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!