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Hacktreks 2

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Los Palos
There are cows and horses and you could be on farmland anywhere

Los Palos
I must start by saying that I am the only Indian in Los Palos. This is not even possible on the moon. So there.
The name Los Palos, is a Portuguese corruption of the Fataluku "La Pala" meaning "flat farms". As you enter Los Palos after the curving roads from the coast, the flatness is what strikes you. Optimistically there is a sign that an airfield is going to be built as you enter La Pala. You drive in through its majestic meadows. There are cows and horses and you could be on farmland anywhere – the Downs of Sussex maybe! All the animals are frightened by the sound of a vehicle. While the horses try to run away, the cows stand and watch you with fear in their huge eyes. You really wish you could turn down the volume on the engine. And then you enter the town.

On either side are the ruins of the Indonesian offices. A sombre welcome that belies the true spirit of the town. And the school, still being rebuilt. The market that comes alive on Saturdays. Finally the centre of the town. A traditional house has been built in what was to have been a cultural centre. It now remains for the malays – foreigners – to exclaim about. Further down to the right, the hospital, which has the only doctor in the district. A little beyond and to the left is the main church, a traditional structure again. On Sundays the open space is packed with believers.

The roads are not in good condition, but the streets are wide. Now we take a left turn to downtown Los Palos. At the roundabout is a smaller model of the traditional house. This street even has a cemented medium. On the left, all the houses have a verandah facing the street making for a continuous corridor to walk through. This corridor is usually occupied by betel leaf chewing women selling vegetables. They smile red smiles at you. There are no weighing scales. The veggies are piled in little heaps and all cost the same – tomatoes, onions, potatoes, ginger, turmeric, chillies. You can’t take less than a heap – not even if you offer to pay for the whole heap.

Further down the corridor are the three shops that sell EVERYTHING. You wont get the variety in brands of a supermarket, but all the stuff is there – paint, whether for your nails or for the walls, bread, flour, an oven, soap, utensils, notebooks, toys, EVERYTHING – from the oft quoted "diamond to the pin". The last stop on this street is a hotel with a restaurant. They sell the most delicious cakes in this part of the world. Here the street breaks off into five smaller ones. And there is a statue of a boy with a torch standing in the centre of the roundabout. Take a right there and you reach the police station – an impressive structure set far back, with both the East Timor and the UN flags flying in front. Right opposite is the house that I live in. Couldn’t get safer than that.

The town is well spread out and is much larger than one thinks initially. Houses are not large and magnificent, neither are the small and crumbly – no slums or cramped quarters here. And they are surrounded by trees both flowering and fruit bearing. The concept of a fence or a wall does not exist. So people walk through your land to the house behind. Open and friendly. Every house seems to have a couple of dogs attached to it. They won't allow you to pet them, but they will eat any scraps that you feed them. (Yes, even my cooking.) What they don’t like and will not eat is papaya. My neighbour’s dogs keep watch on me and if I come home after ten at night, set up a cacophony that is picked up be all the dogs of Los Palos. Or so it sounds.

Los Palos is the capital of Lautem district and occupies the snout of the crocodile shaped island. There is even a big lake approximately where the eye should be. The population of the district is around 60,000 people and that of the capital around 5000 people. Baytu, tehsil headquarters in the desert district of Barmer probably has more people. And all 5000 of them seem to have seen Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. At least the songs are part of any festivities in town.

There are many routes to my office. All a five-minute walk – through the police station and the district office, the route on the left that goes past the old bungalows, through downtown or through a small lane in between. I usually take the last. It is the most scenic five-minute route ever. As you enter the lane, on the left there is a Hindu temple with high walls and the statues of two little demons at the entrance. I haven’t yet had the courage to go in – it looks like it says, "keep off". It is full of bougainvillea of a most brilliant pink peach colour. Opposite that is a childcare centre and all the children shout to greet you as you walk past. Further ahead a horse is grazing in the backyard of one of the large bungalows. More bougainvillea, hens, a magnificent rooster, dogs, some more children and you reach a main street again. Take the left and there is the office – on the right is a small, small park with the sculpture of a crocodile sunning on a rock with its snout open and facing upwards.
Another working days starts at 8 in the morning.

What is that work you may ask? Well, it involves travelling in paradise, meeting people, mostly women, a lot of sign language, much more laughter and home by five in the evening. Five days a week. Days six and seven are given over to sleep and the seaside.
More next month. Tata. Ok, they are the other Indians in this place. Tata Sumos. But they are not human, are they? And I am supposedly!

© Gouthami November 2002

First Impressions


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

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