Abs and Blunt

My stomach and quads are still sore from push starting Professor’s new Landcruiser on Sunday and Monday. I am in Bali, where heavy metal rockers listen to James Blunt on replay.

The rains have yet to reach Bali, which is a really bad sign for the region. My own relief from the heat will be European winter.

I have pre-dated my last entries on Timor, so please go back a couple of days to read of my last, fulfilling adventure into the mountains. I have posted my last Timor photos as well, so follow the links to Flickr for the full album.

I will arrive on the day of “Restoration” of Portugal’s independence, only three days after Timor’s (still contested) “independence day.”

Até logu deit.


As I left Dili a couple of dozen veterans did a color guard outside the ASDT residence on the beach front, to commemorate the unilateral declaration of independence by Fretilin, and then President Xavier do Amaral. Very few people had turned up to commemorate.

At the palace the FDTL was supposed to be parading. I was worried something might happen, but absolutely nothing did. Everybody was at home vegetating in the heat of a rainless late November Tuesday.

Lost Anthropologist, who finally got a gig working in one of the refugee camps, kindly took me to the airport. He confided more in me about his fieldwork, and how his emotional and personal life seemed to strangely and unconciously immitate his research interests.

In the airport I bought three t-shirts from an eccentric Quebequois teacher turned silkscreener who claims to be giving vocational skills to orphans. His next business opportunity is printing on tile, for Timorese tombs.

I had stupidly overstayed my visa, and played dumb at immigration. There was an awkward moment in which I realized that I could either pay the immigration officer the cash he requested (which did seem like the right amount) and walk through, knowing he could easily pocket it, or wait for his supervisor to come and lecture me and write me a receipt for the fine. I opted to leave the cash with him and thank him for his lenience.

My liurai informant’s daughter was at the airport, working security. It was she who checked my ticket as we walked onto the tarmac!

It was too hazy to see any detail of the north coast out of the window.

I told myself I would be back soon to Timor.

I’m currently in a smelly internet cafe in Bali where it costs about 1/10 of the money for a broadband connection. Caipirinhas for fifty cents down the street. Yummy cheap food everywhere. Happy, prosperous people. Burned, fat board-shorts wearing tourists.

I am numb.

Fila ona

I made it back to Dili after another great adventure. Professor and J, a PhD student based in a farflung mountain town, came and picked me up from Baguia. We crossed to the south coast and drove up an amazing, rocky and remote road to Buibela, the spiritual and formerly political center of the area that rebelled in 1959.

I was invited to see lulik items, as well as the namesake rock of the kingdom, but there was no time. I was anguished. We had to haul it back to Dili. And lucky we had a day to spare, as we had three flat tires on the way back. Slept next to a ruined school in the mountain pass of Ossu. Watching shooting stars through the mosquito dome roof. Epic journey.

I will post photos and observations about the past week when I get to Bali. Leaving in two hours.

Once again, the reaction is “koitadu” (you are leaving, you poor thing.) I am sad to go, but I am also happy to have a break from the political instability, the flat tires and breakdowns, and the squat toilets.

Be back to “the outside” soon.

Incursion on Buibela

I usually don’t have many regrets. But as soon as Professor and J and I headed up the mountain pass towards Buibela, the former center of the area I have been studying, I knew I should have been up there before. Ten weeks and I had not made it there.

Professor’s car had been spitting out a lot of black smoke up the last rocky stretch of road, so we abandonned the car to let it cool off, at a high pass looking down over what we assumed had to be Buibela. There were these amazing rock crofts, partly natural, but it seemed as though people had piled rocks up discretely, creating magical forms. It reminded me of Iceland. I commented that people must believe that is a special place. J went around the side to pee.

We took three apples, water bottles and headed down the road. There were horses grazing on the open mountain slopes. Ahead was a rocky peak that seemingly blocked the view of Matebian behind. Soon we were surrounded by beautiful tall pines and eucalypts. It’s rare to see such large trees in Timor.

