The road winds down the Southern side of the mountains; if I were a local, I’d be coasting silently with the engine off, saving fuel. But I indulge my privilege and keep the engine running and in gear. It’s beautiful and peaceful; no-one else on the road except an old woman with a machete.
Soon we are in the foothills. The road plunges down and across mountain streams that carve deep into the bottoms of the valleys; then through forest that seems almost temperate; then the bed of one of Timor’s magnificent graveled rivers spreads before me.
The river bed is enormous – a whole valley, lined with grey gravel and plaited by channels of turquoise tinged water, flowing clear and rapid. It reminds me a little of the south island of New Zealand, but warmer and with more crocodiles.
I stop for a solitary morning tea. I still have about twenty doughnuts from yesterday’s extravagant $1 miscommunication, so I grab water and doughnuts and hang my feet over the edge of the cliff. I am just a tiny bit too lazy to make coffee.
A few minutes later I’m startled by people behind me – two men on foot. I hadn’t heard them approaching. They like my bike and we have a chat in a mash-up of Indonesian, English and sign language. I offer them water and doughnuts (please, will someone eat the doughnuts!) but they decline politely. They’re walking from one village to the next. It’s a long way and it’s hot, so hot. They have no water, no hats to shield them from the beating sun; but they do have cigarettes, and they sit with me to smoke one before continuing on their way.
It’s a pleasant interaction. I get back on the road and soon I see more greenery, more coconut palms.
Suddenly I’m on the South Coast. It’s all black sand beaches and a brisk wind on my face; an exhilarating sense of desolation.
My spirits soar.
* * *
I am riding through villages and the kids scream when they see me, but not in friendliness or surprise; these ones seem almost antagonistic. Bad experiences with white people, I wonder? Bad experiences with outsiders in general?
A group of boys standing in front of a school egg each other on and one of them throws a rock at me as I ride past. It’s half-hearted, doesn’t come anywhere near me, but it sours my mood. Fuck you too, I think, and shift up a gear. I had been riding slowly through the villages out of politeness, but my manners are wearing thin.
Two young men see me coming, they’re lounging on a scooter parked under a tree. They gesticulate wildly and yell at me to stop, but I get a bad feeling off them. They’re yelling at me arrogantly, they’re not being friendly. Now they’re scrambling to get on the scooter and follow me; I shift up to fourth and stand on the pegs. Beastie sails over a long stretch of washed out road and the young men are gone.
Ah well, not everyone’s going to be friendly, right?
I need to cross a river, but the road to the bridge is washed out. I slow down, keeping an eye out for likely looking turn offs. At one, I hesitate and stop. This might be the one.
A boy is nearby in his school uniform, maybe ten years old.
Viqueque? I ask him, first pointing in the two directions that I am fairly certain I don’t want to go. He smiles and points me the other direction. ‘Viqueque,’ he says, confidently.
I thank him and start off down the road, but then I see an old man flagging me down. What could he want? Was the young boy mistaken? Is something wrong?
I stop, and the old man comes up to me. He curls his fingers around my right Barkbuster and holds onto the bike; his hands are nothing but bones and veins. He is old, very old. Maybe in his eighties, maybe older; frail and sunken and stooped.
He demands cigarettes. First in Tetum. Then he mimes smoking and points at me, then himself: give me cigarettes. Then in Indonesian.
No, I say. I shake my head.
I switch to Indonesian. Ma’af Pak. Tidak ada rokok. Saya tidak merokok. Sorry, I don’t have cigarettes. I don’t smoke.
It isn’t true. Of course I have cigarettes. You don’t ride around a place like Timor without cigarettes to share.
But I don’t give them to people who accost me on the street and demand them.
We argue for a while: him demanding cigarettes, me simply repeating no, tidak, lae. He is making a scene. It goes on for a while. Surely, I think, his family will see him embarrassing them on the street, and take him home.
Half a dozen small children come over from the nearest house, and gather around him, watching the show. Their parents are not around. Maybe they’ve been left at home in grandpa’s care. Way to set an example, grandad, I think.
He reaches down with his free hand and picks up a sharp rock. He mimes smashing my headlight with it.
You prick, I think.
Of course, I could ride off at any time. Just put the bike in gear and off I go; this tiny, birdlike old man can’t hold me back with his frail handhold. But I can’t do it: he’s old, he’s so old. He’s at the age where people ‘have a fall’ and break their hip and die. His fingers are wrapped around my Barkbuster, and if I ride off he’ll lose his balance, he’ll fall, he’ll be hurt. He might die.
He might be swinging a rock at my headlight but I just can’t do it. I won’t be the person to make him fall.
I kind of doubt he has the strength to smash my headlight anyway.
I put my head in my hands and wait. Something will happen.
Suddenly, his attention shifts.
He’s looking at the doughnuts.
Remember the doughnuts? The twenty doughnuts that I accidentally bought for $1 yesterday, and which I’ve been trying to eat and give away ever since? Well now they’re stale. I can’t eat any more of them. I would have thrown them away after morning tea at the river this morning, except I couldn’t bring myself to throw rubbish on the ground like every other person in Timor. So now the sweaty plastic bag is knotted to one of my pannier straps, waiting for me to discover a non-existent Timorese rubbish bin.
But now old man wants the doughnuts. He’s pointing at them, actually excited. I shake my head in despair. I don’t want to reward bad behaviour by giving him what he wants, but on the other hand, I really don’t want to carry the doughnuts around anymore. It’s not that I just don’t want to keep them, it’s that I actively want to get rid of them.
Oh, whatever. I turn around and undo the pannier strap, hand him the stale, sweating doughnuts. At least he’s let go of my Barkbuster now and I don’t have to cause him to break a hip.
He’s excited, and the kids are excited. I wonder if that will last once he realises how far gone the doughnuts are.
He actually thanks me.
I give him a death stare and shake my head, and ride off.
No mate, we aren’t friends.
As I ride away, I reflect on the incident. It’s an unpleasant feeling when people use your decency against you.
Then again, I just got mugged by an octogenarian… using his frailty… for stale doughnuts. It’s absurd, bordering hilarious.
Some things you just don’t see coming.
I ride across the bridge and head for Viqueque.