Dreamlife and death

An impressive part of being in the districts is the dreamlife. Literally half of my hours are spent sleeping, between the 10 pm – 7 am sleep and the 11/2 to 2 hour nap from 1 to 3 pm. Most of my dreams have been stress-free, dreaming of free rechargable batteries, cold climates and other seeming pleasant impossibilities. It is more rural here — more quiet — than any other place I have slept save for the cocks crowing in the morning and the neighbor’s baby crying at night from fever or diaherrea or some great discomfort. I realized last night that there is a good possibility a baby like that might die, that tomorrow night audible relief might signal the  premature death. Life here is so tough, a mixture of poverty, in ability to feed babies properly, but also a sort of fatalistic ignorance, that nothing can be done for a baby in that state, and that a sick baby probably means a dead one. We only live a 5 minute walk from the district hospital and immunization clinic. But the mental distance is greater. In matters of life and death, it seems in many people here there is lacking the knowledge or culture to take decisive action. I hope for that baby and its family that they may know when.

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Waiting in Baucau

I guess I should be excited or buzzing from the conflict, but I’m actually just thoroughly chateada. I am bored and annoyed with this continuing civil strife, this continual shouting, shoving, macheteing, extortion and bullying by a couple of groups in this country. One of the main north-south corridors of the country has been in effect shut down by an angry group of “veterans” and youth in the village, who seem hell-bent on stealing and extorting money from cars passing to the south. They began robbing buses at night (full of people with no money to spare), then moved to chopping down trees to block the road and charging a toll to remove them. The pathetic, new Timorese police force (known by the same nickname as in Indonesian times –– lekrauk, monkeys) arrived to put an end to this shady business on the road, which is the only connection to one of Timor’s most fertile districts. They were quickly surrounded by angry people from the community, obviously egged on by a couple of trouble-makers. One person from the crowd was bold enough and quick enough to steal a police officer’s handgun. He was immediately shot through the chest by the policeman’s partner. The police subsequently fired nearly 70 rounds into the air as warning shots and threats to the rabid crowd. Yet alone, and elsewhere in the village, another police officer was making his way back to the center of town. He was attacked with a machete chop through his head, and was evacuated to Dili, where he died two days later.

Apparently the family of the said, shot, gun-stealer went to visit him in the Baucau hospital and was harrassed or told to go home by the police. Upon their return to the troubled town, a former Falintil commander/professional troublemaker called a meeting and demanded that the community defend itself against the police, just as it would have done against the Indonesians. Predictably, early the next day, the village and assembled other discontents showed up at the Riot Police headquarters in Baucau and began scaling the fence. It’s not known how or why they gave up and moved on to the main civilian police HQ, but soon they were scaling the fence there. Police fired on the crowd. The crowd fired back at the police with reportedly at least one stolen handgun and a couple of rifles. Gunfire continued for a couple of minutes. Some say an NGO car was caught in the middle, and somebody inside injured. Word in the ‘old town’ below was that four policeman were injured. Later that one ‘protester’ was killed. Word came from a minister in Dili via a friend of mine that the Riot police compound had been burned to the ground.

I am, during all of this, sitting on the nice, clean, cool porch of the Catholic Relief Services guesthouse, where I slept alone the night before watching VCDs  of Tom Hanks movies and eating Indonesian oreos because I was too lazy to go out and buy an egg to fry. I am getting information via text message and phone conversations across town from the NGO that I expected to get a ride to my final destination from. Soon I realize that there will be no reliable information, and that fear of the worst possible outcome will decide travel plans that day and probably the next day. We head to Dili, me leaving all of my things besides absolute essentials, in the guesthouse. “We’ll be back tomorrow,” I tell myself. We start up the cliffside, on the only “safe” escape route –– past the airport, missing the violent “new town” area –– and two police cars full of nervous East Timorese police whiz past. Worrying, I agree with the driver. But it would be very unlikely that the rioters could block all exits out of town. So we press on, with high-powered radio communications to Dili and two mobile phones. Halfway up, we pass a convoy of NGO and church vehicles paused on the side of the road, headed down into the old town. We explain that IRC, my ride-giving NGO, has given the order to evacuate international staff and move the vehicles to other locations, but to “keep the office open.” They nod, and start off down the hill. Last, we pass an American policeman named Stacey from Detroit. A guy who would be used to riots at least. He says, “It is going to get worse. You’re right to go now.” All the confirmation I need that listening to that “mom” voice paid off, why the hell would I want to stay in that town alone and wait it out with no good information or way of getting out. So we blast back to Dili listening to the new Coldplay album I bought in Bangkok, trying to make NGO-ish small talk about troublespots, the international lifestyle, and homeleave.

