Lost worlds

Last weekend, we were lost in cloud up near Ossu, on the pass below the Mundo Perdido mountain. We probably could not see more than four meters ahead of us. People, horses, houses, and turns in the road just bounced out of the background, becoming foreground at frightening speed.

A friend told me later about the top of the flat mountain, named after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s book. There are flocks of wild horses, monkeys, lakes, vast stretches of green grass that he described as “golf course” like, rock cairns and many lulik places. To get up there it was a four or five hour huff up waterfalls and riverbeds, and only advisable with local guides.

There are places and people here that we often do not even know exist. They do not appear to us. (The word “mosu” comes to mind in Tetum.)

That same trip, we came across a large public meeting in Wailili I believe. It could have been any kind of routine meeting. But we noticed lots of RDTL flags, and there was a table and formal speeches going on. I hopped out, with caution, to find out what was on. A sullen guy on a motorbike, a good 50m from the event, scowled that it was an “esclarecimento” by CPD-RDTL. We were clearly not welcome.

Shortly after, we stopped in to visit the Parish Priest in Ossu, and ask about their archive and records. I very meekly asked if it might be possible to see baptism records from as early as they have them. I was taken back to the Parish Archive, which was buzzing with activity on a Saturday. There were heaps and heaps of type-written long sheets with names, dates of birth, priceless genealogical information, seemingly out of order and in wads of paper clearly suffering in the moist mountain air. But we were reassured that the information was being copied over carefully into new notebooks. What Ossu Parish really wants is a scanner to scan all of the papers, dating from just after the “reoccupation” from the looks of it. And they told us, if you are amazed by this, you need to see Soibada’s archive, they have saved records since the 1890s.

I am discovering lost worlds in Dili: I stumbled into a malai party on Friday that had the distinct air of some kind of reality TV series. I fled.

And yesterday I was given a catch-up on the luxury residential compounds in Dili – there are more and more of them, lost worlds, and heavily guarded ones.

Cold, hard cash

In the past four days, I’ve spent only three hours in Dili. I have another two days in Baucau, so I’m imagining this is sadly as close as I am going to get to some “deep Timor” experience. I have been trying, as best one can, from brief stops off of mostly paved roads, to get a feeling for the state of things beyond Tasi Tolu and the Cristo Rei.

Roadside Timor does indeed seem more prosperous. The evidence? New kiosks, painted and renovated houses from mountain Maubara all the way to Ossu. The MTCI rice appears to be reaching certain rural communities, where I have seen the odd new, full bag. But I have not seen it piled up anywhere. Mostly people seem to be recycling the bags for their own harvests.

In Ossu, there were new (since 2006) kiosks selling vegetables. Thriving bengkels and mikrolets being repainted, overhauled in Baucau district. Tons of new stickers and names on mikrolets and buses. All evidence of increased cash flow on almost every paved road.

(But I wonder: is this cash reaching the deep Timor, hours walk from the roadside? And are these merely signs of the relatively well-off getting richer?)

On the road near Bazartete, we stopped and chatted with the “dua dollar” work crews repairing the roads. This was one of the first and longest standing schemes to infuse cash into rural areas. There still seemed to be healthy competition for the work, and according to the overseer, rotation of people working. Payments were allegedly quite late.

During a chat hiking near Loe Huno, I asked about the new universal old-age pension, and our guide chuckled as he told the delight of those over 60, some of whom still remember the Portuguese head tax. He said, “Old folks say ‘Before the government forced us to pay them, and look, now they are paying us!’”

Obviously there have been major problems with the pension, which is paid out in six month blocks. In the first round, chefes de suco were apparently able to manipulate the system. In many places, people are continuing to use the voter IDs of deceased people as the government simply does not have databases linked up to prevent this.

There may be massive “leakage”, but the point is, money is clearly reaching cash-starved rural communities. These are places where before you could not even get change for a dollar in the market.

