The rains had arrived. Viqueque was a muddy mess when I rolled through town. The main drag was flooded in big brown puddles. This was not good: dirt roads are no fun in the wet and there were river crossings up ahead. It was also a bad sign because Timor’s wet season arrives at the same time as in Northern Australia and I really don’t want another ride through the rainy season. It wasn’t fun last time.
The road was state. My wheels were slipping all over the place in the mud and I had to navigate huge puddles deep enough to soak the bottom of my leaky panniers. Just as things were starting to dry and my mood improving the day took a turn for the worse. The kids had been acting a little funny in a couple villages: they’d been shouting ‘china’ instead of ‘malae’ which was odd. I guess they had had some Chinese business people or tourists come by and now they just thought every foreigner was Chinese.
As I passed one group of kids I noticed a rock bounce past my wheel. I ignored it. Then another bounced past and I heard ‘fuck you!’ from behind me. I stopped, turned around and saw some kids run into the forest. Strange. I continued around the next corner and as I did so more rocks came flying out in my directions with accompanying ’fuck you!’s being shouted. Wow – this is a first.
I know they’re just kids but I’m not going to ignore someone throwing rocks at me. I slammed on my brakes, got off my bike and walked over to them. I beckoned them over but the little shits just ran off shouting ‘fuck you’. The cheeky buggers would beckon me over but then run as soon as I started walking over to them. I have better things to be doing than chasing kids around so I turned and walked back to my bike. As I did so more rocks would bounce past me and the same ‘fuck you!’. I have never wanted to hit a kid in my life but they weren’t that young and I’d have loved to clap those little brats around the ear. I was about to go back into the village to try and find some adults to complain to but thought better of it: I hate to think what their parents are like.
I cycled off as more stones were chucked in my direction. They had succeeding in provoking me and now were enjoying rubbing it in. Bizarre. In all my travels I have never experienced this. I tried to forget about it as I rode on but then remembered an encounter on the way up to Ramelau. I didn’t mention it in the last blog as I didn’t think it worth writing but in light of what just happened I’ll tell the story now:
I’d been sitting on a ledge and noticed a stone bounce past my feet. Again, I didn’t think anything of it. A family walked past me and I waved hello. I went back to my lunch and saw another stone scuttle in my direction. When I looked up I saw the little girl withdrawing her arm having just thrown it at me. Her family hadn’t seen. That means the only two times I’ve had something thrown at me is in Timor-Leste.
I waited until the cattle had been brought in and followed a river out to what looked like a perfect campsite. Just as I was unpacking my stuff a family walking back to the village spotted me. They stopped and starred from a distance so I went over to say hello and explain what I was doing. The dad didn’t seem to think it was a good idea for me to sleep there and ran his finger along his throat to make his point. I’m not sure what he was worried about about but when someone makes a gesture like that I don’t stick around – regardless of how safe I feel.
It was getting dark and there was nowhere else around to pitch near the road. Annoyed and stressed I rolled on until the next village and asked for a spot to put my tent. The locals were lovely but as curious as always and I had a huge crowd to watch me erect my tent and prepare dinner. Highly entertaining, apparently.
The kids came over with their English school books. Some other kids in another village had shown me the same one – it’s an English-Indonesian beginners book that is dedicated entirely to the understanding of tense. It has things like ‘past present perfect something verbs’ that even I don’t understand. No wonder they’re useless at English. The kids here learn English, Portuguese and Bahasa Indonesian in school. That must be a right headache. I had French in school for years but I don’t think we ever got much beyond ‘how to order a croissant’. School will be taught in Tetum (the national language) but that probably won’t be the local kids’ mother tongue – it certainly isn’t here.
They were more shy in the morning so I was left in peace to pack up. Fortunately the local ants had decided to be nosy in the evening too and found a way through one of the tiny holes in my tent to sniff out my bread. My tent was swarming with millions of ants when I woke up. Not a fun start to the day.
The road just seemed to get worse. Every time I thought ‘surely this is as bad as it can get?’ it would crumble around the corner and I’d have to walk my bike up the hills. Fortunately the rains had stopped and the river crossings were fine. I was very happy not to have tackled this one in rainy season…
In a couple of months time this road will be impassable. Some of the villages are completely cut off in rainy season. These are the most exciting villages – no electricity, no brick homes or motorised transport.
