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.

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