In the districts, #1

Several long-term Dili expats advised me when I first arrived here to go to the districts as much as I could. “Dili isn’t real Timor,” they explained, indicating, dismissively, the traffic-choked streets and air-conditioned Western restaurants and the gin tonics at Skybar on dusky Fridays. “And,” – knowingly – “you’ll go crazy otherwise.”

From that description, the districts – an all-encompassing term for Timor’s municipalities besides urban Dili – seemed to me some mythical, old-world place of simplicity and purity: somewhere untouched by corrupt capitalist hands; where tradition reigned and women weaved and Coca-Cola, pop music and Adam Sandler were unheard of.

But I’m writing this post from an internet connection in Baucau better than the one I have at home in Farol at the end of my first trip to a district other than Dili. And that connectivity’s one of the things that’s surprised me the least.

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The ceremony commences with a procession

As part of its work supporting community-based agriculture in several Timorese villages, my workplace – an NGO called RAEBIA – organises a cultural ceremony called Tara Bandu. My understanding of this is that it makes land sacred, and in RAEBIA’s case acts as the inauguration of community-written regulations that govern how and why agricultural land can be used, in order to ensure climate-change resilience and sustainable land planning for the future. This week, my boss was invited to attend Tara Bandus in two villages, and invited me along.

Expecting the mental equivalent of a week’s worth of therapy, topped with culture presumably unseen by Western eyes (no pressure), I said an enthusiastic yes.

On Tuesday we visited a village called Cribas, in the district called Manututo, just to the east of Dili, and yesterday we went to a village called Wai-laha, just outside Venilale in the district Baucau (between the stops we stayed overnight in that district’s capital, which is – confusingly – also called Baucau).

While both districts were just as beautiful as I’d hoped – all lush dense palm forests and sweeping grey-green rice paddies and cool mountain air – I quickly realised as we tumbled out of the car at Cribas that I’d taken the expats’ romantics a little too literally: while the villages were undoubtedly quieter, less crowded and not as built-up as Dili (and I couldn’t see a bottle of Bombay Sapphire or a bodycon dress anywhere), I’d been maybe a little hasty in my imagining. The ceremony commenced to a flurry of shutters from five or six DSLR cameras and a pan-piped remix of John Legend’s All of You thumping from enormous speakers; then wove through something more traditional, with a procession of tais-clad men draping woven tais around the shoulders of the ema boot in attendance (literally “big person”, but here it means “important”) – then, the village regulations were read through a microphone, the ceremony continued, and we celebrated at the end with a communal lunch and dancing.

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I took my work’s camera to document the ceremony – and mistakenly (obnoxiously) assumed I’d be the only one with a DSLR. There were six of us and a videographer.

Yesterday’s ceremony took a similar track – to an outsider, appearing to seamlessly adopt the conveniences of modern technology in order to embolden a traditional ceremony (when you’re throwing a party for 200 people, you probably need a rice cooker and a microphone), which had a decidedly progressive, future-focused perspective – the regulations being inaugurated will ensure the communities’ resilience against climate change. I loved the blending of traditional practises with small-village hospitality and the picking of modern tricks without falling slave to them (as I held my iPhone in my hand to prevent it falling from my pocket while using a squat toilet, I instinctively went to check Instagram, and wondered who was really in control).

And, I loved the reminder not to take the directive to go to the districts too literally – while this week has been hugely different from my regular Dili life, some things, like the smiling Timorese teens practising their English on me, the honking microlets, the piles of white rice and the seemingly ubiquitous pipes of Mr Legend reminded me that while a trip to the countryside may well be soothing to an urban soul, being outside a big city doesn’t automatically mean Neanderthal (and, similarly, living in the centre of a capital city doesn’t necessarily scream progress – Farol internet connection case in point).

My first trip to the districts was fascinating and grounding, and while I’m excited to return to Dili (vegetarian protein! gin tonics! my friends! The Goldfinch!) I’m optimistically titling this post #1 because I hope beyond belief this is the first trip of many.

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