The Old Man Van gives up precisely at the turn-off from the main road to the dirt track that leads to our destination. Noxious grey smoke spews out from the engine located in the front cabin and my companions scramble out.
Shit, I think, crunching on the handbrake. How will I get us back to Beloi now? And it will be up to me, I assume. In Timor motor vehicles are typically a male or malae, foreigner, domain. In spite of the fact that I am travelling with a bunch of NGO gender equality advocates, I am the only driver in our all-female team.
I kick myself. This is a fairly predictable turn of events. The van, originally a gift to the land-vehicle-less fisher-people of Atauro Island by President Jose Ramos Horta, is fondly referred to around these parts as ‘The Old Man’. The Old Man is known to be sick. And I had seen the engine. I can’t claim much knowledge of motor vehicles’ inner workings, but I’m pretty sure that welded-together sardine cans do not a great engine make.
So here we are, on the side of a road in the middle of nowhere, four Timorese women’s NGO workers and one white Australian gender researcher. The landscape is such that we could be somewhere in Australia, perhaps the Northern Territory. It is all long dry grasses, the odd white-trunked eucalyptus tree and solid blue sky overhead. There is no breeze, no birds overhead, aside from us almost no noise. All this still beauty is a bit dingo-stole-my-baby creepy.
Graça is busy making silly fun of the situation, posing for yet more photos. For her this trip has been an amusing diversion from Dili work grind, topped off by daily seafood feasts. God, she could suck happily at a little fish carcass for hours. At this moment she is all peace-signs, giggles and hands on jutting hips until she is chastised by Edite.
I open the engine’s hood, gather together all our half-empty water bottles and yell over my shoulder that we will use the water to pour into the radiator. That is about the extent of my fix-it knowledge. I’m not sure that it will be enough to ensure The Old Man’s recovery.
But within the space of just a minute or so I find that the four women have begun exacting a plan of action that has somehow been determined without me. The van has become a hive of activity. Busy-ness.
Jovita from Atauro has whipped off her T-shirt. In a context where a stray belly-button is enough to elicit complaints that women are responsible for exciting men into rape, her naked torso does not induce so much as a titter from the other women. On one side of the cabin, she uses the T-shirt to unscrew the radiator cap. Edite, the matriarch of our group, is armed with a water bottle. The younger women, Celia and Graça, buzz around doing something indeterminate but sporting determined expressions. An un-PC joke floats through my distracted mind: How many women’s movement-women does it take to cool down an overheated radiator?
Operation Chill Out the Het-Up Old Man is eventually successful. We are so immensely pleased with our mechanic skills that when a white UN four-wheel drive passes by and two male peacekeepers offer us precisely half a litre of water, we send them packing.
Later that night, we are sitting around on Jovita’s back porch. I mention my relief that The Old Man eventually complied with our demands. Can we try to reach the village by boat instead tomorrow, I ask?
‘I don’t think we’re welcome, mana,’ Jovita says.
I am confused. The whole premise of the failed trip was that my friends’ NGO had been invited by women from the village themselves. Isolated from the movement for gender equality and women’s rights, apparently these women were desperate for some connection, some change.
‘Mana, we were in great danger today.’ Celia sees that I am not getting it. ‘The Old Man, he stopped just at the turn-off to the village. That land there is very sacred.’ Lulik. There is no easy translation into English to capture the sense of deep respect, and fear, that lulik invokes. ‘That was the first sign, the van not going on. And the second sign was the van’s back door opening by itself.’
I hadn’t even registered that.
‘That’s why we knew land spirits were about, trying to test us. They know we are outsiders, we bring change. Even Jovita, she is not from that part. And we are women travelling alone. Our minds are more vulnerable to their control. We had to confuse them, act confidently, like men.’
‘That’s why I took my T-shirt off,’ Jovita said.
‘And why I told Graça to shut up,’ Edite said.
‘You all knew? Without saying anything to each other?’ I said.
‘I took a bit to get it,’ Graça said. ‘And then I was really scared.’
From an NGO in Dili across the Wetar Straits, my friends had carried with them narratives of an inclusive modern nation and an international framework of women’s rights and gender equality. Assured urban elites, I’d seen them lecture deferential Atauro women and men. To each other and to me they spoke in development acronyms and Portuguese jargon. Up to this point, it had not felt to me that the women’s professional selves inhabited the same evaluative universe of the locals.
I asked my friends what the land spirits could have done to us, if not for their response. Rai fila, they told me. The land would have turned on us. We would have been stuck in that landscape, lost in a parallel universe, with no concept of time. We would have vanished.
For the first time, I got it, and not just at an intellectual level. I felt it, down to the hairs prickling on my arms. What it means to be a woman advocating for change to gender relations in Timor. It is not just the human world that must be navigated and negotiated and endured and bargained with. That’s hard enough. But there is another world, too, a world invisible to me. Sometimes this spirit world is supportive of women’s efforts at justice. But sometimes it also tests women pushing the boundaries; it must be approached with both respect and canny.
I wondered if I had not met a spirit that day.