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!