It is supposed to be the dry season. Stick frames of new houses are up on the road from Dili to Maliana. But yesterday it felt humid and I was delirious with the lull of the car motor and the bends in the road. It felt like a dream. I noticed big bulbous clouds forming in the West and saw some big, rising cumulonimbus over neighboring Alor.

By the time I returned to Dili it was sticky and clouded over. Strange. In any other place in the world I would have thought rain immediately, but it is just not supposed to rain here in late July. Nightfall and it began to drizzle. A relief, the temperature dropped slightly. But it was still hot enough to want to take a cold shower around midnight, which I greatly appreciated.

Perhaps the weather is taking is cues from the political situation in Dili. With a couple of days build-up, of protest, newspaper and TV coverage of the police encampment surrounding former governor Mario Carrascalão’s house, the police finally evicted him Monday. People were shouting, ‘We love you Mario, who helped us in our struggle, not like Mari Alkatiri.’ According to the Portuguese press (the only intelligible news source) the guy was given the house (constructed by the Portuguese) by the Indonesians in the 1980s. Under the new property law, all Portuguese and Indonesian government property reverts to state ownership. The state half-heartedly negotiated with Carrascalão over rent, but judging by the fact that he built a whole new house on the property in the past year, he argued the rent should be very reduced. The government would take it after a few years. But the Mozambiquan Oligarchs who run this country (Alkatiri and Ana Pessoa primarily) decided that they wanted him out, and demanded an outrageously high rent, sending the police in to seal the deal.

The poor Policia Nacional de Timor Leste are still hyper paranoid after December 4. All of my colleagues at work were scared of another riot. Alkatiri’s new house (post-December 4, when his old one was burned) was in spitting distance around the corner.

But in the end, all Timor got was a drizzle. No downpour. Mario ‘surrendered,’ exiting the house at noon claiming he would await the results of his suit against the government. Facing defeat in the courts, he told the press he would seek political asylum in Portugal. (Which would be the ultimate irony as his father was a deportado, a man exiled to Timor for his anarchist politics in the 1920s).

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About our departure from the sacred spot. We announced we had to leave, shortly after sneaking two oreo cookies at 7am. We were told we would be escorted out. We walked up the incline towards the path with our skinny young companion. For the first time since we had arrived, there was total silence. No howling, singing, dancing, hauling of logs.

Arriving at the car, I have to admit a feeling of relief at the thought of sitting in a car. It is very strange how a car, with its seats, and switches for air conditioning, and sound system can seem so like ‘home.’ We gave out some bananas and mandarins and started off down through the town, which used to be the Portuguese administrative post.

At the edge of town, we noticed piles of rocks blocking the road. Oh yeah, we had remembered there was a ‘tax’ for the repair of the road that we had crossed yesterday. So we rolled down the window and got out the coin purse. “How much.” The response, from a gruff young man “Thirty dollars.”

At this point, had I not had a sleepless night in the forest with only a bread roll and Velveeta cheese to eat, I might have taken the opportunity to lecture these people. That some foreigners, i.e. Africans, perhaps some Asians and Latin people with the UN would have paid without thinking about it. But we were an American and an Australian. Two peoples who really do not take kindly to extortion.

To save my breath, I got out and began removing the rocks. Perhaps this was too direct a form of negotiation. The man began to kick the rocks back into place and we got the message.

We told them we were going to the police, drove the car back up the hill and walked down one hour to the nearest police station through the rice paddies, across a river in the hot sun. (Uatolari on this map is where we started. Our destination is the green plain below, towards Ponto Beaco).

The police, as could be expected, were not thrilled about the idea of dealing with hot-heads trying to extort money from foreigners. Meanwhile we were beginning to get nervous because the extortionists were from a rival group to the group we had stayed the night with. I was having visions of us starting some kind of war. But Queen and I kept reassuring ourselves that if there is one thing foreigners can do here, it is to promote rule of law. Right, I told myself.

Part of the Police’s reluctance to accompany us was the fact that the whole station, serving tens of thousands of people and a vast land area, had only one bicycle. The car, a Tata, they said had bitten the dust (Tata Rai, in Tetum). There was no motorbike. Only one bicycle. Our powers of persuasion were proven, as they walked 1 ½ hours with us, across the rice paddies, the river, and UP the mountain.

