Lospalos is a sprawling town. I’ve heard that it’s a major cultural centre; that Lospalos people are renowned as artists and musicians. Jano fills me in on the local stereotypes: that Lospalos people are considered snobs because they speak their local dialect in front of other Timorese; and that malae women are always falling in love with Lospalos men.
He tells me this with a laugh, and I laugh too, and brush it off: my man in Australia has told me that he wants to be with me, and that he’s going to fly his bike into Bali and ride with me for a while. I feel like the luckiest girl in the world, golden to my fingertips.
When I finally ride into Lospalos, all I see are dusty streets. I ride for ten minutes looking for the middle of town, and pass through it without noticing. I turn around the ride back, exploring side streets until they peter out. I am looking for the Chinese doctors whom I met at Jaco Island. I’d assumed that three Chinese doctors would be easy to find in a place like Lospalos – surely I’d just ask on the street and someone would know here I could find them – but it was not to be. First I go to the only hotel in town and asked there, since I figure they’ll probably know where the foreigners were to be found; no luck. Then I go to the hospital and ask the nurses there, in my halting Indonesian. No, they’ve never heard of any orang Cina in town.
It is at this point that I decide not to get ill in Timor Leste. Previously, in Baucau, I’d visited the brand new hospital with my friend Jano, after a falling palm frond knocked him clean off his scooter. We rolled up to the hospital where they x-rayed his bruised ribs and gave him the all-clear within about 20 minutes. I was super impressed. But here in Lospalos? The hospital was clearly not a place where you went to get well. Foreigners often make a big song and dance about toilet facilities in Asia and generally I think they’re being a bunch of princesses. There’s nothing wrong with a squat toilet and a bit of water; you’ll be fine. But this particular facility… well, it’s one of those that make you wish you could levitate and move things with your mind so that you needn’t actually touch anything.
Stuff it, I think. Whatever secret life Lospalos might be hiding, I’m not in the mood to keep looking. It’s as hot as hell and I have a headache.
I skol water and hydration salts and nominate a tiny town near the South Coast as my destination. It appears to be on the main road.
I turn down a couple of tiny side streets and then I’m suddenly out of Lospalos, picking my way over the most brutally rough section of rocky road that I’ve seen in Timor yet. It’s so rough that not even I can just stand on the pegs and fang across it: these jagged holes require a bit of mechanical sympathy or there’ll be bent rims and tears before tea-time.
It’s not difficult, though; it just requires a little bit of patience. Soon enough, the dirt road is climbing up the mountainside. It’s a narrow, one lane road, dotted with piles of road gravel that have been usefully dumped on the road.
Presumably these will be used to improve the road, but for the moment the obstruction is anything but helpful. There are a few trucks coming the other direction, and mostly, nowhere to go. It’s necessary to pull into the cliff side or in between the piles of gravel and stop completely to let them past.
That’s alright; I’m not in a hurry, but I am thirsty. The heat and humidity is crazy today; I’ve already drunk three litres of water and I’m feeling headachey. Time to stop and replenish supplies.
I stop at a village clinging to the side of a hill, and park the bike on the edge of the road. I climb down to a little shop. The people are surprised to see me and welcome me into the shade. A flock of kids descend on the bike like seagulls, but they don’t touch. They later come and surround me, but they won’t talk to me or come too close; I think they’re slightly scared.
The woman at the shop insists that I sit in the shade and drink cool water for a bit; then she talks me into trying one of the little round doughnuts she’s selling. These one have been roughly rolled in sweet pink icing and coated with coconut. They look good, so I ask for one.
She gets her tongs and serves up one dollar’s worth. There are at least twenty doughnuts in the bag. I can only laugh. I have a couple of doughnuts and they’re really good. I give a couple to the kids, and figure that I’ll be eating doughnuts for supper too. There are worse fates.
* * *
Soon the altitude makes the air cool and dry, and I’m on a hilltop with clouds scudding across the landscape.
Maybe there will even be rain. Like many high points in Timor, this one has a shrine to the Virgin Mary on top of it. When I get close, I see that there are two young men there already, in an otherwise deserted landscape. I ride past slowly, but I get a good feeling about them, so I take the opportunity to stop and look at the view.
They are passing through too; they spread out a picnic of biscuits and sugary orange drink, and invite me to join them. I decline because I’ve already eaten; also, the biscuits are the weirdly sweet-savoury biscuits with the fake cheese spread; they’re very popular here but I’ve never been able to come at them.
Still, I appreciate the gesture, and I appreciate that the guys are friendly but non-intrusive. I guess you could stay that it’s a sad thing that I should feel the need to consciously remark upon men not being obnoxious, intrusive or threatening to me, as if it’s unusual; but as a woman traveling alone this is something you are always thinking about, whether it’s consciously or unconsciously. Besides, we should never take the good things for granted.
The guys leave before me, but I soon overtake them on the winding dirt road as they nursed the small wheels of their battered 150cc motos over the rocks. Those little motos have a hard life, I tell you.
