Eastern blur

My weekend was a blur seen out of a Landcruiser window. An ever-changing sweep of blue, purple water, shrubs, trees, cactuses, rainforest, vines, fields of grass, rusty corrugated metal, palm-thatch, dirt – red and brown both, goats, buffalo horns protruding from rice paddies… A near-flourescent green of the evenly spaced rice-grass peaking out of grey-brown pools. Terraces, curved, lined with mud or stones. Women and men planting together. Sand, swelling bruise colored sea, grey clouds, moving in dramatic gradients across the horizon. White and blue nets draping over shrubs by the seaside. Crumbling roads, brown river crossings, moss-covered stone walls from Portuguese times slowly being kicked apart by goat hooves.

Pounding, thumping, holding on to the seat in front of me, the CDs skipping, the rice and muesli in the back shaking. Stopping to pee in a bush only to be passed by hunters and their dogs. Driving through clouds, past all-palm-thatch villages. No zinc roofing. Smiling kids, old men with funny old hats. Neither understand Tetum or Indonesian.

We snorkeled at Kom, one of the best natural ports in Timor. Used by the Indonesian military to supply their campaigns in the fierce eastern end of the island. Then used by Korean peacekeepers to ship in their kim chi and Cass Beer. Now almost entirely unused, and being ripped apart by the ocean. We jumped off the pier with snorkels, and spent a couple of hours swimming circles, letting the more intrepid divers point out bizarre fish species. I saw cuttle fish for the first time, plus a scorpion fish, clinging to the wall of a beautiful coral formation. There was a wrecked old yacht in the harbor, we spent ten minutes in the water inventing great stories for its demise.

I couldn’t stop thinking about how Kom was the site of such chaos, fright and upheaval in 1999. Nearly the whole population of Lautem was loaded onto dump trucks, hauled to the port and deposited on boats heading for Timor. It was a military/militia play land, until Falintil guerillas arrived in late September and ambushed the last militia waiting for their boat to Kupang. I think 8 were killed and many injured. The Australian peacekeepers later took into custody the survivors of the militia Tim Alfa, and they were the first men tried for crimes against humanity by the ever-controversial UN Serious Crimes Tribunal.

Under water I kept looking for material evidence of this exodus, like things tossed over in haste, graffiti, anything. I guess the coral had been picked clean by scavengers, as there was very little waste there.

We drove up and over to Tutuala, the most praised beach in Timor, with two friends who had never been before. The anticipation grows driving towards the place, past the only large lake in Timor, around a beautifully shaped mountain range, up through the village to the overlook at the old Portuguese B&B, the pousada. Then the 8 km track down to the beach, bumpy, with intermittent views of blue ocean and the island Jaco through the jungle.

Tutuala was beautiful as ever, the fishermen greater in number and more prosperous than my last trip there. They had at least 4 yamaha engines, and had clearly built two or three new large outrigger canoes. There was a bit of failed negotiation over fish upon our arrival. In the end we encouraged them to catch new fish, and we ended up dining on spectacular tuna.

We spent the night in the car, as we were entirely unprepared for the fact that there are two rainy seasons on that end of the island. Arriving rather bedraggled and wet at the Don Bosco agricultural high school above, the Philipino priest chuckled, explaining that we should call him for a weather report before coming. He now received mobile network there in his isolated, well-manicured high school. I remember him saying, it is sad for a missionary to have to deal with the modern influence of communication. But as Father Jojo said, “The world is in Timor now.” He remembered a time that the world was decidedly NOT in East Timor. He had been at the place since the 1980s, bravely receiving foreign diplomats and their staff, as well as the entourage of accompanying Indonesian spies. In the 1980s, he said, there were battles in the land surrounding the high school, between Falintil and Indonesian soldiers.

I asked Father Jojo about 1999, and how close by militia Tim Alfa killed two young men in the coconut grove. When I first arrived in Timor, I listened to testimony translated two times over into English at the painfully slow and flawed first Serious Crimes trial. He said that the young victims were about to become priests. In fact the documentation had all been processed. It was a great loss for the high school. He also described the killing of the Indonesian journalist and the Italian nun in Lautem, perhaps the greatest atrocity in the eyes of the world. I was familiar with the details, as I had heard them over two weeks in October 2001.

Strange though, how in the end, it is the small things which one clings to and remembers about a trip out of Dili. Tasting fresh milk from Father Jojo’s dairy cows, crossing a new bridge built by Japanese peacekeepers in Lospalos, and noticing that the long grasses on the Lautem plain had finally consumed the Indonesian heroes cemetary. Not a single grave stone was visible, as if the site had been reclaimed by the earth.