The police never policed this region. Not only for the problems with transport, we were told. They knew that these people were impossible. Known for stealing 70 buffalo last year, which is probably equivalent to holding up a bank in the US.

I was impressed with the Police, and the fact that the people there actually respected the Police. Queen was not too happy about having to pay $1 to the extortionists, she claimed that “Foreigners time is worth money! You should pay us!” to try to make a point, but the concept of Opportunity Cost was clearly lost on these people, whose time was not so clearly tied to money. More clearly tied to the rice paddies and the rice growing cycle.

But the $1 was about saving face, as the extortionists (and perhaps honest people who fixed the road) said, they wanted us to acknowledge why they had wanted to charge us in the first place. We said we understand why but we still thought that they were a bunch of thieves and drove off.

Five minutes later, Queen was quick to explain to the police her opinion that not everybody was an idiot and trouble-maker, only a few. But these few trouble makers were infamous across East Timor. And we had the pleasure of losing our Sunday morning to them!

Sacredhousappalooza

We did not get to see the lulik objects.

We arrived two hours late, and were told that we would have to wait outside the sacred clearing in the jungle to receive permission to enter. When we finally entered, we were told that we violated many taboos by our presence, by an irritable bossy woman. Pants, shoes, shaking hands of men (who approached us first), being white… but nobody seemed to mind the fact that we had cameras and were shooting photos of the men hauling huge 2 ft x 2ft x 30ft logs of wood howling like dogs. The men were transporting the wood cut from the Ai Besi, the Iron Tree, to the site of the future sacred house.

The lulik, we were told, were resting in the newly constructed bamboo house later to serve as a guest house. There was a great debate behind the scenes as to whether we should be allowed to see the lulik in a private showing. (Later we learned that they were trying to protect us from being blinded by viewing the lulik objects.)

We sat in a bamboo structure, about 6m by 15m, elevated off the ground, which was one of about five such tent/structures. They had been built for the hundreds of people who had come to help build the sacred house. Each village in the surrounding area had their own. There were kitchens everywhere, and a spring below, near a large field which was where the big beams and logs were kept. The forest surrounding was dense for East Timor. Some trees had never been cut.

On the way up, it was clear that some children along the road had never seen white women before. We were told they thought we were dolls.

But the clearing in the forest also had long rows of coconut palms, evenly spaced. The best evidence of Portuguese control over the region, the forced cultivation of coconut.

People told us that the old sacred house had been target of the Timorese punishing forces brought in after the rebellion in 1959. The invaders from Viqueque and Ossu stole and burned everything. But they were ‘not able’ to burn the sacred house. As if it would not catch fire.

In the late 1970s, the Indonesian military succeeding in burning the house. But the people of the kingdom had already taken the lulik to a safe place in the town below. After some tough years in the jungle (persecuted by both Timorese and Indonesians) they returned to the town en masse, and became infamous collaborators. But they kept their lulik objects safe.

Nobody knew how to conduct the sacred house building ceremony. The last time this occurred was ‘a hundred years ago.’ Some old men were helping to add authentic elements, including the requirement that nobody call each other by their names, but by the name ‘asu’ (dog) in order to reduce their status in the presence of the sacred objects.

But there were already enormous compromises to the tradition, including the attendance of all of the ‘reino’ the common people, who would have never been allowed near the sacred house in traditional times. Just the family of the ruling kings and the priests.

After witnessing a chicken sliced to death by a victorious chicken with razor blade taped to its foot, and after declining a dinner of boiled buffalo and dry rice, we slept next to heaps of rice sacks. There was noise all night. The old people were taking advantage of the opportunity to teach the young people dances and songs. They danced and sang until sun-up. And somebody started beating on a snare drum a meter from our ears at about 4 in the morning.

The whole time I had the sensation that I was at a big rock-music festival like Lollapalooza or Woodstock or something. This huge encampment in the woods, with different activity stations (cock-fighting, drinking palm wine, eating, sleeping). There was this very happy communal energy. Stomachs were full of more protein than most of the year, care of the liurai, who agreed grudgingly to feed hundreds of people for the two hungry months before harvest for this event.

