It was beautiful. After a few snaps of this most poignant of borders, of plaques ironically of Indonesia boasting of its most contested frontier, I was further thrown into the unknown through the lack of a single fellow itinerant or border tout. Though the traverse of No Mans Land was of unknown distance, the curve of the palm fringed road beckoned me back towards the beauty of the beach, and I turned the corner to see the distant promise of further officialdom acceptably close. Normally border zones were not a place to linger lest if security dictat didnt compromise you then an army of touts would, but here it seemed there was simply no traffic to warrant it and it was as pleasant an amble as I could recall. Consideration of the history deemed it the mother of all ironies how this long anticipated and long contested spot had to be one of the most beautiful and peaceful in the world. The opening scenes of The Thin Red Line came to mind as a disconnected party related how paradise was all fucked up.
Not too much though. Almost in deference to nature, where a fence of razorwire should have straddled it there was only a seemless stretch of beach, and East Timorese officialdom was not the gun wielding backs against the wall prediction but a similar lackadaisical but quietly professional reflection of the other side. In fact it was so deserted and understated that depite questionable photography I didnt recognise the reception counter for what it was, a lone woman ahead of me received friendly attention as did I. My first dealings with this most enigmatic of countries was immediately epitomised in negotiating the entry form, scribed first in Portugese, then in Indonesian, then in English. Knowing from experience that it was prudent to play the dumb tourist and complete it in English, trying to be smart was always just a liability open to questioning, the appreciably ethnically distinct official had to query my deliberate understatement of my nationality. He complimented my succinct UK declaration of state as "Inggriss Raya", (Royal England in Bahasa) but it was still an immediate quandry as to how to discourse with the guy. The lingua franca of East Timor was Tetun, a tongue understood by 80% of the population and yet a largely unwritten language which they had had to admit as being wholly inadequate as an international medium. Debate had raged about which course to adopt in that vain, with Bahasa Indonesia spoken by 60% of the population being a prime candidate. Portugese as the original colonial avenue of communication was another contender, but with East Timor lying so close to Australia, speakers of the worlds language of business and that of the aid effort, that too had had to be considered. And so what did their parliament plump for? Portugese, a language understood by perhaps only 5% of its people, mostly its more senior citizens. Perhaps somewhat understandably in a fit of fearful nationalism they had resolved to resist any further external interference other than far off Lusitania, but it was immediately doomed to be inappropriate in a land where there was barely a teacher qualified to teach it.
The guy swapped my 30 bucks for a surprisingly large full page passport stamp and let me go with what I took to be almost embarassment at the language question, I had been hitherto advised that Bahasa was perfectly acceptable but in deference to their history of defiance it just didnt feel right. That led to another quandry though, was I now supposed to make some pretence at speaking Portugese just like everybody else? I always thought of languages as being a mindset comparable to the gears of a car, and the switch from now ingrained Bahasa to scant Portugese was now like asking me to drive using only 2nd and 5th. I stalled frequently. A cursory disinterested bag search left me free to now break out into this most quirky enigmatic of countries and yet amazingly a trio of minibuses sat parked unattended, there was not a single tout of any persuasion. I congratulated myself once again then that I had done very well to already secure my currency exchange, but for once the odd Ojek or Bemo officionado would have been a blessing. With seemingly no other option then, I elected to just go hardcore and push out heavily laden along the superhot long straight palm bordered avenue eastwards, but the indulgence of the woman I had queued behind at immigration who promptly passed by with not one but a brace of baggage laden Ojeks meant that she probably knew there was nowhere of any importance anywhere soon. For all I knew I might walk all day without encountering a bus to Dili, East Timor's capital 2 hours hence, and so after a sweat saturated mile I took recourse to consult a layabout couple ensconced outside an isolated shack. Their fascination at a lone crazy white man revealed that certainly an Ojek was required, and certainly I was fortunate when promptly they hailed an unexpected motorbike originating from whence I had just slogged.
I had no idea of prices in this country but I knew it to be notoriously expensive, a reflection of its instability and of overpaid expats, there ostensibly tended to be a culture of just asking a Dollar for anything and so when the boy asked for 50 cents I didnt argue. My predictable request for a bus to Dili soon saw me dropped in a sleepy ramshackle junction village which immediately bore a different vibe from Indo, and waiting around for onward transport gave me time to consider the most important time in any country, it was only when you first arrived that you could appreciate the changes, what made a place distinct. There were many. A lone old boy bore perhaps the features of a Portugese/Timorese mix and people were contrastingly reluctant to engage with me. Pursuit of an essential bottle of water revealed a lack of Bahasa and of not knowing what to do, they were simply stunned to be presented with a foreigner. In a border town anywhere on the planet that was most unusual and I had to question whether it was simply that they saw very few or were skeptical of the influence of the sizeable international aid presence in this country. It was a stunning transition, from "Hello Mister" at every hour of the day to not even so much as a simple Hello. For my part I could appreciate the quandry, I simply didnt know which language was acceptable.
