Life, Liberty, & ‘Just Us’ Trapped in Timor (Sept 30th – Oct 10th)

Back on the ground, unwary of gigantic carnivorous reptiles, we stayed one last night at Labanbajo. From there, we bused all through Flores. We stopped halfway to spend the night in a little mountain village of Bajawa. An overpowering volcano dominated the horizon, pretending to guard the community, but in reality posed a serious threat. The people were friendly, but the town had no real draw to keep us entertained. The next morning we were out in the road trying to find a bus to Maumere….sure enough, one came cruising down the street as expected.

Just another South East Asian bus ride…no air-con and plenty of flat tires (well…one really long one). Around 12 noon we stopped for lunch at a monastery cafeteria run by nuns. This whole region kind of reminded me of Mexico with it’s arid landscape, and this dusty catholic church fit the part to the T. After some Mexican food (not really….way more spicy) we re-boarded the same bus only to find we were now at the mercy of a different driver. As we began the second leg of the 10 hour journey, Michelle and I vocally noted our new driver’s aggressive and careless style. We were familiar with South East Asian public transportation (a little too familiar), yet this driver was just a little crazier zipping around steep blind mountain turns and bends. Nonetheless, neither of us were that concerned…….until it happened.

BANG…..It sounded like an aluminum can the size of a steel drum was compacted by a demolition ball dropped from outer space. A full second of silence elapsed after the bus screeched to an eager stop. Michelle and I were the first off the bus.

Michelle found one of the victims flung off the road into a steep forested cliff. She immediately climbed down the 20 feet to asses the victim. I ran to the front of the bus and saw the motorcycle pinned under the bumper with skid marks leading back to the site of impact. I was now experiencing my first severely messed up injury, for not only the bike, but a man was also dragged the good 30 feet before the bus came to a halt. This guy’s head was cracked wide open, with a puddle of candy apple red viscous liquid leaking out of the fractured cranium, and I mean fractured. I could see a chunk of skull angled perpendicular to the rest . (A scene that still remains vivid in my mind even as I write this article much time later.) He was not in good shape, and instantly everyone from the bus was around him. I hurried back to help Michelle assist her patient (this is all within seconds).

The man, neither of them wearing a helmet, was laying on his back against the ground in the exact same positions as which he was catapulted. Michelle, EMT certified, and me, Wilderness First Aid Trained (yeah baby) began to check for injuries. He was conscious and not paralyzed, since his appendages were slightly wiggling. When he attempted to lift his leg, blood poured out like a spilled glass of sangria onto Michelle. With his bone protruding from his leg, we both knew making a splint would be our next move. Some by-standers started to watch, but unable to direct them to give assistance (language barrier), the just stood dumbfounded from the road above. I remember glancing at the driver, seeing him pace back and forth with his hands on his head (which of course doesn’t help anyone). I got my shirt and ripped it down the middle, then broke two firm sticks to act as a brace. While Michelle had the difficult part of holding his blood drenched leg, we dressed the wound in a way only Dr. Frankenstein would appreciate. Demanding 2 men watching to aid us in carrying the individual up to the road, we loaded him into a seat near his lifeless-looking buddy (already packed away inside a stopped SUV now turned ambulance). The vehicle took off at the same time I was in the process of jumping out the rear.

Our crashed transport was going to stay at the scene, so we hopped on one of a number of buses curiously stopped. Squished between locals, we continued to Maumere with nothing in my thoughts except the continual replaying of the dramatic and tragic events that just took place. Less than an hour later we arrived to the city where we exited the bus paying just 3,000 Rupiah (about 30 cents), the cost for the short jaunt from the incident. We ended up not being charged for the majority of the voyage, but at the expense of a life (most likely). Although it was a learning experience for both Michelle and I, we would have paid pocket’s full to skip the event that may have killed a son, brother, or father.

In Maumere we used the Internet and walked to a guest house. The whole incident gave me purpose to reflect the value of life. Just minutes earlier, I could imagine these two young guys laughing and joking with each other while on their way to their girlfriend’s house (who knows). For one of them, I’m pretty confident he already arrived to a more permanent destination. It’s sad how quick a life can turn upside down, and how for granted we take our loved ones being near or just a phone call away. Proud of ourselves for our reactions, but churning within from what our eyes just witnessed, we did our best to fall asleep knowing that the lives of the people we love most could be instantly stolen without ever giving them one last hug goodbye. (I Love You Mom, Dad, and Shane! (Oh, and Michelle Loves her family too)).

