Friday, October 12, 2012

Tour De Timor

Like all capital cities Dili is not representative of the country at large. The relative order of the city and the small, but noticeable local middle class, driving SUVs and the youngsters hanging out in the waterfront park crowded around their laptop screens sharing Youtube clips, obviously bear little resemblance to what life is like for the majority of the people outside the metropolis in this, Asia's poorest country. Determined to see with my own eyes the other reality of East Timor* I left a small, but heavy, box of unnecessary belongings with Caroline and set off on a loop around this half of the island.

The gorgeous Portuguese-era market in Baucau, looking more like a palace than a communal building. Sadly now it's only used for graffiti, as a lavatory, and for grazing goats.

To suggest that East Timor has any major tourist sights would be wildly disingenuous. There are no major temple ruins like in Angkor Wat; or an environmentally important national park such as the Serengeti; or historic towns like one might find in Europe. In fact the tourist guidebook to East Timor is the thinnest I've ever seen. Anyone expecting to come here and be blown away will be sorely disappointed. The most elegant building I saw in the entire country was the old market in Baucau, built by the Portuguese but now sorely neglected, disused, with crumbling walls, graffiti, dried excrement stinking in its corners and a family of goats grazing out front. Distances may be small, but travel times are considerable given the state of the roads. Two and a half hours to cover 30km is not uncommon. Also the long years of Portuguese (i.e. Catholic) occupation have eroded many of the indigenous religious practices that are quite visible in Indonesia.

That said, the place is not without its charms. For those who would like to be like Jacques Cousteau the entire north coast is an underexplored treasure trove of coral reefs, with some of the best diving in the world. The central mountains are just as wild, with concealed hideaways where the Falantil guerrilla fighters survived for 24 years, hidden from the Indonesian army. There is substantial potential in the country to create a tourism industry based around scuba-diving and rural trekking and homestays, once the more basic infrastructure is in place. The underdeveloped nature of the country did mean that I was able to unearth the tent from the bottom of my bag and do a bit of free-camping in the mountains and down by the coast. When I've been camping in other places in Europe and Asia people might sometimes warn me about wolves and bears that are said to lurk in the vicinity, but I never pay such scaremongering any heed as both are quite shy of humans and prefer to keep their distance. In Timor, however, the animal to watch out for is the infamous saltwater crocodile. And here I did pay attention. Salties are notoriously aggressive and dangerous animals and locals get attacked (and eaten) on a regular basis. The problem is compounded by a superstition that has persisted amongst the Timorese that says crocodiles are reincarnations of ancestral spirits, and therefore sacred and not to be harmed. Furthermore they believe that someone who is attacked by a croc must have done something evil to deserve it. Nowhere have I been more circumspect in choosing where to set up camp than here in Timor.

A crocodile smirking to itself. This particular specimen (just shy of 3m) was basking in a creek that flows through the centre of the provincial capital of Lospalos, right behind the back yards of several houses and with children playing in the water barely 20m upstream.

For me though, the attraction of East Timor has been, as is often the case, the people. My reception, wherever I have gone, has consistently been warm and welcome. People are intensely curious about outsiders. I am hardly the first foreigner people will have seen (incidentally, the Timorese word for foreigner is malai, its origins in the Malay traders who used to visit the island in the middle ages to buy sandalwood), thanks to the heavy humanitarian presence. But they drive around in big white cars and are, despite the best efforts of some, somewhat aloof from the locals. I, on the other hand, am rather shabbily dressed, taking public transport or even hitching, and carrying a large, comical bag on my back. Tourists are definitely baffling for many and they are eager to talk to me. And funnily enough communication hasn't been too difficult. Portuguese is the official language and medium of education, but few people speak it well. Tetun is also an official language and is the most widely spoken of the indigenous languages, but even then it is the mother tongue of less than a quarter of the population. Instead many people use bahasa Indonesia to communicate with each other, something I found quite surprising, given that it is the language of the oppressors who they were fighting for 24 years. Whereas in many countries language is an intensely political and emotive issue (such as in the Baltic countries with their large, Russophone minorities) here bahasa is seen as simply being a useful means of communication.

