by David Lipson
As I lay on my bed and stare at the corrugated iron ceiling I can almost see the ripples of heat radiating downwards onto my face. I’m sweating. The pigs and roosters (always roosters) just outside my window don’t let me sleep. Somehow though, when I think about paying good money and using up precious holidays to get here, I smile.
I’m in the ‘New City’ of a town called Bacau in Timor Leste. I’ve come here with Heidi, yes, to help with Cooking Circles, but also to have a break from it all. To experience a country I should have known a lot more about. I’ve been lucky to have travelled a lot, mostly to developing countries in Asia. But Timor feels different. Like a prisoner that’s been set free after a life sentence – somewhat damaged by the experience – but mostly hopeful, thankful, with eyes wide, ready for the road ahead.
We’re staying with the relatives of our host family. A gorgeous family of six, they’ve given up their bedrooms so we can have separate rooms, since we’re not married. I don’t know where they all slept.
We finish yet another mountain of food for breakfast. We giggle as we take selfies with the kids (have we really been here just one night?). We say our goodbyes, climb into the rental car and head for the hills.
We’re due to meet another family for more Cooking Circles goodness. They live in Venilale, which was a known supply town for rebels hiding in the hills during Indonesian occupation.
It’s a beautiful drive. Dodging roosters, counting churches, skipping from town to town, through open hillsides and terraced rice paddies.
As we come around a bend, there’s a group of people gathered around a pile of rocks and debris over half the road. The other half of the road has been washed away in a recent storm. There is nowhere to go. I stop the car and look over the group of about 30 young men. There is no one over 40. Some look like they’ve been drinking. In my mind, the serenity turns sinister. I’ve heard enough stories to know these “roadblocks” don’t always end well.
One craggy looking guy approaches the window. As I put on a stern, but friendly face, I’m simultaneously calculating how much cash we have, whether the Rav-4 could make it over the debris at full throttle, what I’d say if they asked Heidi to get out of the car…
A wave of relief.
I hand over the cash. He gives a signal, a path is cleared for us and we drive through.
Over the next 30 minutes, Heidi and I scare ourselves witless as we talk over the other ways it could have gone. But as we roll into town and meet our next Cooking Circles family, a wave of hospitality promptly washes it all away.
We’re fed to the gills, eyes and tastebuds popping, as we attempt communication with 3 different generations in 4 different languages: Portuguese, Bahasa Indonesia, Tetum and English.
After a few hours it’s time to say our goodbyes again. We beep the little Rav4 horn and wave out the window as we drive away.
And then remember – we have to get back through the roadblock again to get home. The sun is getting low.
I imagine the young men talking over the past few hours about how they let us off easy. How they could take an ‘appropriate’ fee when we return.
Heidi and I discuss tactics and outcomes as we stay on the dusty tail of another car, driven by locals. Safety in numbers.
Around a bend and there is the familiar clearing. The roadblock. The group of men. The car in front stops. We can see the conversation between the craggy man and the driver getting animated. After a full five minutes, money is exchanged and the car drives off.
We’re alone again.
The craggy man approaches my window and peers in.
And then smiles.
A broad, friendly, toothy smile of recognition. We’ve already paid the tax. He gives the signal. A path is cleared.
As I drive through I see a man with a spade mixing cement in a pile of sand on the side of a road. Another is carrying rocks to the part of the road that’s been washed away.
It wasn’t a shakedown. They weren’t bandits. It was just East Timor’s version of road-works. Without help from Government to repair the road, they had to do it themselves. And without enough money to buy the materials themselves – they had to collect their own toll, from the drivers who used it.
It’s classic Timor. There’s a somewhat hard undercurrent. An inescapable feeling that its people have seen and experienced far worse than any should have to. But there’s an ingenuity. And a hopefulness. And inevitably, a broad, toothy smile.