East Timor continues to be one of the world's poorest countries, Over half the one millon population are unemployed. The main export is oil (a developing industry), followed by coffee.
There are very few tourists in Timor-Leste. There is little infrastructure and the roads are terrible. So it's uncomfortable rather than dangerous for the most part. Though the levels of poverty mean that travellers always have to be wary of crime, including gang-related violence, robbery (in some cases armed), and assault.
Today, we’re setting off clockwise round Timor-Leste from Dili .The Chinese haven’t got very far with their road building projects. The whole route is one bumpy construction site – it takes much too long to reach the second city, Baucau. Most of the locals ride motor bikes and wear face masks as protection against the billowing clouds of dust (even inside cars and lorries).
We’re bouncing up and down mountain roads and hairpin bends, some great views down to the reefs and azure water. There are more stunning silvery stretches of sand too; Dollar Beach used to carry a charge - hence the name - but now the little watch tower picnic areas are free, if you don’t mind the filth and litter on the sand. Others are thankfully, cleaner, but instead carry signs warning of crocodiles. They’re a sacred animal here, an integral part of the myth of how Timor came into being, and nobody will kill one. Besides, Luis says, crocodiles only harm people who have done them wrong in the past. Paradise is never perfect.
The housing is corrugated roofed boxes and the hills arid brown carpets, dotted with green trees. There have been a few drops of rain, however, much to Luis’ astonishment. ‘It never rains in the dry season’. Further into rural areas there are golden paddies, water buffalo wandering. The animals used to be used for farming, but have been replaced by tractors and are only now raised for their meat, which is tough eating. They’re picturesque though, lowered heads and long horns.
Tethered russet cattle with long white stockings and pretty calves and goats, watchful of their cute kids, line the route. The tiniest of pigs run squeaking across the road, along with bobbing chicks. We’re not really going fast enough to scatter them and Luis is a cautious driver. I’m not complaining about that, but it’s hard to appreciate the scenery, when the heat and humidity is making me catatonic and the journey is tortuously slow.
I haven’t met any other tourists in Timor-Leste, but there are several groups of friendly Australian volunteers, taking in the sights on a Sunday and braving the possibility of salties on beautiful Baucau Beach. And all the locals wave as we pass, ‘Foreigner, foreigner.’
My coral pink pousada is a very welcome surprise. I had been warned that accommodation outside Dili would be squat toilets and mandis (bucket showers). But this is verging on luxurious, partly new, partly historic. However, sleep isn’t part of the package. First, children playing outside seem to be having an all-night party. When they finally depart the dogs take over. In the morning it’s the turn of the cockerels and in-between there’s continually running water just outside my room. I’m unsure if it’s a piped stream or a water feature.
Luis says today's journey involves even more potholes, on the road east, to the tip of Timor-Leste. I resign myself to a long day. We pass World War II Japanese bunkers, and several road houses. These are groups of open air restaurants selling barbecued fish and rice. The villages are more interesting and traditional out here, grassy in rainforest clearings.
The houses are on stilts, there are tall thatch-roofed ceremonial spirit houses and huge enclosed graves. These feature posts with buffalo skulls, one for each animal that was slaughtered at the funeral. Dotted amongst the thatch there are smart new multi-coloured mansions with multiple pitched roofs. Luis says these have been built with money sent back from England. The Timorese go there to work on their Portuguese passports and send money back. These gaudy homes are the proud result. Even some of the buses sport union flags in gratitude. Apparently, there’s no work in Portugal.
The highways here are in even more upheaval and we’re upending over numerous new culverts. If this all goes to plan they’ll eventually be able to use the roads in the rainy season – they’re usually a sea of mud.
We meet one of yesterday’s Australian groups on a bridge, whilst I’m photographing a crocodile in the river. They’re excited by this. They say it’s the first one they’ve seen. I think that’s a good sign. We’re all heading to the beach at Com for lunch. There’s a huge tamarind tree, spreading over Kati’s guest house and its leathery pods thump alarmingly down onto the corrugated roof as we eat.
Finally, the mandi and outside toilet (not a squat) at a new ‘modern’ guest house on Valu Beach. There’s still plastic covering the bedhead. Tomorrow’s destination, Jaco Island, is beckoning, just across the dappled strait.
There don’t seem to be any other guests and the staff have all disappeared. It’s a good job I’m not hungry and there won’t be any jokes about valu for money.
The staff have reappeared. Breakfast is one cold fried egg and two hot rolls.
Trip Advisor is divided as to whether the Jaco is worth the arduous journey across Timor-Leste or not. We commission a fisherman to take us over in one of the many blue painted outrigger canoes hauled up on the beach. Forget the we, Luis is sending me on my own and there’s me fondly imagining he would keep watch for crocodiles.
The jury is split on the verdict. The beach is picture perfect white coral and is deserted, apart from one brooding young Portuguese guy who clearly wants to be left alone. Maybe he’s had an unhappy love affair. The water is delightfully translucent, except for some clusters of jellyfish and there are plenty of bright swimming creatures and several varieties of coral: staghorn, fan and fern, though there also bleached fragmented stretches. It’s all within easy reach of the shore, and there’s no sign of crocodiles, so I’m happy, though I’m marooned rather longer than promised. The fishermen eventually tootle up, trailing a line, the bottom of the boat red with the blood of snapper and John Dory that are nestling beneath my plank seat.
