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On the road again

Saddle up and rev your motors for a cross country tour on Timor's most tempermental motorbikes.
On a balmy afternoon last year in Vietnam I sat down and shared a drink with a Spanish landscape gardener who, as I later learned, once worked for a certain exiled Australian businessman in Majorca (but perhaps that's another story for another time). Between tall glasses of icy, draught beer we swapped travel disaster stories -- and with typhoons, arrests, druggings and terrorist attacks I had plenty of material -- and after recounting how he'd once spent two days in a Kyrgyzstan jail cell for reasons he has still not been told, he sat back, took a thoughtful drag on his cigarette and made the curious remark:

"You know, it never seems like it at the time, but some of my favourite memories are of my worst days".

I think I finally now understand what he meant.



Ben and I had finally decided to hit the road and explore Timor. Unable to trust local transport after hearing about the tragically high road toll among the local buses, I negotiated a steep but bearable weekly rental rate for two motorbikes and while Ben finished off his dive course I revved up and headed out alone to the island's west.

The day had been a generally enjoyable one. Foreigners, especially those not in uniform, are always something to be fussed over and giggled at, and I never tired of drinking in the dramatic cliffs and sandy beach coves of Timor's north coast. Just before eleven I arrived in the amiable beach town of Liquica, about sixty kilometers from Dili, and after a quick coffee and a chat to some university students looking for a free English lesson, I hopped on my bike and sped back towards the capital ... and then abruptly sputtered to a halt.

I pulled over, looked at the empty highway stretching towards the horizon in both directions, and tried starting the bike. The engine churned three times, then died. I dismounted and surveyed the bike, hoping that some glaringly obvious fault would make itself obvious to my mechanically ignorant eyes. I tried starting the engine again. Rrrn-rrrn ... phutt, the engine squealed before dying again. Realising that the internal combustion engine is an intricate, complex machine requiring the delicate hands and well-practiced technique of an able mechanic I stood back, reflected for a moment and then kicked the bike. I tried again. Rrrn-rrrn ... phutt. I punched the instrument panel. Rrrn-rrrn ... phutt. I swore at the bike. Rrrn-rrrn ... phutt. I pleaded with the bike. Rrrn-rrrn ... phutt.

Having exhausted my arsenal of motorbike repair methods, I sat alone in the heat of Timor's midday sun and tried to figure out how on Earth I was going to get back to Dili.

Ten minutes later I saw a Timorese motorcyclist approaching. He slowed down, eyed a rather distressed lone foreigner sweltering on a deserted stretch of road and came to a rather accurate conclusion.

"Bondia. Motor no good?" he asked.

"Bondia. No good," I confirmed giving him a demonstration. Rrrn-rrrn ... phutt.

Within minutes my bike lay in a dozen pieces around me as the man deftly disassembled my steed and curiously inspected the engine's various components. Every now and then he'd come across a piece of metal or plastic, shake his head and mutter 'tk-tk, no good', before setting it aside in a pile. I was slightly concerned when, by the time he was finished, half of my engine lay in the 'tk-tk, no good' pile. He blew into these parts, scraped some dirt off the others and fifteen minutes after he'd pulled up beside me, my motorbike was reassembled, started up and purring contentedly.

"Obrigado barak," I thanked profusely, pulling out my wallet to offer him some money.

"Nada, nada," he replied with a smile, pushing my hand away and jumping on his bike, "adeus".

Realising that the internal combustion engine is an intricate, complex machine requiring the delicate hands and well-practiced technique of an able mechanic I stood back, reflected for a moment and then kicked the bike.
Cruising down the highway five minutes later, I was on my way back to Dili and reveling in my good fortune when my bike began to lurch and convulse beneath me. Rrrn-rrrn ... phutt, it complained before melodramatically dying again.

I'll spare you the gory details of most of that day, but suffice to say it took me seven and a half hours to cover the sixty kilometers back to Dili. Throughout the afternoon my bike was torn apart and reassembled at least eight times by dozens of locals who stopped to help, all smiling and politely refusing any offer of compensation. A small gaggle of children sat by and kept me company during my many roadside vigils, and for twenty kilometers my bike and I hitched a lift in the back of a cattle truck as I nervously eyed two oversized, sharp-horned water buffalo grunting three metres from me and hoped I didn't look too threatening to them, or more frighteningly, too attractive. When my bike leaked the last of its petrol, a litre of the precious fluid was instantly siphoned off a local's car and proffered with a smile. When a family of five pulled up beside me in a sedan and realised they could do little to help, they offered me some food instead. A Timorese bus driver insisted I sit in the front of the cab and joked with me to lift my flagging spirits while his mechanically-gifted ten year old coaxed my ailing bike along for a few more valuable kilometres.

