It is a grueling 7-hour bus ride from Dili to Maliana. I slept half of the time so I really don’t mind. I squint at the brightness of my mobile phone. It is 4am and I am notified by two missed calls from my friend who is now waiting for me along the dark highway.
“Why can’t we have a day time bus? Aren’t they aware that traveling at night is dangerous and inconvenient?” I can still hear her words in my head before she left for her hometown a day earlier than I did.
Before I departed Dili, I thought that overnight bus travel won’t be that bad. Besides, I’m used to it, even longer hours, when I was traveling in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. As I touch my dusty, tangled hair and stretch my numb legs, I share her sentiment now. My friend’s aunt is sitting beside me, her whole face covered with a shawl except for her sleepy but beautiful eyes. She is restless, looking ahead, as if searching for something. “Para!” She signals me to get up and points outside where my friend is waiting with her motorbike. I hurriedly fumble for my belongings below the seat, kiss both her cheeks goodbye, and fill my lungs with the fresh and cool early morning air as I get off the bus.
The longest bridge in Timor-Leste is in Maliana.
It is still dark and other than the reflection of the evening light on the tips of rice stalks, I’m in an ocean of darkness, which is comforting because here I can easily drown in strangeness…or maybe not. I know we are surrounded by vast rice fields. Maliana is the rice bowl of Timor-Leste especially during the Indonesian occupation when it supplied the staple food to the rest of the country. The pictures of my summer vacations in my mom’s hometown when I was young flashed before my eyes. I know I’m in a new place but my heart leaps with a sense of familiarity. Strangely, I feel at home in a strange, faraway land.
The next day, after visiting Balibo, we walk around Maliana as boys and girls warmly greet us along the way. “Botarde!” is always equipped with a smile. A girl walking with her friends while carrying water jugs asks, “What is your name?” ignoring the giggles of the other girls. While balancing my weight on narrow and slippery dikes, men and women give way and patiently wait for us to cross even though they carry heavy jars they filled with water from a nearby water pump built by an NGO. Timor-Leste is friendly and rumors are true that in this part of the country, people exceed expectations of warmth and hospitality.
We climb up a hill beside the rice fields and watch the small of figures of people perfectly balancing themselves, as if dancing, as they walk along the dikes and skip the waterways. The sun showers its magnificent setting colors and everything else seem dancing with a music and choreographed by nature. The fields are like soft green fur combed by the swaying trees above it. The clouds cast curtains of shadows over the mountain stages from afar. The dusk is fast covering the fields with blanket of darkness but I know that I’m safe and at home in the cradle of the night in Maliana.
Sadly, my stay is brief…but everlasting. I greeted Maliana at about the break of dawn and I’m also leaving it at the break of dawn the following day. It is a beautiful way of meeting and saying goodbye to a place like this. Dawn promises a new beginning, wakes the land with its warmth and light, and lifts the people up ready for the day ahead. I like to think that Timor-Leste is in this stage, waking up from a dark past it endured, and has now awaken ready to work for a brighter, peaceful future. So when the sun sets again, Timor-Leste will be stable enough to let the moon and stars of the night shine over the rice fields like that in Maliana where the tips of rice stalks glisten from the reflection of the evening light.