Friday, April 17, 2009

East Timor

After 3 days of forced rest in Larantuka, the ferry to Kupang, Timor finally left. It was a 17hr overnighter so we ended up sleeping on the hard metal floor with the karaoke and movies going all night just above our heads. We were supposed to meet Jake in Kupang (as it turned out he had gone on ahead of us) but when he didn't show up we immediately jumped on a 7hr bus to Atambua. The following day, despite our best efforts, we were completely undermined by the hassle and stupidity of the touts and transporters and could not get the last 30km to the border and had to stay another night in Atambua. By that point I must say I was very ready to leave Indonesia.
The following day we gave in and took motorbikes to the border. It was a memorable crossing in that it was right on the water and had a beautiful coastline, the Indonesian border immigration officer had a mohawk and the East Timor immigration post was a little portable and so ghetto looking that we didn't even notice it at first and walked right by until guards in an overhead machine-gun nest sent us back. First time in ages we've had customs lift a finger and touch our bags too. They were friendly though and even on the bus to Dili we found the locals to be more polite and mature. Yeah, the bus driver still tried to overcharge us but the locals weren't all laughing about it.
We got to Dili, the capital, in the afternoon and at the only (overpriced) hostel in the city learned that Jake had left that morning heading east. As we were totally exhausted, in a country with limited transport, and had only a couple days until our flight out, we opted to just stay in Dili the whole time.
East Timor's recent history is a bit chaotic to say the least. It was colonized by the Portuguese until 1974 (Indonesia had been Dutch) when a coup in Portugal led to the dumping of almost all its colonies. Just like those other colonies, Guinea-Bissau, Angola and Mozambique, East Timor went into civil war. The winner was a left-leaning party and as soon as it looked like things might settle down there, Indonesia invaded with US, UK and Australian backing. It was the cold war after all... It became just another region of Indonesia, albeit one with a constant guerrilla war going on and the local populace frequently getting severely mistreated by the military. In 1999 East Timor voted for full independence in a referendum and immediately after, pro-Indonesian militias trashed the country until the UN stepped in. In 2002 the UN handed over power to the first president (the first lady was actually an Aussie) and they've tried to make do since.
There were major riots as late as 2006 and there are still lots of UN trucks driving around in Dili. You already know my general opinion of the UN and NGO's so I won't go into it again other than to say that a lot of locals have had some severe criticism of their two-faced "saviours", especially the Australians, who are the most involved here and who's government recently tried to scam all of East Timor's newly discovered oil reserves for next to nothing.
Tourism is still almost non-existent and like all countries in similar situations, the prices are much higher than they should be. Actually, transport wasn't bad and since food prices had been steadily increasing as we travelled east, the local food was as expected, but any accommodation or western targeted thing was priced for the UN staff, not us. So, with 3 days I went out to see what I could discover in a new land.
Being ex-Portuguese, the population is Roman Catholic but we saw no signs of celebration for Holy Week. They do have a giant Jesus statue overlooking the beach and town and one side of the city. There are still lots of building shells left over from the riots and generally things are quite run down, but it looks more like a poor African country than a recent war zone. This image was only enhanced by the fact that as we'd been travelling east people were getting darker so that by the time we got here, some of the people even looked African black.
I've also found that my Portuguese colony trend has held up. I've noticed that the women in ex-Portuguese colonies look significantly more attractive than the immediately neighbouring countries (this is a relative, not absolute, beauty). The question is, did the Portuguese, who had first pick and ended up with a limited number of colonies chose them based on the beauty of the local populace or is there something about a Portuguese cross-breed that really increases beauty? I think I need to go to Portugal to look into this, lol. In the case of Dili, it doesn't really matter because the girls (and most of the guys) wouldn't even look at me. I felt completely ignored walking around town. It's obviously because of all the peacekeepers here so they aren't all that excited by the presence of foreigners, but it was a sharp contrast to the laughing hassle we constantly got just across the border.
The population and development here are really low and I've heard that the beaches are amazing (the coast we did see was really beautiful) and the scuba diving is supposed to be world-class too. With calmer waters ahead of them, hopefully things will continue to improve but realistically their size and isolation will doom them to becoming just another forgotten country dependent upon foreign aid for its survival.
When Jake finally came back to Dili the day before our flight he recounted for us the most horrifying and heartbreaking story of the whole trip. He had gone east, bushcamping on the beach, and one day while sitting alone out there a 10 year old local boy came up and offered himself for sexual services. This kind of thing doesn't just randomly happen, so the question is how and from whom did this kid learn that foreign men in East Timor are potential customers for this type of thing? I'll leave you to your own conclusions.....
I mentioned isolation, well, you know how hard it was for us to get here overland and the Dili airport itself is tiny and has only two routes to the rest of the world, to Bali and Darwin, though I hear an expensive Singapore flight will be running soon. We opted for Darwin, Australia because we found a good deal on what, not long ago, was considered the most expensive scheduled flight route in the world per km (or something like that).
Ammon

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