Self-censored entry

Yesterday I was invited to a big shiny house paid for by the American government, where a friend explained Xavier do Amaral – declarer of East Timorese independence, now trollish, polyglot yoda-figure in Parliament – was going to show photos from 1975. Naturally, having spoken to Xavier about the 1950s in Dili and the Portuguese, as well as had run-ins with him on the issue of child rights (he believes a good whooping never hurt any kid, and that there is nothing wrong with girls marrying at age 13), I was curious.

[the rest of this entry has been censored, for it has seemed to attract undue interest from certain members of government. if you wish to read it, please leave a comment and i will happily send it to you.]

Biking utopia

This morning I had an amazing ride to work. This blissful, cosmopolitan feeling of anonymity. No remarks, no “meeeeee-sus” or “MALAI!” or smooching sounds. Perhaps everybody I passed had a late night. But there was not even one remark. I passed through traffic, passed through teenage school boys too cool to pick their feet fully off the ground as they walked, but even they had nothing to say about a WHITE WOMAN, BIKING, ALONE!

I began to dream about biking through a big city, like Lisbon, or even St. Louis my mean mid-American home, plotting never to own a car, to be one of those crazy few who just refuses. In fact some of the best people I’ve ever met were bike messengers. I do not think it is a coincidence.

Part of this hallucination was the idea of starting an all-girls biking club. Me and Queen-of-Weekend are always out biking around Dili, and I wonder what reaction we would get if we were in a group of 10 Timorese girls. Kind of like a grrl, pedal-powered Harley gang without all the noise and drugs and violence. (But I suppose we could build up to that!)


I left work, attempting to avoid eye-contact with my bosses and co-workers at 5.40pm yesterday. Met Queen of Weekend at pre-ordained meeting place (in front of the Diocese) and started out on my ailing Chinese bike towards the Cristo Rei, an ugly, dwarfish pretender to Rio’s. Past the mess of large UN SUVs and NGO trucks and “street kids” selling newspapers and offering ‘security’ at one of the main foreigner grocery stores after the untimely demise of Hello Mister in December.

Across the bridge, over the now rancid water in the canal draining on the beach, past black fat momma pigs and their chasing piglets, past the place where Ramos Horta’s speeding entourage ran me off the road last year.

We noted how high the tide seemed, I remember thinking it looked full and about to spill over, like a bathtub. That full stillness, no waves. The sky started turning its fuller color, and the water was turning that blue-pink-purple color of late in the day.

Turning some of the tight corners on the potholed road, there was quite a lot of traffic on the road to the beaches. Walkers, bikers (all foreigners, in Timor malai – not a term of endearment at this point), and once again a flood of speeding Land Rovers spewing out clouds of dirty diesel exhaust. Ummmm.

Nearing the White Sand beach, Areia Branca or Pasir Putih, we were finally alone on the road. Queen-o-W cries out and points to the full water. Dolphins. Lumba-lumba. I had just missed them. Soon they came up again, in pairs, not jumping but showing their fins. They were a dark gray, like others I’ve seen here. But we had never seen them in so close. Perhaps they are getting more used to humans, there is more diving and swimming than in Indonesian times, when their idea of fishing was dropping a grenade over a reef. The dolphins were probably confused by the extremely high tide.

We biked furiously to catch up with the pod of dolphins. The fishermen below the Cristo Rei seemed to think that they were going to pay respects to their ‘father’: a big whale that beached close by only a month ago. They joked about having them for dinner. But I’ve been told that Timorese have a respect for the lumba-lumba, that they recognize their intelligence and beauty, and that there is a taboo against killing them. And this from a people who considers dog a delicacy.

Reading the past two entries here, you might think this is a paradise for animal life. You could not be more wrong. The Indonesian period saw the near-extinction of many bird species (people were surviving off of them during the late 1970s and early 1980s). Monkeys used to be here in abundance, but have been captured and killed off. There are wild deer, but they only descend from the mountains for water during droughts, and are then killed for curries and stews. Neither is there much animal variety here, nor is there a traditional of conservation.

In October and November, before the rains are supposed to come, the hills are alight with fire. They are not controlled. They are designed to “clean” the hills in preparation for corn and cassava. Instead, in combination with very intense cutting of trees for firewood, this is causing more and more erosion. The hills around Dili are ripe for mudslides in coming years. Only that this year there was a bad drought. The burning is not new to the Indonesian era, in fact it was banned. Portuguese travelers and botanists from the turn of the century refer to the seasonal scorching of the red hills on the north coast.

All this harsh criticism of Timorese ‘traditional’ ecological practice reminds me of my socially awkward freshman advisor, an anthropology professor who had lived with the Inuit long enough to forget the need to change clothes on a regular basis. He was quite a polemic figure for having written a book intended to end the romantic myth of the American Indian as conscientious ‘custodian’ of the Americas, The Ecological Indian.

Qu’est ce que … ce weekend?

