Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Páskua in Baukau: Dili baa Baukau

We spent Páskua (Easter) in Baukau, the main town and Episcopal see of eastern East Timor in the Makasai-speaking region (population 104,000). Located 124km east of Dili. Unable to afford the $75 a day cost of renting the smallest available 4WD, we decided to draw on some of the courage which brought us here in the first place and catch a local bís (bus), which we discovered few of the Dili based AVIs had ever done!

Argentina and her doben (sweetheart/boyfriend) Alberto were leaving home at 5am Thursday morning for Alberto’s home town of Venilale which lies approximately half way between Baukau and Vikeke the main town of the South East Tetum-speaking plain. Argentina agreed to share the taxi ride with us to Bekora bus station, one of only two such stations in Dili. All bís heading east depart from Bekora and all bís heading west depart from Tasi-tolu. Bís generally leave very early in the morning starting around 6am and usually finishing before midday. There is no schedule and no booking system. You simply turn up at the bus station and hop on a bís which hopefully has an empty seat and is headed in your direction.

Although Thursday was not a public holiday, most work places were offering the afternoon off, however Daniel’s NGO offered the whole day. So I took the morning off as well to wake up at 4:30am to finish preparing ourselves for the trip. Soon after 5am we were sitting on our verandah waiting for the taxi. It finally arrived at 6am an hour after it should have!
The young man driving seemed very sleepy so I suspected that he had only just woken up and jumped in his car. Whether from his tiredness or simply his poor motor coordination skills, he was a very bad driver and kept veering to the centre of the road while oncoming traffic blared horns at him, warning him to keep to the left side of the road. As we approached the bus station, the driver decided to overtake a slower moving vehicle in front while an oncoming vehicle approached from the opposite direction with very little room to allow a take over.
Zalia, the fifth child and second eldest daughter of our “family” was sitting on the knee of Alberto in the front passenger seat without either one wearing a seatbelt. I could just see her flying through the window and that would have been the end of her. A little scream escaped my throat and our three Timorese adult companions all laughed. The driver said that all malae are tauk (scared). Humph I thought, we’re only tauk because the Timorese have absolutely no concept of safety and constantly risk their lives (and others) with dangerous behavior such as this.

Even before the taxi came to a complete stop, young Timorese men were chasing the car trying to get us to come with them to their bís. I felt a bit overwhelmed by it all, particularly as one of the men walked off with my bag in order to lure us to his bís. Argentina, Alberto and Zalia left on a different bís so we were left to follow the young tout. Upon embarking the bís all eyes were on the malae, few of whom actually catch local transport. We endured being stared at for quite some time particularly as we both struggled to sit next to one another in seats meant for tiny Timorese people. I was not sure that I could endure being so squashed in next to Daniel for the three hour journey.

The bís driver, a red headed middle aged Timorese man, revved the engine as if we were about to leave. We actually sat there for 40 minutes waiting for the bís to fill up all the while the engine was revved as a ploy to trick would-be passengers into believing that this particular bís was about to leave so they should hop on now and find a seat. What a waste of petrol! In the meantime, Daniel sauntered off to purchase some bee (water) and paun (bread rolls). Many hawkers (all of them young boys) tried to sell us the same thing. At 7:10am, not yet full, the bus left the station.

The bís climbed up over the hills to the east that encloses Dili and within no time at all we discovered a segment of the road had half collapsed due to heavy rains or a landslide. The driver deftly negotiated his way around it.

We were both uncomfortable but as long as we kept our legs and arms together each provided the other with something to lean against as we wound our way around the hills. However, the seats sloped not only towards the front but also towards Daniel so I often had to reposition myself as I slowly inched my way onto his seat. Poor Daniel not only had to contend with me encroaching onto his limited space while his left thigh was jammed up against the seat’s arm rest, but he also had a couple of manu (chickens) perched on his feet! As they kokoteek (cackled) in protest at being cramped together, Daniel wondered whether they might start nibbling at his toes.

The scenery was quite beautiful as the road is suspended midway between the sea and the mountains. Much of the road hugged the coast and it reminded me somewhat of the Great Ocean Road in my home state of Victoria. About 23km out of Dili we passed through Metinaro, the training base for the country’s military, the F-FDTL which has been the subject of many recent posts.
At 64km we crossed a long bridge which traverses the muddy brown Laklo River before arriving in Manatutu, capital of the Galoli-speaking region of northern Timor and the district from which the President hails. In the main street, many burnt out and destroyed buildings remained standing and were a stark reminder of the events of 1999. Supposedly a two day coast-to-coast walk begins here which ends up in a nature preserve on the south coast. Both Metinaro and Manatutu are known for their pottery production made by mixing the locally available resources of river clay with beach sand.

Heading 19km further east, we passed through the small town of Laleia which has a beautiful Portuguese church, but we were not able to stop and visit. We again passed over a long bridge and wide brown river. Most of these bridges were built during the Indonesian occupation as virtually no major bridges were constructed during the Portuguese era (to their credit, the Portuguese did pave 7km of road during their 464 year stay!). Any that the retreating Indonesian army and their proxy militia destroyed, have been mostly rebuilt by the Japanese.

From Laleia, we arrived 9km later in Vemasse where we crossed our third and final bridge. This leg of the journey afforded us with the sight of many lush green rice paddy fields before the road turned inland to mostly flat and dry landscape. Finally the bís descended through lush forest as we headed over the edge of the plateau into the town of Baukau. As we approached our destination, the bís conductor collected our fares, a mere $2 each!

Baukau sits at an altitude of 330m and the sea breezes make it cooler than the coast. The town has a clear fresh water spring gushing from the almost vertical cliff face backing the Old Town. The exact spot was chosen by the Portuguese with defence in mind as its location above the sea backed by steep limestone cliffs allowed both attacks from the water and inland to be repelled. An interesting fact about Baukau is that during the Portuguese era, it was once northern Australia’s top honeymoon destination! (Thanks to Lonely Planet for some of the factual information in this post)
Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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