Beastie and I are having a high old time, however. It’s a pretty good dirt road from here on in, and it winds through jungle covered mountains. There’s no traffic except for the odd oncoming truck; the rain clouds retreat and the sunlight filters through the trees.
It’s a couple of hours of sheer happiness. Around three thirty in the afternoon, there’s a gap in the jungle and I see the sea spread out to my left. I’m still high up in the mountains, but I’m on the southernmost edge of the range now. I’m told that, from certain peaks in Timor, you can see Australia on a clear day.
* * *
After I come out of the jungle, I stop at the first village I see. There’s a sign for a guest house, and it’s the first suggestion of accommodation since Lospalos, so I stop.
I park on a big square of beaten earth, and everyone in the village stares at me. The kids come running, but again they don’t get too close. Despite the sign on the road, I can see no indication that any of the buildings around the square is a guest house.
I get off the bike, take off my helmet and gloves, and wait. Something will happen, I know. You just have to give it time.
Sure enough, a young woman approaches me. She lives here with her family; she’s a university graduate, and speaks a bit of English, and she’s been sent to find out what I want.
I explain that I’m looking for the guest house. I am shown to a decrepit front room in the nearest house. The bed has seen better days; the mosquito net is filthy and full of holes, almost disintegrating on touch. Fuck, I think, I’m gunna get typhoid.
Oh well. It’ll do.
Now they’re trying to overcharge me something crazy. They want thirty US dollars for a bed (this sad looking bed) with dinner and breakfast. I say no, I’m sorry, I just can’t afford that. Then what will you eat for dinner they say? Then know there’s nowhere else in the village for me to eat.
I won’t eat dinner, I tell them. It’s fine, I won’t die.
The price decreases. Twenty-five US dollars for bed, dinner and breakfast. It’s still pretty outrageous, but I agree. I am happy enough to redistribute a little bit of money here in this village. I also know that protein is expensive, and when dinner comes I see that they’ve fried a whole can of tuna with the noodles, in addition to a big plate of local vegetables. I appreciate this, because I know that a can of tuna costs more than 2 US dollars when you buy it in the shop.
I am taken on a grand tour of the village, and introduced to extended family of my translator, Nonodoly. In my bad bahasa, I explain where I’ve come from and where I’m going. They give me sweet Timorese coffee and I sit with the family in the shade of a tree for a while and do nothing.
This is a fine art in Timor – the act of doing nothing. Of just sitting – particularly during the heat of the day – and doing nothing at all. You might talk a little bit, but mostly not. There’s no urgency, no need to fill the silence or do a thing.
It’s a foreign and slightly terrifying activity for an overstimulated Westerner, but after you get over the nameless anxiety – the sense that you should be doing something – I think it’s rather good for the soul. At the very least, it’s good for your blood pressure.
Although a lot of people in Timor have cheap smartphones, most people can’t afford to be buying data for them all the time; data is expensive here. So despite nationwide selfie mania, these times of everyday quietude are yet to be lost to Facebook’s great blue void.
As dusk falls, half a dozen people come and tell me that I must bring my motorbike into the house – it’s not safe outside, it will get stolen. My stress levels instantly increase. Why are they only telling me this now, when it’s almost completely dark… and certainly too late to make other arrangements. I take everything out of my panniers and take them off the bike but it still won’t fit through the front door – the handlebars are just the tiniest bit too wide, even as I tilt and twist the bike. Now I am really sweating.
What to do now? We take Beastie around to the back door, and park her between the building and the bath house and a truck. Then we park the family’s 150 cc Honda behind her, as if that will help. I’m not happy. Who do they think is going to steal from me? In a village this small, they must know whom they suspect.
I park Beastie so that her front wheel is wedged behind the cab of the truck and put the steering lock on; getting her out of there without the key will require the whole bike to be picked up and carried. Now I’m just counting on the local miscreants being too malnourished to do that quietly.
* * *
The next day, Beastie is unmolested and breakfast is boiled green bananas. They are hard and starchy, and almost a bit sour. They stick to your teeth and are hard to swallow without extra water. At first I am dismayed, but then I come around and eat three or four of them, and the whole plate of biscuits. I suspect my next meal is quite a long way away.
The girl who cooks my meals is only fifteen years old, long-legged and coltish; she emerges in her school uniform and I pay her before she leaves for school. She is the only other person who lives in the house, in a small bedroom off the kitchen. Her parents seem to live in the house next door. It seems strange to me.
Later, I am looking at the newspaper clippings and faded photographs, some of them printed with an ordinary colourjet printer, that are displayed on the living room wall and on the only shelf in the room. In the photos, I recognise the young man from a photo in my room; there is one that might be a graduation photo; in another, he is pictured in army fatigues with other Timorese, also in uniform. It’s during Timor’s fight for independence.
I had thought it odd to find a man’s shirts hanging in the cupboard in the guest room. They looked like theyhad been there for a long time.
There are no recent photos. Slowly, I realise that I have probably been sleeping in the bedroom of the family’s dead son.