Crocodile Country: How Reptiles Shaped the Course of Timor-Leste

Crocodiles occupy a special place in the hearts of the Timorese, who consider these beasts sacred. But from where does this reverence stem?

A long while ago, there lived a crocodile named Lafaek Diak in an unnamed and unmarked land. Now, at this point, the world was still torn by chaos, and it churned and bubbled and screamed in its terrible birth pangs. But this chaos rarely bothered Lafaek Diak, who happily glided around his little swamp, contenting himself with daydreams of the mighty and fearsome beast he was sure to grow into. And Lafaek Diak had ambitions as large as his skin was thick and armoured; he would become the biggest and greatest crocodile that ever lived. 

But time is an equally imposing beast that has a few tricks up its sleeves. One of these tricks is quick passing, and time did just this, flinging the years and centuries and epochs at the still-dreaming crocodile like thunderbolts thrown by a trickster god. Time did not pay particular attention to the grand plans of reptiles, and eventually, the crocodile became cursed with inertia. He still had the same dreams but had moved no closer to achieving them. And Lafaek Diak soon found that time had begun to squeeze like a snake strangling a rat and that although the seasons constantly changed, they did so like a circle, always going back to the start and never deviating from their course.

The malicious creature known as time made itself scarce, to let Lafaek Diak wallow for a while. And the crocodile continued to grow. But Lafaek Diak was no problem-solver and felt lost, weak and lonely whenever he tried to find a solution to his predicament. The only fix he could find was, at least, a simple one: he talked. And talked. And talked and talked and talked. Only, in Lafaek Diak’s case, he could not talk, so he roared loudly instead and made much the same points, albeit louder.

Lafaek Diak talked so much that the swamp soon became a babble of noise shaped into debates and questions and lectures and interviews and arguments: Lafaek Diak tried his hand at all kinds of talking. And then Lafaek Diak would pose questions and counter points and reflect and contradict himself so well that he kept the conversation going for countless years, which was an impressive feat for a creature whose only companions were fish: and everyone knows that fish can’t talk.

But even the most talkative crocodile can reach its limits. The well of Lafaek Diak’s imagination eventually ran dry, and he ran out of topics of conversation. Only one thing drove the crocodile: hunger. He had long since eaten the animal life around the swamp, and he refused to hurt his friends the fish because they were fellow water-dwellers. However, he needed to eat. What was a crocodile supposed to do at times like this? 

Simple. He left home and took to the ocean in search of food. But this was no simple task. The water is a big place that attracts the sun; as we all know, the sun likes to radiate extreme heat on unsuspecting crocodiles. There’s no shelter in the ocean from this heat, and Lafaek Diak could not hold his breath very long, so he could not hide underwater like his enemies, the sharks. Eventually, the inevitable happened: Lafaek Diak, tired from travel and weak from hunger, could take it no more. He had become too hot and too dry to go any further. The crocodile laid on his back and floated, sure that his final day had come.

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But time has an equally mischievous sister called fate, who decided Lafaek Diak still had a task to complete. And this task was very important, one that only the crocodile could fulfil. Fate asked its friend, the tide, to push and drag and pull the crocodile to a beach, where the crocodile awoke and, muttering vexatiously, dragged himself further inland. Lafaek Diak was still empty and devoid of hope, but he was also still alive, however tenuously. Thankfully, he could not hear fate and time chuckling to themselves over his predicament.

Bond forms

Abruptly, the crocodile’s vision improved, and the world, which had started to cloud over as the beast became more despondent, became clear once more. Salvation had arrived. But not in the form of white light or angelic singing or a holy figure, or any of the myriad things Lafaek Diak thought might lead it to the afterlife. The crocodile expected these events because even though he was a reptile, he still believed in things that lived far beyond the confines of his swamp and had such a reach that they dwarfed the horizon. But what appeared was none of these. Instead, a small boy, his outline blurred by the blinding light, appeared over the prone beast and smiled broadly. 

Even though Lafaek Diak was many feet long and as wide as an aged tree, he had not eaten for so long that he weighed next to nothing. The boy had no trouble dragging him to a nearby forest. There, Lafaek Diak found something that he thought he would never see again: shade. It had been such a long time since he had left his little swamp, where he enjoyed basking under the cover of the numerous trees lining its banks. And now, finally, Lafaek Diak could do so again. The reptile was so relieved that even if he could talk, the words would become mangled in his throat and only escape as tears of relief. But so dehydrated was Lafaek Diak that he could not even do that. 

