All souls, or Matebian

For four years, I have been rather obsessively collecting lists of people killed in the shadow of Mt. Matebian. I began with a rebellion in 1959, then I moved to World War II, then I began to collect names from 1975 and 1978-79.

I began to have a feeling for the awful meaning of these lists in individual terms. That each of these people had a family, and that each person died their own terrifying individual death.

And yet I had little feeling for what all of these deaths meant in a more collective sense.

I knew about “good deaths” and “bad deaths”, and ghosts. I knew that funeral rituals are extremely elaborate and last over a year. Funerals are not cheap. I even witnessed a hakoi mate ruin ceremony in 2003, which was the transfer of people’s mortal remains from a temporary resting place from Indonesian times to their rightful, ancestral resting place.

I knew also that Matebian, in Tetum, literally means the souls of the dead. The Timorese believe that at death, a person’s soul returns to the mountain to its ancestors resting place. In this sense, death is a unification.

The whole time I was collecting these lists, I had no real concept about what the dead mean to Timorese.

I had no idea, for example, that in the Matebian region, there are very old ancestral graves called beli, which are carefully constructed rock terraces often over a meter tall, which serve as collective graves. I suppose I had seen these terraces, but I had no idea what they meant to people. Each lineage has its own beli in its knua of origin.

I brought this practice up with the brilliant Tio Martinho in Baguia. His eyes lit up. He ran in to fetch photos of his uma adat, his village’s traditional house. He had already shown me these fotos.

But the first time he showed them to me, I had not carefully noted the rock terracing that the house was built on top of. When I look carefully this time, I see the rock terracing sloping under the spectacular new uma adat. The terraces go up at least a hundred meters, hugging the slope of the mountain.

These are our ancestral resting places, he explains. We have some of the largest and the best around Matebian.

On Wednesday is the Loron Matebian, Dia dos Finados or All Souls Day. This is a major holiday in Timor. In some places it resembles the Mexican “Dia de los Muertos” where the family takes the party to their deceased loved-ones.

At Tio Martinho’s invitation, I am going to see the celebrations at his village, called Oekilari, which sits at the base of Mt. Matebian.

Let’s do the timewarp again

I had taken a hiatus from reading a blog called Timor-Online, which is Fretilin-party hack central, written mostly in Portuguese.

For comic relief, I read the latest Communiqués to the press, I’m assuming made with a megaphone at the Fretilin Headquarters in Comoro. These press releases are essentially the long-awaited “party” response to the UN report and the allegations against Alkatiri and Lobato. (My poor translation)

That the very actions of a well planned conspiracy against the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, its People and Leadership, its Institutions, the foundations of Democratic Rule of Law, its Constitution and Laws, the capital symbolic of its glorious history of resistance, its history and strategic options in the domain of Language and Culture, of its Political and Economic System, have not yet been fully executed

That selective actions of destabilization are still underway and a combination of acts and actions with aim of depriving the country of its national Leadership, deepening the crisis of authority of State, multiplying the practices of humiliation, intervening in the judiciary in order to use it for the ends of weakening the whole political-institutional system of the State, generalizing provocations to the population, crystallizing the division of the country in “lorosa’e and loromonu”, making governance unviable

That there is the necessity for the government to reaffirm its exclusive power of coercion and of sovereignty and to use its authority to find solutions to the crisis …

That the national Leadership liberate itself from the complex web of conspiracy that divided it and unite itself around the common cause of national sovereignty and authority of the State, the reimposition of law and order, the viabilization of government, in sum, in defense of the sacred interests of our people

That all the people know how to reinforce its vigilance and maintain its capacity to comprehend the situation and not let itself be tricked by destabilizing groups or react to provocations and as such prevent the proliferation of violence …


… Let us defend our sovereignty and our options in the area of friendly relations with all of the countries of the world, our policies of regional integration and of international relations

Man, and the world likes to make fun of Kim Jong Il and his lonely (or “rone-ry”) stance against “imperialists”!

The FRETILIN Central Committee, and the author of these missives who probably cut his/her teeth in Marxist Africa, is basically pushing a grand conspiracy theory. There is no middle ground here. Either you are with us, or you are part of a vast conspiracy to wipe us from the face of the earth.

Recently, even Fidel Castro essentially told Hugo Chavez to steady on with the dictator-for-life talk. But at least Hugo Chavez has a sense of humor! These guys are utterly humorless.

What is the end game here? Is FRETILIN planning some great campaign to kick out Australian “imperialists” and their “lackies” prior to November 28, what they consider to be Independence Day?

Is Australia going to tire of being kicked around here, by the press, the ruling party and the kids on the street? Will John “Tough Guy” Howard finally call Timor’s bluff and evacuate? Afterall, he was recently bruised by criticisms of neocolonialism by Soloman Islands and Papua New Guinea’s leaders.

UNMIT finally admitted it will not be at full policing strength until December. If the Australians left it would create a security vacuum that could only be filled by a Timorese show of force. I won’t be around to see what that will look like, I can guarantee that.

If FRETILIN thinks that the Australians are blood-thirsty murderers here to rob them of their sovereignty, instead of staying up late cooking conspiracy theories and 1970s-communicados, then they should just PROVE IT.

Until they provide cold hard evidence, then they are only shooting their own sovereignty in the foot and creating further instability.

Bases loaded

My hometown baseball team won the World Series. Big celebrations in my city, which recently spent a pretty penny on a new Stadium for the team.

St. Louis seems like another planet. Yet the murder rate there is higher than here.

Otelo sent a message warning me to stay indoors yesterday. I didn’t need much encouragement to have a peaceful Saturday night. I bought a sandwich at the City Cafe, where a number of Portuguese were turning up for the daily special Arroz de Polvo.

Two hacked to death bodies turned up near Otelo’s house two days ago, and rumors began circulating that Australia was involved. Then this morning one of the daily papers printed the incendiary headline that Australia was involved in the killings.

Many Timorese seem to be almost content that Australia is finally being blamed for the violence.

The UN seems to merely want to keep a lid on things.

Nobody is talking about solutions. Nobody is talking about convening all of the political leaders in crisis talks.

The bases are loaded and there’s only one out. Somebody send in the relief pitcher to get us out of this one.

Headed back to the mountain now on Tuesday, I have to finish working on an article in “Australian English” here in Dili — take out all of my Americanisms and baseball metaphors, and get precious laundry washed.

Worse than Greyhound

“My teenage wife sucks mean dick” – I am sitting inside a bus in Baucau’s new market being subjected to this awfully crude hiphop music. It’s blaring in my ears. There is a Mestre sitting in front of me who I’m sure understands the words, but does not request them to turn it off. The bus’ name is “Sozinho” (alone).

Three to four years ago, the Mercado Baru was one of the most feared places in Timor. Now it’s downright pastoral. Except for the explicit, weird hiphop deafening me.

A textie to Dili was enough to chill me, and convince me that I would make a rather military-style incursion for cash, internet and medicine. Docogirl advises that people are none too keen on Australians after Australians shot dead two rock throwers yesterday. Caution advised in town. We’ll see how much of this is malai rumor mongering. (Now Missy Elliott’s “Get Your Freak On,” at least something ironically explicit.)

On the way here I came in a 1997 Mitsubishi dump truck bought with money from a Timorese guy working in Northern Ireland. The driver Chico, a man who stopped in Laga to be rather tongue-lashed by his wife in front of the bus by his wife. In the cabin also was Lourenço, a teacher in Baguia who was going to see about getting paid. He said all the teachers have to go individually to get paid (during a school day) because there is nobody to transport their salaries to the district. They pay their own expenses to Baucau (although I’m not sure he was asked to pay). Before in UNTAET times, the police escorted a Ministry of Education employee to the subdistricts where they paid out salaries in cash. They can’t just send one person to fetch the money because they have yet to be issued proper identification cards. (Kids around me in the bus are singing along to Shaggy now “Girl you’re my darling, my angel baby…”)

Lourenço says they are having a hell of a time learning Portuguese. Before they had a Brazilian teacher who they understood better. It’s really tough for them to understand the Portuguese from Portugal, their mouths are so closed.

Back on the bus in Mercado Baru. Hours pass. We are waiting for “two people” to show up.
The Golden Rule, I realize, is difficult to apply between cultures. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Because our standards are completely different. I’ve been on tons of buses here, I try to relax myself. But I just cannot get used to such wanton disrespect for other people’s time!

When these “two” people arrive, they seem to have no problem with the fact that there is a half-full bus waiting for them. Not only that, they stand out side gossiping and smoking with the driver for another full 45 minutes. My cultural-relativistic seal breaks. I march down and demand that we get moving. I get back up thinking, now I’m definitely the halo an foreigner! I prepare myself mentally to wait another hour.

Miraculously we get moving. (And wait for another person across town.)

When I get to Dili, I am hot, tired and irritated. But I decide to bike all the way to the house. The boys who help me fill my bike tires take me for Australian. I tell them I am not. I also point out that before, when the Australians were not shooting, they were complaining that Australia was weak. Now they are, and, Timorese say they are no good.

Knua, or real life

During my moras (sick) time, I still was able to get some valuable information. A lot of people stopped in and chatted, mostly ladies. I heard the feminine perspective on 59 and most conflict around here.

Found that some of the same families notorious in 1959 were involved in a fistfight the prior weekend, after drinking too much palm wine.

I also had a lot of time to meditate on this rural, hamlet-based life in Timor. This was and is life for the majority of Timorese. The most basic unit of life in Timor is the uma kain, the hearth. Then comes the knua, the hamlet, often made up of little more than one hearth, maybe up to 5-6.

I remember Professor, when interviewing his students, asked them the provocative question: what distance is greater, that between your knua and Dili, or that between Dili and New York?

To get back to Dili, I will have to walk 4 hours across the valley, wait another day for a dump truck, then hope to make it to Baucau in time for a bus from the market. In other words, Dili is farther away from Ossu Loe than Dili is from New York. And it feels farther.

From this knua, Ossu Loe, even the town Afaloicai 45 minutes away, seems a filthy, turbulent place. There people do not keep their pigs penned up. They throw garbage everywhere. They drink too much wine and get in fistfights. They tell rumors about each other.

Here in the knua, there are chores from sun-up to sun-down. There is just the immediate family around, sometimes their kids. They play together and do chores together. There are animals everywhere, and all kinds. All are vital to life there. Dogs provide security. Chickens, food and alarm clocks. The pigs are like a bank, turning leftover food into money. Buffaloes are both a bank account (better returns than the interest rate!) and they serve to prepare the fields. Even the toke lizards inside the house are busy eating bugs.
There is a whole world of meaning here that is far removed from even the village a short walk away.


