Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Oecussi: Life In The Parking Lot

From Kupang there are daily buses that connect directly to Dili, East Timor's capital. That, however, would be far too simple, and for those who know me well, know that I never do things the easy way if it can be done in a far more complicated fashion. Instead I set my sights on the small East Timorese exclave of Oecussi sandwiched into a small slice of the north coast of the island by West Timor (although theoretically it isn't even a real exclave as it has access to the sea). I've always been fascinated by regions that are separated from the main body of their country. How did they arise? are they viable? what are the connections like with the rest of the country? Do the people identify with the rest of the country or want to be apart?

A traditional house from the western half of the island (including Oecussi). Note the very low door.

So last Sunday, instead of staying on the bus all the way to the border, I got off at the market town of Kefamanu, had lunch, bought some supplies (as I heard that the availability and selection of goods in East Timor is very limited), had a last es buah for the road, and caught a minivan for the border. Feeling pleased and a little excited about entering a new country I alighted from the van when it reached its terminus and was told that the border is 2km away. In fact it was closer, only 500m. And it was closed. Apparently, in this forgotten little corner of the world, borders take Sundays off. Luckily I still had another day left on my visa so I asked the soldiers of the border patrol if I could stay with them for the night and they readily agreed, telling me that it wasn't the first time that they had had a foreigner stuck there.

The next morning I could get going and was packed and ready at the border gate when it was opened at 8am on the dot. One person not there was the immigration official. 9am came and went as did 10am, with no sign of the elusive man who I needed to give me my exit stamp. Nobody was able to tell me why he wasn't there, when he would come, or even how he could be reached. And then I started to think that maybe I didn't need him after all. Being in a country without an entry stamp will create all manner of problems; but if you simply leave without getting stamped out, illegally, then there's very little officials of that country can do as you have already left (although returning may prove problematic). I decided to give the absent official until 11am before I would just saunter across the border, stamps be damned. At 10:50am he finally showed up (he told me that he had got a flat tyre on his scooter), gave me my stamp, and allowed me to leave Indonesia. Legally. His counterpart on the East Timorese side was perplexed at the lack of an Indonesian stamp in the passport I offered him, and became even more so when I showed him my other passport. He didn't seem to know what to do, but I assured him it was legal, showed the letter from the consulate with my name on it, and eventually he acquiesced, mainly, it seemed to me, because it would have been too much work to have to send this up the chain of command.

A UN Landcruiser rolling through Pantemakassar's main street. Apart from the UN, NGOs, a few government vehicles and the odd minivan there is no traffic in Oecussi (apart from the chickens and goats that is).

So there I was, in a new country after such a long time in Indonesia. Sometimes the transition from one to another is striking, almost physical, like the passage from Mongolia to China or China to North Korea, but then again sometimes it's more a blink-and-you'll-miss-it thing, such as when going from Belgium to the Netherlands (and back again). Here the change was pretty obvious. Not from the landscape, but from the deterioration in basic infrastructure and presence of UN advisors, with their large, white Landcruiser, at the border post. I'm sometimes disdainful of the work the UN do and disconnection with reality on the ground, but I wasn't going to grumble as the two police advisers (one Malaysian and the other Sri Lankan) offered to give me a ride into Pantemakassar, the main town of Oecussi. As we got closer to Pantemakassar I grew ever more thankful for the ride as there was precious little traffic on the road, supposedly the main artery of the province, which was more pothole than road. Villages we passed were mean and scraggly, shops were few and far between, and the one market we passed looked hopelessly forlorn. I was deposited by a roundabout in a seemingly suburban part of town and told that it was the city centre. The streets were indeed wide, but devoid of asphalt or even cars (although there were a number of chickens and goats grazing on the central verge), and houses were set off from the pavement, looking rather lost in overly large plots of land overgrown with papaya, bananas and bougainvilleas dripping colour. Nowhere I've been has reminded me so much of west Africa as here. If there is such a thing as life in the fast lane, then life in Oecussi is not only stuck in the parking lot, but it's jacked up on bricks with the wheels removed.

My contact in town had missed the UN helicopter from Dili and was arriving by boat the next morning, whilst the local telecom office had run out of SIM cards and told me that they might have some by the end of the week ... or next week for sure. Nothing was moving in town (apart from the aforementioned chickens and goats). So I decided to adapt myself to local ways, walked out to a quiet beach north of town and just sat and lazed for the rest of the day, with the intention of spending the night on the soft sand. A boy was fishing nearby (well, he was lying in the shade of a tree, occasionally glancing at a nylon wire, weighted down by a stone, that was attached to a stick and snaked its way into the surf). It turns out that he spoke surprisingly good English, with a slight Australian twang, and we chatted whilst he "fished". I shouldn't have been so disdainful as within half an hour he was pulling a whopper out of the sea. His brothers and sisters were all gathered round and whooping with joy, although his dad was less pleased as he had spent the past few hours out in his boat and had only managed to catch half a dozen tiddlers. Not wanting to be overshadowed, he set his boat out once again but his heart evidently wasn't in it and he came back soon afterwards. My new-found friend, clearly elated by his success, wanted to include me in his good fortune and insisted I come and spend the night at their house. He wouldn't take no for an answer and so I acquiesced. I can't say resisted too strongly as I'm not a huge fan of sleeping on beaches since I find sand manages to find its way into every pore of my skin and every crevice of my stuff. Entertainment at my host's house turned out to be a dizzying selection of kung-fu films. Why not?

My new-found friend showing off his catch.

The next day I said my goodbyes to my new-found friends and did a tour of Pantemakassar (which didn't take long) before heading down to the pier to wait for the ferry to take me to Dili and East Timor proper. Unfortunately my stay in Oecussi wasn't sufficiently long enough for me to be able to answer my exclavious questions, but I think the people probably don't mind either way.

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