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Published: October 12th 2009
Dinner on the Beach
A few of us eating a delicious fish dinner in Dili. Our little group consisted of an Australian, American, Nigerian, German, and a Spaniard took the photo.
In a land where ripping off the tourist often seems to be a national pastime for many touts, transport personnel, restaurant and accommodations catering to westerners, it sure was nice to find a refreshing change of pace. I stumbled upon Edwin and his L'Avalon bar/cafe/accomodations one day while simply meandering the streets of Kupang, West Timor, having already been in town three nights. His hip bar/cafe was an open air shack on the water, just off the road; he even piped in good solid tunes from his ipod, blaring out of two speakers facing the main road, and well-heard inside the cosy place. Edwin turned out to be a wealth of good information and also kept current info posted on his walls of the goings on and happenings in Kupang and West Timor, flight and ferry schedules to other Indonesian islands -- he even had world maps on the walls (how I can dreamily stare at these all day long....), free WIFI and free computer usage for those without laptops. What a treasure to find this place. I had a few days to kill before I needed to get up to the border to obtain a new Indonesian visa from
Independence Day in Timor Leste
May 20th, 2009: one of the few banners for the rather dull festivities of the day
East Timor, so I hung out and caught up on much-neglected emails. I even moved into a dorm room at his guesthouse (which I never had to share with anyone, thankfully) for 3 bucks a night.
Eventually I found my way out of Kupang and headed north, opting for a local jalopy, I mean bus, which took about five hours to the small town called Kefamenanu, or Kefa for short, where I stopped for a few nights. Kefa is only a few hours from the East Timor border. I checked into my guesthouse and naturally within a few minutes of my arrival, the only tour operator in the area found me. It surely doesn't take long before the only white person in town is found, no matter how out of the way I try to be. This man, Aka, turned out to be really nice, and he never even got the opportunity (I wouldn't give it to him!) to show me his photo albums and notebooks from all his past happy clients. I told him right off the bat I didn't have money to spend and wasn't interested in a tour. He changed the subject really quickly and before
I knew it we were talking about his "other" job. Turns out, since he probably has the best English in all of the northern part of West Timor, he is a private tudor to a number of children of some of the more affluent families in the area. I asked if I could help him out the following day, and one day of "teaching" his students turned into three. I was the first native English speaker his students had ever talked with, and many, rightfully so, were at first quite intimidated and shy. It didn't take long before they got comfortable with me and we started talking with ease, however. I kept the conversations light and relatively simple, and was quite impressed with how quickly and adept some of these kids were at learning the language. Most of the kids were teenagers but just for fun and a good mix, there were also kids around 8 or 9.
Aka introduced me to a doctor friend of his (also one of his clients, albeit much older than the others) and we all went out two nights in a row (at the doc's expense) to a nice restaurant (not just a
Timor Leste's Immigration Office
Just a little shack near the beach, really
street stall where I nearly always go when I'm by myself; noooo, this place had table clothes and real linen napkins! :-) ). The first night out, we were enjoying a lovely meal in the empty restaurant while the owner of the establishment (a good friend of the doctors) was belting out the karaoke tunes nearby, when our table started shaking, the meat sauce spilling over in it's little bowl. The flower vase nearly knocked over, but I didn't stay long enough to notice; coming from California, I knew an earthquake when it was happening and got to the doorway as quickly as I could. We all stood outside for a bit, not sure if an aftershock was going to occur or not, but nothing came of it. The local newspaper the following day reported the quake, which didn't amount to much, but Kefa was essentially right on top of the epicenter so naturally it felt pretty strong.
A few days later I took local transport to the border, crossed overland on foot and at the small wooden immigration shack on the East Timor side was asked by the only other two people crossing the border at that time if I would like a lift to Dili, the capital. Hey, sure, anything to save the $5 bus trip! The man, from East Timor, and his lady friend from Indonesia, were kind to me during the next few hours and even dropped me off at the guesthouse I had chosen because of it's close proximity to the Indonesian Embassy where I needed to obtain a new visa. If anyone gets the chance to take this road (or if you have already, you know what I am talking about), the scenery is spectacular. The road hugs the shoreline, with amazing vistas of gorgeous blue water, endless white sandy beaches and tall green palm trees.