I was struggling with the heat. The road was exhausting. I’d run out of water when I reached a small river running through the jungle. So stopped to fill up water, clean my dirty bicycle chain and have a wash. I am never alone in this country, no matter how far I am from civilisation. Some kids were walking back between villages and were very excited to see a malae in the middle of nowhere. It was the TV show I am used to presenting by now. They didn’t even flinch when I took my clothes off and washed myself. While I did so they found rocks to throw at the giant frogs in the river. When they hit one they’d put it on the ground and drop more rocks on it until the frog was a bloody mess. A slightly morbid pass time…
The road was a nightmare and I was pushing most of the way. The kids followed me the whole way. I got them to help push up the hills but eventually I’d had enough of the company and asked them to go on without me. By this point more kids had shown up and I was struggling to deal with the physical workout with such a big entourage. It was a bit hard to get them to go away but eventually they did. I’m pretty sure I heard a ‘fuck you malae’ as they turned a corner out of sight.
On another hill more kids found me and walked beside me just staring. When I stopped they stopped. When I started they started. It was driving me mad. ‘Go away please, I want to be alone’. They would just laugh. I’d say ‘goodbye’ in Tetum but they’d just look confused. I’d wave them off, shoo them away but they simply wouldn’t get it.
“I just want some fucking peace and quite. Leave me alone!” and I walked behind a bush out of sight. They just stood on the other side of the bush for half an hour waiting for me. Vultures. When they finally left it was getting dark and I worked my way down the hill looking for a campsite. Then more voices. They were back – searching for me? What is wrong with these people.
They left and then returned 10 mins later making their way down the hill looking for me. Now it was a real search party. I didn’t understand how they could be so desperate to stare at me but when found me one of them greeted me in English. It was Nizyo – another guy my age who lived around the corner (the first house I’d seen in hours) and invited me to stay with him. I was speechless. Once again I’d had my attitude flipped on its head by someone genuinely amazing. Together we pushed the bike up the last of the hill and reached his home.
Nizyo was studying tourism management in Dili but was home for holiday. Long story short – he had an Australian sponsor who had paid for him to go through university. They’d met a few years ago when Nizyo had been an un-official local tour guide (apparently he was the best at English in his class) and the bloke had offered to support his education upon hearing that he couldn’t afford higher education. There is no way he would be able to afford it otherwise. People don’t have extra money here. His parents worked on the farm and their house was just a mish-mash pile of palm stalks, wood planks and tin sheets.
In the last blog I talked about Noel and how upsetting it was to meet someone who wanted to study further but couldn’t afford it. This is the kind of story that makes my heart warm. Nizyo showed me his university papers – the sponsor had paid thousands of dollars towards his education. Thousands towards something so special. At first he’d offered to pay for Nizyo to study in Australia but his family hadn’t given him permission (he was the oldest child and it’s important to be around for family here). Dili was the next best option (and it still takes a day to get there over these useless roads!). If you can invest in someone so driven and focused then supporting like that is an amazing act of good.
We stayed up chatting into the night after cooking up the Timorese budget staple of rice and instant noodles (good thing I always carry extra noodles). The solar panel lights were just enough to light up the room. A new electricity cable had just been built to their village and Nizyo’s house was the last to be connected. They were excited about having mains power very soon…
It was one more frustrating day to Lospalos. In the afternoon the road finally flattened and I spotted a 2 wheel drive car parked outside a house. Hurray! There’s no way you could get that car the way I’d come (I’d seen very little traffic the last few days and the only cars had been 4×4) so I had some better roads ahead of me, surely.
I didn’t quite make it all the way to town and stopped in a village to ask for a place to put my tent. One of the women invited me to her home. She didn’t speak any English but we got by in Indonesian. Her husband turned up later in the evening – he did speak a little English having studied in a language centre in Bacau years ago. They made me up a bed in the living room for me and we chatted over popcorn and coffee (a new combo).
The landscape was changing again. I’d reached the triangular plateau at the eastern end of the island and wide grassy plains stretched out between the mountains. I’d finally reached the town Lospalos. It had taken me 3 days to cover the 125km from Viqueque.
The road was still bumpy but at least it was now flat. I followed a narrow track along the southern edge of lake Ira Lalaro which was too narrow for a car. On my map the lake was a huge blue circle but now – in the middle of dry season – I could only see a puddle in the distance. A huge flat traingle with hills at either end was only inhabited by grazing buffalo.