With a desire for Timor, we woke up and walked to a Merpati office (a local airline). We bought tickets for a 3pm flight to Kupang. After breakfast/lunch and a little more Internet time, we were flying across the sea of Flores. We landed at 4pm and taxied to the bus station. Just as hoped, a bus was heading to Atambua at 7, a border town squished against the new country of East Timor. Waiting at the bus station for a couple of hours gave time for a very common Asian phenomenon to occur….starring! Locals would come up to us, young and old alike, and without saying a thing just stand there looking. It still feels weird even though it’s been going on for a while now, and a part of me is anxious to be back in the states where my skin doesn’t draw much attention (There, my good looks are the problem, Ha) After meeting a few individuals within the crowd of 20 people we attracted (one with the name Arnold Schwarzenegger no less) we climbed aboard the bus heading north. The sun went down, and Michelle and I both fell asleep.

At 2am we were dropped off at a hostel. It was definitely infested and so disgusting that Michelle used her raincoat to cover the pillow. Regardless, we were too tried to be seriously concerned.

Morning came bright and early (as normal) and we caught some motorbike taxis to take us to the border. Being 7:30am, upon arrival we were only greeted by money changers….apparently the immigration officers don’t get there till 10. Oh, and because East Timor uses U.S. Dollars, it was kind of odd being hustled our own currency. While waiting, we went for a stroll taking pictures of the beach side village and meeting it’s inhabitants. The highlight was this nasty old lady that kept following us trying to get Michelle to kiss her shoulder in order to receive a blessing! Something that still cracks me up to think about. After a 35$ entry visa, we were in East Timor heading to Dili, the capital city.

Again, it felt as though we no longer were in South East Asia. Indonesia is so diverse, many regions are yet too be heavily influenced by stereotypical Asian lifestyles. Indigenous bamboo walls and palm thatched roofs dotted the dusty road sides and blended well into the parched landscape. Rice paddies and Muslim mosques were replaced by goats and sheep. At times it felt very middle eastern. The people were much darker, but just as curious. For some reason however (I think it was the smell…just kidding), they were a little intimidated by Michelle. Literally, no one would sit next to her. I definitely utilized the opportunity to poke a little fun….but it was uncanny how many times someone would get up to move away, while being near me was OK. We never understood it!

Ethnic villages gave way to Dili, basically a concrete slum, something out of ‘Black Hawk Down’. In one word….War Zone (ok, I thought it was one word before I wrote it). The heart of the city had a number of refugee camps compiled of tarps and tents surrounded by chain link and barbed wire. The UN was in full force. One out of every 2 vehicles seemed to be an off road equipped white land rover sporting big UN stickers on the sides. The construction looked more like barricades then homes and the unpainted gray color of the cylinder blocks randomly sported graffiti-written propaganda and hate words. Several vehicles were completely body armored. It was common to see thick metal screens welded over the glass of a car, but even more typical were automobiles with cracked windshields from a thrown rock. In fact, Michelle pointed out that the entire time while we were there, we never once rode in a taxi that didn’t have cracked glass. A couple UN helicopters would occasionally roar above, and the Australians had army plaid personnel armed and roaming the streets. Why were we here again?….Oh ya, we now only have Brunei left to check off in order to have visited all 11 South East Asian countries!!

We walked to a guest house, but it was full (of UN workers). Another option had a room available, but it was 20 dollars. Things here were much more expensive, not only because of the U.S. Dollar but because of all the UN employees that can afford to spend more than the locals on food and accommodation. Our only other alternative was camping in what seemed like a hostile country…..we booked the room!

That afternoon we walked down to a dive shop and learned it cost 25 dollars to rent full dive gear. We reserved two sets for the next morning and on our way back to the hotel we stopped at a 4$ western buffet! What a feast….forget the rice and noodles, I was now gorging on steamed veggies, beef stew, and mashed potatoes….food I thought no longer existed. On full western stomachs….we did the American thing and returned to our room to watch some TV. Hey, there’s a war outside, what else are we gonna do?

