Getting out of Dodge

Timor-Leste has a way of suckering you in to finally believing you know what’s what and how this place works. Just when you’re relaxing into a place where you can singsong your way along through the traffic (on a scooter, this means many stares) and where you know without doubt that that’s the “cheese” supermarket, something else happens that leaves you feeling out of place and out of sorts.

We’d naively said oh yeah 6 months in we’re acclimatised to the weather, oh no, we don’t need the aircon on at night, don’t worry about us we’re sleeping well, finding it all so so doable. Smug bastards.

That was right up until last week when Mother Nature decided to rachet up the temperatures and we are once again literally sweating in our jocks. I find myself leaving the cool of my office and walking into the sun, and no matter how often I steel myself, still saying under my breath, “jeez it’s hot”. And guess what, it’s only going to get worse.

It’s a steady climb now through to the beginning of the rainy season. Word has it, the next 6 weeks are the time you’re most likely to go troppo. I can’t wait!

Given this state of affairs, what better time to get out of Dodge than right now, before the rain and away from the heat, so that’s just what we did last week.

Carefully planned by our friend Adrian, and with his wife joining from New Zealand we upgraded from 2 wheels to 4 and rented a blessedly airconditioned Toyota Prada. Packed her up with snacks, water, snorkeling gear, multiple changes of clothes (including a jersey…more on that later), toilet paper, battery packs, torches, and a bit of a first aid kit, we headed out of dusty Dili on Monday.

When we first arrived, people were surprised to hear that on the first weekend we rode to Black Rock for a bit of a look see… a great example of a “when you don’t know what you don’t know” false sense of security. In our newbie state that road then was SHOCKING. Now, and after a fair amount of work from the Chinese road crews, it’s almost pristine and undeserving of mention. Except here I am mentioning it. There’s much being made of Chinese investment in the Pacific and further afield. It’s hard to argue against the impact of opening up roads within a country where access is one the biggest issues facing the 60 percent of people who live outside of Dili. When you’re 3.5 hours away from the nearest clinic is it any wonder that Timor-Leste has shocking rates of maternal mortality?

On the road we head West via Tibar, to our first official pin on the map, Maubisse. 70k’s south of Dili in the central highlands Maubisse is 1300 meters above sea level and the main coffee growing region of the district. It’s also positively chilly with temperatures at this time of year around 16 degrees (hence the jersey).

But first a couple of stops at a bamboo factory, funded by the Peace Corp and making some exceptionally lovely stuff. Employing locals in the factory and buying bamboo off local farmers this is a good news story and a great way to start our journey.

A quick hop up the road and we’ve got a bit of a tour planned at coffee producers Timor Global. Bet you didn’t know that 90 percent of the coffee drunk world- wide can be traced back to Timor-Leste coffee plants, in fact one of the three original trees is right over there and still producing.

We get to be part of a “cupping” event…very ritualistic, temperature of water just so, crust left on cup for this long, broken this way, slurped that way and swirled around on your tongue in this direction. I know we were hopeful we’d find words like mellow and fruity and hints of chocolate and nutty, herbal or intensely briny. What we said was “that Robusta’s a bit strong” and “oh I don’t think I like that one”. We are such a disappointment to the Timorese guy who has a world recognized certificate in being a “nose” or whatever they call it in the coffee biz. I’d stopped listening by then…all that caffeine.

Lunch on the road in Aileu at your pretty standard restaurante, chicken curry and a Bintang and back in the car for the final leg to Maubisse.

The scenery changes and the weather changes. There’s a light breeze and a welcome coolness in the air as we go for a quick look around the Posada (another piece of architecture we can thank the Portuguese for) and then dinner downstairs consisting of cooling cabinet food…fish, chicken or beef, rice and vegetables. $2,25 per person. Coffee is an extra buck each and brought upstairs to our balcony. The first of the prepacked snacks are unpacked and a welcome addition.

It feels like 10pm, its actually 7.30pm. Off to our rooms for some reading and relaxation and 30 minutes later the power’s out. A quiet lisensa, lisensa (excuse me, excuse me) from outside the door, and a lamp passed through sees us cope with the next hour or so.

Eggs and bread rolls for breakfast, oh and warm round doughnut thingies with strong coffee fortify us for the next leg to Suai. 

