After bee-lining to Darwin to barely make the shipping cut-off we flew to Dili, East Timor. The shipping mob told us that we should have the bikes in a week or so… “OR SO”. Little did we realise it would be four weeks before we saw our bikes again, which was of no surprise to our mates in Dili. It took us a while to cool our heels and accept the fact that we were stuck in Dili. We stayed positive… I’ll highlight straight off the bat that East Timor is a great destination for the adventurer… in particular, the countryside and scenery are spectacular… people everywhere light up in smiles the moment you do… and you can get around pretty cheap with your own wheels. Our experience was that once we had our wheels East Timor was an amazing experience. The capital Dili is fine… not exactly an inspiring place… but fine.
When the bikes finally arrived my immune system decided that was a good time to pack it in and take on a bout of stomach flu. My stomach flu involved severe gut pain, fever, muscle ache and diarrhoea like never experienced before. It left me a defeated and exhausted mess on a dunny pondering fluid volume estimates… maximum possible fluid storage in my body… ejected fluid volume… it’s just not possible. The funniest thing about talking to expats is finding out about all the random sickness they’ve experienced… dengue and malaria are just the tip of the iceberg… East Timor is a very special place in that respect. As a professional in the field of population health, Heidi was about to take on a two year contract here… she would have loved it. She was an adventurer and accomplished research scientist. She completed a Bachelor of Biomedical Science, Masters of Population Health and PhD in Epidemiology, awarded posthumously. It was emotional to think Laws and I could have been hanging out with Heid for a few months. Mum asked if we wanted to catch up with the girl who took on the role that Heid was going to take on… we didn’t want to.
Anzac Day 2015 rolled around… 100 years since the first Gallipoli landing… and ride launch for us. To the New Zealand military’s credit, an excellent Dawn Service was organised at Cristo Rei with many dignitaries present. We got to hang out with an Infantry Company Commander, who strategically destroys stuff and a Captain from the Combat Engineer Regiment, who strategically rebuilds stuff. As you can imagine, they’re also pretty good at strategically poking fun at each other… very cool cats. Although Portugal was neutral throughout World War 2, the Japanese occupied Portuguese Timor in 1942. The Allies and Timorese volunteers engaged them in a guerrilla campaign (Battle of Timor), which resulted in the deaths of 40,000 – 70,000 Timorese. I can’t even imagine the sense of betrayal the people here must have felt when Indonesia invaded 30 years later. USA helped sponsor the invasion… and our government protested loudly in public after the event but private signoff had already been made stipulating that we would do nothing.
After the Dawn Service it was time to finally hit the road. I was in the aftermath of stomach flu… Laws had a big night with an hour sleep… conditions were perfect. We were so antsy about not being on the bikes for so long that once we took off it was very difficult to stop. Most roads along the north coast are in good condition and like pretty much anywhere in the world, it’s magic to wind alongside the ocean. Before we knew it the whole north coast had disappeared and we were at Tutuala Day One. Headed down to Valu Beach the next day – gateway to the most eastern point of East Timor, Jaco Island.
The adventure riding started when we headed for the interior and south coast. It’s not adventure riding in the respect that we’re used to back home. I say adventure riding because the roads are carnage… we’re not just talking about potholes all over the show… deep death holes await… greet one of them and you’ll be going home. Roads are extremely “rocky” in every respect… fist sized rocks sit loose on top and the points of larger embedded rocks protrude from the dirt roads… some roads were entirely loose fist size rocks. To top it off, this is all through mountainous terrain winding in and out of one valley to the next… plus our navigation may not have been perfect. The riding blew us away… we were so inspired to ride, ride, ride! There were two days there spent almost entirely standing up on our pegs… we were completely shagged. You do feel like a bit of a wanker when ol’mate putts along from the other way with wife and kid on board… but if we did that speed we’d still be in East Timor. We’ll try and put together a bit of a video… should only take a few months.