Ahh, nothing but diving on the itinerary for today! We woke up and bargained with a taxi driver on an all day price. We settled at 20 bucks (10$ a piece) and stopped by the dive shop to pick up the equipment. Our destination was known as ‘K 41’, the forty first kilometer mark outside of Dili. We drove there, parked the car, set up the gear, then walked out into the turquoise sea. Coming to East Timor, we really didn’t expect much of anything. We were gladly impressed. The diving was World class! Just off the shore, deep drop offs produced an abundance of untouched life. Tropical fish, corals, anemonies, but what turned out to be our favorite…..the Nudibranchs!!! Over 10 different species of the ultra-colorful slugs danced over the rocks into my camera’s memory chip! Photogenic lion fish and thousands of bright Anthias added crème to the pudding (I happen to like crème in my pudding). We did 2 dives in the same spot, then rushed to Dili to return the gear by 6pm. We ended up a little late, but the nice people at ‘free flow’ didn’t mind a bit. Instead, they were eager to see our underwater pictures since they were nudibranch junkies themselves. They even so much as gave us a lift back to our hotel! What nice blokes (for being English).

Early the next morning, we headed to the Indonesian Embassy to see if we could get a visa on arrival back at the land border crossing from which we came. The answer to this question determined our activities for the next few days. Either we are free to leave at any time, or we remain stuck until clearance from the Embassy. The outcome…….incarceration! Not only were we required to get the visas here in East Timor (Timor Leste, as it’s called in Portuguese…their official language), but it was going to take 5 days to receive!!! Oh well….Nudibranchs beware!

Michelle, who left me to see about flying form Dili to Kupang (hence getting the visa at the Kupang Airport on arrival), stormed back to the embassy where I was waiting. She was out of breath and persistently saying “we got to get out of this country!” in a very frantic and eager tone. Apparently, while she was alone, 2 disturbing events took place. Firstly, she was talking to a UN investigator who mentioned two Dutch women were stabbed the day before in a mugging incident on the beach about a mile away. That didn’t scare her too bad, but put her on high alert. The trauma came from the next event. While taxiing back to reunite with me, she said the driver kept touching himself in a sexual way. He pulled down a side street, locked the car doors, then took out his junk right there and then. Michelle pulled open the lock and ran outside, back to the main street. The car apparently followed her, so she grabbed a UN security guard from a parking lot and made him escort her all the way to the embassy. Michelle is a pretty tough chick, and seeing her rattled kind of caught me off guard. Eventually though, she calmed down, despite the news of being trapped here for five more days! For the rest of the day she carried a knife….watch out Timor Leste! Ha!

We decided to get out of Dili and see a little more of the typical laid back Timor Leste life. We took a Mikrolet (mini-bus) to the town of Liquica, a tiny fishing village about an hour away. We were dropped off at what they told us was a hotel…..but instead turned out to be the spare room of a local family (more fun in our minds). We met a little kid, the son (Leap), and he helped us out for the next few days with anything we needed! We eventually made up a cool hand shake that impressed all of his friends…it incorporated a nifty flip that had the crowd go wild!

That evening we went for a walk down by the beach. We were scouting out places to snorkel for tomorrow. The sky was already too dark to make a valid assessment, but we were fortunate to catch a beautiful sunset. We ventured back up to the hotel after stopping at a delicious restaurant along the way (the grilled garlic-herb fish fillet was great, in case your in the neighborhood). Liquica had no tourist draw, only a simple, laid back lifestyle which is exactly what these tourists (us) wanted. At this point, anything was better than Dili.

Our room was tiny with bunk beds on the side, and a mattress on the ground. It was basement like, with concrete walls and no windows, but a tiny fan kept the air circulating…..until we were right about to go to sleep! All the power blacked out, and it got stifling hot! Liquica apparently gets the overflow of electricity form Dili. Randomly for hours throughout each day, the power cuts off. The people have grown to except it, and don’t refrigerate or freeze any food. Instead of being upset when the electricity shuts down, they are fortunate and happy for the time it’s on. It was interesting to see them living around intermittent sparks of power, but for me, I wasn’t interested in a social studies lesson. Even though I went to the bathroom and bucketed cool well water all over me (no showers), I struggled to sleep, sweaty as could be…yuck!

