The blackened tip of Francisco Martin’s pinky reveals that the young professor went voting the other day. It’s been exactly 16 years when Timor-Leste gained its independence from their invasive neighbours of Indonesia to become one of the world’s youngest countries. These days, talking politics and economics rekindles Timor-Leste’s most fiery debates. Which of the 33 parties has the striking idea? Which politician really fights for a thriving nation and not for the secret bank account? What to do if within the estimated ten years all oil & gas reserves in the Timor Sea are dwindling and thus in fact nine-tenths of the national budget? How to launch a nationwide state tax if 90% of the country maintains subsistence farming? How to link these subsistence farmers to commercial markets? How to establish jobs for the nearly 1.3 million hungry mouths? How to set up the infrastructure to boost tourism? How to keep the educated folks in the country, if there are no jobs awaiting them after uni graduation? And not less important, where do the investments come from? Which ones lead to a long-term economical dependency, and which promise a sustainable profit? There are plenty of uncomfortable questions the country is currently facing, and probably a hundred times as many answers. Nevertheless, the roughest time is over, and the tiny nation is inching forward. Step by step or ’ida, ida’ as they’d say in Timor-Leste. With the touchdown on the runway Francisco is noting down his phone number. Just in case I’d need help.
Coastal city Dili – the country’s focal point of social transition. A scent of road dust and fried chicken sloshes through the salty sea air, as I’m roaming the capital on foot. Bulky SUVs as well as Suzuki minivans called ’microlets’ glide past, those passengers who couldn’t find a spot inside of the main local transport, dangle with half their body out of the constantly opened side door. Brick barracks and soulless concrete constructions line the main street. Fairplay! Every now and then, a magnificent Portuguese building answers the mess of brutalist architecture and the shelters of Dili’s working poor. Some of these colonial landmarks have been properly renovated to host the governmentals, whilst others have been taken over by the vegetation or gaffiti sprayers. At the shop of a Chinese merchant with his broad range of bits and pieces, I make a turn into a side alley where christian chants compete with the adhān of a muezzin. But also the veggie dealers are busy reaching out to their crowds by announcing their fully loaded hand carts with pumping Reggaeton. Timor-Leste’s capital is sighing for charm, yet shines with an odd jumble of long-established, indoctrinated and immigranted culture. Recently, Dili has entered the era of stability and optimism, evening curfews are passé as most of the rivaling street gangs have switched from fishy matters to more promising careers. What noticeably sustains, is a flux of the past struggle and the hope of a better Tomorrow. The well educated and mentally poor, the have-nots and nouveaux riches, the wise and the fools – About a quarter of the country’s population mingles in the mini-metropolis in search of prosperty, because here are the universities and the few jobs opportunities. Although Dili might be considered the brain of Timor-Leste, the ’sukus’ (villages) remain the young nation’s heart and soul.
“Hey Kollega, where are you?”, mumbles Francisco’s voice through my phone. Half an hour later, I am being picked up. We stop briefly at the non permanent sales booth of a fisherman who’s presenting us his fresh catch by shining a torch at it. As suggested, I carefully hang our dinner onto the side mirror of Francisco’s car. My new friend lives quite outside the city, firstly because the costs per square meter doesn’t screw up his earnings, secondly and even more important, his three sons Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez shall grow up as close to nature as possilbe. “Obviously, the priest wasn’t very tempted to baptize my son by the name of Fidel Castro, as names of notorious freedom fighters are virtually a no go for the Christian commune. But I aimed to fortify my son’s character by giving him a strong name”, I’m being informed. Sure enough the human resources manager of Starbucks Timor-Leste or Loos24 Bank will be reacting alarmed if little Fidel decides to submit his job application letter there one day. However, I’d probably meet “El Che” later on, Francisco has sent him into the woods to scout for some birds with an air rifle. So he may learn some survival techniques – just in case. As Franciso’s wife Mathilda deep-fries the fish, we men linger over a coffee. After three-hour long debate on education, culture, as well as the fiery topic – quo vadis Timor-Leste? – my head starts humming due to information overload. Anyway, that’s all fine, by lucky chance I’m being taught by a smart professor who is lecturing social science in one of Dili’s popular universities and a genuine activist alike. Because of his work as a translator for the peacekeepers of INTERFET he has well-established a kollega-network throughout the country. So then, let’s address the main topic of tonight. My friend already knows the outline of the plot since I’ve announced my foolish mission during the outward flight – I intend to adventure crosscountry in style, thus I need a horse! It should be as handy as possible, modest, strong and fearless – in short, all the typical features of an average Timorese combined in 1 horse power.