The roads average, nothing unexpected until like a mirage in the desert and looming out of the heat you come to a 4-lane expressway. Punctuated with signs… “4-wheel vehicles only”, “no external passengers”, “no motorbikes”, we race up along its tarmacked glory for about 10k until we notice the two vehicles in front slowing and turning. Seems this perfect feat of engineering ain’t that perfect and the road’s collapsed. I suggest out loud that one of the more useful signs could have been a “no access” one right at the beginning. We turn round and drive back 10k’s on the wrong side of the 2 lanes. Cos of course you can’t turn around when there’s a giant median barrier in the middle. Newly planted with trees as part of a beautification plan, the goats are making light work of the tender shoots as they make their way up it.

Best idea is to follow that truck with the aviation fuel on board, there’s only one place he’s going and that’s the airport in Suai.

We end up there too. It’s another location tagged for my dystopian movie I’m planning to shoot in Timor-Leste…an international airport, completely empty except for the guard and the cleaners. There’re no planes flying in or out of Suai. Inaugurated in 2017 and complete with a 1,500m runway, a terminal building, a control tower, a fire station, a meteorological station and a helipad the airport sits shiny, clean, looming large in the landscape, waiting. Waiting.

We try and blag our way through the doors, the guard shoos us away. I’m slightly worried about his gun and then notice he’s wearing socks and jandals. I’d outrun him.

There’s a broken bridge down towards the sea…word has it the crocodiles hang out there. We stop by. We find out later the trick is to tie a frozen chicken to a string and call Boy Boy and one will appear. Local knowledge is a great thing. I note there’s no “no swimming” signs.

Then it’s a visit  to the concrete kiwi marking the old site of the New Zealand Defence base. A monkey runs across the road and we try to lure it out with peanuts. No chance. We aren’t doing great with the wildlife.

A final trip to a fantastic market…a classic example of not judging a book by its cover. The corrugated tin shacks that sit around the outside hide a wealth of treasures from locally grown tobacco and betel nut, fruit, vegetables and nicnacs of all varieties. The boys hover around the buckets of nails and screws and engine parts and I find a tais (a cloth woven locally) to take home to NZ.

Dinner is served at another hidden treasure. The Chinese hardware store housed in a giant tin shed along a lonely road you’d never notice shares a space right next door with a non-descript restaurant. I don’t think there’s even a sign. The food is awesome although in typical Timor fashion you have to go through a few options first. “Don’t have”. “No, don’t have”.

We’re a little worried about the trip tomorrow…the road is unknown, so Adrian talks to the Timorese guys at our guesthouse. The carpark is full of trucks carrying NGO signage and we’ll hear the drivers talking through the night, quietly until about 11pm when they’ll go to bed, 4 per room, saving their per diems. They say the road is a bit difficult, they do the 100k’s in about 4.5-5 hours. I go to bed without doing the maths. I wake at 3am having done it. That’s 15ks an hour!

The road is awful.

We arrive in Maliana and it’s 37 degrees and blowing, stepping out of the car into a fan forced oven. We find a restaurant and eat with the locals. Fried chicken and rice. And ice-cold sweet tea. I have decided to watch and see what they order and just say…that, please? There are never any menus. 

Our last stop at the Balibo Fort Hotel is the climax we’ve been working towards. Luxury accommodation, perfect temperature, food and cocktails as the sun sets.  We’d originally planned the trip to go A to C, but we’ve done C to A and it’s worked out perfectly.

A stop off for a swim and lunch and we are back in Dili on Thursday at about 3pm.

The snack bag is empty of snacks and now full of other treasures. A blue, teal and purple tais, a giant clam shell rescued from the beach, bamboo placemats, bags of coffee, intricately made flax bird mobiles, a woven bag, a few trinkets to share when we get home. Animals seen: horses, monkeys, calves, goats, pigs, chickens, water buffalo…and unseen: crocodiles.  Accommodation $35 a night to $95. Villages hanging onto hills, buildings traditional and modern. Children walking to school, walking back from school, playing in the streets outside their homes, carrying water, bags of rice, unhappy chickens, waving, calling malae, malae. Simple meals with locals and lavish ones alone. And the roads…oh the roads, tarmacked state of the art to dirt tracks hyphenated by potholes.

We got out of Dodge, escaped the heat, found the peace, the chaos, the kids, the mountains, the roads. We’ll get to that crocodile next time.

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