With light sneaking through the crack under the doorway I awoke in the room all alone. Michelle apparently snuck out before I opened my eyes. As I laid in the room waking up, she returned with a bag of groceries. Apparently, she walked to a market down the road a bit. With her, she brought back eggs, beans, tomatoes, and onions. She was so excited to cook breakfast! I got out of bed, and we walked to our new family’s kitchen. They allowed us to use their huge ‘wok’, and we cut up the veggies nice and tiny. Then we mixed in all the ingredients to make a scrambled egg type thing….didn’t really know what we were doing. We had some chips though, so we ate our breakfast like a salsa! It was delicious and a lot of fun to prepare! Even our family had some, surprisingly, since they saw how uncoordinated we were with the 3 foot size pan!

After breakfast, we scurried down to the sand and searched for a reef. We didn’t find anything that looked enticing, so we changed our plans around a bit. We returned back to the main road to catch a mikrolet. We hoped aboard the first one that came by and headed along the coastal road with our eyes peeled towards the sea. About ten minutes later, around a steep bend we saw a beautiful reef. We stopped the truck, paid a couple Rupiah, and headed down to the ocean with masks and snorkels in hand. What a life, when your biggest concern is finding a good place for a relaxing dip! We jumped in the cool water and explored below.

The current was a little rough, making the visibility not the greatest. In stead of wasting time here, we decided to change locations to a nicer place somewhere else. We walked back to the road, and immediately caught another ride. It almost seemed like our own personal pick up service….except everyone was afraid of Michelle! Ha, poor girl! A few minutes later we were out and about exploring a new section of water. Past the sand and spotty patches of grass, we finally made it to reef. Starfish and sea cucumbers were everywhere. More tube worms as well, and some neat dotted cowries. My favorite was catching a tiny little electric blue lobster I found by flipping over a rock on the sea floor. It’s carapace was only an inch long! He was a fiesty little guy!

After the swim, we returned to the shore leaving our masks, towel, sunscreen, and my extra camera batteries on a rock while retreating 50 meters away to a patch of tree-shaded sand where we enjoyed lunch…a picnic! We had with us lots of veggies from the market! Freshly grown lettuce, tomatoes, carrots and string beans…all normal things that tasted much better while eating it on a deserted beach after hours of snorkeling! After munching, I went back to get our things, and noticed that the sunscreen, towel, and my mask and snorkel went missing!!! We had been robbed!!! Oddly, they left my camera batteries and Michelle’s mask and snorkel (I don’t understand…..WHY ME???). I mean, these people don’t even use sunscreen and they hate Michelle!! It was a job well done to say the least, cause our stuff was never out of sight; but in the excitement of such a beautiful picnic, our enjoyment must have distracted us. Oh well…they didn’t steel anything that valuable. Fortunately, Michelle convinced me to bring my camera (for I felt no threat to thieves, I mean our stuff was in site), Thank you Michelle, these guys are sneaky bastards! We questioned some kids playing in a nearby tree that were watching me suspiciously while I searched for our lost objects. When we offered them five bucks to give us our stuff, I could see them contemplating it in their minds. We didn’t have any more money to offer them, and being around 10 years old, I didn’t feel like making this an international situation by beating one to death, haha! They didn’t understand English and we really weren’t that upset, so we caught a bus back to Liquica unable to do more snorkeling. Ain’t no thang!

We had dinner at the tiny ‘restaurant’ attached to our ‘hotel’ which turned out to be much better than expected. Realizing that our family had a TV hooked up in the room right next to ours, with a DVD player and all, Michelle and I got excited! We had bought cheap knock off DVD’s back in Jakarta in case we were stuck on long bus rides or hotels with a DVD player in the lobby. Anyway, here we were…perfect. With Leap along side us, we watched the movie ‘De Jevu’, which came in great and captivated me in plot. What a simple day it was. No stress, no war, no plans….a beach holiday where no one beach holidays….Timor Leste! While laying in bed, the electricity stayed on till I fell asleep. I was able to happily drift away to an artificial breeze with a content mind and soul!

The next morning we decided to return to Dili. Saying good-bye to our host family, we bused back to chaos. We reserved the same room for three nights, with a plan of diving tomorrow (Monday), picking up the visas Tuesday, and leaving the country on Wednesday! We ran some errands, which included buying some fresh fruits and veggies at the market. We bought a lot of avocados, allowing us to make a delicious salsa and guacamole! We returned to the hotel, cut up all the ingredients, and prepared the most delicious and simple meal ever. Yum!

