To Timor’s Tremendous Highlands on Terrifying Roads

From the sea we headed straight for the hills. Or at least we thought they were hills. They were most certainly mountains and somehow we were quite unprepared for how tall they were and how spectacular the views. As we kept on progressing on bumpy, windy roads and continued climbing and climbing, the question begged to be asked: “How high are we really going?”

“Oh, the highest mountain, Mount Ramelau, (or Tata Mailau) is nearly 3000 m (9,800ft). But we will only be crossing over about 2000m.”

“Well, damn,” was my husband’s reply. “I left my only sweater on Bali.”

With the climb up the temperature did mercifully drop, so we could now open the windows instead of blasting AC, but we had to peel our eyes off the beautiful landscape now and then to notice the dust from a motorcycle or a truck, often acting as a bus, full of people standing up in the back, and quickly roll up the windows. Parts of the road midway through were actually newly asphalted, but then the unpaved parts were pretty bad.

“Under development,” commented our guide Charlie with a chuckle. He wholeheartedly agreed with Mirek’s continuous comments on the bloody government and guffawed and laughed out loud. The driver, who didn’t speak much English was less cheerful, but he obviously understood enough to share his support by peppering our conversation with an occasional “F*k them!” I guess laughter and curses were the only other options or they would have to cry, seeing how the money was squandered on the shoddy construction by the relatives and cronies of the prez. The unfinished road was already falling apart, the retaining walls cracking, the rock slides spilling over, the water sipping through or pouring over, the roadway sinking and sliding. Lovely waterfall flowing straight over the roadway. “Any iron bars in those walls?” Mirek would ask.

“No iron bars”, came the reply. “The people in charge took the money for iron bars and used it to buy themselves new cars. Hahaha…”

It looked even to an uninitiated person like me that the construction plan was highly unusual. Instead of starting at the bottom and working to the top they worked from the middle. Like they decided to work on the “easy” parts first and hope that bridges and other hard issues will somehow resolve themselves later. Well, Mirek really had a field day with the local engineering feats. In all his international experience in some pretty far flung places he never saw anything like it. In a few places the rocking and rolling got so bone rattlingly bad that we decided to just walk in front of the car. And this was in the dry season. I can hardly imagine what impassable muddy mess it must become in the rain.

But it was all totally worth it. Halfway up we stopped for lunch in the only eatery available- Projecto Montanha, a small nonprofit restaurant and income generating place. In the country of dusty roads, intermittent electricity and a rare flushing toilet this was another planet altogether. Everything cheerful, freshly painted, spotlessly clean and working. Polite, well groomed, and well fed young people welcoming us and serving delicious food: home grown green salad, potatoes and eggs, fresh passion fruit juice. Freshly baked whole grain bread! Not a grain of infernal rice on the plate. A detailed guided tour around the center to see the music room and art classrooms, computers and DVDs. A craft production space making earrings, that I had to buy, of course. A small guest house and a cute store with finished products. A modern dental clinic. A peek into the kitchen. Everything organized and tidy. Many, many local kids and their families educated and helped. All accomplished by a Brazilian couple who moved here with their two teenagers 10 years ago. Unbelievable. Not a minute or a penny wasted. If only this blueprint could be replicated in every village on Timor Leste and beyond.

Even by the main road there were plenty of skinny, dirty children with runny noses and lice in their wild hair. True, they were poor but they did not beg or hurl stones like in some other countries we visited. They were sweet and most importantly, took care of each other.

We heard it was much worse in the cut off villages. Even if the subsistence farmers grow some coffee or sweet potatoes they can’t bring it to the market. We visited a coffee processing plant and lab, and had a long chat over delicious Arabica about the state of affairs. The very personable manager Bobby lamented the fact that half of the coffee cherries have to be thrown out and the farmers paid miserably little. They only have three days from picking the coffee till processing and because of the abysmal road conditions half the crop goes bad on the way.

After lunch we continued our climb and here and there amongst the ugly cement and corrugated steel roof houses the attractive thatched roofs of the traditional houses started popping up. To stop my incessant demands to pull over so I could get yet another picture, the guide promised that he would take us first thing when we arrive at our destination in Maubisse to a Portuguese Pousada with a 360 degree view. And what a view that was. Holy crap!

