Last but not Leste, East Timor

April 25, 2010 at 1:52 pm Leave a comment

Before I begin let me put to bed a nasty rumour that a certain member of my family has unwittingly circulated around East Timor (or as the locals call it, Timor Leste), a country where word carries as quickly as dengue fever. Gary and I are not siblings. There is nothing incestuous at all about Year Long Breakup and any suggestion to the contrary should be treated as nothing more than laziness on behalf of the offending O’Sullivan/Nolan family member to sustitute the sentence “my cousin and her boyfriend are visiting” for “my cousins are visiting”. An alternative explaination suggests a level of wishful thinking on Cillian’s behalf or possibly a collaboration with my would-be mother-in-law, although I am doubtful that even she could breach the Timor Leste communication barrier. Either way, we are not siblings, we are not cousins and we are certainly not married!

Now where was I? Oh yes, wedged into the back of a huge pickup truck balancing on a splintered wooden board next a woman who hadn’t bothered to tuck her breast back in her top after feeding her offspring (the offspring, being Asian, could have been aged anything between 2 and 20 although the cigarette in his hand suggested the latter) and whose engorged nipple is now staring at me. On my other side is a profusely sweating Gary.  As he shifts uncomfortably on his seat I can almost hear his thought process. Judging from the longing gaze he is directing at the floor I know he is framing what would be his best shot yet but his notion of common courtesy tells him that would be rude to whip out his camera right now.

Reclining on a sack of sugar on the floor is an old man dressed in a colourful sarong and an open shirt. Around his head he has wrapped another sarong in an attempt to tame his long, wiry white locks and along with his equally long yellowing beard, the headwear has given him the appearance of a character from Disney’s Aladdin. Just as I start to think he has dozed off, he rolls onto his side and pulls out a shiny green leaf and a small plastic bag. Steadying his hand as the truck pitches over yet another hill narrowly avoiding the edge of a cliff, he taps a small measure of white powder out of the bag and onto the leaf before folding the leaf tightly and pushing it into the gap between his black gums. Somehow managing to chew his product without any visible teeth, he looks up to find Gary and I staring at him in wide-eye wonder and offers us his biggest, blackest smile and a swig from his plastic bottle of home brew.

Along with the woman, boob and old man we are sharing the pickup truck with 19 Timorese people, 8 chickens, one pig-in-a-sack, 160kg of sugar, 60 plastic jugs, 6 potato sacks full of clothes and three babies which are being passed around the truck at random.

Travelling in Asia’s poorest country may not be as easy as it is elsewhere but it’s definately more fun and our bumpy, smokey (Timorese pickups are evidently run on coal), smiley, friendly four hour ride from Dili to Maubisse – only 70km in distance – was exactly the kind of adventure we had been searching for for almost six months now without success. Happily our destination was no less unique than our journey. A tiny town nestled high in the mounatins Maubisse has one hotel, no restaurants, 23 pigs to every tourist and a handful of shops where you can buy a lot of petrol and beer but no food or toilet paper. In Maubisse you eat when the hotel feels like feeding you and you spend your day either gazing at the majestic mist-shrouded peaks over a bottle of wine (once the ‘bar’ hasn’t already sold the one it had in stock) or trying to find your way back from the hike you stupidly set out on without a map 12 hours ago. With a car of your own, another few hours will bring you up to Mt Ramelau where you can climb to the summit to watch a spectacular sunrise and remember what cold feels like. 

The luxuries of home are, strangely enough, not a whole lot more accessible in the capital Dili than they are in rural Timor Leste with 2 litres of milk coming in at US$12 and even the most basic of vehicles costing an arm and a leg more than they do in the western world. Extreme poverty means that most locals still operate through the barter system so milk, cars and the associated taxes are largely the concern of the hundreds of NGO workers stationed in Dili. One byproduct of the barter system that adds a whole lot more colour to the capital city is the chickens and pigs that roam freely around dusty residential estates and main roads. As one expat put it to us “Have you never noticed the way so many Timorese carry their favourite chicken around with them? They bring it everywhere they go – squeezed onto the back of their motorbike or trotting about on the end of a lead. And when the chicken gets a cold they put its beak in their mouth and suck all the phlegm out of its throat.”

Unfortunately Dili can also be characterised by the level of damage done to it in the past by the Potuguese, the Indonesians and more recently its own people. Buildings once burned out by retreating Indonesian forces have not been rebuilt and entire blocks of housing were replaced in haste with ugly corrugated iron shacks. Empty lots have been filled with UN containers and closed off with barbed wire fences. Graffiti spashed across white-washed walls serves as a reminder that all is not well in Timor Leste. Definately worth a look is the CAVR Exhibition which offers a summary of Timor Leste’s history as well as a touching photo exhibition following the last few decades of turbulence.

For all its tragedy though, Dili is still an enjoyable place to visit. Hemmed by a beautiful stretch of beach, the city is alive by day with children splashing in the water or bike-riding up and down the esplanade. At night sections of the beach fill with plastic furniture and barbeques blowing smokey smells of cooking chicken and fish.

The expats also add another dimension to Timor that you don’t get anywhere else in Asia. With such a small community of westerners and such a low key tourism industry, any change at all is note worthy and we were amazed by how readily we were welcomed into their ranks with greetings of “Oh you’re the tourists, yeah I heard about you. I think there may be one other knocking about somewhere.” Only a few hours after arriving we found ourselves wolfing into a real Irish brekkie/dinner of sausages, rashers, pudding, eggs and toast before settling into couches on the porch to listen to Meabh and Michael play some old Irish tunes while Gary accompanied them on the tin whistle, pausing every now and then to say “I don’t play the tin whistle but I think this is how that tune goes…”

Of course Cillian was his usual hilarious, charming self and despite having to work like a dog in the days we were over he managed to put aside enough time to give us a tour of Dili’s many bars, restaurants, scenic spots, beaches, karaoke bars and local Tiger fuel station. Most importantly though, he filled us in on what it was like to live in Timor through stories about his life working for the CIA gathering insider information on cock fights and chicken welfare in Timor Leste and tales about ghostly grandfathers who have returned from the dead to patrol the borders. In his absence the wonderful Meabh and Catherine put us up and more importantly put up with us, offering travel advice, tour guide services and giggles dished up with a healthy dose of gin and tonic. They also taught us an overwhelming amount about land.

At the close of our week in Timor Leste we felt like we had been there forever but still not long enough. Given more time we would have dived with sharks and turtles at K41 – we managed an offshore trip to Dili Rock and were horrifically disappointed by both the diving and the tour operator, Dive Timor. We would also have made our way east to Jaco Island. A tiny tropical paradise, Jaco is considered sacred by locals so its perfect palm-lined white-sand shores are uninhabited. Word on the street is that visitors generally have the whole place to themselves and that even the most cursory of snorkelling trips will reveal hammerhead sharks and schools of turtles lurking in the crystal clear emerald sea. Maybe we would have even made our way to Oecussi, a small mountainous section of Timor Leste cut off from West Timor on three sides by a river and fringed on the other side by the sea.

Alas our time in Timor Leste was done so we bid a tearful farewell to our outstanding host and said our last goodbyes to Asia. Wish we could stay forever but Australia is calling. Adieu!

And now a word from our sponsors:
This blog post was generously sponsored by Sean and Marita Nolan, aunt and uncle extrordinare,  who do not encourage the riding of motorbikes.

More pictures from East Timor are available in the gallery

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