After the old man had mugged me with his frailty for the stale doughnuts I didn’t want, I was in a funny mood. Viqueque proved to be a medium sized town with a gigantic modern Cathedral; the people were dirt poor but Indonesian contractors had been paid to erect the gigantic white edifice a few years earlier. It was new, but already the facade was cracking and discolouring. The Indonesian contractors were long gone.
It was only early afternoon but the map was pretty blank between Viqueque and Suai, so I made enquiries at a guest house recommended by my friend Jano. He’d told me that he stayed there sometimes when he was in Viqueque, and that it was $15 a night; they saw my white skin and told me $25. I said no, thank you. Instead, I bought extra drinking water on the assumption that I would be camping on a roadside somewhere that night.
I messaged Jano while rehydrating in the shade, to tell him I was leaving Viqueque, but he wasn’t having any of it. He wanted me to meet his friend in Viqueque, the manager of the youth centre there. Someone was coming to meet me… no, I was to go to the Youth Centre… they were expecting me…
I followed Jano’s directions until I found a Youth Centre – promisingly enough, the signs said Centre Juventude – but the building seemed abandoned. I was at a loss, until a pretty nurse stopped and asked me if she could help; it turned out that the centre had moved. She enlisted a nearby man to show me the way to the new youth centre. I followed his scooter across town and voila, there was the new youth centre tucked in some side streets behind the new cathedral.
It was full of young men. I met Jano’s friend, the director, who said that I was welcome to sleep in the one of the rooms at the youth centre that night. He was busy, though. I also met Leo and Beni, who immediately took charge of my afternoon. They would show me the iuli manis, the sacred hot springs of Viqueque.
If you know me, you know that hot springs are one of my absolute favourite things. So, soon we were heading out of town, Leo and Beni on theirs scooters and me on Beastie, with all my gear strapped on.
* * *
The further we got out of town, the smaller and steeper the road became. We turned once, twice, three times. It was in the middle of a particularly gravelly, steep hill that Leo noticed that his scooter had a flat tyre. He stopped, in consternation, to inspect the damage. You can do that, in the middle of a steep, gravelly hill, on a scooter. It’s more difficult on a 690 Enduro with 50kg of gear on the back, but I hadn’t been expecting it and now Leo was blocking my line.
As soon as I stopped going forward, I started sliding backwards. Beastie took a gentle nap on the side of the hill.
It wasn’t her first, and it won’t be her last.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to hoist her on my own; with Leo and Beni to help, we were up again in seconds. Leo had decided that his tyre didn’t merit turning back, so we pressed on to the hot springs: a little slice of paradise.
On an isolated hilltop, hot water gushed out of the ground and was channelled along bamboo pipes into separate bathing spots: one for men, one for women, one for children. The water was hottest for the men, cooler for the women, coolest for the children. Steam filled caves – again, one for men, one for women – were natural saunas. Basically, you climbed into a hole in the ground and pulled palm fronds over the entrance to keep the steam inside, and let the earth cook you gently.
There was no-one there.
I asked Leo and Beni if I could camp there: it was utterly peaceful, and I dreamed of being able to luxuriate in the hot water before falling asleep. I was also mentally exhausted. I needed some time to myself. I didn’t really want to return to the youth centre where I knew that I would feel in the way, and where there would be young men doing whatever young men at youth centres do, until some time in the evening. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and I there was nothing I wanted more than to set up camp and cook the hell out of some dehydrated peas.
But there’s a system of community governance in Timor Leste, and it matters; Leo and Beni said they would go and find the head of the relevant subvillage to ask permission for me to camp. It was very kind of them; off they went.
For a little while, I was left alone in my own private paradise. There are few things that I enjoy as much as hot water; even in my old life, when I was at my most stressed and miserable, a hot shower was a hedonistic beacon at the beginning of each day.
I went to the women’s bathing area and sat under the hot water in my dusty, sweaty underlayers, and surrendered to a little moment of bliss.
* * *
I was dressed, I was dry, I was expecting Leo and Beni to come back any minute. How long could they be? The sun was getting low in the sky. I didn’t know how far they’d had to go, but I knew that I was up a dodgy dirt road, that it was getting dark, that I hadn’t set up camp yet and that I may not even be allowed to camp here.
It was then that everything started to unravel. My blood sugar was now seriously low, and I had a splitting headache to prove it. I could feel the confusion and lack of coordination setting in. My anxiety mounted as I thought about potentially having to ride off-road, in the dark, while in this state. It mounted further when I thought about how the decision was not in my hands.
I knew what I wanted – I wanted to just camp here, now, and be left alone. I reached for my tent and it was then that I learned that my tent had not survived Timor’s roads unscathed. A week earlier, on the north coast, the tent had rattled and slid free of some of the straps; I’d noticed, and strapped it back down, and thought it was fine. But now I saw that one of my poles was missing.
I felt suddenly vulnerable. My tent was always my fall-back: even if it was raining or dark or I couldn’t find a safe place to sleep, my tent would shield me from the weather and the stray dogs and curious eyes. It was somewhere to hide the fact that I am a woman and I am on my own.
Well, it had been. Now it was a small tarp which would do none of those things.