Francisco grabs his camouflaged phone: “Ah Kamarada Nelson, you need to help a friend of mine!”
By tomorrow I should be ready for takeoff, this allows some time to collect whatsoever useful info and perhaps, to make new friends. In the coffeeshop around the corner I bump into the Kazakh girl Dilyara which turns out to be perfect timing. As is generally known, her country is overrun by horses, so I’m getting straight to the main subject. A little change in mood can do amazing things to the tone of a person’s voice. Full of excitement the young Dilyara recounts the mighty white mare that she had been given from grandpa for her 12th birthday – Great! Here there stands a girl who eventually gets a horse, if she’s begging for! On request Dilyara unfolds some insights about horse whispering. At a glance: “The horse feels what you feel. If you are afraid of the horse, the horse is afraid of you. You have to set the tone, then the horse will follow your order. Riding a horse is like meditating, you must feel the flow of energy between you and your companion.” The three expats Tracey, Morgan and Kate get wind of the story. With the gracefulness of ravenous vultures, the trio surveys my project as if I were already close to the death. “Finally there’s something exciting going on in this tedius place!”, I’m told, followed by some suggestions – I should list my riding skills, explain the route in detail, post on the secret Dili expat group, but most important; join the party tonight. I happily agree, but for now I must take care of quite a personal issue. Recently, my right testicle has swollen to twice the size of the left testicle. Not only does this look hideous, it also feels quite hideous. Just at the thought of sitting on a horseback, my hair stand on end in the lower region. Thus, I’m cruising over to the clinic nearby for a quicky with Dr. Wuzhoung, in the hope that traditional Chinese medicine will create a redeeming effect. Pants down – some fumbling – pants up – conclusion: testicular infection! “Take care with water hoses on Asian toilets!”, Dr. Wuzhoung mentions casually, handing me a sack of ’traditional’ Chinese antibiotics.
New York has its 230 Fifth Rooftop Bar, London the Sky Garden and Dili hangs out on the fourth floor of the country’s only shopping mall. Morgan looks a little skeptical if not worried, and points at Tim. “Tim is a doctor,” she whispers. “No need to worry Morgan, everything’s fine!” But the topic ’swollen testicles’ is already spinning through Dili’s orbit. Morgan mumbles something into Tim’s ear, whereas he immediately takes up a doctor’s pose, gently falling back in his chair and putting his palms onto each other. He’s obviously ready for the patient’s health report. For the sake of distraction, I’m letting my eyes wander through the busy location. On the dance floor, the crowd goes wild, there’s a broad mix of visa runners, expats of all sorts, a handful of tourists and not least the Timorese nouveaux riches. I’m not quite conclusive what those fairly styled village beauties are up to, since a drink costs roughly a tenth of their monthly salary, if they have one. I’m okay for now and take flight, preparing myself mentally for all the adventurous bliss that awaits me within the upcoming weeks.
Are cowboys still en vogue? Argentina’s gauchos? The Marlboro Man? Sure enough, their era has gone, archived in the warehouse of nostalgia. With joy I recall certain spaghetti western films featuring tough heroes and antiheroes gifted with toxic masculinity. Those dominated a good deal of my tv consumption back in the days. Hence, it’s high time to tackle another childhood dream, and to experience the trivial reality up close. As the cliché goes, little girls crave to own a pony, whilst the reckless boys aim to ride on a mighty mustang! But according to my research Timor-Leste is hardly a Mecca for mighty mustangs, rather a pony farm. Well, I actually know very little about horses. To be honest I only know where the front and the back is, consequently it might makes sense to start small.
The Timorese pony in brief
- Height: from 100 cm to 120 cm
- Use: riding and transport
- Special features: daintily built, undemanding, persistent
Some preparation doesn’t hurt. My knowhow is based on various sources
- The latest issue of ‘Wendy’ (Germany’s infamous magazine for horse-loving young girls)
- ‘The Horse Whisperer’ (a film based on the novel by Nicholas Evans) I fell asleep with both attempts.
- Not to be underestimated; my memories on Zorro, Bonanza, Lucky Luke, Charles Bronson and The Lone Ranger.
