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Hacktreks 2

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First Impressions


Timor is supposed to be a crocodile that became an island of plenty

Dili – Finally. A small town sandwiched between mountains and the sea. Small and dignified. Not exactly charming, but with character. The beachfront looks like any colonial town. There is no beach really till you leave the town. And then it is white sand, a little coarse. The mountains (hills, really!) curve and touch the sea beyond the beaches and there is a statue of Jesus Christ a la Rio. Facing the sea and beckoning to the world. There are two shops close to shore – now converted into hotels. I am yet to explore their history.

The Government offices are the centre of town, facing the sea. Right now they are a gleaming white with huge colonnades and tiled roofs – typically Timorese shaped. Something like the roof of a Chinese temple but less curved and higher. Made from thatch or tile. Some old buildings continue to function, but most are getting a new look. The militia damaged 70% of the buildings in 1999 as they left. Didn’t raze them, but removed the roofs and the windows, the plumbing and the wiring and rendering them useless. Slowly they are being built back. What were two-storied buildings have the ground floor operational – and that looks a bit bizarre. The ground floor fully lived in, well furnished while the broken remains are on top.

The people are forever grim – breaking out into a smile to say bon dia or bon tarde depending on the time of day. They are very shy but stare openly at you. The greeting is followed by "India?" and more smiles and snatches of songs from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Those who don’t sing say kuch kuch and burst out laughing. Hindi films are a big hit here – they are subtitled in Bahasa Indonesia and followed avidly. One young lady asked me who the stars of ‘Yeh Mohabbat Hai’ are. I misheard it as Mohabattein and she was quick to correct me – no, that had Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai – this one they are new actors!!! But if their opinion of me is based on these hindi movies, then they must really think that I am one dumb chick.

What do the people look like? Honestly, this tiny strip of land seems to be the melting pot of the world. They look like Americans & Africans & Europeans & South Asians & East Asians & West Asians &, whom have I left out? Each person looks very distinct from the next and they must be an anthropologist’s delight.

As you leave Dili and on to the road to Lospalos, you have to cross the surrounding hills. A very steep climb and then a rapid descent – the view is of two small churches, a narrow strip of valley and the blue blue sky. Through that journey I am struck by the shades of blue. When I first travelled in Kerala, I understood the meaning of the colour green. Here in Timor, in addition to green, I have understood the colour blue. The sea has so many shades of it. And almost all the way upto Lospalos, you drive by the sea. And I have understood another colour, turquoise. If you are like mon pere, I suggest that you come here and find out what this new colour is. It is usually found near the shore and is a brilliant colour. Further out the sea is of a darker tone, like an unending sapphire. Especially when there is no breeze, the surface is like glass and you are quite convinced that you can walk across. Adding to the romance, is the outline of an island in the distance, a three-hour boat ride away. Part of Timor, its name is Atauro.

The journey continues through a number of landscapes. Sometimes serpentine hills, where you are not sure what is around the corner, with a drop to the sea on one side. Sometimes serene paddy fields with buffaloes wallowing in the mud, with the sea bordering this picture. Sometimes houses on either side of the road with their stalls of excess to sell, with the sea just beyond. But always there is something to look out of the window for. You go through the towns of Metinaro and Manatuto before reaching Baucau. This is the most beautiful place en route. Perched high on a hill with all the landscapes at one place. Paddy fields, terraced fields, the sea, the works.

Beyond this you are in Rural Timor. Laivai, Laga and then Lautem – where you finally turn in from the coast. Just before Lautem, there is a river with at least two crocodiles in it – I have seen both of them. They look like a log at first (you have heard that before) and then they start to move, it is like magic. And a wee bit scary. I have always thought of crocs as riverine reptiles, but apparently here they are found in the sea as well. And they are sacred animals here. Timor is supposed to be a crocodile that became an island of plenty in return for the kindness of a young boy. Yes, this land is also full of myths and tales.

And you pass through many more hills and curving roads. Quite good roads really. There are many familiar trees – coconut, mango, tapioca, palm, bamboo, jack fruit, bread fruit, oil palm, teak, papaya, tamarind – sounds familiar? A lot like Kerala? (I will reserve all other comments for now.) Varieties of acacia, prosopis juliflora has started showing up, calatropis, gooseberry, bougainvillea – many shades of it, frangipani, hibiscus. Those are all the names that I know. But there are many more that I have seen in my wanderings in India that are here as well.

And all along the people stare at you and then break out into a wide smile if you wave to them.
At last you reach Lospalos. But of that, next month. Okay?

© Gouthami November 2002
East Timor

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