Timor-Leste. The breaking point. So close, but never further away…
Hanging off one of the more distant of Indonesia’s haphazardly strewn eastern islands, you can find a little baby of a nation – Timor Leste – just 12 years old when Rat & Dragon rocked up. We’d covered 30,000km across the surface of the earth to get here from the frosty winter corner of Hyde Park, London. Funnily enough, when our minivan pulled into the dusty capital, Dili, we were about the closest we’d ever been to Australia, but one look around made it instantly clear – we’d never been further away.
We started this leg of the journey in Bali. It’s practically an Australian enclave, connected to its adopted “mother country” by a dozen flights a day to all Aussie capitals, plus a cruise liner or two, and an armada of cargo vessels and private yachts. You can get a Big Mac or skinny mocha frappachino anytime of the day or night. Everyone will speak English, and most of the locals will even greet you with “G’day”.
Here though, in this scruffy little town 600km closer to Darwin, it’s very, very different. Thanks to 400 years of Portuguese colonisation (muito obrigado) the local language is Portuguese. They flew back to Portugal in the 1970’s, leaving the locals to scrap for control, first amongst themselves, and then against the Indonesians. Things got dire and the UN stepped in to break up the tussle, before setting up some semblance of government and infrastructure. And a semblance is all that they’ve managed to cling onto to this day.
It’s a pity, because it’s goddamn beautiful. The sea is clear and packed full of incredible sea life. The mountains are lush and scented by raging crops of coffee and spices. Then there are the beaches. Wow. Our favourite is known locally as Christ’s Backside Beach. It’s a long, secluded arc of white sand, lapped by turquoise and fringed by coral reef. It’s hot, and there are no drink stands, so bring your own water. And a fishing rod.
Why “Christ’s Backside Beach”, you ask? Is it because of its semblance to the Good Shepherd’s booty? Hardly (who knows what His Holy rear end looks like anyway, and how could it look like a beach??) No. It’s so named because, just as in another, slightly more famous formerly-Portuguese-ruled city; Rio de Janeiro, there’s an immense statue of The Messiah, arms outstretched, and standing at the precipice of a dramatic promontory. He’s a little smaller than Rio’s, but still quite something to see. And since he faces across the bay and towards to centre of town, his backside faces the beach in question. No offence to the beach intended, of course. Sadly though, your Rat & Dragon crew had much more important things to do than laze about on glorious (and curiously named) beaches. Instead, we got busy looking for our way across the last stretch of sea. We were seeking passage to Australia.
So we tried everything. We broke into the docks, speaking to everyone from crusty pirate fisherman and salty sea captains to dockworkers and even the harbourmaster himself, visiting twice a day. We lurked around the tiny beach just off the yacht anchorage and pounced on any tenders coming ashore. We blagged our way onto an Aussie mining company’s heavy duty helicopter port, plied the shipping agent’s offices, chatted up restaurant and resort owners and even had local legend and ex-freedom fighter (now documentary filmmaker) Maleve on the case. While this was happening, we were also negotiating our next film project (the THL Campervan film series) and they’d asked us to start asap – the following Monday, in fact. We hadn’t confirmed the deal yet, we were just waiting for their green light, but time was running out to find a boat.
And then, just as it looked impossible, we found a container ship that was due to depart Dili on Wednesday and arrive in Darwin on the Friday. Perfect timing! This was our hottest lead yet after so many had led us back to the Dili Backpackers disappointed. We turned up at the dock on that morning. Our plan was to ask a crewmember to introduce us to the captain, who could ultimately make the decision as to whether we could board or not. We were packed. We had our passports to show. We were ready to ship off in an instant. We found our crewmember, and he broke our little dreams to pieces. He said he’d love to introduce us, and that he was sure it would probably have been ok for us to travel with them, except that just yesterday, the ship’s schedule was altered. Its Darwin-bound cargo had been offloaded and it was to return to Singapore instead. We had lost our chance. Missed the boat, as it were.
