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.