Sunday drive in the country

I hopped in a cab Sunday morning in Dili, headed for the “terminal” at Becora market, the eastern-most point of the city. Becora is suburb spread along a fairly narrow long street through a valley. It was a big pro-independence neighborhood, and much of the violence of “Scenes from an Occupation” (one of the better documentaries of 1999) was filmed there. Dutch journalist Sander Thoenes was executed there by Battalion 745, on its bloody trip to West Timor.

On this day, though, as on many Sundays, men, women and children, filed down the sides of the street away from the large baby blue Becora church. Many had palm fronds. In a country which purports to be 94% Catholic and that has no sidewalks, driving around 9am on any given Sunday is tough. We made our way slowly, and I noticed that many young men were in the crowd. The attendance of young men to church has plummeted since the Church has ceased to be the sole meeting point for the resistance. At Christmas time, the nativity scenes became mini-discos, with music blaring, flashing lights and young men drinking tua mutin, white palm wine. This seemed the closest most young men came to religion. That, and in Maliana, where we attended midnight mass, launching fire works just above the heads of the joyless, departing crowd. The number of young men was remarkable. This was probably one of three days a year they attend church, and many were showing of the newest Dili fashions. Loping along, ever disinterested.

Waiting on the bus, packed full of Makassae people headed to Baucau, I was told the bus was leaving “agora” – a literal translation “now” – and yet I sat down and began to realize that I was going to swelter there for an indefinite period of time. Two sisters in luto, or mourning, behind me, were sympathetic after I explained that people need to start being slightly more accurate in their use of words to describe time. “Horsida” – soon – would have been a better choice of words. Agora, I explained, means, I get on the bus, and we take off. “Horsida” while still extremely vague, is more useful.

The bus stopped probably six times during a journey that would normally take 1 hour. Everybody was crowding in from Dili to Manatuto. It seemed that there were few buses on Palm Sunday. People became righteously impatient at the driver’s antics, and began screaming “ba ona!” Let’s go already! By the time I ricocheted past the chickens, old men, youth, sitting women out of the door, falling like a pinball into the chute in front of my friends house in Manatuto I was thoroughly defeated.

Sitting on the bench on the side of street, reclining in the shade, were the sullen neighborhood youth, plus three peacecorps volunteers. They chuckled. One is an American-born, Rio-raised friend of mine, we’ll call her Amerioca (American + Carioca). The other two volunteers were headed back to Dili. We flagged down a UN Landrover, and I don’t think we could have asked for a more graceless couple to ask for a ride, but in the end, even they could not refuse.

Amerioca and I tried lounging around but it was to hot, so we head out by bike across the water-filled paddies towards the desert-hills east of Manatuto. She had a secluded beach, where we wouldn’t have to bathe in t-shirt and shorts. It was hot as hell. We arrived to a sand beach after 20 minutes and crawled into the unfortunately murky water. Sat in there like water buffaloes.

A rare sensation of not being watched in Timor. We lolled around, staring out at Wetar, the large island in front of us. Commandante, my talkative driver at work, told us about the time he spent there. He had gone there to mine gold, with an Australian firm. The gold will run out in only a couple of years. Commandante said it was very lightly populated, by very ‘primitive’ people. The Indonesian government has not even bothered to divide it into districts, or kabupaten. The language they speak there is similar to Gailoli, the language spoken in Manatuto, by Amerioca’s good-humored “grandma.”

We finished up the afternoon where it had started, on the side of the road. Watching the PNTL (Policia Nacional Timor Leste, no longer ETPS, East Timor Police Service) “patrol” at 40 mph through town. Destroying their Tata vehicles. In fact one car’s engine was clearly falling out of its casing.

I thumbed a ride from an American acquaintance, and sat in the twilight waiting for the Palm Sunday procession to cross the one bridge to Dili. We had to wait through two stations of the cross, watching the clouds turn purple, listening to the fertile gush of the river below.

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