Friday, March 16, 2012


A mountain and a poet
January 14, 2012 //

I’ve touched very briefly on the turbulent and subjugated story of Timor Leste. Sometimes the history of a place can really be felt on the day-to-day; it wasn’t so obvious to me going through Dili (except for the massive UN presence) or through the districts on our weekend trip south to Mt. Ramelau, Timor’s tallest peak at 2,963 m (9,721 ft). Motorbiking through the district, Matt focused on driving, and I focused on waving and saying hello to people as we passed by.

Sandwiched in between the flat tire adventure on the way in and the flat tire adventure plus torrential downpour adventure on the way out, we were privileged to a fantastic hike on the last day of the year 2011 made amazing by the mountain and the people we were with. Everyone was supremely friendly and interesting (3 Australian ladies and a large group of UN Military Observers), but one person was able to put the experience in the perspective of Timor Leste.

Abe (pronounced Ah-bay), who was acting as translator for the UN Military Observers, is a Timorese musician, poet and community activist. I am not one to wax romantically, but thankfully Abe was.

Even though we all woke up to leave by 2:30AM to do a two hour hike in the dark that’s pretty much straight up, Abe brought his guitar. At the one-hour mark break, while we were all sitting seeing each other by torch, catching our breath and drinking water, Abe sang a song called, as far as I can tell, “Kolelemai – Foho Ramelau” written by fellow Timorese, Francisco Borja da Costa, sometime in the 1970s.

Francisco Borja da Costa was not only a musician and poet but also a leader of Fretilin, the Timorese Independence fighters, but in this instance he was helping fight for independence from the Portuguese colonizers. According to Wikipedia, “Borja da Costa died at December 7, 1975, the same day of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor.” Quite a polite way to say that he was assassinated by the Indonesian military; almost incidental that the two events happened on the same day.

When we reached the top, we all huddled in the cold and night and listened as Abe said a Hail Mary in Tetum, one of the original languages of Timor Leste, to Timor Leste’s patron saint, the Virgin Mary. There is a statue of her at the top. As the sun broke over the horizon, we could start to see the layers of mountains and then finally the thatched roof huts and potato fields that the Timorese eke out their livelihoods carved on any possible mountain surface (but just to note, Timor Leste is apparently one of the leaders in permaculture implementation in Southeast Asia). This is a country of fractals.

At the top, Abe sang Borja da Costa’s song again in the original Tetum, and read us the English translation after. I wish I was able to find a recording of the song online, because it is rousing and beautiful. Some of the poetry is lost in the translation:

Why does your corn not grow? Why doesn’t your rice sprout? Who causes your empty stomachs? Who causes your never ending sweat? Who is responsible? Who is to blame? Some say it’s because your lazy and stupid. Some say it’s because your lazy and poor. What is the cause of it? Who is responsible?
Hey, Mount Ramelau! What is higher than your peak? What is greater than your majesty? Why, Timor, is your head forever bowed? Why, Timor, are your children enslaved? Why, Timor, do your children doze like chickens? Why, Timor, do your children doze like slaves? Open your eyes, a new sun is over your village. Open your eyes, a new sun is over your land. Awake! The foot of the mountain is wide. Awake! A new sun has risen. Awake! Take the reigns of your own horse, Awake! Take command of your own land!

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