The weekend we walked around the valley below Mt Matebian, the mountain of the souls, site of much turmoil during World War II, a rebellion in 1959 and devastating attacks during the late seventies by the Indonesians. The floods on the news were in evidence there. We crossed rivers which were quite high for the season with caution. Down the valley in the morning and up around the rim back to Baguia, avoiding the big rivers below, crossing numerous tributaries above. The goal was to connect the two old administrative posts of Baguia and Uatocarbau, thereby tracing the retreat of the thwarted ‘rebels’ of 1959.

The approach to Baguia, followed by rainbows. It had rained for 12 days straight prior to our arrival; we brought the sunshine!

The fort, the old administrative “posto.” Ruined in under 40 years more than an English castle in 300. Currently occupied by the police, soon to be a guest house for travellers coming to climb Matebian.

Local children stare at us, bedraggled after crossing the river, the first of three big ones.


Timor is the land of the waltz, a dance which involves two steps and a varying third step. Perhaps it sounds new and interesting to you. Well maybe it would be for about half the length of UB40’s “Red, red wine,” one of the most popular songs to dance to. And then you realize you will be waltzing til the sun comes up. Or maybe after. No change in rhythm, no change and steps. Just this crazy three step pattern, and the only variation is the sweaty grip of the stiff arm on one side, and the hopefully not wandering hand on your back.

Another Portuguese legacy, just like crumbling buildings or people with twelve last names. Dancing here has not progressed significantly, I can assume, in the last hundred years.

The Javanese are not exactly known for their disco or salsa steps. And I suppose for the most part, people wanted to keep their Timorese girls as far as possible from the roving eyes and hands of Indonesians.

For those who would like to attempt to break the mould, there is hope. If only in Dili. It is called “tripping.” Pronounced “trrr-eee-ping.”

Here is a step-by-step guide to tripping. Put on one of the following: Venga Boys, Baha Men (Who let the dogs out?), Bon Jovi or Las Ketchup. Giggle. Walk into the middle of the room. Start cautiously lifting your legs up and down. Perhaps add a little undulation of the arms. Giggle. Laugh at your friends. Run away if somebody of the opposite sex approaches.

Tripping, is what us zany westerners would call dancing. For example, at a house party, a disco, a bar, a concert. Just getting up and dancing by yourself, without being dragged or dragging somebody cross the floor in a hypnotic three step. Here “tripping” is not dancing, so much as acting like a malae, a foreigner. Daring few Timorese will admit they actually like it!

And even more daring yet, are those who venture out to the one or two nightspots here on weekends and “trip” together.

Driving down the ‘main street’ of Dili, past the crossroads which to the right goes to the university and the parliament (fatefully facing each other), and to the left is the scorched hulk of Hello Mister. Looking through a 10 cm strip of non-tinted glass in the taxi windshield, between the dangling chain of unidentifiable stuffed-animals dangling from suction-cups, I spot two Chinese guys squatting on their heels in front of a tarp covered in two kinds of shoes. They are hawking shoes recently hauled across the border.

“Shoes,” I said, trying to gauge the driver’s reaction.

“They must have lots of shoes in America,” he said. “Good shoes, not like these.”

“Yeah,” I said, “They all come from Indonesia though!”

I just thought of how strange this was.  A pair of fairly rotten tennis shoes here will cost you $20. In America, if you go bargain shopping, you can find a quite good pair of tennis shoes for $30. They both come from Indonesia, right next door. Why doesn’t Timor get good shoes for a cheaper price?

I suppose it’s what the market will bear. Here there are not a lot of shoe buyers (more flip-flop buyers). The new-shoe buyers are most likely interested in image above all else here. Being the first shoe-wearer on the block. Customer satisfaction and quality just does not exist in a place like this. Everything is pirated, made as cheaply as possible and there is no such thing as brand loyalty.

In America there is a vast market for shoes. We demand quality, because we still remember when good shoes were made in Mexico, England and America. Image matters, but we would never accept the same rubber and plastic detritus that sells here. And we demand low prices. The race to the bottom.

In East Timor, we only have a couple of boats a week and a couple of smugglers on the streets a week. So we are getting the dregs from China and Surabaya, but not the rock bottom prices.  A cycle of misery and heaps of 3-month old, destroyed shoes.

I am watching the clouds float past my window lying in bed. They are going towards Alor, the island to the northwest. I don’t have to get up out of bed to ascertain where they are going and where I am. Islanders have an inherent positioning system, not as precise as machine connected to satellites. But more relevant. An islander could tell you, for example, even in the extreme highlands, which reach nearly 10,000 ft, how many hours walk is the ocean and in which directions. Coast dwellers could probably tell you how many days or hours it is to the next island on the horizon.