We completely fluked tyre selection… we were running the stock Bridgestone Trail-Wings… a very hard tyre somewhere between 60/40 and 70/30… and they were PERFECT for the job. They’re commonly referred to as “Death-Wings” because you get minimum purchase both on-road and off-road. If we’d been on a softer tyre then it would have chipped away… I would even say chunked away. Naturally we didn’t get any punctures until we were on our way back to Dili trying to beat nightfall… I copped a bloody nail. I also got into a fight with a very large mud crater and bent my gear shift way out of shape.
An important thing to talk about is ANIMALS… the road network is just part of their unfenced paddock… they’ll come at you anytime any place. You’ve got buffalo, cows, goats, pigs, dogs and chooks for primary target avoidance. I hear people worry about buffalo and cows… as far as I’m concerned they’re sweet… they know the drill… just keep doing what they’re doing and be predictable… and they don’t exactly jump out onto the road suddenly. Pigs are fairly decisive… if they put themselves in the open they’re running for it. It’s the little baby goats and nervous dogs that’ll bring me unstuck. The little baby goats because they’re so freaking uncoordinated… I spend too much time looking at them and laughing… they follow mum around so they’re predictable in that sense… but I’m not watching where I’m going while I’m watching them suck at general movement. The nervous dogs because they’re not decisive in their movement… they’re the malnourished mangy looking ones that look like they just want it all to end… I euthanized one in Flores on my birthday… this dog was going for his road cross, got into his stop-start routine and then deadest reversed his way back from where he came… not turn around… reversed! Hot tip was that if you hit an animal in the regional areas then be ready for hefty payment or ride faster… the issue will get handled with a mob mentality.
Apart from epic and various countryside, two things really stood out riding around East Timor… and they’re directly related to the Indonesian occupation AND withdrawal. During Indonesia’s occupation people were forced to live beside major roads away from their homes so that it was easier for the military to distinguish between general population and resistance fighters. It also meant that a large portion of the population starved to death because farming became impossible. East Timor used to be made up of beautiful self-sustaining traditional kingdoms… whereas now people live in tin roof huts alongside the roads. The second thing is the lack of infrastructure. On 30 August 1999, the referendum gave a clear majority of 78.5% in favour of independence. The pro-integration militia, who were supported by the Indonesian Military, then went completely bezerk. The campaign of violence and terror saw not only the majority of the population displaced… but also roughly 80% of all infrastructure demolished… including the destruction of the entire power grid. Homes, schools, water supply systems, irrigation systems, drainage infrastructure, road network infrastructure… demolished. East Timor was quite literally left in flames after the Indonesian Military cracked the snits.
Don’t rely on meeting someone who can speak any English… take a Tetun (native language) phrase book… the country is struggling with their own official language let alone English. Come independence in 2001 the government decided the country hadn’t been handicapped enough so adopted Portuguese as their official language. Hardly anyone under the age of 50 speaks it… a 2010 census found that not even 600 people (out of a population of one million) spoke Portuguese natively. Kids speak Tetun at home, watch Bahasa (Indonesian) on TV and then go to school to learn completely in Portuguese by teachers who have no grasp of the language. Things are being changed so that kids progressively take on the Portuguese language. Bahasa and English are regarded as “working” languages. Even with a total language divide we still managed to work out some critical basics… like the fact that this rooster was en route to his next fight and had 3 wins to none… well, no one says to none… if said rooster is alive then of course it’s to none. Charades liaising with cops and fuel distributors is also important. We found that there was usually a person who could speak some English at Check Points where we’d go through a Standard Procedure.
The whole Portuguese thing blows me away… phasing back to the language of your colonial exploiter. East Timor was nothing more than a neglected trading post to the Portuguese. Unless you were part of the “elite class” the Portuguese exploited the East Timorese people right from the outset when they colonised the place in the 16th century… they were brutal at times… and further screwed the people when they abandoned the place in 1975 following the fall of the Portuguese fascist regime. If they’d applied even minimum effort toward the decolonisation process and not left the show in disarray there could have been a better outcome… one that didn’t involve over 100,000 East Timorese dying as a result of the Indonesian Military’s “pacification strategy”.