The people change every day in this country. I’ve given up trying to keep track. This part of the country is home to the Fataluku people. The family I stayed with the previous night were Fataluku and taught me some of their language (which I forgot within 5 minutes). I’ve seen some quirky traditional homes around the world but the Fataluku’s are easily my favourite. They build these incredible narrow stilt homes with ginormous thatched roofs and pointy tops. They’re a sight to behold.
At the end of the plateau the road suddenly drops down to Tutuala beach. I’d been warned the road was awful but this one was something else. I had to walk sections downhill as the road was just covered in large boulders. It would be a real workout even in a 4×4.
I pitched my tent on the beach and fell asleep feeling very content. There were only two places I really wanted to see on my loop around Timor-Leste: Mt Ramelau and Tutuala Beach. Whatever you call this country – Timor-Leste, East Timor, Timor Timur – they all mean the same thing: East East. Months ago I spotted this beach and decided that I should make the detour to it. There was something romantic about reaching the eastern most point of ‘East East’ country. Furthermore – it was the closest I could get to Australian land. Someone here told me that on clear days you can see Australia from this coast. I don’t believe that, but it’s not very far away now…
In the morning I found a fisherman to take me over to Jaco island – just a kilometer offshore. It’s one of Timor-Leste’s two outlying island territories but it’s uninhabited as the Timorese consider it sacred. I spent the morning on the island before returning to the mainland. It was gorgeous – postcard perfect South East Asia. White sand, palm-fringed beach and turquoise water so clear you don’t need a snorkel to see the fish. I’d imagined that to be the place where I would sit down and make my peace with Asia but all I could think about was how on earth I’d get back up that road to the plateau again…
The climb back was awful. One of the toughest mornings of my life. It took me 4 hours to cover 8km back to Tutuala village. That should say it all.
I cycled west along the northern shore of the lake. As I passed some village kids walking back from school one of them threw a lump of sweetcorn at me. I slammed on my breaks. What on earth is wrong with the kids here? As soon as I stopped they legged it out of sight. I put my tent up in the forest glad not to be dealing with any people that evening. I was meeting so many great people in this country but also some pretty unsavory kids…
I dropped back down to the North Coast in the morning. Once again the landscape changed dramatically. The coastline was just as I’d left it – dry and barren. It was arid, empty and hot but I made quick progress west now that I was finally cycling in a direction to catch the tailwind.
As I was taking a short break in the afternoon a kid came over to say hello and ask for money. He was wearing backwards snapback – not like those kids in tattered clothes on the other side of the country. I sighed and hopped back on my bike. A few minutes later I passed a group of kids at the edge of a village. One of them threw a rock at me at point-blank range and hit me on the thigh. Once again I slammed my brakes. This time I was really pissed. It was the last one I could handle. I jumped off my bike and the kid ran for his life across the dry rice paddies. I told the other kids that they were all little shits before marching over to a group of nearby adults nearby who shrugged and apologised. Not their kid.
I think the problem with this country is that there are just too many kids. I read a statistic that said the average East Timorese woman has 6 children. When I pass a village and someone yells ‘malae’ I’m always amazed by how many kids come charging out the little houses. People in England don’t have many kids because they’re expensive to raise. Here the people are far poorer but they still keep squeezing them out – having a large family is insurance, not an unnecessary expense. Anyway – you try getting a poor Catholic country to put condoms on…
I was in another bad mood as I looked for somewhere hidden to camp. The nights that I really don’t want to camp in a village are the nights I can’t find anywhere to stealth camp. It was one of those days again. Soon the road began to climb towards Bacau and light was fading. I had no choice but to ask someone if I could put my tent on their land.
I stopped at a house with guys sawing wood outside. I don’t usually like putting people on the spot but here I had no choice. Like everyone in this country they were more than happy to find a spot for me to put my tent. Then they decided that wasn’t good enough and invited me inside. They cleared a room and offered me a bed for the night.
They were another wonderful family. I mustn’t forget how many incredible people I’ve met in this country. The husband was a carpenter. Over dinner I asked what his profession was called in Tetum – ‘carpentero’ he replied as he put his coffee down on a Portuguese flag draped over the table.
In no other country have I stayed with so many random people in such a short amount of time. All of those people have been amazing. Hospitable and generous. Selfless even when they have so little. I am genuinely humbled by these encounters.
