First Saturday

In Manatuto, East Timor

12 July 2003 -- Manatuto, East Timor

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 dishes.

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.


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