🎀 The River Girl

Second time in the country, looking for a photo.

Timor has always been a dream-like place for me. It was the first really big story I was sent on assignment for the paper, many years ago, back in 1999.

It was, as they say, a scary time, and it was a great time. The country was at a huge crossroad, trying to get away from Indonesian rule, after centuries under Portuguese control. A referendum was about to happen. The UN barely controlling the country, armed fighters from both sides everywhere. "Turmoil" can be used to describe the scene, others may prefer "chaos".

And we were sent there to witness the whole thing.

Long story short, I loved it. Being there, the country, the determination of the people. My love for Asia also grew stronger. My respect for the job, and those doing it, strengthened accordingly. Timor stuck with me.

Thirteen years later, I was lucky, again. Went back for a second round, with the same partner-in-crime too.

I had huge expectations. This time around they were celebrating their independence's tenth anniversary and, again, we would be witnesses to the whole thing. No fighting expected on this trip, a welcome improvement. Last time we were there I was airlifted out of the country, along with most of what was left of the press corps. Luciano had stayed back, with three others. The country was going up in flames. The hotel we had left hours earlier already looted and torched, while our plane was still standing on the runway. This time, I was going to try to bring my colleague back with me when the month was over.

We arrived in the country well ahead of the celebration cerimonies, and would get to work straight away, trying to figure out how the past decade had gone. At the end of the month the rest of the press corps from all over would fly in, together with their elected officials, to join the party. We felt privileged. We were.

A couple of friends were also in the city, part of the UN gang. We had company. It felt great.

The city had come a long way in ten years. The hotel had been rebuilt, and there were thousands of foreigners in the country. We stayed at a very odd, Chinese owned, hotel. A bunch of containers stacked on top of each other. There was a lot of commerce by now, and plenty of seaside restaurants, where you could have a very decent (and overpriced) meal.

Most of time was spent in the city, as this was also a very political-type piece, with lots of interviews, and off-the-record talks. We ended up only spending a few of days out on the countryside. Sadly, as these were the best days of the whole month-long assigment.

Going around the country was not an easy task, as the roads were (are?) close to non-existent, and the smallest of trips can take hours to deal with. Our journey would take us from Dili to Baucau, along the coast, and then up to Viqueque. It looked easy enough on the map, but it turned into the road-trip of a lifetime.

The first sign this could turn harder than expected came when we were trying to rent a smaller car, and the gentleman at the rental company advised against it, we should take a bigger one.

Before heading out we had agreed to add an extra task to the trip: we would deliver a crate of books to a school near Viqueque, who had trouble finding books and basic supplies, as do most of the schools around the country. The teachers at the Portuguese School in Dili asked us if we'd mind taking the load and drop it off at the school. We didn't, of course.

And so it was: we drove by the school, loaded up the trunk of the mighty jeep that would take us there and back, stopped by a grocery store to get some water and other supplies, and soon we were on our way.

This would also be my first time driving on the left side of the road, with the driver sitting on the right side. We sure picked the right place to do it. My colleague does not drive, and I'm really happy when they don't.

As soon as we left the capital we could see we were in for a treat. The roads were even worse than we thought and any kind of signage is surely a dream. Gladly there are not that many forks on the road and when we come across one, there's usually a kind soul standing close to help us out.

There are rivers to cross and huge, bigger than a car, water-filled potholes to wade through. All roads had been run over by water and we had to negotiate mud that stretched for miles. At the same time make sure we don't hit people walking on the narrow road, not to mention whatever jeeps and trucks we find on the way. Mostly from NGO's or some UN agency, always in a hurry, speeding all the time.

Slow driving has its perks and, with scenery like this, taking one's time is something well worth it. We stopped along the way at regular intervals. Sometimes to take a photo, others just to try to take it all in.

After a while we got to Baucau, the second largest city in the country, and started moving towards Viqueque. Mountain road, a different set of chalenges.

Little villages all along the way, with kids coming and going on the road, different uniforms according to the school they're going to, people working the fields, rice paddies, water buffalos, palm trees for miles, an that incredible smell of powerful nature coming through the open windows. They have the biggest and widest trees I'd seen as well. It's as good as it gets, and one of the main reasons why I do what I do. To be able to see these things, live through these, and try to bring a bit of it back, in photos.