East Timor, or Timor Leste as it is more commonly referred to (it was formally a Portuguese colony), is NOT a cheap country. They even use US dollars as their currency. The country broke from Indonesia at the end of the 90's and only established itself as a new country in 2002. I was fortunate to be there during the Independence Day festivities on May 20th. But firstly, the visa normally takes three working days to process but with the holiday, the Embassy was going to be closed Wednesday as well as Thursday, thus I wouldn't be able to get my passport back until Friday which meant I couldn't leave until Saturday morning (I was planning on taking a thru-bus all the way back to Kupang, a tedious 12+ hour journey). This wasn't going to work for me. I went in first thing on Monday morning, pleaded my case, and so long as I purchased a bus ticket for Thursday morning and showed proof of this I could have my passport back the following day, Tuesday. Rockin'! One other traveler in town to do a visa run and I (as well as a Lonely Planet guidebook writer and her boyfriend) zipped quickly across town and got all the necessary things in order (onward bus tickets as well as new passport photos -- this Embassy insisted they have a RED background, which meant paying over a dollar a photo, and we each HAD to purchase four of them....ggrrrr....), and brought them back to the Embassy, getting everything approved, eventually.
I wandered about the city with this other traveler for the day. We found a few over-priced restaurants and many bars along the waterfront catering to the expat and UN crowds. Many travelers complain the prices in Timor Leste, and Dili especially, have been driven sky-high because of the UN presence. This could very well be true. It's not unheard of to pay $15-20 for a meal, lunch or dinner. Coming from Indonesia, and paying around a buck a meal, often much less for filling street stall food (I know, not everyone's favorite, but I find the street food hot, fresh and cooked right in front of me absolutely delicious and flavorful - and appropriately priced), I thought maybe I'd have to forgo food altogether for a few days, but ended up finding a few local joints in the $2-3 range, which I guess was alright. A few of us from the $10/nt guesthouse (that's 10 bucks for a DORM BED mind you; I didn't even get my own room for that price) walked down to the beach one night and bought freshly caught BBQ'd fish on long wooden skewers, delicious corn on the cob and cheap but tasty day-old bread rolls purchased earlier from the gas station. We sat on little plastic chairs on the sand and scarfed down the meal, licking our fingers clean after the mess we all made. The kitty cats hanging about didn't mind cleaning up after us!
With relatively little hassle I got my passport back the day after I submitted it, only I had to go back two times before they would hand it over. I was glad to have it back in my possession, but I still needed to stay two more nights in order not to miss the festivities. Independence Day was on May 20th, a Wednesday. Not much happened; a small parade during the day, rather subdued, with LOTS of UN and police presence making sure no one got out of hand. On the governor's front yard (so I was told) at night there was a concert. I went with a fellow traveler from the guesthouse and we had such a laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. There was a sizable stage set up with a plethora of colorful lights strung up all around it. Each band or singer stayed on stage for two or three songs, then a complete shift of equipment, cords, stage setup, etc, and another band appeared. The concert started with a surge of liquid smoke whereby the MC had completely disappeared and if it wasn't for him still talking in his microphone (and coughing, too, I believe) I would have thought he might have actually left the stage completely. There were rappers (one was pretty good, as far as rap music goes, and the other one was reeeeaaaalllly bad. Picture two male rappers doing their thing, facing each other while singing in their mics and a skinny long-haired girl who just bounced around the stage flipping her hair around, skipping off beat in front of the singers, nearly knocking over a mic stand, adding absolutely no quality to the song at all. I still can't figure out her part in that performance), a hillbilly band, a crowd-pleasing electric guitar slide, some local pop music and then, the ultimate, and the one that made me get out my camera to take a video, the Japanese Opera Singer singing in Italian in East Timor. The crowd, mostly teenage and young 20- something boys, went absolutely berserk! She wowed the crowd when she shuffled on stage in her fancy dress, pale beauty something the boys in East Timor rarely -- if ever -- have ever seen before. They whistled, they leered, they begged and shouted for more. This lady, who belted out some extremely high notes (again, the crowd went nuts at this very different kind of music than they were used to) sang at least three songs and then came back for one or two more. She even sang a song directly to the president who had a front row plastic chair all to himself. He was most pleased.
During the entire concert, no one clapped or made any sort of indication that they were enjoying themselves during or after the performances, with the exception of when the Japanese opera singer went up on stage. Thinking about it later, this must have been something so very different for the population, a people who do nothing all day but the same thing they did the day before. The lives of the people who live in Timor Leste, and for that matter, much of Indonesia, are rather mundane. Many people are plain lazy and don't even bother getting jobs. What does one do all day if one doesn't work? Sit and stare at the air. Seriously, I saw this over and over and over in Indonesia. So, to have a three-hour concert with multiple kinds of music and performances, one would think the locals might be a tad bit more excited to exit out of the humdrum of daily life and into something more dreamy, a bit more fantasy, maybe. But no, the concert ended on a dry note and people just walked away hardly smiling hardly saying much at all. I couldn't stop laughing at the Japanese lady and the attention she had received, albeit fleeting.
Crossed the border the next morning and got into Kupang in the evening. I was happy to get my $3 dorm bed back. I stayed nearly 2 weeks in that crazy, congested city just waiting for my Pelni to come in. When the ferry finally arrived, it was nearly a 37-hour journey all the way up to Makassar, Sulawesi. But this takes me into the next installment.....
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