9 November 2003
-- Manatuto, East
Sunday, November 9th
was a rather full day, full of activity, full of contrast and
experiences at both ends of the spectrum:
I made a book case from wood purchased locally, with a borrowed
saw, and used no nails. But I didn't involve any of the kids around
here, being too lazy to motivate lazy boys.
The girls "forgot" to call me when they went swimming
at the beach, such a disappointment because I always enjoy splashing
in the water and carrying their squirming little selves out a
little ways, just enough to give them a thrill. They scream, squirm,
and laugh in delight. When we get back to the shallows, they clamor
for who will go next. But yesterday, I missed that. I was busy
sweating profusely sawing wood for my bookcase.
During one of my many breaks needed to keep my body temperature
below the boiling point, I was out back with the family and
I saw Tiu
(click here for a photo of this cagey fellow) walk along
the other side of the house. I jumped up to catch him before
he went by. The night before, he'd promised to explain to me
the boundaries of the lulik areas behind the house. I hoped
he would show me where I could build a fence around a garden
plot to keep the pigs out, and where I could dig a hole for
a 'banana-ring" shower water tank. No such luck. It seems
the entire area behind the houses is Lulik. Now this is a story
in it's own right.
When I first arrived in Manatuto, I asked Dona Isabel about a
good place to start a garden. The whole family got involved in
a discussion and we looked at various spots. The back side of
the house, behind the kitchen, was an ideal spot, close to a dependable
water supply, close to the house to discourage pilfering. But
this spot was lulik, they said, and thus we couldn't build a fence.
Jacinto walked with me across the rice paddies and showed me a
spot within the family's land perfect for a garden, the only thing
needed would be a fence. At the time, everyone I asked said water
in the irrigation ditch nearby flowed all year long and I was
excited about this possibility and even more excited when Jacinto
delivered some fencing. However, the irrigation ditch dried up
-- and I've just attended a meeting and now understand this is
because people are not interested in maintaining the ditch outside
of the rice-planting season -- and I lost confidence in this spot.
I've been looking for another spot ever since. To make a long
story short -- or a short story long -- I am still looking for
a good spot, and still have my eye on the area behind the house.
Aside from making a good spot for a garden, there is a problem
that needs to be solved here: the water from the family's shower
/ clothes-washing spot drains onto the land and perpetually forms
a large puddle. The pigs from the entire neighborhood -- and every
family raises several pigs they will eventually sell to fund anything
from school tuition to part of a wedding festival (the original
'piggy bank') -- love to wallow in this little mud hole. Now,
while I've read that pigs are smart animals and don't defecate
where they bath, they sure as hell make the place a stinky neighbor.
Besides the smell, the wet mud makes a perfect mosquito breeding
The family said Tiu was the expert on the Rai Nains (spirit owners
of the land), and that he would know what was allowed and what
wasn't. Sra. Lina's husband, Domingo, had explained to me once
that a man had cut his heel while working on the fence behind
the house once and later become quite ill, near-to death. The
counsel of elders said it was a holy spot, that the large stones
jutting out along the ridge dividing the living area from the
lower rice paddy were actually a spirit path, along which the
spirits walked when descending from the hills to the beach and
back. The fence must be taken down, after which, the ill man would
recover. It seemed to have unfolded this way.
Tiu had a much more complete story. He said that at one time,
an elder had become ill and the cause was that the fence angered
the Rai Nain. So they took the fence down and the man recovered.
They built the fence back up, and other people became ill. So
they took the fence down and the people recovered. They did this
three times, until finally resolving that no one should build
a fence or carryout any activity on this land, ever. I asked about
the land adjoining the house, between the house and the kitchen
area, away from these impressive stones, figuring this would not
be on the spirit path. "Lulik hotu!" exclaimed Tiu.
He would have none of it and made as if to leave at the very thought
of trying to delineate the lulik area.
I asked a few more questions because I really wanted to know.
Couldn't we give something to the Rai Nain, appease them? No.
