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Published: February 17th 2009
CheMost of this was written yesterday, 16 Feb 2009, or the day before
Che Guevara seems to really popular here, I don't know why.
All backpackers express a desire to get “off the beaten track”, which isn’t always as great an idea as it sounds, because the reason a track is beaten in the first place is because it leads to a nice or interesting place. But still, it’s an alluring dream. In my opinion, there’s two ways to get off the beaten track. One is to use your travel skills, and negotiate with locals, probably do some research on a place, maybe learn the language, etc. The other way is to go to somewhere that doesn’t have a beaten track, then you have no option.
“If there’s one thing East Timor doesn’t have, it’s a beaten track” says the Lonely Planet guidebook. Of course we all know that the Lonely Planet books are to travel what Goldilocks And The Three Bears is to ursine behaviour, but in this case they’re pretty much right, although they’re not right about East Timor only getting 3-4 visitors a day. This struck me as the second day I walked all around Dili, this time equipped with a map, which is absolutely essential since
apparently this is some kind of refugee camp. I don't think it's the main one though.
Dili has absolutely no street signs, numbers, etc. Even with the town map (to make it more confusing, they all seem to be orientated with East at the top of the map) you still have to navigate based on where the ocean is. Because Timor is very hilly, Dili is fairly long and narrow, along the coast. To make things more confusing, the backpackers I’m staying at is a few blocks from where it is shown on the map.
Again, I was struck by the friendliness of the people. It’s nice to be able to stop and chat to locals, if smiles and arm-waving is chatting, without having to worry that it’s some ploy to ask for money. That will come, no doubt, as Timor becomes part of the tourist trail, perhaps if they develop their own currency and then devalue it!
I began by intending to head for the Indonesian embassy, but took a wrong turn somewhere and found myself headed in the wrong direction. I figured I’d go on the central parts of town I’d missed, and wandered past the football field and the Dili stadium. The number of gutted buildings astounded me. I bumped into
a friendly Chinese man aged probably about 50, with an aussie mix to his Timorese accent, who told me in perfect English that the town was “70% better now” in this regard. He’d returned from Australia after independence. I wanted to talk to him more about what it had been like during or before occupation but I sensed that he was more interested in selling me a spot on one of his tours, so I moved on.
The Dili stadium used to be a functioning football stadium and has been the scene of much turmoil. After independence the area became a recreation area for Australian soldiers. An SBS report in 2003 also suggested that Australian soldiers had tortured some East Timorese soldiers there, away from public view. Australian military investigations conducted in secret found that “unspecified allegations” were unfounded. Kylie Minogue performed there for Australian soldiers in 1999. I think some of the violence in 1975 and 2005 began there but I don't remember the details and I'd hate to lie to you, and my internet connection here is too flakey to google for it.
Now though it’s very overgrown. There’s barbed wire around the top, but I
wanted to look inside, so I walked all the way around. Of course, East Timorese are very short, so at one place the wall was only about 6 feet tall, still well tall enough to work as a wall for Timorese, so I was able to look across. Walking around the stadium really highlighted the messiness of this city, which has no rubbish bins but massive piles of rotting garbage all over the place. With the recent rains the small back streets smelled like a sceptic tank. After getting a photo through a hole in the wall I stepped backwards into a giant shit, I like to think it was from a dog.
Continuing around, the front gate had locks and barbed wire, around all but one of the doors, which opened from the inside. No-one looked at me or said anything, including the array of UN Police cars which pepper the city (someone said that for a population of 100,000 in Dili and 1.1 million in the whole country, there are about 2000 soldiers here and 200 UN civilians - I don’t know if that’s true or not). The inside of the stadium looked untouched … there were
no weeds or cobwebs in the actual stadium building, but the paint was peeling off. The grounds themselves were covered in rampant weeds and grass. A cow was tethered in one remote corner. There were a group of about four men probably aged about 50 sitting in the top corner. They came down as they saw me taking photographs, which worried me a little but there was the normal smiles and waves and handshakes and with much thumbs-upping they told me they were fine with taking photos. One managed to convey by actions that the field was in a state of disrepair because no-one sweeps it or mows the lawn, which I guess I could already tell, but there’s only so much you can talk about with smiles and gestures.
After this I decided to walk to the big Jesus statue that overlooks the bay. I knew this to be a distance of over 7 km, but thought I’d give it a go. With the normal friendly people along the beach, one attached himself to me, saying he wanted to practise his English. Of course I was particularly skeptical, as anywhere else in the world this would be an
attempt to extract money for payment as a guide, but this guy turned out to be perfectly genuine. He struggled with the heat as much as me. At the end I bought him some drinks and gave him a few Australian coins which are now useless to me (until I carry them all the way back with me), but no money as I’d agreed on, and because no-one wants this place to turn out like Fiji in that regard.
The Cristo Rei (“Jesus statue”) was given to the East Timorese as a gift by the Indonesians, when East Timor was one of their provinces. It is said to be 27 metres tall, one metre for each of the then-27 provinces of Indonesia. Sitting atop a globe in which Timor was not particularly clearly shown, the statue built by these Muslims faces away from Dili, out to sea, some say towards Jakarta, some say towards Mecca (both are pretty much in the same direction). Still it’s an impressive statue, and the scenery there is nice. It was the first time I’d seen really pretty scenery in East Timor - beautiful beaches, and sharp green hills topped with clouds and covered
standard back street
Typical view of a fairly neat back street
in Eucalyptus trees.
On the way back I stopped for a swim. The snorkeling would have been lovely, but alas I didn’t bring a mask. I did bring a snorkel, but that’s not much good. I couldn’t really get out past the coral to swim, but sitting there in the water with the backdrop of the beautiful mountains with their green and yet rather Australian-looking forests, made me think that as well as the experiences, the friendly people, and the diving, East Timor might have something to offer in terms of natural scenery.
As it was, I got to the Indonesian embassy about 15:00, but apparently that was too late. I have to go back tomorrow. I also find that it costs $US45. So far I haven’t done a good job of keeping to my budget. Hopefully that’ll change as I go through Indonesia!
At dinner tonight, eating passable Chicken Tikka Massala for about the price you’d pay for it a restaurant back home, I got to meet a man who works for the UN. It was interesting to get a UN worker’s perspective on the situation, and to hear him tell how when he
There's so many ruined buildings around the place. This is just one.
first came there in 1999, the entire city was deserted. So I guess it’s not too bad that ten years later they haven’t sorted out their garbage disposal yet. One of the problems that apparently they have in supervising elections is that no-one knows what their address is, so they apparently had taken to getting the GPS co-ordinates of everyone’s houses and using that to register them. We talked about the problems of the Timorese government relying on the UN to provide such fundamental services as policing. The impression we got was the same we got from other people and from what I've read - the problem in Timor isn't a lack of money, it's a lack of political stability, business and civil institutions, and in general the mechanisms to do anything with that money. That's what makes it a rather intractable problem.
I’m still feeling a bit strange, I think I got a touch of heat exhaustion on the walk. Probably not eating didn’t help either. I felt a bit better after the dinner. The place is still swarming with mosquitoes, so I’m still a bit worried about that.
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