Last week in a “brown bag lunch” at UNMIT, one high-profile UN type revealed that the victims of the Passabe massacre said they interpreted the pension as a form of government reparation for their suffering.

Cash is powerful and is not a cure-all. But if there is one growing consensus, it is that not enough “nation building cash” stayed in Timor, let alone in Dili. I remember calculating how much each man, woman and child in Timor would have received if the UN never returned, and just gave the money for peacekeeping and administration to the Timorese. I think it amounted to something like $20,000 per person.

It is quite amazing how actually something as cold and hard as cash can be something so hard to know what to do with.

The scarlet letter(s)

On Monday, making my way to work at quarter past 8 the city struck me as quiet. At the City Courts of Dili, however, the GNR packed into its small parking lot, with two vans. At least three UNPOL cars as well. Soon the street was shut off, causing mass disturbance to the city’s traffic.

Not this much security or attention was paid to the trial of the Tim Alfa militia from Lospalos, whose members were accused of ambushing and killing nuns and priests.

This week the trial for the alleged conspiracy leading to the February attack on Ramos Horta began.

On TVTL Monday night Angela Pires appeared calm but focused, wearing a tais dress. Newspapers reported she was barefoot – which they interpreted to mean she had come ready to fight. (I do not know what to make of that.) The other defendants, dressed in what can only be described as Guantanamo Orange jumpsuits, looked more the part of people accused of plotting to kill the President.

This morning on the way to Cristo Rei, I biked over some fresh graffiti in large capital red letters “Viva Lia Los. Viva Justisa. Viva Alfredo no Angie.” This is the first graffiti I have ever seen with Angie included. The message was tailor-made for the trial, and cleverly painted in a place where the President would be forced to walk past to continue his morning exercise routine to the beach.

Later in the day, I tripped over some of the bigger conspiracy theories, which seem hyperbolic and indicative of a huge distrust for the two most powerful people in the country. I did not realize, for example, that a great number of people doubt that Ramos Horta was ever shot. They are actually waiting for him to show his wounds at the trial to prove that he was actually attacked! Moreover, some believe that Alfredo’s mate fatin was not on the pavement at Ramos Horta’s house. They believe his body was dumped there. I asked around, to know if these ideas are “regional” but the first person who told me this was indeed from Oecusse, which I imagine defies regionalism. All asked said these ideas are widespread and not limited to one group.

Dili, as in Portuguese colonial times, remains addicted to the whisper. The rumor. It does not help that the major sources of information, daily papers and TVTL are either at best too weak to cover events (let alone investigate), or at worst putty in the hands of a quite aggressive government.

This culture of rumor has serious consequences, one need only to look at 2002 and 2006. TVTL news coverage can be expanded, and from the sounds of it, people want to see Ramos Horta on the stand, and they want him to show his wounds. After all, haree hanesan fiar.

Let’s hope JSMP (whose website desperately needs updating) and some of the weekly papers can provide more information for the public.

Access to information aside, I have started to wonder whether these ema boot can ever regain the trust of a great number of people.

Peaches and a certain Planta

From the top of Ramelau yesterday morning, I saw the world. The boundaries of the visible from Timor. The top of Alor peaking out. Matebian to the east, the sun rising just next to it. Behind, the triangular shadow the mountain extending over West Timor, which was the most amazing surprise. Most of the island was covered in cloud.

Ramelau is the center for many Timorese. Not just mountain people. I remember during the time I lived here, it was still very rare to come across a world map, in a school or a workplace. A friend was saying how often young people take offense when you actually sit them down in front of a map and point to Timor. Not only is it small, but on most projections, it is far from the center.

In thinking of people’s worlds here, it is not on the spatial that is limited to direct experience. I was struck by a brief conversation with C., our guide up the mountain. I asked what his grandparents’ generation tell about war on the mountain. He immediately referred to a moment within his own experience in 1997. I persisted and asked about time before the Indonesians. He said this was something the grandparents knew as though to say that he did not either know enough or have the authority to share.