What are the key elements of life here? First a knife, or a machete, and a sharpening stone. Then the mortar and pestle for separating rice from the chaff. Palm leaf and rope, for baskets, for building. An iron axehead, some pots. Large baskets for food shortage. The house, on stilts to protect food stores, made of: bamboo, palm “rope,” eucalyptus and pine cross pieces, teak flooring, four huge trunks, and fine thatch from the “black” palm.


Water at Ossu Loe was one of its most redeeming features. There is a spring just above the road. Pedro paid for plastic piping to bring water directly down. The kids don’t have to spend the morning getting water. We can take luxurious daily baths.

One morning Meta doesn’t want to go to school. She doesn’t want to go without her mother. Separation anxiety? She likes hanging out with the Malai? I asked if there was psychological reason she wouldn’t want to go to school. Her mother explained that she was being made fun of by a 15-year old boy from the village because she was a pengunsi. He called her a loromonu girl because she was from Dili! How ironic, a small fragile 10 year old girl who grew up in Dili, has been driven from her home there because her parents are from this very region, is now being labeled a Westerner. She hides in the family’s fields, refusing to go to school.

Her father is a small man, all bone and muscle. He is not too bright, and has limited hearing. He is proud of the fact that he worked for nearly 20 years with the Indonesian police. He wears their hat, belt and t-shirts all the time. He shows me the documents which prove his time of service, which he brought from Dili (leaving of course, his kids documents and the title to their house behind.)

He describes the Indonesians with a mixture of nostalgia and fear. He said that would beat people first and ask questions later. He pantomimes being beaten by them, and nearly arrested for taking leave without sufficient notice. They used to beat people who ate with spoons, he says. They eat with their hands. They cook with the hot peppers in the food! They taught Timorese to eat many new fruits and leaves in the jungle.

He married her mother when she was 15 years old. Her mother agreed to marry because it turns out, she was being pursued by an extremely aggressive member of a notorious liurai family.

She explains to me she is devout Catholic because she has suffered so much. She did not bring the suffering, it just came. God will look after her. (And my stomach, which she repeats ad naseam.)


She has five children. Meta is the youngest. Two are living “at the beach,” Uatocarbau, where they are studying. Two are living up here in the mountains. The other I’m not sure of! The family was split apart when it left Dili six months ago.

The pengunsi family comes up to Ossu Loe from another house in the village below, essentially, to look after me. Life is better up there here than in the village, and they don’t seem to mind. Although the Mother Aljira says she has to work harder up here. In town, the kids do all the work, she says. Not intended to be a complaint.

Twilight lasts longer here in the mountains. The sun sets behind the behemoth Matebian early, but then the spectacle of the mountains changing colors. They go from brown-green to pink to purple to dark gray. The pinks and purples last for 30-40 minutes whereas in Dili it is a quick, abrupt equatorial sunset. Birdsong takes us towards evening, and star-filled sky. The sound of the blue toke lizard from inside the house. The old man burning heaps of roots and bits he’s cleared from the brown earth. People hooting and singing on the main road, as they head home from the fields. A cool, verging on cold breeze blows.


The next morning, I was out by the side of the road at 6am waiting for a ride up towards Ossu-ona. I was ditching the bike. My food bag would have to rest on top on my backpack.

I was going mesak. Alone. I tried to figure out why this concept was so disturbing for Timorese people. Men walk alone. Girl children walk alone short distances. But an adult woman walking alone. This just shouldn’t be!

Father Jojo drove up at about 6:10am, and I decided to take the ride to Yarbau, which would save me about 4km of all uphill. There were lots of kids inside the troop carrier Landcruiser, and a liurai. The kids were singing. Padre Jojo was taking the s-curves really fast! When we reached the end of the line, a village called Yarbau, he tried to convince me to go to mass, but I explained the longer I stayed the harder it would be to walk in the sun.

I walked towards Ossu-ona, past the dry rocky riverbed up which I once made an unsuccessful attempt to climb Matebian. The road had been significantly improved since then, a major roadworks program it seems.

The sun rose shortly after I crossed the riverbed. It was big and glowing orange. I was already sweating.

Just before Ossu-hona, I ran into one of Pedro’s in-laws there, this really nice guy there who is a Head Teacher and wanted to practice English with me before. He looked at me like an alien dropped out of the sky. Then he made the typical “Huh!” (exclamation of shock) and asked where I was going and if I was alone. I explained, and told him I was in the groove, pointing to my headphones. I continued on, promising to stop at Ossu-ona for matabixu. I realized when I turned the bend I was already at Ossu-ona, and the Mestre was not far behind. Everybody cleared space for me and they prepared coffee and fried sweet potato.

I met Mestre’s father, who was really quite young. They told me a little about the rota, or the intricate system of vassalage that the Timorese and Portuguese worked out in the region in the late 19th and early 20th century. But they didn’t know as much as a true katuas would. I was supposed to talk to one katuas in their village who was always out in the fields, and by 7:30am he was already gone, no exception!

I thanked them for the coffee and told them I had to move before the sun got too hot.

Are you going alone? I said, yes! We malais even like to walk alone. To listen to the birds, to get peace and exercise. They said, but a woman alone is not good. Then I said, just to get their goat, I said, “You guys are like the Taliban! Women can’t walk alone!” They laughed. But still thought I was being a bizarre malai.

I made it to Ossu Loe by about 9:30am, which was lucky cause it was getting hot. On the way, I saw a woman from the village Afaloicai who was protecting her fields from birds. She was surprised to see me. She said that they had waited for me yesterday to come up from the south coast instead of across the valley from the North.

I had a coffee and unloaded food and Ovaltine for the kids and antibiotics and first aid for the old man’s foot. They seemed ok with the fact that the malai was coming to stay. Then they suggested as Sunday was bazaar day in town, that we should walk down to Afaloicai and catch some katuas who were there for the cockfight and to resolve a dispute. So, with little rest and a lot of water, I headed off.

We got to town and a similar market scene to the one I had described a week ago. Everybody was at the cockfighting arena. They suggested we wait at a relative’s house below. The relative insisted to me her house was “aat” (bad). I wasn’t sure what she wanted me to say. The katuas of the house in Ossu Loe showed up, his wounded foot and everything, to announce that the other old men did not want to talk to me about history. They were scared. (Notice the irony of his t-shirt in the photo…!)


We were just about to go back for lunch when they insisted that I SIT DOWN and drink their be manas. This is the country equivalent to tea, except that one is left to wonder if the light brown hue comes from dirt or from some long-used tea bag. It is full of sugar as well. As the particles in the water plunged to the bottom of the cup I considered throwing it on the ground when they weren’t looking. Meta, the girl from Ossu Loe, said it was “too hot” to drink. Her dad started drinking it, and encouraged me to. I thought, the last thing I need here is a reputation for being halo an (arrogant), that will spread quickly, and I’ll never get to talk to anybody. So I forced myself to drink the be manas.

Well, I will spare my readers the gory details. But suffice it to say I spent the next couple of days resting, thanking my lucky stars that Pedro had installed a sit-toilet, and eating rice porridge and taking stomach-sealing drugs.

The katuas had told me to F*ck Off! And the be manas had sealed my fate. So this is what they call “fieldwork”!

Baguia nonton

Got a ride up to Baguia from Father Jojo really early Saturday morning. His truck was knocking like crazy about 40 minutes into the ride. Seemed like something in the back axel. We had to ditch the truck. Luckily we still had network to call down to another Salesian priest who bravely drove up and traded trucks.

Soon we were on our way, Father Jojo driving like crazy so as not to be late for a meeting with Catechists. The few smooth paved parts (with lots of s-curves) Jojo called “freeway” and drove over 80km at parts. He had been driving these roads for seven years.

He is singing “Country Roads” and asks me about the West of the US. Colorado. He has tons of family in America, but has yet to visit. He asks about American Indians. I tell him about old Andrew Jackson, on the $20 bill, our favorite genocidaire. He didn’t mention the Spanish-American war, I thought he might. (I’m so “political.”) He teaches me a couple of words of Makassai.

By 9:15am, all of the trucks up the mountain towards Yarbau or Ossu-hona, my final destination, had already departed. So I pushed my bike up to the Guesthouse run my Tio Martinho, who is a local fount of knowledge. He and his wife greeted me warmly. I told them of my plans, and they were skeptical about the bike. At this point so was I. Without a pump for the tires, it seemed mad to try to bike across the valley.

Towards dusk I wandered down to check out the basketball scene in Baguia. All male, younger, with a much higher “spaz quotient.” I loosened up an initially hostile crowd of kids, and they really wanted to talk to me and practice English and Portuguese.


Many of them were pengunsi from Dili, who had suspended their university studies. One loud guy insists he doesn’t like Portuguese because they only taught the liurais their language whereas the Indonesians taught everybody.

That night I had the lovely nonton experience. This is a word from Indonesian, meaning watch TV. It is a trance like state, where the TV is left at extremely high volume, and the whole family gathers, neighbors too, some in the doorway, some on the floor, others peeking through the windows. (I actually have had this experience in a sand-dune community in Maranhão, Brazil, too, so it is universal) Game shows and novellas are the programs of choice. On offer is only Indonesian TV. TVTL, or Timorese TV, is only available in Dili. They might as well call it Dili TV.

Here was the “base” of the resistance, Mount Matebian. Yet after Independence, the only contact with the outside world is via television from Jakarta. There is no Timorese radio here. No mobile network. No lined phones. They are watching their formerly hated occupier’s television. The little kids don’t understand Indonesian. Anybody under about the age of 14 at this point has had no contact with Indonesian, except TV.

The strangest was yet to come when, simultaneously on all stations, the end of the day prayer for breaking fast during Ramadan came on. The family sat, watching, listening, the volume still blaring.

The Passion

Forró music in the bus on the way to Baucau. About being “louco de paixão” (crazy out of passion), and I get the chilling feeling that the only kind of crazy passion the Timorese allow themselves in public is destruction. The dances kaer malu, is rather stiff still, there is fun, and groping I’m sure, but I really wonder how much passion and love Timorese allow themselves. Sex, well, there is no question that there is a lot of it!

Anyways I’m exhilarated hearing Brazilian music, I remember my Brazilian friends in Lisbon, one of whom is an amazing forró dancer, who I probably won’t see for quite a while. Just as I am savoring the “Brazil” mood, I get an SMS from Pedro.

“Anito” is in the hospital. I immediately think he means family from where I am headed. I did not imagine he could mean a friend in Dili, who had given me his draft paper on Conflict and Ecology in my area of interest.

Seconds later a text from Docogirl saying she just visited Nito in the hospital, he was hit with a Rama Ambon. A metal-tipped, spiked arrow. It was immediately surgically removed. He was ok. I thought I would text him and offer to transmit news to his family, to avoid bad rumors getting to them first. He writes back almost immediately, nonchalantly, saying he’s fine, and yes tell everybody. He’s still headed to a conference on Conflict Resolution in Manila four days from now. I couldn’t tell whether he had been targeted or whether he was caught in some kind of crossfire.

