Mountain people

Headed out of town early with Professor and family early in the morning. I was so happy to get out of Dili. On the road, I watched little piggies run in the mangrove mud, the people of Ulmera with their salt production, past Liquiça, which hadn’t changed much at all.

We were headed towards the Professor’s longtime fascination, the old kingdom of Maubara.

It was a Dutch enclave until 1859, where the Chinese and Timorese ran extremely lucrative coffee plantations and earlier sandalwood trade. After its entry into Portuguese jurisdiction, with the fateful (unauthorized) trade of Solor for Maubara in 1859 by Governor Lopes de Lima, Maubara became the site of constant disobedience and struggle. After Maubara was linked to the assassination of Governor Lacerda Maia in 1881, it had a bad name until 1893 when it rose up under the leadership of a rebel named Mau Buti.

Like many places in Timor, the coastal town was basically insignificant for most of history. The Portuguese constructed a fort there in 1860, and attempted to control the mountain peoples above from below. The large Chinese community in Maubara region was highly suspect to the Portuguese administration. The wealth and majority of people lived in the cool mountain areas above the port.

I had only previously visited the coastal town, known as Maubara. (And had one amazing party with the first year of Peace Corps volunteers in the fort!) The beach there is beautiful, with dark black volcanic sand. We blasted through the town, up a dry river bed and onto an old paved road.

Professor explained that this road used to be the main highway East to West in Timor. The Indonesians built the road that clings perilously to the coast, which we know today as the “main road”. This older road was typically Portuguese, with lots of S-curves and beautiful views along the mountain ridges. We passed through what is equivalent to “Outback” scenery. Dry, arid, dusty and seemingly ready to go ablaze with a spark. Only a few human settlements, where there was feeble irrigation.

Then we made it up high to the shady Acacia tree highlands. We started to see heaps of flowers, bougainvillea, a beautiful sort of wild lily, poinsettia (those Christmas plants that are poisonous to cats), and of course forests of waxy-leaved coffee trees. Coffee in Timor is shade grown, under the shade of large-trunked Acacias. This is one of the driest months of the year in Timor, and this elevated forest seems like an oasis.

To the dismay of my rear end, which was bouncing on a wooden bench, we drove all the way to the top of the mountain, not far from one of the most remote and formerly rebellious spots in the kingdom. I was happy to observe that Timor Telcom had its celluar tower up and operational, run by a generator.

Looking out to the north, we could barely make out the hazy outline of the island of Alor. Professor said the people of Maubara used to burn coconut husks on the beach when they wanted to trade with the island neighbors. The people of Alor would bring slaves to sell. To the south, we could see the dry expanse of the Lois River bed, which leads up on the other side of the valley to Timor’s most famous coffee plantations.

I try to follow Professor’s discussion in Indonesian with one of his local informants, a thirty-or forty-year old man with brown and red betelnut teeth. He tells Professor that there is a big party in town because one of his neighbors was accused of witchcraft and possession with the devil, and was forced to prove that he’s ok by offering tons of meat and booze to his neighbors.

Informant told us that people on the mountain had switched their allegiance from Fretilin to ASDT. Xavier was the first “smart” person in Timor, he said. He was a journalist, who traveled in Africa and America. (I thought to myself, nooooo, that’s Ramos Horta!)


He also tells us he learned “his Portuguese” in an Elementary school that was down the mountain that was run by Portuguese troops in the 1970s. He said they built in the middle of the jungle, on unoccupied land. The building was destroyed in the “war” but there is apparently still a very ornate plaque there.

Professor says don’t worry, I know who can tell us all about this school. There is a Portuguese man living down the road we came up. “Avo” José Serra must be about 76 now and arrived in Timor in 1964. He knew nothing about the place when he arrived, except that his brother was here for military service. Serra refused to evacuate with the other Portuguese in 1975.

He went grudgingly to the jungle with Fretilin in the late 70s, and waited out the militia violence in 1999, which was particularly bad in his region. He showed us the only thing that survived 1999, a yellowed photo of him and two friends in the early 1980s in his garden.

Serra tried to switch from a mixture of Indonesian and Tetum that he speaks with Professor to Portuguese to speak with me. At first his speech was literally half Tetum and half Portuguese, and I myself had trouble speaking in one language or the other! But Professor insisted that we speak Portuguese and I plowed on. It was like Serra’s Portuguese had to unmelt. After about 10 minutes he was speaking what he called his Portuguese from the “interior.” (He grew up in Castelo Branco, Beira, in the north, a poor region of Portugal.)

He told us quite interestingly that he did not suffer from one bit of saudade for the 40 years he was here during Portuguese and Indonesian rule. Only with independence, and a flood of peacekeepers and professors bringing him olives, cheese, chestnuts and even water from his family’s springs that he started to get nostalgic. He said that they brought him these things to matar saudades, to kind of quench his nostalgia, but that it only made him more and more thirsty to return to Portugal.

Tomorrow he said he would go to Dili to finally take care of his passport. His nephew, who was up there visiting, told us that Avo Serra did not have either Timorese nor Portuguese passports. Just a simple “bilhete de identidade”, probably issued by the UN.

Serra believes, especially after recent events, that Dili is an evil place. It really is torture for him to go down there. He is reminded more of the fact that the politicians, who spent most of the struggle in exile, are ruining this place at the little people’s expense. He also seems very hurt by the way that Timorese people seem to always resort to violence to sort out their problems.

He was born in 1930, and only remembers Portugal when it was “repressed” by the dictatorship. He says they tell him things are very different now, with nice highways, and a better life. But he also says he is shocked by the number of forest fires in Portugal recently. He can’t say whether he wants to return to Portugal. He fears that if people in Maubara find out he wants to go to see family, they think he will never come back. People already began to mistrust his motives for getting his passport, he said.

Serra never married in Timor, and it seems fled his married life in Portugal. Certain less “masculine” mannerisms he has makes one speculate whether Timor was simply a more friendly place for him than Estado Novo Portugal.

If you need any proof of what an amazing character he is, please watch the “One Cup” documentary indicated in the links bar to the right. He is featured prominently, and you can hear his amazing way of speaking!

We made our way down the mountain, giving a ride to three young men. One was walking with a sparkling new boombox on his shoulder, like the 1980s ghettoblasters. Professor said they must not have batteries for it, and there is no electricity up there, but hell, it makes a great statement.

In Maubara, we drove past the church and down onto the beautiful black sand. Time for a late afternoon dip in the water. After the Atlantic ice of the Portuguese coast, it felt like beautiful, waveless bathwater. I don’t think I will ever like any beaches as much as I love Timor.

On our way back into Dili, we saw a plume of smoke coming from a government repair workshop in Comoro. Two Australian cops were casually interviewing some young men by the side of the road. They didn’t seem bothered at all.

Maybe Avo Serra is right, Dili is a wretched place.


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