Those Portuguese governors knew how to choose a good spot. The old mansion was built on a lookout and set within a garden full of European flowers such as roses and zinnias. It seemed like we were one of the first guests to be served coffee in the newly built gazebo and indeed the manager came to welcome us and share the more recent history of the small hotel.

He was actually a doctor by profession now trying to make a better living by changing sheets for tourists, while volunteering his services in the surrounding villages buying his own medicines. He told us that the place has been (mis)managed for the last 6 years by the government and he was now given a lease with the condition that if he does not get guests within 30 days(!!)the permit would be revoked. You can imagine the new cycle of reactions from our trio of guys. Luckily he already had the first guests lined up and, surprise, surprise, most were from the government.

“But are they going to pay you?” was my concern.

“Payment first, then you turn on the water and electricity,” suggested Mirek.

“Oh,” replied the doc. “We mostly don’t have any electricity during the day.”

He gave us a grand tour of the place and while he was trying hard there were so many things that were clearly not up to standard. We actually spent the night at their sister establishment close by and despite the fact that the funds for two cottages in another terraced flower garden were donated by a Japanese couple you could see they were built and equipped by people who have never seen a hotel from the inside. I won’t bore you with the architectural missteps, suffice it to say that the attached bathroom did not have a mirror, but luckily there was one in the bedroom on the wall behind the bathroom door, so when Mirek was shaving he had to get out of the bathroom, close the door, look in the mirror, shave off the shaving cream on one side and pop back into the bathroom to rinse the shaver. Repeat!

We were excited not to have to sleep under a blowing air conditioner for once, even snuggle under a blanket, but we soon heard the familiar annoying whiny buzz of a mosquito. From many years of experience I find that the best way to kill a mozzie is to turn on the light and wait until the bloody blood sucker settled down somewhere, then smack it with a big pillow. You can even throw a pillow at the ceiling. Hands and towels don’t work as well.

We had breakfast of freshly made French toast Timor style prepared by three sisters (out of nine-Catholics do have large families the world over) on an open fire. What great ladies, full of smiles!

A nice start to a day full of surprises.

We stopped at the big Sunday market. We heard people and animals on the move from 2 am, walking long distances to sell a few carrots or a cup of beans. Upon the suggestion of the good doctor we drove to the other side of the valley and pushed up and off-road to the top of a hill to find a traditional sacred house and a Christian cemetery in a peaceful coexistence overlooking another beautiful endless range of mountains. Bellow us a herd of small brown horses was munching contentedly on fresh mountain grass and on the other side were–3 cell phone towers! As in so many god forsaken places in the world, progress is coming not with reliable electricity or running water or sewer and garbage collection but with cell phone towers from competing providers. Not that our cell phone worked, mind you. So far Timor Leste is the only country on our travels where T-Mobile did not have a reliable partner.

In truth I was perfectly happy to be away from internet and the news, enjoying the unspoiled nature. Knowing our interest in traditional culture Charlie took us to another sacred house, actually a collection of five: four women’s and one men’s. They are all called Uma Lulik and the only discernible difference to me is that the men’s house has a long rectangular wooden top and the women’s a short round stick with two pairs of “arms” through it. It rather didn’t vibe with my female-male symbolism but then I noticed that the male house top ended in a form of buffalo horns, a very masculine symbol of strength. Indeed their old religion was also their moral code and it functioned on the balance of feminine life giving power with the masculine power of protection. When both were respected and in balance all was well with the world. When you visit a sacred house, a box of bettle nut comes out as a welcome and is put next to the sacrificial totem. For us as foreigners there was no expectation that we would chew in the spirit of camaraderie, but there was an expectation of a few coins put in the box as a donation.

This lady keeper of the Moubisse sacred houses, a mother of nine, including triplets, was an avid chewer of the mild intoxicant and we were shocked that her daughter, who could not have been more than 10 years old was happily chewing herself, so there were plenty of red splatters on the ground where they spit out the juice. At some point I was not sure whether I was looking at the red color of spit or spilled blood of sacrificed chickens, pigs and buffalos.

