In early 2011, when José Ramos-Horta was still the President of Timor-Leste, I interviewed him at his office to find out about the latest state of his country’s economy.
In the article that I later wrote, I quoted him as saying: “Dili is becoming a boomtown. We have traffic jams almost all day long — the number of cars and motorbikes has exploded in the last two years. You see thousands of stores and shops in the city, but drive an hour outside of Dili and you see next-to-zero development in rural areas.”
As part of our travel in East Timor, my poet friend Dina Oktaviani and I drove not an hour, but nearly five hours from Dili to Bobonaro District’s capital of Maliana, about another hour’s drive away from the closest border point between Timor-Leste and Indonesia’s East Nusa Tenggara.
Our driver Paulino said that the roads we were taking had seen neither renovation nor maintenance since the country’ independence. Our butts could certainly feel it. We also saw that the welcome sign at the district’s border had not changed since the Indonesian administration era.
And imagine how scared we were when we had to drive over Loes River’s main bridge, which local news said had been damaged two weeks earlier and there didn’t seem to be any sign of repair. Public works crews were seen somewhere else that day, busily getting boulders of rocks out of the way at a sharp bend by a cliff. We had to wait about an hour until the road was clear.
It may sound like one challenging ride, but the vistas all around us really made up for it, especially in the earlier part of the journey where we had hills on one side and one unspoiled beach after another on the other.
And then we entered the mountainous region, with red hills and wide ravines covered by the canopy of endemic trees.
We made a stop at the Balibo Memorial, to pay respect to the five Australian journalists called the Balibo Five and a number of Timorese fighters killed during the early stage of the Indonesian occupation. The place’s humility and dimness gave it a powerful ambiance of the tragedy for which it stood. Then a group of children came, and Paulino asked them to pose for my camera. Their cute smiles made me truly hope that such a tragedy would never ever happen again.
Nearing Maliana, we were welcomed by a vast spread of rice fields fringed in the background by a string of hills.
The main reason I came to Bobonaro was to interview some cattle farmers. One of the country’s top export goods is cattle. Its traffic between East Nusa Tenggara and the western part of Timor Lorosae, another name for the country, has been going on since even before East Timor became part of Indonesia, maybe even before the Portuguese came and divided the island with the Dutch.
In Timor, cattle is an important part of the people’s culture. Cows are usually required as belis, or wedding dowry, and the number of cows a girl’s family asks a guy to offer can be staggering. One interesting fact: The bones of a whale used to be a common wedding dowry in some Timorese tribes, until they became too hard to come by.
After interviewing some local farmers in Maliana, that night we stayed at a charming little cottage hotel, slept on separate antique iron beds in a room that had this unique “wallpaper.” The entire walls in the hotel had actually been stamped with either blue or pink paint to make it seem like they were covered by a floral motif wallpaper, even in the bathroom.
The next morning, it was time to enjoy local bread called paung (a bit tough to chew) with some tea before we resumed our journey back to Dili.