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.


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