In Timor, there is tasi mane and tasi feto. These are the two key cardinal directions. Tasi mane is the coast with pounding surf, the one that crude oil from the depths of the sea has been known to naturally wash up on, the one with 7 meter long salt water crocodiles. The south coast is the “man’s coast,” wild and rough. The north coast, bordering the depth Straights of Ombai, is in contrast, the “woman’s coast.” There is virtually no surf here due to the natural protection of the islands to the north and the largely intact coral reefs all along its length. Crocodiles are extremely rare here, and appear more in rumor than anywhere else. The reptile metaphor continues, as it is the north is the <a href=>teki</a> to the south coast’s toke (big, loud gecko, considered the ‘man’ gecko).

As in any place on earth, attention is paid to longitude in relation to the path of the sun. Timor Lorosa’e, the defacto name of Timor in the transitional years of 2000 and 2001 (which was abandoned in favor of the Portuguese, Timor Leste) means East Timor in Tetum. Well, kind of. Loron is sun, and sa’e means rise, hence east, Lorosa’e. Loro monu, the sunset, is likewise used to describe the ‘west’, the area from Dili west to the border.

But because we are on an island, neither of the terms take on a more abstract conceptual meaning of the area of the earth where the sun is shining before it hits East Timor. (As with tasi mane and tasi feto, which do not mean south or north as such, but describe actual places.) So directions have a meaning deeply grounded in the immediate geographical context of the island.

This makes the name Timor Lorosa’e politically more complicated. Because then it does not only mean, in the Timorese understanding, the eastern half of the island of Timor (as it would to the world) but it means the eastern part of the Tetum-influenced area of the island. In other words, to chose the name Timor Lorosa’e for the whole nation, would be to exclude, in some people’s opinion, the whole area west of Dili to the border with Indonesia.

This is even more complicated by the fact that Tetum is spoken as a mother tongue by very few people on the eastern tip of the island (where the sun literally rises).

So Timor finds itself in the strange bind that many post-colonial nations do. Having to accept the use of colonial terms (and concepts) which are intended to foster unity over regionalism. But in the end, while something seems to lost in cultural terms, it is clear that most Timorese still have their internal island positioning system, with everything ‘east’ and ‘west’ and north of the tasi feto and south of the tasi mane of Timor Leste remaining none-too-relevant.

Starting at about 8 pm last night not-too-distant neighbor began to play Asian karoke-like covers of country classics. There was the classic cracking of the box speakers as they were cranked up too loud.

This would be normal, except this went on until 5:30am.

I thought I was hallucinating, perhaps a fever from a couple of nights ago had come back? Perhaps I was stuck in some bizarre dream?

But no. I wanted to call the police, but the phonecall would have achieved nothing, as the police are afraid to really go out and fight crime (especially ones against ear drums). Plus the call would have cost me the remainder of the $5 on my phone card.

I thought, surely, the favored Timorese vigilante method “tuda fatuk” (throw rocks) would work well enough. But nobody apparently could muster up the energy or the outrage to throw rocks!

Perhaps somebody had decided to have their wedding on a Wednesday night, and hold the whole neighborhood hostage to their noise: young babies, old people, working people, sick people and all.

Another wilder theory is that the Motael church had decided to throw a party for Santo Antonio. More like a country-music rave! I’m going to investigate this theory, and if it is true, go with a neighbor to make a formal complaint.

The country-church-rave aside, there is some strange aspect of Timorese culture whereby people enjoy listening to music at an extremely uncomfortable level, with the crackly bass of burned out speakers, and a screaching, buzzing treble. The worst sensation is riding in a microlet, the Indonesian equivalent of a kombi, which turns into an enormous defective speaker. And you crammed in there riding in the back with babies, children, chickens, collared greens and old people all trying to think of nice things so that they don’t lose their minds with the noise.

A friend remarked, at a party for independence at a kindergarten nearby, that the most famous singer in Timor, Tony Perreira, managed to make his live music sound as though it was being played in a microlet. As if people liked it that way!

Teeth are often red-stained, brown, or yellowed. Rare to find bathroom tile that’s white. Rice can be white, but often it has brown parts, from the husks. Eggs are white, but hard to come by for most. Walls are often painted white but become stained astonishingly fast. When there is a surf, which is rare, it is white.

You can’t escape white. It is the color of the flag flown in front of the house for a baby’s funeral. It is also the color of women in pornography, distributed across East Timor for $1.50 per video.

As in other places, I suppose white makes right. Timorese people buy whitening lotion for their faces and avoid the sun. Confused-looking babies riding in buses with their faces smeared with whitening lotion. People call their darker children “blackie.”

Clouds are white. Priest robes are bleach white. As are whale vertebrae like the one we walked past on the weekend. Dried coconut is white.  Newborn goats, black and white, are such a clean white that we literally squealed with delight as we drove past them on Sunday.