Queen: Why exactly are we traveling to Uatolari [a remote area on the south coast] this weekend?

Me: They are moving lulik [sacred objects] from Uatolari Aflocai to the mountain above, Nahasaka. In 1975, the Babulo people moved the lulik down from the mountains for protection to Uatolari Aflocai. Now they are returning it, it is a very big deal. The inauguration of a new lulik house has not happened for about 100 years.

Saturday is when they lay the first stone and put up the first timbers.

We will get to see the lulik: stones, flag, rota [sceptre given to the kingdom by the Portuguese], and a hat, and a small snake, cobra.

That’s all I understand.

Snorkeling 5 minutes outside of Dili by 7:50am Sunday morning. The sensation of rolling out of bed into that beautiful aquarium at the doctor’s office.

Three hours later, we were driving through shady Acacia forests through waxy dark green coffee trees. The smell of coffee on the tree. Headed up to Turiscai, the home of the polygot-troll Xavier do Amaral. Who we coincidentally met on the road above Dili. In shorts, with the henna dye fast fading from his hair. He told us to ‘take care’ and that the turn off from well-paved road would take 2-1/2 hours.

The road was serpentine, with major drainage problems. Men on horseback were going as fast as we were. It took a little over an hour to reach Turiscai. A new ruined Chefe-de-Posto’s residence to inspect. A new cemetery to cruize through (most graves were of very large families, with the majority of deceased from the late 1970s). After our walk around town, we bought two boxes of raisins (half full) and made our way back.

Passing old aluminum-wire satellite dishes, inverted, being used for clotheslines.

It reminded me of the rather post-apocolyptic story told by a Kiwi telecoms engineer. He arrived in 1999, shortly after the peacekeepers. The telecoms guys hoped to find the just newly-installed Indonesian microwave network, reaching almost every sub-district in Timor. They were crossing their fingers that it may have been spared the destruction. But across Timor, after the violence it seems, people entered the telecoms spots and pulled out the microwave transmitters. The casings were used for water-dippers, the wires used to bind house-hold objects together.

A vision of computers used to weigh down tin roof tops. Of ethernet cable used as lassos. Mobile phone casings used to hold honey, for cough-medicine.

This blue house in Maliana, I found out today, was the headquarters of the FPDK, the political front for the pro-autonomy militias which rampaged the town in 1999, killing nearly 50 people. People were tortured and killed there.

Thinking back, there are other blue, abandoned houses on that road, including the home one of my best friends in East Timor, and an abandonned guesthouse. But these houses did not affect me in the same way.

This friend told me that describing the FPDK house gave her goosebumps. The owner of the house (who rented it to Joao Tavares’ son from FPDK)  returned to Maliana last year to look around, and exclaimed ‘What has happened to this house? Where has everything gone?’ A widow from the police station massacre turned to her and said, ‘What has happened to my husband? Where has he gone’?

Blue house part 1

Many stories to share: a child I work with half-heartedly concealing physical abuse; a 17 year old German boy who has been here for two years on his own, speaks two local languages fluently and gets beaten up by the neighborhood drunks every weekend. A petty king in Oecusse who was arraigned in Dili for nailing one of his subject’s foot to a piece of wood for a week, as punishment for cattle theft. Slaves buried alive with kings only 50 years ago. Witchery: throwing stones, freezing people with spells, sea horses’ tails for aphrodiasiac.

Last twilight walking through the cemetery in Maliana, past the tightly arranged graves, all facing the mountain, I noticed many had been retiled and improved since my first visit over two years ago. My australian friend remarked that the graves seemed unkempt to her.

She told of the day in Lombok, after Ramadan, the day of the break-fast, when the women go to the cemetery with flowers and jugs of water. They stand over their families graves and the older women cover the younger girls with flowers. Then the slowly pour the water over the girls, the flowers covering the grave.

We passed a burned-out blue house. The sun had set and the landscape was this expiring orange color. The house, though, blue color, the quality of it, the depth, the chilling patterns of smoke and decay on the walls of the house would have inspired fear in the dark. Mesmerizing, but I was glad to only be passing by.