Rai klaran

We went up to Funar this weekend, with the company of two daughters (of sorts) of the household we would stay in. One was an anthropologist, who had stayed with the family for nearly two years a couple of years back. We’ll call her Menina. The other was Menina’s best friend and “sister” in the village during her fieldwork, who now lives in Dili.

I suppose any trip up to the mountains, up to a spot reachable only by 4WD on foot or by pony, for me ends up feeling like an amazing meeting of worlds. (It starts with the climatic shock of leaving the hot coast.)

Funar lies about half an hour’s drive (now that the road has been rehabilitated) above Laclubar, which in turn is now two hours rough ride from Manatuto on the coast. Time was the road to Laclubar was one of the best in Timor, as former Indonesian governor Abilio Osorio is from the region. But not so at the current moment! On the way up, we had to risk squeezing by a cargo truck bogged in a mud patch, about half an hour from Laclubar. We had inches to spare on either side of the car.

The population of Funar, like many, was forcefully moved down by the Indonesians to a place it could be more easily monitored. In the late 1990s, they returned to the region where they used to live, surrounded by their mountains and landmarks. Hopefully in the near future, Menina will make her research available to a wider audience. It is a fascinating glimpse into the way people negotiate and renegotiate relationships between themselves, their ancestors and the landscape – one which is imbued with tremendous power.

I remember Funar from readings about earlier times, as it appears to have effectively remained outside of Portuguese systems of tribute for a long time. People were able to accumulate massive buffalo herds up there, due to the abundant grazing on grassy mountain slopes.

The Portuguese only began to attempt to get their hands on Funar’s wealth towards the end of the 19C by bringing in rival groups to subjugate them and tax their herds. Zola, the pen-name of a medical doctor and rival of Governor Celestino da Silva, wrote about the place in one of his pamphlets, denouncing the greed and brutality of the Portuguese in the wars against Funar.

Visiting the area, one would be insensitive not to feel its “power” and potential for a sort of mythical autonomy. From the ridge the village now sits on, one can see the Straights of Ombai and Ataúro Island. In the other direction, the green, lush mountains that served as pastures for buffaloes and the origin of all life and wealth for the people of the area.

We went walking in the morning – along what at times was such a narrow path cut into the red clay earth of the thickets, and up the bare mountain ridges of an area used for pasture. (I would have felt more solemn, being in such an amazing place, but Menina’s friend was playing the most hilarious mix of malae music loudly on her mobile phone, including one sexually explicit song about the girls from my hometown in the US.)

Now the buffalo herds are back to strength. The carau vaca or presiden, or foreign cattle, are kept in a separate place than the carau Timor. The herds run wild with different families’ cows mixing together, without any permanent supervision. We were told that when need be, buffaloes are hunted down and killed by spear or bow and arrow, which be no small feat on the steep slopes.

For lack of a better descriptor, Funar feels alpine. It would be the kind of place malaes would like to go trekking to feel peace in the landscape. People from the region have an entirely different take, and probably nothing fills them with dread and tedium more than walking alone or with a too-small group through the mountains. Things are only truly fun when they are rame, or full of people.

Menina was clearly blissfully happy to back, and to see that life had only seemed to have improved up there since her departure. Her family was quite easy going and so gracious, receiving two new malae friends of Menina so well. Surely the day-to-day remains very taxing and hard up in the village, as people still walk huge distances to work their fields and life is full of ups and downs there like anywhere.

Yet as we drove down into the heat on the coast below, leaving Menina for a couple more days of chatting with neighbors and fetching water with the kids in the morning, I felt this real desire to stay offline, out of range and away from it all. And even to rummage in archives again.

I will post photos when I get a chance.

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