Night was falling when Leo and Beni got back. They said I wasn’t allowed to camp there.
They said that I would be allowed to go and camp in the subvillage; I thought about trying to sleep out in the open in front of the eyes of an entire village.
Why couldn’t they just let me lay my head down in this quiet place and sleep? There was no-one else here, and I felt sick and so, so tired.
Leo and Beni were still talking to me, wanting me to make a decision. They were saying that I could go and camp in the village or I could go and camp at the Youth Centre. Either way, I would have to ride that road now in the dark, while sick and dizzy, and make a decision, and muster my energy to be charming and grateful, to ask permission to occupy someone else’s space, muster the energy to make myself understood in spite of the language barrier.
I just wanted to be left alone. Let me sleep, and I will be all those things tomorrow. But please now, just let me sleep.
Poor Leo and Beni. They were stricken. What to do with a crying foreign guest? This was a disaster.
‘Don’t cry!’ said Leo. ‘When you cry, I feel like I’m crying too!’
I sniffled and mumbled incoherently for a few minutes, then pulled myself together. I felt a little better. I’m a crier; sometimes, I just have to sit down and cry for a minute before we can proceed. And now it was time to proceed.
I got on the bike. I didn’t want to be riding this bloody dodgy dirt track at night, but there was nothing else for it.
Spotlights on, be careful, don’t crash.
Then… it was completely fine. I couldn’t believe it. We were nearly back in Viqueque, and everything was fine.
We stopped at Leo’s house and he introduced me to his wife and his beautiful children. No more tears; tonight, I would be their guest. I managed to ride Beastie across a drain and up a steep dirt slope with a left-hand turn, nearly – but not quite – decapitating myself on the clothesline in the dark. Then I was being treated like royalty: soft bread rolls, Coca Cola, rice and kankong, and a spicy, rich tomato sauce. I was stressed and sweaty, and asked if I could wash, not realising that there was no water in the house. Leo’s eldest daughter went out into the dark and carried water from the communal water source for my bath. I only realised this afterwards, and was stricken: I had unintentionally allowed myself to become a burden on these kind people. Usually, I am ever vigilant to avoid this – I observe what the local people do, and ask for only the same – whatever is normal, whatever is convenient. When in Rome, etc.
But tonight I wasn’t on top of things, I’d let my guard down, and now I was terribly afraid that I might be a burden on the kindness of these good people. Yet their kindness was unending and unconditional.
Clean, fed and comforted, I went to sleep in one of the simple mosquito netted beds in the children’s room. I had taken the eldest girl’s bed, I am sure; with grace and good humour, she shared the other bed with her smaller siblings that night.
The next morning, I left Viqueque with a full heart.
Again and again, the Timorese people would teach me what it is to show unconditional kindness to a stranger.
* * *
It was time to regroup. I headed North again, winding up into the mountains until the air was cool. I had been told that there was a hospitality-focussed secondary school run by the nuns in Venilale, and that sometimes – only sometimes – they took in guests.
I found the place – a bit stone building up on the hill, overlooking a playing field and the market, the valley and the mountains beyond. The school was swarming with young men and women, immaculately turned out in hospitality-themed black and white uniforms, and nuns in grey habits. I rode up to the front steps, and asked if I might stay there.
I had been warned that I might be turned away for no reason at all, but I wasn’t.
Yes, I could stay, that would be fine. I was shown to a room at the highest point of the hill: high ceilings, large bed, immaculately clean. To get there, I rode Beastie up a smooth concrete ridge in the middle of two consecutive flights of steps (throttle on, don’t look down) and parked her in the neat hilltop courtyard.
Fifteen dollars included three meals a day, cooked and served by the students in a the cavernous dining room where I ate alone in the streaming sunlight. Each meal was enough for four people; it consisted of rice, some sort of vegetable dish, and some sort of protein dish, usually fish. It was always delicious, and it was the most food I’d seen the whole time I’d been in Timor. Every meal, I made sure that I finished off the vegetable dish in its entirety, and usually the fish too. I was tired, I felt like I needed to put some more flesh on my bones.
I stayed for almost a week.
The girls from the school would come up to chat in the afternoons. Some of them were the good Catholic schoolgirls they looked, others were rebels with big plans. They asked me about my life, teasing out details like the best of inquisitors, and gleefully Facebook stalked my man’s Timorese ex-girlfriend. They told me that she had ‘uang mata’ – money eyes – and that I shouldn’t worry. Nevertheless, in general, it was agreed that men are trouble.
The girls helped me wash my motorbike, and even scrubbed my Giant Loop panniers until they came back to a vibrant orange that I hadn’t seen since they were new.
In this self-contained universe run by women, I gradually began to relax and also to appreciate the appeal of convent life in a place like Timor Leste. Whereas the status of women here is distinctly secondary, within the walls of the convent – which also encompasses the school and other important businesses – women held positions of security, power and influence. They were able to be educated and independent. They were able to be in control of their own lives and destinies, and they were free from daily harassment. The convent was clearly the most important institution in town, and it was a woman’s domain. They also ate better than probably anyone else in Venilale.
The sisterhood was strong.