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Touching East Timor – A Non-Stop Party

And barely a backpacker in sight.

Any trip that begins with the trapping and binding of a huge pig can only be destined for fun times. It took six of us to haul the beast onto the back of the pickup truck that was to be our chariot. The pig was a terrible travelling companion, but the buffalo we acquired along the way was even worse. Somewhere along the line there was going to be a feast, liquor and dancing, but before that there was only the tight, meandering road through the hills that would take us perpendicularly south from Dili into mainland East Timor.

It was Sunday morning and there were about 20 of us: two Timorese families complete with half-a-dozen snot-nosed kids; a few stragglers along for the ride; the pig (joined later by the buffalo); and me. We had water, rice, alcohol, vegetables, bread, plants, Tiger beer and cigarettes. “This week you will be temporary Timorese,” I’d been told by Luis Maria Lopes, my temporary father for my jaunt to Maubisse sub-district in Ainaro.

The rooftops of Dili receded below into the distance and the landscape changed from brown and dry to green and full of life. We drove up and up until I thought we couldn’t get any higher. The pig squealed and squirmed and snapped its snout when anyone got too close. At Alieu we took a detour to pick up the buffalo, which was already bound by its hoofs. We pushed and heaved the animal onto the truck and we were all set.

A Timorese Village

Although we had only about 45 miles to cover, it was five bumpy hours before we arrived at our destination – a village called Manetu – with nothing but lingering hills unfolding in the distance. We lugged our goods and the grouchy pig a couple of miles through the hills (the buffalo walked) to meet Luis’ extended family at the place where he grew up.

All around were coffee plantations. The buildings were simple thatched bamboo bungalows; our hosts had a generator for electricity. There was no television, no aircon and the toilet was a hole in the ground.

As the sun set and the generator whirred to life, there were about a hundred people milling about: young women tended to the children and brought out trays of coffee; slick boys clad in their jeans and punk T-shirts lingered; the old folks complained about the woes of society; and others smoked and talked.

People got out their blankets as the temperature dipped. I was exhausted. “You want sleep?” said Tino, a 20-year-old Timorese journalist who I’d latched onto during our journey from Dili. My chambers were a cramped, cold room constantly lit by the light from outside.

The bamboo bed was unforgiving, but a mattress would have been out of place. Wearing all my clothes and wrapped in my blanket, I closed my eyes, disappointed at bailing so early (it was about 9 pm), but so tired that I fell into a deep sleep. I thought the day was over until 30 minutes later I was woken up for a dinner of rice and carrots.

I felt drunk on altitude and went to bed again. It was so cold that I couldn’t sleep and went outside. A kid brought me a flaming plank of wood to use as a lighter. I found Tino, who was sat in the kitchen area around a fire with some of the older girls and boys, with pots and pans and clutter all around. I sat by the fire until I felt warm enough to try and sleep.

Timorese Disco

But it wasn’t to be. At about 2 am the mother of all soundsystems was fired up and one of the themes for the week was set. From then on there would be music day and night. I rubbed the failed sleep from my eyes, opened the bedroom door and was stunned to see a Timorese disco in full swing.

The Timorese have such a lovely way of dancing. An old Portuguese song boomed out of the speakers. Like every song the Timorese listen to, it had a simple, relentless bassline: drrrrrr drr drr dm, drrrrrr drr drr dm. I saw couples dancing, the boys with their right arms around the girls’ wastes. They shuffled around in circles, back and forth, expressionless and emotionless, feet moving in unison, chests lightly brushing against one another, hands held loosely.

The song ended and the couples separated, walking in opposite directions to darkened corners of the room. Within a few seconds the dance floor was empty and silent. Another song started and everyone flocked back to the floor, picking a different partner and shuffling back and forth, round and round. The process repeated with every song. A simple gesture or nod was used to pick a partner and nobody was refused a dance, not even me.

Left, right, left, right? Left, right, right, left? I couldn’t work out how everyone was keeping in time with each other. My first few dances were with confused girls who found it hard to keep up with my chaotic movements. I missed beats, bopped out of time and struggled to lead my partners anywhere outside of a six-inch radius. A girl named Lu taught me the scared combination: “Follow me: left, left, right, left, left, right.” My dancing didn’t improve much and each song was the longest three minutes of my life, but I could hold a beat.

At 5 am I left the disco kids to it. This time I really would sleep, with basslines rumbling in the background. They danced until about 6 am, only stopping when the sun rose and the generator was turned off. Breakfast of coffee, baked potatoes and biscuits was served at 8 am. A morning stroll through the hills revealed endless patches of trees and fields with little huts dotted along the slopes.

Back at base camp and I was to learn of another of the week’s themes: drinking. I joined a group of Timorese men sat on plastic chairs under a tree. Luis and Tino were there. “This is Timorese culture,” said Luis, pouring a shot of gleaming clear liquid from a coffee pot into a glass. He handed me the glass and I could see an ant in it. With one gulp I downed the lot, ant and all. The drink warmed my insides like a fire and my eyes blazed up with satisfaction.

“We call tua sabu.” Luis said it was whiskey, others said it was wine; it turned out to be palm brandy. A can of Tiger beer was added to the coffee pot and we had our mixer for the session. Brandy and beer: it tasted superb and we drank all afternoon.

In the evening I saw my first slaughtering. A piglet was in the kitchen, tied up and struggling on the ground. Two young men stood over it, one clasping a knife, the other placing a bowl of water by the animal. While one of them held the piglet above the bowl, the other took the knife and sliced deep into the chest of the squealing animal, the blood gushing out as our dinner for the night breathed its last. The entrails were removed and given to an old man who held them up with a grin.

Pigs and buffalos were killed daily for our consumption – and they were delicious. While the men did the butchering, the younger women cooked rice and vegetables in huge pots while bread cakes baked in small metal caskets.

