03.12.2007 - 03.12.2007
Borders had the potential to be convoluted affairs, and this potentially problematic one justified an especially early start to get me on my way by anothet Ojek transfer back to the terminal. I said farewell to the ever friendly locals of whom a bunch of young boys had shown their heart in escorting me through the previous nights darkness in a ridiculous frustrated search for beer, also leaving behind another unexpected inhabitant in a possum which angstly sat cooped up in a bare 1 metre square cage. It displayed predictably disturbed behaviour which left me angry, but served to show that Australia's influence was palpably close now. Boys at the bus terminal betrayed the local glut of missionary workers whose questionable handiwork had been betrayed by Christmas carols and the ridiculously contrasting hue of local Bemos blaring out sickly sweet naive 1950s ilk pop music, it was not the booming sub woofer bass lines of the mobile discos of Kupang. With little action besides the predictable overambitions of the odd moneygrabber I was eventually angrily thrown onto an undefined bus in pursuit of my bag, left wondering if I had just been suckered. Requisite clarification of the price revealed predictable lofty ambitions which my Bahasa succinctly nipped in the bud but I was still left wondering if we were headed straight through to the border or only as far as the town of Atambua 2 hours hence. Timor's dual personality continued unabated in long straight bumpy sections of bitumen bordered by vast open plateaus of rice fields and sporadic bamboo hewn thatched shacks, only to be punctuated by periodic abrupt mountains traversed on super steep switchbacks. More commonly than the particularly rustic looking houses was the regional propensity to erect conical thatched outdoor shelters elevated on stilts, and people habitually lounged about lazily under them doubtless chewing their betel nut and doing not much else. Distant prominent mountains still bore a beautifully virgin green and yet Timor's eastern progression now revealed it to become palpably drier, with sparse transparent trees now including eucalypts complimenting a transition from savannah towards full on desertification. The hint of Australia's imminence was further obviated by my first dramatic encounter with deep red earth, and mottled brown kingfishers bore a resemblance to Kookaburras.
Arrival in Atambua which had received short shrift from the guidebook revealed it though unremarkable to be at least more of a town than heartless Kefa, but it mattered little now since I could have afforded either one of them only a brief pause in the dark. With every last one of my fellow itinerants alighting at Atambua's small grubby terminal I was left further perplexed as I found myself sole passenger for a promised through service to the border village of Motoain, and I had to prompt the bus crew again in fear that I was being set up for an impromptu charter. No nonsense negotiation that I knew the bus fare to Atambua and an onward Bemo transfer forced them to match my price, and so I found myself again on one of those rare occasions in which I was paying peanuts for a 40 minute taxi ride, albeit this time in a bus. It puzzled me how they could justify it but ground rules established I wasnt complaining. They might push for more money upon arrival but they werent going to get any, my Bahasa after 4 months in Indo meant that I was in a position to not pull any punches, and I could only conclude that they were positioning themselves for better business on the return leg. Paining at the impossibility of acceptable photography on our bumpy jaunt, I caught sight of a prominent statue of an Indonesian soldier comandeering a roundabout whilst thrusting his weapon to the sky in an act of defiance, it was a telling legacy of a tragic recent history.
Motoain materialised as a tiny hamlet of likeable character, wholeheartedly qualified by its beachside setting and unusually verdant palm studded pastures, its only services being a couple of Padang cuisine Warungs (poor man's eateries) and a prominent beachside police post where a uniformed gaggle sat habitually idle. A lone moneychanger was not the sizeable reception committee I had expected, and after handily checking his "borderline" exchange rate I attempted to get my bearings by hitting the beach. An endless strip of turquoise fringed sand ran away to the east and my first view of East Timor was naturally little different and very naturally beautiful. In anticipation of an imminent price hike I frequented the less nauseating of the 2 Warungs, and received not just a remarkably good feed but an exchange rate offer clearly open to greater negotiation. Though I considered hanging on to my remaining Rupiah in view of any border eventualities the 100,000 Rupes I had recently withdrawn "just in case" was about all I had left and probably wouldnt have sufficed anyway. Instead I somehow managed to strike a remarkably good deal which meant that according to the official exchange rate the 10 Dollars and food I received essentially deemed the feed to have been free. I might have expected that from ones in search of strong stable Greenbacks as used in ET but not when it was me receiving them. A further ulterior motive in establishing the lie of the land revealed that the border post lay beautifully only 200 metres away and my short stroll was surprisingly only impeded by a couple of "Hello misters". The evidently new immigration offices and adjacent villa HQ sat surprisingly quiet, with a disinterested guard pointing out the unmanned counter. A brace of starchy white officials soon showed up and one more step into the unknown had me tentatively hand over my passport, the difference being that these guys had the authority to block any further steps. They did. Having gone like hell for the last few weeks under pressure of time due to my visa restriction, eventualities had still rendered my arrival knowingly a little late. I hadnt even bothered to count the days since it was inconsequential, but the knowledge that I had entered Indonesia at Tarakan on the 3rd of October meant that my pending departure on the 3rd December surely meant that I had overstayed my 60 days. Guessing