I rode on, entering Baucau, through the rushing spring water past the Laga rice paddies below. I hopped out near Pedro’s sister’s place.

Nito in Dili his tetanus booster working overtime, his body hit by a crude homemade arrow.

I remember what I used to tell tourist on my walking tour to Belém, and the famed Southern portico of the Monastery of the Jeronimos. The arrow as a mystical symbol of God’s love. God as a Cupid. Let it wound you as you enter.

Later after waiting the whole afternoon for a ride up the mountain with no success (see photo), and tea with Pedro’s sister, Father Jojo, a Filippino missionary priest who I had met with Queen three years ago, invited me to play basketball.

He had just moved to Laga earlier in the year from Fuiloro and proposed the basketball court, to bring his weight back to the 60kg he weighed 15 years ago when he arrived in Timor. I was a little coy, watched them play 5-on-5 for a while. Actually I was sleepy. So after a while they invited me to just shoot around. I made a couple of shots in a row. This was a past life of mine: 13 year-old basketball star. They convinced me to play. Our center was a short guy with shaved head, and had studied Anthropology in Bali. He was the only guy of the group with a job, teaching at the Middle School. The rest were halimar deit, just playing around, or pengunsi.

They had game! I am pleased to report that “spaz” quotient (excuse the un-PC term) was very low in Laga. I played up to their level, they weren’t too hard on me. They seemed to be playing for fun not too win which is always the best way. It was a feeling of belonging, alertness, aliveness that I hadn’t experienced in a while. Just like the kid I heard later singing his hear out to “Hotel California” (even though he only knew the words “Hotel California”) as I was taking a shower. Adulthood systematically robs us of these joys – singing, playing (for fun).

Dinner with Jojo and a great conversation about God. I brought him up, along with Good and Evil and Milton. And free will in the mix. Judas as a “hero” to Milton.

Jojo told me that he believed man is good, that man is good because God is good. God is good because he allows men free will. I told him I knew in my heart that man tends to Evil, but that I fight this, that I can only look to the good around me. That I must live and work towards the Good around me, even though this is Sisyphean. I explained how the Golden Rule is a guiding principle for me and only recently had I recognized that. “Do unto others…” The Golden Rule works, Father Jojo says, because man is good. And because God gives him the choice to be good. Judas, he said, did in the end have a choice, even though God was omniscient. He was not “set up,” he of course violated the Golden Rule in the most terrible way.

I wasn’t really wrapping my head around Father Jojo’s logic. Perhaps it was lack of theological mental exercise. After all, my main reference was a class on a book written in the 17C by a heretical, blind English poet. I couldn’t help thinking of Nito and the Rama Ambon. He seems like a person more than any driven by belief, by belief in the common good. Does he believe man is good? What has kept him going throughout the resistance in the 1990s, the militia mayhem and now this?


It took me 3 days to get to my mountain home. The last day walking. The first two waiting and on buses, priest’s car. Then I drank some “be manas” which had my stomach exploding just about the same time everything in Dili went out of control. Monday-Tuesday.

I just got back, after taking a full course of stomach drugs, talking with a couple of old folks, and slugging it back to Dili on a dump truck and a bus. I’m here to write, refuel and get cash, before I head out of this mess for Dia de Finados, November 2, at the foot of Mt Matebian.

Tomorrow, I will post photos and details from this exhausting trip! Don’t worry about me, I’m safe in the quiet, internet-connected part of town, keeping a low profile.

Tale of two embassies

Today I had the “privilege” of visiting two of Dili’s most important embassies: that of Portugal, and that of the United States.

I’ll go in chronological order.

I had promised to try to help Otelo make sense of his ongoing, three year-long process to gain his Portuguese passport. In order to enter the Embassy, only a couple of weeks ago, it was necessary to queue up outside the place at about 6am. (Now, with the Report, and nervousness all around, Otelo reported that he had arrived at 10am to find very few people waiting.)

Portuguese friends will recognize this arrangement as similar to the Loja do Cidadão, where migrants deal with immigration issues, except at the Loja, when the office opens, people draw a senha or a number in line in order of arrival. Here it is every man for himself, there is no list. A bad attitude will set you back.

The man who controls the destiny of those waiting outside is a 50-something man with a paunch, a uniform, and an attitude. Our Exmo. Senhor Security guard speaks passable Portuguese and works for the second largest private security firm in Dili, called Seprositil. This is his lucky assignment!

At first Exmo Senhor Security tells us we must wait til noon to enter. This seems very arbitrary so I ask until what time they attend people. He says 1pm. So I insist on better information.

Then after a couple of minutes of frustrating repetition, he changes, saying they attend two people at a time. When two leave (implying the waiting room is full), two can enter.

He along with two “porteiros” (who only appear after 45 minutes of us loitering) control Access to the Embassy.

Otelo rightly points out that the area outside the Embassy seems more appropriate to a bus station. It’s dirty, full of loitering people.

We finally get in, after about an hour and a half of waiting. There is one other man there waiting. And 14 empty chairs in the waiting area.


We wait our turn, and Otelo takes his seat, adopting a submissive posture. The ferik, elderly lady, basically assaults Otelo in Tetun, not even looking at me.

I ask if I can sit down, no answer. I take a seat. I politely ask her to slow down, as I am there to try to clear up his doubts about the process. She says it’s simple and looks at his receipt, which he paid to “Authenticate” his identity documents in Dili five months ago. These documents have apparently been sent to the Conservatory in Lisbon for a second verification of his right to citizenship.

After much frustrating back and forth, and us asking her to try to explain the process step by step, another ferik behind us launches into an aggressive tirade going through the process at lightening speed. I am attempting to write down everything she says.

I understand that Otelo’s documents are probably stuck at the Conservatório somewhere in Lisbon, being reviewed by lawyers. It is conceivable there is some issue or problem with one of them. But we simply don’t understand what to expect and when.

The ferik claims she will send an “ofício” asking about Otelo’s process to Lisbon. I ask if there is somekind of reference number or confirmation we can have for this “ofício.”

No. I ask, just to confirm then, with whom are we speaking? She responds, I am a mere “mule” of the Embassy.

I said, but the Senhora does not have a name?


After searching her desk and bookshelf for some indication of her name, I see a name plate on the bookshelf with her name. I note it down.

I insist one more time in asking about the “normal” length of this Conservatory process.

Then Senhora speaks up, addressing a person hidden in the corner behind the bookcase. “Is there a ‘normal’ length?”

A Portuguese voice emanates from the back of the room “There is no ‘normal’ length.”

Then a quite cordial Portuguese man pops up from behind the bookshelf, explaining that the diplomatic mail is extremely slow, and that in July and August work basically goes to a standstill in Portugal. It is quite possible that they haven’t even started reviewing it. He says they have not received the diplomatic mail from September yet.

I ask if it could take over a year. He was noncommittal. He reassured me that they will contact Otelo if/when there is news.

We leave.

After a consolation lunch at my favorite Warung with Otelo, I headed out to Pantai Kelapa to see about contacting a NGO working in Baguia. Rides are always better than trucks and buses. I didn’t have much luck, just got a phone number.

Walked through the market (which taxis refuse to go through). Everything calm. Bought a huge box of filter cigarettes for the katuas. $13 for twenty packs of 12 each – much cheaper than the Uatocarbau Sunday market!

Then, as I was nearby, I decided to drop in on the US Embassy and register myself. I should have done this ages ago, so they send in the cavalry for me if (in the remote possibility) everything gets really dicey again.

Let me preface this story by telling of my only other “official” business with the American embassy during my stay in 2001-3, which was to get extra pages added to my passport. Then, I was friendly with a Texan who at one point basically ran the show in the Embassy with very limited local staff and his boss.

At that time, the Embassy was near the lighthouse, in the small house which is now USAID. I didn’t even have to sit down, Texan welcomed me, went back to a cabinet, pulled out extra pages, stuck them in, stamped them, and I was on my way. How, well, cozy!

Since then, America has moved to Pantai Kelapa, the palm tree beach, to occupy the former Indonesian governor’s residence. Moving from the small house to this gigantic compound seemed laughable at the time. How would they fill all that space? Why such a big Embassy? I suppose Timorese conspiracy theorists went to town with this expansion. (“Perhaps the top-secret submarine base under Atauro island really does exist!”)

I approached the main gate. At all American embassies around the world, a strong local staff is recruited as the “first line” of security. I actually saw no trace of Marines or American security. I walked through a metal detector (that I was not sure was working) and the security checked my bag. They commented, a lot of cigarettes!

I tried to explain my business in English, but didn’t get very far, so I switched to Tetun. They took me to the Consular building, an annex to the “palace.” There were lots of prefab Kobe huts behind this building.

Inside, I felt like I could be anywhere in the world. The building must have been brought in and dumped here in its entirety. I took a seat under Condi, Dick and George. (Dick is the only one who shows no teeth, the others have big white toothy grins.)

It was actually uncomfortably hot in there. I got the feeling not too many people spent much time there, and that the glassed-in offices surrounding me were kept ice-cold.

I noticed the place was teeming with “Facilities Management” staff, drivers, cars, lots of local office staff, and I caught a glimpse of a couple of American staff. I was wondering why the US would want to invest so much in Timor. Is this the price of being the “superpower”?

What a change since a couple of years ago.

A subtly smiling blond woman (not toothy) came out with the appropriate form, explaining that there is an email and SMS network for emergencies. SMS is only used for big emergencies like the violence in May. “Everyday” violence is not SMS-worthy. I was glad to hear, the last thing I needed was a paranoid laundry list of crime clogging up my cel phone.

I filled out the form, turned it in, and left. It all lasted about 20 minutes.

My Fali/Report


Today was what I expected, the anti-climax to the Report.

Lots of positive commentary has been spread around Dili about it. The man in charge of the Independent Commission of Inquiry is a one-time visiting professor at my University, where I was lucky to meet him. Paulo Sergio Pinheiro is widely respected in Brazil for his Center for the Study of Violence at USP Universidade de São Paulo. He’s also known for being the Secretary General’s Envoy to Burma.

The report assigns more specific blame than expected. Alkatiri and Xanana get reprimanded, and the report suggests there needs to be further investigation of Alkatiri’s role in the arming of civilians with Police weapons.

Docogirl was telling me some of the details.

The ex-ministry of the Interior came into work on April 28, the day of the rioting in front of the Palace, wearing a flak jacket, shouting “Kill them all!” This Ex-Minister was apparently nearly executed in more than one African country for his stupid behavior.

The Police Commissioner abandoned the Chain of Command at a key point in the crisis, precipitating a split among the PNTL, which was probably in some way responsible for the most horrendous event of the crisis, the massacre of unarmed PNTL by the military.

The military and the police began moving weapons to separate strategic points in East Timor in mid-May, days before the divisive Fretilin Congress. This fact is quite shocking. Timor came very close to the brink of civil war.