It’s also rare to have the sensation that we had, to be walking unobserved, in a state of peace. It felt like we were hiking somewhere. After about a kilometer we started seeing fencing along the side of the road.

I wondered how people might react to three foreigners showing up on foot. I joked that it was going to be the “incursion on Buibela” (a joke that in all of Timor, probably only the present company would understand, as there is an article by a famous anthropologist on the ritual center of Timor called “Incursion on Wehale”).

We soon reached a lovely spring, with a pool of cool water where three kids were washing and playing. The oldest girl, probably 12, came up to Professor and kissed his hand, like some Timorese do for priests. So this is how they receive malais!

We continued on, hoping to find somebody to show us the sacred houses and possibly the kingdom’s namesake, a rock.

We came upon a very friendly group of young men who were standing not far from the sacred houses, which made an extremely breathtaking profile from the road. There were six of them, built on the pyramid-like rise of rock terraces. They had wooden decorations on the roof, which give the impression of horns.


They took us towards them when we explained we were friends with people from the village, and we had simply come to passear. They introduced me to the alin (younger brother or cousin) of my friend from Buibela. I was relieved to meet him, and that he was extremely friendly, knowledgable and articulate. He took us up the site, I was trying to be as respectful as possible, waiting and asking permission at every step. This was a very sacred place. He asked us to take our hats off as we approached the two main sacred houses. These were the houses from which Portuguese anthropologist Antonio de Almeida was able to see and photograph their sacred items in 1957.


I was playing it safe, playing it rather dumb about how much I knew. I took heaps of photos, rather ecstatic. It was more magical than I could have ever imagined. Professor and J were clearly impressed too. There was an old man who seemed to be in charge of the houses and the restoration of two of them, which was ongoing.

They confirmed to me much of what I had been told below by other liurais, but it was really great to see with my own two eyes, and be able to visualize the spatial relations between villages, mountains and political borders.


My friend’s alin pointed out everything of note, including ruins of a military post. He pointed out the hamlet where the namesake rock was and offered to take us there. But it was past midday and we were unsure about the car. We decided to take up his offer for coffee. We sat in his quite well kept house, which was cool with the strong mountain winds. They served us popcorn and roasted soybeans. We were tickled, and grateful for such a healthy and delicious snack. They said they knew what malais liked because some very good Australian volunteers had visited a couple of times. (They had no malai trauma, unlike J’s community, but that’s a whole other story!)

I asked Professor and J in English if they thought I should pull out the article on Buibela’s sacred objects. I wanted to, and they both nodded. So Alin was fascinated, had a very serious face for a couple minutes of silence as he inspected the article and photos. The tias in the house were called in to see, as they were the oldest.

They confirmed the identity of the “priest” but could not confirm how many of the objects might have been saved. They told me I could see some whistles (like ones in the photos) in the village above, which was finishing its sacred house, hence had the objects “out” and ready for viewing.

Unfortunately we had to leave. It was really difficult for me to explain to him that we had come all this way only to turn around and leave. But I had to allow a day’s margin of error for my flight, and Professor had an important phone call to take on Monday.

Alin was very understanding, and walked us back. He encouraged us to fill our water bottles at the spring. The water was so cool. He walked back up to the car with us. When he saw where we had left it, he was visibly uncomfortable. He said, “Next time, do not leave your car here. This is a sacred place. The last people who got out here were attacked by a swarm of bees.” He also doubted that our car would be okay after being so close to the prohibited place.

We had to push start the car (as seemed normal), and he probably thought the lulik, the sacred place, had ruined the starter.

An hour later, a tire blew out. We just imagined word reaching Buibela that we were being cursed. Then two hours later, another tire. We had not patched the spare. So Professor left J and I sitting on the road with a papaya. He would make it back at dark. We had a serendipitous dinner with two other anthropologists in Viqueque. Four social scientists at one table is a remarkable event in Timor.

We decided to push on up the mountain towards Pedro’s hotel at Loe Huno. Then the headlights went. So J was holding my halogen headlamp out of the front of the car and Professor was going at like 20 km/hr. We found the turnoff. Then it turned BlairWitch Project.