That night we drank tua sabu in a dimly lit room while old folks sat around talking, chewing and spitting, their scarlet-red teeth showing whenever they smiled.

A few people were sprawled out asleep. Faces were half-hidden by the shadows. A plate of piglet was brought in and we ate.

An Afternoon Rave

The madness began the next day. Luis took me with his family to see his coffee plantation. We walked up through the forest until we reached a clearing away from the trees where there were two small huts. The hills stood large and menacing in the background and it started to rain. We sat down in one of the huts and drank tua sabu with a beer mixer until the rain stopped.

Full of drunk energy we left the hut and stumbled back down the hill towards home. I could hear the sound of a drum with accompanying clangs. We approached from above, walking down towards a crowd of people jiggling and bopping and popping with delight to the beat. It looked like an afternoon rave. The young, the old, the male, the female: they all danced.

But this wasn’t like at the disco. The old guys were kitted out in traditional Timorese dress, with tais (traditional weaved fabric) knotted around their heads, torsos, arms and legs. The old women jarred from side to side waving their tais. Some people held up leaves and branches. Children boogied in small circles. The men took it in turns to drum in pairs while the women clanged gongs or spades or old rusted wheels. I was so drunk that I joined in, showing off moves learned from the “Macarena” and the Las Ketchup song, as the Timorese howled their approval.

While we danced people came down the hill from neighbouring villages, bringing with them pigs and goats and more tua sabu. For three days there was a constant thump thump thump of the drum and din of the gongs and whooping of the dancers.

Timoree Culture

We were celebrating Timorese culture. Ceremonies like this happen frequently around East Timor and are usually borne out of an apparition or a spell of bad luck. The Timorese believe that if they don’t hold these ceremonies, then they could become sick or suffer misfortune.

“The spirits would come to us every night and tempt the people away from tradition and culture,” said Luis. The spirits he referred to are those of the people who died during the 24-year Indonesian occupation of East Timor. Luis spent much of his life travelling around Europe campaigning for Timorese independence. At one point the Indonesians detained him for six months in a military prison in Dili.

The Timorese are proud of their culture and they wanted to share it with me. On Wednesday we were drunk again in no time. There was more parading and people raced up and down the hills on horseback, making the horses dance with each other. The more people arrived the more it felt like a festival. People danced everywhere: all up the hill, on the walls, inside, outside.

I was greeted with handshakes and shots of palm brandy or Indonesian whiskey. By Wednesday night we were all sleeping outside under marquees made of bamboo and tarpaulin. An old man wearing sunglasses told me in Portuguese that he had no money and no rice, but he was happy to share his culture with me. “Timor is Timor, English is English,” he said with a big red smile. “But all is one.”

Old people chanted during the night, laughing and cackling until they slept. I fell asleep and woke up a little after midnight. Before I’d had time to think, I was presented with a bottle of Indonesian whiskey and a can of Tiger beer. Tino had been sleeping next to me so I woke him up and we finished the booze together, singing as we drank, Tino using words while I just hummed loudly.

The next morning’s breakfast was the greatest meal I’ve ever eaten. It was so simple and yet so divine. A pig had been slaughtered the day before and its carcass was in our marquee. A hunk of swine was cooked and chopped up for us. And wow, it tasted so tender that my gums and jaw ached with pleasure. I was in so much pain and yet so ecstatic with the sensations that my eyes were full of tears. I had to screw up my face just to cope.

There was more whiskey and more dancing and the time floated by with my head in a delirious state of drunkenness and dehydration and happiness.

Everything reached a climax on Friday night. After a short memorial ceremony at the cemetery where Luis’ grandparents were buried, we gathered in one of the marquees, where a magnificent feast had been prepared and laid out on a row of tables. It was the ultimate buffet. There were all kinds of meats and vegetables in delicious sauces and seasonings. We ate and drank until we could do no more.

The tables and plates were moved out and the soundsystem brought in. The area was about the size of a tennis court. It was cold outside and people were sat on plastic chairs, everyone wrapped in blankets.

Music played and it was like being at a school disco where nobody wants to be the first to dance. The old men and women made the first moves, skanking back and forth, leering from side to side, hopping around in circles. A few of the kids joined in. People danced on their own, rushing around.

Soon enough a slow song was played and the hipsters coupled up. I joined in and terrified the girls. My rhythm was better, but I still didn’t have the Timorese groove and I stepped on more toes than is polite. Even the old man with one arm managed to dance with a partner with more grace than I ever could.

The party went on all night and they didn’t turn off the generator at sunrise, instead keeping the music pumping until about 8 am. While about 10 of us sat around a fire warming ourselves after the disco, a man turned to me and said that he was so happy to have fun with a foreign visitor who wasn’t an official or part of an organization.

The party was over and it was time to rest. People began packing up and heading back to wherever they had come from. For my temporary family and I it was a long walk back to be picked up by the truck and an even longer drive back to the depressing energy of Dili.

A Different Kind of Trip

Tourism is scarce in East Timor and the locals are more used to the logos and uniforms of foreign organizations than they are backpackers and holidaymakers. This makes Timor one of Southeast Asia’s most exciting destinations for anyone with a thirst for adventure and the unknown.

Small cultural gatherings like the one I went to happen regularly. The villagers of Manetu told me that they are open to the idea of hosting visitors. The scenery is beautiful and there is so much to explore, but what’s most exciting is seeing how the Timorese live.

My trip broke all the rules. I didn’t stay in hotels and I hitched my ride from people I befriended in Dili. There’s no reason why others can’t do the same. Timor isn’t comfortable to get around and it isn’t likely to be for a long time, but there is such a buzz from how easy it is to travel somewhere that is quintessentially off the beaten track.

Matt Crook