We are getting to the end of the six-month dry season here in Timor-Leste, which means squeezing in the last of the national travel we can do before the rainy season washes away the furthest reaching roads. In September, we went on a five-day mountain adventure, which included angry grandmothers, kind nuns, nights in every type of accommodation, and rides in every type of vehicle.
In Timor, there is a strong tie to the Catholic Church. Many boys and girls know from a young age if they want to become a nun or a priest, and many social activities are done through the church. So, when the nuns in our town asked if we wanted to head to the other side of the country to attend a priest ordination ceremony, we could only possibly say yes.
Day 1: Liquica to Suai (12 hours)
As you can see in the photo above, Google Maps in Timor lies and we went down to the southern coast of the island. While a private car might be able to cross the island in less than 6 hours, the road conditions worsen the further away from the city you go, and we don’t typically ride private cars to begin with.
Our journey began just as the sun was rising pink in the sky of our town. With us were two fellow volunteers, waiting for the nuns and the entourage of trucks to pick us up and take us to Suai. We were under the impression that only a few member of the local community would be going on the trip. However, around the corner came one small angunna (open back truck) and one large gravel truck. Both were overflowing with people and their bags, arms and heads hanging out the sides of the gravel truck, and even the little angunna looking like there was little to no space to sit left. With the help of the nuns organizing people, we managed to get in with our bags, bracing ourselves for the bumpy, windy roads we would be riding for the next 12 hours.
What the gravel truck looked like for 12 hours.
After about 3 hours we had our first pit stop in the Aileu central area. The nuns whipped out giant bags full of bread and boxes of bottled water—literally out of nowhere! I should mention here that the nuns in Timor are literally my favorite people on the whole island, being motivated, kind, and ready for any and all situations. We got out of our angunna, and the gravel truck unboarded too, stretching out and taking a seat after standing in the bouncing truck for too long. Then, our first delay promptly began. The road we needed to get onto was closed for the next hour or so, due to the annual Tour De Timor bike race. So, while the nuns tried to negotiate with the police blockade, we wandered about, met up with a volunteer in the area, and snacking on what we could find.
Thankfully, the police allowed our cars through, and the nearly 70 people with us got back into the truck and didn’t stop again until we hit Maubisse, a large mountain town where the nuns had a convent where we could have some instant noodles and fruit for lunch. The air was so cold and crisp, even with it being around noontime. It was such a relief, after almost a year of living in 80 to 100 degree weather. After an hour of rest, we went in for the long haul, and six hours or more would pass before we reached our destination. Here is what you can see on a road trip through Timor:
The mountains were much more jagged in this region, and the land much more lush and green. The southern side of the island gets a double rainy season, and it showed. While my town struggles for water all through the dry season, the south has water coming out of their ears.
Dusk was closing in when we finally pulled into Suai and into the church where the next day’s ceremony would be held. After much needed vegetables and warm, whole food, we were shown to a boarding house in the area where the 70+ people from our communities would be staying the night. Because of us being foreigners, we were given a separate area—the floor of a second story, tree-house looking balcony. The night breeze cooled us down—Suai was hot like the area we live in in the north—and after bathing and settling in for the night, we passed out on the wooden planks.
Day 2: Suai Church Ceremony (4 hours)
Bright and early the next day, we awoke to find the boarding house bustling, and half of the people were already dressed in their church clothes. After about two more hours of this, and waiting to use the bathroom and getting dressed, we hopped back into the angunna and gravel truck to get to the church. Even arriving over an hour early for the mass, the church was packed and people were beginning to find spots of shade outside the building. There were large speakers mounted on the grounds so that people outside could here the service as well. For nearly two hours, we stood observing the mass and the ordination of three priests. The mass was also celebrating a massacre that happened on those grounds about 20 years ago, during the Indonesian occupation of Timor. We prayed for their souls, and that such violence would not occur again.
For the last hour of the mass, my friend and I went off to look for an ATM to take out money for the rest of the trip. Conveniently this included buying and devouring street meat, and then waiting outside the church gates for the service to end.
Back at the boarding house, we packed up, and prepared to part ways with the nuns. Being the weekend, we were free to travel on our own, and the next day were due to continue on to Same while the nuns returned to the northern coast.
Day 3: Suai to Same (7 hours)
Getting from Suai to Same was a trek and a half. When we were planning this portion of the trip, we simply assumed that there would be buses connecting the two hubs, as they were both fairly large. However, we found that buses only ran going to the capital, and Same not being along that road proved problematic. Lucky for us, we found some guys who would drive us there for $100 in their angunna. Several other volunteers were traveling in the area at the time, and so we piled in together to split the cost as much as possible.
If we thought the roads getting to Suai were bad, we were in for a rough going to get to Same. It was no wonder that buses didn’t run back and forth—the road wasn’t so much of a road, and more of a pile of dusty rocks. The worst part? We would drive past sections of gorgeous highway that made me feel like I was back in the States. Only problem being that it wasn’t finished yet so we couldn’t get onto it! Agh. At any rate, we chugged along, taking a break at a river, before going on to our destination. Driving rough roads like these ones takes much more endurance than my pre-Peace Corps self could have ever imagined, and I sat in the car patiently waiting for the end of the day’s journey.
We hadn’t figured out a place to stay for the night yet, as we thought we might camp in Same. However, we got lured into the Hotel Liurai, just a few minutes’ drive away from the central area of the town. The other traveling volunteers were staying there, and when we walked in, we knew we would end up staying there, too. There was running water and good bed, and meals on the premises. They even had a pool! If you ever find yourself in the middle of Timor, go to this place. It is truly wonderful.
Day 4: Same to Seloi Kraik (5 hours)
After staying one glorious night in Hotel Liurai, we left, hitchhiking our way from Same through Maubisse and all the way to Seloi Kraik. This hitchhiking took three vehicles (mostly angunnas) and was much shorter than the last couple of days of travel. The roads were paved, except for a very short portion right before Maubisse, and the drive beautiful.
Seloi Kraik is actually the site of another volunteer. It is also a large farming and rice paddy community, known for its vegetables and large lake. It is a small valley surrounded by mountains, and you feel a bit like you are in a giant fish bowl. The volunteer living there led us through the rice paddies, to the lake, and made us do some weeding for him in his vegetable garden. We stayed with his host family, and had an excellent meal and even better coffee. It felt like a September back in the Northeast where my family lives, with crisp fall-like air, and a calming atmosphere. It felt good to be in a place of friends and family after our days on the road.
Day 5: Seloi Kraik to Site (4 hours)
We left our friend’s site mid-morning and promptly hitched a ride down to the city. About halfway down the mountains and nearly in the city, I realized that I didn’t have my wallet. It wasn’t in my bag, pockets, or on the floor of the truck we were in. I was in a panic because inside that wallet was also my phone and bank cards for here and in the States. We called our friend, because I suspected I left the wallet in one of the rides we hitched, which was thankfully with a friend to the volunteer living in Seloi Kraik. We waited in the bus terminal of the capital, waiting to see if we would be going back up the mountain to get the wallet or not. One call from our friend and we had found the wallet, and instead of us going back up, the man whose car I left it in would come down to Dili to bring it to me. For all the difficulty that living here might bring, the Timorese really do look out for one another and had I lost my wallet in the same way in the States, I don’t think I would have gotten it back as quickly as I got my wallet back that day.
After a well-deserved and hefty meal, we returned home tired and happy, and ready to get back to the grind once more. Peace out,