“Excuse us for staring but we’re not used to people like you here.”
Smiling broadly, staring intently, ten or more people seem to emerge from invisible crevices of the tardis-like space. People like us? We stare at each other, trying to ascertain whose alien features created such avid curiosity.
“Not too many tourists here,” exclaims Marjo, the group’s spokesman. Again, smiles suggest we’re a welcome addition but it still seems a little strange to the ear given our current location is the Kefamenanu Tourism Office.
The four of us arrived in West Timor a few days ago and have been letting the itinerary work itself out. One form of public transport seems to have naturally led to another new experience and today is no exception. Marjo promptly suggests a visit to his cousin’s village in the hills called Nai’seo and, as an added bonus, decides to join us. We enquire about his guiding fee but he just laughs; “I need more friends than money.”
Out on the road, we’re aurally assaulted by honking bemos. These minivan-taxis are decorated with unique combinations of tinted window stickers and unofficial personalised plates. Frisbee-sized speakers vibrating beneath bench seats are also standard issue as is a pair of teenage boys who share the responsibilities of driving, chain smoking and pumping up the volume.
After a bit of wheeling and dealing, we’re off in the canary-yellow Party Chick. The view of crumpled green hills is filtered through an outline of Brittany Spears’ breasts and accompanied by the dulcet tones of an Indonesian techno version of Wind Beneath My Wings.
Soon Nai’seo is stacked before us. The heart of the village is a cluster of earth and thatched roofs. Tetun-Belun dialect rules so Marjo takes the lead as elderly ladies appear in rainbow coloured weavings and jangling jewellery. They’re proud to share these fineries and request family portraits. Names are exchanged and a Portuguese colonial influence is exposed by quadruple barrelled monikers. Maria, who is seven, has eight names. Her Dad is very proud and tries to help us memorise all the gifts he’s bestowed upon his daughter.
As the portrait business slows, villagers decide we should see the sights. It’s possible to walk through the fields to a point where we can view the sun setting over the border with East Timor. Our now sizable entourage moves off and a football match, played with a semi-flat ball, is started: no set boundaries, teams are fluid and boys, keen to prove their mettle against an international side, draft us in.
Gradually the hill opens out into a gently rolling field spread triangular between tree-crowned hillocks. Golden light makes every object more singular, more vivid, and lounging is the order of the hour. The children, however, look at us like we’re broken toys so we share binoculars and cameras. Some snap away, model or become art critics while others have their eyes extended like superheroes and claim to see people on the border that is now drowning in a sunset.
Maria’s dad sits on a rise above us all: silent, smiling, radiating like a guardian angel.
The game that never ends makes its way back with news of a herd of horses and a child stamped ensues. The beating of hooves arrives before the silhouettes of flying tails and manes; children run one-way, horses the other.
Meanwhile, Maria and her friend draw knees to chins; thin t-shirts and flip-flops are no match for the encroaching night chill. TIME TO GO.
We flow down the hill amongst a tide of field workers. Red betel nut-stained smiles keep pace with us even though heads are crowned with bales of animal feed. Machetes, which have sliced, slashed, dug, and diced all day, finally rest in belts slung over vivid sarongs.
An aged woman runs from a field and presents us with a giant potato. At first, we stare blankly so she slices it with her machete. Nerves boil. How does she still have fingers? Do we have to eat raw potato? A nibble to avoid offence. Hang on… sweet, juicy, like a nashi pear with nutty undertones. Our smiles ignite others: everybody seems happy to have introduced us to bengkuang.
Back at the village Party Chick’s dynamic duo are keen to hit the road. The nearly-flat football is finally left in peace as the children wave farewell. It’s a dark, bumpy journey back to Kefa, which we pass by chatting with our new friend Marjo.