Here is my read:

  • The FDTL (Army) split into two when the Petitioners were fired in March
  • Then following the violence at Taci Tolu in late April, the PNTL, the police split into two, one part fusing operationally with the remaining FDTL command, and one part remaining under “police” command, but often becoming “rogue” police
  • The ex-Ministry of the Interior is probably guilty of arming a shady paramilitary police force in early May, with the involvement of an extremely unreliable character named “Rai Los” (based in Liquiça)
  • Also in May, the FDTL command armed civilians, including ex-FALINTIL guerrillas, fearing that the two extra-governmental forces of the Petitioners and the mysterious “Rai Los” would come together against the “Government”
  • Two of the bloodiest incidents, Taci Tolu (May 23) and Fatu Ahi (May 24) were likely somewhat “staged” or provoked by shadowy factions, and the truth of this will never be known
  • The shooting of the PNTL on May 25, in my opinion, is still far from being understood

The Petitioners come off as provoking conflict by exaggerating claims of an April 28 “massacre” at Taci Tolu, and while mentioned as aggressors at Taci Tolu, none are named as directly indicated in causing violence. The question of the “guilt” of the Petitioners in the crisis seems key to understanding the report.

The UN seems unwilling to entirely destroy Xanana’s credibility nor the Petitioners. Alkatiri comes off ok, the Report calls for further investigation but assigns no criminal responsibility, and the ex-PM knows he can fight allegations against him in court.

Now the feeling is of relief. A relief that the report is out, it seems tough, fair and rigorous.

Tonight I went to My Fali Fastfood for an egg and cheese sandwich and French fries for dinner. I decided it would make an amazing ethnographic site. All kinds of “internationals” and Timorese came through. An ex-colleague from UNICEF, a Timorese young woman, who I recognized but did not recognize me.

The ethnography of fastfood in Timor.

I was stunned to see, just as I was about to leave, the Indonesian owners of the nice Warung restaurant next to my house, coming in for fried chicken! I joked, I guess you guys can’t eat rice and vegetables all day everyday either. We traded niceties, but their English was bad and my Indonesia even worse.

I’ve been listening to choppers all night over head.

Catching katuas

So for three days I waited and walked across rice paddies in search of katuas. I began to think finding katuas was like looking for exotic wild birds. Silly me, I had assumed that the old men would be sitting at home smoking, relaxing in their golden years. No, instead, most were constantly mobile. Herding buffalo from dawn to sunset, or walking hours from home to the rice field, or to the markets on either side of the valley.

At last on Sunday evening, towards dark, Pedro’s brother-in-law came back. He sat down next to the kitchen, exhausted, pulling out his betel nut paraphanelia. He began chewing immediately presumably to tide him over til bedtime. He did not complain. But he did say it is time for him to stop herding buffalo. He has been herding two weeks on two weeks off for the past two years he said. He is old and tired. He has a flesh wound on his foot which is not healing. He asked for pencillin and first aid supplies to dress it.

A soothing, cool breeze blows under the house where we sat together for dinner. A fifth bottle with improvised wick full of kerosene provided light. 

We sat down to a lovely dinner of the pinkish-brown Timorese organic rice, with beans and greens, instant noodles and some kind of nice tuna-fish dish. The ai-manas they make there has a very tasty ginger root in it. The food tasted great for me after hours of walking. I could only imagine how it tasted to the old man, Pedro’s brother-in-law, who probably only ate a couple of boiled tubers, smoked and chewed betel nut during the day.

The “interview” (which it was not supposed to be) started rather abruptly. The old man just launched into the “war” of 1959. I had asked him when he had become part of the Portuguese militia. Instead he went right into their attack on Baguia. I guess he had told the story many times before, and it was kind of automatic. 

Then I insisted on knowing when he joined the segunda linha. He said in 1959, literally months before the rebellion. He had been called to Viqueque town for “inspection” and possible recruitment. There only those with elementary school education were chosen to be professional soldiers, the other healthy guys were recommended to the segunda linha which was a native militia.

What was most interesting was coming to understand the old folks’ understanding of their “place” – that is, how feudal Timor was still in 1959. According to them, there was no freewill, room for decision or hesitation when they were asked by their masters, the liurai, to do something. The threat of physical punishment and violence loomed over them at all times. They never had any contact with their colonizers, but feared their liurais more than I had imagined.

Then, there was the reino and the liurais: the serfs and the lords. The reino was a resource available to the Portuguese, but mostly to their native lords.

They told me amazing details about life in the 1950s, including about the yearly “census,” and the way in which feudal arrangements allowed for the hostilities of 1959.

I had the exhilarating feeling of understanding their fear. Feeling their fear. The old man told me he preferred not to be named as an informant. He still feared his superiors. I asked Pedro to convey that I would not quote him if he did not want to be quoted, but Pedro was busy trying to “convince” him of the merits of telling the truth. I think maybe the truth commission got to Pedro’s head. 

The next day, we were going down to new Uatocarbau.

I had to convince myself that I was not being swindled into paying for a comfortable trip for the pengunsi (and falsely registered refugees) to go down and collect their food rations. In any case, I opted to go with the flow. Pedro thought it a good idea that I introduced myself to the Subdistrict Administrator, who was predictably his own cousin. He was quiet, polite and genuine in his offer to fo dalan, open the way. Next we looked for a katuas who had been in the primeira linha, the professional forces. With him was a katuas who was a refugee from Dili who knew a lot about early political and military structures. 

He was a goldmine of information, and very easily to interview, listening carefully to questions and provided spot-on answers.

This katuas told us of the importance that the Portuguese gave to certain liurais in a certain region, to whom they bestowed the title “Dom.” In what is today Uatolari and Uatocarbau, there existed a Dom in each, Vessoro and Irabin separately. These were like chief liurais who the Portuguese consulted on border issues. The other minor liurai were only asked to supply manpower to the Portuguese administration, and never consulted on political matters. 

Irabin, it turns out, is the site of old military posto Tualo, the one before Afaloicai up on the mountain. Before the Republic in Portugal, it seems, the colonial structure preferred to work through the powerful coastal kingdoms of Vessoro and Irabin.

Tualo was conveniently situated in Irabin overlooking a large rice paddy. There, apparently, in the early twentieth century, a Timorese commander was the only guy stationed there. He is remembered as “Round Foot” because he wore shoes. “Round foot” was the only representative of the Portuguese empire in that corner of Timor. 

But with the Republic, the posto was moved up into the mountain, seemingly an attempt to curb the power of the rich coastal kingdoms and control the interior. I had yet to confirm the existence of Tualo, the old posto. But our informed refugee katuas told us that it was close by, not hard to get to.

After lunch, it was really hot. My head was nodding as we drove west of Uatocarbau. Before Kapuasa, with some help from locals, we were able to find the right hill and scramble our way up it. There were lots of eager kids allow in flip-flops. I was having a tough time with the loose scree in my tennis shoes. The kids and Pedro beat me up to a three meter thick walled compound at the top of the hill overlooking the ocean. It was not visible from the main road. 

There was a 4x4m foundation of a room inside the fort. It must have been a pretty humble dwelling, but a strong fortification. Pedro and I remarked to the kids that this would have been built with the forced labor of their ancestors. It was as solid, or more so, than the still standing tranqueira (fort) in Baguia. Pedro said he wanted to include this on future (and we are talking way in the future) tourist excursions.

I was too hot to piece together the information from my two precious katuas with this discovery. Later, on the walk and drive out of the Matebian Valley the next day, I began to feel that the gaps in my understanding were becoming manageable, and that I was beginning to have a coherent picture of the rebellion and the processes of colonization that led up to it and followed it.

Market, orchids, rice

Sunday morning is market day in Uatocarbau. In Portuguese times, the market used to be where the boys were playing soccer the night before. Conveniently under the gaze of the posto building. Today the market is a small structure under the school, placed rather elegantly under Mount Boraboo.

People live up there. They walk three hours down to sell their wares. Most of the “mountain” produce are onions, betel nut, miniature carrots and tubers. Richer merchants from the surrounding sucos come with commercial goods from Indonesia, mostly batteries, notebooks, soaps, lighters, cigarettes, and shoes and clothes. The guys selling clothes insisted they were “no good” when I came by to take a look. The little girls that were selling next to older women fled in false modesty when I took the camera out.

We bought bread, which is a real treat for everybody.

Change is a real problem up here. The dollar is simply too big. People told me even getting together fifty cents is a real challenge for most people. So imagine people’s horror when I pulled out a $10 bill. The dona of the house where I was staying had to ask me for smaller bills. Even then, getting 50cents change back was her responsibility, not the vendors! I asked about bartering, whether that works. No, no! Only money. Osan.

I needed to buy about a dozen packs of clove Gudang Garam cigarettes for the katuas I was hoping to catch up with and interview. I couldn’t find a vendor with more than 4 packs. I was pretty shocked. Gudang Garam is, besides instant noodles and Coke, the most important foreign product in Timor. But it is simply too expensive for people up there. In Dili, you can find as cheap as $0.70/pack. But up on the mountain, no less than $0.90. I had to ask one of the bigger vendors to send her daughter running home for more.

The activity was picking up over the course of the morning. They told me that the futu manu, the cock fighting would go on all day next to the market. But by midday, our friend Marçal along with the driver came back disappointed. Nobody had seemed to get the $20 together to enter into the fight. I thought $20 was a lot of money, after the morning of begging for change and more cigarettes!

Supposedly, some katuas come to the market were going to pass by the house near the posto where I was staying. By lunchtime there was no sign of them, so I decided to head back to Pedro’s place closer to Matebian. We decided to head off another 1-1/2 towards Matebian to find one very important katuas who used to be in the segunda linha, the Timorese militia forces controlled by the Portuguese.

It was a beautiful walk, except for the Timorese technique of walking STRAIGHT up the steepest hill to save a 30m detour around. I told Pedro, man, if you want to receive malai tourists, you need to teach Timorese people not to always take the direct vertical path! We like switchbacks, walking around.

We stopped at the fallow rice paddy terraces of the ex-liurai of Afaloicai Uatocarbau. They must have been very productive at one point. This liurai’s story is key to the story of the site as a whole. Apparently he lives in Dili. I got to thinking about how many stories the landscape can tell here. The more elaborate terraces must have required a lot of manpower, the ability to force a lot of serfs to work. Also the fallow, once rich areas beg the question, what happened to their owners? Not just the agricultural landscape, but the rocks and the trees. Coconut trees tell us a lot about where the Portuguese went. Whenever I see a line of palm trees, I know the Portuguese were involved. Rocks, big ones, are often sacred places, or taboo places. They told me that there is a kind of powerful rock called a maka that is associated with cemeteries. These rocks, if you let animals and personal property go to close, will swallow them. If you speak poorly of the ancestors or have bad thoughts around them, you might become victim to them.

