Merry Viqueque Christmas

Sitting at Cafetaria Enigma at twilight Chrisitmas light blinking listening to Elvis’ gospel-honky tonk album alone with Shaggy the dog looking on. A vegetarian eating the best fried chicken in East Timor watching the clouds turn puffy purple and the kids throw rocks at ripe mangoes hanging over the restaurant wall. A grand UNHCR-flag-bearing window-tinted-black new Toyota Landcruiser passes slowly by. If only they knew how good Café Enigma was they might have stopped.

Shaggy, as I have began to call that polite dog who sits back and waits for her due, was jittery, moving back and forth on her haunches. At one point, as I was peeling off the last greasy skin and meat from the bone, she emitted something close to a whine. I was worred she might spoil it for herself, as I cannot give to beggars at the dinner table, children with pouty lips and crocodile-tearing eyes included. Luckily she piped down and I tossed her the enormous half-chicken bone, not picked up, so with plenty of meat on the bone. She had that ‘Thank you Santee Claus’ look on her face. Merry Christmas Shaggy!


Small town blues

Monday was a kind of hooky day. I felt like lounging but then lounging meant sweating. Around four o’clock I went out to walk by the river. I realized this meant probably a greater violation of my peace than remaining at home in a pool of sweat but the river was calling me. The river was pretending to be “nature,” a place where I could go and sit and watch and listen by myself. And that would be just about any river in the world, but not here. I walked down the long street through Boramatan and only got a couple of “hello Mrs.”s and none bery derisive. I hit my stride. Began down the road as it runs parallel to the river towards Beobe. Still quiet except for a “Malay, blah, blah…” from the only grasshut along the road. I saw a little turn off into the river, almost like a launch. A good place to walk down to the river where a couple of women were bathing a couple of 100m up stream.

I wasn’t thinking, I was on a stroll. I was “passeiar”ing. I was going anywhere. But to the water’s edge. Which turned out to be right in the middle of the riverbed. Just as I began making a face at the tepid, dirty, lifeless water and decided to enjoy the breeze and the “nature” a boy up on the cliff downriver in Beobe must have spotted me. He began with the derisive “MEEEEEEEEeeeeeesssusss” Then launched into a staccato flurry of ‘Malay, malay, malay, malay…’ ‘Malay ba haris’… I don’t remember the rest and I was busy cutting my retreat straight back home. I never even saw the boy. It was as if there is some supernatural force which detects my movements and informs obnoxious people with nothing better to do so they can jeer and comment until I run home and slam the door. I have to say it’s a one of the more awful feelings I experience in Timor. It’s not the constant identification of me as other that bothers me. It’s the judgement, the constant comment and seeming disapproval for my every action. Oh, the malay wants to swim. Scandalous. Not allowed . The malay wants to drink some red wine. Malay woman? She’s a dangerous drunk.

Here in Viqueque I feel the weight of people’s judgement and comment, as I am one of a handful of Malay women (probably the only one ever caught walking outside the house). Perhaps equivalent to having elephantitis in smalltown USA. Like an enormous growth on my forehead. It is suffocating to the point of making me want to build my own castle. Either that or move to New York City and forget about these small-minded people. I can’t really imagine how people bear to live in a society like this, where every out of the ordinary action is savoured by the shit-talkers and rumor-mongers (a good majority of the population) like a precious sugar candy. Rolling it over and over across their forked tongues. When I think of how much energy is wasted on these comments and mob judgements of people, I realize that this alone is the mental energy needed to jumpstart this country. And the slow pace of development and this culture of negative comment are not unrelated. How can you encourage creativity and entrepreneurial spirit if anybody who sets themselves apart is torn down by the mob?

So I have become this recluse, waiting for a ride to Dili that will not come, resigned to waking up at 4am for the bus. Everything is running out, bug repellant, Enaak, peanut butter, my patience most importantly. I thought today could be a day for reflection, but really it has been bile-filled, sweat covered and forgettable. I’m just having trouble seeing things positively. Especially I suppose, in light of receiving Hermengildo’s help yesterday, and seeing what amazing, thoughtful, positive person he is, then realizing that any way I express my thanks or attempt to make a friendship with him will be entirely misconstrued. Once again, that feeling that friendships with Timorese are doomed. And that I am in self-imposed house arrest.