Packed cheek by jowl with livestock and humans the Schwarzenegger Commando is heading to Balibo Vila. “Peu importante, oú, quand et comment, quelqu’un doit payer”, illustrates muscle man Arni through the print on the minibus. In case his gaze doesn’t kill immediately, grenades and combat knives would help out. As for our case, we passengers pay with the fear of landing in the next ditch while our driver is shooting forward. Assumably that’s a good time to distract myself a bit, therefore I’m working out a rough master plan:
- Find a suitable horse
- Understand the mechanics
- Learn the art of Horse Whispering
- Improve the coolness factor
- Ride heroically into the village on the other side of the island
Balibo Vila. The tiny village in the far West Timor-Leste still appears quite like in the award-winning film “Balibo Five” from 2009. Nelson Baros is already waiting for me. He received Franciscos briefing and is keen to support my mission, at least to help me find a suitable horse. The ponies were once introduced to the nation by the Indians. In turn, the Portuguese sandalwood dealers trained them to transport goods. Ever since, horses have played an important role in Timor-Leste, and thanks to extensive savannahs they have multiplied magnificently. Nelson’s grandfather was the Liurai (king) of Haoba, one of the many feudal kingdoms on the island. Back in the days these Liurai had welcomed the Portuguese colonialists officially by riding to the meetup on a pony. Today, the horse-euphoria has faded – “apparently, we live in the motorcycle era!”, Nelson announces while walking me over to his Honda. As we drive, Nelson exalts the ’Kuda Completo’, that he was able to make out the other day. According to Tetum (Timor-Leste’s main language) ’Kuda completo’ refers to a horse with all the extras needed. Somewhere in the valley of Maniala we come to a stop. Horse owner Cornelis greets us warmly and leads into his backyard. A quick glance and the horse rears up, then races around the palm tree where it is tied on, after six rounds the distance to the trunk does not allow another one. Cornelis attempts to get closer and eventually calms it, meantime Nelson is giving me an eager look: “Good nee?!” – I somehow doubt that an untamed Mustang in the fur of a pony meet any of my purchase criteria. “No problem!“, says its owner Cornelis, flashing a confident smile. Ergo, I’m trying to make it clearer for them, because neither do I have the time nor the desire to tame an edgy pony, I just want to ride one. Both are nodding approvingly to this call for action. Another horse is about to be presented – calm and approachable. Nelson is giving me an eager look: “Good nee ?!” We clarify the contract details. Somehow the feeling arises, that they’re keeping me in the dark. To be on the safe side, I check how the animal would behave on the street?”Oh, no like car, no like motorbike, run away.”, sighs Cornelis. Well, at least he is honest if being asked. I turn to Nelson, shaking my head: “No good nee?!” My middleman seems to have another ace up his sleeve. Kollega Carlos shall fix it, but he might be busy today. He indeed is, Carlos caresses his shivering rooster, as the third round of the weekly cockfight in Maniala is about to begin. Men from all over the district are cheering up their favorites, smoking, betting – nothing out of the ordinary, just a good solid Sunday in an Asian province. Then the fatal knockout! Carlos pockets his profit and joins us, confidently grining: “Kuda completo? No problem!” The day after, we set off for a hamlet near Saburai. There it it grazes peacefully, the pony according to my wish list! Elegant design, well-fed and well-mannered. The local Adat (chief of culture) Kandidu Tilman alias ’Apa Diru’ is happy to sell it. He’d later tames an other wild horse. So no clearance sale? Certainly not, promises the 65 year-old veteran, as 271 USD are flowing from the state to his bank account montly. A monetary ’thank you’ for the fact that Kandidu had killed many invasive Indonesians. Timorese cities had already fallen, when Apa Diru stalked for another three years steadfastly through Maniala’s mountainscape to fight Indonesia’s military with his entourage of about a hundred guerrilla comrades. However, many of his comrades didn’t make it, not only because they had been killed in crossfire, but also due to exhaustion or lack of food. Although being close to death, their animistic faith in ’Lulik’ (Tetum for ’sacred’ or ’taboo’) drove them to withstand. A fair amount of the Timorese still believe in otherworldly power of their ancestors as well as the spirits which inhabit the parallel world. Taking the old man’s tale to account, the independence of Timor-Leste was thus alone due to ’Lulik’.