There are of course reasons for the modern day Portuguese presence. For one there’s the whole Roman Catholic thing. Before Indonesia invaded, around 20% of the population were Roman Catholic and there were maybe 100 churches. Indonesian rule dictates that every citizen must have a religion and that “boy on crocodile created the world” doesn’t count… now 95% or more of the population is Catholic and there are over 800 churches… so the Portuguese Roman Catholic Church have been brainwashing here for a very long time. Pardon my cynicism… to be fair, while the world turned a blind eye to the atrocities taking place in East Timor, the church people persevered on the ground as advocates for human rights. It’s an interesting mix on the religion front… yes, the majority are Catholic but they have also held onto traditional beliefs, particularly outside of Dili. They’re totally conflicting belief systems but somehow the mix just works.
Secondly, there was the Santa Cruz Massacre, which was the killing of at least 250 pro-independence demonstrators at Santa Cruz cemetery on 12 November 1991. Many thousands of East Timorese had already been slaughtered but the difference here is that it was caught on hidden video tape and smuggled out of the country. The massacre touched a nerve in Portugal, especially following the footage of East Timorese people praying in Portuguese. East Timor finally had someone out there in the world who cared about their suffering… the Portuguese government started applying international pressure, particularly within the EU… made little difference… but gee it must have been nice for the East Timorese to know they had someone out there who cared.
The real difference was made in 1998 when Portugal had finally mustered some allies. The Howard government also made change to foreign policy and applied some “push” on the new Indonesian government… push for East Timor to not only be autonomous but also be given the chance to vote on their independence within 10 years. This pissed President Habibie right off… he’d only just taken on the presidency that year following Suharto’s 31 year rule. Habibie announced a snap referendum to be held in six months… and then let the pro-Indonesian militia in East Timor have at it. Anyway… I’m off on a tangent. Portuguese influence… it’s a big thing from colonial, church and modern day perspectives. Younger people in general want it rejected…. whereas for the older people it helped unify them against Javanese influence. Colonial exploiter thing aside, it is very cool to walk through colonial forts… and many of the Portuguese colonial style buildings have been re-established as accommodation… great paces to stay… they tend to be founded at higher elevations with amazing views.
If I had to use one word to sum up the people of East Timor it would be resilient… they have plugged away through so much bullshit. If I had to use one word to sum up the progress that’s been made since independence it would be disappointing. Vast sums of money have been thrown at the government and squandered by what is basically the Boys Club from 1975. The legal system and regulatory environment are STILL incomplete. The World Bank Group created an ease of doing business index where East Timor currently rank 172 out of 189… they outrank the North African countries in civil strife.
The pub stories are the best… stories by people directly tied up in projects. Almost all stories relate to mismanaged resources. I won’t go into them here because they are pub stories and I could get people into trouble… I’ll tell just one because it seems like it might even be common knowledge. The Ministry of Finance recently built their new office building… an impressive complex nine stories high that makes surrounding Dili look even more impoverished than it already is. One glance at this thing on the Dili skyline and the immediate thought is, “Where the fudge did they get the money to build that?” Apparently when they tendered the project there was a Portuguese mob that explained given the site’s coastal sediments (Dili is poorly located), foundations would need to be substantial therefore pricing the project high. An Indonesian mob said, “Nah… we can do it for this…,” and won the job. Construction has been complete for some time but no one has moved in… apparently the building is unstable. I hope it isn’t true because this thing would have cost a fortune! You laugh at the stories but then you get depressed about it and don’t even know who to feel sorry for… a whole country of over a million people I suppose.
