A few challenging things about Timor-Leste: it’s mountainous, roads are under development, and beautiful places are difficult to reach. People are tucked away in remote villages and hardly meet those from the rest of Timor and the result is not only the protection of their homes, culture and beliefs but several other not-so-positive sentiments. These include feelings of helplessness as parents struggle to feed their children and lack of ability to seek medical help or for practical matters such as repairs to equipment. Today we heard about many isolated people’s tremendous fear to send their children out into other towns, or the main centre of Dili, where they have no family or close friends who could care for them. So, there are few opportunities for these isolated children to receive an education, chase a rewarding job or to increase their social circle. It’s not unusual to find isolated schools that only go to grade 3, just at the point when children around the world start to wrap their heads around the 3 R’s.
So yesterday we made the interesting but arduous drive up the mountain, mostly through muddy, bumpy roadworks and at times peering out the car
window towards the bottom of valleys. The 500 metre drops would really hurt if the soft, unfinished, road-edge gave way as it threatens to do. It’s heart-in-your-mouth stuff.
Half way up in a beautiful town in a river valley at around 600m Brian asked me casually if I’d “like a coffee?” As he doesn’t waste words, I had a feeling it would be a bit special. This quaint town of Alieu is exquisite, sitting on a wide river which feeds acres of highly productive rice paddies and vegetable plots.
We turned into an unmarked little dusty side-street, et voila: a quaint little art centre nestled in lush, tropical greenery, complete with café and gallery/shop. A Brazilian couple have created something truly special for the locals who congregate to hone their artistic skills. With classical music wafting through the garden we were transported to another world.
The coffee was better than any we’ve tasted in Timor, and in our home of Australia for that matter. Add to that it’s 6 degrees cooler and we had everything to feel happy about.
A winding & otherwise uneventful hour’s drive then had us pulling into Maubisse.
The roadworks have, thankfully, reached asphalt stage between Alieu & Maubisse so you’re free to savour the exquisite views of increasingly high mountains, traditional houses, deep lush valleys and the stark realisation that you might be on another planet; one which was heavily influenced by the Portuguese and which sits majestically in the clouds. The air temp had dropped a further 5 degrees and we reached for our winter layers, with big grins on all our faces as this is a rare treat for a family of four hot-climate-dwellers.
We knew that we had reached somewhere truly special when every second person looked into my window and shouted a big “botardi/good afternoon”. All had warm smiles and I doubt that dignitaries receive fancier treatment. We certainly felt welcome.
Our warm bed that night was in a place we had known little about. What we discovered was a stunning Portuguese Public Administration building from over 200 years ago. It was used as a military base during the Indonesian Occupation and now is managed at a high standard, for the Government, by some obviously talented Timorese.
You are on top of a mountain, with superb views of the surrounding world of agriculture and rural living, of other Portuguese buildings like convents and churches, although to the East you are reminded of your insignificance by a bigger mountain which disappears into the clouds.
A voice inside told us we’re in Europe, then logic argued that these are Asian homes down below, Asian village sounds, hence we all decided that this was another planet.
The most memorable moments were to come, at breakfast today. Our host, a warm man in his late 30’s, turned out to be moonlighting as a guesthouse manager for his friend who was on business in the Capital. He happily does a day job in medical outreach in surrounding villages, a few of which are slightly visible perched on mountains that I know I would never have the ability to reach. He tells us about the 6 ½ hour walk into one of the villages. Obviously, an ambulance couldn’t make it there, nor on a recent occasion could the woman, in labour, walk out in time to deliver in a hospital. Instead, our new friend, Dr A, met her half way and she delivered a healthy baby by the roadside. It sounds like it’s not a rare occurrence although he is equipped with a small medical kit which is probably best suited to minor complaints.
To keep the good Dr’s privacy, I won’t tell you more amazing things about him but suffice to say that it involves adventure, hardship and isolation. More importantly though, is that he proudly explained how contented he is and as we looked across the breakfast table at him, we believed without doubt.