I was within a couple days of Dili but Asia had one more challenge to deliver before releasing me into the developed world. As I reached Bacau I starting to feel sick. Not again. Really sick. I found a cheap hotel and made myself comfortable for the food poisoning that was starting to take control of my body.
It was awful. I’ve been sick three times now in the last couple of months. That hardly seems fair. My body just feels weaker with every attack. After a sleepless night stuck on the toilet I packed up my bags and continued west. I should stayed to rest but I just wanted to reach Dili and rest in a town with Western creature comforts at hand.
It took two days to reach the capital. Two tough days. The heat was awful and I could barely eat. I think I ate three meals in as many days. A landslide had blocked the easier road to Dili so I was forced over one last steep mountain before free-wheeling down into town. I went straight to bed absolutely shattered.
I was a broken man and so was my bicycle. The wonky rear wheel had been causing me trouble for ages but now the steering was gone. Something kept clicking at every bump in the road and I couldn’t steer properly anymore. I didn’t realise it at the time but my headset bearings had completely worn through.
Excluding Singapore (that contry is just one big city), Dili was the first capital city I’ve cycled through since Almaty in Kazakhstan. I’m not a fan of big Asian towns but returning to Dili was different because I was returning.
On the morning out of Bacau I decided to distract myself from the illness by counting the number of times I had ‘malae’ yelled at me. I counted 100 in 90 mins and gave up for the day. Imagine that – being addressed as foreigner 100 times within the first hour and half of cycling. All day every day. But in Dili it’s a different story. Nobody bats an eyelid at me.
Most of the foreigners here are over for aid/NGOs/project development. I’ve met very few tourists like myself. I’ve met some extremely interesting people as a result: A Canadian guy teaching the army literacy and numeracy (apparently many of them would point to Iceland when asked to identify Timor-Leste on a world map), an Afghan born-Dutch raised PhD student writing about post-conflict peace development (Kosovo and Afghanistan being the other case studies) and an Australian woman developing the government’s tourism website (there are some pics up of me in action on there now).
I also met many very interesting locals. The country is a surprisingly cosmopolitan place. I’d often meet competent English speakers in random villages and many people had worked abroad or were moving away. I met guys who’d lived in London, studied in Cuba and worked in Australia.
As a former Portuguese colony the East Timorese have the ‘golden card’ – an EU passport. Anyone born before independence qualifies for a Portuguese passport, unlocking the door to Europe and giving them a favourable passport to visit the rest of the world. Around 30,000 East Timorese live in the UK – working in car factories is apparently a favourite work placement. A huge chunk of the country’s net income comes from overseas migrants sending money home. I wonder if they realise how lucky they are: I’ve lost count of conversations I’ve had around the world (as recently as Indonesia) with people asking how they can get a visa to move to the UK. I tell them that a) I have no idea and b) that I know it is very difficult and expensive.
I made a list of things to buy before Oz that would be much cheaper here. Getting a haircut was one. I nipped into a tiny backstreet barber only to be welcombed by a hairdresser who spoke perfect English. He’d been working in London for four years. Our conversation drifted to Brexit – that omnipresent unavoidable talking point – and I realised that the decision would affect thousands of East Timorese hoping to move to the UK on an EU passport. Someone like my barber might want to return to London in a couple years time and not be able to. While the media were discussing it as an issue of British identity, our European discussion has had implications on people around the world….
It was time for me to leave Asia. My dream of reaching Australia was just a short flight away but actually I was more excited about leaving this continent. That may sound like a negative note to end things on. It’s not, but I do worry that I may have overstayed my welcome a little. The small cultural differences that haven’t bothered me for a long time have started to wind me up again.
My last stretch of cycling across Indonesia and Timor-Leste has reminded me of how foreign I am here. The constant attention (both positive and negative) has been exhausting. Being asked for money so frequently for the first time in my trip has reminded me how privaliged I am to be able to cycle around the world. Even with the British Pound’s recent slump, my sterling still goes very far here. I’ve been able to live like I never could have afforded in England and I haven’t even had a job for 21 months! Eating out in restaurants, buying snacks without checking the price tags – I could never do that at home. To get my bike ready for Aussie customs I paid the bloke at the car wash a couple dollars to clean it for me. Imagine if I did that back home!
I guess the main point is this: I’d rather be a poor man in a rich world than a rich man in a poor world.
Let’s see if I’m still saying that in a couple months…
It’s time to make this dream a reality. One more sleep and a short flight to the land ‘Down Under’. Australia I’m coming!