Anxious and ready for another day of diving, we hopped out of bed and taxied over to ‘Free Flow’. Today, we decided to hit up another dive site, creatively named ‘K 57’. The founders were either really logical or people lacking originality. Regardless, we taxied out there, and in about an hour and a half we were in the water all alone. Similar to ‘K 41’, it was another wall dive. The reef ledge just dropped down about 15 meters allowing for a myriad of inhabitants to call the cliff home! Once again, no surprise, the ‘nudies’ (as they are referred to by us people in the know, ha) made me happy! A sea turtle, more lion fish, and a bazillion clown fish made the experience even better. Not only does diving like this save us money (no guide or boat requiring extra fees), but I personally enjoy being on our own much more regardless. Spending as much time as we want taking pictures of a slug, or exploring in any which direction we choose makes it truly an adventure. Three tanks and over 300 photos (no, really) later, pruney as could be we headed back to Dili. Even though we were late once again to drop off our gear, they had no problem and were anxious to see more of our photos! What a blast it was!

That night we made some CD’s with our filled camera chips, then used the Internet which was on the other side of town. Before we knew it, it was midnight and the cafe was closing down. In any other capital city of a South East Asian country…finding a taxi at this hour would not have been a problem, but here it was an impossibility. This left us only one alternative…walk it! This proved to be a little more daunting then expected, and something I don’t feel like doing again. We left the safety of the Internet cafe, and entered a dark city of screams and barking dogs. While passing a refugee camp, these three guys started to follow us. Being with Michelle opens a whole new can of worms. When I’m alone, I don’t feel too much of a target, but with some fine ‘white bread’, things are much different. Plus, I can’t just out-run someone, I have more than myself to worry about. The situation didn’t look good, and it got to the point where Michelle shrieked ‘They’re gaining on us’, despite our brisk pace. We turned the corner at a near sprint, and fortunately, they never followed. It was an adrenalin pumper, that’s for sure…and this was definitely the wrong place to be at the wrong time. We passed a couple more slummy refugee camps with bum-like people laying around them, but no more close calls so to say. We made it back to the hotel and locked the door tight! Lucky to be alive, we washed up and went to bed.

The next day after breakfast we headed out to the embassy to pick up our visas! Perfect…we got them just as expected! We spent the rest of the day walking around the city taking pictures and scheduling our departure. We stopped back at ‘Free Flow’ and let them upload some of the photos to their collection of dive site pictures! We also reserved seats on a bus to take us all the way back to Kupong….where we could leave the island of Timor once and for all. After a farewell dinner at our delicious buffet, we fell asleep and rose early to catch the next morning’s bus. Off we were, past the check point and into West Timor, Indonesia without a scratch. The bus ride was a little unnerving, after witnessing the dramatic events only occurring a week earlier. I am now very skeptical of this insane driving style. Before I thought it worked for these people, having grown up adapted to the aggressive nature behind the wheel, but now I was bracing myself for impact around every turn. It was a bit stressful now knowing how easy it is to get in a wreck; it’s a little unnerving.

I had no expectations of East Timor. I knew it was the World’s newest country having received independence from Indonesia in 1999, but I had no idea it was worse off being liberated. Apparently the refugees aren’t from another land, but of their own. Either their homes were destroyed, or where they formerly resided, they are no longer welcomed (being killed by their neighbors if they were to return). The vote that enacted their independence was unanimously for freedom, but now with corrupt elected officials there are several radical civilians that are upset with their government and the way it was instituted. The UN is doing everything it can to get the country up on its feet and running, but they have a lot of work to do. If they are successful, I can foresee Timor Leste having a lot to offer. They have quaint little sea side villages with beautiful people and endless coastlines, however the true paradise lies below the ocean’s surface; destined to one day become a diving Mecca if things get stabilized (for the second time). For us, not knowing what to do, or how long we’d be doing it for, left all ideas wide open. I can’t think of a better itinerary than what took place. Despite the danger and unhappiness of Dili, I had a blast. Dodging perverted men and angry locals would have been torture for some, but for us, the pluses outweighed the negatives. I want to patent and wear the shirt proudly…..’I Survived East Timor’!!

One Response to “Life, Liberty, & ‘Just Us’ Trapped in Timor (Sept 30th – Oct 10th)”

  1. kenji says:

    haha.. you bastard.. that adding stuff got me the first time. anyways, love reading your blog. it’s a blast. keep doing your thang and be safe. live that dream to the fullest! one love!

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