Day Ten in Timor-Leste
Friday, day 10, was our final day of work in Timor for this trip. We’d had eight days of evaluation and filming, two of meetings, and evenings of planning, debriefing, blog writing and photo labelling – and we were keen for a rest before the report-writing and video-editing part of the work began back in Melbourne.
We marked the end of the working week with an embarrassingly low-key celebration – dinner and Bend it Like Beckham watched at home on a laptop – but best befitting our exhaustion and intention to wake up early the next day for a trip to beachside Baucau. Sloping from breakfast at 10am to pack for departure, we totally missed the early start – but a surprisingly quick getaway on a lurid purple public bus (blasting early-noughties Simple Plan, and, to Sophie’s delight, more recent Justin Bieber) and some quick decision-making from Geordie when we arrived had us eating lunch at a breezy terrace restaurant by 2pm.
Baucau is Timor’s second-largest city, and is the capital of the district that shares its name – but it’s a second city in the same way sleepy beachside Dili woke up one morning in 2002 to find itself the world’s newest capital. Baucau is a network of six or eight main streets, gridded around a central plaza, over which the imperial Pasada Hotel sits – a pleasing salmon building, all arches and balconies; stone steps and thick linen napkins. We’d sheepishly play out Burmese Days sipping gin and vermouth at the hotel’s restaurant the next evening, imagining the grandeur of the hotel in its Portuguese heyday.
The city itself is blonde and dusty – dry streets, brilliant white sunlight, and beautifully quaint pastel buildings, like a pack of coloured chalk had been split between the proprietors. At lunch, I surveyed the terracotta roofs sloping down the hill below and decided – though I’ve never visited the country – that Baucau is like Cuba; all stagnant dry heat and cigars and palm fronds. I liked it immensely.
The buildings thin out as the terrain drops to the beach – which is a perilous few kilometres down from the city centre. Geordie, who had been to Baucau before, told us you used to be able to sleep in tents on the beach, but failing to find any trace of beach accommodation online, we took a breath, hedged our bets, and co-opted a microlet to divert from its route and wind us down the narrow rocky path to the beach, where we’d have little choice but to sleep if we didn’t want to climb the hour back to the top.
Though the trip to the beach was just a few kilometres, the drive took half an hour – criss-crossing down narrow roads, bumping over rocks and potholes, the aquiline coast appearing in tantalising glimpses behind young green banana palms as we rounded each bend. The microlet crunched to a satisfying stop outside another salmon building: though there ended up being no tents, a guest house just metres from the sand had sprung up since Geordie had been here last, and we gladly took it for the night.
We spurted out sunscreen and were in the water within minutes of the microlet rounding the bend back to town. Geordie had brought his Frisbee; we started throwing it in the shallows, and were almost immediately swarmed by a gaggle of curious, bare-chested boys who had been swimming round the bay. Geordie invited them in, they quickly proved to be far better at the game than any of us, and as the hours passed more kids swam up, giggling and splashing, fighting for the disc, crying “mister, mister!” when they wanted us to throw it to them – until suddenly, the playful afternoon locked still and a parent from the shore commanded us in. “Crocodile; crocodile!” the kids called from the sand, the second syllable of the word said Dili, and we squinted out into the ominous, velvety ripples from the safety of the beach, straining for a glimpse of a snout, breath or bubble. No one moved for several long minutes.
Geordie told us later that a kid had been taken by a croc at this beach – which would have been reason enough for the kids to call us in. But, we later suspected, there might have been something more to it. The smirks and sly giggles of the kids as they waded back into the water, pushing further and further out from the shoreline, while we stood knock-kneed on the sand, had us musing over warm beers and cards later that maybe they’d kept up the croc game to see if they could play us. And it worked. They got an extra hour of Frisbee, we got the likely unearned relief of avoiding a croc attack, and someone’s got a good story out of this.
When the sun lost its heat and the sky turned milky purple we said goodbye to the kids and made our way back to the salmon house. Its brick walls trapped the thick tropical heat, so we dragged the table out the front, liberally sprayed a protective wall of Deet, and wiled away the last hour of daylight over cards before a home-cooked dinner from our guest house host. Like most of the meals we’ve been served here – including today’s lunch – it featured rice, vegetables, eggs (as a substitute for fish; our trendy Melbourne vegetarianism doesn’t sit as neatly in Timor) and hot chips. At that, Sophie placed herself on a two-day chip ban, because we’d eaten so many plates.
Another well-intentioned early night; another slow-moving start – but by mid-morning we were on another purple pop-song bus to get to Venilale, a town we’d heard about from an Aussie expat in Dili. When planning our holiday we were split down the middle – beach relaxing or climbing one of Timor’s famous mountains? – and expat Kat’s suggestion of mountainous Venilale with its beautiful natural swimming hole seemed a perfect compromise.
The town’s website boasts about its caves, sacred huts, hiking, the naturally formed bridge over the pool – and we were confident going in we’d find ourselves with a jam-packed tourist to-do. So, imagine our sheepishness when some guys on the bus told us we’d already passed the stop for our thriving tourist town.
The route terminated in Vikake, which we learned was a couple of hours away – so, we took a guess, looked to Sophie, she clapped her hands at random, the bus stopped, we staggered off, and started walking back down the road towards the cluster of buildings we’d just seen out the bus window, hoping for a bus to pass heading back to Baucau. As we approached the building we heard manic clucking, and realised it was a cock fight – a cock fight! – and would have stayed to watch had another bright bus not swept round the bend. Geordie was forlorn, but we couldn’t believe our luck at finding a trip back so quickly – and we didn’t mind when that driver scammed us an extra $10 as we disembarked in Venilale (right to do to chip-eating stop-missing malai).
