emigrated to Lisbon at 19, where she learned her profession and worked at top restaurants. She describes her cooking style as "a fusion of Mediterranean cuisine with traditional Timorese".

Fresh fish is a menu strong point, including ikan saboko, or spiced garoupa roasted in banana leaves with bay leaf, ginger, lemon and black pepper.

Tibar Beach Retreat comes into its own at weekends when it is often packed with UN staff, aid workers and Timorese officials who like to linger over dinner, their conversations irrigated with fine Portuguese wines; Jose Ramos-Horta is an occasional visitor. Deep-sea fishing excursions can be booked, as well as trips into the mountains.

The eight bungalows are built of eco-friendly timber-milled coconut palms and the decor is quietly luxurious. For Rui and Alice it has been a long journey, but with determination they have prevailed against all odds, including Indonesian guns and post-independence deals.