Almost every single person wants to stop you, ask you where you're from, where you're going, and generally what you're up to. It can get a little tiresome, but given the lack of grandiose sights it does help pass the time. In this way I ended up spending a whole afternoon with a group of teachers in a mountain village in an informatics quid pro quo where I would answer their questions about life in the West (there was particular interest in the finer details of money: how much people earn and how much things cost) and in return I got to learn about their lives. They even invited me to stay the night, pushing together a trio of desks in one of the classrooms to make a makeshift bed for me. On another occasion, whilst wandering aimlessly down a hillside I stumbled across a funeral and was not allowed to leave before lunch, a beer, and a thorough description of myself and what I was doing there.

In Lospalos everyone gathers at the basketball courts by the church to shoot some hoops during the relative cool of the late afternoon. A great way to meet and interact with the locals (and get some exercise too).

The most memorable encounter, and without a doubt the strangest, occurred in the southern coastal town of Betano. After lunch and a quick stroll along the beach I had exhausted all there was to do in town and I was about to make for the road to try and get further along the coast when I was overtaken by a couple of young men in boiler suits. One of them spoke good English and after a short hello asked me whether I would like to come with them. When I asked where he just pointed out to sea where, about 250m out from shore, stood a rickety structure. I had noticed it before and dismissed it as some sort of platform used by fishermen. It turned out to be a drilling rig and the workers were taking core samples for a planned harbour. Sure, I said, letting myself go with the flow. The rig was a 3x3m wooden pallet placed on iron poles housing a makeshift derrick, a couple of small diesel motors (one for the pipe thread and drill, the other for pumping associated water) and was manned by a crew of five: three workers, a motor operator and a foreman. Health and safety, however, were alien concepts. A couple did, admittedly, wear hard hats, but there was no protective footwear (if they were wearing shoes at all), they were all smoking (at one point the motor operator couldn't find his lighter and so took a metal wire, placed it against a spinning flywheel and lit his fag from the resultant sparks), and they used the engine cooling water to heat up their plastic bottle of coffee. What surprised me most was that only one of the workers was Timorese, the rest were all Indonesian. The work contract had been won by a German company, which has, in turn, subcontracted out the drilling to an Indonesian firm as they are the cheapest people with the skills necessary to carry out the work. That the Indonesian military was running the country with an iron fist just 14 years ago, with massive rights abuses, and now Timorese and Indonesians are working together, hand in hand, sharing a joke, as well as food and lodgings, is an admirable testament to the tolerant nature of the Timorese. I sat myself down in a less-busy corner and tried to make myself as unobtrusive as possible whilst observing how a drilling rig, albeit a very ad hoc one, works, having learnt about the principles in my previous job. I even ended up having dinner with the team and spending the night in their accommodation: a single-room shack with mattresses on the floor shared by nine of them.

Making my way out to the drilling rig with my new-found friends.

For a country that has nothing to see and nothing to do I certainly didn't get bored exploring its nooks and crannies.

*The official name of the country is Timor Leste, which is just Portuguese for East Timor. But in my opinion English-speakers who call it so seem pretentious. I don't expect the Portuguese to call the United Kingdom by its English name, or for the French to call Germany Deutschland, so why English-speakers should submit to such silly linguistic demands is beyond me. Furthermore Leste, in Portuguese is pronounced lesht, whilst anglophones generally come out with less-tee, less-teh or just plain lest. If you're not going to do it properly then you might as well not do it at all.

The harbour to be built at Betano is a wonderful example of how a little bit of forethought is very important in planning development projects: The Timorese government had recently purchased half a dozen, second-hand, industrial-sized generators for supplying electricity to various provincial towns. Several were destined for towns in the mountains south of Dili. Once they were unloaded at Dili port it became obvious that they could not be transported there due to the dreadful condition of the road. On the other hand the road connecting the towns to the southern coast is actually in pretty good condition and able to handle a lorry carrying such a large load. The only problem is that there is no port on the south coast. Therefore before the generators can be delivered to their final destinations a new port must be built in the south and the generators trans-shipped. Nobody knows how long that will take, but I suspect a couple of years at least. In the meantime the generators are languishing in Dili port and taking up vital space (Dili port is not particularly big, but it's the only one that is able to accept cargo from international ships).

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