I staggered back to Dili as the sun began to set tired, angry and in dire need of a drink. I was suffering from sunburn, dehydration and two exhaust burns on my legs ... so much for a pleasant day out. But as the relaxed haze of my fifth icy beer took hold, I slowly began to see what the Spanish gardener had alluded to a year earlier. It may have been the lousiest day of my trip yet, but in my hour of need I had gained the greatest insight into the warmth and generosity of the Timorese. The worst of my luck had brought to light the best of the Timorese.

It was, you might say, the best crap day I'd had for a while.



You'd think that my breakdown experience on the motorbike would give me second thoughts about embarking on a week-long trip through the villages and mountains of East Timor with any motorbike, let alone the same one responsible for my breakdown ordeal the previous day. But that would severely underestimate my naivete -- or more accurately my sheer stupidity -- when the motorbike rental company assured me that they'd fixed my bike and it was now 'super OK' and I, wait for it, actually believed them. Ben and I packed, strapped our belongings down to the backs of our bikes and headed east out of Dili, tackling the perilous, mountain-hugging roads towards the town of Manatutu.

Driving in Timor is not for the faint-hearted. The single-vehicle wide coastal roads wind through mountains that fall hundreds of metres into the sea below on one side, while monstrous UN trucks and local minibuses, packed beyond full with more people than seems possible, pigs, chickens and other livestock, come hurtling around blind, hairpin corners at breakneck speeds without regard for what might be waiting around the corner.
Driving in Timor is not for the faint-hearted ... It's not uncommon for minibuses full of people to go flying over the cliffs into the sea, in fact it happens on a weekly basis
It's not uncommon for minibuses full of people to go flying over the cliffs into the sea, in fact it happens on a weekly basis. In countless places you'll find a section of foot-high wall missing where a bus has smashed through and fallen to the sea, and in its place a small concrete cross remains as a humble memorial to those that perished.

This has brought about a rather macabre grading system for Timor's roads, in which the level of care taken when approaching a bend is gauged by the number of crosses that can be counted by the roadside. A one-cross bend encourages caution, while a five-cross curve suggests you should crawl through unless you want to have your name engraved on the sixth.

Yet we somehow made it to the sleepy but gorgeous seaside town of Manatutu by sunset, and were quickly reminded of the greatest problem facing the first wave of tourists to East Timor: the dearth of accommodation options. Accommodation in Timor, where it exists, is either ridiculously priced luxury hotels for UN chiefs, has been fully booked out by UN security personnel working in a town, was burned out by the Indonesians, or is simply closed. In fact three hours of every day was spent tracking down accommodation, any accommodation, for the night in the villages and towns we visited. Manatutu, for example, had two choices: one (closed) government guesthouse and another full of Japanese engineers working with an NGO.

Whether it's cock fights or roulette, gambling is a favourite past time of Timorese men, who gather at makeshift gambling parlous on the street to throw away their hard-earned cash. Enlarge »
Thankfully, we were pointed towards the local Portuguese teacher, Carlos, and his friend Miguel, who let us crash in the bedroom of his burnt out (the Indonesians, again) but recently repainted house for US $10, while he slept on a mattress in the hallway. We wolfed down dinner with Carlos, and proceeded to work our way through a few bottles of a vicious, port-like drink called Anggura.

We hit the road again the next day, cruising through villages where children ran out of their houses and lined the roads to look at the malai on motorbikes, smiling broadly and sticking out their hands in the hope we'd high five them as we passed. We'd stop for lunch and be greeted by smiles whichever way we turned. The scenery was spectacular and being back on the road again, riding through strange lands on a motorbike for the first time in a year, was liberating.

But by the third day out spirits had dipped a little. Unable to fund a place to sleep the previous night, we'd been forced to fork out US $25 each to stay at an expensive Portuguese resort in Bacau, Timor's 'trouble town' that hadn't welcomed us as warmly has other villages had. UN personnel had recently been attacked in the area, we were followed during the day by a suspicious-looking local while looking for accommodation, and were picking up decidedly unfriendly vibes from the townspeople.

We left Baucau early the next morning, weary and a little dejected, trudging further east to the town of Los Palos and hoping Baucau was the exception to the rule. But the uneasiness of Baucau was forgotten in an instant when we rounded a bend in the road twenty kilometres from our next destination, curved over a mountain and the sight of a cove -- to our knowledge unnamed -- greeted us. Kilometre after kilometre of pristine white sand beaches rolled gently towards endless, calm turquoise blue water. We could make out a large reef of coral spread out through the crystal clear water, and jungle of palm trees lined the sand and provided shade to those who craved it.