To this day, Apa Diru is an illustrious figure in the area, because over the decades he has produced not less than !30! Children with ten different women. I’m puzzled because the adats are usually considered respectful folks. Nelson explains: “There might be royal blood from the ancient time of the Liurai flowing through Mr. Tilman, thus it provides various benefits to mate with him.” Kandidu’s offspring has spread throughout the island and in case there’s an issue coming up, the expansive clan would stick together. Although this is certainly a rare case, it’s still about family affairs here in Timor-Leste. Apa Diru holds up the tail of the pony, either that I can recognize its sex, or he means to show me the firm hind legs. To no one’s surprise Nelson gives me an eager look; “Good nee?”. Yes, so far so good! I pretend to be familiar with horses and ask for the condition of its teeth. Grandpa smiles mischievously and tightens the pony’s mouth. Apparently everything looks perfect. Hence, only one more question remains. Where is the saddle, where the ’Completo’? Carlos comes over, presenting a plaited pillow which is to be tied around the horse’s belly and tail by the use of rope: “Kadeira,” Carlosproclaims. Fine. Fine! Time to surrender. Benjamin drops by, introducing himself as the village chief. Although he graduated as a financial professional, he currently works as a truck driver and a cow breeder. „Yeah, that’s a tricky thing with the saddles!“, Benjamin explains. The Indonesian occupiers had either shot most of their useful horses, or they brought them across the border. Their good saddles were all burnt. What remained are the traditional ’Kadeira’ and a few wild ponies.
The next morning the village community gathers to celebrate my farewell. But firstly, the spirits of the ancestors need to be asked for permission. If one of my ancestors would not approve my mission, Apa Diru could interpret this in the blood of a sacrificed chicken. Right off a chicken is being beheaded, then its stomach dissected and critically analyzed. The Adat solemnly announces that nothing is in the way of my expedition. Nelson, Carlos, Benjamin and all the bystanders moan in relief. On request I’m being taught a five-minute dry run.
- Brakes Pull the rope tightly towards me
- Gear shift (gallop) Soft kick into the pony’s stomach
- Forward Let the rope loose, command “Hoouu”
- Backwards horse study needed
- Left Pluck the rope to the left
- Right Pluck the rope to the right
I will probably take a look at further expertise like croupade, dressage deluxe, flying galopp and quadrille somewhen tomorrow. Let’s put the idea to test – Rodeo Round 1: Elegantly I swing myself on the horseback, but the pony catapults me on the ground in no time by bouncing with its hind legs. Round 2: Ditto! Mr. Wuzhoung, Morgan and Dr. Tim would now howl out loud of sheer empathy. Round 3: Despite the bucking back of the furious pony I maintain position in the Kadeira for roughly half a minute, until I loose balance once again. And all of a sudden it becomes clear that choosing between dignity and entertaining the village is no longer an option. Whilst wiping off the dirt I pound back to the pack to have a word about ’fair trade’ with my reputed supporters. Everyone here knows what I’m up to, so it might just be nice to sell me a horse that wasn’t only in use to transport firewood before. To meet at least one essential purchase criteria – it should carry a person! Apa Diru takes off disappointed and Nelson needs to return to Dili quite unexpectedly. Since his commission is seriously endangered, after all, Carlos seems to take matters now a bit more serious. To confirm that, he again murmurs the magic formula: “Kuda completo, no problem.” Benjamin suggests to kill some time and invites me to join him. Together we venture to Maniala’s riverbed to get a load of sand. With great elegance the financial expert steers his eight-ton truck through the furrows. That’s what I call an allrounder, many UBS bank accountants would be astonished by this scene. Then the good news by SMS, Carlos has just found another horse. “Completo”, adds Benjamin with a hint of sarcasm. As soon as we have eventually repaired the broken truck wheel, we’ll return to take a look at it. Barely back in the Suku, I happily spot a galopping pony with the proud Carlos on its back. Heureka, it actually carries a human! A ’brownie’ with correspondingly simple exterior: brown fur, black tail, black legs and mane. I’m nailing the deal by handing over 400 USD to Carlos, who disappears shortly after. Benjamin has gone to look after his cows, and I spend the late evening observing my grazing pony.