Couldn't we make a nice path for the Rai Nain, fencing of a separate
area, and making their spirit path nice to walk on? "Tauk
ema moras?" Would I get sick, or others? "Katuas sira,
ka labarik, atu moras, mate." So if I made the fence, it
was others that would pay the price.
I didn't want that, I explained, I would not want to make others
sick, I didn't want to anger the Rai Nain, and I would follow
Tiu's advice. How could we resolve the problem of the pigs making
a mess of the land, making a breading ground for mosquitoes and
causing other illness? "Ema bele tesi." But they don't.
"Hmm." What to do? Dig a pit for the water? "Los,
depois taka ho cemente, halo moss ba Rain Nain." So that
was it, all I could do was dig a big sink hole for the water,
and cover it with cement. Couldn't I at least plant a banana tree
or two next to the hole to absorb the water? "Tauk ema mate!
To drive home his point, Tiu brought me around the back of the
kitchen to look at a dead tree. This too was lulik: if the wood
was cut and burned the responsible person would go crazy for a
while (I'd heard this story before and the woman who cut a branch
was crazy for a couple weeks after burning it). It is a beautiful
tree, starkly outlined against the burning blue sky. But it could
be a garden growing vegetables for the family that often complains
that no fresh vegetables are sold in the market.
Dona Isabel says she is waiting for the elder generation to die,
then they can use the land again. Right now Sra. Lina is terminally
ill with internal cancer: her abdomen is visibly swollen with
the tumor, and she can barely sit on her own power. Some of her
kids, taking the theme of illness being caused by fences, went
down by the beach and asked the people at OMT (Sra. Lina is the
president of this women's group) to take down part of their fence
to placate the Rai Nain, hoping they would let their mother get
better. The fence is gone now, but there appears to be no relief
for Sra. Lina.
Lunch and a Sad Moon
Sitting at the back of my house, taking another break, I was happy
to see a familiar face, Rita. She is Sra. Lina's God daughter
-- this is taken very seriously here, just like in Italy, and
Rita is treated like a daughter of the family -- and had lived
with the family a couple of months ago till her grandmother died
when she went back to Baucau to help with arrangements. I was
happy to see her back here again. The family invited me to join
them for lunch: rice with ditch spinach for me, and fish for them.
Rita sat next to me. She is painfully shy, blushing at the mere
thought of answering a question. How could I help her find the
courage to speak to me? She said she doesn't know how to read
or write. The kids explained that her teacher used to beat her
in the school -- probably because she was too shy to speak in
class -- and I'm afraid this scared her away from the entire experience
A short walk to the market afterwards exemplifies my whole experience
here. Leaving my house, I was lucky to see the immense full red
moon rising over the roofs of the half-rebuilt houses. Further
along, the red moon over the ruins of the Indonesian troops' quarters
made a pretty scene. Walking through the streets toward the market,
I laughed to see the ever-spirited Aluja dashing out from under
the mock blows of the young man aggravated by her incessant teasing.
Walking on by, I wondered how far she would push these young men,
where would she stop?
Approaching the market, Elias' father was at my side. "Ba
ne'bee" I asked; he was going to get cigarettes, he said.
We passed the cigarette stalls and he was still at my side. Then
we saw this old fellow who was one of the first comic figures
I met in Manatuto, Logu's owner. Elias' father quickly latched
on to this man. I heard them mutter something about Tua, and off
they went together into the dark night, back toward the market
and the tua.
I watched the red moon rise and turn silver over the ocean --
standing because I did not want to sit on the wall near the human
excrement (there is a good public toilet, which some men disdain
in favor of the natural method). It was a bright but sad moon,
the end of the dry season, the beginning of the wet. I like the
rain so why was I sad to know the scorching arid season was giving
way to the humid all-dissolving season? Perhaps because the waters
washed from the burnt land would carry silt and mud into the sea,
rendering brown any snorkeling I might do.