Having travelled in the surrounding areas of Indonesia, Papua, Australia, and even Bali, some connections became clear. There were certain similarities in stories and ceremonies of these peoples. For example the buffalo sacrifices and funeral ceremonies here were reminiscent of Toraja land in Sulawesi, and the story lines kept by certain clans and passing down the stories to the keepers was a similar concept to the Aboriginal stories of Dream Time. The branch steps over one of the village enclosures here were exactly the same that we climbed in the highlands of West Papua. Indeed, at times I would look at a face of a child or a person and see a glimpse of a clear feature from their distant Papuan or Aboriginal relations.

I heard there was a sacred spring close by so I asked if we would be allowed to see it. I was happily surprised when they agreed. It might not have been true, but we were told that we were the first tourists they took there. Indeed our Timorese guide Charlie himself had never been there. The two small eternal pools were beautiful and they were female and male, as well. With the stones laid deliberately around the water, to me, they looked like yin and yang.

We climbed up above the pools and came to a thatched house with some yellow and orange corn drying in front of it and a shy little boy peeking through the door. As soon as they heard our voices, two ladies in sarongs came out and welcomed us with big smiles.

“Nobody ever comes to visit us!” they exclaimed.

We spent some time “talking”, joking around and taking photographs. When Charlie, who is a film maker when he is not guiding, showed them the pictures on his fancy camera, one of them frowned and said,“Don’t show me my ugly old face!” And everyone started laughing again. They both had hands worn out by hard work and prominent tattoos on their arms with their original clan, non-Christian names. Why? So many questions, hard to get the answers through interpreters. Charlie ended up being gifted fresh ears of corn to take home to his wife. It is always touching to see people who have so little, being so generous.

Making such human connections is the cherry on the top of my travel experience.

As we were driving back to Dili we came across many young people on trucks and in motorcycle groups all clad in red and yellow, waving large flags.

As we slowly inches past one, a young man looked at us through the open window and yelled: “Vota Fretilin?”

Charlie pointed to our driver who happened to have on a red uniform shirt. He quickly rolled up the window and when we were safely past the rowdy group he spat out his classical, “F*k them!”

Next a convoy of riot police drove by. They looked like straight out of a Robocop movie with their shiny riot gear on top of their black uniforms.

“Wow, why are they in armor?” I wondered out loud.

“Because sometimes we throw rocks and stones at them,” said Charlie with another chuckle.

The next day waiting at the airport for the flight out, we chatted with an American couple who just finished their 14 month advisory stint with the embassy. Recalling our trip to the mountains they told us, “The government is non functional and new elections are around the corner. It is going to be tough. The US embassy is just about to issue a warning to not travel to Timor Leste.”

Another travel window closing… But the glimpse we got of Timor Leste was indeed tantalizing.

10 thoughts on “To Timor’s Tremendous Highlands on Terrifying Roads

  1. Loved the descriptions of the travel, the photos and the stories. My fave was the red toothed laughing lady. Comes from eating betel nuts. Your description so detailed that I feel as if I have been there and don’t have to make the trip. thanks for letting me travel through your eyes..


  2. Love your photos! We will be visiting this part of Timor Leste as part of a tour organised by Rotary District 9550 (northern Australia and Timor Leste) in June 2018. After seeing your photos and reading your story, we can’t wait to experience this fascinating area ourselves.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am very excited for you. Presuming you are traveling with Timor Adventures you will have a top notch team taking care of you. I salute you and your fellow Rotarians for all the life changing contributions you make around the world!


  3. I am very excited for you. Presuming you are traveling with Timor Adventures you will have a top notch team taking care of you. I salute you and your fellow Rotarians for all the life changing contributions you make around the world!


    1. Love your photos! We will be visiting this part of Timor Leste as part of a tour organised by Rotary District 9550 (northern Australia and Timor Leste) in June 2018. After seeing your photos and reading your story, we can’t wait to experience this fascinating area ourselves.
      Yes, we are travelling with Timor Adventures. Shirley has put together a fantastic tour for us, 8 days including 2 days trekking and climbing Mt Ramelau, as well as visiting Rotary projects and some R&R on Atauro Island. We still have 2 vacancies!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I travelled there for the first time last year with a school group and as part of Friends of Venilale group back in Australia. We have several partnerships and have an excellent model that works to support that community in various ways. Loved it, but always had a passion for the country and its people. Going back in August with my husband, so trying to plan a trip with some help from Timor Adventures. Know all about those roads! Loved your insights and great photography.


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