I’m offered a mandi shower on my return. The water is hold your breath cold, but not so cool that I can’t force my head underneath the Winnie the Pooh ladle. I’ve arranged all my clothes on the sill, as the floor is sopping. There’s a gust of wind and it’s now all wringing wet.
Back along the tortuous road, past the traditional thatched houses to Lospalos. I’m promised hot water in the hotel here. Except that no-one is around to check us in. Eventually, the water has been turned on, my flickering fluorescent light tube has been replaced and I’m all settled. I’ve hung all my wet gear on the bushes to dry. When in Rome.
Luis says the road is even worse tomorrow, in the less visited south of Timor-Leste. Reconstruction isn’t even a glint in anyone’s eye.
It’s been a rough eight hours. The dozen or so resident dogs didn’t stop arguing all night. They mark out their territory by staking themselves at intervals all round the cabin style rooms and right through the kitchen. There are four cream puppies. My light has stopped working again and my clothes are even wetter than when I put them out, there’s been a very heavy dew running off the metal roof.
Breakfast is two fried eggs and three cold rolls. I’m warned there isn’t anywhere to stop for lunch. And Luis isn’t wrong about the road. I’m not convinced it deserves the name. It looks like a dried up river bed for much of the way. Indeed, twice it actually is a river bed, once with water at least a foot deep. We have to detour, as the bridges have fallen into disrepair. At another point the road has caved in completely and we have to pay ten dollars to cross, using a path belonging to a local entrepreneur. Luis says this is cheap. He’s been given a discount, as he comes from this area.
We’ve climbed gradually up into the mountains, where thankfully it’s cooler and the lifestyle more rural and more conservative. The women here wear the more traditional long, sarong type woven skirts. The journey takes nine and half tortuous hours. It’s made even slower as Luis knows many of the folk that we pass and they all have to be greeted. But these are the interesting parts of the day. We stop at his aunt’s for ‘morning tea’ and are served cassava, bitter greens and sweet potato, to sustain us in the absence of restaurants. Luis bounces his second cousins around. He doesn’t see them very often – it’s a long ride from Dili. This is his aunt on his father’s side. There are numerous other cousins and family on his mother’s side as we venture on. It’s a cavalcade of cheering (tourists are a rarity) waving and stopping, waving and stopping.
Descending to the south of Timor-Leste, we’re surrounded by lush emerald green paddy fields - the scenery is really gorgeous here. I wander off to take pictures of buffalo and thatched houses and return to find Luis gossiping. It seems that he knows the people here too. They’re from his village, but have moved to this area to harvest the rice and then they will go home again.
Finally, we emerge onto the south coast, a line of dark volcanic beaches and rock formations splashed by surf. We flirt with the sea for a while before heading inland again. Luis calls a toilet stop ‘looking for a friendly tree’ and I’ve requested one, but since heading inland the road has been lined with houses. Everyone wants to live on the road and there aren’t many of those.
Luis takes off up what looks like an old grassy cart track.’ No houses up here. After finding a friendly tree, and a less than friendly cow, I expect that we will turn round. But no, Luis heads off along the crest of a ridge for an hour or so. It’s just like a downland bostal road, except that we’re encountering fan palms instead of gorse bushes. I’m wondering if we will still be up here at sunset, but we eventually turn onto the ‘main road’ once more and the town of Viqueque.
Viequeque boasts a couple of interesting churches. But the guesthouse here, located in the compound of a filling station is decidedly grim. The cardboard ceiling has holes in it and the bathroom walls are more mould than plaster. Scented toilet blocs are festooned all round, still in their torn packaging. Even in the dining room.
Breakfast is one fried egg and two very large hot rolls. I’m going to supplement it with banana fritters from the restaurant down the road. The owner is some distant relation of Luis. He says today’s journey is shorter - the worst is over - hurray.
The journey is indeed shorter, but has little to commend it, except that the road surface isn’t quite as uncomfortable. Much of the route is through dusty bush. We meet the sea again for a while and the spirit houses here in the south have shorter roofs. Luis says that some of the villages are about to be displaced to make way for oil development. And we only pass one house where his relations live.
Our destination, Same, is a pleasant highland retreat decorated with bougainvillea bushes. My guest house is a distinct improvement. It’s modern and there are balconies with views across to the mountains. Except that the manager denies all knowledge of my booking and the place is full up with oil workers. Fortunately, there’s another acceptable hotel down the road, though minus the views.
Breakfast today is a fried egg, four rolls and two frankfurters. I avoid the sausages.
There’s a ceremony just outside town today, at the statue for resistance fighter, Boaventura, a part of the build up to the twentieth anniversary of the independence referendum in Timor-Leste. The signs all say they are commemorating ‘A Voice for the Voiceless’. The president of parliament is attending and the local people are parading down the street in trucks, garbed in traditional woven cloaks and scarves and bearing huge flags. I join the journalists and wander around with my camera taking pictures, jigging to the drumming and chatting to the school children. It might be the highlight of the trip.