at one days excess and hoping that they wouldnt noticed let alone care as had been the case in Bangladesh, I had to wince when I saw them coolly counting days on their calendar and knew then that it wasnt going to be that easy. Beckoned to an internal desk, I strained to understand the complications of the remarkably patient and polite official, but one thing was immediately plain. I had overstayed my 60 day permit by 2 days not 1, and clearly they wrent prepared for the moment at least to just let it go. I understood very well the ramifications. Overstay in Indo and the rule book said they would hit you for 25 Dollars a day, perhaps more tellingly overstay by more than 10 days and they could stick you in gaol for up to 5 years. Months and years of finely honed practice had instinctively seen me set myself up with a contingency for the worst case scenario, but I still found myself having to to think upon my feet at what was clearly going to be a tricky negotiation. With eventual resort to my dictionary I contrived an appeal that it had been due to the earthquake on Sumbawa which had scuppered the ferry sailings, perhaps not a complete untruth, and though the boy listened patiently he related only too discernibly that whatever the reason for my delay might have been it was of no consequence, he had to uphold the letter of immigration policy. Perhaps it was fortunate that my limited Bahasa did not allow me to sufficiently eloquate that if it had delayed me a month, would they have stuck me in gaol for being the victim of a natural disaster? Travel of any worth was a constant challenge and this one out of perverse dognation I was determined to rise to, strategy number 2 came to the fore. My Bahasa failed me in being able to relate directly that it was not my fault, and so I had to put all of my doubts in one basket. I pleaded poverty. Having to be careful of concocting a supportable argument, I presented the 10 Dollars I had received at the border, carefully stashed in a pocket distinct from my further wealth, and pleaded that it was all I had. It was a dangerous play. Though unlikely, I was in danger of provoking a full bag and body search which would reveal the contrary, and perceptibly lying to these guys would surely set me up for getting hit for a lot more than just 50 bucks. Their response that I would have to go back to Atambua to elicit more funds was resisted with the argument that I had no such access, and after drawing it out with head in hands and pleas of "Sabab ada gempa bumi" (Because there was an earthquake) it was with a contorted face that I eventually proferred odds and sods of surplus currency I had been left with. Coolly toting up the value of 11 Malaysian Ringgit and enquiring as to the value of 11 Brunei Dollars, the boy remained implacable in relating that it wasnt enough and recourse to immigration HQ in Atambua would be required. That unpalatability aside, the threat was all the more untenable considering my 8 day dedication to East Timor was already insufficient, I had to continue today and so continued the sham with a plea for time to consider. Perversely they knew that I had to have more money since the visa on arrival at the East Timor border was a flat non-negotiable 30 bucks, and so under pressure to continue the sham I played the best hand that I had. I belatedly presented them with the loose change in Dollars which I actually had, 11 Dollars which raised eyebrows since it was perhaps ostensibly a genuine argument. I appealed that I had to retain this for the East Timorese border fee, the inflated 10 Dollar departure tax from there, and the price of a subsequent Australian visa. Once I was in Australia I would have access to more funds I protested, but for now it was all I had and I needed it or I would just be stuck elsewhere. Perhaps they believed me now, and there was subsequent recourse to a higher official who took the place of the first. It didnt help that Starchy Shirt no.2 was of a more starchy character, but the news remained the same, whatever problems it would present me with subsequently it was not their concern, I would have to stump up or backtrack to Atambua. Down to the bone now, there were no more cards to play. On another day without the continuing pressure of time I might have even adopted extreme hardcore attitude and called their bluff, but the alternative prospect of an Indonesian gaol and subsequent blacklisting was not a prospect to foster and I had no idea of how much time I was looking at. A day or 2 in the clink might have otherwise been a perversely interesting departure even if I might starve, but I had to assume that they would ensure it would hurt, I guessed a months incarceration was more realistic. Whatever the facade might have been, I was in full appreciation that in a land of corruption and poor accountability I was not just refusing to pay my fine but refusing to pay them personally perhaps, and as long as their palms remained ungreased I was onto a loser. I had stopped short of short circuiting the situation by trying to bribe them directly, that was another recourse too fraught with danger to be considered, and so I requested another Time Out to ponder the situation, knowing full well now that I had no choice. In order to retain face I had to continue the sham until the end, but there was nothing else for it now, the possible involvement of the British consular staff was a liability even greater than these guys. After a final sham demonstration of indignance, I layed my single 100 Dollar bill on the desk to more raised eyebrows, enquiring as to whether they had change. It was not beyond the realms of possibility that they would say not and so expect the whole 100 Dollars out of lack of alternatives, but their tremendous professionalism did not allow them that juncture. Even if it was going straight into their back pockets then they had to retain their sham too. I left disappointed but with pride still intact, I reckoned I had played the game as good as was possible and with the quiet satisfaction that finally perhaps they had believed my bullshit. And the reward for all this recourse? An invitation to approach further immigration officials of East Timor, one of the worlds most troubled nations. Fucksake.