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.


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