Certain mountains and rock formations are more “sacred” than others. During my daytime walks, people don’t seem to have a problem telling me which places are more important than others. Sometimes people do lower their voices when talking about certain things or hesitate before starting.

Well the old man we were looking for, it turns out, was about thirty hard minutes down the valley at his second natar or rice field. His family seemed to be all comfortably working and resting close to home. I began to ask myself why it seems the only people doing the hard work, walking all day and really sustaining these families are over seventy years old?


Pedro’s sister and brother-in-law are a good example. They are barely keeping things together. Both are sick, she has “pain in her neck” and he has a large wound on his foot, which does not heal because he has to herd cattle in two-week shifts. But they do not have any younger family to help them consistently.

We walked back across the valley, on the easier path, the old road connecting Afaloicai Baguia with the Uatocarbau posto. Pedro told me that crocodiles have been known to make their way up from the coast, swimming through flooded rice paddies and crawling up the river. That is a great selling point for tourists! But he has yet to see them.


The orchids growing on the pine trees throughout the valley were yet to bloom. But they will be amazing in a couple of weeks with the rain. Between the orchids, the amazing birdlife (parrots, parakeets, etc), the crocs, and the amazing mountain trekking nearby, as soon as things calm down, I think Pedro can really create something special in Timor. I talked with him about cooperating in some kind of training program for guides.

More soon on my fruitful talks with katuas, and the “discovery” of the ruined military post in Uatocarbau, with 3m thick walls, that we were unable to date.

Ma-lai, ma-lai

I woke up to people repeating the word “ma-lai” “ma-lai”. It’s a strange sensation to know that everybody around is so fascinated by your very presence, that they will discuss you loudly at 6am in the morning. I suppose senscient zoo animals feel this way.

I could hear girls out back pounding, separating the rice from its shaft. A girl in front sweeping.

At mid-morning I walk up into the Matebian valley with Pedro and his younger brother and family, who are pengunsi, towards the place where his “been” (little sister) lives. We get to this knua, or settlement (in this case, one house), about 45 minutes from the posto. There is quaint traditional-style Timorese house, and two bamboo-walled, corrugated metal-rooved houses, and a nice fenced off garden around it.

This all below the craggy peak of Mount Matebian, surrounded by pine forests alternated with rice paddies and spring-fed streams.

We walk down into the compound, and Pedro shows me something I was least expecting, a malai toilet. Clean. Not a squat toilet.


This place, it turns out, is what Pedro and his partner hope will be the future base for trekking and eco-tourism in the valley. And just my luck, it is perfectly positioned for me to stay and conduct interviews.

Pedro’s been it turns out, is a seventy-plus year-old woman who raised Pedro. She was a curious combination of wizened and child-like. She chirped out Tetun in long breathless phrases, through her two remaining betel-nut stained teeth.

We hoped that Pedro could arrange with some neighboring katuas (elders) to come by the following day, lured with the prospect of lots of cigarettes and palm wine. But in the meantime, he hoped I could talk with his been’s husband, a skinny man with white hair who we saw chasing after a loose horse a little after midday. He did not come to eat.

Pedro thought I could try to catch up with some of the katuas living back at the posto, so I headed back there with Meta, and two of Pedro’s family from the posto. I had them try to teach me the names of the mountain peaks to the south, and indicate their level of lulik. I asked if we could walk closer to them, and the response was, not in the afternoon. The spirits gather there and, if it got too close to dark, they could gobble us.

Saturday afternoon was quite busy in town. Boys were playing soccer in the area below the ruined Portuguese posto.


The katuas we were after we soon found out were all at the natar, their distant rice fields. This is a really busy time of year, as the rice harvest has begun in some places and is nearing full-swing.

I tried instead to find Julieta, the teacher I met back in 2002 when I came the first time. She is a pint-sized teacher (seen here in red t-shirt and blue belt). She immediately remembered me, finding me less whale-sized than before. I told her I was embarrassed to give her the photo we took together last time because I looked soooo big next to her. We had a chat about the town, about marriage, about nearing thirty. She remains single, which is quite unique in Timor. I suppose the choice is not exactly staggering in town. But in the end, she is expected to marry a cousin anyways.


She told me that no priest comes regularly up to the town. A catechist gives mass every Sunday. Priests only come to confirm children, every couple of months. Julieta and some post-high school pengunsi were teaching mostly girls songs outside of the church when I found her. Needless to say, I was more interesting than the songs.

The pengunsi girls, after a major effort, were able to corrale most of the girl children into the church to pray. The boys stayed outside to play.


A youth, an old man
Separated by chance.

Outside the breeze,
The sharp cold.

By the light of the lantern
They conversed
The whole night.

The old man, young.
The young man, sad.

“Huato-Carbau,” Ruy Cinatti, 1947


Heading out of Dili, I wasn’t really sure whether we were going to Baguia, accessed from the north coast, through the town of Laga, just past Baucau, or whether we were going to Uatocarbau, one of the most remote subdistricts in Timor accessed by crossing the “Mundo Perdido” mountains and to Viqueque, through the rice paddies on the south coast, and up again into the interior.

I basically left everything in Pedro’s hands, as he was acting as my guide/fixer. My go-to man. Pedro was born in the shadow Baguia, but because of Portuguese colonial borders, he grew up with more contact with Uatocarbau posto. His plan was to drop in for lunch to his new Timor Village Hotel, a tasteful guesthouse below Ossu, near a waterfall and nice caves.

Then on to Viqueque where we would take some supplies to pengunsi (refugees, Indonesian). Pengunsi, I would find, are all over Viqueque district, and most are really longing for life in Dili. But I get ahead of myself.

Our last cold drink, a Tiger beer which I drank hidden in a plastic bag so as not to offend Timorese sensibilities, bought at the fabulous store before the Bebui River, where the Portuguese executed seven people in 1959. The light was beautiful in the late afternoon. Evidently it had not been raining, as the Bebui was virtually entirely dry.


We continued on, and Pedro pointed out the site of the Japanese center of operations in World War II, now a palm glade between a rocky hill and the wild taci mane. Pedro knows a lot about WWII cause he recently guided Japanese researchers on their search for information on “comfort women”.

Past Aliambata, the place where oil comes out of the earth. An Australian drilling company was prospecting there in 1959, and probably had a part in stirring up discontent.

Timorese still go and collect it to burn in lamps. I thought about how much this trip would cost me in gasoline, which is $1/liter here, the Timor Gap, and how the price of gasoline must increase the cost of living dramatically here.

We passed the “new” Uatocarbau, on the beach. Like many places in Timor, the Indonesians moved the posto down from the mountains, to the coast. The town is ugly and hot.


We head up from the coast towards Irabere, one of the most legendary places in Timor, for its crystalline blue fresh water oasis, a spring apparently guarded by miniature white crocodiles. IN the dark we felt the cool air come off of the Irabere river. We turned back West towards Matebian, and I could see the Milky way, it was a cloudless night. The shape of Boraboo Mountain was visible in the moon light.

Old Uatocarbau, now known as Afaloicai Uatocarbau, our destination, lies beneath Boraboo. There is no electricity up there. No phones, no communication with the outside world. One house has a radio. No NGOs work up there. The market is on Sunday, and then there is bread.


Nothing had changed since I was there three years ago. Except the school, nothing about life had changed since Ruy Cinatti wrote the epigraph in 1947.

Return to report

After five amazing days on the “mountain” – lots of walking, talking, watching people smoke and eating organic rice – we made our way towards the dry, irritable coast and the Timor Telcom network.

Just past the terraced rice paddies of Samagata, the ocean still out of sight, I SMSed Dili to know if it had burned to the ground.

The “Report” was scheduled for today or yesterday.

No Dili had not burned, word from Docogirl was that it would be Thursday or Friday before the report got out.

Pedro dialed a family member who was well positioned to tell us the latest. He was told the “list” would be made public at 4pm.

Shortly after I texted this info back, from a barren mountaintop 100km East of Dili, and it was confirmed.

We would arrive in town the same hour the report would be released.

Pedro was bué (really) nervous. He smoked about 3 packs of cloves cigarettes on the way.

A Kiwi roadblock stopped us in Hera. The goofy white soldiers tried to converse with Pedro and driver in bad Tetun. I intervened. A Maori soldier stood in the background, silent with arms crossed.

“Anthropology? I don’t even know what the fuck that is! You can go,” and he waved us through. That was the UN’s “show of force” to reassure us before the release of the report.

Dili was quiet. No plumes of smoke above the city. Very little car traffic. A lot of buses to Baucau parked at Meli-At, the beach area, maybe positioned to make an evening break for it.

All the staff at the house had gone home when I got in, leaving all of the doors unusually locked. Pedro was nervous to get back to Becora before his “unknown enemy” neighbors torched what was left of his hostel Vila Harmonia.

I paid clumsily for his help, and gave him “A Travessia” by Luis Cardoso, a friend of his a long way back. Something positive to keep him going through all of this madness.

I’m going to spend all night writing up the time on the mountain. I now see “colonialism” in a whole new light, and the rebellion as well. Things are (obviously) so much more complex than we could ever imagine.

I’m headed back out, carless this time, with my mountain bike, as soon as possible, probably Thursday or Friday.


Yesterday was the hottest day I can remember. The day itself was dripping with sweat. Everybody looked afflicted. I only ventured out once in the afternoon.

By late afternoon there was a blanket of damp dark cloud over the city.

The pressure was about to break.

Early evening. A foreign pattering sound. Rain?

We verified.

Then 20 minutes later an absolute, violent downpour. Waking up babies. Drenching IDPs. Dili will change with the rain. It’s early.

Headed to the mountain, hoping it’s fairly dry up there!

More next week.

Some (flawed) numbers

After weeks of rumor and garbage floating around as news, it seems the National Hospital in Dili has released statistics on the numbers injured and killed by the violence in over the past three months. (I have often wondered why the newspapers do not have people permanently stationed at the Hospital keeping statistics and reporting on violence.)


Strangely, it appears only on page three of the Wednesday’s Timor Post.

People who worry, specifically Mum: please know that as far as I know, not a single foreigner is included in these stats. In fact, foreigners have reported to me that they have been politely asked to leave or rerouted in traffic before these incidents occurred. The violence is entirely intra-Timorese.

A word of caution because a glance over these numbers reveals they cannot be correct. But they give an idea


* I noticed that the numbers of stabbed/beaten and wounded by arrows are strangely the same for the months of July and August correspondingly. I believe Timor Post may have botched these numbers, especially given that the total “wounded by arrows” is incorrect. Their totals for injuries are also incorrect


Timor Post also writes that the Hospital director reports 14 incidents of violence at the emergency room reception during the past three months. Five people were beaten, one was stabbed, three were struck with machetes, two were hit by rocks and three were wounded by arrows. There is now private security there 24 hours a day.

