East of, Uh, Timor

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Jewel SAMAD / AFP / Getty

An East Timorese farmer collects coffee beans from his field near Dili, East Timor.

A lot of people from East Timor explain their country thusly: "Umm, it used to be part of Indonesia, but it became independent in 2002." If that doesn't work, they try: "It used to be a Portuguese colony, but it's now independent." Or, "It's half of an island between Indonesia and Australia, and now it's an independent nation." The punch line is always the same: Independence! In 2002! The first country to gain its freedom in the new millennium! Nevertheless, many East Timorese are resigned to the fact that most everyone else has no idea who they are, or that their tiny half-island is a fully fledged member of the United Nations.

Plenty of other countries presumably share insecurity complexes about their nationhood: Central African Republic (which sounds like it was named by a particularly uninspired committee), French Guiana (not to be confused with Equatorial Guinea, Guyana or Guinea-Bissau) and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (a collection of islands that sounds like it also could be an up-and-coming lounge act). But East Timor's problems are compounded by the fact that its population of just under 1 million is commonly referred to by no fewer than four names. Even though less than 10% of the population speaks Portuguese, the ruling government decided to follow in the footsteps of Brazil, Cape Verde and Mozambique by making the former colonial European tongue East Timor's official language. On East Timorese passports, the country is labeled Timor-Leste, "leste" being Portuguese for "east." Many nationalists, however, prefer to call the country not by its English or Portuguese designations, but by its name in Tetum, one of the half-island's 19 local languages: Timor Lorosae. And the Indonesians, whose violent 24-year occupation is believed to have led to the deaths of up to 200,000 East Timorese, still refer to their former 27th province as Timor Timur, often shortened to Tim-Tim.

East Timor. Timor-Leste. Timor Lorosae. Timor Timur. No wonder the world is confused. My travel agent in Bangkok was baffled, too. When I asked him to book a ticket, his computer gave up and returned only one word: "Error."

East Timor is one of the poorest countries in the world. Although the promise of offshore oil and natural gas tantalizes the nation's finance czars, there's little to fuel the economy except for one notable exception: coffee. Cultivated from plantations started by the Portuguese, East Timorese coffee is a wonderful thing: rich, nutty, smooth. Starbucks apparently thinks so, too, because it is one of the top purchasers of Timorese coffee. Yet a search of Starbucks' U.S. website, which lists the provenance of all its bean blends, comes up with no results for coffee from East Timor. There are, however, plenty of mentions of Indonesian-based blends. There's a nasty rumor circulating in the East Timorese capital, Dili, that their beans may be masquerading as — gasp — Indonesian. This, they point out, is a travesty. East Timorese coffee beans became independent in 2002. Is there no end to the indignities small, newly free nations must endure? Luckily, though, Starbucks has redeemed itself by introducing a single-origin brand called Timor Lorosa'e, for sale in Australia. Given that the mini-country is located just to the north of Australia, Starbucks can at least count on Australians to know exactly what Timor Lorosa'e is — even with the mysterious apostrophe.