The road up the side of the mountain was only one lane wide and dirt-covered, but Midshipmen 1/C Kayla Coleman, Rylan Tuohy, Max Wiechec, Midshipman 2/C Lauren Webb, and LT Jon Angle were excited for the five hour journey ahead to Mt. Ramelau in the Ainaro district of Timor-Leste.
As the sun set while they drove higher into the mountains, they pulled over to take photographs of the scenic view. Stopping on the side of the road, their Toyota Landcruiser almost dwarfed the small, modest tin-roofed shack beside them. As they grabbed pictures, four children ran out in curiosity.
Noticing the midshipmen’s cameras, one of the small boys walked closer and pointed. Tuohy put up his camera to take a photo when the boy started laughing and shyly pointed to Coleman and Webb – he wanted his photo with the two ladies.
“Language has no boundaries,” said Webb, after arriving from a three-week language and culture immersion trip to Timor-Leste and Australia. “He didn’t speak any English, but he wanted a photo with us and no language barrier was going to stop him!”
In Timor-Leste, there are over twenty-seven different dialects for a population of only 1.1 million people. Having recently gained its independence from Indonesia in 2002, it is a growing country with many challenges. The group of four midshipmen who traveled there shared a goal of understanding those challenges as they spent five days in the country.
LT Jon Angle, a Civil Engineering Corps officer and instructor at the Naval Academy, wanted the midshipmen to get a real understanding of what a third-world country is like and the challenges that developing nations experience. Stationed in Timor-Leste from 2010 through 2011, LT Angle helped construct community centers, schools, and health clinics as part of a humanitarian aid mission in the region.
“In the five years I have been connected to Timor-Leste, there have been a lot of infrastructure improvements," he said. "Their biggest hurdle going forward will be what their economy will be sustained on once their oil reserves run out in ten years and the leadership transition from revolutionary leadership to an established democratic system.”
The four midshipmen saw these exact challenges. As their Landcruiser kept traveling on the foggy and pot-holed mountain roads to Mt. Ramelau, they observed the handful of bridges and storm-water management systems being installed. Yet, they also saw their driver (because they weren’t allowed to drive in the country) struggle to communicate with villagers as they stopped because of their different dialect.
Perhaps U.S. Army Maj John C. Lee, Senior Defense Official at the Embassy in Timor-Leste, said it best: “Timor-Leste is beautiful, but rough.”
The midshipmen’s five-day stop in Timor-Leste was only one of many stops in the South Pacific region. The group also travelled to Brisbane, Darwin, Melbourne, Launceston, Canberra, and Sydney, with a mission emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and cultural cooperation with the Australian Defense Force. This trip is a part of the Naval Academy’s larger goal of exposing midshipmen to the world in which they will serve as future naval and Marine Corps officers.