Walking back through the market, I heard young men squeaking at
young women, making a kissing sound. I had a sense of why so few
women walk to the market after sundown, and even that at a brisk
pace measured to limit interaction with these boys with nothing
better to do but drink tua, play cards, and squeak primitively
Family relations had paid a visit during the afternoon. They came
to visit Avo, who's laid up in bed. Alin China and Alin Zhavania
were arguing the other day about something or another. Somehow,
Maun Jacinto went to break it up or something, perhaps intending
to smack them for failing to do dishes or heed Avo, and they both
escaped his reach. Avo grabbed Zhavania who twisted out of her
grasp, with a little too much energy, for she caused Avo to tumble
to the ground. Avo is in bed these days, with a local cure on
her broken wrist: chewed up leaf spit onto the skin and covered
with leaves. Not just anyone can chew the leaf in the right way,
but if the right person does it, in two days, the broken bone
is healed and the person can go back to work; at least that's
the line we've been handed many times over the last seven months.
Avo is still in bed and it's been more than a week.
King of Kings
East Timor has been a land ruled by local kings for as long as
anyone can remember. (Carlos, the local Portuguese man, used the
previous fighting between these kings as the prime justification
for 500 years of Portuguese occupation, but that is another story.)
Apparently, one of the most powerful kingdoms was based in Manatuto
district, in the city of Soi Bada, 3 hours over the hill and through
seasonal rivers. The Portuguese built the country's leading school/college
over there hundreds of years ago, and most native (as apposed
to former ex-patriot) leaders schooled there for at least a few
I met the heir to the Soi Bada throne the other day; I purchased
the wood for my bookcase from him in fact. I'd heard he was a
very unassuming person, a regular fellow more interested in tending
his kiosk (little shop selling any odd assortment of items from
bubble gum to hammers) than ordering people around. When I entered
the little shop and asked for wood, his wife directed the two
of us out back to the woodpile. I selected what I thought was
decent wood and the heir directed a young assistant to carry it
to the front of the house for me. He started up a conversation
with me about land and rice, when he heard I was here to help
In Senhor Markus' opinion, what farmers really need is tractors,
and not just tractors, but a government organization to maintain
and rent the tractors out, keeping them filled with gasoline
and in good working condition. I asked why the farmers didn't
use water buffalo anymore, why they should bring something completely
foreign to this land (there is no conceivable future in which
East Timor will produce tractors) in order to grow rice almost
exclusively for local consumption? His answer is the same as
everyone's: because with a tractor, farmers can plow more land
more quickly. But why is this necessary when so many people
are out of work? Why not employ ten people instead of one Australian
tractor? Some farmers in Japan, the most developed land in the
world, still grow and harvest rice by hand, why not here? People
don't know how any more, and anyway, there are no buffalo in
Nattarborra, the old rice-growing region, anymore. There are
plenty of buffalo here though: they occupy the rice fields in
the dry season (and are one big reason why this community is
unlikely to plant two crops of rice for the foreseeable future
-- where would the buffalo graze if there is always rice in
the fields?), so why not send some over? Ah, you can't just
send them over, people won't just give their buffalo away.
So it would be easier to get money from the government, or some
foreign aid agency, buy tractors and import technicians and oil
to keep them running, than it would be to send 100 buffalo over
the hill. In reality, it probably will be, for the same set of
reasons why the Japanese aid agency spent US$6,000,000 to irrigate
this desert land for rice paddy instead of improving the practices
in the naturally wet land 3 hours over the hill.
Though I didn't see eye to eye with this man -- and there isn't
anyone on this island, other than one Australian I met the other
day, with whom I literally can see eye-to-eye -- I did like his
unassuming, confident manner. While speaking, we had to raise
our voices over the cackle and cockadoodle of twenty or thirty
roosters, each tied by the leg to a peg. I asked why he had so
many, and he responded simply that it is good to have so many
roosters. Some were very large, and all were loud. There is never
a minute in Manatuto when one cannot hear roosters, distant or
near, except perhaps for one minute at two in the morning.