After my little machete stand-off the previous evening, the morning dawned clear and sunny and I was expecting a better day. Machete dude had gone away and Beastie and I were unmolested beside some glorious hot springs in the Timorese mountains. What could possibly go wrong?
I took an early morning dip along with a couple of local woman and children who had walked down from the village to bathe. I also saw an older boy – somewhere between eleven and fourteen – watching us from a distance a couple of times; but you get used to being looked at. By the time I had dried off and taken a few photos of this little slice of paradise, I had the place to myself again.
I put my phone down next to my gear, underneath a t-shirt, and took my cooking pots over to the spring a few meters away to wash off last night’s dinner. Hot water for washing – such luxury! I gave them a good scrub, and set them out in the sun to dry. Maybe time for some more photos. I reached under the t-shirt for my phone. There was nothing there.
I felt hot and cold all over.
This could not be happening.
Not my phone. My photos, my maps, my connection to the outside world.
I whipped around. Nobody there. Fuck, fuck, fuck. It was that kid. He must have still been here somewhere, and watched me put my phone down. He must still be close.
I got up and started sprinting. I ran up the only road for a few hundred metres; he wasn’t there; I doubled back around behind the lean-tos, over outcrops, around behind rocks. He could be hiding anywhere, but he couldn’t be too far away.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
The only other path out of the place was a goat track up the sheer rocky side of a small ravine. I couldn’t see the path, but I knew it was there because I’d seen people emerging out of the ravine the previous afternoon.
I started running up the road again – it was no good, I knew he wasn’t there – but I didn’t know what else to do. A scary man with a machete in the night is one thing, but this was just shit. I finally felt vulnerable, stupid, and hopeless.
I started to cry a little as I ran.
I heard a squeaking noise, and then I saw Mario’s pink scooter wheeling slowly down the road. He was smiling, happy to see me again, just like yesterday, but his smile instantly vanished when he saw my tears. I told him what had happened in a jumble of words and hand movements – the Tetum word for phone, tearful gesturing with open palms, a description of the boy in my schoolgirl Indonesian. Mario instantly understood.
He parked the scooter, grabbed a machete, and disappeared along the goat track that ran along the ravine.
Quiet settled. I was alone. There was nothing I could do. I felt sick.
Mario was gone for a long time. I had no way of telling how long, but maybe it was an hour. When he came back, he was dripping in sweat. The sun was brutally hot. He shook his head, frowning; the path was a long one, that ran to another village a long way up in the hills, and he hadn’t been able to catch up with the boy.
By this time, a couple of other locals had showed up – one, a kindly middle aged man who sat with me for a while, and then went to work in the market garden. Another, Mocky, was a strapping and fashionably dressed young man who said he worked at the hot springs; he spoke a little English. The two small children whom I’d seen earlier in the morning, bathing with the women, also reappeared – a boy and a girl. The men asked them about the boy, had they seen him that morning? Yes, they said, and they told them who the boy was.
I felt a spark of hope.
Mocky explained that they already knew who the boy was, and where he lived, but that Mario hadn’t been able to catch him on the path. They had been to the boy’s house, but he hadn’t come home yet. Mocky said that we would have to wait for the boy to come home. Someone would tell us when he did.
So we sat. For a long time.
I felt unmoored. I was stricken by the loss of my photos: I hadn’t had wifi for weeks. Two weeks of the most extraordinary photos I had ever taken were on that SD card, not backed up yet.
I felt sick when I thought about the money – how I couldn’t really afford to replace the phone. It was a good phone, and it had been my only camera for the trip.
And I felt vulnerable: I was in the middle of the Timorese mountains, where I didn’t speak the language, the roads are dirt tracks, there is no signage, and now I had no maps.
I couldn’t contact anyone – couldn’t phone a friend – just to hear them say the words I needed to hear: Don’t worry, it’s okay.
Today was a miserable fucking day.