Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Centrepiece Tatamailau

Text and photographs by Barry Greville-Eyres - development practitioner and naturalist living in Timor-Leste

Tatamailau - Grandfather of All - a wonderland of form, colour, texture, ambiance and soul

I shrugged off the damp-blanket like humidity and cast a backward glance at Dili partly obscured below by the smoke haze, gulped in a lungful of crisp, clean mountain air and felt like the wealthiest person on the planet.  Our destination was the central, spiny mountainous column of Timor-Leste and in particular Tatamailau (Grandfather, as opposed to Mother, of All mountains in the country). I accompanied a trio of Timorese friends and work colleagues and as Nuno negotiated the narrow, torturous passes with practiced and slick precision, Oscar and Manuel began to relate their respective stories, haltingly at first, prompted by my own limited understanding of the country’s recent history. Our journey was an undulating kaleidoscope of mountain scrub, coconut palm, rice paddies and  eucalyptus forest  clinging, tenuously, to abraded landforms – parched, breathless yet ever patient.  Villagers and their livestock encountered languidly acknowledged our passing but the ragtag children were far more generous and effusive with their malae (foreigner), one-dollar greetings.

Former Portuguese colonial outpost in the town of Maubisse now a gueshouse and restaurant
Besides being a major thoroughfare, Maubisse appears to be an important hub for trade (primarily agrarian in nature) and tourism (judging by the availability of guesthouses). It’s a picturesque hillside town dominated by two imposing Portuguese-era buildings that cast a ‘watchful eye’ over each other and their subjects - one church the other state.  The latter, an impressive colonial fort including a stately home for the then district administrator, associated infrastructure, dressed stone ramparts and presumably a small garrison are located strategically on an isolated promontory with 360° wraparound views of highland and plunging valleys. The historic location, clearly centuries old, currently serves as strangely surreal guest accommodation complete with a small restaurant.

A piece of Portugal re-created in rural Maubisse
 A majestic, multistorey Catholic church graces the adjacent hillside and appears to have weathered, divinely, the very best (and perhaps not so) that nature and mankind can throw at it. It appears to exude a smug satisfaction that it has withstood the test of time and still lords over all and sundry. The Seal of Catholicism on Timorese society is ever-present yet contrasts, interestingly, with parallel yet equally steadfast lulik  or ancestral animistic beliefs (branded with negative connotations – taboo, sacred and as ‘uncivilised’ by intolerant  and insensitive Portuguese and Indonesian colonial autocrats of yesteryear).  

Yet another legacy of Portuguese colonization this time clearly borne out on the physical landscape
Lulik refers, according to Jose Trindade a strident advocate,  to the spiritual cosmos that contains the divine creator, the spirits of the ancestors, and the spiritual root of life including sacred rules and regulations that dictates relationships between people and people and nature – essentially at the core of Timorese values. The two belief systems appear to co-exist but there is a very real sense that with rampant urbanization and Westernization that the traditional lulik system will fade into obscurity to the detriment of Timorese culture and society. Care should be taken to protect the uniqueness and truly Timorese identity as the threats from cultural compromise and dilution posed by foreign, external influences – IndoAustralian or UNionisation are very real. 

A traditional sacred house outside Hato Builico

Prior to our departure from Maubisse we were treated to some memorable street scenes, quintessential and incredibly special snapshots of rural, Timorese life.  Mountain ponies, stoic, stunted but sturdy as they go about their daily work conveying agricultural produce (coffee and vegetables) to and from the surrounding mountain villages. Sun-dried coffee beans blanketing open spaces between narrow streets.  The ubiquitous pool tables, enjoying pride of place in high streets, mobbed by young men exercising their very best cue shots but due to the impoverished nature of the community, will more than likely never be able to partake in their favourite tipple.  Instead they seek solace in inexpensive ‘grey cigarettes’ of dubious origins, home-brewed palm wine or chewable dried betel nut. The small fresh produce market is well worth a visit and if you procrastinate long enough you’ll undoubtedly stumble across varieties of freshly baked paun  (Portuguese or Indonesian-styled bread rolls) which are an absolute treat when opened and filled with finger-sized, organic bananas that taste like no other bananas in the world.

Maubisse street scene with cofee beans drying in the sun and local transportation en route with another delivery of coffee or vegetables

The quintessential billiard table with young men from Maubisse honing their cue skills - a bizarre yet favourite Timorese pastime

In no time we reached the mountainous village of Hato Builico, our final destination and staging point for the immensely popular pilgrimage to the summit of Mt Ramelau. The Blue Mountains East Timor Friendship Committee is an enduring partnership initiated by the Blue Mountains City Council (comprising community members, councillors and council staff) designed to develop grassroots tourism within the village itself and the broader district as well. Evidence of their excellent work was to be found in the village which now boasts two guest houses and a core group of local mountain guides that are prepared to accompany trekkers on a number of guided walks. Further information can be accessed via http://www.bmcc.nsw.gov.au/yourcouncil/easttimorfriendship/.

Hato Builico - the staging point for many interesting day and overnight walks in the Tatamailau area complete with guesthouse accommodation

Gearing up for the stroll to the summit of Mt. Ramelau at the recently completed trailhead close to Hato Builico

I was unprepared for the popularity of and development along the Mt. Ramelau route expecting a more rustic experience and a trek/summit of rather more epic proportions. Instead, we faced a short, sharp uphill push partly along contour paths, approximately 90 minutes in duration, arriving at the overnight shelter which is actually a sacred house and chapel located in a sheltered, bowl-shaped area below the summit. We arrived in time to witness a splendid sunset and then ‘bedded’ down (on very hard wooden floors) to spend a very, very long night. I spent most of the night fireside along with some of our guides and was transfixed, trance-like for hours by the memories, images, and stories locked in flickering shadows and burning embers.

Calling it a day - moonset in the west
A quick pre-dawn stroll of not much more than an hour along with countless, faceless others took us to the summit where we were greeted by a statue of the Virgin Mary in the fading darkness. On opposite horizons we were treated to a celestial arm-wrestle, a harmoniously counter-balanced contest as vanquished (setting full moon) gave way graciously to victor (the rising sun) in a dazzling display of heavenly hues.  

Mana Maria welcomes weary pilgrims and adventure-seekers to the Mt. Ramelau summit

Dawning day

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