One of the best things about living out of a rucksack is that you don’t have many things to worry about. Most things in your bag are disposable, and when you pack light, you can walk for miles or run after buses, as well as avoid having to check your bag at the airport. The downside is that sometimes you end up looking like this:
I´m in East Timor now, a country that has captivated my imagination ever since my French friend Carlos waxed poetic about it during our horrific journey through Southern Malawi (an expedition up to Cape McClear that you can read about HERE). He told me about how clean and beautiful the beaches were. He noted the lack of infrastructure and the nearly nonexistent tourism. He gave me insight into the country’s terrible past. He, however, neglected to tell me that East Timor is unlike the rest of Asia in pretty much every possible way. The language that Timorese kids speak tentatively and haltingly is Portuguese, not English. The people enjoy Fanta and technicolorific graveyards and houses, and will do anything to avoid having to stand up or move — adopting the same famous, siesta-loving, “Mañana, mañana” approach to life as their Latin brothers across the sea.
Moreover, the only interactions that most Timorese have had with foreigners (for as long as they can remember, anyway) has been with UN workers — permanent, paid residents who generally make enough not to try to haggle for things. After all, why bargain for stuff when work is paying for it? Putting $50 on the company account for a 2-hour ride doesn’t seem like such a bad idea when you’re pissed off at your boss (and it sure beats stealing staplers.)
So now, we’re left with a legacy of non-negotiation and a distaste for hard work. Throw in 3 penniless backpackers and a pending flight. Then sprinkle on a dab of lack-of-access-to-an-ATM, and Timor… by your powers combined… I am REALLY pissed off.
We arrived in Dili just about one week ago. My first happy realization here was that tourism is pretty much nonexistent. The airport was nothing but a couple of hut-like clusters that didn´t have the capacity to contain everyone from our flight, so half of us had to stand outside and wait to file in. My second, not-so-happy realization was that Portuguese is not spoken as widely or as well here as I had hoped. I thought that East Timor would be something like Mozambique, and that I´d be able to get around just fine by tweaking my Spanish and trying to sound like a cat. Not so! Communication here has been a struggle… even with one member of our group speaking Bahasa, two members of our group speaking Spanish, and three members of our group gesticulating with our hands and jumping up and down.
Our first order upon arrival was the bureaucratic nightmare of getting an Indonesian visa sorted. Even though the embassy looks like it´s right around the corner from the hostel on our map, we spent over 2 hours wandering through Dili´s slums and marching over the sun-kissed bodies of sleeping pigs trying to find it. This country´s capital has got to be the most insanely spread out and nonsensical one I´ve ever been to. Nobody knows where to find an internet cafe, there are only two ATMs that take foreign cards, and nothing is where is should logically be. At all. It took us the better half of the day running all over town trying to procure the necessary components for our Indonesian visa applications ($45, a photocopy of your passport, a passport photo with a red background, a copy of your flights leaving the country, a handwritten note politely asking for the visa, and oodles of paperwork in BLACK ink — NOT BLUE!) because nothing was anywhere near anything else. If we found an internet cafe, it didn´t have a printer. If we found a printing shop, they didn´t have any kind of device to access the internet. If we found a place that did red backgrounds, it was on the other side of town from the Indonesian embassy (the only one that requires red backgrounds), and nobody anywhere has change… even if you are trying to pay with a dollar.
In most countries, where roads are unmarked (and usually unnamed) and maps are hopelessly out of date, just about anyone on the street is happy to give relatively decent directions (better to cross-check with a couple others along the way to be sure), and most people will actually walk you there — happily chittering the entire time. In India, where 10% of the population goes unrecorded and a panipuri stall counts as its own city block on most maps,… you could be following a local across rivers or army-crawling under the beams of a bulldozed house, but rest assured… you will end up directly in front of what you asked for.
Unfortunately, in the case of East Timor, nobody´s going to walk you. It might get in the way of their laying-around time. Also, the only thing that seems to have remained of “Asia” on this little 200km plot of land is the keen desire to “save face” that can turn what should be an easy afternoon into a messy whirlwind of bad directions and “yes, yes, yes”s that don´t mean anything at all. For those who haven´t been to Asia yet — “saving face” is the Asian inclination to avoid embarrassment by giving wrong information instead of admitting that you don´t know where something is. After all, if you just make up directions, the both of you will part smiling and a good time will be had — at least for the moment. What could be wrong with that?
So yeah, getting things sorted in Dili was tough, and since it doesn´t have very many sights, once we submitted our paperwork, we were off to Mt Ramelau, East Timor´s highest peak. It took 3 days to get the 80 kilometers there and back. One for the bus ride to Maubisse, a small hill town whose defining feature is that it is utterly nondescript. One morning to haggle with misleading and unfriendly mototaxis for a ride up to where we could start our trek, and an afternoon to abandon talks with said mototaxis and hitch half the way, then WALK the other half (18 kilometers!) while being followed through the misty abyss by children reminiscent of those from the movie Village of the Damned.
The ride that we caught deserves special mention because it was already completely full. I’ve had lots of great people stop for me in the past, but I don’t think anyone had actually given up riding inside on a cold rainy day in order to offer up his seat before. This merry chap, however, enthusiastically jumped out to give Anna his spot, and the three of us — said dude, Sebastian, and myself — all hopped up on top. Here is a photo:
I had borrowed a rain jacket and stuffed it with sarongs and forgotten socks to keep me warm while up top, but the dude was utterly freezing his balls off. He didn’t complain though — what a champ! We finally arrived 10 km down the road (it took us an hour due to the shitty conditions), and we started walking towards Mt Ramelau, expecting to catch a ride on the first car that came by. No car ever came. We walked for 5 hours through a very Silent Hill-esque landscape, straining ours ears for the sound of tires or a motor. Nothing. For 5 hours. When we finally arrived in Hatubilico (a small village that Sebastian refers to as “That God-forsaken town”), we were frozen and exhausted, and I was just grateful to have been traveling with other people who could loan me some gear.
We got up the next morning at 2:30 or so and began the 3.5-hour hike to the top of Ramelau. It wasn’t that difficult a hike… just steadily upwards in absolute darkness. Since I’d been acting like a cheap fuck lately, I didn’t buy AAA batteries in Kuta when I had the chance, and my headlamp was getting pretty dim. Anna’s headlamp was dying as well, and Sebastian didn’t have a light at all, so we ended up slipping on a lot of cow shit and clinging nervously to each other at every snap of a twig or snort of a donkey. It was worth it, though, to see sunrise over a sea of fluffy white clouds (both coasts of this spade-shaped country visible to the naked eye). Here is a photo:
The lesson learned here is that having a tiny bag is not always the best course of action — you’ll have so little stuff you’re not equipped to go anywhere but the beach. I would have really liked to have some sort of waterproof clothing of my own, and gosh, a flippin’ light would have been great for our midnight hike. As we continue through this country, I keep just being glad that I’m with a couple of people that came better prepared than I.
OK, exhausted now. Here’s a video of our bus ride into Baucau, where we are now.
“Trifles make the sum of life.” – Charles Dickens, David Copperfield.