12 July 2003
-- Manatuto, East
Today's my fifth night in Manatuto, hardly believable. Today,
Saturday, was a slow, relaxing day. The morning provided my
first opportunity to really engage in my favorite "han
tempo" (eating time) activity: sleeping in. It wasn't until
after ten that I really got up and going.
Looking for a place to use the cell phone the Peace Corps so
generously provided, I walked up to the nearest hill, home of
a statue of Manatuto's guardian saint, Anthony. One of these
days I'll have to check into what he's all about. The walk was
brief, but a good chance to stretch my legs. On the way to the
base of the hill, the road passed a old Indonesian-built neighborhood.
Like most of the buildings built by the Indonesians here, these
were carefully burnt out, leaving a cement or cinder-block shell.
Right along the beach, the location is prime, and these must
have been comfortable houses, some of the best in the district.
But with precision and obvious coordination, all of them had
been rendered quite useless.
In fact, many of the buildings in Manatuto, even more than in
most district capitals, were burnt out during the violence following
the people's choice of independence. I read that its accessible
location on the main east-west road is to blame for the disproportionately
heavy destruction wreaked by the militias here.
The path up the hill afforded nice views back down to the beach
and waters. A stiff breezed blew toward the ocean from the hot
hills all around Manatuto--the driest region in all of South-East
Asia. A quick scan didn't reveal any of the dolphins Theresa
and I had sat and watched for hours on our last visit here.
From the top of the hill, the view swept three hundred and sixty
degrees, from burnt-brown, baking foothills, through yellowing
rice paddy -- some just recently cut -- to the sea sparkling
in the fresh breeze. From this height, Manatuto is surprisingly
dense with trees: even the district administration building
was hard to pick out from the coconut, ikadero, ailili, papaya,
mango, and other tropical trees. Why is it so hot in the city
with all those trees for shade?
Despite the significant height, no bars registered on the cell
phone. (How odd that here in Timor Lorosae, I've had introduction
to cell phones and now understand all about bars, text messages,
chats, and other formerly unintelligible jargon, while I managed
to avoid that techno gadget back home. For those still resisting,
a bar is a measure of signal strength between the phone and
a tower. In Manatuto I can't find any bars, and thus can not
use the phone.) I tried a little higher up by climbing what
may previously been a cell-phone tower. The wind blew stronger
with each meter climbed. A few meters away a small windmill--probably
set up along with the solar cell below by the visiting UN--whirred
out its generating hum. No bars, but a few colorful birds, perhaps
bee catchers--perhaps not, I'm not much of a bird identifier.
I descended and walked quickly back to my house for the mid-day
meal. Along the way, just about everyone I passed had a few
kind words, and as usual, asked, "baa neebe?" (Where
are you going?) I've gotten the response down with plenty satisfactory
ambiguity: "sorin" (along, neither 'kreik' (down),
nor 'leten' (up)). Even these quick, friendly exchanges are
almost enough to rub out the frustrations from the last few
days of incomprehension.
The mid-day meal and conversation with the family went even
further to helping me feel less useless. It is funny, but Avo,
the old grandmother, perhaps in her eighties, can not get over
that I don't eat any animals at all. Even funnier for her, is
that I don't mind eating mustarde (a mild green, leafy vegetable)
at every meal. She gets bored with them after two meals in a
row, and figures all malae wouldn't eat more than one serving
every couple of days. This evening, she was quite surprised
I wouldn't eat shrimp, as it comes from the sea, and not the
land. A younger daughter said it wasn't an animal when I asked
her. What was it then? Modo? (Vegetable.) She just laughed.
They all take my differences with good cheer and are quite amused
that I wash my own clothes in addition to eating all their vegetable
Senora Isabel, the eldest daughter of Avo, understands quite
well my states reasons for my diet, and happily corrects everyone
who offers me yet another form of meat. Everyone is intent on
finding the one animal that I will eat!
Towards evening, I went for a walk with two of the kids, one
son 22 and married with a child, across the family's immediate
natar (rice paddy). I've often dreamed of living near rice fields,
and now they are right out my back door! Across a few softly
terraced paddies, is a grove of trees and a few buildings. The
son explained that the state provided money to build a large
chicken coop and helped them buy chickens to raise to provide
eggs. It wasn't long before the crowded conditions led to sick
chickens. They had access to some ai moruk (literally, bitter
wood, a catch-all term for medicine, chemical, pesticide, herbicide,
even chemical fertilizer), and that helped for a while, but
eventually the chickens required too much, it was too expensive
or not available, and then there wasn't enough food. So the
chickens got eaten. That was that and now there isn't a commercial
source of local eggs: people buy eggs imported from Australia,
eat the few eggs that the local chickens that scratch around
in everyone's yard, or don't eat any.
I asked him about soy beans, and he didn't know what they were.
Later, with a dictionary in hand, I asked again about soy beans,
but only a couple of the older sisters knew of this great bean,
indicating there are some in Dili -- for sale, not grown locally.
Teaching a little English to a few of the neighborhood girls
was a pleasure. I finally gave in to their many pleadings and
gave a short lesson. I've said many times that first, I must
learn Tetun, and then I can start teaching English. But it is
fun, and a few minutes out of my evenings will be well spent.