We should keep in mind that others may have not gone to Hospital for fear of lack of security and possible retaliation. Some may have gone to private or church clinics.

The lingering questions are mostly about wounded and killed in April, May and June, but the Hospital director says they are still “working” on reliable numbers for these critical months.

From on high

Yesterday morning I serendipitously saw Daniel Groshong, a friend of Mercenary Professor who friends from university will most certainly remember fondly. Groshong is a highly talented, committed photographer. Mercenary and Groshong met in the intense moments of crisis in 1999 here. When I was Mercenary’s “research assistant” – read: sat in his office telling people when he would be back, and researched footnotes for him – we were attempting to put together a photographic archive of the crisis. Groshong was very interested.

Well Mercenary has since moved on to a new PTSD-creating area of the world. (He only got over Timor with the help of Reiki and his new partner, who was also here. We are still waiting for his memoir about Timor, with Byron epigraphs and all!)

Before coming to Timor, I had seen the Turismo Timor-Leste website and been really impressed with the colorful and highly attractive images featured there. Turns out many of them are Groshong’s!

Groshong has spent the last three years committed to his labor of love – a glossy, coffee table book revealing the unexpected beauty of East Timor. (Please visit the site.)

This book is intended to “sell” Timor as a tourist destination, but also simply to counter the two most common images of the place: first — bloodthirsty, genocidal and conflict-ridden and second — “exotic” far away Asian poor island. The tear rolling down a child’s dirty cheek. The exotic trance-like dancers of the tebe-tebe, and the mysterious tall Lautem sacred house.

The production is very attractive, the color spectacular. It contains notes by Bill Clinton, Kofi Annan, Xanana and Ramos-Horta. He self-published this book out of Hong Kong, where he based. He is currently working out the distribution of the first print run, which is no small task.

I met up with Groshong and some of his friends and we go to talking about how the “Report” – i.e. of the UN Commission of Inquiry on the current political crisis – is being anticipated rather like the word of God. Perhaps somebody should go up to Mt. Matebian or Mt. Ramelau (oops, then more rancor over East and West) and “receive” the Report.

The Report was originally to be released October 7, and then the 8th and now everybody has given up waiting. Many traumatized Timorese have their bags packed in case things get dicey, even though some sources say it will be released only two weeks from now. (The UN has a track-record in Timor of deceiving over dates, in 1999, it announced the referendum result four days early, catching many off guard, possibly putting them in danger.)

This Report is rumored to contain over 100 names of people guilty of the sin of commission, that is, giving out arms during May and June of this year to civilians. And more people are apparently accused directly or indirectly of the sin of “omission” – turning a blind eye to such activities.

I hate to anthropologize here, but it seems worth mentioning that many kingdom’s origin myths, or mythical histories, contain stories of internal conflict, followed by the invitation to an outside family or group to come and resolve the conflict and wield political power.

One of “my” kingdoms comes to mind. Babulo claims that the “house” (or clan) with spiritual authority has “always” had this, but that at one point political conflict caused the kingdom to invite “clever” people down from the slopes of Mt. Matebian to mediate and take over political power.

When I was in Lospalos, Otelo said that the elders of Likerekere, near the tip of the island, tell of how they used to “invite” outsiders with sort-of makeshift gigantic wax-candle “lighthouse.” It’s unclear whether this was a mere invitation to trade, or whether they actually ended up asking these outsiders to wield political power. But waves of arrival from the East seem to have obliterated the “original” languages. Easterners can remember an order of arrival, connected to current-day groupings and languages.

One of the most famous works of anthropology about Timor, written by Elizabeth Traube looks at the fascinating connections between cosmology and colonization in the Mambai mountain culture. She writes, “Mambai have not passively submitted to colonial domination. They have endeavored actively and creatively to make sense of their colonial situation drawing on preexisting symbolic categories.”

She was one of the first to detail the “absorption of their colonial rulers into a cultural order,” the interpretation of the Portuguese as the returned “younger brother,” invited to take over politically, as long as the “older” maintained authority over spiritual matters. This was a consensual and “logical” cooperation, according to the Mambai view. (Traube, as an aside, was one of the few “old school” anthropologists to vehemently speak out against “integration” with Indonesia.)

It’s interesting to speculate how this paradigm of strategic handover of political authority at times of crisis (if it is at all useful) might affect the current “modern” political crisis.

I find myself rather stunned at how people are looking to this report as the final word. It’s not a legally binding document, a legal process.

Perhaps the most frightening thing for Timorese is exactly that there can be no “handover” of power, that this is merely a “neutral” analysis of who is right and wrong, with no guarantee of mediation or control from the outside.

Fear and Haunting

At 3am last night, I woke abruptly to the horrible sound of women wailing and crying, and a crowd in hysterical grief seemingly at the foot of my door.

I hopped up, thinking, could the family who lives next door possibly make this much noise? (I had never heard them before.) What must have happened? Maybe there was something really serious. I opened the door, silence. Nothing. I peered out into the dark and saw two of the compound’s dogs running around. Total silence, 3am silence.

I went to the bathroom, where perhaps the sound could have come in from the back. I listened intently. Nothing. Not even a palm leaf rustling in the wind. I began to wonder if I had woke myself snoring, or whether the noise was actually part of a dream.

But then my thoughts naturally shifted to the fact that 13 people were hacked violently to death here in 1999 by Eurico Guterres and his Aitarak militia. Quoting Dutch journalist Irene Cristalis’ interview with a survivor, from her book Bitter Dawn

He told how he saw people butchered, cut up like animals. Babies were taken from their crying mothers and smashed against the wall. When he saw one of the militiamen cut the breast of a girl, he pretended to be dead. Lying motionless in a pool of his own blood near the kitchen door he heard the soldiers and the police talking to the militia… When the violence subsided, he managed to escape though the back. He remembered thinking, ‘If I die, my body will be taken to my parents to be buried as a small person who knows nothing of the world of politics.’ And he hoped that someone would survive to bear witness. He did not get far. A Brimob policeman shot him in the back of his knee. An ambulance arrived. He was thrown in with the rest of the bodies, some dead, others still alive. He ended up at the military hospital where the doctors operated on him without anesthetic.

Coincidentally, today on the street I had seen the father of teenage victim Manuelito, the former owner of this house, who has refused to shave his beard until he gets justice for the murders.

Could this be my first “haunting”? Needless to say, my hamstring muscles were twitching as I got back into bed. (In fact four hours later, they still are.) I pulled the covers up high. Thank god for Air Con. I lay in silence, or rather a sort of cautious dread.

My ears were searching for any clues. What/who could have made this noise? I heard, very distantly, a small baby crying. That baby could have never made noise sufficient to wake me.

I lay frozen for an undetermined period of time, until, to my relief, the bloodcurdling grief-stricken chorus began again.

It was a pack of dogs.

The wailing, which was extremely human-like, was howling. And there were enough dogs that it really did sound like a group of distressed mourners.

Fear is one of the most powerful sensations. Anything becomes possible in a moment of terror. Dogs are ghoulish, people can become dogs.

As Cristalis attempts to understand the massacre perpetrated at this house, she speculates that it is fear that provides the “fertile ground for cruelty.”

Summer in the city

Yesterday was an extremely tense day in Dili.


Maybe it seemed more so because we had started the day in peaceful old town Baucau, where the running water, cool air, and distance from politics felt so good.

Got to Dili after the typical bus ride surrounded by bags and bags of rice and baskets of overripe tomatoes. The first thing I noticed was a swarm of taxis. I wondered if they were all lorosa’e people, or if the loromonu taxi drivers were actually making like bandits with the new bus “terminal” on the beach.

People were not happy to find out that the malais would not need a taxi. I said, “My taxi has two wheels,” and pointed to my bike. Nobody laughed.

Back to my digs in Lecidere, where everything seemed calm. I took a shower, had a coffee and some Oreo cookies.

Just as I was about to head out, got a message from Professor saying that the UN reported a young man stabbed in Kolmera. Rock throwing in Obrigado Barracks, in front of the UNMIT mission compound. This all before the hottest hours of the day.

I asked the Timorese staff if they had heard, they said, “yeah, hours ago.” So I guess Timor’s word of mouth network is faster than the UN. Big surprise.

But I walked out onto the street and noticed that life seemed to be going on as normal. People were on edge, it’s true. But basically taxis go about their business, navigating the bad neighborhoods based on word of mouth information.

I rented a taxi for an hour from a young man wearing a “Robinho” Brazilian jersey. He called himself John Smith. I asked him if he was Mormon but he didn’t get the joke. He’d lived three years in Australia. Said that Timorese people were all stupid and would end up killing each other off. He owned his own taxi, which was extremely clean.

But I noticed his time in Australia had not changed his driving habits. He drove like the true Timorese taxi driver, nearly stalling at every turn, refusing to downshift or give the car some gas.

I spent the late afternoon trying to arrange my trip to Uatocarbau with Pedro, the longtime friend and hostel owner. He seemed to think bringing the bike was a good idea, and that we would approach Uatocarbau from the south coast (the long, mostly paved route), but that I could bike down from the old Portuguese Uatocarbau, around the base of Mt Matebian, and catch a dump truck or a bus back to Baucau after about a week. That way I could talk to some of the people who Diplomat indicated near Baguia.

Pedro offered me some beautiful ripe figs. He said he never liked them, but I had a feeling even if he did, he wouldn’t be too interested in eating them right now, such a bitter time.

Later in the evening, around 6:30pm, Tourist and I tried to head out towards Professor’s house after waiting for fastfood from “My Fali” (a Timorese-owned fastfood joint!) It just seemed like we had missed our window of opportunity for a last taxi when a sullen young man came up and asked our destination.

He refused, shaking his head. This was apparently a bargaining technique. We offered $2, double the normal price, and he accepted.

After dinner, the choppers were incessant over the city, probably circling over Obrigado Barracks. We decided to make an early night of it, heading back across a silent town in Professor’s gigantic Landcruiser.

It was great to sleep in my nice, hotel-like bed here with the AC on. I have to admit I am extremely soft, I hope my time in the mountains next week will toughen me up. Headlice and diarrhea will not be necessary, though!

Extreme sports East

So Tourist and I headed off bright and early on Friday morning on our bikes, well, that is after paun and coffee, so I estimate about 7am. Which, I can attest, is already quite hot when biking across a grassy plain, surrounded by school kids who seemed to want us to fall off our bikes!

The way to Fuiloro we had done the previous day, and was nothing too strenuous. From Fuiloro to Raça (don’t ask about the name, I have not figured it out!) it was a euphoric feeling, that Alentejo or Texas “wide open spaces” feeling, with expansive views across the grassy plain to Mount Matebian.


Horses grazing on all sides. Very peaceful. I realized why so many deportados (Portuguese exiled political prisoners) seemed to have settled in Lautem before World War II.