Talking to Attorney friend over a gin and tonic in my backyard Sunday evening, a gecko fell from the corrugated metal roofing above onto the ground next to me. A hollow “blap.” As geckos do, she sat there still for a while, probably trying to remember her name — “teki” in Tetum. I thought maybe she had died of fright. I didn’t want Attorney to know that I had lost the direction of the conversation over poor little Teki. But it was a moment of doubt, for I had never seen tekis fall like that before. They are ubiquitous. The silent witnesses to everything in Timor, stuck faithfully to every surface, irrespective of g-forces and slickness. They cling. They never fall. Moments later, after a couple of missed syllables from Attorney, she skittered off trying to orient herself on the new plane she found herself on.

Certain images I meant to share here from Saturday morning. First a disclaimer, no trip west, only a trip east to the grocery store. A disappointment, but it seems with no car or mobile phone, no escape from Dili was possible. Next week I’m renting a car if I have to. On the way to thrilling grocery store, I passed an old white Kijang (the third world equivalent of the SUV) passed. A serene nun in grey habit sitting in the passenger’s seat. And the green cross of an ambulance painted on the hood. Nun EMTs. Something about the thought of nuns handling crisis, working as EMTs seemed comical to me. Although I know its no joke. They were heading back to the Motael Clinic, the once famous spot offering medical care with no threat of interference by Indonesians. The famous footage of the bleeding victims of the November 12, massacre in Santa Cruz Cemetary was taken there. Now, no such adrenaline or call to action for the nuns, who now prescribe vitamins and tylenol to women in menopause and antibiotics for teenagers with the flu.

The large German ferry for Oecussi, Timor’s small enclave on the Western side of the island, was docked at the port. I couldn’t help but noticing how ‘first world’ the boat looked. A neat row of seats up on the second deck. A nice white, metal exterior. It was nicer than the ferry that crosses the Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro. The ferry was the first real “life-line” to natives of Oecussi who were literally stranded there after they became part of an independent nation surrounded by still-hostile Indonesia. The UN provides daily flights, but for those with the social literacy to be able to con their way onto the planes. Many Oecussians were cut off from their relatives for a year and a half, until the ferry service started. The East Timorese idea of subsidy for the boat involves charging foreigners over 10 times the local price. So a round-trip of maybe 100 miles costs $80 for ‘us.’

I’ve never been to Oecussi, but last week I came home and there was a fascinating conversation in between my Patron academic and a very energetic Yale PhD student in Forestry, who is living in the enclave, documenting the local resource-conservation practices. Not being an anthropologist, but all the same interested in humans and their relationship to trees, Forestry Student told some amazing tales about the Portuguese in Oecussi. Including stories of human slavery and 17th century labor practices used until the 1950s on palm tree plantations in the enclave. One particularly memorable tale was about the wife of the palm tree plantation manager, who apparently required 24-hr banana-leaf fanning, a la Cleopatra. There were two Oecussians dedicated to this duty until well into the 1950s.

The rest of Saturday was spent teaching orphans how to do can-openers and cannonballs in the Australian embassy pool, and afterwards drinking beer watching a poor VCD copy of Shanghai Knights with Queen of the Weekend and our outrageous Timorese friend who will go by Tzar of the Weekend. Tzar speaks an Australian English which is often spit out with such gusto and speed that I cannot understand a word. His gestures and dress could be described as more hip-hop than Euro. His wife and children (who are Timorese-Australian) are living in Darwin, and he is waiting for his permanent residence status. In the meantime, Tzar spends his time biking around Dili with us, playing with orphans, staying out late and generally living up to his title, Tzar. Queen of the Weekend recounted their trip to the western districts, where Tzar had never set foot before, but where people constantly stopped him to greet and honor him. It seems Tzar’s Cape Verdean patriarch is quite famous in those parts.

Sunday morning, while should have been spent nursing hangover from the night spent trying to escape bumbling Portuguese peacekeepers and sloppy-drunk Timorese men, was spent holding a “conversational english” class for the family of a driver at work. Commandante, the ex-guerilla driver (who has a lot of Indonesian connections for a resistance hero — another story), nagged me all week to speak English for an hour and a half with a group of youth from his neighborhood. Turns out ‘youth’ includes people well into their thirties, and two extremely juvenile, embarrassed young ladies. It was like high school French. First question: what did you do this weekend? Response: Sleep.

The graphic, truly repulsive graffiti on the filthy schoolroom walls brought me to the topic of manners and politeness, respect for authority, etc. Sounds like a boring topic, but I think the discussion revolving around “Are your parents strict or relaxed?” generated some interest. Then we moved into the universally important and amusing topic of in-laws. I come to the conclusion that I did “en francais” in high school, that some people have potential and others just don’t. I don’t want to be “mean” (word explained at length) but I just think others are better off trying to gain another skill. Maybe I’ll create varsity and junior varsity teams for next week.