My biggest fear was that East Timor would be an extension of Indonesia under a different name and flag.
It didn’t take long for that theory to be smashed on the dirty street when I walked out of the barbed wire around my hostel one morning and a UN helicopter was taking off across the street.
I raised my arms up to soak in the blast of warm air from the rotors and exhaust. About then, a troop carrier rumbled down the street with white guys in full battle rattle, machine guns included, just returning from a training mission.
This definitely isn’t Indonesia.
Wow. I crossed the border a couple of days ago just to renew my Indonesian visa for another 30 days and what I found was thrilling, bewildering, and to be honest, excites the hell out of me. Most non-travelers couldn’t even point out East Timor on a map and here I sit baking in the heat.
10 long, bumpy, interminable hours on a cramped bus from Kupang in Indonesia to the border of East Timor had me nearly foaming at the mouth with bus rage. The last 30 kilometers of road between the countries was nothing more than a winding gravel road and my bottom took about all it could stand from sitting above the rear axle of a bus with bad shocks.
As our bus pulled in and was immediately surrounded by kids in shabby clothes, I quickly snapped into vagabonding survival mode. I scanned my surroundings, put up my force shields against people trying to sell me things, then boldly stepped off the bus to get my rucksack.
Then a strange thing happened, probably the first in all my travels around Asia….not a single soul tried to sell me anything. There were no offers for accommodation, no hustlers, no vendors. The kids were genuinely excited to shake my hand, the only foreigner on the bus, and actually did me a much needed favor by showing me where to go because there were no signs in English. Tourism is so new in this young country, they haven’t quite realized the potential to extort travelers yet. I’m sure that will change, given some time.
The border was a joke. It was also probably one of the easiest borders I have ever crossed, especially seeing that I was standing in what was a war zone a few years ago. There were a few lackadaisical guards sitting around without weapons that hardly batted an eye at me. I was expecting to have my bags dumped and searched and what I found were border agents that didn’t even make me complete my visa entry card – all I had to do was sign it! It seems as long as you have the US $30 for a 30 day visa, you are welcomed with open arms.
When I walked across the border and got on the next bus to take me to Dili, the major city here, I realized just how cold and uninformed I was entering this country. I didn’t find out that their official currency was the US dollar until I was handing it over to the border agent. Luckily I always travel with some dollars for emergencies and so far it has helped more than once. I also had no idea what their language was, most of the signs were a bewildering mix of Portuguese and Bhasa Indonesian.
As our new bus put distance between me and Indonesia, the scenery started to change dramatically. The road hugged a dramatic, rocky and completely undeveloped virgin coastline which was stunning. We approached Dili from the south and the first thing I noticed on my right was an abandoned firebase “FOB Grizzly”. The machine gun towers and wire were still in tact but refugees had moved into abandoned shipping cargo containers and made them home. There were refugee huts strung out along the beach, gradually improved over the years from tents to shacks.
Pretty soon it looked like we were driving onto an army base there was so much barbed wire and signs like “Forward POL fueling point” (Army speak for gas station). We passed government building after building, all were either “Ministry of xxxx” or “United Nations Coalition of xxx”. There were scores of white government trucks on the road ranging from “UN Police” to “OPSEC QRF” (Quick reaction force).
This definitely isn’t Indonesia.
When we rolled into town it was already dark and the bus driver told me not to go walking too far, luckily he dropped me right in front of my hostel so I didn’t have to figure that one out in my exhausted state. I could feel the familiar tingle of someplace completely and utterly foreign roaring through my blood – and what an exciting feeling.
East Timor was only recognized as a country in 2002, after years of devastating war with Indonesia that actually killed 25% of their population off. The internal violence quieted down a year or two ago, but the president was shot this past February which made everyone twitchy again. During the day, it is perfectly safe and I have walked everywhere. At night however, doors lock, armed private security guards stand at the ready, and gangs patrol neighborhoods which make it nearly impossible to get a taxi because the drivers are afraid to run at night.
I don’t feel in danger at all here, but it is a minor inconvenience making sure that all my business is done and I am somewhere secure by 19:00 every night. At 22:00 all the gates are locked and you are on your own…unlike my guesthouses in Laos under the communist 22:00 curfew where I would climb the brick wall to get back to my room, this hostel is covered with two layers of military-grade razor wire! Maybe its from time spent in the army or from so much travel, but the presence of so many machine guns doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it probably should.
The U.N. maintains a huge presence here, soldiers are always on alert, and every fifth vehicle is a white police car. That means there are lots of foreigners here working on different missions, every direction that you look construction is taking place – repairs are being made or new embassies are going up. Unfortunately with all the well paid United Nations staff here, prices are high for the average backpacker. My tiny dorm-room hostel is $10 a night, meals are typically $3 – $4 each, and since prices are in US dollars, you always seem to be on the bad end of the exchange.
I haven’t slept under a fluorescent light in a dorm full of stinking young men since Europe, so needless to say I’m missing the privacy and bamboo walls of my bungalows. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, all intimate hostel dormitories smell pretty much the same – one of the few travel memories I can live without!
The redeeming factor? Indian Food! Or simply, food that isn’t bland Indonesian food!
After traveling through Flores and eating nothing but fried rice and Ramen style noodles for weeks, I almost ran into the Indian place attached to my guesthouse. My tongue didn’t know what to do with the carnival of complex flavors, spices, and sensations going on inside of my mouth. I’ve spoiled myself with the curries. Not exaggerating, 4 out of my last 5 meals have been Indian food and forking over the $4 is painless just knowing that soon enough I will be back to eating Nasi Goreng and Padang food.
Last night, rather than the usual dog or cat coming up to my table to beg for scraps, a 12 inch rat waddled up and looked at me expectantly with red eyes.
There is a beach here, but between the rocks, potential for landmines, and garbage, it is less than appealing. There are, however, 4 meter saltwater crocodiles (imagine seeing that while snorkeling) which I would LOVE to get a rare photo of. So far, no luck, but whenever I go walking I try to stay on the path by the coast and keep my eyes open.
All said and done, after paying the $45 to apply for the Indonesian visa, $30 for the Timor Leste visa, $40 for buses (shudder) and then paying for a flight from Kupang…I probably could have exited to someplace cleaner, like Singapore, for my visa run. But then, its not every day that you get to watch armed guards escort various ambassadors to a helicopter from the other side of the wire. I wish I had more time to explore this country, but with limited funds and no understanding of the place whatsoever, now is not the time.
Still, my heart beats a little faster every time one of the UN trucks goes speeding by with guys in full battle gear. I’m glad (and proud) to be someplace interesting that not many travelers get to experience and coming here was worth the effort if nothing else just to jolt me out of my comfort zone developed in Indonesia. Dashing comfort zones to pieces can only be a positive thing….even if it feels a bit uncomfortable at first.
Now if I could only get the jerk sleeping in the bunk underneath of me to stop snoring…