This mercy may have been small, but it meant much to Lafaek Diak. The boy nurtured and fed him and nursed him back to health with words of kindness and encouragement. And even though one was a boy and the other a reptile, and neither could speak the other’s language, they understood one another perfectly. The crocodile’s spirits revived; he began to feel like his old self again. The same energy again pulsed through his body, from the smallest atoms of its bones to his leathery, armour-plated hide and powerful tail that he could swing with the force of a battle hammer.

All these feelings returned. But so did his killer instinct. And even though the beast gave unending thanks to his new friend, innate survival skills were what drove Lafaek Diak: for he was a crocodile, designed to kill and eat and persevere. Making friends with children was not part of his grand plan. The crocodile’s devious side, stirred by the malicious tricksters time and fate, surfaced with murderous intent. 

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Never had a meal looked more appetising than this young boy. Lafaek Diak made himself quite giddy with anticipation as he wondered how he would dispatch the morsel before eating it. Perhaps if the crocodile left the body in the sun to dry for a while, it would become tough and lean and so much more satisfying to consume. 

‘But this is time and fate talking,’ Lafaek Diak’s conscience spoke up, irritated that the rest of him could be so ungrateful. ‘This kind young boy saved us. A few more days in the sea and the sharks would have got us.’ These words made sense, and the rest of the crocodile, murmuring assent, felt ashamed at their ingratitude.

‘I know it’s our nature to kill without feeling,’ the conscience continued. It wasn’t angry with its fellows, but it felt the situation needed a change of approach. ‘We are also lonely, and here we have found someone who has treated us kindly for no reason. Look, even now, he nourishes us.’ This much was true: the boy had bought a giant leaf covered with all kinds of colourful fruit and a vessel filled with natural water and laid it before Lafaek Diak, who suddenly felt very guilty. ‘We’ve always wanted a friend, and now we have one,’ the conscience said to a round chorus of approving cheers. It was decided: killing and eating the boy was not the social thing to do, and there would be no bloodshed.

Surface fore

Much to time and fate’s annoyance, Lafaek Diak’s unfeeling killing instinct receded like a tide that only ever went out. In its stead, a new-found peace and urge to explore reigned, given shape by the boy’s kindness. And as the crocodile’s strength returned, it was accompanied by an undeniable urge. He wanted to see the world and got ready to leave. But first, he had to say farewell to his friend and padded to the boy’s home, on the borders of the jungle. Despite the beast’s excitement, a profound sadness enveloped him. And he knew why: his time with the boy had ended.

Finding his friend, Lafaek Diak nuzzled his arm. And there they sat, as they often did: watching the trees sway and the currents flow and tides eddy. They had known each other a long time and, as is the way with all things that have a strong-enough bond, could communicate without speaking. Hours would they sit in silence, content in one another’s company. But this time was different, and the boy knew what was coming.

And when Lafaek Diak craned its head and smiled–which, for a crocodile, is a hard thing to do because their teeth are so sharp and their mouths the wrong shape for merriment–the boy hesitated to respond. He understood by Lafaek Diaks bearing–at once hesitant and driven– what the beast meant to say. But the boy didn’t want the crocodile to leave and said so again and again. Eventually though, the boy exhausted his sadness and accepted his friend’s decision. He silently placed his hand on Lafaek Diak’s snout with fraternal closeness, and there it stayed. The two friends’ eyes met, and the crocodile instinctively knew what lay in the boy’s heart, for he recognised the same urge to escape that had driven him to look beyond the borders of his little swamp all that time ago.

dili, timor-leste

While crocodiles may well be fearsome creatures, they are not unwise and often temper their violence with extreme cunning. Patience and perception are important traits for crocodiles, and this particular crocodile had honed these two habits. His time in the middle of somewhere had not been wasted because he now had something to care for. 

Lafaek Diak had become a most shrewd beast who could see the bigger picture, and even as his friend became upset once more, an idea flashed across the crocodile’s mind. He spoke to the boy, silently and from the heart. ‘It’s time for me to go. I’m a crocodile, and as happy as I am here, I also belong in the water. There’s a lot for me to see, and now I must go. But I shall return, and if you still have the same fire, come with me, and we’ll circle the globe together, for as long as it takes.’

This compromise placated the boy, who suddenly perked up. Far from being downhearted, he had suddenly become charged with the same energy that coursed through Lafaek Diak: a vague sense of excitement at traversing the unknown that spread from the pit of his belly to consume his entire body. Both boy and beast glowed with what lay in store, and their parting, now only temporary, was tinged with joy rather than sadness.

