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”!