Sometimes in Timor, you run across a person who is exceedingly easy to talk to and clear in their speech — someone who asks you to sit down and from the moment you sit you realize you can just chat. Something in (usually her) eyes, a way of speaking to a foreigner without such a guarded, defensive posture. Today I talked to a woman so easy to chat with that I forgot to ask her name.

The daughter of Jacinto Amarl told me she was 36 and a “ferik” already. An old lady. She had three children, extremely evenly and well spaced, ages 16, 9, and 2. I asked to speak with her father at the Luminar, the restaurant the family owns in Beloi, Viqueque. She said he is in Dili, but come in. I begin to tell her about my project, and she immediately began to help, naming other people in Uatolari who I should talk to. She seemed to have a want-to-help attitude, and because she had a friendly glow in her eye and something about her moon-shaped face and thick, shoulder length hair drew me in. I began to confess my nervousness at going to interview these people, my fear that 1959 and the present are seen as too connected. I believe I used the word ‘sofre’ in connection with her people, the Noheti.

From this point on, she began to tell about relations between Noheti and Makassae in Uatolari. The two groups used to live apart during the Portuguese times. But when Indonesia moved the subdistrict post down to the road, and increased dramatically the number of Timorese in their administration, the two groups came to inhabit more or less the same geographical area around the subdistrict. Now the Noheti stay in the neighborhood called “Matahoe” nearest to the subdistrict post. The Makassae live not far away on the same road, a little more to the West. It seems that all ‘important’ Noheti families, liurais or chefes-de-suco of the whole subdistrict (who are rich enough) have a presence in Matahoe. In other words those who lost buffalo in this theft of a couple of months ago all live quite close to each other. Victim central. Moreover, a lot of these families are connected to the events of 1959.

Jacinto’s daughter told me that currently the Noheti in Matahoe (the Noheti ‘leadership’) live in fear. Their houses are stoned, things are stolen from their property, and of course, carau are stolen from their herd which is held together on nearby land. We can assume that the harrassment, from what Jacinto’s daughter reports, is coming from neighboring Makassae groups — namely the Makadiki. It seems like an intimidation campaign (a highly successful one) by their neighbors. What I find strange is that geographically, it seems as though the Noheti occupy far greater land. I’m not sure of the numbers (need to check census) but why should they feel so intimidated by a people with so much less land? Is the Noheti such a pacific people that they would turn the other cheek and continue to be dominated by a more bellicose neighbor?

In any case, she said that they are afraid to walk alone and at night for fear of being attacked. I boldly asked her about this rumor that the Noheti might just pick up and go to Indonesia en masse. She surprisingly confirmed this saying they will move if the level of ‘terror’ becomes unbearable. From her account, it sounded unbearable at the moment. But she would give no more indication more than that if they old Noheti leaders like her father, Gaspar and others arranged transport and called for the move, that many if not most would follow.

With very little provocation she complained vigorously about the Fretilin district administrator, a scared man from Ossu who never goes out to speak with the people. She recommended that the administrator should mobilize the people to increase agricultural production and give people the tools to do it. She said that agricultural surplus that is unmarketable in Viqueque should be donated to the ex-combatants, (mostly fruits and vegetables).


There’s this strange way in which I need to keep reading fiction to realize the fiction in my life. Every time I read a novel here, I begin to see that the things which I feel emotionally define and isolate me are the threads of a story and maybe many stories. The throbbing parts, that color every social interaction and hold me back, are not so real that they would constitute some kind of confession. To me they may be, but to others they are unreal and hypnotizing mirages.

I have this impossible feeling of disconnect between my thoughts and observations as a traveller – the “real” things that I record and hope to use in fiction, and the “real” things in me, which I only envision as garish, self-obsessed fetters.

