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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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