Find a suitable horse -> check
The next day everything is back to normal in Saburai. Naked children are whizzing around, men are rolling a morning cigarette whilst their wifes vanish in the fields. Carlos evidently has a bad conscience and helps improvising the bridles (a rope), the saddle (a plaited pillow aka ’Kadeira’), the straps (a rope), the stirrup (a rope), and the saddlebags (two rice sacks and a rope).
Apart from the condition of my accessories ’made in Timor-Leste’ I’m already sitting on my pony’s back for five minutes without being thrown off. I sense that the whole lot of helpers are increasingly wishing me to fade. I’m riding into uncertainty.
Ain’t nuthin’ like ridin’ a fine horse in new country. Agustus McCrae.
A few miles later, my pony already slows down and turns its attention to cow manure and fine grass along the way. Since it had eaten during whole morning this is obviously about supremacy within the team, thus, I have basically two options, comprehension or ordinance – de facto carrot or stick. Suddenly I recall Dilyara’s knowledge “You have to set the tone, then the horse will follow your order.” I know a great deal about verbal communication psychology, but this hardly works with animals. According to the latest issue of Wendy (Germany’s magazine for horse-loving young girls), a horse whisperer dispenses with methods of violence such as whipping or even shouting. Therefore, I’ll necessarily have to enhance empathy, facial expressions and gestures. For now I cuddle my 1 hp companion and baptize it ’Xanana – the rebel’ after everyone’s darling Xanana Gusmão, Timor Leste’s former resistance leader.
We make it as far as Mabilua, where a swarm of villagers flocks down to the trail to greet us: “Malae! Malae! Malaaaeee! (Foreigner!)”, and not less seldom: “Jesusuuuu ho kuda! (Jesus on a pony!)”. Alfonso Lopes introduces himself, and as sort of commendation I am to get a traditional hand kiss, from him and some dozen others. „Kollega, you’re officially the first Malae in our village. I can’t think of anyone else who ventured crosscountry along the Timor-Leste Indo border, and certainly not on a pony. What a heroic mission that is!“. I’m delighted to hear so, and ask Alfonso for a place to sleep. Nothing easier than that, he immediately starts wiping the floor of his hut so that I may roll out my inflatable mattress. In the meantime, I sit down on the patio so that the 37 children (I’ve counted them) can ogle me better. The few who do not stroll to the place where the magic seems to happen are meanwhile busy carrying about 20 kilo of firewood on their heads, or they drag jerry cans filled with water back to their house, freshly tapped from the river which is half an hour walk away. Feeling revitalized from some cups of coffee I’m strolling a bit through Mabilua to check if there is some entertainment on offer. At first glance, the mountain village looks similar to all the other mountain villages of Southeast Asia, if there wouldn’t be the unique ’Uma Lulik (sacred totem houses)’. Depending on each region they are built differently, but the meaning is the same. The Uma Lulik represents the clan, it is the symbol of the community and its identity. According to the ancient Timorese belief, trees, stones, rivers and certain objects contain a special energy, and need to be worshipped. And the more handy relics called ’Sasan Lulik’ are kept in the Uma Lulik.
Portuguese missionaries dismissed the age-old Timorese tradition as superstitious nonsense not worthy of serious consideration, thus, on their Christianization expedition many Uma Lulik were burned down. Others vanished in the fires of plundering pro-Indonesian militias during the last wave of violence in 1999. I feel honored to be allowed entering the holy place of Alfonso’s grandparents, because it is usually only the family members of the closest circle that mingle inside the Uma Lulik as to discuss issues of regional importance. Once I creeped through the Hobbit door in a 90 degrees angle I’m already standing in what you’d call a blend of a kitchen alias bedroom alias common room alias fireplace alias garage. Although the small solar cell on the thatched roof suggests that there is sort of progress, but sill one won’t find a TV or a refrigerator in a Uma Lulik. There might have been a reason behind the architect’s decision to leave out vents and windows. Since neither interesting discussions nor fresh air are circulating in the hut, I can not stand it for longer and crawl out again, looking compassionately at the tied chicken next to the mini entrance. Apparently it’s awaiting the adat and his deadly ritual. Back at my host’s place, Alfonso’s mother tranquilly cuts the toenails of her newborn by the use of a machete. Meanwhile the men are lolling about and scan the situation: “He really looks like Jesus! – Are you certain? – For sure, I have a poster hanging at home. – What a foolish foreigner, buying Alfredo’s laziest horse! – Ha, now Alfredo will certainly be able to afford something nice. – Hm, what’s this Malae going to do next? – Oh that tobacco brand I have never seen before, let me try it Kollega!”, that’s at least I interpret their chatter. Unfortunately my Tetum consists only of a few phrases, which I have written down in advance. It seems to be worthwhile though, at least I’m able to explain my mission and clarify certain banalities. But actually, it does not matter that much, here they are satisfied as long as we smile at each other, and as for the kids, they are happy to caress my legs or to pluck my hair. Surprisingly, the euphoria about the Malae does not even fade when I’ve announced that I’m going to sleep, on the contrary, promptly a circle around my mattress is to be formed. Under strict surveillance of at least a dozen eye pairs, I doze off.
