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.