This is just a theory, but maybe the core issue was the transition of power. The Revolutionary Front of Independent East Timor (Fretilin) was led by a group of people that define the word resilient. These people persevered through atrocious conditions over a long period of time… and managed to maintain a front of resistance at home and abroad. Come independence the expectation was for the leaders of this group to move into positions of power, which I guess is historically the norm when stuff like this happens. So here I go… maaaaaybe ol’mate who has been engaged in the jungle for a couple of decades peppering the oppressor in guerrilla warfare isn’t actually that suitable for a nation building role??? Yes, his or her dedication and contribution to the cause needs to be rewarded… but maaaaaybe their skillsets and qualifications aren’t necessarily transferrable to nation building??? Just putting it out there.
To put things into perspective, the Indonesian government has 34 cabinet members for a population of 255 million whereas The East Timorese government has 55 cabinet members for a population of 1.2 million… you can work out the ratios. The one bit of promising news for East Timor is Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao’s recent decision to undertake a massive cabinet reshuffling, which will involve a stack of sackings/resignations. The total lack of coordination between ministries, mismanaged funds & resources, corruption and general cumbersome nature of the government is blatantly obvious. The population is suffering from hunger and malnutrition while some experts warn that the current payments to “veterans” will prematurely dry out the $16 billion Petroleum Fund (sovereign wealth fund). Up to 2012 around 38,000 people were receiving some form of veterans payment… and then someone had the smarts in the 2012 election campaign to announce that 27,000 more people will receive payment (I’m not entirely sure how they all of a sudden became “veterans”)… but more is spent on this 1% of the population than on health or education… I wonder how that makes the population feel about their independence?
This is very quickly evolving into an essay, not a blog… apologies. I guess that’s what happens when you’re left in Dili to ponder the ways of the world. There are many serious issues that need addressing in East Timor… I sincerely hope this new government phases out the mentality and culture of the Boys Club from 1975. The issues are simple… the solutions?… and their execution in that environment?… I’ll just leave it at all the best.
Before I wrap this up we need to give a big shout out THANK YOU to a few key mates. We kindly did Craig a favour and looked after his beach house + dog Cody while he worked in the field. Craig is a Water Resource Management advisor working toward providing safe access to water and improved sanitation. He has a couple of stand-up-paddleboards (SUP) and Cody is right into it. I don’t know if there’s a better way to secure a bond with an animal than to put said animal in a life-threatening situation e.g. drowning, and have that animal depend on you to haul it out of the life-threatening situation… Cody and I became close. Judy also let us stay in her apartment for two weeks while she was away on holiday. Most of all, Candiece was always there to hold our hands… show us around… link up with people… provide pool, backup couch and most of our laughs… can’t thank her enough. Judy and Candiece are International Consultants for the Ministry of Education’s Curriculum Reform for Basic Education. AND let’s not forget all the lifts and drink shouts from many others along the way… THANK YOU!
Our mates kept us in comfort and our spending to a minimum while we waited out in Dili. We are particularly grateful because we made some pretty wrong assumptions on how things were going to pan out in Dili… not just shipping time. We thought we’d rock up, maybe do some cheap scuba, rent a couple of cheap bikes and go for a sticky beak like we have any other Asian country… wrong. Tourism has massive potential in East Timor bit it’s dormant for now. Anything outside of very basic accommodation and market meals is not for the budget traveller. If you’re loaded no worries… $400 for a two day dive to the good spots… $2,000 for a one week motorbike tour… $100 per day for a 4WD… can get a shitbox scooter for $150 per week but you wouldn’t take it out of Dili. No decent motorbikes are for hire because they get stripped for parts and returned with old or inferior parts. You’re flat-out renting a bicycle. Stuff to do in Dili includes:
Our recommendation to budget overlanders: don’t fly to Dili (or Darwin going the other way) until you’ve been advised that your ship has berthed. It works out a lot cheaper to fly to the Philippines and wait it out there for your bikes to arrive… cheap flights… cheaper living costs… plus it is a country difficult to see with your own motorbike so why not include it as a side trip? Fortunately we made great mates who we wouldn’t have met if we flew to the Philippines… so I better not say I wish we did that… the above is just a recommendation 🙂 … and don’t forget HARD enduro tyres! We also managed to give QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute a good plug thanks to our mates connections – THANK YOU again!