What a lovely prelude right after some group photos! Bridles on, saddle up, a jump and I’m riding off, just like I had imagined it once. After half an hour, Xanana begins to experiment with on-the-move grazing, another manifestation of my failure to establish dominance over him. Where are the features of the undemanding and persistent Timorese pony which had been highlighted so often? “Hoouu”, plucking on the left side of the rope, “Hoouu”, plucking on the right side of the rope, gently kicking into the stomach. We make some pirouettes, then, I can hardly believe it – we go backwards. Zorro, Lucky Luke and the Lone Ranger would laugh their asses off!
Understand the mechanics -> failed
For too long I have tried with love, praising my tiny horse for its strenght, but today I’m quite at the end of my patience. Xanana begins to dominate our daily routine with his allure. That has to stop! I get off and glance over to Indonesia, to the vast steppes of Maniala, and back to Xanana who happily rolls around in the grass. I must face the trivial reality, they’ve purposely sold me a cheeky gourmet who downgrades my ambitious project in favor of a casual jaunt! Marta and her two colleagues move up to us. Lucky they are also heading to Lebos and show some sympathy. Continuously looming with a twig, the trio scares my companion up and down the hills. Now the pony thaws and trots forward weak-willed. Somehow logical, since Xanana is a male pony, he needs to be forced by a women’s whip to work properly!
Learn the art of Horse Whispering -> failed
As we reach the river at Gildapil, Marta & Co leave for good. In exchange, Marco chimes in. He had received a notification that a supposed terrorist would roam the area. On a pony, to be more specific. However, as a police officer responsible for the region, he’s bound to investigate the case. While my luggage is scanned for fragmentation grenades and combat knives, I get a message from Francisco: “How are you Kollega?” – I’ll keep it short: “Well, I am considered a terrorist and my pony walks backwards!”. Over a coffee, police officer Marco explains the background of the local caution: “In Indonesia’s city Surabaya, a terrorist attack on a church was recently perpetrated and 15 Christians died. And Timor-Leste is well known to be Christian territory. That’s why we have to be careful.” I’m always astonished on how such headlines spread through social media and eventually evoke tremendous fear in the brains of the rural population. Surabaya, the second-largest city in Indonesia, is some 1’500 kilometers away, and the attack was rather politically driven to provoke chaos, the reigning government should be weakened shortly before the upcoming elections. Then a funny waving Swiss walks with a pony through the tiny village of Gildapil and is promptly considered a bombing ambassodor of the ISIS? Comon!! Perhaps it’s the untrimmed goatee? Or the local priest had recently read out of chapter six from the Book of Revelation? Am I really looking like the Messenger of the Judgment Day?Thinking is no mass sports, nowhere. Xanana seems to be bored too and yawns minute by minute, so I pull him the remaining miles to Lebos. Chris nods appreciatively and is so kind to hostme tonight. Unfortunately, pony parking lots are rare in the village, so he ties Xanana to a palm tree next to his house. What turns out to be a mistake, since on the following morning around half of his vegetable garden is missing.