We couldn’t find the entrance to the hotel. We instead found an open UMM (Portuguese 4WD) and a white Landcruiser. Not a soul around. I was totally disoriented. We opted to turn back head further up the mountain towards Ossu where we knew of a place to camp.

J and I spent a rather sleepless night in a mosquito dome and Professor crammed his tall frame into the front seat of his Landcruiser. I watched the shooting stars through the mess roof. Around 4am J and I just gave up trying to sleep and began talking about fieldwork and anthropology. It was very cathartic.

We were to experience one more flat before our adventure would end! At 7am, at the top of the mountain pass, a violent explosion. Another tire.


We called Lost Anthropologist, who we had dined with the night before. He was coming up the mountain, returning to Dili. We were, in the end, despite being cursed by the lulik, quite lucky. J and I ditched Professor with the two rims in Baucau. He assured us he could take care of everything.

We left J on the side of the road in Manatuto.

It was over. A memorable end to 10 weeks.

Killing time (and roosters)

I became a professional waitress briefly last year. But I had long been an accomplished “waiter” — that is, person who kills time without getting overly anxious.

In Baguia, my skills were put to the test. I had to wait from Wednesday through Friday, with some interesting conversations and opportunities to ask questions about language and culture to Tio Martinho, his older brother and his children.

Tio Martinho invests quite a lot of time and energy in his roosters. Cock fighting can be quite a lucrative endeavor. But for most, it is a way to, well, kill time and hang out with peers.

I took a couple of photos of him at dusk having his roosters joust in front of the house. He has 10 all up, mostly tied up in the back right next to the kitchen. They eat corn. They probably eat better than many Timorese during the hungry season.



They are like gladiators. Trained and fed, and tied up to increase their anger, and then thrown into a ring with razors tied to their feet. Not pretty.

On Saturday morning, as I had no word from Professor and was hoping he would come pick me up, I decided to climb 40 minutes above Baguia to get cel phone reception. Martinho’s son guided me up there. For most of the rather strenuous climb, I had assumed we would be going over a really high-up rocky ridge to get the network from Baucau. But luckily for me, about 300m below this ridge, one gets the network all the way from Lospalos.

Tourist and I had passed this mobile tower on our epic bike ride which seemed a lifetime ago.

Turned out Professor was coming with J, probably one of the toughest people I know, a German anthropologist up in central mountain community two hours uphill walk from the nearest administrative post. She had come down to the coast to come along east. It was going to be an exciting Sunday and Monday.



Halfway through lunch, I remembered it is Thanksgiving, my favorite American holiday. Largely because it draws the whole family together – which is, in my case five people – but also because it is so unabashedly about food. Even being a vegetarian (pescatarian) I get excited about it. Last time I had a Thanksgiving was 2004.

Today’s Thanksgiving meal, I really was thankful for. The owners of the guesthouse, one of whom is an old lady currently suffering from a bout of malaria, explained to me that there were no vegetables, no eggs and no fruit for sale in town. (I bought two pineapples, one ripe and one unripe, I gave the ripe one to one of my most fascinating informants.) So for lunch: rice, one sardine (in a rather unappetizing tomato sauce) and supermie instant noodles with MSG-flavor packets cooked in. Believe me, those flavor packets are good. They can make you want to eat, well, rice and noodles.

I decided I would drink Nescafe – milky coffee mixture – along with the food partly for the calcium in the powder and partly, well, to keep my stomach working with the absence of vegetable matter.

I sat there sweating under the tin roof in the midday run, with a feeble breeze coming through the windows. Sweat rolling down my legs and mosquitoes biting away – skirts are cool but leave you vulnerable!

I’m not being sarcastic when I say I’m ‘thankful’ for the meal. I’ve had much less appetizing. And it’s just a fact of life that there is no market or transport up here to bring produce to market. The kiosks used to sell eggs. They no longer do. Beans, greens, fruit used to be more plentiful because there were more cars, there were more civil servants to buy them in Indonesian times. The lack of rain is not helping the situation!