Before I know it, I’m back at home. Sleeping on the same sweaty bed, the only difference being the mosquitos have multiplied in my absence. The day after, word that the UN has strongly discouraged travel to the whole eastern half of the country, and there is little chance that I can go even the next day.

There is a political backdrop to this violence, which seems to be sponsored or encouraged by a dissenting group of former independence fighters who refused to acknowledge the UN presence here, and currently refuse to acknowledge the sovereignty of the independent government. They have become the ultimate spoil-sports, deciding that if it isn’t good for them, then they will attempt to disrupt transport, security and development in the areas they inhabit. They have promised a big rally in Dili on the anniversary of the original declaration of independence, only two days from now, November 28. Rumors, most likely originating from this group of violent incompetents, warn that they have bombs and will attempt to bring anarchy in the Hobbesian sense of the word.

Such is life I guess, in an unconsolidated, third-world state, where there is no rule of law in the outer regions, and the politicians in the capital march on, unphased, as long as their wealth and privilege are protected. All I would ask is that they create a political travel report here, in addition to the meteorological report on rain and the condition of the roads: “Expect delays due to riots, bombings. 90% chance of extortion on the road from Baucau to Viqueque.”

Group sport Viqueque

Walking around Viqueque this afternoon, I had this unusually relaxed, nostalgic feeling. Maybe it came from watching the teenagers play basketball and soccer, a moment which made me experience an intense sensation of having lived a past life, a sense of removal from myself as a kid, a school-goer…. This ineffable feeling of age, of passing, or having passed to some new, older part of my life. Almost unknowingly. When was my last basketball game? Did I recognize it as such? When was the last time I pounded a rubber ball against the ground? It must be at least six years.

I spent probably 12 years intensely occupied with group sport. It was my weekday, my weekend. It provided the stuff of daydreams and dreams of fame and respect. I used to shoot hoops at the basket behind our house, often a kind of meditation, or maybe stress-release. Also a way of aleviating boredom. I would shoot, make up competitions with myself, practice moves to the hoop. I used to dream of making the Olympic team. At age 23, that feels so far away. I thought to myself today how much fun it would to teach those girls some of the drills and skill-improving techniques we learned. I desperately wanted something to link the enthusiasm, the sense of community felt then with the loner of the present. Somebody who has trouble explaining myself to those around me, who feels no sense of ambition, who even has no back alley hoop to take refuge at.

Something about the light, the kids playing in the dirt, the friendly competition, an inclusion of all ages, reminded me of my summer camp in Missouri. A feeling of a kid-generated utopia, and reveling in that hour before dusk, where grown-ups did not interfere. I stood watching the soccer match, pleasantly unmolested and free of commentary. It was a true sense of calm, and a stirring of feelings I had forgotten, or neurons that had not fired in years. It was not a feeling of homesickness or even of loneliness, but a feeling of age. The weight and irreversibility of life. Like a sigh that has been released. But a sigh that was unexpected, provoking the question, how did I get this tired?

This side of town is very pleasant. Wide, open streets in more-or-less a grid, with a couple of superfluous roundabouts constructed around Portuguese monuments. The bulk of ‘good’ houses — either Portuguese or Indonesian — appear to be on this side. Many obviously well-cared for, with plants, furniture inside and out. The market is on this side, as well as the electrical authority, which has managed to keep the power on from 6pm to 12 pm. The church is here, and more than anything seems to be a center of sport and youth activity. The clinic and hospital occupy the high ground above the entrance to this side of the city, and seem to be quite cool. Entering this past of town, on the right, above and surrounded by thick stone walls is the Administrator’s compound. There are ruins dating back from early this century.