Xanana’s mind games follow a certain sequence. In the morning he gives himelf tough, at noon stubborn, and rarely docile in the afternoon. It’s like daily building up a new relationship with him from scratch. After an hour, I’m reaching a military post with my over-eaten pony in tow. “Diak ka lae, Jesuuus? (How are you doing Jesus?)” The five border guards seem to have visits rarely and therefore long for entertainment. Over a coffee and some cake I finally immerse into the stunning scenery. A mackerel sky casts its shadows sporadically on wrinkled hills, and a pack of wild horses roams through pastel-colored meadows, feasting and neighing with great satisfaction. Novel writer Karl Friedrich May must have hallucinated this very scenery when he was sitting at his secretary in Kötzschenbroda (Sachsen, Germany). From now on, neither pulling, gentle facial expressions or roaring helps to make Xanana move from the spot. So what’s wrong, half of Chris’ garden should have been sufficient to endure until noon? Xanana gives me an apathetic look while whipping with his tail in unease. I remember, according to Wendy (the magazine for horse-loving young girls), a lashing tail indicates either flies on the butt or mental restlessness. Hm, up here it’s even too cold for flies. Commander João rushes to help and clarifies: “There are his buddies, the horse feels home.” Well, I can only think of one solution, João must join us and scare Xanana from behind. And this is exactly how it works, now the Pony-Express is rolling again. A few hills later, the commander returns to more reasonable duties and I jump on the horseback.
And get off again, as Xanana unexpectedly invites me for a rodeo. “Riding a horse is like meditating, you must feel the flow of energy between you and your companion.”, oh Dilyara, if you were here now, I would have so many questions! Since I had been successfully shaken off, my little gourmet friend follows his muse and nibbles on fine grass. I change the strategy – threatening gestures! While I’m happily enjoying the results, another tricky situation is brewing; Xanana catches sight of an alpha mare and cruises away. Normally, I would suspect such an upcoming disaster from a distance and pull the rope tight until we are outside the danger zone again. But Xanana seems as randy than ever and breaks free – I’ve never seen him gallop so fast before. Obviously, the pretty mare does not want to be mated. Surely enough she senses the bad genes. To point out her antipathy by the means of body language, the mare kicks with her hind legs, sometimes with the right, sometimes with the left, and often with both simultaneously. Xanana does not think of giving up and follows her in direction of the jungle. From afar I observe how the Kadeira and all my attached belongings slide sideways, messing up Xanana’s last chance for an alluring intercourse. Awkwardly he gets tangled with all fours in the ropes and the two rice sacks, but even so, bucking up and down in outrage he’s still stalking after all the mare until I see him disappear in thick vegetation. About three hours later, I find him motionless loitering in the thicket, drained, barely successful. My belongings are scattered elsewhere in the mud. I drag Xanana uphill back to the path, whip of the dirt and check route again – We have only managed seven kilometers today.
Improve the coolness factor –> tba.
Gravel road, wooden huts, shacks made of corrugated ironor concrete tiles without paintwork, communal toilet, and cheerfully waving villagers; the usual plot. If one imagines the scene without colorful T-shirts, this place must have looked exactly like that a hundred years ago. “Kollega, ba nebe …? (Where do you go my friend?)”, inquires the police of Suku Bele Kasak. “Oh, I’m just wandering the province occasionally bombing a wooden chapel, other than that, I’m not too busy today.”, As expected, the cops shrug their shoulders due to language barrier, followed by scanning my bags. Whilst my dirty underware is carefully analyzed, I’m served some coffee. Santos Gusmão introduces himself again, I had previously ignored his invitation to chat a village before. On request of Maukatars district chief Jorge Gusmão who also joins our little party for the purpose of more detailed questioning, Santos needs to help out as an interpreter. I am told that no western toe has entered the area since the UN left some 10 years ago, so they’d need to be careful. There they are again; the twomessengers of the Judgment Day, the apocalyptic death rider with his war pony. I’m trying to explain the purpose of my mission as plausible as possilbe. Sure enough, I’m being well aware that the motivation of the world’s population to show up here is quite limited, for obvious reasons. But this is exactly what drives me. I’m touring through the Sukus of Timor-Leste on horseback because I aim to experience the country’s genuine and unspoilt hospitality, if doing so I may discover the real soul of the young nation. – Santos translates, the whole lot nods in solidarity. Since it is now officially confirmed that I’m not after their daughters nor that I did mean any harm to their little church, Santos and Jorge pull away. And Suku-chief Christiano offers rice with vegetables and a place to sleep in his hut. As a nasty wind whizzes through the numerous cracks, the family of ten members joins neatless together on a straw mat above the concrete. A comfortable bed, clean sheets and privacy are out-of-reach luxeries from a different life, a parallel universe for all of us. Every now and then neglected dogs scurry around in search of leftover food or some affection, both seems impossible. Finally, I’m able to relax my painful limbs, to write, being for myself. By myself, plus all the little kids which are crowding next to my pillow as I draw out my diary, so close that I can feel their breath on my right ear. Each newly written character needs to be enthusiastically followed as if a completed sentence might open a door to another, thus, a more alluring world.