We could wait until it would return, he suggested helpfully. It would be back in 3 weeks. It was bittersweet, then, when the campervan project was confirmed and the start date was to be Monday. Yay – new project! Boo – we’d need to get a flight to make it there in time. Still, 30,000km overland to that point, and just a short 50-minute hop across the water to Darwin, where we knew we’d have a campervan to take us the remaining 10,000km across Australia. And it can’t be said that we didn’t utterly exhaust all other avenues. And besides, maybe sometime down the track we can make passage by ship, just to complete all sectors overland. But for the moment, our little setback gave us a chance to really take in our surroundings.
After Bali, the Indonesian side of Timor had been quite something. A small-ish town stretching from a large port Northwards along the coastal road, Kupang has its own small yacht club that hosts events (one of which we crashed) for passing groups of leisure sailors from all over the world. A couple of high-end hotels enjoy the sea views and the night markets team with curious and friendly locals always keen to add you on facebook, share everything they own and do and stay in touch for years to come. Despite our Dragon contracting Typhoid, Timor’s incredibly helpful and sweet people and amazing local music scene stuck in our minds (and on our facebook pages).
East Timor was a different story. Whilst there are many family ties across the border, the atmosphere amongst the East Timorese was strikingly different. Where people would grin and chat to us almost instantaneously after getting on a public Kupang mini-van, Dili’s residents were WAY more reserved, to the point of eyeing us with suspicion. We made friends with some very cool people, a hairdresser in the mall, some of the dock workers, our hostel’s family and Maleve, but despite their friendliness, some bore deep scars (in Maleve’s case physically visible) from their country’s recent and bloody fight for autonomy.
The UN left in 2011, and all institutions and ex-pat creature comforts fell into disuse. Other organisations remain, helping develop the county’s agriculture diversify and shifting the economic focus on raw materials, but with 50% of the population illiterate and 34% or the people living on less than $1.25 a day, trust in the abstract concept of government is scarce. “I don’t think they’ll make it” – these were the damning words of one of the German NGO workers teaching workplace safety at the dock. What happens when a country and its residents collapse?
Understandably, trust in authority has been betrayed so many times in the past, people in general trust the people in their close surroundings way more than any other entity. The harsh reality of this tribal mindset was brought home by a doctor friend we made. Having only just arrived for a 6 month work placement, she had to amputate a 22 year old’s arm on her second day at work. A tumour in the girl’s shoulder had been treated by a local with traditional medicine for 2 years, growing and cutting off circulation until it mummified her arm completely – only then did her mother take her to hospital. Another friend collided with a motorbike writing off both bikes. The police weren’t involved. Insurance? What’s that? How much compensation changed hands was decided between the village elders and his representative – luckily he found Maleve.
But in the midst of all the rawness, the lack of infrastructure, the shadow of recent trauma there was a fighting spirit, and people sticking to their families and friends on a deeper level than most friendships ever get tested. There is an endurance and lust for life, which just needs to be channelled into the right projects to get things going, most importantly without patronising or economically taking over the country. One option for growth is certainly the tourist sector.
The island is stunningly beautiful and well worth exploring. If it’s really off the beaten track you seek, you fill find it in rural East Timor. And be aware that if there isn’t a beaten track, there won’t be a western toilet, or a place to buy Fanta, or an aircon bus, or someone to cart you out within 10 minutes if you get sick. But you’ll meet some incredibly interesting people on empty beaches, about 2386km away from the nearest Lonely Planet.
Dili, East Timor. It was a real test for the Rat & Dragon crew. It’s a challenge to get there, and a challenge to be there, but if we’d wanted life without a little adversity, we would have stayed at home. That’s why we are very proud in the knowledge that we’d made it there. We’d stared Christ in the backside and experienced East Timor, learned a lot about its history of tragedies and triumphs, and loved it. We left with great memories, new friends, and a hell of a travel story.