If Baucau seemed a small city, Venilale was a garden shed – we stumbled off the bus onto a single bare street, with one seemingly abandoned building barely visible on the hill. We chose a direction at random and walked – coming eventually to the brightly coloured school the town’s website had promised (at least we knew we were in the right place), and then as we were overtaken on the bend by a yellow dump truck carrying what we later found out to be a wedding party, we stopped a passer-by and asked for directions to this natural bridge we’d heard so much about.
We were passed onto someone who spoke good English, who quickly informed us that no, there was no accommodation at the bridge; no, there was no accommodation in Venilale; and no, we couldn’t rent motorbikes anywhere, but that we could borrow his friend’s and he could take us to the bridge on the back of his; and his friend wouldn’t mind storing our bags for a few hours at his place. Be back by five, alright?
We didn’t deserve any of that – our overly optimistic and ultimately misguided research should have been punished, not rewarded with a motobike – but the cards fell, and minutes later I was whooping on the back of the guy’s scooter, feet held high to avoid puddles, bumping down a treacherous stony road through the mountains.
The view was incredible – one minute it was dense, clustered trees, bright banana palms and old khaki coconut trees growing from their own dry blonde dead boughs, and then we’d round a corner and the broad craggy mountains would reveal themselves, stretching further than we could see, slicing the sky and cupping the bike in their curves. Then, another corner; a downhill, and we’d be ripping through pale brown puddles, tumbles of sharp pink bougainvillea fringing the path, palms stretching endlessly into the sky.
We bumped along for half an hour, until we reached an unassuming thatch-roofed hut – our new friend told us it was the start of the walking track to the natural bridge, and that we should ask for a guide to take us down. Foolishly, we first said no – it was just one track down, how hard could it be? – but when pushed, said yes – to our greatest fortune. Our craggy, shirtless guide, machete slack and casual in one hand, nimbly picked his way down an hour-long hiking track that was barely a shoe wide in some places, and crossed boulders, grasses, and beaten dirt tracks. On our own, we would have been hopelessly lost, hot, frustrated and exhausted.
Instead, with our continued good fortune, we ended up sweating and panting, overlooking the most exquisite lagoon. Soft cerulean water in an endless pool caved by the enormous, dripping bridge – under which we swam almost immediately, cooling ourselves, soothing our aching legs, laughing, heads back and floating, about how the hell we’d ended up here. We swam for an hour before it was time to get out – another malai ordeal; our chip-heavy bodies and innate fear made us clumsy and awkward climbing the rocks from the pool, much to our previously crusty guide’s delight – and hiked happily back up to his house, where we were offered bowls of rice and noodles to eat with the family while we waited for our lift back to town.
Another endless mountain ride, and a decision to return to Bacau for the night instead of accepting our friend’s offer of a homestay – we’d barely dismounted the bikes before a microlet magically appeared. The hour-long ride back to Bacau cost a dollar. (We didn’t deserve any of this to be this easy). Happy and exhausted back in town, we lined up accommodation and then headed to the hotel to toast to whatever kismet had made our day happen in the way it did – in a final malai move for the day, ordering what we thought were martinis (we were in colonial Portugal, after all), but which ended up being separate glasses of vermouth and gin. We expect now to see deconstructed martinis on the blackboards of every Melbourne bar this summer and would like to take full credit.
The following day, our fortune caught up with us – we’d planned to spend the morning relaxing by the town’s chic public pool, but found as we stumped up with our towels, sunnies, snacks and books that they’d unexpectedly drained it. Four white sunscreen-smeared faces stared mournfully at each other, before we did what comes naturally to us in a crisis: we went for lunch. The shady outdoor restaurant we chose was crowded with plants in bright yellow and blue pots; we continued our card game, and it was all so delightfully convivial we decided on lunch beers and another afternoon at the beach. No crocodiles this time, and we were more territorial with the Frisbee – spending most of the afternoon reading anyway. If the day before had been the mountain-climbing part of our hybrid holiday, this was definitely the beach break.
But we’re good at pacing the mornings. Our translator, Anibal, had told us he wanted to visit us at the hotel the previous night, but he hadn’t had the time – so, we assumed that was it as we strapped our bulky packs on and headed into the Dili heat for the airport. But of course it wasn’t. Anibal, all gentle smiles, was there waiting for us at the airport – with gifts and hugs and a final goodbye. I was overwhelmed. The gracious, kind man who we’d stomped around Dili with, sapping of Tetun words for over a week, had come to farewell us and give us presenti and well-wishes. He wrote goodbye messages in our hand-made journals and gave us mini Timorese flags (with which we’d later out-malai ourselves in a deliriously patriotic midnight airport selfie). I was touched – and it was a beautiful way to farewell Timor.
And now I’m glaring into my laptop, pecking away at these words from a plane seat, two cups of coffee in me (as good as that layover was, the snatched sleep on the floor of Darwin airport left something to be desired), twenty minutes from descending into Melbourne and already wearing the black skinny jeans and black top I’ll need for both the weather and the strict narrow south. In more ways than one I’m home already, but equally, I’m wearing the tropical fortnight on me in more ways than just a few more freckles on my arms.
I’d never been to Timor before this trip – or Darwin, for that matter – and without putting too much pressure on either the country or the trip, I suspect I’ll look back on this experience in the future as one of the things that prised my mind open a little bit. For every bus trip I daydreamed about boys, and every dinner we bitched about people we knew (while eating hot chips, of course) there were ten of the same moment spent stumbling through Tetun, talking with Anibal, earnestly unpacking race and privilege in our hostel room at night, seeing things and eating things new and different to me; new people and strangers into friends, every stress bubble and sweat drop and dusty Dili street – tiny fragments coming together to prise my eyes open and maybe change who I am, and at least I’m thinking about it if nothing else, as we descend to Melbourne and the cabin lights dim.