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Published: November 9th 2016
Sometimes good things don't come easy. Sometimes bad things don't come easy. And sometimes, well, all kinds of things don't come easy. Timor Leste's moutainous hinterland falls probably in the latter category. In case you have not been to Timor Leste, and if you are part of the majority of mentally sane human beings you probably haven't, let me give you a little introduction of what the young country is like outside its tiny, sleepy capital Dili.
As I mentioned in my last entry, Dili is pretty much a typical little Southeast Asian town with all the features which come with it; and if it would not be for the embassies on it's "Avenida de Portugal", one might never guess that it can be the capital of a country. Now, when one leaves Dili for pretty much anywhere else in Timor Leste, the appreciation of the capital's facilities might set in pretty fast. In my case, we hired an quite expensive 4x4 wheel jeep including driver for a day, which with more than 100USD shows to be a quite costly endeavor in Timor. As our time on the island was limited, we tried to get a glimpse of the widely
praised, wild inland of the country. More in detail, we decided to head to the historical postcolonial town of Maubisse, 70 kms inland from Dili pretty much in the middle of the island.
Now, I know what you are thinking. Seventy km is an easy-peasy ride. Even in countries with scarse road systems such as Laos, 70km could not possibly be bothersome, right? From the ironic way I asked these questions, you probably guessed my answer. In Timor Leste a 70km inland ride will take the good part of your day. Not just that, it will also take good part of your behind and bounce it into a swollen mess at the end of the day. Let me give you some details - in case you are doubters.
The first 10 minutes of leaving the capital are pretty smooth, a little ride uphill that gives you a nice view of the city. The ride is pretty steep though as the mountains almost fall directly into the sea and plains are as good as non-existant in Timor Leste. The good news we got from our driver, the road has only recently been fixed and the road system in the
Dili to Maubisse
country is supposed to be expanded in the next years. Good news first, bad news follow? Who is expanding the roads you might say? Well guess what, it's the Chinese. Oh China, you follow me everywhere. What might the noble motivations behind fixing the road for the Timorese be, you might ask? Well, simple. Our driver told us that they don't usually ask for money, they just "settle people in Timor." What? Yes, settle people in the thousands and even a new residential Chinese area has sprung up in the capital. Our driver also complained about Chinese taking over the local shop-markets and driving some Timorese out of business. What?
This is eerily similar to what I have heard in Laos several years ago, where big road was built from a gold mine up to China in exchange for "settling people" in the area. This really should make you stop, think and wonder. What exactly are the Chinese planning to do with Asia and the rest of the planet? I do not have an answer for this, so let's focus on Timor Leste again. The Chinese road work is very limited for now and soon the road transforms into
somewhat of a forest path sneaking through the mountains, the worst part of which have some kind of asphalt but with more holes than a Swiss cheese. If you wonder why these parts are the worst, I dare you to try driving on a similar ground: Not fun, ladies and gents.
So after a couple of hours of forests, the occasional hut, overcrowded public transport little minivans and the occasional sweaty Chinese worker digging dirt under the sun, we finally arrived to Maubisse: a sleepy little town that shares only little with the capital Dili. On the contrary, it made Dili look like somewhat of a modern city. A central market reminding me of the Rajastani countryside, straw huts which seem a relic of a distant past, and little mountain villages where they tried to make me chew a beetle-nut: just something out of "Heart of Darkness" or any other early colonial literature. Speaking of colonialism, the only buildings which seem pretty much to stand the test of time are suspiciously European looking Catholic churches and villas - how they got to sleepy Maubisse, well, your guess is as good as mine.
After a short lunch in Maubisse
and a visit to a former Portuguese "holiday villa", we took the road back towards the capital: ass-pain included. Now, this made me think a little. Not the ass-pain, but the lenght of the trip back to Dili. I consider myself a quite tolerant person, in the sense that I was fortunate enough to see different parts of the world and live in different countries. Of course, this has also made me quite impatient with certain things that for first-timers might seem simply exotic, but became an annoying routine for me. However, I believe I can take quite some culture shock without breaking down. Most people I know back home could simply not make it to Timor Leste. Why? Here is why.
First, the country is pretty far away. I mean, far away from pretty much anywhere as long as you don't live in Bali or Darwin, Australia. You will have to take different flights to get there. Second, Timor Leste is expensive. I almost paid the same room rates as in Hong Kong, mind my words, and what I got was far from overwhelming. Cockroach hunting included. Third, there is just not mucht to do in the country.
Sure, you can dive or snorkel, but its expensive and the organization is a mess. Also, the sea is apparently filled with crocodiles and as you know, crododiles like you in a way that I like chocolate. Fourth, the roads are probably the worst I have experienced in my life. Short distances take the whole day and the total absence of public transport makes everything expensive. Fifth, according to me, the country lacks a little bit of tourist appeal. What makes East Timor different from Indonesian West Timor and the other islands? Catholicism, Portuguese language and... well, you tell me. Sixth, we got almost beaten by a guy and the stares we sometimes got were not the most friendly I have experienced.
But please, let this not be a discouragement for you to visit Timor Leste. The country is pristine, yes, so pristine that not many tourists can take it all in at this stage. It has potential in terms of nature, yes, but you will probably have to cope with all the downsides I just mentioned and can think about 100 other places to visit first. This is it for me and Timor, maybe one day I will
be back - maybe I won't. But what I have seen nobody can take from me and Timor is definitely worth the memories. Over and out, good night from the Macanese Orient.
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