10 minutes of sun

I live in a quite pleasant setting. A great deal of privacy compared to any other living situation I’ve had in East Timor. Doors with vinyl coverings with textured, fake wood tooling, shell ‘curtains’, loads of cupboards and sideboards, two skylight-type windows, a sit-down toilet, nice breezes, a TV (half-burned out), and a 3-CD VCD player to go with. Here I spend over half of my day reading and writing. Escaping. Movies take me furthest away. But my books have been escape routes as well. Amazing how much time I spend in my own world. Thinking about food, home, my childhood, my various possible futures, writing. Thinking of ways to break up the alone time. But breaking up the alone time, that is leaving this house alone to do my research, is psychologically exhausting. Going places where my actions are entertainment for everybody — constantly. There is never a moment I go unnoticed. Every word I say, every trip I take to the toilet, every bite I eat… It’s all for consumption.

It’s as if I save up energy and strength to go out and interact with people positively when I’m on my own. It’s like standing in the sun and sitting in the shadow. Truly amazing how 10 minutes in the sun can require a good hour the shade. Sometimes I think I’m weak for needing such solitude, for not being able to remains ‘on’ for longer than a day or a day and a half. But I think everybody develops their own ways of coping. And perhaps these limits — the sun/shadow ratio, can be changed over time. For the moment I am grateful to have such an accessible shadow. It has really made the difference to me.

I feel at ease around other internationals, like the military observers and the Portuguese teachers and the GTZ folks, but there is something truly great about feeling undisturbed, free to write and read and wait. Perhaps it’s just this night. My first night alone with electricity. A Hugh Grant movie and Indian leftovers. Sitting and reading and deciding to capture these thoughts.

I don’t find myself continuously comparing myself to William Least Heat-Moon, but I find his journey so easy in this bizarre way. I realize that moving is tiring. And traveling alone is lonely. But is a man. He has enough money. He has reliable accomodation and transport. He speaks the language. I look at my experience over the past year and a half and I think it has not been all that easy. There were only few times when I felt so acutely alone feeling. But I had already sealed off my escape routes. As if the bridge had fallen behind me. But the very logistics of life here — things I’ve become accustomed to now, like tropical disease, language, bad Timorese-foreigner relations, basic sanitation (lacking!), deep misunderstandings and cultural missteps, money problems… It seems like a lot now! I’m reaching this satisfied feeling that my time here is reaching natural completion. That it’s time for me to go experience life as a young person in the US for once. To surround myself by people more my age (not exclusively, but just some!), look for balance in the ‘first world’ figure out how I can live there. In the end, I don’t feel that I’ve had to force myself to stay here. This has not been as masochistic an experience as I may have painted it in my mind. It is stimulating and life-affirming to be here, even if I have to take it in spells like the hot sun. But I think my soul has become tired by constant moves between scorching sun and cool shade. I need that soft spring or autumn light, a more even warmth.

Abandonned bonzai trees

Having seen the relatively ‘urban’ setting of Matahoe, Uatolari and having lived in the older side of Viqueque, I can see that there is a great divide between these two settings and the countryside surrounding. Perhaps this divide only exists to my American eyes, as I prioritize concrete foundations, metal rooves, running water and light. Perhaps the presence of respectively local government and church creates a sort-of ‘urban’ feeling. But I think the attitudes of the people who reside in those two places differ dramatically from the countryside. Now both are inhabited by fairly educated people. Many speak an ‘international’ language quite well. Most have had an opportunity to observe another way of living than just farming. Yet there are no jobs for them except returning to the fields. Their houses will slowly deteriorate and require repairs. Their government is doing little to nothing to reclaim and use public space, let alone maintain infrastructure. So these people have been separated from what originally separated them from their family in the fields. There is already a feeling of psychological decay. The buildings, yet they are being broken down by aggressive weeds and pigs and goats. They no longer have trim lawns. Painted walls. Now they are empty buildings, with broken windows surrounded by savannah-tall grasses. Those inhabited have twisted, rusty corrugated metal fences. The original colonial architects of these buildings would have been shocked to see this rapid transformation.