In front of this building, Indonesia constructed a seemingly expensive monument of marble and gold-leaf, with an extremely high pedastal. A large eagle, or garuda, peering over the whole town. One wonders if this could have been effectively used as a spying device. I have been told by shy but curious loitering girls (sometimes the best informants) that this monument was never fully finished. Explaining I suppose its total state of disrepair, and filthy, weedy appearance. As with many Indonesian monuments, now that the first 10 on the base is full of strange, amateurish graffiti, it was has only one public utility — a goat pasture. Because the goat shit. At the apex of this triangular property, at the entrance to the town, just below the hospital, is a crudely manufactured cement rendering of a liurai warrior freeing himself from the shackles of Portuguese colonialism. The like of which I’ve seen in Dili, but on an incredulous larger scale. Onlookers told me this statue, I pity the person who shares the resemblance, is meant to commemorate the rebellion on 1959. Just after this statue and before the Garuda is some kind of Portuguese cornerstone, marker seeming to commemorate the reentry of Portugal in 1948 to Viqueque. Beyond that are some foundations and ruins which the goats are slowly kicking over, so in the triangular space of the monuments, which is as recent of as the 1990s, there appear to be a couple of layers.

Between the church/sports complex and the river to the East-Northeast is the market. It appears to occupy the same location as in Portuguese times, as there is an old Portuguese building on the inside. The feeling in the market is not that hostile or derisive, but pleasantly unconcerned and oblivious. Past the market, a large steel bridge across the river leads the way to Beassu, the ‘port’ of Viqueque. Staying on this side of the river, following it out of town, within five minutes, you are in a town of very little cement. Just palm-thatch and corrugated metal. No rock foundations. The countryside.

The mood in town is calm to the point of feeling deserted at times. Groups of people congregate at certain key locatiosn around the church, CIVPOL station, of course the market. Walking on the streets one might pass a handful of schoolkids, or a couple of teenagers or a mom walking with her baby. In front of the Chinese store (which faces the soccerfield) I met an old Chinese man who said he was not here in 1959. He did not reveal why, just that he had not arrived from Macau yet. Inside the teenage manager of the store replied to this question, oh, he was sent as a convict in 1962. OUR family has been here since last century he said. As if to say there are real Chinese Timorese and then there are degraded ones like that old man. Girls often approach me on the streets and ask what I am doing. Boys and youngmen keep a comfortable distance sitting with their boot-cut jeans and long lanky bent legs.

The old town of Viqueque is a Portuguese invention, this grid of roads and cluster of houses with foundations in an extremely arid region overlooking a small river. The houses were built with forced labor originally at the turn of the century. Most were intended for liurai to come and inhabit, or host guests from their sucos. The idea was to encourage an easier way of surveillancing the activities of the liurai. But obviously the liurai were disinterested in having their people come all the way to this previously unimportant place. So they feel into disrepair, literally began crumbling. The Portuguese once again gave subsidies and encouraged the maintenance of the buildings, and it seems as the crtiical mass of Timorese civil servants grew, as did the number of Portuguese (read:Missionary) educated liurais, occupying these buildings in the district capital began to make more sense. After all, people began to collect their pensions or pay checks here, gather mail or news from Dili, etc.

It seems that the sede fits into one traditional (or modified?) suco named Caraubalo but that very closely borders other sucos incluinding Uma Ki’ik. Apparently a suco is not so much land now, as the family groups that together comprise a political entity, at least in the present. So when I ask where is Uma K’ik (pointing one way or another) people say, ‘All around. It used to be that way (pointing South) but now we’re all mixed together.’ This could have been a consequence of Indonesian policy, it’s hard to know. The language group here is Tetum-Terik. There are Makassae to the North (towards Ossu) and Noheti to the East and Southeast. It seems plausible that another reason the Portuguese chose this area is that it was Tetun-speaking, and its tie to the kingdom of Luca, which was quite famous to the Portuguese during their occupation of Lifau.