Ben and I discovered this long stretch of pristine beach between Baucau and Los Palos and promptly claimed it as our own. Enlarge »
Overcome with the sheer beauty of it we both stopped, dismounted and simply stood on the shoreline, shaking our heads and grinning while an elderly Timorese fisherman and his daughter -- the only people we could see for miles -- smiled at us. There weren't still places on Earth left like this, were there? Move over Leo, this was our beach.



That afternoon, while strolling around the small but friendly town Los Palos, we dropped by a seemingly neglected field and took part in a daily Timorese ritual: the afternoon soccer match. Across the country and in every village and town, boys wait impatiently for the vicious midday heat to abate before picking up a soccer ball and letting loose. On that particular day two teams, one dressed in counterfeit Brazilian soccer merchandise and the other in eleven donated Greenpeace t-shirts, took each other (and the occasional cow pat strewn across the field) on in a practice match. Halfway through the match, I was contemplating whether to corrupt the Timorese spectator culture by introducing them to the joys of the Mexican Wave when I noticed Greenpeace-team's No 10 player intentionally trip up pseudo-Brazil's No 6, outside the field of play. I was surprised when the referee, who had seen the incident, did not call a foul.

"Why did he do that?" I asked a talkative local I'd been chatting to on the sidelines.

"You see, that boy's father," he replied, pointing to Brazil's No 6 and then Greenpeace's No 10, "killed that boy's father, after vote."

All over the country, the Timorese are struggling to move on after the events of 1998. Perhaps the greatest challenge is the need to coexist with the perpetrators of the violence and pro-Indonesian loyalists who have only just started to trickle back from the refugee camps in West Timor, and somehow learn to get on with their lives. In most cases, the unfathomable ability of the Timorese to forgive has prevailed, but occasionally, as I witnessed that afternoon, the anger boils over.

And I for one can't blame them.



By the fourth day our bikes were beginning to protest our continual abuse by breaking down every fifteen minutes so our plans to head further south were abandoned. Instead, the last stop on our trek before heading back to Dili was the tiny village of Tutuala (population: 200), perched on a cliff top at the eastern tip of Timor.

The window may have been broken and it might have smelled a bit, but we gladly slept in this tiny toilet in the tiny village of Tutuala. Enlarge »
Unfortunately the only guesthouse in town was booked out by three Australian volunteers and an archaeological team from Canberra, so after a few minutes of shoulder shrugging, the owner motioned us over, opened a battered door to a God-awful stench and offered us the only room he had left: the toilet. And as I tossed and turned on the white-tiled floor at 2 a.m., having paid US $2.50 for the privilege of sleeping in a toilet ante-room, I tried to look on the bright side: hey, if I developed a case of the runs that night, at least I wouldn't have to stumble far.



And now I'm back in Dili. With Ben having flown home, I've got a week here by myself and I'm a little undecided about what to do. Having spent the past two days recovering after stepping into one of Dili's many uncovered drains in a Peter-Sellers-inspired moment of slapstick genius and tearing my left leg to shreds, I've passed the time chatting to the first load of Balinese refugee-travelers who have arrived in Dili after Saturday's blasts. (Who would've thought we'd ever see the day that tourists in Bali would flee to the safety of East Timor?). Many are shell-shocked, having lost friends and travelling companions in the blast and are still struggling to come to terms with what happened.

So as international security seems intent on crumbling around me, the idea of retreating to the fishing villages and isolation of nearby Atauro Island for a week suddenly sounds very tempting indeed.

Hmmm, where's that ferry timetable?

Comments about this page

Very good article! I can approve this: One of my favourite memories are of my worst days.
Songtexte (Germany) on Dec 3, 2006 at 6:08 am

Very good article! I can approve this: One of my favourite memories are of my worst days.
Songtexte (Germany) on Dec 3, 2006 at 6:08 am

Hi Ally - what a great adventure. It's not easy for anyone thinking of visiting to get info on what to expect so I thought these articles were really valuable. I'm in the process of adding some links to your travel writing - I hope it will drive even more traffic to your site. You should be able to see the link to your site at http://www.trivago.co.uk/east-timor-298
Koshkha (UK) on Apr 28, 2007 at 11:15 am

Hi Ally - what a great adventure. It's not easy for anyone thinking of visiting to get info on what to expect so I thought these articles were really valuable. I'm in the process of adding some links to your travel writing - I hope it will drive even more traffic to your site. You should be able to see the link to your site at http://www.trivago.co.uk/east-timor-298
Koshkha (UK) on Apr 28, 2007 at 11:15 am

A great read.... ended up here by accident and read everything i could find.

travel well:)
Sean
sean Lavery (Perth) on Aug 22, 2012 at 11:25 pm

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