Quick Visit to Hera

In Manatuto, East Timor


24 July 2003 -- Manatuto, East Timor

Today was quite a day. A trend has definitely developed in which two juxtaposed feelings compete for standing in my emotions: a growing commitment and attachment to the people of East Timor and Manatuto specifically, and a desire to distance myself from the pedantic, controlling, officious PC staff. This weekend I decided to pay an afternoon visit to my old host family in Hera, a short ride from Manatuto, but outside the area I was officially "permitted" to travel.

Just after I paid the microlet driver the dollar for the ride, a white land cruiser rolled on by with none other than Kate, one of the other volunteers. The car stopped, backed up a little bit, and Kate jumped out to say hello. At this point, I'm nervous about a potential conflict with Peace Corps staff over the fact that I'm off my leash, and at the same time, quite please to see one of my favorite volunteers. I joked with her that she was on the wrong side of the island as her post is on the south side, close to the tassi mane (manly sea, the one with big surf). Her response just floored me: she wasn't going to be on the island at all for much longer. What the hell? I was floored and my mind stuck, nothing could think of no pertinent questions or consoling words other than we'd sure miss her, and I gave her a hug good-bye.

Half in shock, I went over to my old host family's house and quickly reaffirmed the close, mutual affection we all share. Mestri Estanislau, was coy as usual, and quickly brought me in the gate with a warm smile -- but only half eye-contact as usual. Everything was as I remembered it, and why shouldn't it be, it's only been two weeks since I was last there. It seems longer though, and it's been a month since I last lived there. Francisco, the youngest nephew, quickly came over and shyly shook hands, with Geronimo quickly following. Gilberto emerged from the house looking a bit dazed, apparently from working hard grading papers, and we warmly embraced. Even the dogs came to greet me: the puppy, Linda, was now almost as big as her skin, and Bobi was happy as always, letting out a howl or two just for fun. Alin Egas was at church, training for first communion, but came back soon thereafter.

Gilberto brought me inside, and fed me delicious hudi sonar (fried bananas, much more banana than breading, unlike those in Manatuto which are mostly bread and oil) and black, sweat tea: this family always fed me so well. We talked about a dilemma Gilberto has trying to choose between two very sweet women: both are in school with him, but one, Olga, is in his class. Olga is the more recent affection, and he has yet to summon up the courage to tell Abey that his attentions are going elsewhere. I said he would have to choose soon, and face the music, or he'd end up loosing both of them.

As we were sitting there, my phone buzzed with an incoming message, this one from Holden: he is quitting the Peace Corps, and going to work with the local government in Liquica, and I was not to tell the Peace Corps staff. Wow, what was happening. Shortly thereafter, another message came in from Alison that Kate was leaving tomorrow and Sonja was in talking with the Peace Corps staff. Now what was Alison doing in Dili? I gave her a quick call, using some of the last minutes on my phone card. Alison was just a bit ill, and Sonja was just having a talk, who knows what about. But Kate could not leave tomorrow! No, Kate reassured me, not till Saturday or Sunday. May be she would visit Teresa -- she and Kate were almost attached at the hip during training -- and I in Manatuto before leaving. I sure hope so.

I happily took up the family's invitation to on rice, cabbage, and fried local eggs. (I eat local eggs here, despite my misgivings, not least of which is the necessity of having inspiring roosters around to inspire the chickens to lay, waking us all in the dead of pre-dawn every day.

After lunch, we retired to the back yard to relax and enjoy the scene. I do mean scene. Sure it is just a back yard, but in this one, there is never a dull moment. The most present of the entertainers is, of course the puppy, constantly trying to climb to new heights for another perspective on the world -- or more probably better access to food. And thus Linda, the puppy, was climbing up onto the dishwashing platform licking clean the wok used to fry the eggs. Alin Francisco was quickly summoned to scare off Linda and her mother. Bobbi, of course, was quite jealous of the chance to burn his tongue on hot oil directly from the pan, but his howls got him nothing. The fahi (pig) remembered me, fondly I'm sure. Walking over to his pen, I called, Fahi, after all they don't name new year's dinner, several times, but he only looked at me. I said, "Fahi, la belle haluha hau!" This encouragement stirred his massive intellect -- even greater than the oil-licking dog's -- and he raise up on his back legs, propping his ever-increasing girth on the fence allowing me to scratch his ears and his bulging jowls; of course he had to sniff my hands thoroughly first to be sure he wasn't getting any food, for who else but me would come to his pen for any reason other than to make him fatter? He was quite satisfied with the scratch and thanked me with a snort or two. Those snorts in turn brought back memories from last night when I heard the tremendous squeal let out of the smallest little piggy as my new host family in Manatuto bound him up for an unceremonious end back in Dili at a festival. I rewarded this pig's pleasure with a few berries from the shade tree overhead -- the fruit that is good for the fruit bat feeding at night must be good for a pig too.

Next to attract attention was the ever-present chickens and roosters. Now the Timorese people seem quite attached to their roosters. I can't quite figure out why they keep so many of them around. They don't lay eggs, most never fight and wouldn't do anything except run for cover in a cockfight, and their meat is getting stringier, tougher, and less fatty with each flap of their scrawny little wings leading up to a . But my old host family is a great example of this seemingly unexplainable attachment: they have three roosters for only four chickens. One of these roosters is the king of the village roosters, with a shaved comb usually indicating many victories in the cock-fighting ring. But another one just hangs around all day with a white chicken, making horse crowing sounds in response to the king cock usually on the opposite side of the house. A third rooster -- with no feathers on its neck -- they bought a couple of months back. This one is afraid of everything, and certainly will never inspire any hen to lay. When I asked why they bought yet another rooster, Gil said they intended to hakiak (raise) it. Well, there you go, altruistic Timorese, raising poor forsaken roosters with no feathers on their necks. One more animal, the cat, adds a temperamental flair to the mixture. Usually quiescent, this cat comes awake whenever the family eats fish. So for this lunch, it was quiet, but writing this, I am reminded of a time the cat showed it's feline intelligence, by stealing a fish from the table after diner, but before the food had been put away for the night, while the family was distracted by several visitors. I was the sole witness to this exercise of the cat's eternal right -- one it shares with its brethren around the world -- but could not secure its getaway: I blabbed to the family. Mestri was a bit upset with the cat and called him stupid. I couldn't resist pointing out that the cat was rather smart -- at that very moment, crunching the last bones of a satisfying dinner -- but it was the people who were rather dumb for not covering the fish. Everyone thought that such an excellent observation that it was repeated with varying degrees of emphasis till it was the kids that were bak teen (stupid shits) and the bussa that was metenik liu (most intelligent).

I was feeling nostalgic for this family and the non-stop entertainment in the back yard more and more during my visit.

That night, back in Manatuto, I had a great dinner with my new host family. They reward me every night with their great conversation about anything from the troubles of '99 to the (de)merits of ditch spinach.

mj


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