Viqueque town also occupies a crtiical middle ground between the fertile Noheti lands of Uatolari and Uatocarbau, and the cool highland sucos of Ossu, where the Portuguese fancied themselves safe from malaria. That and the route to Ossu also leads to Dili. In keeping with a divide-and-conque mentality, also, but also a more pragmatic balance of power approach, as was done in many colonial situations with three groups, two traditionally battling each other, and a more peaceful, weaker third, the Portuguese picked the third to be their hosts. That way the other two were forced to articulate their interests and work through a ‘neutral’ party.

Dia dos Difuntos at Santa Cruz

Dili was stripped of wild flowers, bouganvilleas, palms, ferns and other decorative leafy plants today. For the Dia dos Difuntos, or Day of the Dead, children and women are swept up in a frenzy of cutting and arranging, there is a solemn but life-affirming sense of purpose and regularity. The streets, for the whole day were as empty as the bougainvillea trees, devoid of the bunches of UN cars and taxis. There was a palpable sense of calm, a siesta-like or sonambulous feeling to the day, much like one imagines island life in the Caribbean or South Pacific to be like. The ocean was this deep azure color, flat, expansive and buoying a number of sail boats in the harbor.

We sat drinking beer slowly watching the water and truly savoring the totality of the holiday. The UN, as my friend so correctly observed, had relocated for the weekend to Darwin for some kind of insider’s party. Their Range Rovers and Tatas were mercifully parked in their driveways. The city felt lighter without these multi-tonne vehicles, and without their drivers, the bosses. Timorese people were not out and about in the usual numbers. The streets were so quiet, there was a feeling of calm unlikely felt in a long time and unlikely to be felt until the UN really downsizes. But this feeling of lightness, this feeling of emptiness was certainly a premonition of times to come.

By about 4.30 in the afternoon, the red of the dry hills were bounded by purple, and it seemed that families streaming towards the Santa Cruz cemetary might expect to be rained on. We flagged down the first cab we could find in the empty streets and made our way to the cemetary when it had cooled down about an hour later and the threat of rain had passed. We soon realized we were headed for a Timorese traffic jam, a phenonmenon known only on FRETILIN rally days and religious festivals. The sides of the street were jammed with families and women and children bearing plastic baskets brimming with cut flowers, fern and palm fronds covered by thick, white cotton dollies. Large IOM buses full of children were also approaching the cemetary. The Timorese police who wear navy t-shirts, who are normally much bigger than the avergage Timorese traffic cop, were directing traffic as we approached the cemetary.

We hopped out a couple of hundred meters before the gates. The throngs of people would often inspire a sense of frightening volatility in East Timor. But this was a scene that had replayed itself every year for decades in Dili, it was about family, tradition and respect. Carson and I squished our way fhrough one of the three gates to the Cemetary, gaining a new appreciation for how horrifying the Massacre in 1991 must have been, how impossible escape from Indonesian riot police armed with M16s would have been. Even a peaceful crowd on this day lent itself to pushing and shoving.

Graves were built to literally abutt the radius of the swinging gates. My first step was on top of a child’s grave. There were no clear paths to walk. Spaces that appeared to be just earth were often circled by stones and covered with flower cuttings, as if the families could not afford to maintain even a wooden or stone head stones. Every step was on top of somebody’s resting place. Candles were burning everywhere, and oil was burning in the dirt at the foot of many graves. There were flowers on every grave. Everywhere. There was a constant flow of people going every direction. At one point a lost child started screaming for her mother. Her mouth full of uncooked Ramen noodles, she wailed, confused and pleading for her mother. A moment of true fright. People looked on her sympathetically, but nobody took it upon themselves to lead her out of the labyrinth to find her family.

As we traversed the cemetary, observing sections full of graves of nuns and priests, babies, and Chinese merchants, we saw a huge column of black smoke rising from the far corner of the cemetary. A crowd of people appeared to be crowding around the opening that the black smoke was coming from. As we approched, we saw people were throwing things into the fire. There was this extremely sinister, pagan feel to the scene, and we soon realized that people were throwing leftover candles into the flaming heap. Something about the scene hardly fitted the Catholic decorum of the day.