Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday

It's been six years since I've lived in a country that celebrates Easter. In Timor-Leste, Easter is a really big deal.

In Dili, for instance, the city is quiet -- shops, restaurants, night clubs, virtually everything is closed today. At home, people don't watch television, don't listen to music, don't spend a lot of time on the phone -- as a colleague told me, if you are watching television or listening to music -- your neighbor is likely to peck on your door and ask you to turn it off.

My colleague says Good Friday is quiet in Timor so that everyone can pay their respects to Christ -- and reflect on what happened.

As I was driving back from Maubisse today, on three different occasions I saw Good Friday processions along the roadway. Mostly young people walking and singing their way to church. I snapped this photo about 90 minutes' drive outside Dili, the capital.

Water Buffalo Relaxing Near a Rice Field

The Magic of Maubisse

For me, Eric Weiner's book, The Geography of Bliss, and the village of Maubisse, Timor Leste will always been linked. Weiner's book is about his search for the happiest places on Earth. I happened to read it while I was in Maubisse -- a three hour drive from Dili, the capital. Maubisse doesn't make it in Weiner's book, but I think it could be there.

I've been to Maubisse twice now -- and both times the place felt magical. The stress of Dili seems to melt away as soon as we get to the outskirts of town -- the roadway is almost overgrown by coffee plants. The forests are lush, birds are singing from atop the tall trees that provide cover for the coffee plants. The roadway is packed with people -- many smile broadly and/or wave as we slowly drive past. People are very poor in Maubisse, but they appear to be happy, genuinely happy. I see happy in their eyes when I speak with them.

I think it has a lot to do with living off the land -- growing their own fruits and vegetables as well as their livestock. I grew up similiarly -- near Asheville, NC, a town that did make it into Weiner's book.

Just like Asheville, Maubisse sits in a bowl surrounded by mountains. The temperature has been pleasant both times I've been there -- and I'm told that's the way it is -- almost always. Nights can be chilly -- a refreshing break from the constant heat and humidity of Dili.

One of my favorite stops is the market. It's always alive -- this time -- there are lots and lots of beans, pea size tomatoes, cabbages, potatoes and tangerines. Oh, the tangerines are absolutely awesome -- homegrown with loads of juice and packed with flavor.

Guava, too, is in season -- we bought a couple of kilos for about one dollar. My colleague told me that guava boosts the immune system -- and protects against the mosquito-borne Dengue Fever. I don't know if that's really true -- but if it is -- I am well-protected. These guava are about the size of a golf ball and have a sweetly-bitter taste.

The carrots in the market are huge -- some are as big as those small glass bottles of Coke. Carrot in the Tetum language is "senoura" -- pronounced like Senora. I'll take a couple of senouras, doc!

(Can you tell which of these two guys is from Maubisse by his smile?)

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Rough Day at the Office

Away to Atauro (Ah-tah-oo-ru)

Standing on the seashore in Dili, Atauro Island looks closer than the two hours it takes to get there by ferry. Since I arrived in November, I'd wanted to visit this island -- seeing it for the first time from the front gate of the hotel I stayed in for a couple of weeks.

I got my chance on Saturday to venture across the water.

As soon as the ferry gets close enough to shore, you feel you've stepped back in time. Small houses with palm roofs and bamboo sides stretch along the beach -- under the shade of graceful trees. When the ferry docks, the first thing you see as you walk on shore is the gigantic tree -- that perhaps a hundred people could stand under. It is quite crowded under there this particular hot day. Under the tree -- the temperature is much more reasonable -- the ocean breeze helps, too.

Turn right past the tree -- and you walk through the covered market -- almost no vegetables in sight -- I'm told the diet here is strictly fish. What you see in this market is dried fish -- pink fish, blue fish -- and lots and lots of sqiud -- hanging from strings.

If you want veggies, keep walking through the market and you can't miss Nemas -- a place run by an Australian guy named Barry. Delicious buffet-style mainly vegetarian cuisine. He can also put you up for the night in one of his eight little cottages along the beach.

The ferry makes the trip to Atauro once a week on Saturdays -- so four hours later -- I'm back on the boat -- heading toward Dili. I'm definitely going back to spend a few days and will catch a ride back to Dili with a fisherman!