Downpour. Drizzle. Then again downpour. Everything I own – everything – is wet, and it would be three days before it wasn’t. Disgusted, I’m riding off. After a quarter of an hour, my Kadeira eventually breaks apart, and with it together my dream of riding. From now onwards I shoulder my belongings and tow Xanana. The fact that my pony walks now completely weightless it surprisingly does not improve his stubbornness. “Sae kollega, sae!!” addresses me one guy. Riding, seriously?? If you would know Kollega! I’m whipping with one hand while pulling with the other, until we reach the town of Suai completely exhausted in the late afternoon. Thus, after all, I have virtually mastered the width of the country by pony. To celebrate my achievement I tight Xanana to a palm tree next to a small shop and get myself a beer. My arrival does not only evokes interest from the dwellers of Suai’s outskirts, but also from Frans. “What a nice horse you got there, Kollega!”, chuckles the cop, adjusting his aviator glasses as he gets off the police car. He and his three mates happened to be in the area when the radio signal came in. If I’d be so kind to come along?
Well, I’m not riding ’heroically’ into the village on the other side of the island surrounded by a bunch of cheering village beauties as I had pictured it some months earlier. Instead I’m pulling my pony followed by a delegation of police to the station house.
Ride heroically into the village on the other side of the island –> failed
I’ve learned again that reality doesn’t match well with the nonsense of subconsciously formed expectations. But even if nothing goes according to plan, at least this as well will teach you some weighty lessons. Nathalia sits down opposite me – “The head of the investigation department, 48 years old and single” whispers Frans whitout her hearing it. Kick off for the interrogation session number four within seven days. Again the same trivial matter needs to be discussed – ’Malae with 1 Horsepower wandering the backcountry’. Two hours later, all details have been clarified, every single item of my luggage photographed and the case is to be finally archived. I beg Frans to accompany me to Rui Lopes. I have heard that the ex-administratior of Suai is a horse nut. Frans agrees, other than that there wouldn’t be much to do. As we reach there, Rui is gently brushing his proud Mustang. 60 racehorses does his stable accomadate, thus I’m super confident. Frans tries to convince him that Xanana is quite an impressive horse, persistent and undemanding likewise, as if made for the racing team. I’m following up, referring to its noble features and show him some photos of Xanana grazing. “Kuda completo, good ne?”. Rui seems to sense the problems and decisively declines with the explanation that he would not have any space left in the yard. I’m overlooking a fenced savannah as big as five football pitches with dozens of happy horses strolling around on it, then turning back to Rui who is gently shaking his head once more. Unfortunately this little paradise is not for Xanana. But such a well connected horse lover surely knows some interested buyers? “Well, the normal folks here in Suai are more into 100 up to 150 hp, but less into 1 hp. A used motorcycle would be much easier to sell than a used pony.“ clarifies Mr. Lopes, turning his attention back to his mighty mustang.
With my well-trained Mona-Lisa smile and some expired chocolate, I beg Nathalia to let me park Xanana in the police’s custody for the night. Then I contact Francisco: “Hey Kollega, Che Guevara always wanted to have a horse right?”
The horse is a mirror to your soul. And sometimes you might not like what you see in the mirror – Horse Whisperer Buck Brannaman
Only a two hours flight away from economic chaos lies the universal synonym for ’comfort zone’ – infamous Indo-Bali. A Timorese taxi driver who studied finance in Dili takes me to Sanur, where I’m about to sip some coffee while studying all the options of a promising menu. Live music contributes well to the ambiance of candles, switched on waiters and contemporary architecture. Then it comes over me – I cry. The contrast between the haves and the have-nots is too cruel. My thoughts still revolve around the experiences in one of the world’s youngest countries, There are places which I’m not capable to understand until much later, eventually when I’ve left and put it into relevant comparison. Timor-Este’s identity pulsates in the art of day to day survival, with only minor disturbance by its social transition. Even more I remain impressed by the nation’s rejoicing pride and unrivaled hospitality.
Once you’re here…
…Check out some photo essays from my 1 horsepower project or the village Suai Loro (where they still worship the crocodile) or my crosscountry hike from Timor-Leste’s highest mountain to the village Laclubar.