The rationality, the at times brutal rationality, of both colonizers has disappeared. These towns are like Bonzai trees all of a sudden let to grow, now appearing strangely twisted and stunted. Animals run wild. Some buildings were stripped of building materials, some not. The control of space, the Portuguese-Cartesian obsession with circles, rights angles, division and linearity has been replaced with rust, plywood patches, haphazard burning and cutting of trees, and construction of shacks and impromptu bamboo annexes to houses. Viqueque has become closed in on itself, breathing its own woodsmoke from outdoor kitchens, steeping in its own pig and goat shit, building rickety enclosures for larger animals. This is not the open, clean Elysian Viqueque of the 1960s.

Uatolari has turned gray and discolored from the looks of things. Much has been rehabilitated, but not made to be as clean and hygenic as during Indonesian rationality. Houses remain the grey of the sand on the beaches which is used for concrete. The roads have become scrambles of pale mud and grey rock, obviously lacking a smoother, shinier asphault aspect of earlier times under Indonesia. There is nothing to do in Uatolari except work for the Paroquia and the field, or then rehash old rivalries, debts and problems from the resistance period. That’s what these ‘urban’ folk are doing.

Meanwhile everything crumbles, rusts and gets fixed only to a bare minimum of necessity. The colonial obsession with space — controlling and improving it through the human presence — is literally sinking into mud and shit. And this city – country division is going with it. Those who cling to the colonial aesthetic order are better off moving to Dili, or building large walls around their property. Order of public space is dead. Even the airstrip in Viqueque has grown over to the point of being unrecognizable from the ground.

It seems that the family here — the owners of this house, more than anyone I have met in Timor, represent this class of local elites that embraced the colonial order. They make up this class of ‘self-hating’ civil servants and bureaucrats of Franz Fannon’s extreme theory… They don’t loathe their culture, but they aspire to another ‘higher’ model. They have been left in the lurch, because no independent government of East Timor, no matter how elitist and pro-Portuguese, can employ people like them down to the district level. Plus, they proved themselves to be too conservative earlier on to be embraced by this new governing elite. So they sit on their position of relative privilege, living as ‘developed’ a lifestyle as they can afford to sustain. Thinking of the better life before. Black and white photos of Portuguese times. Browned-yellowed photos of Indonesian times and more vivid photos from their recent trip to Australia to visit long-lost family. Brazilian country music, shiny Japanese car, American movies on VCD, Australian clothes, haircurlers. Most of all the Portuguese language. We joke that those who do not speak Portuguese in this house will never gain their trust, and on some level, I believe this is true.

The 1960s were the golden years of their youth. Nicely kept houses, education under the nuns and priests in cool Ossu. Festivals like Easter and Christmas were more fun, with memorable treats, dances and rituals. There was also carnaval. There were gardens (with running water.) Viqueque was more empty then. It was an administrative post and there was no need for a large ‘indigenous’ population then. So it was ‘educated,’ ‘privileged’ Timorese — they were actually Portuguese after 1956 — and the various European and other Portuguese administrators and troops from Ossu. There were the Chinese, who were racist, but quietly so, who added an interesting other element to the social life here. (And culinary!) Those were years lived apart from the masses of more traditional people, farther from the poverty and harsh rural life which was so dictated by weather, the rains and heavy tradition. The Timorese in Viqueque socialized with the Portuguese here, perhaps more than they might have in Dili, because there were merely fewer families and young people around.


The approach to Uatolari is through seemingly unfertile, ‘wild’ lands with only palm trees and teak, both having been recently cut and burned. The sensation is of passing through a recently destroyed land, that is only currently inhabited due to the return from the sale of fire wood. Before, the land was cleared to grow corn apparently. But perhaps this year, the drought has been so severe as to leave this cleared land a dry, apocalyptic wasteland. The people living there have only palm thatch shelters, houses seem like too formal a word. They can be seen napping, for these is no work to do. Regardless of the drought, it seems like clearing the tress to grow corn will have dire consequences. The trees keep water in the soil. They prevent erosion and protect the topsoil.

