This is the text of a group email that went out to some friends in July 2015, while I was doing fieldwork in Timor-Leste.
Hi family and friends, I’m writing you from my new home for the next two months in Suai, Timor-Leste. (What? Where? Here! https://goo.gl/q1wtU9).
Many of you know the details of the project I’m working on, so if you’re sick of hearing me rattle on about it you can just go ahead and skip to the next paragraph where I start talking about how I got spattered with the warm blood of a sacrificed pig (that was today!). For those of you who I haven’t talked to in a while, I’m living in Timor-Leste/East Timor for the next two months. I’m here on a grant from the Canadian government doing documentary research into traditional music. I’m working with a Timorese NGO called Timor Aid as an assistant to Dr. Philip Yampolsky, a celebrated (and very friendly) ethnomusicologist who specializes in the music of rural Indonesia and surrounds. You can learn a bit about our project here: http://www.timoraid.org/suai%E2%80%93research.php
Yes, and, well, today I really did get sprinkled with pig blood. We (that’s Philip, the eminent ethnomusicologist, and me, the doe-eyed Canadian rube) attended a ceremony in a nearby village called Camenaça. We arrived at the house, met a few of the important elders, awkwardly claimed a plastic chair on the dirt pad in front of the house, and sat quietly, waiting for something and wondering what. Impossibly, 35 construction workers and engineers in blue protective overalls and bright green polo shirts (respectively) immediately descended on the place and turned it into some kind of weird rodeo, pulling up chairs and pulling out iphones. Seemingly important clean-cut engineer-type folks in pinstriped shirts took places on the dais (porch?) alongside the weathered elders; some put on traditional outfits while their employees snickered. Folks brought a pig around, slit its throat, caught the blood in a cast-iron pot, and dragged it away. OK!
After much confusion & hushed speculation we realized that this was a ceremony to bless the 2nd phase of construction on a pipeline being built in the area, and the overalls and engineers were upper-and-middle managers from the company building the pipeline. We all marched over to the work site and gathered for some speeches and a ground-breaking ritual, which is where I got doused with a bit of blood and coconut juice while taking photos. I’m glad I brought a weather-sealed camera.
We all (that’s Philip, his wife Tinuk, Rosalia from Timor Aid, our drivers Francisco and Carlos, and little old me) arrived here in the small-ish town of Suai on Wednesday, after spending about a week in the capital, Dili—a word which here means “an impossibly expensive place to spin your wheels while you sort out research visas.” From Dili the drive through the mountains to Suai takes about 10 hours on a very bumpy and very beautiful road. We stopped in the small market towns of Aileiu and Maubisse, and then again to take a photo in the most beautiful alpine meadow dotted with cows, and then again later at a very sad place that the locals call Jakarta. After many hours we arrived in the flat lands of Suai, near the sea, thick with picturesque thatched-roof houses called uma tali and full of teenagers who want to take my photo and add me to their Facebook.
East Timor is beautiful, I’m safe and happy, and I’m getting along very well with Philip and Tinuk. I’m trying my best to learn Tetun Prasa, a local language all mixed up with Portuguese. (Hau kokotuk apprende Tetun, maibe hau comprende ouituan deit. Favor ida koalia neineik loos!—I’m trying to learn Tetun, but I only understand a little. Please speak very slowly!). I miss my family terribly, though I’m able to talk with them almost every day (as long as I don’t run out of data on my phone), and I’ve been taking lots of photos of lizards and roosters to send to Bean.
What else can I say? We haven’t really started our work yet, but we’re getting close. I’ll be here until the first week of October, waking up every morning to the sound of a thousand roosters. If you’ve got WhatsApp, you can add me and we can keep in touch. If you see my wife, give her a big hug, and if you see my daughter, tell her something cool about her dad. I’ll attach some pictures for you.
All the best, my friends. I miss you lots!