The two-month road

In looking back over my notes, and comparing my various trips up to the Matebian valley, I realize that only now I have a grasp of the roads – their historical and political significance.

A road is a very precious thing, connecting people to markets, bringing information, “development,” etc. The people of the valley are keenly aware of this. But they have long come to the realization that development is not for them.

I’ll try to create a map for the faraway reader. Baguia sits at the north-eastern base of Matebian, it is the main posto created by the Portuguese in the late monarchy (1890s-1900s). Baguia is the subdistrict seat, and being part of Baucau district, which extends from the north coast, enjoys nighttime electricity.

From Baguia, to the south coast there is one road. (Last year, briefly, there were two, but I get ahead of myself.) This road slopes up sharply for about 4-6 km, with tons of very steep and tight switchbacks, which require the pedal to the medal and some bravado on the part of drivers. At the top of this section is the hamlet called Yarbau, which currently has a quaint school and a church. (It is from Yarbau that most climbers of Matebian begin their journey, up an empty riverbed.) From Yarbau, the road runs due south along the Eastern base of Matebian, through Ossu-ona towards Afaloicai-Baguia. This stretch of road was built with forced labor crews supervised by the Japanese during the three terrible years of 1942-5. Today it is still quite a good, reliable stretch of road.

To get to the south coast from Ossu-ona there are two choices.

map-mural depicting Afaloicai-Baguia

One, to Afaloicai Uatocarbau (the site of much of my research with the scenic old posto house that appears often in my photos), cuts on an old road southeast before reaching Afaloicai-Baguia. This road is also quite good during the dry season, and is “old” – meaning pre-Indonesian, but I have not confirmed whether it is Portuguese or Japanese. The road is flanked to the due south by views of the rounded, tree-covered Bina and Buraboo mountains. From Afaloicai-Uatocarbau, there is an Indonesian road down to the beach and the “new” Uatocarbau, which passes through the legendary springs at Irabere. All of the sucos of the southeastern Matebian valley were basically forcefully relocated along this road.

The second choice is to go to Afaloicai-Baguia and take the road up the mountains towards Uatolari. I have yet to take this road, and will report back when I hopefully do, sometime soon. Recently the government, along with the church, inaugurated a new middle school up along this road. The event was attended by all kinds of big-wigs, and people walked for tens of kilometers to get there.

These roads are rough but quite passable in the dry season. In the wet season, they quickly become mud fields, and the rivers wash out critical small bridges. To keep them passable in the dry season, these roads simply need yearly maintenance. They provide a critical north-south corridor and connect the major sucos to Baguia to the north and Uatocarbau and Uatolari to the south.

However, neither of the routes south passed through the ex-Vice Minister for the Interior’s home village which lies farther southeast of Matebian than the roads mentioned. Ilda da Conceição (or “Ilda”), according to locals, decided in her capacity as second-only-to-Rogerio (now disgraced ex-Minister of the Interior, see Glossary) that a new road was needed to her ancestral home. (The Timorese are quite familiar with this story, as these sorts of self-interested infrastructure projects were common during Indonesian times.)

The “Ilda” road, it turns out, I had already walked along with Tio M, to get back to Baguia from Uatocarbau. I was not aware that I was on this new road.

On a nice stretch of the two-month road

He tried to explain that the road was “recently” built, but he couldn’t cite a year, so I assumed, since it was in such terrible condition, he must have been referring to the Indonesian period.

To give the reader of an idea of what shape the road is in now, as of October 2006, departing from Samalari, a village halfway down the new road, approaching Baguia, there were major wash-outs, cleavages, land slides, all around the road.

At Samalari I thought, well, an intrepid driver could do this road. About 3km later, I was thinking, oh, an intrepid motorcyclist could do this road. Then 2 km later, I was thinking, wow, hikers with a fear of heights should not even walk this road! (I did see people taking horses down the road.)

This road was built (not without some resistance and consternation I have heard) before the rainy season of 2005. It was passable for two months.

Then the rains came and currently no 4WD can pass it, only a four-legged animal. In the steep descent from Baguia, there are parts of the road which are literally less than a meter wide, with scree (loose rock) sliding down from above and below.
The road lasted two months. It required a significant investment of labor, time and money. It lasted two months.

People all over the region just kind of shrugged and tut-tutted when talking about the roads. What is there to do?

On a happier note, one of the communities on the eastern slopes of Matebian did not wait for the state and recently built its own road. Labor and materials were their own. Now they have (slightly) increased access to markets and maybe some day soon can host climbers for the night before they go up to the summit.


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