We stop at a couple of the villages on the way, walk around, talk to people, go into schools when invited. Schools for kids, as well as schools for grownups. It's beautiful. We buy something from the local market or a stall, and move along. Still a lot of road to cover, and time is going by, quickly.

All through the day we slowly made our way and, by the time we get to the school where we were supposed to leave the books, all school activity is over for the day. The kids have gone home. Not an issue for us, even if it would have been much nicer to meet them, but the headmaster and assistant seem really saddened by our late arrival. We soon find out the kids were waiting for us all day long, someone had called in advance and told them we'd be coming by later in the day. They had prepared a thank you ceremony, and we, unaware, had missed it.

We apologize, and promise to be back the following morning. We get back on the jeep, as we still find the place where we'll spend the night, and the sun is gone for the day. It's also getting cloudy, rain will soon start falling. Getting a bit chilly and misty too. Not a nice place to be when that hotel we have to find is the only place where we can get something close to a good night's sleep. Hotels are hard to come by when you leave the city.

One more stop on the way, we were driving past a cemetery, I must get a photo. While I'm trying to figure out the best way to shoot it, another jeep is coming down a mountain track close to the graveyard, and stops for a chat, check up on us, making sure we're ok. A couple of NGO workers and their driver, also staying at the place we're trying to find. Good, we'll tag along. It's getting dark really quick, and the rain has arrived. Soon we're at the hotel where we're spending the night. I love the place with it as soon as we park our jeep. It's a simple house, in the middle of the most amazing mountain scene, lush forest all around, with a symphony of birds and other miscellaneous animals I already know will keep me up at night.

Rainbow bananas

The house of a guerrilla commander, converted into a sort of rustic hotel (loosely used term) with an amazing staff. That's how my Tripadvisor review would start, that's for sure. The rooms were very basic, but the staff made up for it, with an enthusiasm I've rarely found elsewhere. We had an amazing dinner, and soon we were lying in bed. As expected, I couldn't get much sleep. The excitment of the trip and the soundtrack of the jungle kept me awake for most of the night. That, and the heavy rain that just wouldn't stop.

We woke up before dawn, had a quick bite that had already been set up for us, goodbyes were said to the staff that was awake at that ungodly hour, and headed out to school.

The rain kept falling.

A handful of miles on a muddier-than-the-day-before road, and we were soon at the appointed place. I wasn't prepared for the reception they had set up. I'm not sure it would be possible to be prepared for that. It was still raining, so the kids were standing under the porch. All four hundred of them. They were singing when we left the car and made our way to them.


We had been told the story of the headmaster and this school the day before. A determined teacher who's been around since the old days of the Portuguese rule, then with the Indonesians, and now trying to make it on their own, as most timorese do. Her story is the story of this particular school in the middle of nowhere. She has to deal with the lack of books, pens, pencils, desks, chairs.. Everything is missing. Everything but the kids and teachers.

And so they had arranged a reception for us. I could feel the lump on my throat already. The teacher made a small speech. Then a little girl made her way through the hundreds of kids, dressed in a beautiful white dress, holding a plate with a handwritten sheet of paper on it, and two tais, the cerimonial woven textile they place around special guest's necks.

The little girl read the letter, thanking us for the books, and we were honored with the tais. I was glad I had a camera to hide my face with, as the tears were impossible to hold. We did nothing but bring a few books, we weren't responsible for getting them, just took care of the transportation, and this was too much. How can such a small country, with a population so modest in number, have schools that lack such basic materials? The oil money is going somewhere, but not to education, I guess.

After leaving the school grounds we had to find a place to park and regain control of ourselves. We crossed another small river, and parked on the bank, it was time for a long smoke. The water was not too deep yet, we saw a couple crossing over to the other side. I got the camera from the jeep. A few minutes later she came along. A girl, on her way to school. An umbrella to protect her head from a few drops, but no way to avoid getting wet, not with a river to cross. She took off her sandals, gently holding them with one hand, umbrella in the other, and waded in.

I knew had the photo I was looking for in Timor.