Lumba-lumba

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.

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