Baucau’s Old Town clings among jagged basalt outcrops, red-roofed Portuguese buildings gazing over a hazy blue sea. Further uphill, hidden behind the lip of the cliff, the dirty tracks and shacks of New Town sprawl across a flat plateau. It’s here that most of the people in Baucau live; where the market teems with goods and people on market days, and the clapped out vans pick their way between potholes and scooters, packed with sweating passengers and blaring Despacito. (Always, Despacito.) Up here are the schools, two fuel stations, and a gigantic Indonesian-era gymnasium, already crumbling.
Here too are the cheap restaurants and the hair dressers, and Baucau’s ‘casino’: it’s basically a concrete floored double garage lined with electronic slot machines plus a couple of electronic game tables – computerised roulette, craps, blackjack – all suspended in a haze of cigarette smoke. I go there one night with my friend Jano but photographs are strictly prohibited and people seem jumpy to see me there. Foreigner, female, I definitely don’t belong here. I hate gambling but I’m fascinated by the comfortless trappings in which the genuinely poor are gambling hard earned US dollars. No green felt and dim lighting to make you feel better about your folly here. No girls to impress, but plenty of shady characters waiting and watching you from the motorbikes parked outside.
When I first arrive in Baucau, I stay at the convent with the nuns and a hundred or so Catholic schoolgirls down in Old Town. The Portuguese-era building encloses a broad courtyard within its looming ramparts, and at night the narrow entrance is closed off by a big steel gate with tangles of barbed wire on top. Around 7pm, it’s already dark and from somewhere nearby, I can hear the girls singing hymns after dinner. Their voices are sweet and the sound is deeply calming, even to my irreligious spirit.
When I venture out to find food, I discover it’s pretty scarce here too; it wasn’t just Dili, it’s Timor in general. There’s just not that much food around. Forget the street food hawker culture that you might know from Thailand or Vietnam or Indonesia; even when you do find a warung selling food here, it’s going to be white rice and few spoonfuls of vegetables in oil. There might be dishes masquerading as meat but they’re mostly sauce. The other option is the eponymous bakso – a thin noodle soup with a couple of ‘meat’ balls and plenty of chili sauce. The great thing about bakso is that, if you’re in luck, you should be able to get a boiled egg with your soup. After only a couple of days, I am already beginning to feel the lack of oil and protein in my diet; I felt like I am never full, my energy levels never stable. I begin to crave oil and animal products; previous fussiness about which part of the animal disappears completely.
Later, a friend in Dili – a nutritionist working in Timor for the UN – will tell me that around 40% of the East Timorese population is stunted due to a lack of protein during formative years. It’s not just that meat is expensive, he explains, but that the perceived value of the things for which you can trade your meat – money, scooters, phone credit – exceeds the perceived value of having that protein as part of your family’s diet. So everyone lives on cheap white rice.
We don’t know who’s buying the meat, but it’s certainly not showing up as roadside satay or luscious beef soup on the streets of Baucau tonight.
I’m so hungry that I walk past the bakso place, hoping for something more substantial than noodle soup, but I’m soon at the dark edge of Old Town. I’d also passed two places that seemed like they might cook and serve food to foreigners – if there were any foreigners there – but tonight they’re just empty rooms with plastic chairs.
A voice asks me – in English – ‘where are you going?’ I decide that this is a good time to be friendly. The voice belongs to a man about my age; he’s on a scooter, maybe on his way somewhere, but not in a hurry. I tell him I’m looking for for food – cheap food – where can I eat?
It turns out that his name is Jano, that he works at the local government youth centre, that he’s a hip hop artist, that he grew up here in Baucau. I’m standing outside his Aunty’s house and directly across the road from his parents’ house.
He gives me a lift to one of the few warungs in Old Town, and offers to give me the grand tour of Baucau the next day.
In the warung, there is no food left. I am too late. The family usher me out the back and give me a square of sweet, starchy slice – perhaps made from rice and sugar, I don’t know – and we try to communicate. It doesn’t work very well – Tetum isn’t even covered by Google translate – but somehow we manage to establish that I’m thirty years old, from Australia, and that I have no children. Their children want to take a million selfies with a cheap camera phone, and I happily oblige to the point of exhaustion.
They won’t take any money for the sweet slice, and I go back up the hill to knock on the gate of the convent, to go upstairs and lie in my peaceful, spartan bed. The Timorese night is full of the sounds of wild dogs, but I sleep quickly.
I stay in Baucau for two days, at the convent, then Jano helps me to find a cheaper guest house and two days becomes a week. The new guest house has no advertising – not even a sign on the narrow street that runs behind it – and I am unsurprisingly the only guest. I have the whole top floor to myself, my pick of the rooms. Simple tiled floors, clean sheets, bucket shower; a balcony that looks over rusted roofs and out to sea, with a cool breeze that never disappears.
Apparently the family made their money in the mini-bus business, using the old van which is now parked downstairs amongst sundry dry goods. I roll Beastie all the way inside the building, park her on the clean tiles; she’s practically in the family’s living room, a few metres from the expansive lounge suite where they often snooze in the afternoons, but no-one seems to mind. I leave her there, safe, for a couple of days while I sleep and contemplate the smudgy blue sea beyond my balcony.
I walk around the town and eat often at the bakso place, developing an addiction for the Indonesian chili sauce – sambal extra pedas, I know I’m just addicted to the MSG but I’m not sure that I care.
As promised, Jano shows me around the Baucau district – the beaches, the old Portuguese fort, the main market, the Indonesian warung out on the airport road where I satisfy my craving for protein on bowls of spicy buffalo stomach lining.
I squint at the sea and try to think less. I learn how to order cold beer in Tetum, and I trade a million selfies for language lessons from the seven year old girl who lives downstairs.