The road back to Dili wanders through some dramatic mountain scenery. We stop at the town of Maubisse for lunch and to admire the views. Luis has a headache. He was standing in the sun, watching the celebrations and I diagnose dehydration, administer ibuprofen and instruct him to drink more water. This is a long and winding road, but the surface, for the most part is the best we’ve driven on so far. It’s smooth most of the way, although an unmade section is so dusty, that we literally cannot see a thing when lorries pelt past and we have to stop until it clears.
I’m very happy to be in my clean Dili hotel room again, with hot water and no mosquitoes.
I've flown into Dili from Darwin after travelling on the Ghan. I keep wanting to sing ‘Lavender’s blue Dilly Dilly,’ but I’m not sure how well it would go down.
My guide, Luis, is a very serious and earnest man. He’s already told me that he was orphaned by the age of seven (as a result of the war with Indonesia - (see Timor- Leste in a Nutshell) and fended for himself, from then on, as did his siblings. He has a lot to say about the Indonesian occupation. It was a tough life. The morning follows that theme as we tour the tiny capital.
Like most capital cities Dili is a magnet for those seeking work. Dili is a melting pot of the different ethnic groups of East Timor. There also far more men than women living here. The use of Portuguese was banned under Indonesian rule, The Roman Catholic Church l became a focus for resistance to Indonesian occupation.
We drive round all the new civic and national buildings. These are mostly constructed by the Chinese to replace those razed in pique, by the Indonesians, when they left the country ). If you look hard you can still find some Portuguese colonial buildings, such as. the former Market Hall, which is used as a Congress Centre nowadays. The former Portuguese Governor's office is now the office of the Prime Minister. Even under Indonesian rule, during which the use of Portuguese was banned, Portuguese street names like Avenida Marechal Carmona remained unchanged, although they were prefixed with the Indonesian word Jalan or 'road. Most of the supermarkets and hardware shops are Chinese and Chinatown in Dili is a modern, industrial swathe.
The main sights of Dili are mainly independence struggle related. There's the statue of the first president and independence leader, Nicolau Lobato and others commemorating the martyrs in the two most recent conflicts. Then, the cemetery, where the Indonesian army massacred protestors and the Resistance Museum, which tells the story of the country's struggles for independence from Portugal in 1975 and then Indonesia in 2002. It’s a sobering experience, especially the videos shot by journalists one or two days before they died, trying to bring the plight of the people to the world’s attention. It brings to mind the photographic exhibitions in Vietnam. There are cases displaying their clothes and cameras.
There are legacies of Jakarta's occupation too, the Church of the Immaculate Conception, seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Díli, purportedly the largest cathedral in Southeast Asia, and the 'Integration Monument', commemorating the Indonesian annexation of the territory in 1976. Not to mention a Hindu Temple. Luis hasn't taken me to see these.
At the end of the bay sitting on a hilltop high over the city, is the 27 metre tall Cristo Rei statue. It's a vague mimic of Rio's Christ the Redeemer - this one has Jesus atop a globe. It was built by the Indonesians, in an attempt to ingratiate themselves with the catholic population. It also marked the 20th anniversary of East Timor's 'integration' into Indonesia. Beneath are a couple of beautiful white sand beaches lapped by clear turquoise water. One of them is referred to as 'Jesus' Backside Beach'. There’s also a row of embassies, all on premium sites with views over the water, just like in Libreville.
A clockwise tour of the island and back to Dili.
I’m supposed to be sailing to Artauro Island at the end of my visit and staying overnight for snorkelling. The itinerary says the water is sublime there. Except that the company booked to take me have cancelled. They say the weather will be bad for a week and I won’t be able to get back. To say I’m disappointed is an understatement. It’s a notoriously rough stretch of water and the boats aren’t huge, but the BBC forecast isn’t flagging up any storms.
Luis turns up with his head shaven today. He says that he thinks his ‘long hair’ was the cause of his bad headache when we were travelling. He offers to take me west to see some resistance sites. But I’m determined to stay in comfortable accommodation at least and I’ve had enough of the bad roads round the island. I can stay in Dili and read about history. So, we compromise on the beach at Liquica, where he says there is snorkelling available.
There’s an upmarket little beach restaurant where we can loll on settees, but the tide is very high on the black volcanic beach. There's a strong current running and no-one is in the water. Snorkelling is off.
Time by the pool at this, the top hotel in Dili. I’m alone, except for several staff who spend hours weaving a pastel pink and purple balloon arch and pleating a cloth to cover a table alongside the water. I’m fascinated. I’ve always been intrigued as to how they make those. I wonder what important event is to be held here. Then they fetch some stands and display some child’s plastic toys. It’s a Dr Samara kit, complete with stethoscope, hypodermic and sundry other accompaniments. This is a strange world, Horatio. Back to Darwin on my way to Christmas Island.
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