At Raça, everything was nice, winding through palm glades, until we ran into a group of rather unpleasant young men at the other side of town. They were sitting on the road, as is the custom. The road they were sitting on was sloping upwards and I was getting tired. They made some smart ass comments about how I wouldn’t make it up. People can be really mean spirited. Not all, but some. I was forced to hop off the bike and walk it up, all the while listening to their talking smack.

So I just turned and told them off from the top the best I could. Otelo had tried to teach us how the girls respond to constant cat-calling from the boys on the side of the road in Lautem. In Fataluku, the local language, they say, “What do you guys think you are doing here? Just selling watercress?” Unfortunately I had not memorized the phrase in Fataluku.

The way down from there, and the Timor Telcom tower, was beautiful, a winding road through jungle, with views cutting to the south to Matebian, and soon the blue water of the Taci Feto, the north coast on the other side. The bird song was beautiful out there. And we hardly had to peddle for like 10 km.

We reached Lautem, the coastal crossroads, at about 9am. We had gone 30km in two hours. Not bad, we thought, considering we are very out of shape! I calculated we could reach our destination Com, which was 15km away, by the still cool hour of 10:30am. So we set off.

I hit “the wall” in the dry, hot palm glade at about kilometer 5 from Lautem. I decided that we could take a nice snack break at kilometer 10. The goats kept us company in the shade. Back on the bike and soon I was lamely peddling, really hot from the sun. It was past 10am. I realized these last kilometers would be extreme. We had hills in front of us.

We walked three huge hills, coasting down them. I felt light-headed on hill two, but pressed on, thinking of how Queen would probably already be in Com. By the last five kilometers we were out of water. But we could see the crystalline blue water of Com below, like an oasis in the desert and we coasted down enthusiastically.


Angelo, of Angelo’s Guesthouse, a tasteful traditional house on the beachfront, had found us a little after Lautem on the road, and convinced us to stay with him. The “malai” place, this gigantic “beach resort” built by Australians, was way too expensive, he said, and I believed him. (A couple of years ago they were charging $15 for a bunk bed, but I heard they had expanded, and were more “luxurious” than ever.)

We made it, exhausted and extremely thankful to see how tastefully Angelo had built his place, and that he only wanted $10/night. We sat and stared out at the turquoise water for a couple of minutes, and then went and floated there for about half an hour.

The ocean never felt so good.

The next day, after checking out Portuguese colonial ruins above the port, we rented an outrigger canoe, what they call a “beiro”, to take us to good snorkeling at beaches east of town. Com has a rather impressive deep water port facility, where the Thais are currently basing a three-boat fishing operation out of. The beaches were totally unspoiled. Corals pristine, probably the best I’d seen for snorkeling in Timor. Tourist had never been snorkeling, so he was in heaven!

In the afternoon, after a surreal, windy meal at the Malai resort, we headed out to the pier. To my Portuguese readers, we DID allow for digestion! Don’t be alarmed! (He he.)

The tide was extremely high with the full moon. So we planned a jump feet first far enough away from the pier. The coral was stunning. Pretty big reef fish. Unfortunately we did not have flippers to get deeper. But we were addicted, so we swam back to shore to rest, and then back out to the reef again. It was magical. We should have splurged on an underwater camera.

We talked with Angelo about the tragic collapse of his business with the crisis in Dili. He had saved money fishing for two years, with two other partners, to open the modest, two-room guesthouse. He opened in March. The first months, he said, he had people almost everyday of the week staying there. Lots of backpackers, probably coming with the Lonely Planet in hand. From Australia and Europe.

Not just Angelo, but the people of Com seemed to have really embraced the idea of tourism, in a way they had not three years ago. Women sold us their tais weavings, kids competed to sell sea-shell necklaces, and there were a number of guesthouses and boats for rent. People smiled to us on the street, something I don’t remember from my other visits.

In June, the business collapsed. He’s lucky if he gets people a couple of nights a week. He proudly reported that recently staff of the Australian Embassy stayed with him, saying they would prefer to spend their money with locals than support an off-shore business!

Tourist and I toyed with the idea of writing an article for an Australian magazine about Com.

For one more “extreme” experience, we biked up the hill, taking a dirt path into the back of the village. We were spotted by a gang of labarik. The kids chased after us, trying to touch or catch the bike. The path got worse, rockier and steeper down to the church. We were lucky to make it ok.

The labarik were not far behind! We had to keep moving, past the late afternoon co-ed volleyball game. The villagers were surprised to see us. Some smiled, some didn’t. Maybe we were encroaching on their “private” space.


But we didn’t have much time to think about it, because the kids were in hot pursuit! We cycled back through the village on a dirt road, and safely out to the main road. Mountain biking being chased by children. That should be added to the X-Games.


We rented a Mikrolet bus to Baucau the next day, and because of bus connections, stayed the day relaxing in Baucau, which to Tourist’s delight, has a rather “colonial” Portuguese charm. More so than Dili.

Buffalo head in the market, people swimming in a ditch with a broken water pipe, a rather colonial tea at Amalia restaurant, served in tea cups with the Australian coat of arms.

East is East

I headed east Wednesday morning, with two bikes, Tourist, and Otelo, a 20 year old from Lospalos is part of a web of people linked to an activist friend I met almost nine years ago.

To catch the bus, we would have only 5 months ago, waited on any major street in Dili, flagged down the bus at about 6am and proceeded to loop around the city for about an hour and a half picking up people.

But since the crisis, the buses to the east (which are usually run by a family based in their destination) have blacked out their destinations. All the buses to the east I have seen have broken windows and sometimes windscreens, from an epidemic of rockthrowing. Also they are too scared to go through the major streets and commercial neighborhoods. (There has yet to be any lucid analysis on what the crisis has done to the local economy.)

We got on at the pickup point, Lita Store, a Timorese-Australian market open for years now, next to the American ambassadors residence, and close to the Areia Branca beach road. Now instead of going through the highly populated eastern neighborhood of Becora, the buses go past Ramos Horta’s Disney-land type traditional house mansion, and up and over towards Hera along the coast. Once we reached Hera we saw evidence of IDPs everywhere.

Metinaro refugee camp, just half an hour on through the mangroves and dusty coastal flats, finally looks like your archetypal refugee camp, tents on a dusty forbidding plain with nothing in sight. Except, that is, the FDTL Army Quartel, which is the reason for the camp in the first place. It’s quite bizarre, with nice cars and taxis parked next to UNHCR tents and makeshift palm thatch shelters. Many people commute to Dili from the camp. And many there have had their homes burned and have family in the military.

After the longest pee break known to man before the Baucau airport, we blasted down through the old town of Baucau, which was lush and charming as ever. The road beneath town is barely passable at the moment and with more rain could possibly cut off traffic to Lautem district.

We stopped for grilled fish and catupa (boiled rice wrapped in banana leaves) lunch in Laivai, which appears to be the custom. The fish was excellent, although it would have been nice to have a knife.

Lospalos was calm, quiet and seemingly quite happy. We looped around town for about one hour, dropping people off, all included in the $5 bus fare. We got dropped last at the house where Otelo lived for the past two years with 5 adolescent kids. The house is the property of Activist friend. He basically uses it as a rather anarchic boarding house for kids from his village in high school in town. It’s a place they can learn to cook, take care of themselves, get away from a million younger siblings and concentrate on their studies.


The kids are quite accomplished cooks. They claim to have solved the smoke problem in their kitchen-shack behind the house. I tried to stay and chat with them as they cooked over the wood fire but I couldn’t handle the smoke. Activist arranged for the installation of a well only 5 meters from the house, which was a great development and made me less guilty about taking a shower there. Before the kids had to lug water quite a great distance.

For the two days we stayed, we had nice eggplant and watercress on rice. The second night Otelo took it upon himself to make a malai salad, with beautiful lettuce and tomatoes, and small onions which are much like shallots. He made a dressing out of rustic palm wine vinegar and cooking oil. It was very nice, and without knives we ended up eating with our hands.

In Lospalos, we basically limited ourselves to walking around town and visiting the kids’ village. A lot of people remembered me, for my many visits and association with Queen of the Weekend. I obviously could never live up to her star status, nor could I hope to “guide” the kids the way she and Activist seem to, even from afar.

Clearly there was the same old nonsense going on, teens will be teens. Money for food spent on hairgel and makeup. Kids “dating” when they are supposed to be studying. And villagers will be villagers! The bike Queen had donated, which in Europe could last ten years, had been heinously abused and cannibalized for parts.

But the kids seemed to be doing well, considering they had no regular source of income for food, and nobody to really discipline them on a daily basis.

Lospalos seemed so relaxed compared to Dili. Watching people walk in groups on the roads is one of my favorite pastimes outside of the Capital. In Lospalos, with the cool breezes, people are walking back and forth all day. But around dusk, the movement really picks up. A chorus group meets outside a house, studying intently. A group of young men burning bushes in the front yard of an abandoned house. Groups of teens walking at a leisurely pace, checking each other out.

I asked about playing basketball at the church compound at dusk. We had the greatest game one evening with Queen and the nuns. The compound was locked shut. People explained that the priests were “scared” because of the situation in Dili. I couldn’t quite believe that they were scared about Dili.

I had heard from Lospalos people in Dili that there were actually new political tensions in the town. Aside from the slightly divisive presence of the opposition party PD, it appears that FRETILIN has split into two factions after the failed attempt at reform in May’s congress. One of the factions, a self-fashioned “radical” old-style FRETILIN has made disparaging comments about the Church, and apparently has very Maoist ideas about collectivization. But basically, they are young, noisy and very visible.

Nobody wanted to talk about this schism. I was quite astonished that nobody felt comfortable even broaching the subject. I was pretty sure the priests were thinking of local politics when they locked the gates at dusk.


In a visit to Activist and Otelo’s village on day two, we were able to talk to an elder who remembered WWII in Lospalos. We had been told he had been participant in the suppression of the revolt of 1959, but it turned out he didn’t go on that expedition. He told us that it was a great massacre, with women and children killed as well. A real bloodletting. This side of the story I had never heard, and I was convinced that I need to return to Lospalos. He did, however, share key information about Lospalos/Fuiloro’s “collaboration” with the Japanese. Interviewing him in Tetun with Fataluku interpretation, I was reacquainted with all of the problems of the field here. I had to insist with Otelo to keep asking the same question a couple of times, because I wasn’t sure that it was being understood. It seemed like asking a specific question and getting a corresponding answer was a gargantuan task.

On a lighter note, Otelo’s mum sweetly decided to make Tourist and I small tais weavings, with the image of a sacred house on them. Otelo and his mum insisted that I take a seat at the loom and take a pretend photo. All the other malai women did, they coaxed.


On our last afternoon in Lospalos, Tourist and I hopped on the bikes and went to Fuiloro, a 10 km ride. I wanted Tourist to take photos of the Rotary Norte sacred houses built in the village after Fuiloro. They are not sacred, but in fact built for tourist value. The little rugrats sitting at the base of the houses didn’t give us a moments peace!