In any case, the first village one arrives at approaching Uatolari is Lagassa. The road makes a serpentine path through. There is a soccer field. Then more wasteland with few rice paddies. Then one arrives finally at Makadiki, the biggest Makassae village along the road. The road twists through, showing a large number of kiosks, a clothes one in particular, a fuel station, and a Catholic high school, leaving Makadidi, crossing a creek, one comes to the first huge rice paddy. It is about a kilometer in length and two or three in the North-South dimension, bounded on the far side by another creek. Past that creek is the neighborhood called Matahoe. It was the Indonesian subdistrict HQ and is home to the appropriate number of buildings. Many are not too destroyed. Perhaps the UN rennovated many.This village is an ethnic mongrel, as all ethnic groups in the district came to live here during the Indonesian period for jobs. While it is commonly thought that the Noheti collaborated and profited heavily from Indonesia’s presence, there were also Makassae who sought influence and privilege from Indonesia.

I’m under the imperssion that all of the ‘important’ Noheti families have houses in Matahoe even though their lands are elsewhere. Also, the majority inhabitants of Matahoe are at least at present Makassae. In otherwords, Noheti people here are surrounded by people who hate them and feel they deserve payback.

Mark, the tough American CIVPOL here, says that he’s seen this first hand. He told a funny anecdote about the house he’s staying in. First, he said, the house is owned by a ‘fence-riding’ Noheti family to collaborated with Indonesia for their own advancement — in fact a participant in the 1959 rebellion.

People stone his house on a nightly basis (even though they know an American lives there) because they want him to leave so they can burn the house down. An even better story is that of an unfortunate dog who the family gave to some belligerant neighbors demanding ‘payback’ for what they believe to be owed to them from Indonesian times. Before Mark knew it, one of the dogs he had helped fatten up was sacrificed by his frightened landlords! He also says that young people — 22 year olds — have demanded payback from Indonesian times, supposed theft or ‘loans’ that they could truly know nothing about. They are babies! But this illustrates the level of harrassment that these big Noheti families are feeling.

The people I need (would like) to interview are all from these Noheti families have all fled the village. Some were in Viqueque for a time but most have gone to Dili more or less permanently. (I wish somebody would have told me this, but it doesn’t seem such common knowledge!) ‘Traditional’ Noheti territory starts on the other side of the Bebui River, which is only 2-3 kilometers away. Some traditional leaders are to be found there, but currently it seems only women and children of these Noheti families remain here in Matahoe.

Matahoe is set on a small hill, the church at the top, with views of the ocean and rice paddies on both sides. The mountains loom behind. It seems Matebian is North, North-east fro here, a looming invisible presence over the town. Rain skips the town rather easily, as this afternoon there was rolling thunder and large anvil shaped clouds streaming overhead. Rolling thunder and cool breezes signalling rain. The only benefit of this show was at dusk when they turned this bruise purple shade, the sky turned this beautiful salmon color and this outrageous orange-pink light illuminated the whole town. At this point I was sitting on the porch with Mark, this very stoic American cop drinking beer on the porch of his now-infamous house. I wanted to ask him to take a picture, but I thought this might shatter the confidence, the ease of our conversation, so I just committed that light to memory. It lasted for maybe 10 minutes, then it quickly went dark. I had to run home, because I feared making it through the town in the dark, with all of these stories of inter-group rock throwing and general intimidation.

I’m glad I stayed at the father’s residence though because I got to meet a number of friendly high school students who work there. They told me about their exams and the prospects of them going to university (which were slim — money). They wanted to talk to me a little but in the end the lure of satellite television proved too great. I tried to explain that I was tired of television, something they would not comprehend. They get Australian, Indonesian, American and Asian TV here. Uggg. I met Father Dani but have yet to meet the elusive Father Tani (formally). He breezed through here barely stopping to shake my hand. He seems to like to maintain forward momentum above all else. Which in a place like this is great because it inspires others to follow the example. Don’t let life pass you by. Which is definitely something that people are brought up to do here. It just seems the escape routes here are few and far between. No money to go to university, then either get married or beat your head against the wall looking for a job. I guess in the end that high school Biologi is good for young mothers (that is, assuming they don’t censor the key parts.)