Often everything pre-1975 seems to be some primordial behemoth, stuck in time like a mastodon in a tar pit. Some carry with them crystallized images of colonial abuses, others of some kind of communitarian permaculture paradise. But this is mostly professionals and elites, people who I might have contact with in my work. In many communities, oral histories in fact reveal a Timor in constant flux, recounting arrivals of new groups, war, of expanding trade and tax networks, and of the consolidation of direct rule.

I remember thinking, as C. and his Maun pointed out Cailaco, Kablaki, Marobo, and the Loes river valley, how many battles with the Portuguese are written on this landscape. How absurd the idea of direct rule was in Timor. The Map of Cailaco (Planta de Cailaco) sprung immediately to mind – a lurid and strange image where 3D perspective and scale seem entirely lacking. Marauding Timorese war parties are depicted burning villages, and holding severed heads. Considering that map from the dizzying view from Ramelau, all of the episodic violence and history pre-1975 seemed so present, so written into the very landscape of the island.

But perhaps these are idle thoughts of somebody who does not commute six hours to high school on foot, like C. does. Thoughts of somebody who did not just lose a 25 year old friend to a “sick stomach.” (The funeral car from MSS brought the young man’s body from Dili the night before – C. had come from Ainaro for his funeral.)

On the way back, the bustle of Maubisse market seemed downright urban compared to the peace of Hatobuliko. Below the cemetery, dozens of horses “parked”. I saw peaches for sale for the first time in Timor. I asked what they were to confirm, the answer: “pissego”. They were hard and green, worlds away from the massive, soft peaches of Roald Dahl and my childhood. Another customer told me, “here, they are like this, Senhora.”


Far be it from me to be the language police, but I can’t help but have a disappproving chuckle with the number of English words that have entered into Dili Tetum:

artikulu (for article)
bankrup (from Indonesian?)

Any additions?

The visible

Hitting the ground running on Saturday, there was much more this year that jumped out at me as compared to last year. Changes of the visible kind in Dili are quite numerous.

The number of motorbikes, the “New York” yellow taxis, the growth of the seedlings planted in the sidewalks – now nearly trees, stacks of $12 subsidized rice sacks, the fish vendors with their new tents on Pantai Kelapa, Jardim as a functioning and quite popular park with children playing, young lovers holding hands and people walking around… A large number of Indonesian fishing boats in the harbor, the Port brimming with containers, the absurd Casa Europa on the waterfront, and the new pavement on the Bidau waterfront, as well as the fruit stalls…

Dili is cleaner than I have ever seen it – thanks to loron limpeza? Or due to a functioning sanitation system and the ban on pig and goat roaming? (The pigs are strangely missed – as a friend pointed out, it will be hard to shoot the “Pigs of Dili” Calendar she has been dreaming about.)

It is as though we are beginning to see the lusotropical Dili “utopia” that Doug Kammen recently described come to life. (Although where is the progress on the “Hello Mister” development by Wideform? It seems only the Chinese have been able to construct in the past year.)

The city and surrounds are unexpectedly green for July, which is probably due to late heavy rains. But the green seems symbolic of a budding of the physical space. Is this proof of what Emilia Pires claimed was Timor’s exceptional avoidance of the global financial crisis? Surely it is not all due to government spending on rice, on the urban improvements, on the IDPs, on a universal old-age pension and payments to veterans, but these seem to have had quite immediate effects. The scaling up of the UN missions in the past has had more delayed “trickle down” effects.

I also cannot help but wonder what the impact of the hundreds – thousands? – of Timorese in the UK has had not only of the economy, but on the physical.

Just as the late rains probably have a few worried about the climatic implications for the coming rainy season, I cannot help but feel a little uneasy about “the visible.” But I am going to try and keep a check on my Malai Grinch sentiments and keep seeking out the positive.