The Nescafe was an especially nice addition. I could pretend I was drinking Thai iced coffee. The sardine didn’t even taste as bad as I thought it would!

The big holidays are coming up here: November 28 – the day of the unilateral declaration of independence in 1975 by Fretilin (which not everybody is so eager to celebrate) and the day of the Immaculate Conception, a holiday which I only learned about moving to Portugal and then reading online about it. This day celebrates Mary’s immaculate conception, not that of Jesus !! (Which makes sense cause Jesus couldn’t be conceived on the 1st and born on the 25th.)

P.S. The following day I had a veritable feast after having gone to the market in Baguia, which I was intrigued to see, has cashew fruits for sale. My feast: salad, bean stew, fried eggs, and rice. Mmmmm.


Tempting the crocs

After too long a time in Dili (a week is enough to drive anybody mad), I headed to Baucau on Monday. One last stay at the Faulty Towers, dashing all over town to try to figure out what documents survived in the church archives.

No luck with the Parish or the Diocese. Nor did I find the teacher named Antonio Vicente, who has published various books on Timor at the Diocese press, and seems to be the unofficial archivist of the Diocese.

Pedro’s son-in-law came to pick me up the next day, and we headed towards Loe Huno, where his hotel is, just above Viqueque town. Loe Huno is a fascinating place, that seems to have been center of a very important kingdom to the Portuguese. Later I would learn that people believe it was the king of this kingdom who helped the Portuguese carve up the lands to the East, the area of my research.


After a quick lunch, we headed down the hot south coast, cutting east past Matahoe and the Bebui River.

After Aliambata, closer to Uatocarbau, we stopped at a fresh water lagoon along the beach. People were boldly fishing in the muddy water. This is a favorite crocodile habitat. A Brazilian doctor working in Viqueque three years prior had told me amazing stories about crocodile bites coming from this area. People seemed totally unfased!


In Uatocarbau, there was some intense house building and Pedro stopped for family business, and I began to chat up the guys building, and charm the kids with views of themselves on my digital camera. It takes them only two days to finish the roofing of the house, as long as they have enough hands. I told them it takes malais years to figure this kind of thing out (thinking of Tom Hanks stranded on a desert island).


I was able to talk with one of my most important liurai informants on the coast. When we came up, it was hot, middle of the afternoon, and he was shirtless. Luckily he was not too embarrassed. At night, we slept in the house of Pedro’s nephew-in-law (does this exist in English?). He was an extremely diligent farmer (badinas, pa according to Pedro), who was finally receiving help from German Cooperation, GTZ. He had three functioning tractors.

The rice paddies in Uatocarbau are gigantic, and have major potential.

I learned that they can compete with imported rice, which is indeed taxed. Imported rice is now selling for about $15/20kg bag. In Uatolari and Uatocarbau, if the surpluses existed, they can sell rice in the husk for $12, and it costs about $1 to de-husk in the machines. The real problem is both scale, ability to farm large fields, which requires more tractors, and roads – the sheer cost of getting surplus to market.

They also told us there is a spot on the coast not far away where crocodiles can always be sighted. Pedro’s ears perked up, because this could eventually be a major selling point for tourists. That and the spectacular sacred springs above.

The next day we made a brief stop at the old post of Uatocarbau, up on the mountain. People up there had finished the rice harvest, and were waiting for the rain to cultivate corn.

We heard there was a gigantic funeral for a nobleman in Afaloicai Baguia that would either make it easier or more difficult to find katuas. It turned out the funeral had ended the day before, and it was unclear how many people would still be gathered there.

I realized that I honestly did not have the stamina to crisscross the valley on foot looking for these guys. Nor were there people to “cook for me” – to look after me and make sure I had rice. I was tired of being a burden on Pedro’s random family and contacts. So I decided to go straight to Baguia with them on the far side of the valley. I would spend some “quality time” with Tio Martinho and his older brother, the old liurai of Afaloicai Baguia.