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And so the boy and the crocodile went about their business with great satisfaction: Lafaek Diak roamed as he saw fit, and the boy nurtured his curiosity, knowing he would fulfil it one day. Thus it came to pass: after a while–an epoch, it felt like–the crocodile returned to his friend. Their reunion was a joyful one. Both had changed in the intervening period. Lafaek Diak had become tauter and brawnier and communicated vague tales of swimming against strange tides in faraway places; the boy had also become strong, and the intense light still raged behind his eyes, which signified his readiness to join the crocodile. Their pact remained steadfast. ‘No time like the present,’ they chimed in unison and off they went. The boy settled on Lafaek Diak’s back and pointed the way to go. They would follow the sun and head east from now until the end of existence. Even time and fate recognised this was a good idea and secretly wished they had done the same thing when they were younger concepts. 

How nice it was to go into the world! The pair roamed for such a long time in the oceans that they soon lost track, preferring instead to marvel at the distant outlines of giant mountains and unknown landscapes and bask in the unbound markings that scarred the night sky. And when they swam up the rivers and tributaries feeding the great expanse of water, they encountered all manner of vegetation, cities, people and creatures, some bigger and even more vicious and sly than Lafaek Diak’s kind. The pair learned just how from home they had come. It was quite the adventure and had strengthened the pair’s resolve in an unseen way, like a dying sapling fed by an unexpected downpour of rain. And still, they followed the sun.

But time is as patient as a crocodile, and at the request of fate, which wished that its plan should now come to fruition, it slowly went to work on Lafaek Diak. The beast suddenly found one day that his limbs had become heavy and that his movements were slower and that the endless traversal no longer inspired the beast as once it had. His limbs ached, and his tail, where once it had swished from side to side and guided him across the water’s surface like an expertly guided vessel, now hung limp and heavy and useless. It was a painful realisation, but one that comes to all things, even the sun and moon and stars and gods: Lafaek Diak had become tired and couldn’t go on.

The friends quickly realised that their journey was over, and in amongst the numerous and heartfelt outpourings they conveyed to one another, the most overriding one was how lucky they felt to have been drawn together, be it by quirk of time or tide; a brief laugh in the distance provided the answer to that particular notion, but the crocodile and the boy were too busy preparing for the next stage to notice.

New ends

As is the custom of his kind, Lafaek Diak went off to die alone. It’s a well-known fact, and both friends knew that this day would eventually come, but the parting was still difficult, albeit mercifully quick. The pair agreed that the crocodile would deposit the boy on the nearest piece of land; then the boy would run forward, away from the coast, and Lafaek Diak would dive into the water, and neither would look back until the other was out of sight. A quick and painless heartbreak. But not a final parting: before he left, Lafaek Diak indicated where the boy should go to visit his old friend and find a new home and promptly swam off, with aged dignity, in that direction. For his part, the boy built a canoe and waited, holding forever the memory of their bond they shared.

Lafaek Diak, exhausted, eventually stopped and, thinking of his friend, breathed his last breath. But his passing did not go unnoticed, and time and fate called forth something even larger than the pair of them combined. Together they elicited a change in the beast. His body began to grow and grow until it took on dimensions quite unlike any other crocodile that had come before; it became bigger first than an elephant, then a house, then a forest, then a city and finally an entire country. 

Lafaek Diak had become impossibly big. Time and fate were pleased with their handiwork and set about decorating the virgin land, transforming the scales and ridges on the beast’s giant back into hills and valleys and reshaping its sharp teeth into riverbeds and mountaintops. They even sewed vegetation on this new island so that one day its skin would become covered in verdant forestry; and everything would centre on the harbour where Lafaek Diak’s mouth once gaped. So too did the pieces of the beast’s body that broke off during the transformation and came to rest off the mainland, one to the west, one to the north and the other to the east, receive the same life-giving energy.

But even with these contortions, Lafaek Diak’s body kept its shape; and it was this shape that the boy, enticed to the land by a signal of unknown origin but voiced in a style so beloved of fate, found when he arrived on his canoe. He immediately understood the crocodile’s intent: that this land was for the boy and his descendants, and they would live there until the world stopped turning. This region did they name Timor-Leste, and the boy ensured Lafaek Diak’s spirit lived on so that, as the land grew older, its features became more pronounced, and the population grew ever bigger, the inhabitants instinctively knew of their origins. The people quickly developed a special kinship with the reptile family to which the crocodile belonged.

Thus came into being Timor-Leste: a land of cold-blooded origin and one of such devotion that its people always take care to honour the beast that shaped the land they call home.


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