After that we headed to the Dom Bosco Salesian high school, where Australian Rotarians brought lots of dairy cows a couple of years ago. The milk facility is still going strong after four years, and kids all around Fuiloro are healthier for it. We asked can we pay for a glass of milk, and a priest pointed us in the right direction saying, “Pay? Just go have a glass!”

The kids working there after the school day were very welcoming. They enjoyed seeing our delight at fresh cold milk. I think Dom Bosco, which Otelo called a “prison”, would actually be my ideal high school experience if I lived in Timor.

Lospalos was beautiful and relaxing. We were eager to have a swim and head back to Dili by the weekend.

Come back for Part II and I will add photos as soon as possible.

Portuguese, a fatherland

There is an old man who sells cigarettes and phone cards near my house, which is on the Malai Street, in the common thinking.

In theory, because of the number of restaurants and the presence of the major internet cafes and ATM, this is the number one place for malai activities in the city, but it’s been very quiet lately. Even the “street children”, who live with their families only three blocks away, seem to have had to resort to creative forms of entertainment. Last night they seemed to be having diabolical laughter contest.

Back to our old man, one of the few older man always around. Most of the phonecard, newspaper and cigarette business is dominated by younger men. This katuas (elderly man) wears the same red t-shirt and tapered jeans and flip-flops every day. The t-shirt reads “A minha patria é a lingua portuguesa” (My fatherland is the Portuguese language).


This quote, by Fernando Pessoa, appears out of context on the t-shirt, so those who don’t know better deem it bizarre, misplaced Portuguese propaganda and little else. But in fact, I was recently at a PhD Thesis defense about Fernando Pessoa in Lisbon, and I learned the fascinating context of this quote.

Fernando Pessoa was/is one of the most compelling literary and cultural figures of the twentieth century in Portugal. With his “heteronyms” (full literary personalities, not mere pen names) he created a richness and diversity of mostly poetry and some prose that will entertain scholars and readers for centuries. Beyond his iconic “image” (glasses, fedora, mustache), he was an emotionally complex person who believed that genius and madness went together. He recognized both in himself from a very early age.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Pessoa is that from a very young age, he was bilingual in English and Portuguese, and had a significant amount of French. He spent his formative school years in South Africa, where he attended posh English schools. The first couple of years of his writing, late adolescence, have been largely dismissed as dabbling by scholars in the past.

Well, said Pessoa Scholar, an eccentric guy in his own right from Bogatá (who has recently got his due in the Portuguese media) pointed out rather polemically at his thesis defense, that statistically over a third of Pessoa’s gigantic espólio, or archived works, is not in the Portuguese language. When reading Pessoa’s early notebooks, largely in English, we see that he appreciated the playful qualities of the language. He was by no right “orthodox” in his use of language.

Pessoa Scholar went out on the limb, before a tough jury, to point out that the famous quote on the old man’s t-shirt is often heinously taken out of context. Apparently Pessoa said “A minha patria é a lingua portuguesa. Que a invadam!” (My paraphrasing.) In other words, My fatherland is the Portuguese language. I hope it’s invaded!

Let’s try to imagine Fernando Pessoa finding out that this quote was reprinted on t-shirts in Timor, with money from the bilateral aid budget.

At least the t-shirt is high quality, the old man seems to like it a lot! It’s the kind of shirt that is washed once a week, and taken straight off the line and put on again.

I have yet to see if this old man speaks Portuguese. It is possible that he is conversant in Portuguese, only older people are, and rich young kids. (The only news reported by Lusa yesterday from Timor-Leste is that the Portuguese school increased its enrollment this year. The Portuguese school apparently costs $5/mo., whereas public schools are about that per year.)

The issue of language is extremely thorny here, and lies below a lot of the gripes and politics of the moment. For example, apparently, the “Petitioners” were not receiving promotions not because they were Westerners, so much as for not speaking Portuguese. Obviously Fretilin and certain personalities in the FDTL have really pushed the importance of the Portuguese language. They spoke it in the jungle, they continue to speak it in the halls of power. The other day I heard Lu Olo, the speaker of parliament giving a speech in Portuguese in a taxi. I asked the driver if he understood it. The answer, no.

My Tourist friend, who is a professional translator, seems hakfodak, or stunned by the language issue. Everything seems so messed up. How can this all work? He and many think that Tetun is going to have to become a full working language, a language of debate and record.

I do too, but I see its current limitations. It seems that everybody is so used to conducting serious, technical conversation in either Indonesian or Portuguese that nobody is willing to invest in Tetun for this purpose. Ironically, it’s probably at some UN-sponsored “working groups” where local NGO people mix with long-term malais where the language is being stretched to its limits.

In this current political context, looking at the original context of the “fatherland” quote, “Que a invadam!” (I hope they invade!) illustrates how loaded the language issue really is. At the moment the Australian left and most of Portugal sees the current crisis as bald-faced attempt by Australia to “take over” Timor’s affairs — an imperialist “invasion” of sorts. And of course when thinking of the unfading influence of the Indonesian language, looking to Timor’s recent history, the word “invasion” conjures up all too real and horrible imagery.


For a Sunday break, I rented a car with my friend who is here as a tourist, or as somebody euphemistically suggested “an economic stimulator” (although I think the UNMIT mission, if failing in every other aspect, will stimulate the economy more than small-potatoes tourism!). We rented a car and a driver, a polite, urban young man named Nelson. Had he not been very professional, I might have been scared to go around in his small Suzuki “4WD”.

We blasted off early up towards Lahane and the southern exit to town.

What struck me right away was the market traffic jam that had formed at the top of the Bidau river (or whatever its called!) We are talking your stereotypical Asian traffic jam. Trucks, cars, vans, buses all trying to make their way through a street that spontaneously became a market. There was never such a large market before along this street. The government had done everything possible to dismantle the shacks and get people to go 2 kms up the road to Taibesse. It took us a good 15 minutes to go about 150m through the market. The market stalls were miserable. People are now living in the government-owned teak forest near the Lahane road junction. I wondered if this qualifies as an IDP camp.

As we made our way up the winding hills past Lahane (and the sparkling Presidential palace), it was clear that Dili is extremely dry right now. Also clear that deforestation and the burning of the hills around Dili has become more drastic. I shudder to imagine what can happen to these slopes when the rains kick in too fast.

Up towards Dare, where the seminary that educated Timor’s political and social elite is located, we saw that people had pioneered an intensive plant and flower growing market. Foreigners can pay cash for plant cuttings that grow well up there. It made Dare much more attractive also, to have the street lined with flowers and plants.

We went up past Balibar, with Xanana’s private residence looking more fortified and removed from the city than ever before.

Through the Acacia and coffee forests, down into the irrigated plain of Aileu.

Not much had changed in Aileu. The market seemed small, we didn’t even stop. My Tourist friend is Portuguese, and as I’d never stopped to see the monument to the Portuguese “massacred” in Aileu in World War II, I figured it was a good time to. Across the street was an interesting Portuguese-era building rehabbed, with the “quinas” from the Portuguese flag, and with a new addition, a fascinating emblem writing in Mambai, the local language.


The Australian Army was quietly camped out in the District police station.

We continued on, through an amazingly parched landscape. Dai Soli, a beautiful village with good rice terracing, was still green, with rice shoots peaking above the water of the paddies. The buffalos were relaxing after preparing the fields a couple of months ago.

On the way down to Maubisse, heaps of families, kids, and men on horseback were returning from the market already. We drove down into the heart of the market. I was wanting to buy as much as possible, food-wise. But everything looked quite the same as Dili, and for the same price. A good-looking mountain of green beans for “limapolu cen” (50c). I asked if that was the malai price or the normal price. They just chucked and took my money.




We made our way back into the market. It felt very natural walking back there. Not too much undue attention, just a couple of nervous giggles from girls after they had made unwanted eye contact with us. The heart of market activity, it turns out, is gambling. There were these crazy games resembling craps with roulette in the back. All very rustic. People were betting dimes, which is the lowest denomination accepted. A dime can win $1 they told me. I didn’t see anybody win, but was surprised to see people throwing down dollars. And the “house” had a lot of cash! Big wads of ones and a couple of twenties.




I lost a dime, and I told them I thought that the house would ALWAYS win. We continued into the market, towards the tua sabo, which is distilled palm wine. It can actually be quite nice. I was surprised to see that nobody seems to bother selling the weaker tua mutin. Or maybe I just wasn’t understanding.

We saw the cock-fighting ring, which was empty. There were a lot of people milling around with roosters. The fights would only start later. After everybody had consumed more tua, I assumed. Sour grapes, I thought, as I have heard women are not very welcome at them anyways.

The cemetery is one of the most scenic parts of Maubisse. Plus people load up their horses there, so it’s often a good place to see the Timorese ponies up close. Some of the graves had been recently painted and restored.


Curiously some were facing west to Mt Ramelau while others were facing East. The anthropologist-in-training in me wondered why.

We walked up towards the Pousada, which sits regally on this large hill in the middle of the valley, overlooking the town. There was absolutely no sound up there. No generator, no talking, no goats even bleating. It was nice and clean, the gardens maintained. So I guess Major Reinado’s stay there for a couple of weeks did not destroy the place. We walked in and found an employ at the “bar.” We asked for cold drinks, which they did have. It seemed like nobody had stayed there in days. But they said, actually the previous night, a Saturday night, they had 4 guests. It’s $40/night during the weekend and $15/night during the week. A meal costs $6/minimum. (Bacalhau must be ordered well in advance.) We heard to generator, and the toilet was “mandi” style, meaning DIY flushing with scoops full of water. We paid our $2 each for a cold drink, and walked out to take photos from up high.

After a not so-spectacular $1 instant noodle lunch at the “Rosa da Montanha”, where by the way we heard that the Cuban doctors have “ruined many children” (they need to work on their PR!), we headed to see the sacred objects resting in front of the church. As an aside, the church in Maubisse was attacked by a bunch of anti-Portuguese locals, encouraged by the Japanese. (Maubisse was the home to one of the biggest anti-Portuguese uprisings of the Japanese occupation.) The church today is one of the biggest and most impressive facilities in Timor. No other district church is as well-built and impressive.

A couple of years ago after the UN arrived, for some reason which I cannot figure out, one of the most famous totems in Timor, this beautiful tree trunk, was moved from its highland mountain home to the front of the church. Views of the valley below are amazing.

The Australians were camping quietly across the street.

As we wound our way back down into Dili, there was an incredible haze of smoke from all of the burning in the hills. We could barely make out Atauro through the cloud. A stunning number of trees had been cut for firewood, for sale by the side of the road. At this rate, Tourist and I agreed, the hills would be bare in about 10-15 years. I asked Nelson if his family (which is “middle class”) cooks with firewood or gas. Firewood, he smiled, it’s better!