Whilst waiting at the junction for a bus to materialise I investigated what was clearly a compound of Portugese colonial extraction, a sturdy whitewashed edifice bearing unsuitably a long thatched roof enclosed by walls which bore hints of gunslit fortification. The corrugated gates which had been hastily scrawled with spray paint grafitti style to say "Immigration" had clearly been an intermediate make-do upon secession from Indonesia, and a small tired looking church was still presented by a sign of clear Indonesian character, usefully revealing the Timorese border village to be named Batugade. When a bus did eventualy materialise I presumed all roads to lead to Dili but the border woman and her wares were headed to unknown Maliana in the other direction, fortunately the semi Portugese old boy was headed to Dili too though and kept me right. What was clear though from its demeanour was a hint of desperation, boys hung off the outside of the bus like flies and cheap clearly meant no comforts and plainly no health and safety either. The crew boys who hung out of the doors now in threes betrayed the poor employment situation here too, with halts to pick up haggling women seemingly revealing up to 10 of them to load up cardboard boxes and sacks of rice. Timor continued much alike with long flat sections interrupted by random climbs, though salt and pepper hills and tremendously wide dry river beds testified that even with the onset of the wet season the east saw little rain at all. The people were uniformly very dark here now with frequent hints of Papuan influence, and the palpable Portugese element in girls wearing miniature black headscarves and contrastingly bright flowery robes had me consider this land to bear a remarkable resemblance perhaps to parts of Africa. Savannah land punctured by sparse flat topped trees meant that I guessed Portugal's other forgotten legacies of Angola or Mozambique might look little different. I looked for hints of a shared ancestry with Australian aboriginals even but that proved not to be the case, it seemed that the Indonesian archipeligo's greater proximity had allowed Mongoloid influence though now much diluted to share the upper hand with Melanesian stock. Poor scraped together fishing villages bordered pristine deserted beaches and fantastic turquoise waters, with the odd ascent allowing an overview of offshore coral beds. It was a shame to see the odd colonial architectural relic lying gutted and abandoned to the elements, but more frequent were what had been more modern structures now variously derelict or wholly destroyed, presumably by military action.
My first appreciation of capital city Dili after 2 hours was sadly not a pleasing one, with the reckless abandon now fully resembling the war zone it had until recently been, and tent encampments and the road diminishing into wasteland came as something of a shock. Ragged youths milling aimlessly about provoked a subtle tinge of fear, and certainly if I had not been so experienced I might have questioned the wisdom of coming here. Another comparison in Haiti came to mind, it was not one to aspire to. Fortunately Dili improved somewhat as we approached its heart but despite the appreciated concerns of one of the crew boys I remained thoroughly disorientated despite my map. In the end I just plumped to alight at the central market which was if nothing else a position fix. A singular lack of roadsigns and street names still made it tricky but my kilometre long trek out to Dili's single backpacker den was at least direct. All along the broad avenue lay compound after headquarters of government agencies, NGO operations and UN bases, the most immediately striking impression that it seemed half the worlds fleet of Toyota Landcruisers had been commandeered to elicit the aid effort. With such a betrayal of sizeable outside influence, gone now completely was the chorus of "Hello misters" and though I guessed they still didnt see too many white boys trekking through the heat heavily laden, there was an evident air of indifference interrupted only by the odd Portugese "Bom Dia". It had been quite a day of trials already and so what I really didnt need was what ensued next, a failure to trace the hostel and consultation with the locals failing to elicit that there had ever been one. Even if it had ceased business there was no suitable building apparent where the guidebook map suggested, but in a remarkable twist of fate I eventually cottoned on to the explanation. Having considered it unlikely that I would be able to pick up a copy of the Lonely Planet East Timor book, a kindly fellow Scotsman I had met in Kota Kinabalu had blessed me with photocopies of the East Timorese section in the more recent South East Asia book. Having fantastically then discovered a lone copy in an exchange book shop in Bali, only the 2nd time I had ever seen it (the 1st was bizzarely at the India-Pakistan border), I had discarded the photocopies but for a sole page, the one which bore a handy pocket copy of the Dili map. Inspired comparison amazingly revealed that the book had incredibly managed to get this most important of details wrong, with the loose map now revealing it to allegedly lie a further 2Ks away. Considering that every single traveller who had ever come here must have endured the same frustration I might have expected to have heard about it but had not. I could not muster the resolve for that degree of punishment and so elected to head for a still distant guesthouse, ostensibly actually cheaper but not affording the same facility. The knife was twisted again however when it was related that they were full, no they werent, oh yes they were, even they could discern the degree of my frustration and afforded me tea free gratis. An unforthcoming white chick here was the first I had seen in an age, but a much greater appeasement here was the discovery of a bundle of excellent professionally produced tourist maps of the country. A superb find. After relating to the friendly owners "Setiap hari, apa apa!" (Every day, problems!) I pursued a freshly refuelled recourse to the now dubious location of Backpackers No.1, the distances again being compounded by no street signage and the lack of Indonesia's handy convention in every business sign relating their address. Unsure as to even which street I was on I noted a 24 hour internet cafe at the point of giving up, only for fates perverse sense of humour to have me look up in despair from it and spy a much more prominent nameplate, "East Timor Backpackers". Amazingly, though they had managed to get not only the map marker but the street name wrong in the guidebook, the door number 231 was correct.
This was it then, a spot further qualified by not 1 but 2 onsite restaurants and a massive bright yellow Castlemaine XXXX sign. That would do nicely, but if the previous guesthouse was full then I had slogged fully loaded knowing full well that they might be too. And so prepared for a final mortal plunge of the knife, what did I find? Not only a fridge bearing the finest selection of drinks I had seen since leaving home, but that bar a guy newly arrived from Bali I was the only custom around. 10 US Dollars a night was a step up in prices I winced at, but a 4 bed dorm to myself with super cool aircon and such rare indulgences as clean quality ablutions and a monster TV were a fantastic relief. You could even iron your clothes here, I hadnt done that once since leaving home. It was another irony to decline the long forgotten concept of a hot shower in the dire need of a cold one, and the aid efforts international bandwagon had also laid on a wide choice of Australian brews and white man's tucker. Sticking to my trusty and now super chilled Bintang, a steak sandwich was the best I could recall, and something of a reward for what had been a tough testing day.